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  • The Nineteenth Century; or, Marking Time in American Performance Culture
  • Heather S. Nathans (bio)

Theaters were draped in black and the nation plunged into mourning as tens of thousands of Americans bid farewell to George Washington after his death on December 14, 1799. Playhouses vied with each other to memorialize the celebrated leader who, for many, emblematized the virtues of the young republic. The revolution that Washington had helped to lead only two decades before had witnessed thousands of funerals—not only those of the soldiers and civilians who lost their lives in battle but also the countless symbolic burials and resurrections of the figure of Liberty.1 Through these staged rituals, white Americans consecrated wartime deaths as heroic sacrifices with a promised rebirth into freedom. Washington's funeral rites, performed in theaters and throughout city streets, also marked the end of an era of republican restraint in the playhouse and the launch into the emotional drama of the "nineteenth century." The era that would be characterized by melodramatic spectacle eventually witnessed its twilight with the symbolic "closing of the frontier" and a theatrical change that also ushered in an age of realism and shifted perceptions of time on the national stage.

Any national history bookended by Washington's death and Turner's closing of the frontier is obviously one framed largely by events important to the dominant white portion of the United States. It also overlooks alternate timelines and understandings of time performed by Native American, Jewish American, and African American communities, among others. Over the past two decades numerous new studies have challenged narratives of American theater history that map the country's journey from an "infant stage," on its way westward, to the growing [End Page 395] professionalization of its theatrical industry in the modern era. Suggesting alternate historical milestones invites scholars to both un-tell and re-tell well-known stories—not by adding to existing timelines, but by positing parallel or alternate ones.2 In this essay I turn to texts or performance events from the "nineteenth century" that either tacitly or explicitly acknowledge alternate ways of marking time. Many of these ruptures were embedded in popular texts, performances, or performative acts, and excavating those texts illuminates how unstable the framework of the "nineteenth century" was even to those living through it.

Call Back the Times3

In 1802, Joseph Croswell penned a historical drama of the Pilgrim Fathers, A New World Planted. He declared, "For now, the nineteenth century's come in view / And blessings on our country rise anew."4 As numerous scholars have observed,5 this trope of national infancy overlooks not only the country's colonial past but the histories of its earliest indigenous inhabitants. In the 1808 The Indian Princess (a retelling of the Pocahontas story), James Nelson Barker deliberately sweeps away those histories in the play's final monologue as Captain John Smith prophesies, "Now flies my hope-wing'd fancy o'er the gulf/That lies between us and the aftertime . . . As the shrill war-cry of the savage man/ Yields to the jocund shepherd's roundelay."6

Yet, as Joshua Bellin argues, Anglo-American culture inevitably felt the impress of both Native American experiences of time and concepts of performance—even when those experiences were imperfectly understood or represented. For Bellin, the "medicine bundle" represents the "complex, conflictual, cross-cultural acts" of the Indian performance of Indianness and the white performance of Indianness that came together in a process of "interaction and cocreation," and he pays particular attention to "ritual or ceremonial experiences in which individuals break the flow of everyday life."7 Bellin's "medicine bundles" represent eruptions into Anglo-American concepts of both time and space, pushing back against characterizations of rituals such as the "Ghost Dance" as static cultural relics that merely replicate the past. Instead, he argues that such performances mark periods of social upheaval within native communities. Theater scholar Christy Stanlake underscores the dissonances between Anglo-American and Native American dramaturgies, arguing that concepts of place (or platiality) play a critical role in shaping indigenous peoples' storytelling and thus their marking of time. As Stanlake notes, concepts of place in Native American...


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pp. 395-402
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