Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World.
Social historians who have not dipped into the recent historical literature of the American theatre may be in for a surprise. Replacing the traditional chronicles of performance, full of entertaining theatrical anecdote and descriptions of how classic roles were approached, has come the newer rigor of cultural studies. Just when theatre historians found themselves increasingly strained for fresh things to say about a delimited theatrical tradition, the appearance of deconstruction and its theoretical near-cousins provided a needed boost to the discipline. A quick glance at programs of theatre conferences or contents of theatre journals will reveal how much concerns about gender, race, sexuality, social relations, and cultural meaning dominate theatre scholarship. Above all, the definition of performance has broadened to move theatre studies out of the theatre and into the street. Both books reviewed here are exemplary case studies of - to coin a tired label - the "new theatre studies," joining a list of books on the American theatre by scholars such as Bruce McConachie, Jeffrey Mason, and Faye Dudden. To call Cockrell's and Bank's works exemplary suggests not only that they reflect the strengths of new approaches but also that they suffer a perhaps inevitable cost in their execution.
Demons of Disorder, a highly creative study of blackface minstrelsy, adds to an already impressive literature on the subject. With its obvious implications for American race relations, minstrelsy, more than the legitimate theatre, has prompted imaginative scholarship.1 Cockrell chooses to focus on the early years of the genre, from its beginnings in the age of Jackson to 1843, after which the commercialized minstrel show was firmly established. But in the process of gaining commercial success, argues Cockrell, minstrelsy surrendered an earlier black-white working-class egalitarian spirit and took on the uglier racial mimicry for which it is now known.
At least two major strands came together to form blackface minstrelsy. One was the presence of blackface on the legitimate stage, notably in Othello, but altogether in some 5000 productions before 1843 by Cockrell's reckoning. The other, more interesting, strand came from the street. This was the tradition of carnival - charivaris, mumming, callithumpian bands - whose raucous carryings-on symbolically challenged the social order. Importantly, Cockrell argues that blackface representations in the street - be they of the "slave" or the "dandy" - were less about racism than a means of covertly bonding white working-class males through a volatile mix of exuberance and violence. Cockrell's further suggestion - that laboring Jacksonians found common cause with blacks against their social betters - though intriguing, seems compromised by such overt acts of northern racism as the notorious Philadelphia race riot of 1834.
Nevertheless, most of Cockrell's arguments carry a high degree of persuasiveness, even in a genre of scholarship so dependent upon speculative readings of texts and actions. As a musicologist, Cockrell brings the special skills of that discipline to the study of minstrelsy in a way not accomplished before. He shows, for example, that the first great minstrel hit, Dan Rice's "Jim Crow," was less about music than "about dancing and the body and laughter, and how the performance of joy and pleasure can remake a less than perfect world"[.] (84) Cockrell reminds us of the potential subversion of "social noisiness," which was more or less what the roots of minstrelsy were about. "Zip Coon," the other great early minstrel number, portrayed the northern black dandy in a lively song whose verses could equally lampoon the higher and lower social orders.
Although Cockrell also discusses the usual figures from early minstrelsy, Dan Rice, the Virginia Minstrels, etc, he gives particular attention to one of the most fascinating characters of the age, George Washington Dixon, the blackface performer who made famous "Zip Coon." Dixon was a sui generis figure from the Jacksonian period, whose career included performer, newspaper publisher, hypnotist, and distance runner. He straddled the line of respectability, frequently falling backwards into disrepute, even imprisonment. For Cockrell, this is the point. Dixon embodied the gaminess and social chutzpa that marked early minstrelsy. His New York tabloid recklessly attacked the moral sins of respectable society (including an early anti-abortion crusade) in what Cockrell interprets as a type of personal charivari. Dixon's journalistic impudence would not go unpunished, and he once spent as long as six months in jail for libel.
If minstrelsy was nurtured by working-class social resentment, it nevertheless proceeded toward a broader audience and greater social respectability. But, Cockrell argues, this entailed a price. The music of minstrelsy began excluding its noise. What was gained in musicality, sentimentality, and professionalized entertainment was lost in working class bi-racial vitality. "Management enforced a new code of behavior, one that led to the theatre becoming much quieter." (149) It would be only a short step to Stephen Foster's sanitized commercial triumphs of the minstrel stage.
Rosemarie Bank finds even more encompassing relations between theatre and society. Theatre Culture in American 1825-1860 understands theatricality to be more than a metaphor; instead, she argues that a sense of performance permeated antebellum America. She uses to good effect a notable year in American culture, 1825, when both the visit of Lafayette and the opening of the Erie Canal occasioned outbursts of creative celebration. Bank's close reading of these events typifies the method she employs throughout the book.
Bank organizes her study into three somewhat abstractly conceived chapters. "Spaces of Representation" examines the various and conflicting interpretations of towns, cities, and the frontier on the stage. She has fascinating things to say about the place of theatricals among the Transcendentalists of Brook Farm. She also asserts that despite the many popular regional and class stereotyped roles - the Yankee, the frontiersman, the Bowery B'hoy - the American hero would be the "regionless resident of every place and no place." (p. 42)
Her chapter "Liminal Spaces" examines the boundaries of work and class. As in all her chapters, this one exhibits indefatigable research and creativity in wedding theatre scholarship to the most recent historical and critical literature. (The only lapse I noted was a failure to consult Paul Somkin's Unquiet Eagle, the keenest historical commentary on the meaning of Lafayette's 1825 visit.) Historians are well served by her descriptions of theatre's place in the rugged male culture of Lower Manhattan. Conversely, Bank explores the prejudices of an aspiring bourgeoisie toward theatre. Businessman and evangelical reformer Arthur Tappan, for example, not only forbade any clerk to attend the theatre but even to make the acquaintance of an actor. Intriguingly, she argues that melodrama (which in a kind of Gresham's law of drama was driving tragedy and classic comedy from American stages) gained persuasiveness through its exemplification of performance, an attribute critical to Victorian middle-class society.
The chapter "Spaces of Legitimation" may be Bank's most original contribution to theatre scholarship. She provides an extended discussion of the theatre's undeniable links to prostitution. Moralists were not imagining this affinity, and theatre managers had to combat the moral blot through various strategies. The chapter surveys another underside to theatre history: the frequency of riot within and without the confines of the playhouse. If not entirely successful in explaining the phenomenon, Bank does compel historians to give the issue the attention it deserves.
I think Bank is on to something in her characterization of antebellum American culture as theatrical. Americans demonstrated their democratic persuasion in a public manner that we are unused to today. Even by the latter part of the nineteenth century such unabashed self-presentation seemed more veiled, save for various veteran and working-men's parades or the collective fantasies of the several world's fairs. Along with minstrel shows, other forms of theatre became slicker, more controlled, more spectacular - in the sense that audiences passively sat back to behold a spectacle rather than entered into a participatory event. Perhaps American culture remained as theatrical as ever, but the display and meaning of that theatricality had changed. Bank sees the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1853 as ushering in this new era, one characterized "by simultaneous, interactive diversions rather than the universal spaces of social control." (p. 188)
Sophisticated and theory laden, Demons of Disorder and Theatre Culture in America require a close reading unusual for historical works on the theatre. Nothing wrong with that - necessarily. But at times the demands become excessive. Bank, in particular, rather than seeking lucidity has a tendency to lapse into opaque mystification. Historians of theatre must not allow their embrace of postmodernism to detract from their ability to convey the immediate and palpable presence of live performance.
Southern Adventist University
1. These include Robert Toll, Blocking Up (1974); Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1993); Alexander Saxton, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (1990); Howard L. and Judith R. Sacks, Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family's Claim to the Confederate Anthem (1993). Anne Marie Bean, et. al., Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy (1996).
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1999|
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