Edwin Forrest's Redding Up: Elocution, Theater, and the Performance of the Frontier

Article excerpt

On a cold New York City night in mid-December, 1829, a twenty-two-year-old actor named Edwin Forrest revolutionized both the art of public speaking and the history of American drama. The audience who came to the Park Theatre that night not only witnessed a star being born, but also experienced a seismic change in the way words conveyed meaning. Appearing onstage in John Augustus Stone's Metamora, or, The Last of the Wampanoags, Forrest was costumed in Indian tunic, pants, and moccasins, accoutered with tomahawk, club, and knife, and colored with a burnt umber concoction called "Bollamenia." (1) When he bounded onto the scene at the beginning of the play, ejaculating the first of the many Indian sounds he would utter that night, few knew that American culture would be hearing the echoes of his voice for years to come.

Forrest's singular performance as Metamora exists at the intersection between two distinct discourses: the discourse surrounding the voice, oratory, and elocution in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America and the discourse of the frontier epitomized by the antebellum American fascination with Indian plays. Forrest's "loud mouthed ranting style," as Walt Whitman dubbed it, (2) coupled with the actor's embodiment of a wild "noble savage," does more than conveniently yoke together these two historically disparate discourses, however. Forrest's "redding up"--his merging of a "savage" voice with a "savage" performance--opens up a critical space between these two discourses that helps us read the discursive limitations of both, even as it reveals the critical traction Forrest got from both discourses to put pressure on the way American culture made, and continues to make, sense of the frontier.

Critical discussions about the public sphere in the early republic have focused almost exclusively on those forms of written expression that articulated the nation. As Larzer Ziff states, "The establishment of the United States and the spread of print culture went hand in hand." (3) It was the written word--the "res publica of letters" as Michael Warner puts it (4)-that legitimated the nation and contributed to nation formation. "What was needed for legitimacy" summarizes Warner, "was the derivative afterward of writing rather than the speech of the people." (5) Warner's overt privileging of "writing" over "speech" has been challenged by Christopher Looby, who has recently asserted that "there is a distinct countercurrent in the literature of the period that valorizes the grain of the voice in addition to, or instead of, the silence of print." (6) In a pointed reversal of Ziff's proposition, in fact, Looby suggests that "vocal utterance has served, in telling instances, as a privileged figure for the making of the United States." (7)

Looby's work has broken the stranglehold that textuality has had in critical discussions of early republican nationalism, revealing the risks that privileging the text can cause. Yet, Looby's attention to the "vox Americana" suffers from a kind of critical myopia surrounding not textuality, or orality, but rather performance. Revealingly, John Adams lamented to his friend, Benjamin Rush, that "scenery has often if not commonly in all the business of life, at least of public life, more effect than the characters of the dramatis personae or the ingenuity of the plot. Recollect within your own times. What but the scenery did thus? or that? or the other? Was there ever a coup de theatre that had so great an effect as Jefferson's penmanship of the Declaration of Independence?" (8) Adams's "antitheatrical prejudice"--his insistence that theater is merely scenery--dovetails nicely with the impatient jealousy he felt towards Jefferson's seemingly effortless creativity: both theater and Jefferson, Adams snipes, deserve our contempt. Adams continued his tirade about the Declaration of Independence, confessing that he always considered it a "theatrical show" and that "Jefferson ran away with all of the stage effect of that . …