YOUNG Horace Greeley, walking into New York in 1830 in a short-sleeved coat and tow-linen trousers, was the very picture of the Yankee- lad of the fables. He looked, in fact, like Yankee Hill. No one can know whether Greeley was conscious of the figure he cut in these years, but as he grew older surely his sense of masquerade became acute. With his old white hat and coat, his fringe of silvery yellow whiskers, his ostentatiously 'uncouth manners, his drollery, he stressed his Yankee heritage in a few bold lines so that any passer-by might see.
Many bold self-delineations were appearing during these years. In New York or Baltimore or New Orleans the origin of strangers could easily be told by their dress, their bearing, even their physical type, as if all these effects had been consciously developed. Characters in this period often seemed larger than life. To match the rising grandeur of the Republic, heads of the antique Roman cast developed: then in later years the type vanished as though the animating conviction had failed. Even the more self-contained of these new Romans made grandiose gestures: Webster solemnly rose and bowed low to Jenny Lind when she had bowed in response to the applause of the audience in Castle Garden, as if he represented the entire aggregation. Characters in public life were indeed one of the great creations of the time; and they often seemed to gain their emphasis less from a closely packed individuality than from bold and conscious self-picturization.
Tyrone Power, who traveled widely over the country in the '30's, found the mimetic gift singularly common in all phases of American society. The Americans had in fact emerged as a theatrical race. No doubt many obscure influences tended to create this bias of character. The new country made a strangely painted backdrop before which the American seemed constrained to perform; and every powerful force in pioneer life led toward outward expression. Self-consciousness had perhaps been induced early in the American by the critical scrutiny abundantly accorded him by the older races; and theatrical tendencies in the American character were heightened by a long intimacy with the stage.
"There is much discourse now of beginning stage plays in New England," Increase Mather wrote in 1686, at a time when the Puritan power seemed supreme. The restless interest in the theater worked slowly, with long gaps between its triumphs, but it was unremitting. By 1750 Bostonians were so eager to see a play at a coffee-house that a serious riot took place at its doors. Soon after the Revolution an exquisite theater was built in Boston, designed by Bullfinch and containing a chastely ornamented dancing room, card rooms, and tea rooms. In eastern cities of the coast from New York to Charleston, playhouses were established; and as the migration from New England moved westward into upper New York, into western Pennsylvania and the Western Reserve, theatricals seemed to spring up in their wake. By 1815 small companies had reached Kentucky, and improvised theaters soon dotted the West. In the little town of Columbus in Georgia, timber that waved in the breeze on Monday was transformed into a theater the following Thursday. In Natchez a theater was built in an old graveyard, with dressing-rooms beneath the stage like catacombs, and bones in view. Ballrooms of plantation mansions were fitted up for performances, and plays were performed in taverns.
In the West at least, on the frontier, where the mixed elements of the" American character were taking a pronounced shape, the results were' hardly considerable as drama. The best acting--and many gifted players traveled over the country--could offer little more than sheer theatricals. With transient audiences and scratch companies and the hardships of travel there was small chance for intensification and depth; even the elder Booth concentrated only on single scenes. The pioneer theater was coarsened and haphazard. No drama came out of this broad movement: nothing can be clearer than the fact that drama as a powerful native form did not appear in America at this time or even throughout the entire nineteenth century. But the theatrical seemed a native mode. The Yankee first fully emerged in the theater; each of the trio of native characters was seen there. The theater took a place, which in a civilization of slower and quieter growth might have been occupied almost altogether by casual song and story; even the comic tale was theatrically contrived, with the teller always the actor, and the effect dependent upon manner and gesture and the stress of speech.
Now the theatrical, as opposed to the dramatic, is full of experiment, finding its way to audiences by their quick responses and rejections. On the stage the shimmer and glow, the minor appurtenances, the jokes and dances and song$, the stretching and changes of plots, are arranged and altered almost literally by the audience or in their close company; its measure is human, not literary. The American theater then, particularly in the West, was a composite of native feeling. It had significance, not because it might at some later time evolve into great national art, but because it was closely interwoven with the American character and the American experience. It marched with the forces of dispersal, essaying a hundred things by way of entertainment and revealing a growing temper.
LIKE gypsy crews, strolling actors moved over the country, following the trail of the pioneers, often abreast of them. At Olean one company bought a broadhorn and floated down the Alleghany, playing airs from The Beggar's Opera at solitary cabins, finding music in abundance wherever few settlers were gathered. A troupe stopped at a double log cabin and discovered that a tiny theater had been contrived in a loft, with curtains and three large benches for boxes and pit. There with a few crude properties they offered the semblance of romance: but the world which they created for a few hours was no more fanciful than that which existed in the minds of their small audience. All around them lay shadowy sites of public buildings and wide ephemeral avenues and streets such as Colonel Sellers, a figure of later years, depicted at 'the breakfast table as he laid out a railroad line through Slouchburg and Doodleville, Belshazzar, Catfish, Babylon, Bloody Run, Hail Columbia, and Hark from the Tomb.
Many companies went into the West by way of the Alleghany, leaving behind them white flags flying on the banks of the river at places where those who followed might find a friendly reception. Pittsburgh, "sunk in sin and sea-coal," where pioneers had often been stranded for lack of money or had suffered strange adventures, was a difficult crossroads for actors. Not many of them could match the inhabitants in conviviality. One complained, "To see a Pittsburgh bon vivant under the table is a task few attempt who know them, and fewer succeed in accomplishing." And when debt was involved, difficulties in Pittsburgh were doubled. "The constables of Pittsburgh never forget an old friend," mourned the people of the theater. "What actor who has visited this city will ever forget it?" they cried satirically. As one actor was playing the gravedigger in Hamlet, he saw the bailiffs in the wings and popped into the grave, and was never heard of again. A whole troupe was caught on the wing for debt as they tried to leave town, and were obliged to hire themselves out as waxworks at a museum to raise the necessary money. A celebrated few succeeded in slipping away in skiffs down the Ohio at night.
On rafts, in broadhorns, companies traveled down the Ohio and the Mississippi, stopping at the larger cities, often playing in small villages. Some went on by wagon into the hills of Kentucky, where the roads were so steep that they were obliged to unload their properties and carry them, and where they often left their watches and chains behind as toll. A few passed through the Cumberland Gap and thus to Richmond, then coastwise to Savannah and farther south. One troupe ventured into Florida during the Seminole War, playing at forts and garrisons on the way, threatened by the Indians but continuing their journey until they were finally set upon, some of their number killed, and their wardrobe seized. Thereafter for a time the Seminoles galloped through the sandy lowlands garbed as Romans, Highlanders, and Shakespearean heroes.
Some companies deployed through Kentucky and Tennessee to the Gulf States, traveling down crooked little rivers in overladen steamers that took on cotton at every wharf, with Negroes pushing huge bales of cotton over the bluffs at night by the light of great fires and with a pit of fire roaring in the steamer below. Everywhere they found theaters, or theaters were improvised for them; everyone came, black and white, children and their elders. Backwoodsmen rode up in their fringes and green blankets and fur. Flatboatmen could be distinguished by their rolling stride and implacable manner. Planters appeared in white Spanish hats of beaver on fine horses with bright saddlecloths, and farmers with their wives on pillions, and a host of Negroes.
Off stage the actors maintained an air of urban elegance, highly keyed, with coats of a lighter blue, green, or brown than was usually worn, and hats a little larger or smaller than was the custom. For the stage they brought baskets of faded velvet and silken finery; often their adornments were scant or contrived. One manager never permitted his actors the luxury of fleshings, but painted their legs and his own buff, red, or white for tragedy, with stripes and spots for comedy. Many an actor had for his theatrical wardrobe only a flaxen wig and a pair of comic stockings. The companies were small. Everybody doubled. Every one bad precarious adventures.
In a theater at Mobile a slight noise was heard in one of the upper boxes, a rush, a bit of scuffle; the ladies in the box did not move; in the crowded pit there was almost no sensation, though it was soon clear that a man had been knifed. The performance and the applause proceeded without a break. Ambuscades were sometimes set on the roads for the actors; they were always dodging epidemics of cholera or escaping from fires. Yet they continued to join in that perpetual travel which often seemed the single enduring feature of the country. As processions of families and slaves moved from the Carolinas and Georgia to some new tract of forest or canebrake, the actors were close at their heels. The Chapmans, who invented the showboat, went up the Arkansas River to wild country, encountering ruffians, sometimes besieged, dealing out grape and canister in return, but inured to the life and continuing to ply the rivers for years.
By their own wish and in the fancy of their audiences these people of the theater remained a caste apart. The theater still savored of the black arts even though the ban upon it was broken. Changes of character on the stage seemed not altogether different from those which the devil was supposed to assume, changes of scene not far from black magic. These actors could change you "a forest into a front parlor, a desert into a dining-room, a stormy ocean into a flower garden, a palace into a den of thieves, all on the sound of a boatswain's whistle." Yet intangibly they joined with the people and the region, their bold accents of dress and posture heightening the native drift in that direction, their romantic language mingling with the stressed speech of the backwoods.
In an imaginative sense the audiences of the backwoods joined deeply with the players. Theirs was that intimate participation which means that acting has become reality. Out of the forest, groups would come riding at night who would talk with the actors as the play proceeded, or with each other about the characters. On a small stage in a Kentucky village a gambler's family was pictured as starving, and a countryman rose from one of the boxes. "I propose we make up something for this woman," he said. Some one whispered that it was all a sham, but he delivered a brief discourse on the worthlessness of the gambler, flung a bill on the stage with his pocketbook, advised the woman not to let her husband know about it or he would spend it all on, faro, and then with a divided mind sat down, saying, "Now go on with the play."
Such participation often meant deep and direct drafts upon the emotions, and the black romantical plays like Pizarro, The Iron Chest, and Venice Preserved, popular at this time, with their themes of envy, hatred, remorse, terror, revenge, could evoke an emotional response with force and abundance. The bolder tragedies of Shakespeare--never his comedies in that early day--were staple pieces, with plays of the supernatural. Hamlet was frequently played for the ghost, the murder, the burial, and Macbeth for the witches, the sleep-walking scene, and the knocking at the gate, so strongly did the pioneer taste lean in this direction. Since lights were scarce the effects were eerie. One company acted a tragedy wholly in the dark before a Kentucky mountain audience. The Spectre Bridegroom was played by moonlight in a low-roofed opening like a hallway between two cabins, and the ballet of The Wizard Skiff was danced before guttering candles. Hushed and startled, these audiences would watch and listen; the again the low murmuring talk would begin among themselves or with the actors.
Here in disguised and transmuted forms emotions which had been dominant in the early day of the pioneer lived again--emotions stirred by a sense of the supernatural, and those grosser feelings begotten of a primitive conflict between man and man, or of man and a rude destiny. With these came the wraith of the Indian.
As the Indian perished or was driven farther and farther from those fertile lands which the white invader wished to occupy, a noble and mournful fantasy was created in his place. After the Revolution, Indian plays and operas abounded. From the '20's onward Cooper followed with a spate of Indian novels. In the '30's, when the trio of popular American figures appeared at full length, the Indian assumed a still loftier stature and a more tragic mien. These were the first palmy years of Forrest's appearance in Metamora, the Last of the Wampanoags, a play whose vogue seemed unremitting, and which was copied in dozens of less conspicuous successes. Cooper's Wept of the Wish Ton Wish was dramatized and even became a ballet. The stage soon overflowed with Indian figures. Painted and decked, the dusky hero went his tragic way, fighting to be sure, full of "carnivorous rages" when Forrest played the parts, but most often declaiming. The Indian's pride, his grief, his lost inheritance, his kinship with the boundless wilderness, were made enduring themes. Talk flowed again, in Indian monologues, in oratorical outbursts, in rhapsodies.
This fantastic Indian was subjective, white beneath the war-paint, springing into full stature when pioneer life was receding. About his figure the American seemed to wrap a desire to return to the primitive life of the wilderness. It was not for nothing that he had appropriated Indian methods of warfare, Indian costumes, Indian legends: this borrowing had left a wide imprint. In the Indian plays he could drench himself in melancholy remembrance of the time when the whole continent was . untouched. These plays were mournful elegies, and it would be easy to call them proof of national hypocrisy. But a whole people will hardly pore over books and drive themselves to the theater for more than thirty years in order to build up an effective attitude which no one is at hand to see but themselves; nor will they do so to smother a collective conscience. Like the novels of Cooper, the plays were immensely popular; and their elegiac sentiment surged up in a region where a more realistic view might have been expected to prevail, in the West. It was there that the legendary Indian strutted and declaimed and mourned with the greatest vigor, on small rude stages, before audiences of small farmers and backwoodsmen. He seemed an improbable and ghostly ancestor.
THE romantic ardor with which the American gazed at the Indian was in strange contrast with the chill or comic regard which he fixed upon the Revolutionary heroes. For the most part these were overlooked. Hundreds of patriotic plays were written from the Revolution onward; their considerable bulk forms a literature; but only a meager number were acted, and those that appeared had a way of becoming circuses or farces. Israel Putnam was a favored subject, and he seems to have been chosen less for his exploits in the Revolution than for his reputation for wry humor. During the French and Indian war, according to an almanac story, Putnam stirred the jealousy of a British officer, who finally sent him a challenge. "He came to Putnam's tent, found him seated on a small keg quietly smoking his pipe, and demanded to know what communication, if any, Putnam had to make. 'Why, you see,' said Put, 'I'm but a poor miserable Yankee, that never fired a pistol in my life, and you must perceive, major, that if we fight with pistols you will have an unfair advantage. Here are two powder kegs--I have bored a hole and inserted a slow match in each; so if you'll just be good enough to seat yourself there, I will light the matches, and he who dares sit the longest shall be called the bravest fellow!" The matches burned slowly. Putnam-the "old wolf"--was imperturbable, the British officer distraught. Finally when the fire was within an inch of the kegs he dashed away. The kegs were filled with onions.
Such episodes embroidered the patriotic plays, crowding noble deeds off the boards. Putnam became a comic Yankee, when he was not astride a trick horse performing as in a circus. The equestrian play grew increasingly popular and soon merged into the spectacle, employing Oriental tales of gorgeous coloring and picturing such fabulous characters as Timor the Tartar, Ali Baba, and El Hyder. As the scene widened the talk grew less, and the singing heroes of melodrama appeared. The Yankee, the backwoodsman, the minstrel, who had begun in brief interludes or afterpieces, now often usurped the larger part of a performance. Dancing was abundant. The theater became lighter and lighter in the late '30's and early '40's; and its whole mode was large and legendary. The staple characters in English low comedy, Dr. Pangloss, Mawworm, and Jeremy Diddler, were made to lean heavily toward the eccentric, even when drawn by accomplished English actors. They became fabulous figures, to match the American trio or the fantastic Indian.
"It was capital, but you must not be so quiet: give them more bustle," said a critic to Tyrone Power. "You must paint a little broader, my dear fellow," said another. "You're too natural for them; they don't feel it." Drawing grew broad, and steadily took on exuberance.
Theatricals swung into comedy as if under the direction of a popular impulse. Again emotion was submerged. Emotion had never been deeply grounded in this theater; the appeal had never been humanly comprehensive. The lyrical sweep was never included, the passion of love never revealed. The pitch of the dark emotions had been kept high; and this pitch was easily shattered.
Vicissitudes which naturally beset actors in a rude country furthered the movement into burlesque. When the hero of a tragedy fell in death with part of his body extended off stage so that he might play his own death music on the fiddle some of the audience was bound to see the double accomplishment. One company had a prompter who could both simulate a marble statue in Don Juan and dance hornpipes, and so great was the popularity of his hornpipes that, still a statue in Spanish white, he would come downstage in haste to dance. Inevitably the glamour of Don Juan diminished as the hornpipe progressed.
Crossing the Chattahoochee from Alabama to Georgia in the early 30's, a company found the streets of Columbus filled with Creeks, and the manager decided to employ twenty-four of them as the Indians of the Peruvian army in Pizarro; but the play did not proceed smoothly. When the company back-stage, the carpenters and scene-shifters, gave their customary shout at the advance of Rolla, the Creeks answered with a prolonged war-whoop, and raised this whenever the audience applauded, and again when Rolla addressed his army in the Temple of the Sun. When the high priest, followed by the priests and virgins, began the invocations, the Creeks responded with a low, mournful humming sound which speedily took on threatening undertones and rose to a war song. When the chorus began to sing the Creeks broke into a war dance in which the King and Rolla were constrained to join until the sweat poured off their bodies, while the virgins dashed from the stage and locked themselves in their dressing-rooms.
To SUSTAIN burlesque something more than grotesquerie is needed. Satire enters into its attentions; once a territory is invaded by burlesque, all its objects are likely to look puffed and stretched, pinched and narrowed. But pure batire stands aloof, while burlesque wholly possesses its subject and wears the look of friendship.
Through the 40's and 50's the spirit of burlesque was abroad in the land like a powerful genie let out of a windbag, finding a wealth of yielding subjects. The legitimate theater came to a standstill; and many reasons were found for this condition. The rise of Fanny Ellsler and of the dancers who came after her--Taglioni among them--was mentioned as causing a deflection. The lecture mania was cited, the panic of 1837, and the burning of the National Theatre in New York about the same time, which was to have brought a fresh theatrical inspiration from England. But while all these circumstances may have had their effect, while dancing became almost an obsession throughout the country, while the great cascades of oratory and talk in the lecture system seemed to flow for an endless popular delight, none of these could quite have thwarted the progress of the legitimate theater if any strong impulse had underlain it. The truth was that a vigorous burlesque had usurped the stage, turning the serious drama upside down, and joining with the comic array provided by the Yankee, the backwoodsman, and the Negro minstrel.
The pioneer in burlesque was William Mitchell, who had been a strolling actor in England, playing at fairs and country places. He established a neat and showy little theater in New York, the Olympic, at the end of the 30's, with red curtains at the windows and a balcony in front, and drew an audience which was almost wholly masculine. The performances took on the air of intimate parties; the audiences joined in all the choruses; every one knew the company. Mitchell collected about him a merry lot of actors who remained with him for years; and he led them off with his own funny faces and a gift for tragic acting that made a base for his burlesque of romantic tragedy and romantic opera.
Every popular opera found its way to the boards of the Olympic in squeezed and distorted form, every romantic play. Lucia became Lucy Did Sham a Moor and Lucy Did Lam a Moor. Dancers like Fanny Ellsler provided endless themes for entertainment. Mitchell usually impersonated them himself with mincing steps and an enormous bustle. Seizing upon the passion for Byron and the new vogue of minstrelsy at a single stroke, he produced Man-Fred in partial blackface, with a metaphysical Negro chimney-sweep for the hero, who may have been taken over from Rice's portrait of a philosophizing Negro bootblack, or who may have been created out of the extraordinary vogue of a Negro sweep song then popular in New York drawingrooms. When the vogue of Dickens was at its height in the early 40's he produced Boz; or, a Man Over-bored. When Dickens appeared on his lecture tour he concocted Boz in America, and travestied both the man and his writings. Yankee peddlers, the Cape Cod sea serpent, the Feejee mermaid, little Thumb, mingled with the distorted romantic figures of the operas and plays.
Mitchell caught and punctured every current wild obsession, romantic or merely comic, every theme which the current American fancy had taken up with its familiar extreme fervor. He revealed all the characteristic native capacity for plunging headlong into new enthusiasms. He was in fact burlesquing the American public as well as its preoccupations. And the American public responded with another headlong response, as if any extravagant romantic emotion could sweep it . away, even though this emotion was changed into satirical grotesquerie, or as if after all its responses were fickle, and popular suffrages had been on the point of turning from these familiar obsessions. There could be no doubt of the new, destructive enthusiasm, Mitchell crowded his tiny theater for ten years. His burlesques became current coin of the theater all over the country; and when by one of those sudden changes frequently seen in theatrical history his career came to an end, the mode of burlesque was unshaken. It was freshly picked up by two other artists, Burton and Brougham, whose talents were joined at the Chambers Street Theatre in the late 40's.
Of the two Burton was probably the finer actor, losing himself in his portrayals and possessing a gift for satirical impersonation which left the original elements of character intact. But Brougham, who devised the sketches and plays, possessed that comic gravity which has been called the crowning conceit of burlesque. Each could improvise at random and at comical length, twisting a play to new effects offhand. Once they pretended to make a play before the audience, at the end gravely discussing what they should do to finish it off. When their leading lady suddenly failed them one evening they took turns playing her part, stepping out of their own, and adding extravagance to extravagance. Brougham added a strong Irish flavor, but Irish humor had already shown a way of becoming native humor; and both Brougham and Burton--who was English--had come to the United States as young men, and they remained for a long career. They counted themselves Americans; and their absorption of native themes and native modes seemed complete.
They produced a lusty, gay, and savage humor, full of barbs flung at the current scene, full of native extravagance. Through their incidental satire many of the cults of the day at last toppled into ridicule. They burlesqued the theories of free love which had appeared in some of these; they burlesqued the new woman's rights movement; they were always trenching upon the political scene. Their sharp sallies were, often made in song, and set to familiar country tunes like "Wait for the Wagon" and "Rosin the Beau," thus wearing the guise of simple innocence.
Their great theme was the false romanticism of American sentiment for the Indian. Forrest's Metamora had already become a noisy Metaroarer on the lesser burlesque stage. Brougham used the violent declamatory style of Forrest and burlesqued it, but he produced a full-length satire on the windy Indian-worship, transforming the last of the Wampanoags into the last of the Pollywogs, and adding a mass of other characters, Whiskeetoddi, Anaconda, Tapiokee, and others who appeared
With rifle, belt, plume, moccasin, and all,
An Englishman named Fitzdaddle entered the forest with a parasol over his shoulder, and Metamora slowly killed a bear to the tune of "Ole Dan Tucker." Metamora was in fact a ridiculous mingling of the trio of comic characters; and the artificial touch in American sentiment about the Indian was unerringly pointed.
This burlesque made only a tentative approach to a rich subject. In his Pocahontas Brougham handled it again with more driving satire. Said John Smith, on meeting Powhatan
Most potent, grave, and reverend old fellow
I must confess, sweet sir, that you are candid.
Easy enough: we have full powers to treat.
If that's the case we'll take some whiskey neat.
The pun widened to travesty, and Powhatan burst into song to the air of "Widow Machree"--
According to the prelude the play was derived from an antique Norwegian poem discovered in the vest pocket of a man in armor dug up near Cape Cod by a Chevalier Viking, Long Fellow, containing several square yards of verse, a fragment of which was subjoined to show the peculiar Finnish--
Ask you--how about these verse
Jonsmith became one of a peaceable crew of filibusters who meant to take possession of the transatlantic region.
Now the natives knowing nothing
The action included many digressions of plot, and minor travesties. Showers of puns and double entendres fell, underlined in the text and no doubt sufficiently stressed as spoken, yet never appearing as palpable hits, for they came in enormous abundance, tumbling over one another; they effervesced and flowed; they often chimed and were musical. Powhatan exclaimed, "Sergeant at arms, say what alarms the crowd? Loud noise annoys us, why is it allowed?" Powhatan was a musical monarch, opening before the arrival of Smith with a song to the air of "The King of the Cannibal Islands"; he was "a crotchety monarch, in fact a semi-brave," and at a crucial point in his trial Smith was bound over to a strong chord in the orchestra. When Smith and his companions were about to die someone cried--
The major theme was never lost, and spread into a hundred timely remifications. Toward the end, with a long view down the years, the predatory purpose of the American invaders was shown as continuing--
A procession bearing glass ballot boxes was shown, and allusions were made to the Erie gamble.
In Columbus el Filibustero, the expedition to America was made a gold-grabbing affair, and the Almighty Dollar figured largely, "in regal robes, promiscuously attended."
sang the chorus to the air of "Lucy Neal." When Columbus returned to Spain from his first voyage Ferdinand knighted him--
That in stealing gold you may not cease,
As a burlesque, Columbus el Filibustero was more cynically pointed than the others; it was also more human. Columbus was made a figure of dreams, then of pathos, as he went back and forth to America at Ferdinand's bidding. Yet this conception of the character was never unleashed from the satirical pattern; and the movement of the whole piece had the accustomed freedom and flow of all of Brougham's burlesques. When Columbus, old and tired, was told to kneel before Ferdinand--"The rules demand it"--he replied, "I can't, my constitution wouldn't stand it." Here too was a great cascade of puns. "The catbird's song must be the wild sea-mew." Columbus sang mock Italian bravura in pigeon Italian, and the tone of the opening chorus overflowed with easy urgency--
In satirical quality and breadth Brougham's three major burlesques will bear comparison with the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, which they preceded by years. There were few national follies and foibles that remained untouched by this copious and candid art. Brougham lacked a composer with whom to work in duo; yet this was not altogether a disadvantage at the time, because the popular airs with which he threaded his pieces were fresh; they floated the unfamiliar satire, and afforded odd inflations and contrasts. It was in bulk and continuous purpose that Brougham failed. Beset by an abiding genius, versatility, he could write any kind of comedy well enough to win production; and along with this ease ran an uncurbed ambition. Brougham wanted to be a great manager as well as a great comedian and a great comic writer, and his fortunate alliance with Burton, who had a gift for management, was broken.
A thirsty public would have accepted burlesque after burlesque of the satirical quality of Pocahontas and Columbus el Filibustero. In little towns along the Ohio, in the cloth and paper camps of California, the mingled songs, dancing, quips, and enveloping satire aroused riotous responses; and their spirit proved contagious. Briefer and less trenchant pieces were contrived by minor writers in the Mississippi valley. Blackface nonsense made the strain inevitable in minstrelsy. A blackface Fra Diavalo overflowed with plantation melodies and jigs and breakdowns. Wild oddities appeared in the phantom chorus of a minstrel Somnambula.
The great consistent theme through a decade or more of burlesque remained that romantic emotion which had belonged to the popular mind through its formative years, flowing far afield, as a sense of romance is likely to do. Romantic tragedy, romantic opera, and the ballet, penetrating even into the backwoods, had been a mode of expression and a sign. Scott, Byron, Dickens, had stirred the familiar romantic sense of the past and of distance. The melancholy wraith of the vanished Indian showed a crude romantic spirit at work on native ground.
American audiences enjoyed their own deflation; they liked the boldness of attack, the undisguised ridicule. Once again, as in the portraiture of the comic trio, the subject was essentially themselves. But their strange Indian-worship was so thoroughly riven as never again to enjoy popular consideration. Even the nascent romantic picture of the American as builder and colonizer was punctured.
This lawless satire was engaged in a pursuit which had occupied comedy in the native vein elsewhere. As if it were willful and human, the comic spirit in America had maintained the purpose--or so it seemed--to fulfill the biblical cry running through much of the revivalism of the time: to "make all things new." It was a leveling agent. The distant must go, the past be forgotten, lofty notions deflated. Comedy was conspiring toward the removal of all alien traditions, out of delight in pure destruction or as preparation for new growth.
Yet the burlesque of this long period could only have been created by a temper steeped in romanticism. If it punctured romantic feeling, it kept a breathless comic emotion of its own. Invading current fantasies, it employed fantastical forms. Indian myths might traipse across the stage in grotesque and balloonlike guises, but they only became mythical again with a broader and livelier look. It was not a realistic spirit that was abroad. The world of burlesque was still the familiar native world of phantasmagoria.
OTHER strollers besides those of the stage appeared in this long era, with an expression drawn in similar curves. These were the revivalists, the groups of millennium-seekers, the believers in cults. In a fundamental and not irreverent sense they belonged to the theater; they too followed the arc of romantic feeling; and they moved toward comedy, even toward burlesque.
In the West the first era of pioneering had lacked direct religious influences, and the backwoodsman had become subject to suggestions of place and of Indian mores which affected him deeply. At the end of the eighteenth century not a tenth of the population in Kentucky had religious affiliations. But the heritage of these people was profoundly religious, and their emotion knew no bounds when at last proselytizing began among them. They were of the race which produced the leaping, heel-cracking comic figures who proclaimed their identity with the lightning and the alligator. They joined in the orgiastic forest revivals on the Red River and the Gaspar River, shouting and pleading to be bathed in the blood of, the Lamb, and bending, writhing, jerking, falling, barking, and creeping over the ground like the creatures of the wilderness. Periodic revivals sprang up; in these the cruder expression was left behind; and a free ritual developed with wailing and singing and approaches to the anxious bench and the massive pageantry of nocturnal baptisms.
Comedy was enacted there, a rude and violent form of the divine comedy. Ile restraining bonds were broken of that rigorous faith which seemed a solid American inheritance from the older civilizations. With its inner conflicts and cataclysmic formula of the human relation to God, Calvinism was profoundly dramatic. The individual was the least and meanest of all things, yet he found the weight of the everlasting wrath upon him and so gained stature. In the new resilient faiths now rapidly springing up this strict and somber drama was left further and further behind. Terror remained in the theme of death and in the prolonged anxieties which were often a prelude to peace, but the movement was away from creeds and close formulas, toward improvisation, rapturous climaxes, happy assurances, and a choral strain. In the revivals of Methodism and the other free new faiths all was generic, large, and of the crowd; in the end all was wildly hopeful. Rhapsody was common; the monologue in the experience meeting unfolded those inner fantasies toward which the native mind was tending in other, quite different aspects of expression, not in the analytic forms of 'Calvinism, but as pure unbridled fantasy and exuberant overflow.
The pattern of comedy appeared again in the innumerable cults which sprang up in the 30's and 40's as from some rich and fertile seeding-ground. Religious and social traditions were flung to the four winds. The perfectionists declared that the bondage of sin was non-existent and that the Millennium had already begun. At Oneida the bonds of earthly marriage were broken. Spiritualism proposed to break the bonds of death. The theme of death, which had been a deep preoccupation in the life of the pioneer, was repeated by these cults, with a fresh and happy outcome. Life was to be prolonged, the Millennium had arrived; in the state of perfection death might never come at all. Most of the new religious communities created almost overnight in the 30's and 40's agreed to release mankind from sin, poverty, or mortal care. They all possessed formulas, religious, economic, or social; and they all anticipated conclusions such as the world had never known. Triumph was their note. Biblical proof was adduced to show that the Americans were a chosen people, that the continent--even the Mississippi valley--was the predestined scene for the Second Coming and that the happy thousand years were to begin there. Mormonism with its legendary groundwork of Indian and Jewish history, stretching backward in magnificence, seized upon the conviction.
Hysterical, wrapped in a double sense of national feeling and religious conviction, the believers passed into moods of wildest exaltation. "New, new . . . make all things new." The enchanting cry resounded through all this ecstasy of faith. Many of the believers exemplified their conviction by singing, processions, and a continual migration. Many of them indulged in costume, the Millerites garbing themselves in heavenly white, the Shakers wearing dim colors which were dramatic in their negation, others in more varied uniforms. Some wore garlands. Some danced, in slow intense jerking steps, the Shakers on their way down the aisles of their churches, others more wildly in religious rites. Among the secular communities--with their infusion of a spirit which was basically religious--singing and dancing were almost a rule.
Among all these cults a latent humor broke out; this was clear in the names which they chose or accepted, such as the placidly humorous variations on Harmony and the grotesque nomenclature of the Shakers, Groaners, Come Outers, New Lights, Hard Shell Baptists, and Muggletonians. Brigham Young could thunder an assertion of his power one moment and the next with a twinkle declare that he was a prophet, as if he considered the title comic. A wide level of comic feeling had been established, sometimes infused with pliant hope, most often with exuberance. Frequently it was hard to tell when burlesque was involved, when fakery, when a serious intention. The basic feeling was romantic, but it crested into a conscious gaiety which raced beyond the romantic. Even in the most ponderous of these assertions there was something light-hearted.
Once again personal emotion was submerged in a coarse and crescent patterning of communal emotion; and the flight was toward legend. Around the simple outline of the divine comedy these people continually wove innumerable small new fables and beliefs. Once again, too, the movement was toward the theater. The orgiastic forest revivals with their pagan spirit and savage manifestations bore a not altogether distant resemblance to the Eleusinian mysteries out of which the Greek drama had developed. A fantastic basic ritual was often present in later cults, such as has been a prelude to the theater or the drama among primitive peoples. A minor religious theater could have been drawn from the celebrations of almost any one of these new sects. All their modes were outward, rhapsodic, declamatory, full of song, verging upon the dance, adorned with symbolic costume, moving toward that oratory which was half burlesque. Most of these effects were shaped for or with an audience: that is, they were theatrical. Among the Mormons a direct alliance with the theater was made. At Nauvoo, Joseph Smith encouraged dancing and theatricals, and Brigham Young played the part of the high priest in an early Mormon performance of Pizarro. After the hegira to Utah, Young introduced theatricals as a staple element in the Mormon scheme, and at the same time made a firm rule against tragedy, saying that his people had known tragedy enough, and thus following a sequence which had prevailed within American attitudes, that of flight away from oppressive circumstance into comedy.
In bands these strollers moved and moved again, traveling toward the West for the most part, like the clusters of home-seekers and the defeated Indian tribes and the people of the theater, until it seemed that the image of the processional must become the single lasting, significant image in the new country. Mixing with the greater migrations, they belonged almost consistently to that stratum of American life out of which popular legends and popular comedy had sprung. The early revivalism had arisen in the deep backwoods. In the Southwest the Negro had often joined in the revivals; in New England it was among country people that the new cults took shape; many may be traced to the hillsides of Vermont and New Hampshire. If a few were first shaped abroad, they all took on a native
extravagance. Some had as brief an existence as a popular tale or a popular legend, some an even briefer span: but they joined to make a loosely striated underply of comedy which ran through the life and consciousness of the entire country through the first half of the century.