- New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World, 1649–1849 by Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, and: The Captive Stage: Performance and the Proslavery Imagination of the Antebellum North by Douglas A. Jones, Jr.
For the past couple of decades, scholars of early US drama have been organizing a stealth campaign to change how we look at the culture of 18th and 19th century America. Bruce McConachie (1992), Heather Nathans (2003), and Jeffrey H. Richards (2005), among others, have all argued that the stage, rather than the parlor or the literary magazine, is the place to examine early American culture, politics, aesthetics, and class formation. This claim runs counter to a long-running trend in US literary studies, which has looked to prose—especially the novel—for insight into American national and cultural formation. As scholars have shown, the novel was a formational genre especially for the American middle class, particularly but not exclusively women (see for example Kelley 1984; Davidson 1986; Tompkins 1986; Hendler 2001). The novel schooled its readers in appropriate domestic behavior, affective relations, and the interactions between social classes, races, and genders. [End Page 184] Arguments around canonicity, literary and cultural history, and indeed, the meanings of US culture, have looked to the novel as an explanatory technology and have charted generic developments alongside national changes.
But the novel can only take us so far, especially since the printed word was hardly accessible to the majority of the population, even as the theatre was available to almost everyone. While literacy rates in some parts of the country, especially New England, were fairly high even among working-class people, the Mid-Atlantic states (where the theatre dominated) lagged behind. The numbers in the Southern states were even lower (Moran and Vinoskis 1992:293).
By contrast, the theatre required no reading, and offered a full evening of entertainment, from tragedies and melodramas to farces, songs, dancing, and even animal acts. From the Revolution to the end of the century, ticket prices plummeted from the equivalent of a day’s pay for an artisan to a third of that (Butsch 2000:33). By the 1830s, ticket prices were half of what they had been at the beginning of the century (40). Before changes in print technology in the 1840s the entire run of a moderately successful novel rarely topped 3,000 copies. By contrast, a large theatre like the Bowery held up to 3,500 people a night over the course of a season that ran for months.
Theatrical space is public space, in contrast to the private space of the novel. Moreover, as Elizabeth Maddock Dillon argues in her striking new book New World Drama, the space of performance became increasingly important at the same time that actual, physical shared spaces—land held in common by the people, for example—were privatized and fenced off from the working classes. For Dillon, modernity is defined trans-Atlantically by the formation of a different kind of shared experience: what she calls the “performative commons.” Unlike the Habermasian concept of the public sphere, which has literacy at its core, the performative commons operates beyond print (especially important for enslaved people, whose distance from literacy was often enforced by violence). While in many ways much more abstract than the material fact of common lands, the performative commons is profoundly embodied, “embedded within the physical movement or presence of a body or object on stage” (51).
Finally, unlike the novel, which was explicitly identified with national formation, plays and the actors who performed them traveled throughout the Atlantic world, changing meaning with each new context. As Dillon points out, turning our eyes to the stage helps us see how profoundly transnational early performance culture was. In the now...