Pioneer Performances: Staging the Frontier

Pioneer Performances: Staging the Frontier

Pioneer Performances: Staging the Frontier

Pioneer Performances: Staging the Frontier

Synopsis

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.
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