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Book Review, Current Issue, Vol. 32 No 2

A Player and a Gentleman: The Diary of Harry Watkins, Nineteenth-Century US American Actor

A Player and a Gentleman: The Diary of Harry Watkins, Nineteenth-Century US American Actor. Edited by Amy E. Hughes and Naomi J. Stubbs. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018; Pp. 353.

What did it mean to strive after a life in the theatre in the United States in the antebellum period? Recent works by scholars such as Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and Lisa Freeman have moved beyond a focus on a public sphere shaped by print culture and rational debate, showing how theatre and performance were also crucial sites of communion and forming a body politic. The diary of Harry Watkins (1825-1894), edited and published for the first time by Amy Hughes and Naomi Stubbs, continues to reveal the cultural importance of the theatre through a focus on the life of an actor, theatre manager, playwright, and prolific diarist. Watkins’s diary provides invaluable information about the quotidian life of a theatre professional over a fifteen-year period. In their introduction, Hughes and Stubbs make a strong case for their volume’s unique value to American cultural studies and theatre scholarship: “From 1845 to 1860, Watkins kept a diary in which he detailed the roles he performed, the plays he saw, the people he met, the books he read, and his impressions of current events. Now housed in the Harvard Theatre Collection, it is the only known diary of substantial length and density (nearly twelve hundred pages in thirteen volumes) written by a US actor during the decade leading up to the Civil War” (2).

A Player and a Gentleman: The Diary of Harry Watkins offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into nineteenth-century theatre and politics. Among other topics, it considers the following: salaries and contracts; problems with the star system; theatrical rivalries and tensions; American plays and the difficulties of adaptation; copyright laws; and encounters with famous actors and writers. In their compendium, the editors provide readers with a clear, helpful background of Watkins’s family, his time in the army before becoming an actor, and his political views. Watkins’s deep patriotism is evident across his diary and contributes to his tempered stances toward issues such as abolition, which he criticized for threatening the preservation of the Union. In their introduction and throughout footnotes, Hughes and Stubbs delineate Watkins’s specific political views while placing them in a larger cultural context; for instance, they note that “Watkins’s insouciant racism, fervent nativism, and casual misogyny were not exceptional . . . . His views mirrored those held by many white, US-born, working-and middle-class New Yorkers living during the antebellum era” (7).

The editors further explain the sweeping scope of Watkins’s diary as well as their choices in the presentation. With rigorous care, they mark when Watkins’s entries become less consistent and gesture to when parts of the diary may have become lost, destroyed, or emended. Hughes and Stubbs also unpack their own editorial policies, including choices to preserve Watkins’s voice and diction, the selection of diary entries with attention to their cultural significance, and presentation of the diary in chapters grouped by the events of a theatrical season. (Their transcription of the entire diary is available via the University of Michigan Press website, as a companion to the book). Astutely, the editors strike a balance between directly presenting Watkins’s entries and providing useful, contextualizing annotations. More distinctively, the co-editors provide a map at the beginning of each chapter so that readers can easily track Watkins’s movements when traveling, often for the purposes of theatrical engagements. Such editorial contextualization greatly contributes to making Watkins’s voice, often immersed in theatrical allusions and financial and travel details, broadly accessible to a wide range of readers.

Hughes and Stubbs’s chapters move chronologically, according to theatre seasons, and track Watkins’s increasing roles and growing importance in the theatre world. The entries in Chapter One, 1845-46, for example, allow readers to follow the touring actor as he plays minor roles in Corpus Christi, New Orleans, Cincinnati, and Louisville. The working-class Watkins describes financial struggles (including difficulty affording lodging and attire) at the start of his professional acting career. Later chapters such as Chapter Six: 1850-51 trace Watkins’s emerging role as a playwright, carefully attuned to play structure, dramatic effect, the abilities of actors, and the tastes of the audience. Thus, his prize-winning Nature’s Nobleman, set during the US-Mexican War and fiercely expressive of patriotic sentiment, served to connect with an audience in New York reacting to tensions and threats of disunion in the wake of policies related to slavery (such as Henry Clay’s Compromise of 1850). Chapter Seven:1851-52 continues to track Watkins’s efforts at stage managing and establishing a theatrical company, highlighting the difficulties of wrangling performers. Finally, this edition of the diary ends with Watkins’s account of the theatrical seasons from 1858-60, where English audiences applauded his rendition of the blackface character, Jocko, in his play, The Pioneer Patriot, and his portrayal of a demeaning Yankee role in Tom Taylor’s The Brigand and the Banker. As this edition of the diary closes, it thus reiterates Watkins’s central emphases on American patriotism and nativism and his consistently careful consideration of his paying audiences and their tastes within widespread circuits of performance.

A Player and a Gentleman offers a rare glance into the minutiae and everyday struggles of a U.S. American theatre professional in a period marked by tumult and potentiality, when theatre powerfully drew together audiences to face issues such as racial oppression and slavery, war and women’s rights. Although the diary’s ability to reflect the theatre and the antebellum period is limited in that it centers the perspective of a white, male nativist, the survival of a work of such breadth and detail is remarkable. Guided by the co-editors’ contextualization, readers can glean rich information from Watkins’s meticulous observations. For example, Watkins’s commitment to recording house size and audience appeal (as when a production of Othello fails spectacularly in the South) offers important clues to the shared political and aesthetic values in the specific communities he travels across the United States and England. The diary also vividly evokes the collaborative intimacies and unseen labor involved in creating theatre, as when managers and performers demand that Watkins cut portions of his plays, or when he arduously seeks to persuade actresses to perform in his productions. Watkins’s frank discussion of anxieties regarding finances and casting, and his hopeful expectations for and regrets over engagements also provide readers with a sense of the rich, affective undertones of life as a theatre professional in the antebellum period. As scholars increasingly attend to the wide reach of theatre and performance in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Hughes and Stubbs remind us of the powerful potential in using archival resources such as diaries to simultaneously focus on the landscape of a period and a singular life.

Amy B. Huang
Brown University

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 32, Number 2 (Spring 2020)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2020 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

 

 

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