Karl M. Kippola, Acts of Manhood: The Performance of Masculinity on the American Stage.
Lucid and accessible, Karl M. Kippola's Acts of Manhood: The Performance of Masculinity on the American Stage, 1828-65 explores the way a host of competing performances of masculinity structured the antebellum American stage. Drawing on the work of masculinity studies in the 1990s, including seminal texts by Dana Nelson and Michael Kimmel, among others, Kippola's work sometimes seems belated. However, his careful attention to the multiplicity of masculine performances, and to limning their messy genealogies from the Age of Jackson to the assassination of Lincoln and beyond, offers a necessary addition to theatre studies. While various critics have, of course, turned to the field of nineteenth-century theatre and performance to discover the rich medley of masculinities animating it, Acts of Manhood offers the first book-length analysis of how central the construction of masculinity was to the success of popular theatre in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Kippola begins by challenging the notion that there was simply 'one American masculine model' (2), but he wisely sets boundaries on his study, taking up just white, popular masculinities on the American stage. While he does occasionally touch on staged femininities, as well as on ethnic and racial performances (such as the stage Indian and the minstrel Jim Crow), the majority of this book looks at the dueling strains of white masculinity occupying the antebellum stage: the impassioned acting of Edwin Forrest, with his 'rant, roar, and rigmarole', in the Jacksonian Period, and its gradual eclipse by the cerebral acting style of Edwin Booth, with his evidenced 'intellectual self-control' (3).
Forrest and Booth stand as the alpha and omega of this study's reading of staged masculinity, and the majority of the chapters situate them within their historical contexts in order to unpack their competing ideas. Drawing on newspaper accounts, actors' memoirs, and biographies of stars, among other archival data, Kippola carefully details the way these actors very deliberately constructed their masculine identities both to appeal to heterogeneous nineteenth-century American audiences and to create those audiences in certain ways. For instance, his analysis of the way Forrest edited and amended Robert T. Conrad's important star vehicle for the actor, Jack Cade (1841), exemplifies Kippola's real strength. In this chapter, the reader sees that Forrest did not simply make this play focusing on an English rebellion more patriotically American by changing a line or two; rather, Kippola reveals at the granular level the way Forrest's compositional manipulations fundamentally changed the political tenor of the play in an effort to create a heroic masculinity. Like other Forrest star vehicles such as Metamora (1829) and The Gladiator (1831), Jack Cade stages the oppression of the underclass by an elite hegemony, oppression that leads to an uprising that attempts to dismantle the elite. As Kippola notes, in Conrad's original version that revolutionary political power rested with the community of the underclass; the hero in Conrad's play, in other words, is the oppressed group functioning as one unit. Forrest's edits, however, dilute this communal power in favor of a more singular, centrally focused figure who contains the power to effect change. Forrest's Jack Cade consolidates power in himself, constructing, in short, a self-reliant, heroic masculinity that sees the winnowing of that power as tragic, and the agents of that winnowing as enemies, whether they be the rabble, the elite, or, as Kippola notes, women.
The subsequent chapters on Forrest's and William Macready's famous feud leading to the Astor Place Riot of 1849, as well as on Edwin Booth's attempt to model a kind of 'feminized masculinity' on stage, demonstrate Kippola's similarly attentive readings of both the primary texts and the archival evidence. His reading of Booth, for instance, nicely reveals the way the actor carefully manifested and modeled a new idea of masculinity that drained the brutish passion out of a figure like Forrest in an effort to appeal to a changing audience. While Forrest contented himself to see women as supernumeraries --figures who could only buttress the unchecked ego of the Jacksonian self-made man--mid-century theatre producers saw women as active consumers, and changed the theatre's space and offerings to cater to their tastes. As Kippola argues, one can measure the rise of this more restrained, domestic notion of performed masculinity by charting the way Edwin Booth attempted to modulate his famous performance of the brooding, melancholic Dane in the 1860s. Booth brought a quiet, thoughtful interiority to bear on the definition of what it meant to act like a man, a definition that both reflected and inflected broader notions of masculinity beyond the footlights.
With his attention to the text and through his folding in of historical and contextual detail, Kippola uses these chapters on Forrest and Booth to help reframe our study of nineteenth-century theatre in productive ways, demanding that new attention be paid to the way masculinity was staged. That being said, however, with its exclusively historical lens, Acts of Manhood seems at times to sacrifice a larger argument that is both theoretically and historically rich for smaller forays into the history of the nineteenth-century stage. This is not to say that the book needs to have an ornate, heady theoretical apparatus to make its point; rather, this book seems less stitched together by a broader theory than it is strung together by a series of interventions that individually explore masculinity but that tell less of a coherent story with a robust, overarching argument. Many of the chapters are crisply argued and thickly researched, but one gets a sense that this text is so qualified and careful that the bigger claims to critical insight get lost in its meticulous attention to detail. To put it another way, since this text borrows so heavily from masculinity studies and leans on figures like Nelson and Kimmel to frame the arguments, it is a shame that Kippola did not also draw in the more theoretically oriented critics of masculinity, such as Kaja Silverman and David Savran. Engaging with these critics at a more discursive level might have allowed Acts of Manhood to use the historical grittiness of the antebellum period to complicate the arguments critics such as these were making in the 1990s. It might also have encouraged him to make crucial claims about the way theatrical performance is itself a privileged formal apparatus for probing the notions of masculinity.
The last chapter on 'Genial' John McCullough and the way this heir-apparent to Forrest took up the Delsarte system's directive of emotional restraint in the 1870s, in fact, gestures to the tangle of theoretical issues surrounding nineteenth-century masculinity that performance itself opens. Caught between the emotional extravagance of Forrest and the cerebral interiority of Booth, McCullough worked assiduously to transform his performance of masculinity. Embracing the ideas of Francois Delsarte, and implementing that system through the instruction of Steele MacKaye, McCullough inhabited Forrest's repertoire of roles but worked to temper the passionate exuberance of his predecessor, investing these roles with an emotional self-control that Forrest never attempted. While successful, McCullough never attained the stardom of either Forrest or Booth. His fusion of Forrest's style with Booth's into a more middlebrow performance of masculinity mirrored his audience's own middlebrow self-construction. Yet, as Kippola points out, for this very reason McCullough's masculinity failed to captivate an audience who yearned for passion beneath the mask of gentility. By noting the way that McCullough's acting style failed to capture his audience's full-throated approval, Kippola might have explored the popular theatre's cultural function as a taste-making enterprise at the end of the nineteenth century. McCullough's 'agreeable-but-bland nature' (9), in other words, opens a space in which one might have explored the increasingly complicated and disjunctive ways that theatre as a communal experience both reflects and refracts the construction of masculinity at the end of the nineteenth century.
While Acts of Manhood might have done more, it is nevertheless an important addition to the still understudied history of nineteenth-century theatre, made more vital by the intriguing questions it frames for future studies. Kippola adroitly unpacks the frenetic, shifting notions of masculinity as they were instantiated onstage between Jackson and Lincoln. His dynamic interventions into acting styles, class politics, and gender performance help shed new, provocative light on the vital role that theatre played in both consolidating and crafting what it meant to act like a man in the nineteenth century and beyond.
James Madison University
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|Publication:||Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2013|
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