Pioneer Performances: Staging the Frontier

Pioneer Performances: Staging the Frontier

Pioneer Performances: Staging the Frontier

Pioneer Performances: Staging the Frontier


The Wild West was popular with American audiences long before the appearance of the Hollywood western. From 1829 to 1881, playgoers throughout the nation applauded frontier dramas that celebrated conventional American values like rugged individualism and the ideology of Manifest Destiny. Yet, as Pioneer Performances shows, a more subversive cultural agenda often worked within the orthodox framework of this popular drama. Drawing on a range of plays and public entertainments, Matthew Rebhorn uncovers the heterodox themes in the nineteenth-century stage, ultimately revealing the frontier as a set of complex performative practices imbued with a sense of trenchant social critique.

The dramatis personae of Rebhorn's study includes Buffalo Bill Cody; Gowongo Mohawk, a cross-dressing Native American performer; T.D. Rice, the blackface minstrel who created the role of Jim Crow; Edwin Forrest, the biggest star of the nineteenth-century stage; and Dion Boucicault, an expatriate Irish playwright who penned a sophisticated critique of race relations in the American South. In addition to this colorful cast of characters, works by lesser-known figures like James Kirke Paulding, Augustin Daly, and Joaquin Miller serve to illustrate the complex interpretations of the frontier on the American stage. With each case, Rebhorn demonstrates the multifaceted, politically charged nature of nineteenth-century drama.

Closing with a coda that considers latter-day representations of the frontier, such as in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain and the staged photo opportunities on George W. Bush's Texas ranch, Rebhorn reveals the lasting impact of the genre and the performative practices it first introduced on the American stage. Drawn from in-depth research in theater history, this study illustrates how the frontier was-and still is-defined in performance.


One of the most provocative moments in the story of the American frontier and in the history of American performance never actually occurred, though it easily might have. Frederick Jackson Turner, the historian most closely identified with the frontier throughout the twentieth century, and William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the sensational performer who essentially invented the western as a performative genre, were both in Chicago in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exposition. It was at this same cultural event that Turner delivered his famous lecture on the closing of the American frontier—the essay that would help crystallize what has become known as the Turner Thesis—while not half a mile from the midway, Buffalo Bill was performing in his celebrated show, Wild West.

Turner’s ideas about the frontier were shared, of course, by a number of other nineteenth-century historians. Francis Parkman, for instance, had penned an eight-volume history of his own encounters and observations on the Oregon Trail, starting before the Civil War and with the last volume published just a year before Turner’s address. “Like George Bancroft before him,” Joy S. Kasson relates, “Parkman worked within a framework that celebrated the triumph of Anglo-Saxon conquest and saw English, and later American, domination of North America as a story of the progress of civilization over savagery and the extension of freedom over the continent.” Even amateur historians, like Theodore Roosevelt, had expounded on the frontier’s symbolic values in his four-volume The Winning of the West . . .

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