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Performing Patriotism

Performing Patriotism
National Identity in the Colonial and Revolutionary American Theater

Jason Shaffer

2007 | 240 pages | Cloth $65.00
American History / Cultural Studies
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Theater, Nation, and State in Early America
Chapter 2. Cato and Company: A Genealogy of Performance
Chapter 3. Free-Born Peoples: The Politics of Professional Theater in Early America
Chapter 4. A School for Patriots: Colonial College Theater
Chapter 5. Bellicose Letters: Propaganda Plays of the Revolution
Epilogue. Postrevolutionary Patriotism and the American Theater


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Over the long July Fourth holiday weekend in 2000, The Patriot, one of the action movie star Mel Gibson's periodic forays into costume drama, premiered in multiplex theaters across the United States. Like Gibson's earlier movie Braveheart (1995), which was based on the legend of the medieval Scottish rebel William Wallace, The Patriot features Gibson as an insurrectionist, a frontier partisan waging a guerilla war from the margins against the corrupt English imperial center. In The Patriot, Gibson plays an American revolutionary, Benjamin Martin, also known among the British officer corps as "The Ghost." Martin is loosely based on two American patriot officers from the southern colonies: Brigadier General Francis Marion, "The Swamp Fox," a legendarily elusive guerilla commander from South Carolina whose band of partisans was noted for its use of guerilla tactics against the British, and Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, a Virginia officer known for his physical courage, his common touch with enlisted soldiers, and his use of tactical deception in engineering the American victory at the battle of the Cowpens in 1781.

The film's depiction of the American Revolution articulates a series of dramatic and cultural conventions common in eighteenth-century America while also, perhaps quite unintentionally, reflecting a number of trends in scholarship of the Revolutionary era. Although The Patriot is indisputably a "popcorn" movie that takes significant liberties with early American history, its melodramatic revisions of that history yield some surprising connections to the ways that the participants in that history viewed themselves, as well as the ways that those who study them today view the Revolution and the culture that gave rise to it. The film is by no means a reliable document of Revolutionary history, but it captures many important elements of the mythology of the Revolution—both as that mythology was fashioned in the eighteenth century, and as it is refashioned now by scholars and purveyors of popular historical narratives.

While both of Benjamin Martin's historical models were enthusiastic partisans, Gibson's character, a South Carolinian planter with a modest estate and a member of the provincial assembly, is at best a reluctant revolutionary. He is a widower, the audience quickly learns, an essentially private man wholly devoted to his five children and his land (which he tills himself, aided, implausibly, by free black laborers). Like both Marion and Morgan, however, Martin is a veteran of the Seven Years' War, having fought in the southern conflict of 1760-61 known as "The Cherokee War." As soldiers in this gruesome campaign, Martin and his men massacred a combined force of French and Cherokees in retaliation for their having slain a group of British colonials, including women and children. Martin's retiring ways seem to stem, in no small part, from his lingering guilt over this incident, which he conceals from his children.

The war's impact on Martin and his secrecy about his violent past are emblematized by a tomahawk, which he keeps in a small chest under his bed. The tomahawk, when considered in light of the increasing importance to early Americanist scholarship of representations of Native Americans, also symbolizes the complex identity position occupied by both the fictional Martin and the real generation of Seven Years' War veterans that led the Continental Army, including George Washington. As a trophy taken from the defeated Cherokee enemy, the tomahawk identifies Martin as one of the victorious English while imputing to him some of the traditional Anglo-American republican virtues of stoicism and courage commonly associated by Europeans with Native Americans; as a painful reminder of Martin's own capacity for bloodthirsty violence, it marks him as a colonial, subject to the constant environmental pressure to turn "savage" that caused metropolitan Britons to view colonials with suspicion; as a weapon that Martin eventually turns against the British, it mirrors the appropriation of a "native" identity carried out by patriot activists beginning in the early 1770s as they sought an autochthonous "American" nationality through which to distance themselves from the British, thereby learning to think of themselves as "colonized rather than colonizers."

Despite its wealth of such symbolically powerful (yet largely incidental) historical details, The Patriot only rarely acknowledges the potent brew of competing allegiances and identities that its characters must balance in the performance of everyday life during a time of political crisis that yokes together the global and the local. The importance of the Seven Years' War to the origins of the Revolution is not touched upon, and non-Anglo-American peoples such as the Cherokee, the thirteen colonies' vast slave (and smaller free black) population, and even the French act chiefly as window dressing for the film's transatlantic feud between true-born Englishmen. The Patriot opens in mid-1775, after the outbreak of hostilities between colonials and British troops at Lexington and Concord in April of that year. Martin receives a summons to attend a meeting of the colonial assembly and rides off to Charleston; there, the assembly considers a request for troops and funds from the Continental Congress, and Charleston's streets flicker at night with blazing effigies burnt in political protests.

Martin, however, speaks out against the muster. He pointedly asks an old comrade-in-arms from the Cherokee War, now an emissary from the Congress (played by the grizzled Chris Cooper), "Why should I trade one tyrant three thousand miles away for three thousand tyrants one mile away?" and vows not to serve in an insurgency. Martin's political ambivalence, as displayed by both his libertarian rhetoric and his fear of his own capacity for violence, becomes the central obstacle that the plot must overcome in both its hero and its Martin/Gibson-identifying audience in order to impose a new "American" identity on the surviving cast members at the film's conclusion. Ironically, Martin's paradoxical question to his old comrade, which betrays a radical mistrust of government, also echoes a statement famously made by the Bostonian Tory Reverend Mather Byles, while observing a massive funeral procession for victims of the Boston Massacre.

In a surprising twist on the depictions of filial rebellion common to representations, both British and American, of the Revolution as a revolt of colonial "sons" against a mother country and a paternalist king, Martin's public adherence to his status as a private citizen enrages his eldest son, Gabriel (played by young heartthrob Heath Ledger). Accusing his father of cowardice, Gabriel enlists in the Continental Army. When Gabriel suddenly reappears at home, and on the run from the British after a battle near Martin's estate, Benjamin Martin can no longer maintain his neutralist stance. As Martin tends to both the British and the American wounded, the brutal British Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs) and his dragoons enter the scene, executing American troops, impressing Martin's free black laborers, capturing Gabriel, and killing Martin's second son, Thomas (Gregory Smith), in cold blood. (Tavington is an obvious stand-in for Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, a British dragoon infamous for offering no quarter in battle to the Continentals, and a fierce campaigner in Lord Cornwallis's assault on the Carolinas.) Before leaving, Tavington sets fire to Martin's house; Martin responds by breaking out his tomahawk and attacking the troop detachment guarding Gabriel, killing them to a man.

The grieving Martin subsequently joins the Continental Army, training his troops in unconventional tactics such as the intentional targeting of officers. (Martin's personal fighting style is unconventional for a European American as well: he uses his tomahawk—though only sparingly—on the battlefield, and throughout the film he melts down Thomas's prized collection of toy British soldiers for ammunition.) Tavington, in response to Martin's asymmetrical tactics, slaughters the families of Martin's men in a series of hideous (and sometimes completely fictional) war crimes—at one point he burns down a church filled with patriot sympathizers, including women and children—and kills Gabriel Martin, transforming the film into a proxy duel between Martin père and Tavington. This duel concludes during the film's climactic battle scene, an operatic replay of the battle of the Cowpens, where Martin kills Tavington in single combat as the American troops achieve a decisive victory over the British in the southern campaign.

The Patriot touches on a number of American mythologies: the complicated interactions between European and Native Americans, the uprising of the founding generation against monarchy, and the generic demands of late twentieth-century popular cinema. It also, somewhat surprisingly, holds a mirror up to the dominant form of commercial popular entertainment of the late colonial era: the colonial theater. The film, a text that seems fueled by both an ideological impulse and the profit motive, shares important features with many of the British plays that were popular among theater audiences in British North America between the Seven Years' War and the outbreak of the Revolution. These common features include Martin's initial reluctance to sacrifice his privacy and his family to enter the political fray of the Revolution and the symbolically freighted deaths of Martin's sons, who predecease their father by sacrificing themselves for the good of the patriot cause. The cosmopolitan culture of colonial South Carolina, and particularly the fondness of Charleston audiences for the theater, ties these eighteenth-century plays to Gibson's film both aesthetically and historically. Even the film's attempt to recast the multinational, multiracial conflict of the Revolution as a showdown between white Englishmen—despite the "Indian" undertones of Benjamin Martin—mirrors the racial and gender typecasting typical of the patriotic British dramas popular in the colonial theater, where displays of martial valor by property-holding Englishmen were the order of the day.

A South Carolinian assemblyman who attended the Charleston theater as tensions were escalating between Britain and the colonies during the spring of 1774—the last professional season played in North America until the early 1780s—would have been able to witness a number of plays that share key plot elements with The Patriot being performed by the American Company of Comedians and its actor-manager, David Douglass. The film's depiction of patriotism as the simultaneous guarding of private liberty and sacrificing of one's own flesh and blood for the public good bears a marked similarity to the political program of Joseph Addison's tragedy Cato (1713), the staunchly republican hero of which loses one of his sons in battle and commits suicide rather than surrender to Julius Caesar. Douglass staged this play, described as the most popular literary text in the colonies throughout the eighteenth century, in a performance specially commissioned by the Charleston Masons during the 1774 blockade of Boston in sympathy with the sufferings of the people of Massachusetts.

The spirit of military volunteerism permeates both The Patriot and Cato, and also The Recruiting Officer (1706), one of the most popular British comedies of the eighteenth century and a military-themed farce that Douglass staged by request for an audience of South Carolinian militia in March 1774. Several plays staged by Douglass during the 1774 Charleston season also feature a climactic episode of single combat between a "patriot" character similar to Martin, who risks his life for his country's good, and a remorseless, tyrannical figure akin to Tavington. These plays include Sir William Davenant's Restoration revision of Macbeth (1664), Colley Cibber's revised Richard III (1700), and Nicholas Rowe's Williamite heroic play Tamerlane (1701).

The depictions of patriotic virtue and grandly wicked tyranny in these plays won them widespread popularity in the colonies during periods of war against France in the mid-eighteenth century; it is a testimony to the pliability of the theater, the plays, and the libertarian and patriotic sentiments espoused in the plays that these texts remained popular among Americans (and often among British soldiers!) even as the political ties of the British Atlantic community were beginning to sunder in 1774. The themes of liberty, tyranny, and self-sacrifice that dominate these plays, as well as the character types (or "lines") that typify them—the patriot hero, the bloodthirsty tyrant, and the lamentable victim of tyrannical violence—still influence depictions of heroism in contemporary popular culture, particularly in works that reinvent history. These powerfully allegorical figures, in such revised guises as Benjamin Martin, a Cincinnatus in breeches called from his plow to save the republic; the bloodthirsty British officer, Tavington; and Martin's bookish, adolescent son Thomas, continue to haunt contemporary dramatic representations of patriotism, illustrating the lingering power of eighteenth-century narratives both dramatic and political. This perdurant popularity also reveals a particularly American lust for origins, a desire for imaginative and emotional links to the "founding" period of the nation's history—preferably featuring the sharply defined political morality of eighteenth-century tragedies and modern action films.

The connections between The Patriot and eighteenth-century performance culture do not end at the playhouse door. The film also presents a cornucopia of paratheatrical performances, from the street theater of effigy burnings and torch-lit processions to the fluent oratory of Benjamin Martin and the other South Carolina assemblymen. The study of popular ritual and public speaking in the eighteenth century, especially as these media relate to the rise of United States nationalism, has undergone a renaissance in recent years thanks to the efforts of theater historians and other scholars influenced by cultural studies and performance studies. In The Patriot occasions for public speech, such as the debate in the colonial assembly during which Martin refuses to fight, provide self-consciously theatrical moments that allow for expressions of civic idealism.

Several of the film's most arresting visual effects, meanwhile, feature staged civic processions and the use of straw and rag effigies common in the folk rituals of the transatlantic British community, such as Guy Fawkes Day and its American cousin, Pope Day. Before the debate scene, for instance, director Roland Emmerich presents a bustling nocturnal street scene, from which his camera retreats slowly to reveal a panoramic view of the colonial capital, with a crowd of torch-bearing patriot partisans in the street and burning effigies of British soldiers and politicians swinging from the city's lampposts, a tableau of political unrest. Similarly, during his military campaign Martin secures the release of American prisoners of war by constructing a group of British "captives" using a telescope, a group of scarecrows, and some captured British uniforms. This episode presents an exercise in both effective public speaking (as Martin convinces Lord Cornwallis to believe the scarecrows are British officers) and effigy making.

Moreover, the film's depictions of war resonate with Gillian Russell's exploration of the interactions between warfare and theatricality in the late eighteenth century: notably, Martin's climactic victory replays Daniel Morgan's tactical misdirection at the Cowpens, where he staged a retreat by "cowardly" colonial militia in order to draw Banastre Tarleton into a trap. The film's most powerful scenes underscore the importance of popular ritual and political oratory to students of eighteenth-century culture; of "theatrical" deception to military maneuvers; and of all these forms of performance to moviemakers anxious for a somewhat long-in-the-tooth Mel Gibson to seem "foxy" in the intellectual sense.

The similarities of plot between The Patriot and the dramas popular with colonial Americans and the film's underlying use of such popular performance practices as effigy burning produce a modern narrative that touches on several aspects of the fashioning of early American nationalism from the political culture of Great Britain. Martin and his fellow revolutionaries do not create their revolution ex nihilo: they adapt the culture of the British Atlantic community, including its performance traditions, to the American republican cause. In the words of Benedict Anderson, the militants of the imagined revolutionary community are "creole nationalists" who hold "virtually the same relationship to . . . European culture as the metropolitans" of the homeland, thus affording them "the political, cultural and military means for asserting themselves." Martin's speeches about freedom and tyranny, for instance, sound notes commonly heard in the patriotic plays of the eighteenth-century theater; they also pay homage to the influence on colonial politics of the British Commonwealth tradition and the parliamentary "Country party" opposition's romantic vision of "British liberty." As Martin wars with His Majesty's armed forces, his rhetoric echoes both the stage and the parliamentary chamber. Popular British dramas and the political ideas that influenced them proved to be equally legible and rhetorically useful to the politically opposed metropolitan Britons and colonials in their disputes over imperial policies throughout the eighteenth century.

I contend that this political literacy shared throughout much of the British Atlantic, along with the susceptibility of theatrical texts—especially those presenting political arguments—to appropriation and redeployment in nontheatrical settings, was a crucial element in the establishment of the practice of theatrical performance in the North American colonies. Eventually such appropriations of texts, both theatrical and polemical, helped to generate an American nationalism that used British culture against itself, invoking both the cultural affinity between the two nations and their irreconcilable political differences. This process of appropriation is realized physically in one of The Patriot's most striking motifs: Martin's smelting of his son's miniature effigies of British soldiers into pistol balls. The complex processes of cultural interchange that still prevail around the Atlantic rim, like the surprisingly porous nature of nations and states made evident in the secession of the North American colonies from Great Britain, undergird such comparatively young academic disciplines as performance studies and Atlantic studies. These new perspectives have drawn attention to previously overlooked aspects of eighteenth-century culture that inform both past and present, exerting an influence capable of shaping even a Hollywood fable of the American Revolution in surprising ways.

The pervasiveness in both eighteenth-century theatrical productions and political rhetoric of the themes of patriotism and tyranny, along with the recurring involvement of men like George Washington with both colonial and revolutionary politics and the colonial theater, guide my attempt to place the performance culture of British North America in the broader context of the politics of the British Atlantic. Because the colonial and Revolutionary periods feature rich traditions of professional and amateur theatrical performance, as well as a number of print and paratheatrical forms with attachments to the theater, the ensuing chapters have been arranged by performance media rather than by historical period. This approach, as outlined in the first chapter, allows for a consideration of multiple overlapping media and venues while tracing the overall shift in colonial performance culture from its use in fostering pro-British sentiment to the emergence of its potential for the redeployment of British culture for pro-American purposes during the Revolution.

The second chapter explains the importance to colonial and Revolutionary culture of Joseph Addison's Cato, which as already noted was a key part of the colonial repertoire. Addison's play, which has its roots in the War of the Spanish Succession, was greeted upon its premiere in Great Britain with universal accolades from both Whigs and Tories. This popularity translated into great commercial success both in Britain and the colonies, although in the latter venue, the play acquired a tinge of radicalism by its association with the "real Whig" writings of James Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. From Cato's popularity in the colonies springs a figure that I have dubbed the Catonic effigy, a self-sacrificing patriot of great histrionic proficiency and a central figure in the rhetoric of both British and American patriotism during periods of colonial warfare with the French and colonial resistance to British policies. The second chapter tracks the pervasive presence of Cato in the political literature of colonial print culture, while also analyzing a group of amateur performances of the play during the Revolutionary period, its intersection with a protest ceremony (known as a "liberty funeral") enacted by colonial patriot activists during the Stamp Act Crisis, and the use of the play by a number of important political figures to mold their public personae, including the executed American spy Nathan Hale, King George III, George Washington, and the revolutionary orator Patrick Henry.

Building on the interconnections between theatrical texts, the ideology of British liberty, and paratheatrical performance, the third chapter addresses more explicitly the relationship between professional theater and the nature of political communities in the British Atlantic by analyzing the history of a number of touring companies in the North American colonies. As the professional theater expanded in the colonies it developed a repertoire of plays, such as Cato, Richard III, and Tamerlane, which fluctuated in popularity during periods of war and political crisis and sometimes disappeared from the stage during periods of hostility to the theater. These plays also overlapped occasionally with colonial street theater, and allusions to them appeared frequently in the colonial newspapers and pamphlets where issues such as war, taxes, and the legitimacy of the colonial theater were debated. The cultural influence of the colonial stage extended far beyond the playhouse door.

The fourth chapter focuses on the neglected tradition of theatrical productions in eighteenth-century North American colleges. Collegiate performances, which were often closely monitored by school officials and occasionally took place despite outright bans on stage plays, were common from midcentury through the Revolutionary period. These theatricals provided students with an opportunity to practice public speaking and glean, from popular works of the British stage, a mastery over accepted forms for the public display of civic virtue. Foresighted educators such as the Reverend William Smith of the College of Philadelphia used the enactment of plays and dramatic dialogues to train their students as effective public speakers and patriotic Britons. Throughout the 1760s and 1770s, young men at colonial colleges and their teachers used drama in order to grasp the sociopolitical upheaval occurring around them, testing both old and new forms of citizenship on the stage.

The didactic practice of the colonial collegiate theater strongly influences the subject of the fifth chapter: a series of propaganda plays written by pro-American partisans during the 1770s. Three such plays, John Leacock's The Fall of British Tyranny and Princeton graduate Hugh Henry Brackenridge's The Death of General Montgomery and The Battle of Bunkers-Hill, were staged by students at Harvard in the early 1780s. Like collegiate theatricals, the propaganda plays of the Revolutionary period have remained largely unstudied, mentioned briefly in histories of American drama but rarely given the detailed scholarly attention they deserve as literary and theatrical expressions of their historical moment. Their topical recreations of current events as propagandistic tales of tyrannical British generals and politicians, self-sacrificing patriot activists, and heroic American officers employ not only snippets of popular British dramas, but also, frequently, the iconography of British military and political martyrdom itself. These plays dress the revolutionary efforts of American colonials in decidedly British borrowed robes, using the patriotic spectacle of the British theater and the spectacular violence of British political history to promote a radical "American" patriotism.

With the achievement of American independence and the subsequent ratification of the Constitution, a new problem arose in early American culture—how to join the spirit of the Revolution with the new social realities of the established federal republic and the emerging urban commercial order. The epilogue addresses the postwar representation of heroic American patriotism in the professional theater by analyzing Royall Tyler's The Contrast, the first major play written by an American author for the post-Revolutionary stage. By fusing the ostentatious republican forms of public speech and behavior of the Revolutionary period with the world of postwar commerce and the British comedy of manners, Royall Tyler attempts a revision of the earlier, and somewhat outmoded, cultural forms of the Revolutionary era—themselves largely fashioned from older British traditions—by inserting them into the urban milieu of the new republic. Such repetition with revision extends into both the past and future, as evidenced both by the enthusiasm of British North Americans for the appropriation and reinterpretation of metropolitan performance traditions and theatrical texts, and by our own ongoing reconstruction of the Revolution in the era of Mel Gibson, the bestsellers of Joseph J. Ellis, and the History Channel.

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