“The aim of our project is to get female writers from early American theatre culture out of the footnotes of literary history and give them a place in the main text”, says Ralph Poole of the University of Salzburg about his project Gender and Comedy in the Age of the American Revolution which is funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF. The American scholar spent more than three years re-evaluating both the prestige of the comedy genre and the role of women who used it as a political mouthpiece. “Remember the ladies”, the celebrated warning that Abigail Adams, the wife of the second president of the USA, addressed to her husband on the occasion of America’s imminent declaration of independence in 1776, was to fall on deaf ears. In theory, the Constitution guaranteed equal rights for every citizen, but in practice women remained excluded from active participation in politics. They reacted by articulating their opinions – at times obliquely, but sometimes outspokenly – through the theatre, particularly in humorous formats – such as sentimental and social comedy, comic opera or satire and farce. “Many of them have drifted off into oblivion, however, and have been deleted from cultural memory and literary history”, Poole explains in the interview with scilog.
Theatre has always held up a mirror to real-life political conditions. “Comedy is particularly well suited to addressing and parodying political realities”, says principal investigator Poole. Having been banned under the British colonial rulers for years, theatre experienced a massive upswing during the Revolution. “The plays were eminently political”, Poole points out. It was an improvised era of theatre that reflected the improvisational political world of the United States in the late 18th century.
The theatre as a vector for women
As the current research project now reveals, women also used this creative detour to express political concerns. One of them was Mercy Otis Warren. In the few years between 1772 and 1779, this playwright from Massachusetts developed both considerable political clout and an aesthetic quality that was to set new standards. Warren, who also wrote under a pseudonym, supported the rebellion against England and argued for consideration of the needs of American women. In addition to Warren, the pioneering feminist and journalist Judith Sargent Murray as well as Susanna Haswell Rowson were among the handful of prominent female voices in early American theatre. Many other plays by women were either not performed or have been lost.
Contribution to the self-discovery of the young republic
In their stage plays, the women used variations of habitual elements of classical comedy. The typical “happy ending”, bringing together a man and a woman, was replaced by new relationship models, such as the blithe single woman or the woman who seeks out a husband for herself. “In these plays, women are not only objects of desire and ridicule, but protagonists who shape the action”, says Poole. In terms of content, topics such as gender equality, women getting an education or having a job are in the foreground. “These pieces were usually torn apart by the critics”, says Poole, “because the plot was not in line with commonly held views”. Susanna Rowson was an exception to this rule. She wrote very successful works like the comic opera Slaves in Algiers. With its plot carried predominantly by women, the work is something akin to an allegory of the young American Republic. It raises questions about how the young nation defines its image and touches on ideals such as freedom, equality and democracy. “American theatre in the 18th century, especially in its comic form, contributed significantly to the young nation’s self-definition”, explains Ralph Poole who adds: “Contrary to the received wisdom in literary history, the origins of North American theatre were not without literary merit, especially as regards female writers. The young American stage reflected the cultural changes brought about by the revolution years and foreshadowed developments to come.
Uncovering transnational connections
Whilst the plays, which were rediscovered or even newly discovered during the research project and have found their way into literary history, prove themselves as being genuinely American, they were also created at a time that was under strong European influence. For this reason, the project holds great potential in transatlantic and interdisciplinary discourse, notes Poole. In the future, the researcher would like to collaborate with other disciplines such as German studies or musicology to highlight these interconnections. “There are many more links than we’ve seen to date.”
Ralph J. Poole is a Professor of American Literature and Cultural Studies at the University of Salzburg. His research focuses on the connections between gender and intellectual output in literature, culture and the media and covers a wide spectrum from the history of American colonial theatre to the popular culture of the 21st century.