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Nation and Ethnicity in American Performance and Theater

Summary and Keywords

Scholars have long wrestled with definitions of what might constitute “American” performance or theater. Early 19th-century histories defined it in strictly white, largely anti-British terms, imagining an art form that could instruct citizens of the newly created nation in lessons of civic virtue. In his History of American Theatre (1832), playwright, theater manager, and theater historian William Dunlap described theater as a “powerful engine” for a democratic state. Subsequent theater historians would catalog records of “firsts”—such as the first American stars (including Edwin Forrest and Charlotte Cushman), or the first long-running American dramatic hits (including The Drunkard or Uncle Tom’s Cabin). The roles of women and racial or ethnic minorities were frequently relegated to the anecdotal or the exceptional.

In the wake of the Civil War, and with the expansion of the frontier, definitions of American theater grew more capacious, encompassing more amateur, popular, and immigrant performances as new groups struggled to establish footholds in American culture. The turn into the 20th century and the unfolding series of civil rights movements on behalf of women, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer) citizens, people of color, and people with disabilities rapidly transformed the nation’s theatrical landscape. Groups that had found themselves represented by others onstage discovered new opportunities for creative expression in the playhouse.

Over the past twenty-five years, theater scholars have shifted away from a narrative of “firsts” and national exceptionalism toward a more nuanced series of intertwined histories that illuminate the complex discourses of national and ethnic identity in American culture. Their work has revealed a performance community—whether in the playhouse or on the streets—constantly struggling to create workable definitions of citizenship and belonging. Theater artists have never stopped pushing themselves and their audiences to challenge definitions of national identity. Their work invites contemporary students to expand their understanding of what constitutes the canon of “American” theater.

Keywords: minstrelsy, melodrama, vaudeville, musical theater, African American, Native American, gender, LGBTQ, Latino, class

Competing for Citizenship

Discussions of “nation” and American theater begin almost inevitably with Royall Tyler’s (1757–1826) comedy The Contrast (1787), often hailed as the “first” American play. In it, Tyler compares the manners and morals of postwar Americans still aping aristocratic British manners, with those patriotic citizens advocating a more republican outlook. Best-known for its creation of the Jonathan “Yankee” character, and a farcical scene in which the staunchly anti-theater Jonathan unwittingly attends a play (under the impression that he is looking into the action of a house next door), Tyler’s comedy also offers more substantive commentary on the unsettled status of the new nation. With references to the recently contained Shays’ Rebellion in western Massachusetts, as well as allusions to Native American figures, the postwar currency crisis, and the uncertain role of women in the new nation, the play underscores the difficulty many Americans faced in defining their identities after their separation from Britain. “The contrast” between British and American manners seems almost superficial compared to those more serious issues Tyler points to in postwar society.

Susanna Rowson’s (1762–1824) Slaves in Algiers (1794) confronts identity even more explicitly. Set during a time of international crisis when American citizens, largely unprotected by the nation’s fledgling military powers, were being routinely kidnapped and ransomed by Barbary pirates, Rowson’s drama identifies the menace of ethnic “others” and affirms the power of democratic ideology. In Slaves in Algiers, Rebecca is held captive by a Jewish dealer named Ben Hassan, who has also bartered his daughter Fetnah to the Muslim Dey of Algiers in return for the Dey’s favor. However, Fetnah has been converted to both Christianity and the democratic cause, and schemes to help Rebecca and a group of other American prisoners escape their bonds. Rowson’s open championing of women’s rights drew both praise and attacks from American critics. Some applauded her patriotic spirit, but others claimed she had transgressed the proper role of a woman in post-Revolutionary America.

Lingering questions around slavery and the criteria for American citizenship shadowed postwar American culture. Hairdresser-turned-playwright John Murdock (1748–1834) produced a trilogy of plays between 1794 and 1800 that confronted the nation’s emerging class schisms. Murdock’s comedies—The Triumphs of Love, or Happy Reconciliation; The Politicians, or A State of Things; and The Beau Metamorphized, or The Generous Maid—tackle political issues that range from abolitionism to the controversial Jay Treaty, and, in each case, highlight the perspective of the working-class American whose views were often discounted by those in power. For example, Murdock’s first play, The Triumphs of Love (1794), also presents the first scene of slave emancipation written by an American author. In his second play, The Politicians (1798), a group of free people of color and slaves debate American foreign policy. Murdock’s final comedy, The Beau Metamorphized (1800), offers a particularly pointed example of working-class Americans’ response to their economic oppression. It presents an entertaining showdown between Puff, a hairdresser, and Vainly, a dandified gentleman who derides the intellectual capacity and taste of American workers. In an amusing act of revenge, Puff snips off all of Vainly’s hair, telling him he is cutting it in “the American fashion.”1

Despite the efforts of playwrights such as Tyler, Rowson, and Murdock (among others), would-be literary stars found it hard going in the early national theater. Although American audiences ostensibly embraced “native genius,” they also remained suspicious of the quality of works that had not been vetted on European stages, still considered the epitome of taste and fashion. Some American playwrights, such as James Nelson Barker (1784–1858), concealed their identities in the hope of garnering a more favorable reception for their work, while others focused on translation and adaptation of foreign plays as a way to generate products that combined a patina of American sentiment with the imprimatur of European audiences. For example, Barker’s The Indian Princess (1808) offers a retelling of the Pocahontas story, presenting it as a prefiguring of the white American conquest of the country’s original inhabitants. Yet despite its patriotic theme, Barker worried about letting fellow audience members know that an American author had created the play. In his prologue to the work (originally produced anonymously), he lamented “those unfortunate children of American drama,” unfairly castigated by American critics because they were not yet on par with Shakespeare. He reminded his audience that native genius must learn to “creep before it can possibly walk.”2

A Free and Liberal People

The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 made the spread of Anglo-American settlers in the United States virtually inevitable and raised troubling questions about the fate of the Native communities already living in those areas. And despite the fact that Congress banned the Atlantic slave trade in 1807, slavery within the United States continued to grow as the prime foundation of the nation’s trade in cotton, tobacco, and other agricultural goods. The rapid expansion of the nation’s territory and its economy produced fresh conflicts on the early nineteenth-century stage. How would playwrights and performers represent Native figures that might be imagined as obstacles to the nation’s smooth progress westward? How would they embody African American characters whose forced labor propelled the Southern (and national) economic system?

In Barker’s The Indian Princess, Pocahontas is represented as eager and willing to embrace white civilization. Through her marriage to John Rolfe, she will embody the assimilation and subjugation of Native American culture into Western white society. By contrast, the treacherous Native characters, such as Grimosco and Miami, who plot against the white settlers and who dare to ask, “In what do the red yield to the white men?” are depicted as characters doomed to failure and, ultimately, to extinction.3 The two stark choices Barker presents—assimilation or elimination of Native peoples—would remain a consistent theme in American drama throughout much of the nineteenth century.

Just as the problem of representing Native American characters loomed for American dramatists eager to craft plays that would showcase the country’s rapid growth, the difficulty of portraying African American characters in a nation ever more reliant on slave labor became increasingly problematic. Thomas Jefferson had once likened leaving the issue of slavery unresolved in a democracy to trying to hold “a wolf by the ears,” acknowledging that it would inevitably result in an explosion of violence. African American characters on the early national stage generally followed familiar stereotypes as subservient figures, there to provide comic relief for their white counterparts. And attempts by African American performers to establish their own cultural spaces within the United States would be met with suspicion and sharp resistance. For example, before it was bought by the U.S. government as part of the Louisiana Purchase, the French city of New Orleans had established a space known as “Place Congo” (anglicized as Congo Square) in which enslaved peoples gathered on their weekly rest day to dance and socialize. An 1819 account by white observer Benjamin Latrobe describes 500 to 600 black men and women assembled in the square, dressed in a wide array of costumes, singing, dancing, and playing a number of musical instruments including drums and what was likely an early version of the banjo.4 The Congo Square display showcased the survival and the co-mingling of a broad range of African performance traditions within the United States. Latrobe found the display disconcerting, since many white Americans lived in cities with laws that prohibited large, unsupervised gatherings of enslaved people. Only two years later, white residents of New York City would evince a similar reaction to the efforts of free people of color in that city to establish a recreational pleasure garden and professional theater.

The African Grove Theatre began as a pleasure garden for the free people of color in New York City sometime around 1820. By 1821, its proprietor, William Alexander Brown, was advertising performances of well-known dramas by white, Western authors, including, most famously, Shakespeare’s Richard III (featuring the company’s star performer, James Hewlett). Although the state was in the throes of implementing its gradual emancipation laws, those edicts had not eradicated long-standing racial biases, and the company found itself hounded out of existence after two years. In a bold act of defiance, their final known performance in 1823 featured an original (and now lost) play by Brown entitled The Drama of King Shotaway. According to legend, the play told the story of a 1795 slave uprising led by Joseph Chatoyer on the island of Saint Vincent. Closing his theater with a dramatization of a slave rebellion signaled that although Brown had been defeated by the greater economic powers of the white New York theatrical establishment, he had not relinquished his claim to cultural equality.5 The fleeting notoriety of the African Grove would inspire African American star Ira Aldridge (1807–1867) to undertake a career in the theater. Racial bias precluded him from serious roles on the American stage, but he established himself in parts ranging from Othello to Shylock to Lear as he toured Europe, where he played to great acclaim.

One of the African Grove Theatre’s chief opponents, Mordecai Noah (1785–1851), was himself a playwright and theater critic (in addition to being a sheriff and newspaper editor). Among the nation’s best-known Jewish-American authors, Noah faced constant anti-Semitic taunts throughout his career. Yet Noah’s plays generally proclaim a strong sense of patriotism, including his gender-bending comedy She Would Be a Soldier (1819), in which a lovelorn young woman disguises herself as a soldier to follow her fiancé into battle. Peopled with stereotypes, including recent immigrants, Yankee farmers, effete British and French officers, and brave Native Americans, the play highlights not only the strength of American soldiers, but the Native characters as well. In an act 3 confrontation between the American general and a character described as the “Indian Chief,” the chief demands angrily, “Was not your territory sufficiently ample, but did you sigh for our possessions? Why drive to desperation a free and liberal people?”6 Noah had theorized in his writings that Native Americans were the “lost tribe” of Israel, which may account for his interest in their concerns. Or, as someone who sympathized with the plight of dispossessed European Jews (he would later attempt to found a Jewish homeland within the United States), he may have imagined the Native American characters as stand-ins for displaced Jewish citizens. Whatever his rationale for including the chief’s plea, Noah was not alone in using the stage to question the fate of Native peoples in an era of westward expansion. Similar issues of displacement and belonging would resurface a decade later in John Augustus Stone’s award-winning drama, Metamora, or the Last of the Wampanoags (1829).

By the end of the 1820s, new stars had begun to emerge on the national stage, most notably the robust and charismatic Edwin Forrest (1806–1872). Determined to cultivate the fledgling American drama and to find plays he considered worthy of his talents, Forrest sponsored a series of playwriting competitions for American authors, declaring that he was particularly interested in works that would feature “aboriginal” characters. In response, John Augustus Stone penned Metamora, a tragedy that would become one of Forrest’s signature pieces. It recounts the 1675–1676 struggle known as “King Phillip’s War,” which pitted the Native chief Metacom (also known as “King Phillip”) against British forces. Stone’s drama appeared three years after the publication of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans and one year before the passage of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act (1830), which concretized the Jackson administration’s aggressive anti-Indian policies. As these works suggest, the Native American character would remain a popular, if isolated, figure in American drama for the next seventy years, as playwrights invoked Indian figures as the embodiment of both American ideals and American savagery.

Class Violence in the Theater

At the same time that the national stage struggled with questions of racial and ethnic identity, it also faced the task of reconciling class tensions in a (supposedly) democratic society. Gaps grew between the wealthy, middle, and working classes. Playwrights, theater managers, and performers tried to establish environments that would seem equally welcoming to all sections of American society. The schism among classes and races had worsened with industrialization and the expansion of the slave economy. Robert Montgomery Bird’s (1806–1854) The Gladiator (1831) highlights some of the class tensions roiling among working-class audiences by the early years of Jackson’s presidency. Written as another star vehicle for Edwin Forrest, Bird’s tragedy focuses on the ill-fated uprising led by the enslaved farmer Spartacus. Though his revolt ultimately fails, Spartacus’s battle cry, “Ho, slaves! It is your hour to kill … Freedom for bondmen! Freedom and liberty!” resonated powerfully among Forrest’s working-class fans.7

The frustrations of disenfranchised, white male workers found a number of destructive outlets. Alcoholism and urban crime escalated. City theaters, already suspect venues for many citizens who considered playgoing a corrupt activity, acquired even more dangerous reputations. Alcohol abuse in the United States reached the point that some theaters began banning its sale in the playhouse as a way to entice more respectable audiences. And the sensationally popular melodrama The Drunkard (1844) offered a tale of redemption for all those willing to renounce alcohol, sign “the pledge,” and embrace a Christian path. William H. Smith’s (1808–1872) hit play centers on the fall of Edward Middleton, a white, middle-class young man who falls prey to the evils of alcohol. He loses his family’s comfortable home and puts his wife and daughter in jeopardy. Believing his addiction hopeless, he contemplates suicide. He is saved by a benevolent figure named Rencelaw who promises to “restore” him to society. The final tableau features Edward at prayer with his hand on the Bible, surrounded by his wife and child. The Drunkard became one of the first hits of the American stage, running for hundreds of performances in cities around the country and inspiring audiences to sign temperance pledges at the theater. Yet The Drunkard’s solution to alcoholism lay in embracing middle-class values and respectability. It offered few solutions for those at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, as illustrated by its depiction of two urban toughs labeled simply “First Loafer” and “Second Loafer.”

Those types of “loafer” characters would also appear in Benjamin Baker’s (1818–1890) popular comedy A Glance at New York (1848), which took audiences through the complex labyrinth of New York’s underworld.8 As A Glance at New York begins, the character of Harry welcomes a friend just in from the country, promising him that New York will offer a glimpse of “all sorts of life,” and that “five minutes’ walk will take you from the extreme of wealth to the extreme of poverty.”9 The play also featured a figure that would become a working-class folk hero: Mose the Bowery B’hoy. Mose, famously embodied by Jewish-American performer Frank Chanfrau, was always ready for a brawl, and always quick to champion the rights of the working man against the upper classes.

By 1849, the class tensions portrayed in The Drunkard and A Glance at New York had reached unbearable heights. They erupted in the Astor Place Riots, the worst theater riots in the nation’s history. Ostensibly, the furor was the result of a long-standing rivalry between American star Edwin Forrest and British star William Macready over two competing productions of Macbeth being presented in New York City. But the rivalry had class implications as well. Macready’s adherents included some of the city’s wealthiest and most influential men, and his production of Macbeth was being produced at the exclusive Astor Place Opera House. Forrest’s version, supported by his loyal working-class audiences, opened at the immense Broadway Theatre. The opposing parties traded insults and threats for several days before violence exploded on May 10, 1849. Enraged by Macready’s refusal to back down and by the public disdain expressed by his wealthy patrons, a mob gathered outside the Astor Place Opera House and threw stones at the city’s militia. Eventually the militia fired into the crowd, killing over twenty rioters and wounding more than one hundred.10 The trauma of the Astor Place Riot lingered long in the public memory.

Fighting for Freedom

Melodrama of the kind on display in The Drunkard was one of the dominant theatrical genres in the mid-nineteenth century, and writers used it to wrestle with serious social evils. Yet audiences also inevitably demanded comedies to help them cope with the anxieties they faced in a rapidly industrializing nation, and one where definitions of white masculinity seemed increasingly under threat from free black populations and growing immigrant communities. Minstrelsy, a comic form born out of racial satire in the first decades of the nineteenth century, was inspired in part by what cultural historian Eric Lott describes as “panic, anxiety, terror, and pleasure,” as white male audiences flocked to performances featuring the famous characters of “Jim Crow” or “Zip Coon.”11 These two figures—the one slow, shuffling, and clothed in grotesque rags, and the other exaggeratedly dandified—served as perfect targets for white spectators worried about black roles in American society. Jim Crow mocked stereotypical slave speech patterns and behavior, while Zip Coon parodied African Americans’ efforts to dress, speak, or behave like their white counterparts. Some of the best-known popular songs in the American canon—including “Oh, Susannah,” “Dixie,” and “Camptown Races”—began in the minstrel show. Minstrel figures, whether those popularized by performer Thomas “Daddy” Rice, or the many minstrel troupes such as Dan Emmett’s Virginia Minstrels (1843) or Christy’s Minstrels (1843), created cultural expectations of how black characters would behave onstage for the next half century. These character types would also prove extremely difficult to dislodge, even as the nation inched closer to civil war over the issue of slavery.

By the 1850s, the question of the nation’s “peculiar institution” could no longer be contained. Fearful of audience response, theater managers had tried to skirt any serious consideration of slavery and abolitionism. But the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which permitted the recapture and re-enslavement of any escaped slave discovered in the United States, inspired abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe to pen what became one of the most influential novels in the world—Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Its publication in 1852 produced an instant sensation and inspired dozens of stage adaptations, from the serious to the satirical. The drama focuses on the tragedy of Uncle Tom, a slave sold to pay his master’s debts. The play also includes a storyline about a slave mother, Eliza, desperate to save her little son, Harry, from being sold. In what emerged as one of the most popular sensation spectacles of the nineteenth-century stage, Eliza leaps onto the broken ice of the Ohio River to escape the slave catchers pursuing her.12 Rendered repeatedly in engravings, illustrations, and countless theatrical interpretations, Eliza’s desperate act became a symbol of the violence that slavery wrought against innocent women and children.

Although Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains the best-known anti-slavery drama of the nineteenth century, other plays took up the battle cry. Irish actor, playwright, and manager Dion Boucicault (c. 1820–1890) wrote The Octoroon (1859), a story that wrestled openly with America’s legacy of forced interracial unions under slavery. In the play, the beautiful Zoe is a slave described as an “octoroon” because she is one-eighth African American. She is also the daughter of the white plantation owner. His death leaves her vulnerable to sale, and, in one of the most famous scenes in the drama, she is publicly auctioned to a white overseer who plans to keep her enslaved as his concubine. Rather than submit to the humiliation, she commits suicide.

For Zoe’s character, her white father’s rape of her black mother renders her ineligible for American citizenship. She is property, not a person. Other artists of African American and Anglo-American descent made different claims about racial identity in the United States, including playwright and novelist William Wells Brown (c. 1814–1884). Brown, an escaped slave who had a white father and a black mother, constantly reminded audiences of the fluidity of his racial status. He would stand before crowds gathered to hear him speak and claim that he had the right to address them as a white man just as much as he had the right to address them as a black man. His most famous novel, Clotel, or the President’s Daughter, was based on the familiar scandal of Thomas Jefferson’s coerced sexual relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings. And Brown’s play, The Escape, or a Leap for Freedom (1858), counters white misperceptions about slaves’ acceptance of their status. The play’s central romantic characters, two slaves named Glen and Melinda, dare to dream of a land “where we are free and slaves no more.”13 Brown’s drama also features a trickster character named Cato who pretends to aid his master in pursuing a group of escaped slaves, but who, in a crucial moment, chooses a “leap” for freedom and armed resistance over bondage.

Brown was one of a handful of African American performers and playwrights in the pre–Civil War era. Other important figures included Mary Webb (1828–1859), an African American elocutionist often described at the “Black Siddons” for her powerful performance style. Like Brown, Webb was not allowed to be part of any integrated performance company, so she gave dramatic readings on her own, drawing admiring audiences that included Frederick Douglass and Queen Victoria. Some thirty years after the closure of the African Grove Theatre, abolitionist William Cooper Nell (1816–1874) created Boston’s first amateur African American company, known as the Histrionic Club, in the 1850s. The company performed both contemporary stage hits from white theaters and original works by members of the troupe. Most notably, however, members of the company staged a tableau of the Boston Massacre with all black performers for the 1858 anniversary of the Dred Scott decision. Nell had petitioned the Massachusetts state government to recognize Crispus Attucks, a free man of color, as the first victim of the Boston Massacre and the Revolution. When they demurred, he boldly recast the event with all black performers in a presentation at Faneuil Hall, which had been the site of some of the nation’s most important political protests during the War of Independence. His silent protest affirmed the right of African Americans to the nation’s wartime legacy, and also challenged the verdict of the Scott decision that African Americans were not legal citizens of the United States.14

Losing the Peace

The eruption of the Civil War produced a paradigm shift in the nation’s drama. Just as Jacksonian bluster had yielded to the cerebral eloquence of Abraham Lincoln, the strident style of Edwin Forrest gave way to the restrained gentility of star performer Edwin Booth (1833–1893). Although some stars such as comedian Joseph Jefferson III (1829–1905) tried to remain neutral during the Civil War, others openly took sides. Internationally known performers such as Charlotte Cushman (1816–1876) and Adah Isaacs Menken (1835–1868) defied public opinion about the roles of women in politics, exerting their power as celebrities to draw attention to their beliefs. Cushman, a powerfully charismatic performer with a substantial female following, played in fundraisers for the Union army. By contrast, Menken painted her dressing room Confederate gray, loudly proclaimed her loyalty to the South, and was arrested for being a secessionist. And the infamous actor John Wilkes Booth, brother to Edwin, assassinated Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, on April 15, 1865.

However, as the nation sought healing in the years immediately following the war, dramatists and theater managers shied away from depicting the conflict openly. Matthew Brady’s graphic photos of the dead and dying on the Civil War battlefields had shocked many Americans with their first glimpse of the true brutality of war. Representing that violence onstage would have been too divisive for national audiences. It was only in plays such as Bronson Howard’s 1889 romance Shenandoah, which represented the North and South via romantic couples facing tests of loyalty, that the stage began to depict the deep divisions of the war and the labor of Reconstruction.

Audiences continued to crave sensation spectacles, but those now integrated new technologies, such as trains. In what would become one of the most iconic images in popular culture, resurfacing in everything from cartoons to twenty-first- century music videos,15 theater manager and playwright Augustin Daly (1838–1899) introduced a climactic scene in his 1867 drama Under the Gaslight, in which a one-armed Civil War veteran named Snorkey is tied to the train tracks and has to be rescued by a young woman. While later imitations would pivot the gender roles in the piece, showing a helpless heroine in peril, Daly’s original play makes a bold statement about the uncertain place of veterans in the postwar culture, as well as the role of women. As Snorkey exclaims when Laura, the heroine, frees him: “And these are the women who ain’t to have a vote!”16 However, Daly’s work also reveals the deep anxieties many white Americans harbored about how to integrate free people of color into American society. The play includes a character named Sam, for example, described in the cast list as “A colored citizen, ready for suffrage when it is ready for him.”17 Daly’s description seems to point to Sam’s eagerness to participate in the privileges of universal suffrage, but in fact Sam only demonstrates his “equality” by getting drunk and demanding the same treatment as whites when he appears before the judge. The representation of free people of color as drunkards played into negative stereotypes, and simply reinforced popular prejudices perpetuated by those who opposed full enfranchisement for African Americans.

The post–Civil War period also witnessed a dramatic increase in the nation’s immigrant population. The United States had already experienced a substantial influx of immigrants during the 1840s as a result of the Irish potato famine and the political upheaval in Europe around the uprisings of 1848. The period between the 1870s and 1890s brought new groups, including Eastern European Jews seeking refuge from persecution at home, as well as Chinese laborers in search of work on the railroad systems snaking across the frontier. With the rise of immigrant communities throughout the United States, new types of performance emerged as well, particularly those that portrayed the immigrant experience. Vaudeville, with its short skits and endless variety, became a popular vehicle for showcasing characters based on immigrant groups, or for featuring Irish, Chinese, Jewish, or German (“Dutch”) characters.

Among the Irish-American acts were Edward Harrigan (1844–1911) and Tony Hart (1855–1891), who generated a series of musical comedies based on their “Mulligan Guard” sketches that had been made popular in vaudeville shows around the country. The Mulligan Guards were a rag-tag militia group, mostly Irish, and often more interested in brawling with local German or African American militia groups than in keeping the peace. One of their most successful comedies, The Mulligan Guard Ball (1879), features the song, “The Babies on our Block,” which claims that “Ireland’s represented” by all the babies living in American tenements.18 Harrigan and Hart offered no pat solutions to the problem of clashing immigrant communities. Indeed, the final stage direction of The Mulligan Guard Ball is telling in its very ambiguity: “General melee and curtain.”19 Similarly, the duo Joe Weber (1867–1842) and Lew Fields (1867–1941), children of Jewish immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side, presented comical “Dutch” characters whose humor derived from malapropisms and coded Jewish humor (for example, they adapted Cyrano de Bergerac as Cyranose de Bric-a-Brac, 1898).20 Comedians such as Harrigan and Hart and Weber and Fields played to audiences whose firsthand experience of overcrowded housing, unemployment, and discrimination allowed them to see the humor in these exaggerated representations of immigrant life. By contrast, the conditions they joked about appeared shorn of all humor in Jacob Riis’s 1890 publication, How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York. Riis’s photographic study of the city’s streets and most desperate slums shocked many Americans with its devastating images of children living in filthy tenements or crowded barefoot into alleyways, clinging together for warmth.

Social activists such as Jane Addams, founder of Chicago’s Hull House, fought to remedy the brutal habitat they saw engulfing so many newly arrived citizens. Addams opened Hull House in 1889 to offer a range of services to immigrants, including language lessons, daycare, libraries, and a nursery for babies of working mothers. Yet Addams had another project as well. She hoped to offer an alternative to the barren ugliness of tenement life. Hull House also boasted works of art and even created its own theater. There, recent immigrants might see or act in works by William Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, or George Bernard Shaw while performing what scholar Shannon Jackson has described as an “ethic of neighborliness.”21

As Addams and the denizens of Hull House labored to integrate new immigrants more fully into Anglo-American culture, other performance traditions drew on nostalgia for those communities left behind. The hibernicon, a performance tradition launched in the 1860s, appealed to Irish Americans’ sentimental visions of the “Old Country.” Featuring panoramas of the idealized Irish countryside, traditional Irish music, and comic skits, the hibernicons figuratively transported Irish American audiences back across the Atlantic for a “tour” of Ireland. Given the squalor that so many Irish immigrants faced in the United States, a trip back to Ireland—even an imaginary one for an evening’s entertainment—might have offered a welcome respite.22

While recent Irish immigrants gazed wistfully on scenic vistas of the Emerald Isle, the patrons of the Yiddish Theatre, which arrived in the United States in the early 1880s, looked to their artists for a glimpse of Jewish folk humor. Abraham Goldfaden (1840–1908), sometimes called “The Father of Yiddish Theatre,” spent several years in New York, where he produced plays such as The Fanatic, or the Two Kuni Lemls, a biting play that looks at the clash Goldfaden saw between Old World, hidebound customs and the freedom of the modern world.23 Like many immigrant groups, Eastern European Jews faced pressure to assimilate, and they also encountered prejudice from more established German-Jewish communities already settled in major urban centers throughout the United States. The Yiddish Theatre offered a place to commune with fellow audience members who were facing similar problems.

Even as Yiddish and Irish-American artists were establishing their niche in American popular entertainment, other marginalized groups struggled for stable footing. After the Civil War, black entertainers began to occupy a greater space on the national stage, but often found themselves relegated to roles that perpetuated racist stereotypes. Among the best-known duo to emerge at the end of the nineteenth century was the team of Bert Williams (1847–1922) and George Walker (c. 1872–1911). Together they produced a number of successful shows, including the 1902 musical comedy, In Dahomey, by Jesse A. Shipp, Will Marion Cook, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. The first “all-black” musical on Broadway, it treats (albeit in a mostly humorous way) the serious question of whether African Americans should return to Africa, rather than remain in the United States.24 Given the repressive Jim Crow laws and vigilante violence so many African Americans experienced in the second half of the nineteenth century, the colonization of Africa might have seemed like the most viable option. Yet scholar Daphne Brooks argues that the play “dared to couch new images of African American culture within the old,” and that it challenged white audiences through its subversive humor.25 For example, in the song “Emancipation Day,” the singers boldly declare, “On Emancipation Day, All you white fo’ks clear de way.… When dey hear dem ragtime tunes/White fo’ks try to pass fo’ coons on Emancipation Day.”26

Big Business and Little Theatres

The expansion of the railroad and the “closing” of the American frontier in the 1890s produced a tremendous explosion in theatrical entertainments across the United States, as well as a high demand for a system that could deliver a consistent and commercially desirable product to audiences living at a distance from theatrical hubs such as New York, Chicago, or San Francisco.27 New styles of shows and new business models crowded in to fill the gap. Spectacular performances and pageants celebrating American history became popular professional and amateur forms of entertainment. Among the most successful were “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s numerous “Wild West” shows, which recreated battles between Anglo-American and Native American forces. These hyper-masculine spectacles conjured visions of “the West” in the popular imagination, often superseding histories of actual events.

Just as Buffalo Bill stamped his version of the nation’s frontier history on American popular entertainment, the Theatrical Syndicate, a business partnership created in 1896, established a monopoly that dictated which artists could perform what material in which theaters. Soon angered by what they perceived as its coercive practices and overly commercial material, and energized by some of the progressive social movements sweeping the nation, a group of artists began to push back against The Syndicate’s power. Their efforts spawned what would become known as the Little Theatre Movement.

The Little Theatre Movement drew on the recently imported European trends in realism, naturalism, and expressionism. The Provincetown Players (founded in 1915) emerged as one of the most famous Little Theatre companies, helping to launch the careers of numerous artists including Susan Glaspell (1876–1948) and Eugene O’Neill (1888–1953). Glaspell’s works interrogated women’s roles in early twentieth-century American culture, arguing that women’s needs and abilities extended beyond those required of a mother and homemaker.28 Her most famous play, Trifles (1916), was based on the true story of a woman in a small farming community who had murdered her husband. The play suggests that a history of psychological and perhaps physical abuse may have prompted the wife to strangle her husband while he slept. The clues to the wife’s motives emerge through the “trifles” in the play, including spilled jam jars, a badly sewn quilt, a broken birdcage, and the discovery of a dead songbird with a broken neck.

Glaspell’s works appeared alongside a host of suffrage plays that supported women’s campaign for the vote. Many suffrage plays remained closet dramas, intended for performances at demonstrations, benefits, or political gatherings, rather than as part of a regular professional season.29 Nevertheless, those works and the pieces penned by other activists such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Interrupted, 1909, and The Balsam Fir, 1910), and Edna St. Vincent Millay (Aria de Capo, 1919) suggested a shift in women’s perceptions of how they might harness the power of drama to effect political change. Playwrights also began to explore gender roles in the domestic sphere, confronting the notion that women belonged in the home merely by virtue of their gender.30 And though Eugene O’Neill would become best known for his psychological explorations of family life in powerful dramas such as Strange Interlude (1928) and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (published posthumously in 1956), several of his early works deal with women’s struggles to assert their rights over their bodies and their behavior. Most notably, his 1921 drama Anna Christie focuses on the story of a former prostitute struggling to shed her past and establish a new life with a ship’s stoker named Mat Burke. Continual reminders of her former life haunt Mat, Anna, and Anna’s father, Chris. Yet, despite her repudiation of her former lifestyle, Anna refuses to succumb to guilt, and she admonishes her father as well, “It ain’t your fault, and it ain’t mine, and it ain’t his neither. We’re all poor nuts, and things happen, and we yust get mixed in wrong, that’s all.”31 Anna demonstrates that she is, above all, a survivor and not dependent on any man.

Although O’Neill and Glaspell remain among the artists most frequently associated with the Little Theatre Movement, as scholar Jonathan Shandell notes, between the 1910s and early 1930s, thousands of African American artists were also involved in what became known as the Negro Little Theatre Movement.32 Pushing back against the appalling racial stereotypes that still haunted the American stage, these artists focused on representing the reality of African American life in the early 20th century. One of the earliest examples is Angelina Weld Grimké’s (1880–1958) anti-lynching drama, Rachel. The play centers on a heroine who cannot imagine raising children in a world so torn by racial violence. In the final scene of the play, Rachel proclaims heartbrokenly, “We are all blighted; we are all accursed—all of us—everywhere, we whose skins are dark—our lives blasted by the white man’s prejudice.”33

Expanding Audiences

Even as the artists of the Little Theatre Movement experimented with more radical visions of American citizenship by subverting traditional notions of gender, ethnic, and racial equality, mainstream entertainments such as the Ziegfeld Follies (1907–1936) featured elaborate pageants, specialty acts (including artists such as Will Rogers, W. C. Fields, Fanny Brice, Fred and Adele Astaire, Bert Williams, and others), and, most notably, gorgeous and scantily-clad showgirls who supposedly represented the ideal of American femininity. Broadway musicals had been influenced by 1927’s revolutionary production of Oscar Hammerstein II (1895–1960) and Jerome Kern’s (1885–1945) Showboat, which included an interracial cast and looked at miscegenation, racial passing, and the problematic legacy of the Civil War in the South. Yet Showboat’s influence was primarily related to form, as musicals became more integrated in structure, using songs to advance the plot and develop character, rather than as interpolations of popular tunes.

The crisis of the Great Depression unexpectedly produced the first-ever national theater in the United States. The Federal Theatre Project (FTP) ran from 1935 to 1939 as part of the New Deal’s efforts to put unemployed Americans back to work and to entertain the “widest variety of American audiences.”34 It sent thousands of artists touring across the country to areas ranging from Florida to Oregon.35 Traveling troupes produced original pieces by local authors, often working in tiny towns where residents had never seen a play. Some of the plays and pageants represented key moments in American history; others wrestled with critical contemporary issues such as the role of labor unions in America. Unfortunately, the FTP soon drew the ire of factions in the government sensitive to any material that they deemed “communist.” Plays were censored; the FTP’s director, Hallie Flanagan, had to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC); and in 1939, America’s first experiment in supporting a national theater came to a close.

The HUAC persecution of the FTP was only part of a larger and more widespread crusade of censorship aimed at American artists from the 1930s to the 1950s. From Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour (1934) to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), American playwrights fought back with thinly veiled attacks against HUAC’s relentless blacklisting of artists who dared to question the status quo or who at one time had claimed an affiliation with communist organizations within the United States. For example, in The Children’s Hour, a spiteful child’s lie about a possible sexual relationship between two female teachers in a New England boarding school offers a metaphor for the destructive power of rumor. In The Crucible, the Salem witchcraft trials of the 1680s become a stand-in for the “witch hunts” conducted by HUAC.

The attacks on Pearl Harbor and the American entrance into World War II in 1941 generated an upsurge in patriotic dramas at the same time that it raised questions about who could be identified as an American. The war also produced a new spike in anti-immigrant and particularly anti-Asian bias, as thousands of Japanese Americans found themselves confined to internment camps for the duration of the conflict. Parades, movies, songs, and theatrical performances focused on supporting the war effort. Some productions highlighted stories of contemporary heroism, while others celebrated American history. Richard Rodgers (1902–1979) and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1943 musical Oklahoma! offers a prime example of this patriotic fervor. Oklahoma! is widely credited with being the first fully integrated musical, meaning that it used song and dance equally to propel the story. Oklahoma! focuses on Laurie, a farmer’s daughter, and her two suitors—Jud the farmhand and Curly the cowboy. In the finale, as Curly and Laurie celebrate their wedding, they sing a love song not to each other, but to the state of Oklahoma. It includes lyrics that typified the pro-American sentiments of many productions in this era: “We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand.”36

Oklahoma! marked the beginning of what many scholars have described as a “Golden Age” of American musical theater, and for the next twenty years, musicals would serve as a useful index for critical identity issues in American culture. For example, the 1946 musical Annie Get Your Gun (Irving Berlin, Dorothy Fields, and Herbert Fields) offers a sentimental look at the life of sharpshooter Annie Oakley, who starred in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows. On the surface, the play seems like a nostalgic look back at the American frontier in the vein of Oklahoma! However, in its staging of the rivalry between Annie and her suitor, Frank Butler, it underscores the pressures women faced post–World War II to leave factories or wartime jobs and return to their homes. As Annie sings ruefully, “You can’t get a man with a gun.”37 She conceals her superior talents in favor of playing out traditional male/female gender roles.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific (1949) is set during World War II and wrestles with questions of racial bias. The heroine, a nurse named Nellie Forbush, falls in love with a planter named Emile, but has trouble overcoming her prejudices when she learns that he has fathered mixed-race children. In a parallel love story, Lieutenant Cable falls in love with the lovely Tonkinese girl Liat, but cannot imagine what his upper-class East Coast family would make of a non-white bride. In a bitter admission of his own moral cowardice, he sings, “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made and people whose skin is a different shade.”38

Yet despite their comparatively progressive lyrics, Rodgers and Hammerstein were not immune to the prejudices that still dogged the country’s predominantly Caucasian theater-makers. Their 1958 musical Flower Drum Song explores the hazards of assimilation for Chinese citizens living in San Francisco’s thriving Chinatown. Yet, Rodgers and Hammerstein quickly encountered the difficulty of casting a musical with a large number of Asian characters without access to a substantial number of well-established Asian performers. Traditionally, both Broadway and Hollywood had often relied on “yellow-face” (disguising white performers as Asian characters), and Asian actors frequently found themselves relegated to minor and stereotypically subservient roles. Flower Drum Song proved no exception to the yellow-face phenomenon, as Japanese and even light-skinned African American performers were drafted for Chinese character roles, under the assumption that the largely white audiences seeing the shows would be unable to distinguish the nationalities of the actors they were watching. The show was revived in 2002 with a predominantly Asian American cast and with the book radically rewritten by award-winning Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly, 1988).

Even as Rodgers and Hammerstein tackled Asian American assimilation in the 1950s, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim explored conflicts between rival immigrant groups in inner-city New York. Their landmark 1957 musical, West Side Story, resituates the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet as a romance between a young Puerto Rican girl and a Polish-American boy. The play translated the warring Capulet and Montague families of Shakespeare’s drama into two urban gangs: the Jets and the Sharks. West Side Story focused on the hazards of abandoning a rising generation to low-paying jobs, poor living conditions, and inadequate education. Perhaps the most revealing song in the musical is the satirical “Gee, Officer Krupke,” in which the members of the Jets sing about their families’ alcoholism, drug use, physical abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, and homosexuality. The tone is comical, but it reveals a community that has no expectation of assistance from social welfare systems, and that understands that it has been largely abandoned to its own fate.

Coded Identities on the National Stage

In a 1975 article in the New York Times, award-winning playwright Tennessee Williams (1911–1983) was interviewed about the upcoming publication of his memoirs.39 The interviewer asked about some of Williams’s more troubled female characters, including the faded belle, Amanda Wingfield (The Glass Menagerie, 1944), and the desperate Southern schoolteacher, Blanche DuBois (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1947). Williams responded, “I think that more often I have used a woman rather than a man to articulate my feelings.”40 He clarified that this did not make him a transvestite, but that rather he identified with these characters more fully than their male counterparts. The interviewer also posed candid questions about Williams’s homosexuality, which was covered extensively in the memoirs. Williams agreed that his memoirs went into fairly graphic detail about his sexual history, observing wryly that, “I thought I would be dead before the book came out.”41

Williams’s open discussion of his sexual orientation in 1975 offers a marked contrast to the coded treatment that homosexuality had often received in the American theater prior to the experimental works and gay rights movements of the 1960s. For example, earlier Williams plays such as Streetcar or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) allude to homosexuality, but primarily as a disruptive or destructive force, and the gay-coded characters generally meet unhappy fates as suicides. Or, in the case of Williams’s 1958 one-act Suddenly Last Summer, a male character is murdered and cannibalized for trying to seduce young men.

Playwright Edward Albee (1928–2016) relied on similarly coded language in his early works, such as The Zoo Story (1958) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). While Tennessee Williams had drawn on earlier movements such as expressionism in his plays, Albee incorporated the absurdist styles that were making their way over from Europe by the mid-twentieth century. Many of Albee’s works probe the plight of the outsider and the failure of the “American Dream,” including the image of a typically heteronormative family. A decade earlier, Arthur Miller had pointed to the dangers of the capitalist system in his Pulitzer Prize–winning tragedy Death of a Salesman (1949). Albee’s plays, with their relentless stripping away of social pretenses, exposed what he saw as the emptiness of bourgeois American society. In Zoo Story, a loner named Jerry forces a confrontation with a mild-mannered businessman named Peter. Jerry goads Peter until their fight ends with Jerry being stabbed. Their encounter is violent, yet it also has sexual undertones. In Who’s Afraid, husband and wife George and Martha savagely attack each other’s illusions of a peaceful married life. Martha’s diatribes against George include slurs about his masculinity, suggesting that he had never proved himself a “real” man.

Williams and Albee were born into a generation that demonstrated less tolerance of homosexuality. However, subsequent generations would be able to explore questions of sexual orientation more freely. The Stonewall Riots of 1969, hailed by many as a watershed moment in the gay rights movement, sparked the creation of the Gay Liberation Front.42 The riots broke out at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village when police attempted to arrest the bar’s gay and lesbian patrons. The resulting uproar turned the tide in the peaceful resistance that had characterized the gay rights movement up until that point. Like the participants in the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement of the same era, many gay activists reached a point at which they questioned the efficacy of well-mannered protests.

Indeed, that sense of anger and impatience characterized much of the drama produced in the 1960s and early 1970s—particularly the works created by groups that had been marginalized in mainstream American society. A deep dissatisfaction with the status quo was reflected in plays by African American artists such as Amiri Baraka (1934–2014), James Baldwin (1924–1987), Lorraine Hansberry (1930–1965), Ntozake Shange (1948–), and Douglas Turner Ward (1930–); Cuban-American playwright Maria Irene Fornes (1930–); in shows developed by experimental touring theater troupes such as The Living Theatre (1947–) and the San Francisco Mime Troupe (1959–); in shows from Asian American theater companies such as the East West Players (1965–); and in shows from Latino companies such as El Teatro Campesino (1965–). They sounded calls for change in the ways in which all Americans might be represented in the nation.

Melting Pot Theater

If the 1960s had brought sweeping changes in how different members of the American community made themselves heard in the playhouse, the 1970s marked a period of disillusionment and disgust with post-Vietnam and post-Watergate culture. President Richard Nixon’s resignation in the wake of the Watergate break-in scandal and America’s defeat in Vietnam in 1975, combined with an economic depression and energy crisis, led many Americans to question their post–World War II conviction about the country’s position as a global leader.

This troubled tone appears in the work of playwright David Mamet. American Buffalo, Mamet’s 1976 story of small-time crooks, captures the pettiness and ruthlessness of characters trying to steal a valuable set of coins only to wind up betraying each other in their greed. Mamet’s understanding of the dominant “dog-eat-dog” mood of the culture emerged even more clearly in his award-winning 1984 drama of real-estate salesmen, Glengarry Glen Ross. If the 1970s had been marked by a profound sense of ennui, the 1980s might have been characterized by the bold claim made in Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie, Wall Street, in which a powerful broker proclaims to a rapt audience, “Greed is good.” When Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981, he ushered in a return to more conservative values—perhaps in response to some of the more permissive movements of the 1960s. Broadway saw a stream of family-friendly blockbuster musicals imported from Britain, including Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats (1981) and Phantom of the Opera (1986). Both shows would break box office records and establish new expectations for how Broadway productions might reach worldwide audiences.

Even while audiences streamed into theaters to enjoy Webber’s catchy tunes, many American playwrights continued to question the nation’s political and ideological priorities. AIDS had begun to decimate many members of the country’s gay male community by the early 1980s, yet the Reagan administration declined to channel substantial funding into AIDS-related research. Playwright and activist Larry Kramer’s 1985 drama, The Normal Heart, offers an impassioned response to the government’s refusal to take action. It also chronicles the terror that swept the nation’s gay citizens as they fought this cataclysmic health crisis.

In 1979, African American playwright August Wilson (1945–2005) began a ten-play cycle chronicling the black experience in America. The plays center primarily in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh and trace the lives of community members there from 1903 to 1997. Incorporating elements of magical realism, Wilson’s dramas repeatedly invoke “ancestors” to strengthen and guide his characters. The past is always present in Wilson’s dramas, as in The Piano Lesson (1986), in which a brother and sister, Boy Willie and Berniece, fight over the fate of a piano that has been in their family for generations. It contains the carved images of their family members—former slaves who had been sold in exchange for the piano. Boy Willie hopes to sell the piano to buy some land, but Berniece claims it as their family legacy. The climactic moment of the play shows Boy Willie wrestling with the ghost of Sutter, the family’s long-dead slaveholder. Boy Willie and Berniece ultimately keep the piano, and the family begins to lay the ghosts of the past to rest.

The 1990s brought dramas with epic themes to the national stage, and the decade witnessed the reinvention of numerous traditional tales as the nation hovered on the edge of the millennium. Many artists seemed torn between fears of an approaching apocalypse and anticipation of an era of rebirth. Nowhere do this paradox and this grandiose vision appear more clearly than in Tony Kushner’s (1956–) award-winning Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. This two-part play chronicles the intertwined histories of numerous characters in a “melting pot that never melted,” including: former House Un-American Activities Committee lawyer Roy Cohn; a Mormon wife who sees visions; a drag queen named Belize; the character of Proctor, a gay man dying of AIDS; and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.43 Like August Wilson, Kushner invokes spectacular effects—including angels crashing through the ceiling—to emphasize that his characters are living in extraordinary times as the millennium approaches.

Other playwrights turned to the past and mythological figures for inspiration at the close of the twentieth century. In 1995, Chicana playwright and activist Cherrie Moraga (1952–) penned The Hungry Woman, a retelling of the Medea myth incorporating figures drawn from Mexican and Aztec mythology. The play also explores female sexuality, particularly through the Medea character, who has been exiled from her home country because of her lesbianism. Jonathan Larson’s (1960–1996) 1996 hit RENT also offers a reworking of a familiar story. In this instance, Larson reimagines Puccini’s La Bohème among New York’s Greenwich Village population of unemployed artists. In lieu of the tuberculosis used in the original opera, Larson substituted AIDS. With its emphasis on youth culture, artistic freedom, and open expression of sexuality, RENT drew an entirely new generation into the American theater. Teens and young adults thronged the playhouse, seeing it dozens of times and creating a fan culture around a piece that spoke to their anxieties about “living in America at the end of the millennium,” where “you’re what you own.”44

Naomi Iizuka’s (1965–) 1997 drama Polaroid Stories presents a retelling of Ovid’s Metamorphoses set among a group of homeless teenagers. Alternately poetic and brutal, the play incorporates stories of the gods and classic tales from Greek mythology, such as the tragic love story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Iizuka imagines theater as a space for including the diverse array of voices in contemporary American culture. As she stated in a 2014 speech for the Theatre Communications Group’s “Crossing Borders” conference, “One of the biggest problems … is the shameful fact that there are still so many voices that are not being heard on our stages. If we genuinely want a diverse and inclusive theater, then we need to actively seek out artists from underserved and underrepresented communities, and we need to produce their work.”45

A Powerful Engine

In 1798, playwright Judith Sargent Murray prophesied, “From an infant stage, I look for improvement. Gradually we shall progress.”46 The history of national and ethnic identity in American theater and performance has never followed a linear trajectory. Leaps forward in representation and engagement have often been followed by disappointing setbacks. Ugly stereotypes have continued to exist alongside even the most radical depictions of American inclusivity.

Yet the “improvement” that Murray called for has undoubtedly come to pass. The twenty-first century has witnessed an explosion in drama from communities and citizens long denied a dignified place on the national stage. Women playwrights—including Sarah Ruhl, Lynn Nottage, Katori Hall, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Danai Gurira—have found audiences for their unique voices. Ruhl’s works explore problems of emotional and sexual repression in plays such as The Clean House, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Eurydice, and In the Next Room. In Ruined and Eclipsed, Nottage and Gurira have confronted the physical and sexual violence African women continue to face in war-torn countries. Their work has built on legacies created by playwrights such as Lorraine Hansberry, Wendy Wasserstein, Paula Vogel, and others who struggled to make opportunities for women authors on the mainstream American stage from the 1950s through the 1990s.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, a group of Asian American and Middle Eastern–born and descended artists formed Silk Road Rising, a company dedicated to creating “a world that values art over ideology and inquiry over dogma.”47 Native Voices theatre, the only Equity company “devoted exclusively to developing and producing new works for the stage by Native American, Alaska Native, and First Nations playwrights,” began as a series of play festivals in 1994. By 1999 it had become a resident company at the Autry National Center of the American West. Over the past twenty-two years, the company has produced “22 critically acclaimed new plays, including 15 world premieres; 10 Playwrights Retreats; 18 New Play Festivals; and more than 150 workshops and public staged readings.”48 In 2005, Broadway dedicated its first theater named after an artist of color: the August Wilson Theater. In 2012, a group of artists and scholars came together to form the Latina/o Theatre Commons, dedicated to “promoting the breadth of Latina/o theatre across the nation and re-imagining the American dramatic narrative.”49 In 2015, after a decades-long battle throughout the nation, the Supreme Court voted to legalize gay marriage across the United States. And most recently, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s audacious and Tony Award–winning hip-hop musical, Hamilton, re-envisioned the nation’s origins in contemporary music and with Latino, African American, and Asian American performers portraying the nation’s founding fathers and mothers.

The very inability of artists and scholars to define an American theater or to pin down a single national identity should hearten and inspire theater-makers. As the country continues to debate definitions of citizenship, and as previously marginalized groups demand representation in American culture, audiences have an unprecedented opportunity to fundamentally re-envision how they will interpret the values of the nation. Some will continue to challenge whether or not the theater can or should be a “powerful engine” for social change. Yet the past two hundred years of history have amply demonstrated its ability to make strategic interventions in a national dialogue.

Discussion of the Literature

The earliest history of the American stage, William Dunlap’s A History of the American Theatre, appeared in 1832 when the nation’s theatrical culture was barely seventy-five years old. It offered a highly personal account of Dunlap’s own experiences of working in the theatre, as well as a wealth of anecdotes about its growth and development in other areas of the United States. His chronicle closes with the earnest wish that the theater become a tool for transformation in American society, and that it be guarded from vice and corruption. Yet one of Dunlap’s greatest fears, shared by many of his contemporaries, was that neither scholars nor audiences would take American drama seriously. And this fear proved prophetic. While historians such as Joseph Ireland, William Warland Clapp, Thomas Allston Brown, George C. Odell, and others produced comprehensive histories of the American theater in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, their narratives remained focused on documenting the lives of actors and the rise and fall of particular playwrights or playhouses. Their chronicles laid an important foundation for subsequent histories, but for many, American drama remained what scholar Susan Harris Smith has described as “the bastard art.”50

However, over the last fifty years, historians of theater, culture, and American literature have turned their attention to the development of American theater as a point of entry into exploring questions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and national identity. In 1966, Hugh Rankin’s The Theater in Colonial America challenged narratives that had dismissed the country’s earliest theatrical experiments as unconnected to its process of nation-building. His work helped to pave the way for later studies by Jeffrey H. Richards (Theater Enough and Drama, Theatre, and Identity in the American New Republic), Heather Nathans (Early American Theatre from the Revolution to Thomas Jefferson), Odai Johnson (Absence and Memory in Colonial American Theatre), Jason Shaffer (Performing Patriotism: National Identity in the Colonial and Revolutionary American Theater), and Elizabeth Maddock Dillon (New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World, 1649–1849) to re-examine the relationship between the country’s colonial theater and its postwar culture. In 1968, historian David Grimsted produced the widely cited study, Melodrama Unveiled, one of the first in-depth investigations of the cultural work performed by American melodrama. Lawrence Levine’s Highbrow/Lowbrow invited theater scholars to re-examine relationships between supposedly “high” art forms, such as Shakespeare or opera, and the development of minstrelsy, burlesque, and parody in American culture. Subsequent works by Bruce McConachie (Melodramatic Formations) and Amy Hughes (Spectacles of Reform) invited historians to view these genres as barometers for gauging America’s stance on significant issues related to class relations, gender equality, and racial representation.

While mapping the national origins and cultural significance of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American theater has proved a substantial project, performance scholars have also increasingly turned their attention to how American theater has participated in ongoing civil rights struggles for members of traditionally underrepresented or marginalized communities. Researchers have documented long histories of contributions from African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American, and LGBTQ communities. Below are some of the many authors who have made a substantive contribution to rethinking what scholars mean when they say “American” drama.

Since the 1980s, theater historians and literary scholars have challenged perceptions about the role of African Americans in the formation of U.S. theatrical culture. Errol Hill and James V. Hatch’s magisterial survey of African American theatre (A History of African American Theatre) and their numerous edited collections of essays and plays have helped make the long-standing contributions of African American artists visible in the national canon. Subsequent studies have been able to focus in more narrowly on particular social and political movements or specific historical moments. For example, through their work on artists of the Harlem Renaissance through the Black Power movement, Harry Elam and David Krasner have shed new light on the way African American playwrights and performers have used theater as a vehicle for social and political change. Scholars Sandra L. Richards and Sandra D. Shannon have examined the impact of playwright August Wilson on the American canon. Within the last decade, dozens of new voices have joined the conversation about the complex ways in which African American identity has been represented on the national stage. These authors have paid particular attention to issues of embodiment and how “blackness” functions on the American stage. Those authors include: Robin Bernstein, Adrienne Macki Braconi, Daphne Brooks, Faedra Chatard Carpenter, Brandi Wilkins Catanese, Soyica Diggs Colbert, E. Patrick Johnson, Douglas A. Jones Jr., Marvin McAllister, Monica Ndounou, Jonathan Shandell, and Harvey Young.

As other previously marginalized groups have taken the stage, scholars have labored doggedly to document their contributions to American culture. Scholars including Brian Herrera, Patricia Herrera, Jorge Huerta, Irma Mayorga, Noe Montez, Jose Munoz, Ramon Rivera Servera, Diana Taylor, and Patricia Ybarra have helped to mark the impact of Latino artists on the development of American theater. Their work has challenged monolithic perceptions of Latino culture, creating space for explorations of queerness, color bias, and cross-border exchanges within Latino culture as well as among the other diverse populations of the United States.

Over the past thirty years, Jill Dolan, James Fisher, Eng Beng Lim, Kim Marra, David Roman, David Savran, Robert Schanke, Stacy Wolf, and many others have examined the ways in which LGBTQ citizens assert their rights in national politics as well as on the national stage. Moving away from considerations of LGBTQ citizens as victims, they have illuminated the critical role that discourses about sexuality play in shaping all aspects of national identity. More recently, Esther Kim Lee, Suk-Young Kim, Michael Malek Najjar, and Christy Stanlake have expanded the scope of American theater history through their studies of Native American, Asian American, and Arab American artists. Each has conjured the impact of diasporic performance on the construction of stereotypes and national imaginaries.

Further Reading

About Native Voices: Native Voices at the Autry.” Autry.

About.” Silk Road Rising.

Baker, Benjamin. A Glance at New York. London: Samuel French, n.d. (c. 1890s).Find this resource:

    Barker, James Nelson. The Indian Princess; or, La Belle Sauvage. In Early American Drama. Edited by Jeffrey H. Richards, 109–165. New York: Penguin, 1997.Find this resource:

      Bentley, Eric, ed. Thirty Years of Treason. Excerpts from Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938–1968. New York: Viking Press, 1971.Find this resource:

        Berkowitz, Joel and Anthony Dauber, eds. and trans. Landmark Yiddish Plays: A Critical Anthology. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006.Find this resource:

          Berlin, Irving (composer). “Annie Get Your Gun.” Performed by Ethel Merman, conducted by Stanley Black. Annie Get Your Gun. Decca Records, 2000, compact disc. Recorded in 1946.Find this resource:

            Bird, Robert Montgomery. The Gladiator. In Early American Drama. Edited by Jeffrey H. Richards, 166–242. New York: Penguin, 1997.Find this resource:

              Black, Cheryl. The Women of Provincetown, 1915–1922. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.Find this resource:

                Brooks, Daphne. Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

                  Brown, William Wells. The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom. Boston: R.F. Wallcut, 1858.Find this resource:

                    Chansky, Dorothy. Composing Ourselves: The Little Theatre Movement and the American Audience. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

                      Chansky, Dorothy. Domestic Labor, Dining, and Drama in American Theatre. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2015.Find this resource:

                        Colbert, Soyica Diggs. The African American Theatrical Body: Reception, Performance, and the Stage. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                          Daly, Augustin. Under the Gaslight. New York: Printed for the author, 1867.Find this resource:

                            Dunlap, William. A History of the American Theatre. New York: J. & J. Harper, 1832.Find this resource:

                              Elam, Harry. The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006.Find this resource:

                                Grimké, Angelina Weld. Rachel. In Black Theatre USA: Plays by African Americans, The Early Period, 1847–1938. Edited by James V. Hatch and Ted Shine. New York: Free Press, 1996.Find this resource:

                                  Hammerstein, Oscar, II (lyrics). Music by Richard Rodgers. “Oklahoma.” Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Oklahoma! MCA, 1993, compact disc. Recorded in 1943.Find this resource:

                                    Hammerstein, Oscar, II (lyrics). Music by Richard Rodgers. “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.” Performed by William Tabbert, directed by Joshua Logan. South Pacific. Columbia, 1998, compact disc. Recorded in 1949.Find this resource:

                                      Harrigan, Edward. The Mulligan Guard Ball. In Dramas from the American Theatre: 1762–1909. Edited by Richard Moody, 549–565. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1969.Find this resource:

                                        Hughes, Amy. Spectacles of Reform: Theater and Activism in Nineteenth-Century America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                                          Iizuka, Naomi. “To the Mountaintop: Naomi Iizuka.” Theatre Communications Group.

                                          Jackson, Shannon. Lines of Activity: Performance, Historiography, Hull-House Domesticity. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.Find this resource:

                                            Johnson, Jerah. “New Orleans’s Congo Square: An Urban Setting for Early Afro-American Culture Formation.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 32.2 (Spring 1991): 117–157.Find this resource:

                                              Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2013.Find this resource:

                                                Larson, Jonathan (composer). “What You Own.” Directed by Michael Greiff. RENT. Verve, 1996, compact disc. Recorded in 1996.Find this resource:

                                                  Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

                                                    Latina/o Theatre Commons.” HowlRound.

                                                    McAllister, Marvin. White People Do Not Know How to Behave at Entertainments Designed for Ladies and Gentlemen of Color. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.Find this resource:

                                                      McConachie, Bruce A. Melodramatic Formations: American Theatre and Society, 1820–1870. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992.Find this resource:

                                                        Murdock, John. The Beau Metamorphized, or the Generous Maid. Philadelphia: Printed by Joseph C. Charles, for the author, 1800.Find this resource:

                                                          Nathans, Heather S. Early American Theatre from the Revolution to Thomas Jefferson: Into the Hands of the People. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

                                                            Nathans, Heather S. Slavery and Sentiment on the American Stage, 1787–1861: Lifting the Veil of Black. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

                                                              Noah, Mordecai M. She Would be a Soldier, or The Plains of Chippewa. New York: Longworth, 1819.Find this resource:

                                                                O’Neill, Eugene. Anna Christie.

                                                                Osborne, Elizabeth A. Staging the People: Community and Identity in the Federal Theatre Project. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.Find this resource:

                                                                  Polster, Joshua E. Stages of Engagement: U.S. Theatre and Performance 1898–1949. New York: Routledge, 2016.Find this resource:

                                                                    Richards, Jeffrey, and Heather S. Nathans, eds. Oxford Handbook of American Drama. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

                                                                      Savran, David. Communists, Cowboys, and Queers: The Politics of Masculinity in the Work of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.Find this resource:

                                                                        Shipp, Jesse A. and Paul Laurence Dunbar. In Dahomey, a Negro Musical Comedy. In Black Theatre USA: Plays by African Americans, The Early Period, 1847–1938. Edited by James V. Hatch and Ted Shine, 63–85. New York: Free Press, 1996.Find this resource:

                                                                          Smith, Susan Harris. American Drama: The Bastard Art. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

                                                                            Young, Harvey, ed. The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012.Find this resource:


                                                                              (1.) John Murdock, The Beau Metamorphized, or the Generous Maid (Philadelphia: Printed by Joseph C. Charless, for the author, 1800), 37. Available online through subscription, Archive of America's Historical Imprints.

                                                                              (2.) James Nelson Barker, The Indian Princess; or, La Belle Sauvage, in Early American Drama, ed. Jeffrey H. Richards (New York: Penguin, 1997), 141.

                                                                              (3.) Barker, Indian Princess, 40.

                                                                              (4.) Jerah Johnson, “New Orleans’s Congo Square: An Urban Setting for Early Afro-American Culture Formation,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 32.2 (Spring 1991): 117–157.

                                                                              (5.) For more information on the history of the African Grove Theatre, see Marvin McAllister, White People Do Not Know How to Behave at Entertainments Designed for Ladies and Gentlemen of Color (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

                                                                              (6.) Mordecai M. Noah, She Would Be a Soldier, or The Plains of Chippewa (New York: Longworth, 1819), 65.

                                                                              (7.) Robert Montgomery Bird, The Gladiator, in Early American Drama, ed. Jeffrey H. Richards (New York: Penguin, 1997), 198.

                                                                              (8.) Benjamin Baker, A Glance at New York (London: Samuel French, n.d. [c. 1890s]), 4.

                                                                              (9.) Baker, A Glance at New York, 4.

                                                                              (10.) Bruce A. McConachie, Melodramatic Formations: American Theatre and Society, 1820–1870 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992), 145. Note that various accounts list a range of figures for the number killed during the riots. I have included the lowest estimate.

                                                                              (11.) Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 6.

                                                                              (12.) The scene is discussed extensively in the third chapter of Amy E. Hughes’s Spectacles of Reform: Theater and Activism in Nineteenth-Century America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012), 86–117.

                                                                              (13.) William Wells Brown, The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom (Boston: R.F. Wallcut, 1858), 28.

                                                                              (14.) Heather S. Nathans, Slavery and Sentiment on the American Stage, 1787–1861: Lifting the Veil of Black (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

                                                                              (15.) Hughes, Spectacles of Reform, 3.

                                                                              (16.) Augustin Daly, Under the Gaslight (New York: Printed for the author, 1867), 86.

                                                                              (17.) Daly, Under the Gaslight, front matter.

                                                                              (18.) Edward Harrigan, The Mulligan Guard Ball, in Dramas from the American Theatre: 1762–1909, ed. Richard Moody (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1969), 560.

                                                                              (19.) Harrigan, The Mulligan Guard Ball, 565.

                                                                              (20.) Joshua E. Polster, Stages of Engagement: U.S. Theatre and Performance 1898–1949 (New York: Routledge, 2016), 85.

                                                                              (21.) Shannon Jackson, Lines of Activity: Performance, Historiography, Hull-House Domesticity (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), 212.

                                                                              (22.) For more on the hibernicons, see Michelle Granshaw’s “The Hibernicon and Visions of Returning Home: Popular Entertainment in Irish America from the Civil War to World War I” (PhD diss., University of Washington, 2012).

                                                                              (23.) Joel Berkowitz and Anthony Dauber, eds. and trans., Landmark Yiddish Plays: A Critical Anthology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006), 41.

                                                                              (24.) Soyica Diggs Colbert, The African American Theatrical Body: Reception, Performance, and the Stage (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

                                                                              (25.) Daphne Brooks, Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 207–208.

                                                                              (26.) Jesse A. Shipp and Paul Laurence Dunbar, In Dahomey, a Negro Musical Comedy, in Black Theatre USA: Plays by African Americans, The Early Period, 1847–1938, eds. James V. Hatch and Ted Shine (New York: Free Press, 1996).

                                                                              (27.) Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” a paper read at the meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago, July 12, 1893, during the World Columbian Exposition.

                                                                              (28.) Cheryl Black, The Women of Provincetown, 1915–1922 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002).

                                                                              (29.) For examples of women’s suffrage dramas see: Bettina Friedl, ed., On to Victory: Propaganda Plays of the Woman Suffrage Movement (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987).

                                                                              (30.) Dorothy Chansky, Composing Ourselves: The Little Theatre Movement and the American Audience (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004). Also see Dorothy Chansky, Domestic Labor, Dining, and Drama in American Theatre (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2015).

                                                                              (31.) Eugene O’Neill, Anna Christie,

                                                                              (32.) Jonathan Shandell, “The Negro Little Theatre Movement,” in The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre, ed. Harvey Young (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 103–117.

                                                                              (33.) Angelina Weld Grimké, Rachel, in Black Theatre USA: Plays by African Americans, The Early Period, 1847–1938, eds. James V. Hatch and Ted Shine (New York: Free Press, 1996), 167.

                                                                              (34.) Hallie Flanagan testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1938. Quoted in Thirty Years of Treason. Excerpts from Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938–1968, ed. Eric Bentley (New York: Viking Press, 1971), 24–25.

                                                                              (35.) Elizabeth A. Osborne, Staging the People: Community and Identity in the Federal Theatre Project (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

                                                                              (36.) Oscar Hammerstein II, lyrics, music by Richard Rodgers, “Oklahoma,” directed by Rouben Mamoulian, recorded in 1943, in Oklahoma! MCA, 1993, compact disc.

                                                                              (37.) Irving Berlin, composer, “Annie Get Your Gun,” performed by Ethel Merman, conducted by Stanley Black, recorded 1946, in Annie Get Your Gun, Decca Records, 2000, compact disc.

                                                                              (38.) Oscar Hammerstein II, lyrics, music by Richard Rodgers, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” performed by William Tabbert, directed by Joshua Logan, recorded in 1949, in South Pacific, Columbia, 1998, compact disc.

                                                                              (39.) Mel Gussow, “Tennessee Williams on Art and Sex,” New York Times, November 3, 1975.

                                                                              (42.) David Savran, Communists, Cowboys, and Queers: The Politics of Masculinity in the Work of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992).

                                                                              (43.) Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2013), 10.

                                                                              (44.) Jonathan Larson, composer, “What You Own,” directed by Michael Greiff, recorded in 1996, RENT, Verve, 1996, compact disc.

                                                                              (45.) Naomi Iizuka, “To the Mountaintop: Naomi Iizuka,” Theatre Communications Group.

                                                                              (46.) Quoted in Heather S. Nathans, Early American Theatre from the Revolution to Thomas Jefferson: Into the Hands of the People (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 170.

                                                                              (47.) “About,” Silk Road Rising.

                                                                              (48.) “About Native Voices: Native Voices at the Autry,” available online on the Autry website.

                                                                              (49.) “Latina/o Theatre Commons,” HowlRound.

                                                                              (50.) Susan Harris Smith, American Drama: The Bastard Art (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997).