The Captive Stage

The Captive Stage: Performance and the Proslavery Imagination of the Antebellum North. By Douglas A. Jones, Jr.  Theater: Theory/Text/Performance series. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2014. Pp. 218.

In common American parlance, the word “slavery” tends to be inseparable from the specific institution of chattel slavery in the antebellum South. Astute scholars and critics have, however, worked to draw attention to the ways in which different, less overtly brutal systems may also deserve the name of “slavery” for the ways in which they limit the access people of color have to political agency while relying heavily upon the ongoing presence of minority groups within that system. In The Captive Stage: Performance and the Proslavery Imagination of the Antebellum North, Douglas A. Jones, Jr. reveals how a variety of white northern antebellum performances, ranging from the respectable (lectures and portraiture) to the popular (minstrelsy, plays, broadsides, and sideshows), served to undermine black claims to American citizenship. In doing so, he deftly traces the intensifying white insistence upon black subjugation that drove the northern black intelligentsia from advocating full integration in the 1790s to calls for insurrection and emigration by the 1840s and 1850s.

Jones grounds his conception of the northern proslavery imagination in one of Frederick Douglass’s speeches from 1848, in which Douglass discusses the systemic oppression faced by blacks in the North, making them, in his words, “in many respects… slaves of the community” (1). It is this idea of community slavery that shapes Jones’s book; noting that northerners generally abhorred chattel slavery but also considered blacks inferior, he explains:

A complex series of assumptions, ideals, and logics . . . deemed African Americans . . . unfit for equal participation in the polity, while . . . ideally suited to serve the personal and collective interests of their white counterparts. In other words, northerners cultivated a proslavery imagination with which to maintain and, over time, widen the gulf between black freedom and full black inclusion. (1-2)

He makes a convincing case that this insistence upon black subordination and subjugation points to an essentially proslavery northern psyche. This premise provides a firm base for Jones’s exploration of black antebellum political performances and the white performances that tried to eclipse them.

Each chapter of The Captive Stage demonstrates a thorough understanding of its specific historical moment and careful archival research, and Jones’s arguments are consistently clear and convincing. He also demonstrates great breadth in his theoretical influences, smoothly drawing on writers ranging from Plato to Charles S. Pierce to Daphne Brooks over the course of the book; his foremost influence, however, may be Saidiya Hartman, to whom he turns repeatedly in several chapters.

Jones’s first chapter shows how the deferential stage negroes in John Murdock’s plays and the mangled dialect of the popular “Bobalition” broadsides sought to render the politically active northern black laughable, at a time when black organizations were using parades and elegant oration to assert their claims to political integration and American citizenship. Next, Jones contests the recent scholarly trend of seeking progressive potential in early minstrelsy, directly challenging W.T. Lhamon, David Cockrell, and other scholars who claim that early minstrelsy privileged class over race and created a working-class alliance across the color line. Jones points out that early minstrels such as Thomas “Daddy” Rice gave openly proslavery speeches after performances and argues that the popular rhetoric regarding the struggles of the white working class in fact hinges heavily upon white supremacy. Jones’s entry into the scholarly debate over minstrelsy is skillfully wrought and highly convincing.

Chapter three examines several ways in which George Washington, the slave-owning father of the nation, functioned to justify the continuation of slavery in the northern imagination; this is the chapter in which Jones offers the widest range of examples, including reverent interactions between slaves and images of Washington in popular plays, depictions of slaves in portraits of Washington, and P.T. Barnum’s exhibition of Joice Heth as Washington’s 161-year-old former wetnurse. Jones’s research on Heth in particular breaks intriguing ground, as he focuses upon Barnum’s increasing emphasis upon his ownership of Heth as a slave as the years went on, arguing compellingly that this points to a desire by Barnum’s northern patrons to join him and Washington in wielding the dominating gaze of the slaveholder.

Jones’s next chapter looks at a trend he dubs “romantic racialism,” where a branch of white northerners insisted that blacks were simply different from whites, but not necessarily wholesale inferior. Jones reveals, however, how the traits that romantic racialists focused upon, such as docility and innocence, served to shape an imagined society in which blacks required the guidance of whites and still took subordinate roles to whites, buttressing his argument by examining the resistance of white Garrisonian abolitionists to the rise in black insurrectionist rhetoric in the 1840s and by analyzing the black characters from the popular temperance drama Aunt Dinah’s Pledge. His final chapter examines black abolitionist lecturer William Wells Brown and his escape-from-slavery melodrama The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom. After first charting the relationships among Brown’s earlier narration of his own escape, melodrama as a genre, and the expectations of white audiences, Jones argues that Brown’s play was shaped by the northern proslavery imagination such that it prevented him from imagining a life in the north for his protagonists after their flight from slavery. Although fans of Brown may find this position unpalatable, Jones’s argument is subtle and expertly-woven, a useful contribution to scholarship on Brown that must be taken seriously.

Jones’s book is a skillful blend of historical context and performance analysis that serves to complicate our understanding of political performance culture in the antebellum North. By excavating and examining the ways in which northerners imagined black subjugation as a necessity, he both invites America to examine some of its oft-overlooked past sins and helps to reveal some of the history that underpins the systemic racial iniquities that persist today. This book offers a useful methodological model for early-career scholars, while its contents promise to prove highly valuable to scholars wrestling with questions of race and political performance, whether on stage or off.

Beck Holden
Tufts University

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 28, Number 1 (Winter 2016)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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