Date of Graduation
Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
In Performing Placeslessness, I argue that the lack of a consistent attachment to place--the geopathology that manifests in the problem of placelessness---contributed to the incoherence of American identity from the Revolutionary War through the mid-nineteenth century. In making this argument, I bridge the critical gap between Martin Brueckner's description of the geographic revolution (late-seventeenth to mid-eighteenth century) and Una Chaudhuri's Staging Place, in which she characterizes place as a problem in modern realist drama. Examining dramatic publications and performances from 1775-1859, I treat drama as a key site of negotiating problematic conceptions of space and place in America. This period was characterized by a number of spatial disruptions: political geographies were redrawn, frontiers were no sooner defined than pushed further west, and colonial outposts became populous cities through the process of urbanization. Place was paramount on the early American stage both because the theatre reflected the displacement at the heart of early American life (and thus achieved a level of anxiety-provoking mimesis) and because the stage was inherently dislocated in its phenomenology. While all theatre takes us "somewhere else," the early American theatre was distinctive in its capacity to comprise both a mimetic and phenomenological placelessness.;Displacement wasn't merely an obstacle to the formation of a sense of nation (though this was indeed the case). The displacement experienced by early Americans was at once a central and disavowed component of identity formation. The same early Americans who experienced their own anxieties of placelessness came to define themselves in opposition to displaced others. Native Americans were pushed further from the eastern seaboard, and slaves, by their very presence in the nation, contradicted the symbol-making process described by Brueckner. That is, for whites to locate their place of entitlement in the colonies, they needed to disenfranchise those enslaved blacks and Native Americans who could be found within colonial borders. We see the erasure of those who didn't "count" within the nation most clearly in the dramatic performances of George Aiken's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon (1859), as these plays resituated the South, its slaves, and lingering Native Americans as foreign to Northern theatregoers. Thus non-white bodies were effectively disenfranchised and displaced, both literally and figuratively, during stage performances that many associated with the fight for abolition. At the same time, I argue that the dramatic mode enabled the comparatively marginalized---women playwrights like Mercy Otis Warren and Charlottes Barnes, or a mixed-race former slave like William Wells Brown---to re-orient and resist their own displacement through the spatial orientations of drama.
Holsinger, James R., "Performing Placeslessness: Early American Drama and the Liminal State, 1775-1859" (2015). Graduate Theses, Dissertations, and Problem Reports. 5816.