Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama

By Marc Maufort | Go to book overview

The Semiotics of Difference:
Representations of Ethnicity and Nativism in Early Twentieth Century American Theatre

Beverly Bronson Smith

Writing about the post World War I era of American history, historian Sean Cashman observes that "the American people were essentially wary and suspicious of . . . alien cultures" ( Cashman 412). The shock of the war caused the nation to assume an isolationist mood, and old stock Americans insisted on conformity to their values and modes of behavior in addition to national loyalty. Those who sought to enter this country were now inspected for more than physical and mental health; they were also inspected for their acceptability into the hallowed ranks of "American." Such scrutiny brought into question the very nature of American society. The extensive programs of Americanization that followed seemed designed to marginalize rather than include, since they "came to mean that there was only one kind of acceptable American" ( Gleason46). Americanizers took for granted that true Americans understood American values. Thus the label "American," the physical characteristics and behaviors of "Americans," and the way language was used by "Americans" came to be instruments of hegemonic control and nativism, defined by John Higham as "intense opposition to an internal minority on the ground of its foreign (i.e. 'un-American') connections" ( Higham4).

Though theatre is not mentioned in the list of institutions usually associated with the spread of nativism, plays of this era become a demarcation of society's absorption with defining what an American was and what it was not, since they encapsulate verbal and nonverbal coding systems that helped to determine and maintain relationships, social divisions, and inequalities. This study will focus on nonverbal coding systems as powerful influences in accepting and perpetuating society's preoccupation with nativism. Such nativism was not necessarily advocated; it was simply there, blatantly and subtly, indicating the degree of its acceptance. The samples here are representative of pervasive nativism in a society which denied its power.

Typical of the exclusionary tendencies of nativism, Mrs. Patrick movements in Susan Glaspell The Outside signify more than simple time- wasting nervousness. The play's title indicates that spatial configurations are explored both diegetically and mimetically. Standing in the door of the life- saving shed, Mrs. Patrick is a symbol of restrictionist Americans as she toys with the sand that has piled up against the door, the transition point between

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