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  • American; or, The Emergence of Audiences and their Blackface Salve
  • Douglas A. Jones Jr. (bio)

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...


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pp. 403-409
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