Academic journal article Early American Literature

"Here Trust Your Eyes": Vision and Illusion at the Chestnut Street Theatre

Academic journal article Early American Literature

"Here Trust Your Eyes": Vision and Illusion at the Chestnut Street Theatre

Article excerpt

On December 12, 1810, a celebrated English actress named Mrs. Beaumont stepped to the front of the stage at Philadelphia's Chestnut Street Theatre and began to address the audience. The evening's main feature had just concluded: Hannah Cowley's The Belle's Stratagem, a popular British comedy about plotting lovers. Mrs. Beaumont had starred as Letitia, the lead dissembler. Now it was time to deliver the epilogue. "And you, my gentle sirs, wear visors too; / But here I'll strip you, and expose to view / Your hidden features," she warned the spectators. "First I point at you," she said to a "well-stuff'd waistcoat" (83). After declaring that the gentleman's generous physique concealed a tyrannical nature, she turned her eye on others seated in the boxes and pit:

   Sure 'tis enchantment! See, from ev'ry side
   The Masks fall off!--In charity I hide
   The monstrous features rushing to my view--
   Fear not, there, Grand Papa--nor you--nor you:
   For should I shew your features to each other,
   Not one amongst ye'd know his Friend, or Brother.
   'Tis plain, then, all the world, from Youth to Age,
   Appear in Masks--Here, only on the Stage;
   You see us as we are: Here trust your eyes;
   Our wish to please, admits of no disguise. (84) (1)

This was a clever way to conclude a performance that turned on the comedic pretenses of deception and revelation. The epilogue effectively charged the audience with practicing the very sorts of masquerades that had just appeared onstage. Yet it also acquitted the actors of any dishonesty, claiming entertainment as their only goal. However paradoxically, these lines represented acting as the condition that makes dissimulation visible and the theater as a site for exercising discernment. "Here," Mrs. Beaumont implores, "trust your eyes."

Just two weeks later, however, Mrs. Beaumont appeared in another play that upended this assurance of visual trust ("New-Theatre, Mr. Fennell's"). (2) In The Castle Spectre, a popular gothic drama set in Wales, illusionistic spectacle was the main attraction, not the acting of the minimal two-person cast. As described in contemporary playbills and newspapers, the production enticed audiences with elaborate scenery and special lighting effects. The settings shifted from a towering hall "enriched with ancient sculpture" to an armory with "piles of armor" and a bedchamber "ornamented with ancient portraits." Act 4 featured "transparent windows illuminated" in a chapel oratory, and act 5 included a "distant view of Conway Castle by moon light" ("New-Theatre," Gazette of the United States, 4 Apr. 1800). (3) Set designers achieved such illusions by projecting stationary or moving lights onto thinly painted cloths or "drops," a medium also known as a transparency. Designed to suspend the audience in an optical fantasy of faraway places, The Castle Spectre cultivated visual delight at the expense of visual discovery. Sensory absorption, not sharp discernment, was the lesson of this production.

Visual trust and visual pleasure: these distinct modalities of visual experience, exemplified by the two plays in which Mrs. Beaumont appeared, raise important questions about historical practices of looking at the early national theater. Like many other comedies of manners, The Belle's Stratagem dramatized schemes of social deception only to emphasize the significance of keen perception; like other productions that exploited visual spectacle, The Castle Spectre immersed spectators in a sensorium of illusion. How did audiences at the Chestnut Street Theatre navigate these seemingly contradictory demands on their attention? Did they succumb to the deceptions performed and displayed onstage, like the befuddled spectators so often mocked in eighteenth-century plays? Or did they indulge in the fictions of visual illusion while retaining a firm sensibility of their surroundings? The Abbe Jean Dubos, an Enlightenment philosopher, would have argued the latter point. …

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