- The Captive Stage: Performance and the Proslavery Imagination of the Antebellum North by Douglas A. Jones
Douglas Jones’s Captive Stage offers a deceptively simple argument: “legislative bodies and common (white) Americans relied on the underlying premises and institutional practices of slavery to create a world of race-based inequities, proscriptions, and violence that legitimated” and sustained the notion that free black northerners were, as Frederick Douglass famously phrased it, “slaves to the community” (1). This claim in itself is not new. Jones’s opening reference to Douglass, for instance, builds on Joanne Pope Melish’s central premise about gradual emancipation in Disowning Slavery (1998). Yet Captive Stage innovates in how it reconstructs antebellum popular performance cultures through Jones’s rich archive of plays, convention proceedings, broadsides, blackface minstrelsy, memoirs, newspaper reports, and visual arts. Performance matters here in ways different from literature, law, or politics, because, as Jones observes early in the study, performance culture reflected and disseminated more directly “commonsense” understandings of race—the proverbial iceberg—that informed [End Page 200] northern racialism. From “Bobalition” broadsides to P. T. Barnum’s exhibition of Joice Heth (advertised as “the Nurse of Gen. George Washington”), the proslavery imagination “chart[s] out a chaotic ideological terrain that” eschewed chattel slavery and was typically anticolonizationist even as it constrained black freedom through proslavery logic (8–9).
Jones deftly incorporates performance studies, print culture, history, and literary studies from an interdisciplinary array of scholars including Antonio Gramsci, Jay Fliegelman, Harry J. Elam, Jr., and John Ernest to outline the “spectatorial habits” of an antebellum “theatocracy” in which theater producers and theatergoers collectively imagined a “black state of exception” (22, 107). Here, Jones adopts Giorgio Agamben’s state of exception to describe free African Americans’ liminal status as (materially and psychically) central to US citizenship but also excluded from it, at once ensured a (useful) place within the nation and at the same time represented as always outside it. On the stage, the black state of exception manifested through black characters’ wistfulness about enslavement (despite speaking the language of freedom) in post-Revolutionary plays like John Murdock’s The Triumph of Love (1794) and through submissive free black characters who “despite their freedom … remain servants to” and dependent on white oversight in antebellum temperance melodramas like Harry Seymour’s Aunt Dinah’s Pledge (first staged in 1850) (132). More subtly, Jones follows the proslavery imagination’s development through the slow fuzzing of William “Billy” Lee’s image in portraits of George Washington. Jones follows renderings of Lee, who Washington bought in 1768, from 1780s neoclassical battlefield paintings, where Lee appears distinctive as Washington’s “companion,” to 1790s parlor portraits, where “Billy Lee stands” as a nondescript servant “in waiting” (105). For Jones, these aesthetic changes resonate politically: “not only were black people incapable of producing satisfactory forms of classically informed art and inquiry, but also they lacked the intellectual and physical ideals worthy of aesthetic treatment” (105–06).
Methodologically, limning the depths of early national performance as Jones does means attending to the performances themselves, their means and modes of production, their reception (popular and critical), and the interplay between the three. Throughout, Captive Stage emphasizes the intentionality behind the proslavery imagination’s proliferation: their “producers not only hoped the figure of the submissive and virtuous African [End Page 201] (American) would help rectify the villainies of white society; they also wished that figure might serve as a model of free black subjectivity” (125). Pointedly, Jones notes Seymour’s characterizations in Aunt Dinah were a “matter of authorial and spectatorial choice, because in [Mary] Chellis’ novel Edgar [a central black character] speaks more like his white counterparts” (127). Elsewhere, Jones reads Barnum’s buying and selling slaves as banal business in The Adventures of an Adventurer (1841) in order to probe the “slave buyer’s gaze” informing Barnum’s shows and audience expectations (94).
Captive Stage’s theoretical sophistication and depth of research also shine as Jones critiques previous scholarship on blackface minstrelsy...