American Drama, 1789-1852
Key Formal Terms:
Comedy: Originally, in the Middle Ages, a narrative poem that ended happily, in distinction to a tragedy. In contemporary usage a play or other literary composition written to amuse the audience by appealing to a sense of superiority over the characters depicted. Realistic, concerned with common human foibles. In the end, problems are resolved, order is restored, and the outcome is positive. Comedy can be anarchic and satirical, an effective vehicle for political argument. Many comedies feature the marriage plot, which concludes with lovers entering matrimony.
Malapropism: the comical misuse of language. A staple of comedy, farce, and elements of minstrelsy.
Melodrama: (“song-drama”) a popular form of sensational drama characterized by stark differences between good/evil and emotional exaggeration.
Satire: The literary art of ridiculing a folly or vice in order to expose or correct it. The object of satire is usually some human frailty; people, institutions, ideas, and things are all fair game for satirists. Satire evokes attitudes of amusement, contempt, scorn, or indignation toward its faulty subject in the hope of somehow improving it. See also irony, parody.
Sentimentality (from the Bedford Glossary of Literary Terms): A pejorative term used to describe the effort by an author to induce emotional responses in the reader that exceed what the situation warrants. Sentimentality especially pertains to such emotions as pathos and sympathy; it cons readers into falling for the mass murderer who is devoted to stray cats, and it requires that readers do not examine such illogical responses. Clichés and stock responses are the key ingredients of sentimentality in literature. See also cliché, stock responses.
Note the absolutely negative assessment of sentimentality. Audiences of Uncle Tom’s Cabin would, for the most part, not have agreed with this characterization.
The strongly Puritan sentiments of settlers in North America prohibited the development of theatre until the early 18th century, when a number of English actors arrived in the South and began staging plays in temporary venues. The first theaters were built in Williamsburg, Va. (c. 1716), and Charleston, S.C. (1730). By the mid-1730s a number of theaters had opened in New York, and in 1752 the first visiting company from London performed in Williamsburg.
Although there was no lack of enthusiasm for developing an indigenous American theatre at the end of the 18th century, the plays written and produced during that period proved lifeless and derivative, often little more than adaptations of English successes. Thomas Godfrey’s Neoclassical tragedy The Prince of Parthia (1767) is often considered the first play by an American, but recognizably American characters did not appear on stage until Royall Tyler’s The Contrast (1787), the first American comedy. Tyler’s play introduced a favourite theme of early American drama: the triumph of native honesty and worth over foreign sham and affectation.
Before and after independence (1782), several legislatures in New England tried on moral grounds to prohibit theatrical performances. To combat this, one touring company announced its presentation of Shakespeare’s Othello as “a moral dialogue in five acts.” By the end of the century, however, professional theatre was well established and such groups as the American Company were giving regular seasons.
The growth of the early American theatre owed more to its actors than to its dramatists. In the early decades of the 19th century, the finest English actors, notably Edmund Kean, William Charles Macready, and Charles Kemble, visited the United States and provided a stimulus for the local actors with whom they worked. Before long, the gesture was returned when such American actors as Edwin Booth, Edwin Forrest, and Charlotte Saunders Cushman appeared with some success on the London stage. Forrest, whose acting was characterized by muscular strength and great vocal power, was perhaps the first to popularize the virile outdoor image cultivated by many American actors ever since. His most famous role, Spartacus in Robert Bird’s Gladiator (1831), was specially written for him. The Booths were an eminent acting family: Junius Brutus Booth had acted with Edmund Kean, and his son Edwin with Irving, but they achieved notoriety when another son, John Wilkes Booth, assassinated Abraham Lincoln in 1865.
By the middle of the 19th century, the number of theatres in the United States had multiplied. Many of them were based on English models and offered a high standard of comfort and luxury. Detailed historical accuracy in setting and costume first attracted attention in Charles Kean’s visiting production of Shakespeare’s King John (1846). The new box settings (three solid walls to suggest a room instead of the traditional side wings and backcloth arrangement) began to be used in Edwin Booth’s theatre from 1869, after which realistic staging became increasingly popular. This trend was stimulated by the introduction of gas lighting about 1825 and of electric lighting about 1885.
Plays are “sucked out of the Devills teates to nourish us in ydolatrie, hethenrie, and sinne.”
— Philip Stubbes
Theaters are responsible for “emptying the churches, aiding the Pope,… and corrupting maidens and chaste wives, and providing a market place for harlots and their customers.”
Anyone guilty of producing or attending “such rude and riotous sports and practices as prizes, stage plays, and masques” will be sentenced to hard labor.
1665: Ye Bare and Ye Cubb performed in Virginia. “This is the earliest record of English-language theatrical activity on the North American continent” (Vaughn 1).
1700: Pennsylvania Assembly bans all “stage plays, masks, revels” and other “rude and riotous sports,” the first of prohibitions throughout the colonies against drama.
1750: General Court of Massachusettes passes “An Act to Prevent Stage-Plays, and other Theatrical Entertainment.”
April 24, 1767: Thomas Godfrey’s The Prince of Parthia, the first professionally produced play by a “native” American, is acted in Philadelphia.
October 20, 1774, the Continental Congress convened and passed a recommendation in its Articles of Association—that the colonists “discountenance and discourage all horse racing and all kinds of gaming, cock fighting, exhibitions of shows, plays and other expensive diversions and entertainments.” Still, throughout the Revolution, “pamphlet plays”– political pieces usually in the form of a dialog– are published and performed.
April 16, 1787: The Contrast by Royall Tyler is performed at the John Street Theater in New York. It is the first comedy by an American born playwright to be produced professionally.
ca. 1828: Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy Jim Crow” Rice begins to perform in blackface. He develops a song-and-dance routine in which he impersonated an old, crippled slave, dubbed Jim Crow. The routine achieves immediate popularity, and throughout the 1830’s Rice has many imitators.
1833: American Anti-Slavery Society founded.
1843: Dan Emmett’s Virginia Minstrels, the first blackface troupe, debuts at New York’s Bowery Amphitheatre.
1845: Anna Cora Mowatt’s Fashion premiers on March 24 in New York.
1846: Mexican War
1848: Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention
1849: Gold Rush
1850: Fugitive Slave Act
1852: Aiken’s dramatization of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin premiers.
The Yankey in London: Being a Series of Letters Written by an American Youth, etc. (Royall Tyler)
The Early Republic:
Republican Virtue and the Theater
The Contrast by Royall Tyler
The play’s indebtedness to Restoration drama, particularly Sheridan’s School for Scandal. Tyler briefly an officer in the Continental army, later involved in Lincoln’s attack on Shays. Vermont Supreme Court.
Jonathan, the Yankee: rustic, naive, comical, moral yet passionate. A foil for the un-republican (European) decadence of the other characters. The figure of Brother Jonathan a precursor to Uncle Sam. Links to the frontiersman (Crockett). Larger than life. The figure of the Yankee a stock theatrical type with a long half-life. Cf. Mowatt’s Fashion and the character of Mr. Tiffany.
Jonathan’s remarks on why he did not participate in Shays’s Rebellion indicate the time for unruliness has come to an end.
Col. Manly: As in manliness (vs. masculinity). A gender identity that has less to do with the male body and its appetites than a certain moral stature. To be manly is to have a well-developed character, to possess the requisite comportment. An idealization of manhood which is interesting to compare with contemporary variants.
A fairly gentle satire, in which only a few of the characters appear to be irredeemable.
Jessamy and Jonathan: American frankness and integrity versus European polish and duplicity.
Van Rough: “mind the main chance”– indicates a Dutch-flavored materialism?
Precariousness of national identity at this early stage seen in the figure of Billy Dimple.
Which character/s represent American English?
Meta-thematics: Is this play in one sense about the difficulty of creating American Drama itself? The borrowed form of School for Scandal hybridized with American characters who have not yet solidified as archetypes.
Staging republican virtue. Establishing a national identity, enacting it onstage. Why a comedy rather than a tragedy? The comic mode is an ascendant one vs. the tragic, which is a narrative of decline. Comedies, as we have seen often end in marriage, and they follow a formula: an initial situation, disarray and confusion, resolution.
Anna Cora Mowatt’s Autobiography.
Fashion by Anna Cora Mowatt
Background: From 1837 to 1840 Mowatt was abroad for her health, and from Europe she contributed articles to Godey’s Lady’s Book and other magazines. In 1841 she determined to pursue a career as an author and actress. She gave a successful series of poetry readings in Boston, New York, and other cities and, under the pseudonym “Helen Berkley,” wrote for the fashionable magazines. She also produced biographies; several volumes on cooking, needlework, and other domestic topics; and two novels, The Fortune Hunter (1844) and Evelyn (1845). Her first successful play, Fashion; or, Life in New York, a social satire for which she is chiefly remembered, opened in New York City in 1845.
Zeke/Adolphus would have been performed by a white actor in blackface. Note the similarity in dialect between Zeke and Millinette. Two characters who are not, according to the cultural logic of the day, “American.” They also mistake the trappings of wealth for what is truly important in life. Their inability to understand the necessity of virtue is expanded upon by the ridiculous Mrs. Tiffany.
Adam Trueman as the Yankee figure, one who suggests that America’s future (already) lies in its past (the Revolution).
The revelation at the end of the play: AT is Gertrude’s grandfather! And he’s rich! Gertrude marries Col. Howard, Seraphina is prevented from marrying Joliemaitre, who returns to Millinette. All relationships reach closure. Mrs. Tiffany is reined in by her husband, who follows Trueman’s advice and vows to go back to the country.
Another comedy. Satirizing the pretensions of a rising American bourgeoisie and the deleterious effects of affectation and Fashion. Will American turn aristocratic?
Mowatt also raises the issue of economy– specifically the cultural effects of capitalism. Mr. Tiffany began as a simple peddler and rose to the position of a Merchant. His shady dealings in finance have placed him in an awkward position that Snobson exploits.
Count Joliemaitre as the ersatz aristocrat whose origins turn out to be wholly plebian.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture, a website from UVA.
“Baker’s Darkey Plays” published 1903.
Monarchs of Minstrelsy, from Daddy Rice to Date, published 1911.
UCT: Vitagraph 1910
UCT: American Mutoscope 1903
Atlanta-based group Jim Crow’s “Bandits” (1999)
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by George L. Aiken
The novel by Stowe was serialized in the National Era, an abolitionist journal, in June 1851. In April 1852 it was published in book form (2 vols.) and sold 10,000 copies in the first week, 300,000 by year’s end. Absence of copyright laws meant that the novel was fair game for playwrights. CW Taylor’s version opened at the National Theater in NY in August 1852, though it lacked the characters of Eva, Topsy, and St Clare in addition to having a happy ending. The scene with Eva crossing the Ohio River from ice floe to ice floe was immensely popular and became a standard feature of subsequent productions.
George Aiken’s version was well regarded by Stowe herself because it was a more comprehensive treatment of the novel. Hugely successful: 100 performances in Troy Museum, over 300 performances at the National Theater in NYC. With this success, “Tom plays” began to proliferate, including HJ Conway’s adaptation at Barnum’s American Museum which featured TD Rice as Uncle Tom.
Note the modulation from lachrymose scenes to lighter ones.
Topsy’s scenes, and Gumption Cute’s (the play’s Yankee), are meant to function as comic relief.
UTC would not have been possible without the advent and great popularity of Blackface Minstrelsy.
From Eric Lott’s Love and Theft:
“When a blackfaced GC Germon made his entrance in the role of Uncle Tom, the Times reported, the audience geared up for a laugh, for he had ‘that accent which, in the theater, is associated always with the comic.’” (217).
Against popular notions of the races as fundamentally and irrevocably distinct in the 1840s and 1850s, the “romantic racialism” of the North suggested that racial differences extended beyond the “natural” subordination of African Americans to include the idea that Blacks also possessed qualities superior to those ofwhites. African-Americans, according to this form of racial paternalism, were child-like and unjustly taken advantage of by slavery. They were pitiable, deserving of care and oversight.
“‘The African is so affectionate, imitative and docile,’” wrote William Ellery Channing, “‘that in favorable circumstances he catches much that is good’” (103). Against their simplicity, a quality supposed to confer on them a status of “natural Chrisitans” Harriet Beecher Stowe juxtaposed “the hard and dominant Anglo-Saxon race” (Gossett).
The play as a series of allegorical tableaux, a set of holy pictures. To imbue the events of the play with a virtually sacralized charge.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin was, in almost any terms one can think of, the most important book of the century. It was the first American novel ever to sell over a million copies and its impact is generally thought to have been incalculable. Expressive of and responsible for the values of its time, it also belongs to a genre, the sentimental novel, whose chief characteristic is that it is written by, for, and about women. In this respect, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not exceptional but representative. It is the summa theologica of nineteenth-century America’s religion of domesticity, a brilliant redaction of the culture’s favorite story about itself—the story of salvation through motherly love. Out of the ideological materials at their disposal, the sentimental novelists elaborated a myth that gave women the central position of power and authority in the culture; and of these efforts Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the most dazzling exemplar.”
“The power of a sentimental novel to move its audience depends upon the audience’s being in possession of the conceptual categories that constitute character and event. That storehouse of as “gumptions includes attitudes toward the family and toward social institutions; a definition of power and its relation to individual human feeling; notions of political and social equality; and above all, a set of religious beliefs that organizes and sustains the rest. Once in possession of the system of beliefs that undergirds the patterns of sentimental fiction, it is possible for modern readers to see how its tearful episodes and frequent violations of probability were invested with a structure of meanings that fixed these works, for nineteenth-century readers, not in the realm of fairy tale or escapist fantasy, but in the very bedrock of reality.”
The Breakdown: legs apart, hop up, come down with one knee bent.
First on de heel tap, den on de toe,
Ever time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow.
Wheel about and turn about and do jis so,
And every time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow.
Initially, the minstrel show was comprised of a group of blackfaced white minstrels whose material caricatured the singing and dancing of African Americans. It was popular in England as well as the United States, peaking between 1850 and 1870. The form gradually declined, eventually disappeared from the professional theatres, and became purely a vehicle for amateurs. Although its influence was evident in vaudeville, radio, television, and motion pictures in the 20th century, its chief impact came through its folk music and dances, which made permanent contributions to American culture.
The father of the American minstrel show was Thomas Darmouth Rice, popularly known as “Jim Crow.” He was an early African American impersonator whose art created a vogue for blackfaced minstrelsy. The pioneer company, the Virginia Minstrels, a quartet headed by Daniel Emmett , first performed in 1843. Other noteworthy companies were Bryant’s, Campbell’s, and Haverly’s, but the most important of the early companies was the Christy Minstrels, who played on Broadway for nearly 10 years; Stephen Foster wrote songs for this company.
The format of the minstrel show– in the beginning in two parts, later in three– was established by the Christy company and changed little thereafter. In part one the performers were arranged in a semicircle, with the interlocutor in the centre and the end men—Mr. Tambo or Brother Tambo, who played the tambourine, and Mr. Bones or Brother Bones, who rattled the bones—at the ends. The interlocutor, in whiteface, usually wore formal attire; the others, in blackface, wore gaudily colored swallow-tailed coats and striped trousers. The program opened with a chorus, often as a grand entrance, and at the conclusion of the song the interlocutor gave the command, “Gentlemen, be seated.” Then followed a series of jokes between the interlocutor and end men, interspersed with ballads, comic songs, and instrumental numbers, chiefly on the banjo and violin. The second part, or olio (mixture or medley), consisted of a series of individual acts that concluded with a hoedown or walk-around in which every member did a specialty number while the others sang and clapped. The third part consisting of a farce, burlesque, or comic opera– usually set at on a plantation.
Minstrel troupes composed of African American performers were formed after the Civil War. Some, like the Hicks and Sawyer Minstrels, had black owners and managers; some, including Callendar’s Consolidated Spectacular Colored Minstrels, were popular in both the United States and England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Initially these were all-male companies, including male alto and soprano singers; the larger black minstrel shows included bands of multitalented instrumentalists to play marches for the troupe’s parades in the daytime and perform string accompaniments for the evening shows. In addition to some music by Stephen Foster, their repertoire featured music by black composers such as James Bland, a popular singer-banjoist who wrote some 700 songs, including “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.” In general, these minstrel shows were the only theatrical medium in which gifted black performers of the period could support themselves. A few of the larger companies employed both black and white performers. By the 20th century, women also appeared in minstrel shows, and the great blues singers Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were both minstrel performers early in their careers.
At the height of their popularity, from the 1840s-1860s minstrel shows were the music videos of their day, a pervasive feature of cultural life. Considered to be the first distinctively American form of popular culture, blackface minstrelsy’s origins extend back to Catharine Market in New York, when slaves and freemen delivering goods for sale took the opportunity to dance and perform to crowds for tips. Their body English, distinctive and appealing, caught the attention of many, especially men such as TD Rice and Dan Emmett, who borrowed (expropriated) those moves, sounds, and gestures for use in their own performances. By the late 1820s and early 1830s white male performers were essentially imitating black performers and in the process constructing rather than simply registering “blackness.”
“Up to the Civil War, ‘Jim Crow’ meant the opposite of what it indicates today. ‘Jim Crow’ then referred to free and runaway African Americans moiling together with volatile European Americans…. before the concept of ‘Jim Crow’ stood for America’s justly despised segregation laws, ti first referred to a very real cross-racial energy and recalcitrant alliance between blacks and lower-class whites. That’s what the trickster Jim Crow organized and represented: a working-class integration– a jumping, dizzy Jim Crow movement. And that’s what those who proposed segregation laws were determined to outlaw” (Lhamon viii).
“The images of black humanity conjured by the earliest Jim Crow materials are broad, subtle, street-sophisticated, frequently slyly learned, and always complexly human. They are funny; they show good reason for their original popularity. Most startling of all in these plays and lyrics by white men is the creative power that the black characters evince. Jim Crow, Ginger Blue, and Bone Squash are never on the edge of the composition, as such figures were in earlier paintings and literature by whites that touched on blacks’ plight until Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (in 1851-2) and Melville’s ‘Benito Cereno’ (1855) scrambled to catch up with blackface activity in their era’s popular theater. These early blackface plays were not onlya resource for fiction and polite theatre, but also a model that other forms tried to bring back alive.”
“Americans quite early fused their anxiety about slavery with their celebrations of supposed black forms. Trying to enact this diagnostic Atlantic trauma is what made Irish immigrants like Dan Emmett play at being black; Ukranian Jewish immigrants like Al Jolson black up and sing Mammy songs; the Gershwin brothers compose a folk opera about crippled Porgy and addicted Bess; Memphis boys like Elvis take up Little Richard’s line of work (which Penniman learned in a minstrel show, doing a transvestite act called Princess Lavonne); and Puerto Ricans in the Bronx (like Big Punisher) and trailer park kids from Detroit (like Eminem) rap in rhyme. Spike Lee’s summary of the problem in Bamboozled (2000) revealingly ends in the violence and self-loathing that stems from this self-fulfilling circle of blackface hate” (x).
The early stages of Blackface Minstrelsy were thus the most open to possibility. In the antebellum years, Blackface had yet to congeal as a form. As African-Americans began to “blacken up” with burnt cork the nature of minstrelsy changed. The end of the Civil War and the failure of Reconstruction saw the decline of minstrelsy and in its surviving forms, cruder, harder bigotry. The bottom line here is that Blackface was always ambivalent. It put a distorted image of black people in the minds of whites even as it introduced many of those same whites to some version of black styles and idioms. It was also instrumental in establishing boundaries for what counted as white itself. In other words, by performing “blackness” whites laid out the dimensions of “whiteness”.
Frederick Douglass on the Minstrel Show:
“It is something gained when the colored man in any form can appear before a white audience; and we think that even this company, with industry, application, and a proper cultivation of their taste, may yet be instrumental in removing the prejudice against our race. But they must cease to exaggerate the exaggerations of our enemies; and represent the colored man rather as he is, than as Ethiopian Minstrels usually represent him to be. They will then command the respect of both races; whereas now they only shock the taste of the one, and provoke the disgust of the other.”
The theater: “In the gallery and in the pit, women nursed babies, men spit tobacco juice on the floor, told jokes, cracked peanuts, ate lunches, and drank liquor. They stampted their feet in time to the msic and sag along, sporadically hollering back and forth to each other” (Toll 11).
“In the 1830’s, when all theatergoers still attended the same theater, a typical evening’s entertainment consisted of a full-length play, whose acts were interspersed with variety specialities– dances, popular songs, black-faced acts, jugglers, acrobats, trained animals, and novelties like a ‘Monkey Man'” (Toll 18).
The basic structure of the Minstrel Show:
Three acts. In the first dancers and singers come on stage to crack jokes, sing and dance. The second act features various entertainments such as the stump speech. The final act would have a skit, often located on a plantation.
Stock figures: Zip Coon, Jim Crow, Ginger Blue, Bone Squash. The hayseed and the dandy.
Notes on Blackface Performance “Blackface Minstrelsy and Jacksonian Ideology” in American Quarterly, v 27, n 1 (Mar. 1975) by Alexander Saxton.
Minstrelsy as one of the first purely American forms of popular culture– which is to say a form of music and performance copied from slaves by white entertainers.
1840s: blackface is “the most popular form of entertainment in the United States” (Saxton 4). coincidence with rise of mass political parties and mass circulation press. a fundamentally urban cultural form.
Saxton looks to the ideological function of minstrelsy beginning with a number of assumptions:
“Minstrel shows expressed class identification and hostility; they conveyed ethnic satire as well as social and political commentary of wide-ranging, sometimes radical character; they often contained explicitly sexual, homosexual and pornographic messages. Taken as a whole, the genre provided a kind of underground theater where blackface ‘convention’ rendered permissible topics which would have been taboo on the legitimate stage or in the press.”
Spontaneity, ad libbing, keep the form alive and sensitive to contemporary events.
Fun in Black or Sketches of Minstrel Life (NY: DeWitt 1874).
Central figures in the founding of blackface:
Thomas Rice, Dan Emmett, EP Christy.
Stephen Foster, musical innovator.
All of them performed in NY. Christy used Foster’s music.
Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” sold 130,000 copies (sheet music) in 3 years.
all Northerners, all except Emmet of urban origins, travelled through the lower Mississippi Valley where they witness the music and dance of slaves.
“Typical purveyors of minstrelsy… were Northern and urban” (7).
No recognition of dance/music as African in origin.
A process of Europeanization: “exploiting and suppressing African elements” (8).
The dandy, a variation on the frontier hero, also a caricature of the urban free black man.
Mose. “an early hero of melodrama made famous by WS Chanfrau” The Bowery bhoys. A tough, an urban culture hero with the swagger of a frontiersman. A working-class figure, one both related to and set against the Yankee (Jonathan).
“Gallant volunteer fireman, avid participant in NYC politics, an invincible pugilist, Mose was the urban culture hero, derived from… older heroes like the New England Yankee or the half-man, half-alligator of the Southwest. [He] transcended regionalism. Essentially he stood for the new urban mass culture as against the ‘high’ culture of the old elite.”
From Constance Rourke’s American Humor:
“Still another figure emerged at the end of the ‘40s who was undoubtedly Irish in general ancestry but who soon emerged with the riffraff of the New York streets and water fronts. This was the ‘b’hoy’, known for his swagger, his soaplocks, his fireman’s red flannel shirt. In the stage portraits he was Mose; he bobbed up everywhere like the Yankee, in California, in China, though he belonged unmistakable to New York. Impudent, full of racy and belligerent opinion , he appeared in the public view at a moment when national feeling had gone rampant with the outbreak of the Mexican War, with the acquisition of the far wester empire of California, and the sudden discovery there of gold. In Mose was centered all the arrogance of an acute national self-esteem. He bragged, he was always on top, he waved a national flag whose texture was particularly coarse, and gained his constituency by this means and by a gutter wit” (116).
“But Mose was a transient figure; by the middle ‘50s he had ceased to exist on the stage. He had made one strong divergence from the accumulated American myth: he was urban” (117).
The central figures of “the Yankee, the backwoodsman, the Negro… sprang from humble life… they represented contentious elements in the American scene. They were all on the off-side; all were looked down upon or scorned by someone, often by whole sections of society, as the yankee had been scorned by the backwoodsman and the backwoodsman by the Yankee. They were disparate characters, and warring; they formed the hard and bony understructure of the nation” (117-118).
African American Performers in Blackface
The prehistory of blackface minstrelsy lies in marketplaces of Jacksonian America, where freedmen and slaves would perform for audiences for gratuities. Northern white men witnessed these performances and appropriated aspects of them, making liberal use of caricature. The legend of TD Rice holds that he copied the movements that would become the dance known as Jump Jim Crow from an groom, or possibly an old slave.
In this stage of the development of minstrelsy, blackface performance was limited to entre acts. The performances were receptive to audience response in a way that would virtually unrecognizable today. This was an era when audiences had no compunction about throwing rotten fruit or rocks at performers they did not appreciate. Minstrel routines tended to be topical and populist.
When minstrelsy developed into its own genre, the format of blackface began to codify into a tripartite structure. Audiences in urban centers, more than a few of them the celebrated “bhoys” of the antebellum period, particularly appreciated the shows’ anti-elite, anti-intellectual content. It is in this sense that early minstrelsy, particularly its first decade, possessed a subversive charge, one that challenged social hierarchy. The class dimension of blackface is important, especially as that aspect of the genre was gradually blunted.
As the minstrel show began to go mainstream, sentimentalism– which had always been a component of its musical numbers— became more pronounced. The music and lyrics of Stephen Foster, the nostalgia for a long lost Southern home, gave rise to the notion that slaves were content to be chattel. By the time Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared, with its romantic-racist critique of slavery, audiences had been programmed to associate blackface with humor.
On the other hand, minstrel show caricature trafficked heavily in the grotesque, representing African Americans as buffoonish and ugly. With the end of slavery, and particularly after the failure of Reconstruction, representations of African Americans became even more disturbing, primarily because of efforts by whites in both North and South to establish a firmer grasp on political supremacy.
Even as whites argued that lacking the discipline of slavery African Americans would inevitably “revert to type”– i.e., become savages– black artists took to the stage, and, because of the blackface convention, also “blacked up”.