publisher colophon

Alexis de Tocqueville was by no means the first theorist of theater's relation to democracy, but in the nineteenth-century American context he is certainly the most significant and lasting. His "A Few Remarks on the Theater of Democratic Nations" touches on several of the conceptual and historiographical concerns that have preoccupied scholars of American literature and performance, among them literacy and cultural nationalism; the advent of mass entertainments; the relationship between aesthetic innovation and traditionalism; and the sociology of culture. Emblematic of Tocqueville's aphoristic style that runs through sections of volume 2 of Democracy in America, the short chapter unfolds almost as a series of propositions that beckon to be tested for their respective veracities, especially since he posited them so early in the country's history. The historiography has borne out several of Tocqueville's more speculative claims yet proven him wrong on a few of the more quantifiable ones that would have required him to do sustained observational fieldwork, as it were, that he was loath to do. (For instance, theater in the 1830s United States was popular, extremely so.) Proceeding from Tocqueville's notion that "no form of literature has closer and more numerous links with the current condition of society than the theater," I consider how changes in US theater culture from the years following the War of 1812 through the fin de siècle mark significant transformations in the ways Americans, as performers and spectators, conceptualized and gave shape to their Americanness over the course of the same period.1 This long-view approach reveals the remarkably protean nature of nineteenth-century US theater culture, its ability to [End Page 403] respond affirmatively to new, ever-changing demands—new and ever-changing because audiences themselves were, too. Indeed, as the century progressed, the theater steadily dedicated itself to accommodating rising, self-organized audiences with distinct cultural tastes rather than the broader national public it once so desperately craved and sought to enact in and around the playhouse.

The differences between an audience and the public are crucial. As Michael Warner explains in a 2002 field-defining article, an audience is "bounded by [an] event or by [a] shared physical space," and "knows itself by knowing where and when it is assembled in common visibility and common action."2 Critics have offered important elaborations and challenges to Warner's Habermasian conception of the ontology and functions of publics, but the great bulk of this work in nineteenth-century studies has centered on literary-textual productions and print circulation.3 We have dedicated much less attention to how embodied forms of representation such as theater animated nineteenth-century publics. Such biases have obscured the distinctive ways in which performance cultures regard audiences, publics, and other sorts of collectives. For example, an audience is part and parcel of all instances of theatergoing, but the prevailing idea of the theater before the 1850s deemed it the civil arena par excellence where the nation experienced itself as a totality. In this view, the audience was the national public, and taking part in its sociality allowed one to come to terms with the competing ideals, priorities, and persons that were constitutive of America.

Two instances involving theater audiences from different cities, Philadelphia and New Orleans, register the prevalence of this sentiment. (Philadelphia and New Orleans set the terms of theatrical production in their respective regions, so their archives are particularly illustrative of national currents in antebellum theater culture.) In the first, an anonymous broadside from the early 1820s took aim at Philadelphia's Chestnut Street Theatre and its separate entrances for patrons who bought the priciest tickets, casting its remonstrance in chauvinistic, quasi-martial terms. "The national spirit of America has triumphed over the pride of European armies," its author(s) wrote, "shall that spirit slumber under the degradation of European distinctions?"4 Such expressions of cultural nationalism construed the theater as the cultural sphere where the abstract ideals of modern democracy might achieve their most pronounced phenomenal actuality, where the United States might flaunt its moral and political excellence vis-à-vis other peoples, especially the British, too encumbered by oppressive monarchies and exploitative aristocracies. In [End Page 404] this formulation, even racially segregated seating in antebellum theaters was proof of the nation's laudatory democratic arrangements. To this point, when the proprietors of New Orleans's St. Charles Theatre opened its doors in 1835, they posted a playbill that alerted the public that free persons of color and slaves with their masters' written permission could attend.5 Of course, impresarios and managers pursued profit and thereby sought to attract as many members of the paying public as they could; indeed, the St. Charles Theatre was among the nation's largest and most expensive theaters to build at the time. Yet for those with their minds set on the ways in which places instantiate a polity's (imagined) character, the broad diversity of spectators who attended the St. Charles and other playhouses across the country substantiated the nation's democratic virtues: these theaters not only reflected demographic heterogeneity; they also allowed persons to encounter each other in ways that other settings did not.

Efforts to realize the American public extended to the action onstage, too. However grudgingly, playwrights and actors found themselves submitting to the homogenizing impulse that by and large defined antebellum theater culture; that is, an impulse that projects and thereby strives to achieve "oneness," which "has for centuries been central to descriptions of the proper aspirations of a democratic people," as the political philosopher Danielle Allen writes.6 As a sociopolitical project, oneness requires persons to surrender fully to dominant creeds and procedures because it cannot tolerate difference or peculiarity.7 The least powerful members of a polity shoulder most of the burden; if they refuse to make the necessary sacrifices or assimilate their particularity for the sake of oneness, they face brutal sanction. To take what is perhaps the signal case from antebellum theater history, civil and state authorities coordinated to shutter several iterations of William Brown's theater (1821–23) because he insisted on offering performances that catered to the cultural and political proclivities of black New Yorkers. Unlike Brown, when persons did surrender to the forces of homogeneity that organized the antebellum theater, they did so in ways that affirmed the dominance of those who set the terms of American oneness.

Consider women writers' dramaturgy. In her survey of plays written between 1830 and 1860, Amelia Kritzer finds "women's lack of power stands out as the most pervasive theme."8 Often fatalistic in its valences, the resignation these plays signify contrasts sharply with the more sanguine outlook on women's capacity to shape American political, social, [End Page 405] and private realms that characterizes the work of early national female playwrights. "The female characters of the earlier plays actively pursue and attain their goals, supported by a strong female community," Krizer writes. Yet "the optimism in regard to the United States as an arena of unprecedented freedom and expanding choices for women peaked during the early national period and then was lost" by the late 1820s.9 The later plays contribute to a reading of the first half century of US history as a time defined by social and political retrogression for the polity's least powerful members—a history that not only belied the optimism of early national feminists but also includes the steady revocation of African Americans' already limited civil and political rights as well as the genocidal displacement of native peoples. The antebellum theater demanded that its producers represent such public developments onstage, however celebratory or sorrowfully, because they instantiated prevailing enterprises and sensibilities: performing oneness was the stipulation of participation.

There is a version of American theater history that ostensibly refutes the account I've offered thus far. That historiography propounds an incredibly variegated theatrical landscape, emphasizing the ways in which antebellum theaters offered productions and performers that aimed to satisfy particular constituencies. The quintessential case, here, is the New York theater scene, which boasted playhouses that ranged from the populist Bowery and Chatham to the tony Park. Yet the politics that critics (then and now) ascribe to these theaters do not nullify the fact that, in the main, their patrons' experiences (e.g., the atmosphere in the house; onstage fare) were remarkably similar. In 1847, a young editor of the Brooklyn Eagle named Walt Whitman decried the effects of such homogeneity, noting that "it is not a little strange that in a great place like New York, acknowledged as the leading city on the western hemisphere, there should be no absolutely good theatre."10 Whitman would not have too long to wait before a critical mass of playwrights and impresarios pioneered dramaturgies, spectatorial habits, and performance styles that broke from the course of the American theater's history. These innovators were bourgeois, social reform-minded theater makers who promised a decorous and instructive theatergoing experience, especially for women and children; among their most important creations were museum theaters and the matinee. Even though they rejected oneness and the atmospheric and dramaturgical habits theater makers used to foster it, they were able to gain a foothold in the culture because of their ability to call into being and sustain a discrete audience with some measure of power (i.e., actual and aspiring bourgeoisie). Whether or not they produced anything [End Page 406] Whitman would deem "absolutely good theatre" is beside the point: their efforts provided the model that American theater makers would follow for the rest of the century.

Put simply, beginning in the early 1850s the organizing drive of American theater culture became to stage and thus gratify distinct groups rather the national public. The financial success that respectable, bourgeois theaters achieved was only part of what catalyzed this shift; other factors included the Civil War and its multifaceted ramifications, large-scale changes in the political economy (e.g., the Gilded Age; the technological revolution), vast numbers of immigrants from across Europe and parts of Asia, imperialist expansionism westward and southward, and new political ideologies and coalitions. While the constraints of this essay do not allow me to consider any of these issues in any depth, I do want to emphasize two of their interrelated effects: undeniably deep fissures in American social life and distress over the seeming impossibility of ever healing those rifts. The demographic, economic, and geopolitical transformations that defined the second half of the century were far more extensive, complex, and confounding than earlier ones. Such immense structural changes in the polity steadily eroded homogeneity's purchase on the collective sociocultural imagination, and multiplicity took its place, perplexing erudite and common observers alike.11 There was no way playwrights, actors, or other theater makers could homogenize the vast and growing differences that reorganized American life, and they did not try. Rather, they concentrated their efforts on stimulating and maintaining specific constituencies that would become their audiences. The emergence of such audiences marks the provenance of the highly stratified theater culture in the United States that still exists. Although these audiences refused physical proximity to any other than themselves, they still shared theatrical material with which to bind their imaginations and thus foster a common understanding of Americanness. The most consequential and far-reaching of these materials was blackface performance, and it began to take root across demographic lines at the same time as Americans began segregating themselves into audiences.

As a distinct theatrical practice, blackface performance in the form of dance or musical acts based on narratives of slave or free black life in the United States first emerged in the late 1820s. Scholars concur that these performances appealed most to white working-class men of the urban northeast, drawing on the politics of black/slave performance culture to remonstrate the politico-economic deprivations that American [End Page 407] capitalism inflicted on wage laborers.12 But by the late 1840s, with even greater hardships that followed the Panic of 1837 as well as the steady commercialization of the practice's popularity, blackface minstrelsy had coalesced into a fairly stable set of choreographies, dramatis personae, musical arrangements, narratives, generic mainstays, and formal configurations (i.e., the three-part minstrel show) that lacked much of its earlier anti-capital rebuke and clamorous trenchancy; a more nostalgic, bourgeois sentimentalism concerned with (white) racial consolidation above all became minstrelsy's organizing ethic. (Pro-plantation ideology and mythologies, for example, began to dominate the minstrel stage in the late 1840s.) Hence blackface achieved the capacity to articulate all manner of sociopolitical sensibilities, which is why in the 1850s middle-class families with children were nearly as likely to seek out blackface entertainments as working-class single men. The structural aspects (e.g., dialogic arrangements, character, narrative mechanics) and modes (e.g., satire, burlesque) of blackface became the dominant ways in which one represented blackness, and no cultural text executed these features to greater effect than Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Indeed, the novel's profound influence on American culture stemmed as much, if not more, from the theatrical and performative materials it built upon and spawned.13 Whether anti-slavery, pro-slavery, or something in between, these works render black life and society largely the same: as figures and forms that derive from blackface performance and the minstrel stage.

Following the late 1860s, as audiences with diverse and often competing ideologies sprouted across the country, blackface became the salve that quelled their resultant anxieties and uncertainties. Not only did minstrelsy continue to thrive on the theatrical stage, which was chiefly the consequence of African Americans' reinvigoration of the form with slave spirituals among other forms of "authentic" black performance, but by the turn of the twentieth century, amid the ongoing fallout of abortive Reconstruction interventions, blackface permeated all spheres of American cultural production, from high and low literatures to mass entertainments such as fairs, quasi-ethnographic exhibitions, and early film. As Cedric Robinson writes in his incisive yet under-studied Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: Blacks and the Regimes of Race in American Theater and Film before World War II, "In the midst of Black lynchings, peonage, battalions of chain gangs, spiraling segregation, disenfranchisement, and judicial injustices like Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the artifice of race invited repetition, a near-hysterical [End Page 408] collective rush towards the bonding comfort of the fad, the fashionable."14 Blackface offered an array of pleasures with which audiences coped with their own dissensions, instabilities, and shortcomings.

Such would be the fate of black theater and performance culture for all of the twentieth century: whenever American audiences found themselves at odds over national or global matters, they could rely on the salve of performed blackness, ersatz or otherwise, to palliate the alienation and anguish their discord caused. Most often to the detriment of black persons and their interests, these performances marked the limits of splintering in the polity that audience formation otherwise produces: no matter how different one audience was from another, all persons could latch onto the derision and desires that black(face) performance and its derivative practices enact. Especially in times and places of tumultuous change, such affective and imaginative investments have been essential to the work of shoring up what "America" means and does. [End Page 409]

Douglas A. Jones Jr.
Rutgers University, New Brunswick
Douglas A. Jones

Douglas A. Jones Jr. is associate professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He is the author of The Captive Stage: Performance and the Proslavery Imagination of the Antebellum North (University of Michigan Press, 2014), and coeditor of the forthcoming "Time Signatures: Race and Performance after Repetition." He is currently writing a book on early African American writers' contributions to democratic theory and praxis.


1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: And Two Essays on America (London: Penguin, 2003), 572.

2. Michael Warner, "Publics and Counterpublics," Public Culture 14, no. 1 (2002): 50.

3. For examples, see Trish Loughram, The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation Building, 1770–1870 (New York: Columbia University Press), 2007; Stacey Margolis, Fictions of Mass Democracy in Nineteenth-Century America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 2015.

4. Barry Witham, ed., Theatre in the United States: A Documentary History, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 137.

5. Ibid., 140.

6. Danielle S. Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 12.

7. Because of its inability to countenance particularities, which will ineluctably exert themselves, the felicities oneness promises are illusory. Instead, "citizens must imagine themselves part of a 'whole' they cannot see," Allen argues, because wholeness more accurately reflects the ontology of a democratic polity that its formal structures and civic habits aim to honor: that is, a "consolidated but complex, intricate, and differentiated body" (17).

8. Amelia Howe Kritzer, "Antebellum Plays by Women: Contexts and Themes," in The Oxford Handbook of American Drama, ed. Jeffrey H. Richards and Heather S. Nathans (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 121.

9. Ibid.

10. Whitham, Theatre in the United States, 159.

11. Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 171–77.

12. See my The Captive Stage: Performance and the Proslavery Imagination of the Antebellum North (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014), 50–74.

13. As Henry James memorably described Uncle Tom's Cabin, "[It was] much less a book than a state of vision, of feeling and of consciousness, in which [persons] didn't sit and read and appraise and pass the time, but walked and talked and laughed and cried and, in a manner of which Mrs. Stowe was the irresistible cause, generally conducted themselves" (Henry James, A Small Boy and Others: A Critical Edition, ed. Peter Collister (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011), 131.

14. Cedric J. Robinson, Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: Blacks and the Regimes of Race in American Theater and Film before World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 142.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.