Academic journal article American Studies

PERFORMING THE TEMPLE OF LIBERTY: Slavery, Theater, and Popular Culture in London and Philadelphia, 1760-1850

Academic journal article American Studies

PERFORMING THE TEMPLE OF LIBERTY: Slavery, Theater, and Popular Culture in London and Philadelphia, 1760-1850

Article excerpt

PERFORMING THE TEMPLE OF LIBERTY: Slavery, Theater, and Popular Culture in London and Philadelphia, 1760-1850. By Jenna M. Gibbs. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. 2014.

Jenna M. Gibbs's Performing the Temple of Liberty is a carefully researched and clearly written study of the role theatrical and other popular performances of race played in debates over slavery and individual rights in London and Philadelphia from the mideighteenth century through the mid-nineteenth century. With reference to a deep archive and a wealth of secondary sources (helpfully cataloged in an appended "Essay on Sources"), Gibbs spins a convincing transatlantic and intertextual account of the inherently political work of the theatre in an era that saw the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery itself in the British empire and the United States. Gibbs joins a growing number of cultural historians and literary critics who argue that the theatre in this period did not hold a mirror up to the debates over chattel slavery and racial equality so much as it staged those debates, marshaled political constituencies, and shaped the popular understanding of race in enduring ways.

Performing the Temple of Liberty is divided into three sections centered on three periods (1760s-1810s, 1820s-1830s, and 1830s-1840s) and on three sets of interrelated cultural figures: Britannia, Columbia, the Temple of Liberty, and the African supplicant; the blackface minstrel and transatlantic travels; and the blackface minstrel and the revolutionary hero. Within this structure, Gibbs treats a wide range of dramatic productions-from Isaac Bickerstaffe's The Padlock (1768), to mid-nineteenth-century adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852)-and associated genres, including (among others) pageantry, popular song, oratory, scientific treatises, etchings, cartoons, broadsides, and reviews. The combination of these established what Gibbs describes as an evolving, ideologically elastic "lexicon of recognizable meanings and symbols" (5) for debates over slavery on both sides of the Atlantic. …

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