- Acts of Manhood: The Performance of Masculinity on the American Stage, 1828-1865 by Karl M. Kippola
In 1847, William Gilmore Simms, one of the preeminent writers of the American South, composed Norman Maurice, or The Man of the People, an American Drama explicitly for America’s first great tragedian, Edwin Forrest. The historical record is not clear if Forrest ever received Simms’s verse tragedy, about a lawyer-turned-action hero who wrests the slave state of Missouri from abolitionist forces. But Karl M. Kippola, in Acts of Manhood: The Performance of Masculinity on the American Stage, 1828–1865, explores the multifaceted reasons why Edwin Forrest in a suit and tie could not have been successful: definitions of masculinity were ever-changing in the nineteenth century, and their proponents were in constant conflict. While citing a period that is not unusual in antebellum historiography, Kippola offers unique and fresh interpretations into nineteenth-century theatre, culture, and politics, and the roles each played in conscious and unconscious constructions of masculinity.
Kippola explores the careers of the century’s three major tragedians, Forrest, Edwin Booth, and the little-remembered John McCullough, and the ways in which their performances mutually constructed models of manhood for and with their audiences. Kippola situates nineteenth-century performance within a “perpetual crisis of masculine identity,” highlighted initially by the 1828 presidential race between the effete John Quincy Adams and the yeoman Andrew Jackson (4). According to Kippola, Forrest “represented the public, theatrical fulfillment of self-made manhood,” exemplified politically by Old Hickory (53). Kippola makes clear that Forrest was setting a standard for male audiences in the antebellum era, but he was not setting an example. In the roles of Spartacus, Metamora, and Jack Cade, the actor’s “almost inhuman power made him the perfect personification of the conquering barbarian rebel, while his grand and tragic stature matched the founding fathers’ desire to recreate classical ideals” (57). That “natural meritocracy of masculinity” allowed Forrest’s audiences to live vicariously through him without the ability to become him (88).
The working classes who drew inspiration from Forrest’s performances found themselves in conflict with the burgeoning movement toward gentility, because [End Page 104] Forrest’s romantic affections ran counter to the growing interest in social conformity. Kippola offers Booth and his iconic performance of Hamlet as representing “the ideals and behaviors of a mid-nineteenth-century gentleman, … a cyclical return to the eighteenth-century-mode of masculinity … built on refinement, repression, and sentiment” (117-18). As Kippola ably demonstrates, the midcentury trend toward social refinement favored a moral superiority rooted more in self-restraint than self-expression. Booth taught his audiences “to revere an image of decorous moderation rather than one of thrilling dynamism” (133). Like Karen Halttunen in Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (1982) and Amy S. Greenberg in Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire (2005), both of whom he cites, Kippola positions Booth’s popularity as a posttraumatic function: “Having just emerged from Fate’s ‘ruinous catastrophe’ (the Civil War), audiences viscerally connected to Hamlet’s struggle, and the anguish that Booth enacted and experienced applied a cathartic salve to a country that was torn by civil strife” (136). The trajectories of Forrest’s and Booth’s careers suggest a widespread rejection of working-class ideals and hypermasculine binaries in favor of a feminized manhood that was private, self-aware, and dutiful.
Among Kippola’s more compelling contributions is his exploration of John McCullough—a refreshing rejection of the chronological parameters Kippola establishes in his subtitle. Though largely overlooked today, McCullough was consistently popular throughout the late-nineteenth century with an array of audiences. The Irish-born actor paused his career to pursue training (with Steele MacKaye in the Delsarte system), but he failed to reach the tragic heights of Forrest or Booth. He may have evoked a prewar “nostalgic comfort” (159), but he did not enthrall: “Audiences worshipped Forrest; they liked McCullough” (150...