Racism in 19th Century Theater

The 19th century was a time for artistic and cultural innovation just as much as it was industrial. With the opening and renovations of playhouses from The Walnut in Philadelphia to The Park in New York, theatre was turning from a bottom class way of passing time to an art form middle and upper class patrons were drawn too as well. Early on, there was no inherent ‘American’ play. Like much of the culture at the time, England and Europe was looked to for theatre, which is why Shakespeare and other European melodramas and romantic plays dominated the scene. However, after the Civil War and even before with the election of Andrew Jackson,nationalistic themes and feelings swept the country and it was portrayed in the theatre as a result. Art is a representation of the time, and prior to the Civil War, a major exploit in the entertainment industry was the ‘Indian’ character. Meant to exhibit a generalized view of native americans, the ‘Indian’ character figure was often misrepresented in racially insensitive ways. James Nelson Baker is credited for writing the first play that includes native americans in his work The Indian Princess. This play is considered to be a precursor to the Pocahontas story that is later known to be seen as an american classic. The Indian Princess is a groundbreaking play, for including native americans as main characters but does so in a way that is meant to overshadow the horrific and negative impacts of colonialism onto the natives. Pocahontas is seen in the play as the spiritual and exotic figure who can heal the wounded and ill soldiers, and brokers peace and a solidarity between her people and the english. This creates a false narrative of how the interactions between the natives and the settlers happened. Myron Matlaw comments in his critique of 19th century plays that

“Over fifty such ‘Indian’ plays appeared before the Civil War, and they remained popular”.

American culture and more specifically american theatre in the 19th century always had a racialized character, the only thing that change who was portrayed was the Civil War. Before the Civil War, President Jackson’s policies and the conflicts with native tribes made the Indians an easy target and it was the public sentiment gave playwrights the go ahead. However after the Civil War, racial angst and hatred transitions from Indians to the black community, which is why we see the rise of the ‘blackface’ performances. Eric Lott describes blackface minstrelsy as something

“the culture that embraced it, we assume, was either wholly enchanted by racial travesty or so benighted”.

juba-vauxhall

Having real African Americans perform and take on legitimate roles on the stage during the 19th century would have been unimaginable and very likely illegal too. It was not until William Henry Lane, better known as his Master Juba, would be the first black performer to actually take to the stage and wow audiences with his extravagant and masterful tap dancing shows.

The people, the audience to these plays and performances, needed their beliefs about race represented in their everyday entertainment, and this came through the incorporation of exaggerated and racialized characters in the 19th century theatre scene.

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