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Pioneer PerformancesStaging the Frontier$

Matthew Rebhorn

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199751303

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199751303.001.0001

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What Is It?

What Is It?

The Frontier, Melodrama, and Boucicault's Amalgamated Drama

(p.96) Chapter Four What Is It?
Pioneer Performances

Matthew Rebhorn

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

All these performances reveal a frontier that worked to highlight the theatricality of Manifest Destiny, as opposed to its factuality, and derived its aesthetic energy from interrogating the ideology undergirding Buffalo Bill's and Turner's imperialistic fantasies. Nowhere is this energizing dismantling more evident than in the way Dion Boucicault uses the two plots of his “tragic mulatta” melodrama The Octoroon (1859) to dispute the frontier's “legacy of conquest.” This chapter thus argues, first ,that Boucicault employs the play's main plot to critique the theatrical practice of performing the frontier melodramatically, that is, as a “black-or-white” dialectic that reinforces the ideology of American imperialism, insofar as that ideology depended on a clear division between the white, civilized “self” and the racial, savage “other.” More important, by then focusing on the play's largely ignored subplot, centered on an Indian played by Boucicault, the chapter develops the idea that Boucicault emplots the frontier as a necessarily blurred, “black-and-white” set of performative practices that challenge the “black-or-white” opposition that defines both melodrama and imperialism.

Keywords:   black-and-white, black-or-white, p. t. barnum, what is it, amalgamation, tragic mulatta, melodrama, frontier, dion boucicault, race

Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon; or, Life in Louisiana, a racial melodrama about a tragic mulatta named Zoe and her doomed interracial relationship with the young white gallant George Peyton opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City on December 6, 1859, four nights after John Brown was hanged and on the same night that a pro-Southern candidate was elected mayor of New York City. Boucicault's drama of tragic, cross-racial love, interracial murder, and sensational catastrophes was therefore exquisitely timed to cause a stir, and if the New York Times of December 15, 1859, is to be believed, it did: “Everybody talks about the ‘Octoroon,’ wonders about the ‘Octoroon,’ goes to see the ‘Octoroon;’ and the ‘Octoroon’ thus becomes, in point of fact, the work of the public mind.”1 Boucicault, in short, knew how to cause a theatrical sensation. Not only had he introduced a play that dealt with the issues of cross-racial “amalgamation,”2 murder, and slavery, but just a day before the play opened, his wife, Agnes Robertson, an accomplished actress playing the title role, received an anonymous letter stating that if she essayed the part of Zoe, she would be shot. “In all probability,” suggests one of Boucicault's biographers, Richard Fawkes, “the letter was written by her husband, but its mere existence enabled Boucicault to gain column inches of free publicity.”3 Like his contemporary, the master showman P. T. Barnum, Dion Boucicault was an apt manipulator of public sentiment, and the play, in no small part because of Boucicault's craftsmanship, became the hot topic.

The Octoroon not only aimed to cause a sensation but was also, as Boucicault himself argued, invested in social change. “I believe the drama to be (p.97) a proper and very effective instrument to use in the dissection of all social matters,” Boucicault declared. “It is by such means that the drama can be elevated into the social importance it deserves to enjoy.”4 More specifically, as he expostulated on why the octoroon must die at the end of the play, drinking poison to avoid becoming the forced concubine of the evil overseer, Jacob MʼClosky, Boucicault states: “In the death of the Octoroon lies the moral and teaching of the whole work. Had this girl been saved, and the drama brought to a happy end, the horrors of her position, irremediable from the very nature of the institution of slavery, would subside into the condition of a temporary annoyance.”5 The text Boucicault cites as a source for his play ends with the marriage of the octoroon to her suitor,6 and so, Boucicault clearly saw his play—one that ends not in benign marriage but in the death of the octoroon—as critically engaged in the debate over the institution of slavery.

However, while many American newspapers blasted Boucicault for “misrepresent[ing] and vilify[ing] the South” and for creating in Zoe an amalgamated racial identity that was “preposterous, unnatural, and profane,”7 many critics saw the play as merely entertaining, taking no real position in the slavery debates—a vision that seems to trouble Boucicault's claims to his drama's social activism. Joseph Jefferson, who played Salem Scudder in the Winter Garden production, recounts in his memoir that “the truth of the matter is, [the play] was non-committal.”8 Likewise, a later review of Boucicault's work on December 15, 1859, in the New York Times echoed this sentiment. “[W]e own ourselves still unable to see what possible reason or common sense there can be in regarding [the play] as a formidable political engine,” the reviewer states. “It seemed and seems to me to be merely a cleverly-constructed, perfectly impartial, not to say non-committal, picture of life as it is in Louisiana. Its negroes are negroes, and nothing more—with the least imaginable likeness to TOUSSAINT L'OUVERTURE or DOMINICK VESEY.” By insisting that the play was “non-committal,” these sources index how the death of the octoroon, while gesturing to the potentially explosive issue of slavery, ultimately defused it by eliminating the disruptive figure of the mulatta from the play's racial calculus. Read this way, the death of the mixed-raced figure of Zoe underscored the play's essentialized racial ideology—“its negroes were negroes,” as the reviewer noted, “and nothing more.”9

These critics have suggested that Boucicault's reliance on the tragic mulatta plot helped reinforce a debilitating scheme of racial difference, one that writers like Frederick Douglass, Martin Delany, and William Wells Brown were actively working against in antebellum America.10 But even when the tragic mulatta plot was replaced in its British version by one that ends in marriage, not death, in an effort to please an audience much less (p.98) anxious about the specter of slavery, the play's thematic investment in place still muddied its political content. For no matter where The Octoroon was put on to entertain audiences, the play always unfolded in Louisiana, or as it is called in text, “the selvage of civilization.”11 For Joseph Roach, the term selvage—the interwoven edge of a piece of fabric—is a key to unlocking what is at work in the play, for the selvage “more figuratively suggests a margin, a boundary, or a perimeter that by opposition defines the center—in short, a frontier.”12 While the play, in the main, takes the form of a mortgage melodrama, its interweaving plots also allow it to reference itself as a frontier drama.13 Understanding this, Roach argues that it ultimately uses this frontier setting to “thematize the ‘law’ of manifest destiny and the doctrine of monoculturalism that it inscribes” even as it gestures to “the historic opportunity to accept or reject an alternative to the bloody frontier of conquest and forced assimilation” (182).

I posit that it is precisely the way Boucicault maintained the play's thematic development of the frontier setting and mobilized it to inflect the formal shape of the text, no matter where the play was staged in the transatlantic world, that substantiates Boucicault's claims about the play's social and political critique. By reading the way theme engages form, and vice versa, in The Octoroon, I will argue that it actually lives up to Boucicault's claims in two ways. First, he pulls the curtain back on the politics of melodrama, linking its black-or-white mode to the suffering of the hero and heroine in the main plot. By reading racial identity construction through melodramatic performance, Boucicault's play dramatizes Saidiya V. Hartman's argument that “the corporeal enactment of blackness [is] a pained one,”14 that melodrama's logic of suffering in antebellum American theater was often racially coded and depended on that codifying to generate its power. By attending carefully to the formal maneuvers of the main plot, we see how Boucicault draws our attention as audience members to this racial encoding in an effort not only to distance us critically from the melodramatic mechanisms of oppression operating within the main plot but also to italicize its artificial claims to authority. In this sense, while the tragic mulatta plot may be “non-committal,” resting on an essentialized, damaging notion of racial subjectivity, Boucicault problematizes this plot by metatheatrically highlighting and puncturing its claims to authority.

Second, if The Octoroon's main plot problematizes the melodramatic enactment of racial violence, then its subplot, involving a frontier character, the Indian Wahnotee, uses an ideologically loose and aesthetically blurry fantasy of the frontier to offer a productive countermand to melodrama's power play. By focusing on the subplot and the way Wahnotee shadows Zoe in terms of identity construction, aesthetic characterization, and dramatic action, we shall see how Boucicault's play—read in its totality—does (p.99) not buy into a coding of the frontier as an extension of American imperial power, as Roach insists. Rather, through the particular fantasy of the frontier Boucicault generates, it gestures to what I will call an amalgamated drama that does not suffer from the black-or-white modalities of melodrama.

Finally, by placing Wahnotee in context and reading his character through the play's performance at P. T. Barnum's American Museum in 1860, which was also exhibiting the showman's nondescript “What is It?”—a half man, half ape creature from the “Wilds of the Prairie”—I will show how this double bill (re)focuses our attention on the performance of identity. By tracing how both Barnum and Boucicault reenvision the frontier onstage, I will reveal how their two “creatures” helped craft a black-and-white mode that exchanges melodrama's politics of suffering for the liberating effects of what Boucicault called the “pleasure” of “amalgamated” performance. Boucicault complicates the notion that the frontier on the nineteenth-century stage was only an extension of imperial ideology, as critics have suggested.15 He employs the frontier not as a means of reinforcing the codings of savage versus civilized, black versus white, but rather as a way to advance a new performative practice that found pleasure in black-and-white identity politics and thus also served as a vehicle for reimagining what it meant to perform America that way. “What is It?” is a question, therefore, that could be asked not just of Barnum's creature and of Boucicault's play but of an American nation confronting a host of amalgamated identities on the eve of the Civil War.

I Suffer, Therefore, I am

George Peyton, one of the protagonists in The Octoroon, seems to embody perfectly the melodramatic hero, for when he is courting Zoe, George's language reveals all of the traits of melodramatic virtue. “I shall see this estate pass from me without a sigh,” declares George, “for it possesses no charm for me; the wealth I covet is the love of those around me—eyes that are rich in fond looks, lips that breathe endearing words; the only estate I value is the heart of one true woman, and the slaves I'd have are her thoughts” (465). A melodramatic lover's speech par excellence, George's statement of sentiment eschews all qualifications and makes his character, as Robert B. Heilman suggests about melodrama generally, “monopathic.”16 All the hero wants is love, or as George phrases it, “the heart of one true woman.” The melodramatic mode that George emblemizes so directly rests on a dynamic of black-or-white systemic formations, on what Peter Brooks has called melodrama's “polarized” mode. In this mode, characters attempt to make the “moral occult” completely visible, either by performing its goodness (p.100) wholeheartedly, as its heroes and heroines do, or by attempting to subvert it wholeheartedly, as its villains do.17 In this instance from Boucicault's play, therefore, George is the consummate melodramatic lover; his goodness is, to use Linda Williams's term, a kind of “moral stereotyping,”18 for its love is unchecked and admits no exceptions.

Boucicault demonstrates the black-or-white nature of George's identity even more emphatically just before the revelation that Zoe is a slave. Torn between his love for the octoroon and his devotion to his family and realizing that a strategic marriage to Dora Sunnyside would save his plantation, George proclaims: “My dear mother—Mr. Scudder—you teach me what I ought to do; if Miss Sunnyside will accept me as I am, Terrebonne shall be saved: I will sell myself, but the slaves shall be protected.” George's melodramatic exaggeration here meets with his ever-practical mother's retort: “Sell yourself, George! Is not Dora worth any man's—” which Scudder then interrupts, chiding her, “Don't say that, maʼam; don't say that to a man that loves another gal. He's going to do an heroic act; don't spile it” (472–473).

What we see here is a disjuncture of modes that gestures to both the tenuous authority of the melodramatic form and the way that form helps limn the American color line all the more clearly. Take, for instance, Salem Scudder's response to Mrs. Peyton. His admonishment that George is engaging in a heroic act that should not be “spiled” makes plain that what we are witnessing is not so much an act of heroism but rather a melodramatic effect aimed at constructing George as a hero—a fragile act that could be easily derailed by Mrs. Peyton's failure to play along. Moreover, George has recently returned to the Terrebonne Plantation from Paris, the birthplace of Rousseau's mélodrame and the home of René Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt, one of the most influential figures in the American melodramatic theater.19 George thus comes to embody not only the melodramatic hero but also melodrama itself. Scudder's dramaturgical self-reflexivity, therefore, works to alienate us from the action of the play's melodramatic hero. By critically denaturalizing the melodramatic mode in this way, Boucicault questions the logic involved in characterizing George as the dashing hero of a typical nineteenth-century melodrama.

While it might seem a kind of overreading to suggest that Boucicault was “self-reflexive” in the mid-nineteenth century, in some ways anticipating poststructural infatuations with play within his text, this kind of “mixed consciousness,” as Marc Robinson calls it, was prevalent in many antebellum American texts. As he says:

Any study of mid-nineteenth century American theater must come to terms with this “mixed consciousness”—the experience of being both inside and outside the performance, and the process by which a spectator's surrender to visual pleasure, (p.101) a surrender that typically involves self-forgetting, results in self-recognition of the kind James describes … . Such an experience enlarges one's sense of the purpose of theatrical seeing. Instead of being passive and anonymous, spectatorship in the nineteenth century is often a form of intervention, as audiences are invited to become witnesses, analysts, historians, and even reformers, able by the care with which they observe a production to practice the skills of self-scrutiny and social diagnosis necessary outside the theater as well.20

Throughout The Octoroon, Boucicault continues to disrupt the black-or-white vision of melodrama through creating this kind of “mixed consciousness” in his spectators, a shuttling between what Robinson refers to as “analytic and ecstatic seeing” (43). This double vision occurs again when George speaks of either selling himself or retaining his integrity, either letting the slaves be abused or protecting them. To be heroic thus involves not just personal sacrifice but also the public declaration of how he will suffer because of his choice. The kind of suffering George is invoking was required in melodramatic subjects, for as Linda Williams argues, the melodramatic mode defined itself by “staging virtue through adversity and suffering” (15). As we have already noted, melodrama trades in a kind of “moral stereotyping”—a black-or-white bifurcation of virtue and villainy—but it needs a means by which to make that moral division visible. Suffering provides just such a means, not only separating virtue from villainy but also equating virtue with a highly visible kind of victimhood as a way of marking the hero as heroic. As Boucicault was aware, one of the bedrock principles of melodrama was that heroism emerges from virtue's suffering.

In the nineteenth century, that understanding of heroism and, thus, of identity was codified by the theatrical predecessor of The Octoroon—the stage blockbuster Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851). “From the moment Simon Legree's whip first lent Uncle Tom a paradoxical visibility and dignity as a suffering, and thus worthy, human being,” Linda Williams insists, “the political power of pain and suffering has been a key mechanism of melodrama's rhetorical power” (43).21 The move from white to black suffering in Uncle Tom effectively recalibrated identity, making that suffering the defining feature of hitherto disenfranchised individuals: “I suffer, therefore, I am,” the speaker suggests. When George thus proclaims, “I will sell myself, but the slaves shall be protected” (472), he is embracing this method of identity formation, metaphorically blacking up by representing himself as a piece of chattel like Uncle Tom that can be sold in order to insert himself simultaneously into a tradition of suffering, melodramatic heroes.

The problem with George's performing this melodramatic suffering, however, is that he is no Uncle Tom. George is not a slave; he is not subject to the whip of Simon Legree; he does not suffer from the humiliation of (p.102) servitude. Uncle Tom's heroic suffering helped construct a fraught version of black subjectivity through melodrama, whereas George's self-inflicted wound, by contrast, is an attempt to construct his heroic self by taking over the suffering, melodramatic identity of the slave. Since George is a privileged member of the white Southern aristocracy, his heroic statement that he will “sell” himself can be read as a kind of performative slumming, a fact underscored in the text by Mrs. Peyton's immediate, instinctive response: “Sell yourself, George!” (472). By highlighting the exact term central to George's performance, Mrs. Peyton's comment draws our attention as audience members to the way melodrama is implicated in the repressive structures of racial power. George's appropriation of the role of a suffering, black melodramatic hero can only occur through his expropriation of one of the few modes of identity construction accorded black chattel slaves. George's “blacking up” works, in other words, not to address the inequalities and devastating ironies such a cross-racial performance reveals but rather to use these very inequalities to reveal his character as a melodramatic hero.

If Boucicault wants to make us critically aware of his play as a melodrama and of George as its heavy-handed hero, then he equally wants us to see the title character, the famous octoroon, together with the tragic mulatta plot she inhabits, in a critical light. Like the previous exchange, Zoe's revelation of her true identity to George at the climax of the play creates a slippage in the modal configuration of the play, a slippage that also implicates the melodramatic mode in the enactment of racial power. In this scene, Zoe tells George, “There is a gulf between us, as wide as your love, as deep as my despair.” When George then insists that she explain herself, Zoe produces a litany of signs of her own abjection, ending the list by proclaiming: “I am an unclean thing—forbidden by the laws—I'm an Octoroon!” (466–467). At this exact moment when the future of the characters in this play hangs in the balance, George seems unwilling to let Zoe suffer as the tragic mulatta; he is unwilling, in other words, to abide by the rules of melodramatic suffering.22 In a moment that has escaped critics' attention, George seems willing to toss aside Zoe's definition as an octoroon because of love, declaring, “Zoe, I love you none the less; this knowledge brings no revolt to my heart, and I can overcome the obstacle” (467). George's about-face in terms of characterization—from melodramatic champion to melodramatic challenger—becomes a device used by Boucicault to suggest not only how fluid and nonmonopathic dramatic characters can be but also how artificially conditioned melodramatic characters are. In this instant, after all, the play could end happily, as Reid's narrative does with Edward and Aurore living a “tranquil” life together (367). Yet, this dramatic possibility is quashed by Zoe's next line, “But I cannot” (467). George's momentary dismissal of the melodramatic plot for one that might avoid its calamitous conclusion is thus (p.103) abruptly undercut by Zoe's declaration. Her emphasis on I, moreover, not only highlights that she disagrees with George but figuratively underscores that it is precisely Zoe's mulatta identity for which the play is named that forecloses any possibility of avoiding a tragic end. She is the tragic mulatta, she insists, and her reproach to George indicates that he has misread her scripted end. Like the scene between George, Mrs. Peyton, and Scudder, this exchange between melodramatic hero and heroine introduces a critical “mixed consciousness.” Just when the audience watching this production would be most heavily invested in the melodramatic nature of the play, Boucicault creates a slippage that allows a critical space to develop for them within the confines of the drama itself.

What we see in this critical moment is that if Zoe will play the tragic mulatta triumphantly, she will necessarily have to suffer as the result of this choice precisely because of her commitment to melodramatic performance and the identity it entails. Nancy Bentley argues that “the idea of the inviolate soul in [mulatta] fiction modulates all too easily into notions of a soul that thrives upon, or even requires, the humiliation of the body. By definition, the tragic Mulatta is granted her most pronounced symbolic power by virtue of her worldly suffering” (505). Russ Castronovo goes further, stating that figures like Zoe can only achieve freedom through suffering a tragic death since death “liberates the subject from social meanings of race.”23 Lauren Berlant has recently argued, however, that melodramatic suffering, like Zoe's, became a means not of erasing identity but of ironically—if not unproblematically—mapping out a new kind of personhood. Starting in the early nineteenth century, when the sentimental mode's stock was on the rise, its appeal to the emotions, Berlant argues, created a new way to conceptualize identity. It worked to bind people to the nation not by deploying a rhetoric of citizenship or of individual rights but rather by creating a rhetoric that depended on “the capacity for suffering and trauma at the citizen's core.”24 To make oneself into a true citizen, as we see Zoe do, involved identification with pain and suffering and, more importantly, the embracing of this identification as identity.

Zoe's desire to suffer as the melodramatic tragic mulatta can be read as a desire for identity, for mixed race women like Zoe were not officially recognized as mixed in the nineteenth century but were instead identified as black and thus considered chattel property.25 Brooks argues that Zoe is “blackened by the act of suffering” (41), and while Boucicault's play stages this argument, the playwright is likewise keen to draw his audience's attention to how the form of melodrama itself—with its reliance on suffering—is implicated in the scripting of the play's tragic end. Zoe's desire to suffer, in other words, marks her blackness but also seals her fate, for not ten lines after Zoe's melodramatic declaration of intent, George attempts to dissuade her, asking if they must “immolate” their lives to the societal prejudice around (p.104) them. Zoe can only insist: “Yes, for I'd rather be black than ungrateful! Ah, George, our race has at least one virtue—it knows how to suffer!” (467). By embracing a racial understanding of herself, Zoe thus also embraces the ne plus ultra of melodramatic identity, the capacity for suffering not as a plot device but as a conduit to personhood. As Boucicault reveals, her melodramatic understanding of who she is in a genre that makes everything black or white drives her to freight her blackness, her “suffering race,” with the responsibility for her suffering.

Like George's performance of heroism, Zoe's playing the suffering victim shows how implicated the form of melodrama is in the reinforcement of the racism of antebellum America. Ironically, to wrap herself in the mantle of the suffering melodramatic heroine, Zoe must first figuratively black up, just as her paramour, George, did earlier. In Zoe's case, however, such a choice also dismisses the complexity of her paradoxical nature as black –and white, and in doing so, denies that racial identity can be anything other than an enslaved—and enslaving—stereotype. While Zoe's pathologizing of her black blood as the reason for her suffering gives her access to the melodramatic equation of suffering with subjectivity, this same melodramatic indictment simultaneously buttresses the idea that her identity as a hybrid is profane, pathological, and thus unacceptable. Zoe scripts her own tragedy when she makes her black-and-white identity visible in the black-and-white world of melodrama, a world that cannot and will not admit the blending of those or any categories. Through George's repeated theatrical disruptions of the otherwise seamless melodramatic scripting of the play, disruptions that occur at the most crucial moments in the main plot's formal justifications—his willingness, even eagerness, to undercut the melodramatic power play—Boucicault clears a space formally for his audience to entertain alternative forms of theatrical self-definition that might be able to accept an amalgamated identity like Zoe's. Marc Robinson calls this kind of problematized genre “sophisticated melodrama” (9), but as we can see, this self-reflexive melodrama could also do more than simply interrogate the aesthetic limits of a theatrical mode. If Boucicault scripts Zoe's dependence on melodrama's “poetics of pain,” as Brooks calls it (37), leading to her ultimate destruction, then his play's main plot repeatedly highlights and questions melodrama's shadowy but nonetheless foundational role in the nefarious logic of racism in America.

The Pleasure of Bad Taste

The melodramatic mode that Boucicault problematizes was already starting to lose its popular appeal with audiences by the mid-nineteenth century. By 1859, the American theater was in the midst of change, shaking off an older (p.105) form of melodrama stemming from the French plays of Pixérécourt and latching onto a new, more parochial—and more realistic—form of drama originating with the works of Eugène Scribe.26 Boucicault himself reflects this shift in an essay written in 1877, where he insists that there are two kinds of drama: The first is what he calls the “contemporaneous or realistic drama, which is a reflex of the features of the period, where the personages are life-size, the language partakes of their reality, and the incidents are natural,” while the second is what he calls the “transcendental or unreal drama, where the personages are larger than life-size, their ideas and language more exalted than human conversation, and the incidents more important than we meet with in ordinary life.”27 Well before the crystallization of dramatic realism by James Herne's Margaret Fleming in 1882, Boucicault defines the competing modes of drama as “realistic” and “transcendental,” which, from the way Boucicault describes it, is melodrama.

However, while Boucicault saw the drama of the period developing in two ways, his own play exists at some distance from both of these definitions. The Octoroon is a problematic or “sophisticated” melodrama rather than unreal in the way he defines it, and even if we look no farther than Boucicault's own definition of realism, we can see how this play is likewise not realistic. The Octoroon was moving in a new direction, and Boucicault attempted to lay the groundwork for this shift by imagining what this new style of drama might contain. In an article for the North American Review in 1875, he defines this new dramaturgical style, arguing that the “liberty of imagination should not be sacrificed to arbitrary restrictions and traditions that lead to dullness and formality. Art is not a church; it is the philosophy of pleasure.”28 Here, we see the theoretical basis for Boucicault's reluctance to write dramas that were either “transcendental” or “realistic,” in the vein of Pixérécourt or Scribe. Following the playwright's suggestion, we can read The Octoroon as not only reproducing while criticizing melodrama but also using the critical space carved out from melodrama to stage what he calls “the philosophy of pleasure.”

While Boucicault's statement helps us see his discomfort with the dramaturgical modes available to him, it only gestures to what his new style might look like. To discover what might be “pleasurable” about The Octoroon, we need to situate it more fully within its theatrical moment. On September 15, 1859, the New York Herald noted that the newly renovated Winter Garden Theatre had eliminated a good portion of the stalls to make room for the parquette, or what we would call “orchestra seating.” Just three months before the opening of Boucicault's play, in the same theater where it would be staged, this remapping of space simultaneously remapped the class dynamics of the theater. This new theatrical space, in effect, catered more to the burgeoning bourgeois audience that would have been put off (p.106) by “the pit” of the older theater. Moreover, the Herald suggests that what really defined the new Winter Garden was “the exceeding good taste which has prevailed in all the arrangement, and the liberally lavish way in which everything has been done … . The house is sumptuous, elegant, and tasteful throughout.”29 This emphasis on “taste,” twice mentioned, illustrates two distinct trends. First, it indicates the increasing desire among theater managers to offer more “respectable” theatrical fare. Unlike the Bowery theater experience—“no dainty kid-gloved business,” Walt Whitman recalled, “but electric force and muscle from perhaps 2000 full-sinew'd men”—the theatrical entertainments of midcentury aimed to be more respectable and, what is equally clear, less working class. By midcentury, in other words, the tasteful applause at the Winter Garden had replaced the “long-kept-up tempests of hand-clapping peculiar to the Bowery.”30 Second, the emphasis on taste indexes the burgeoning middle-class's investment in it as a means of constructing their identity by simultaneously enforcing class lines and racial boundaries. In a mid-nineteenth-century social mix, when social mobility threatened clearly delineated class divisions, one could perform one's “good taste” and thus one's superior class, by seeing and being seen at “tasteful” performances.31

In contrast, The Octoroon was a play in bad taste. Boucicault's dramaturgy not only demurred from engaging fully in the traditional mode of melodrama but actively went about undermining its legitimacy. However, the play was not a realistic pièce bien faite either, as Scribe's drama came to be called. Thus, his play chafed at the “arbitrary restrictions” guiding both melodrama and the well-made play. Yet, because of its bad taste, The Octoroon ironically offered its audience something new, a less restricted, more amalgamated idea of what drama—as well as identity—could entail. Nowhere is this more explicit than in the play's relatively unexplored subplot. By examining this plot's interaction with the main plot and the way the characters from this subplot resist having their performances conditioned by the “arbitrary restrictions and traditions” of the melodramatic mode, we see how Boucicault traded the melodramatic aesthetic of “tasteful” suffering for a new aesthetic of black-and-white pleasure, the result of which I am calling Boucicault's amalgamated drama.

Boucicault's Amalgamated Drama

Up to this point, the investigation of Boucicault's demystification of the racism and identity in the melodramatic mode has only attended to the main plot, a plot that William Winter, the playwright's contemporary theater critic, was focusing on when he said that Boucicault was “more adroit (p.107) than original.”32 Yet it must be remembered that intersecting the main plot's north-south axis of shrewd Yankees and plantation overseers is a subplot running east-west and centered on the frontier figure of the Indian, Wahnotee, a part that Boucicault played in the drama's first run. His Indian was unprecedented in mulatta stories, but its real importance lay not so much in its novelty as in the way Boucicault employed a frontier aesthetic to incarnate in Wahnotee—quite literally—his dramaturgy of pleasure.

Boucicault gestures to this aesthetic when he introduces the Indian in the first act. Just as Boucicault reinforces his equation of George with melodrama by noting his association with Paris, the playwright likewise associates Wahnotee with the frontier by having him come from a “nation out West” (457). Wahnotee thus embodies the frontier. While most of the characters from the main plot want to send him back there, Zoe objects.

Wahnotee is a gentle, honest creature, and remains here because he loves [the slave boy, Paul] with the tenderness of a woman. When Paul was taken down with the swamp fever the Indian sat outside the hut, and neither ate, slept, or spoke for five days, till the child could recognize and call him to his bedside. (457)

What has been overlooked by critics is the fact that The Octoroon features a second interracial union that also ends with the death of one of the characters. However, if the tension of the main plot is generated by the inability of the interracial couple to transcend melodrama's prescribed suffering, the subplot highlights an interracial union that sidesteps melodrama entirely and, in doing so, flourishes. While both plots end with the death of one of the partners, it should be noted that Zoe chooses her suicide, while Paul's death comes at the hands of MʼClosky. Unlike the relationship between Zoe and George, that between Wahnotee and Paul would have continued if it had not been cut short.

These two plots of the play parallel each other in another way as well, for both Zoe and Wahnotee are hybrids. While Wahnotee later plays the avenging, masculine hero who hunts down and kills the villain of the play, before then he seems comfortable playing the woman, as Zoe observes, by tending to Paul. Unlike Zoe's internal schism between black slave and white heroine, however, Wahnotee seamlessly joins two competing gender performances, playing the masculinized character of the violent savage at the end of the play just as he easily portrays the maternal caregiver to a slave at the beginning. Even Wahnotee's language reflects his hybridity, for while Zoe mouths the pure language of the melodramatic heroine, Paul recounts that Wahnotee “speaks a mash-up of Indian and Mexican” (457). Unlike George and Zoe who suffer from the black-or-white scripting of melodrama, Wahnotee lovingly embraces his black-and-white identity just as he both loves (p.108) and avenges Paul. Unlike George and Zoe's representation and embodiment of melodrama, therefore, Wahnotee's incarnation of a “mashed-up” frontier stages a provocative alternative to the main plot.

Boucicault fine-tunes Wahnotee as an avatar of an alternative frontier dramaturgy by drawing a sharp contrast between character development in the main plot and in the subplot. We can see this by recalling how fully and uncritically Zoe embraces her role as the tragic mulatta and, as such, how she repeats the mantra, “I suffer, therefore I am,” right up to her death. George also seems to manifest fully this same adherence to melodrama's equation of identity and suffering. Thus, in the scene where Zoe has just been sold to the lascivious MʼClosky, George leaps at the villain, knife in hand, snarling, “Yelping hound—take that.” MʼClosky quickly draws his own knife, and for a moment, the hero and villain are poised to fight—the melodramatic agon of the play thrust center stage. Yet, that tense moment is deflated as Scudder darts between them, saying: “Hold on, George Peyton—stand back. This is your own house; we are under your uncle's roof; recollect yourself” (482). The knives are replaced, the conflict is forgotten, and the plot moves forward. Despite what has happened, George will not become an avenger: He must not dispatch the sole impediment to his life with Zoe. Instead, he must heed Scudder's advice—he must “recollect” himself—and learn to suffer more visibly for us if we are to see him as the melodramatic hero.

To recollect oneself can be understood in this context in at least two distinct ways. In one sense, Scudder advises George to remember himself. Like Scudder's commentary earlier in the scene between Mrs. Peyton and George, this term allows us to see how Boucicault is drawing attention to the limits of the melodramatic mode: George seems to have forgotten that he is playing the hero, and by heeding Scudder's advice, as an actor would a director's, he will remember that he must suffer in order to be one. Boucicault's use of Scudder in this instance calls attention to the self-hatred at the core of the melodramatic imagination. However, in addition to understanding recollect as remember, the term also means to collect oneself again, to re-collect oneself. Reading the term in this way does not so much illustrate the nature of melodramatic identity as show the ways that identity is managed. To be a melodramatic hero means not only embracing one's identity as victim but also relentlessly policing it. Melodrama, in other words, is not so much about revealing one's emotions, as our contemporary understanding of melodrama might suggest it is. It is rather about revealing and displaying the right emotions. As Boucicault's culture insisted, melodrama was about the tasteful display of emotions. Letting go of your emotions, as George was about to do, is tantamount to letting go of your identity in Boucicault's bourgeois America. Only through constantly re-collecting himself as the (p.109) suffering, stoic hero, keeping a lid on his more fervent passions, will George be able to perform his “tasteful” melodramatic self.

By contrast, Wahnotee feels no such need to recollect and police his own identity. Whereas George understands suffering as something to be embraced, Wahnotee understands it as something to be resisted and overcome. Boucicault dramatizes this difference, moreover, when Wahnotee, like George and Zoe, is made to suffer. At the Peytons's request, Wahnotee and his partner, Paul, go down to the dock to get the letter that, unbeknownst to them, will save Terrebonne Plantation and thwart MʼClosky's dastardly plans to buy it, its slaves, and most importantly, Zoe. When Wahnotee and Paul later find a camera that Scudder was using to take pictures of Dora, Paul insists that Wahnotee take his picture. After bribing him with the promise of “fire water,” Paul convinces him to do it. As soon as Wahnotee has done his part, he runs off to get his drink. Paul, meanwhile, sits waiting for the picture to develop, and as he does so, MʼClosky discovers him, takes up Wahnotee's tomahawk, and kills the young boy in order to get the letter. MʼClosky then escapes, assuring himself and the audience that the Indian will take the fall for the death of the boy. When Wahnotee comes back onstage, he sees Paul and mistakenly thinks he is still alive. Believing Paul is “shamming sleep,” the Indian “gesticulates and jabbers,” gives him a nudge with his foot, and then “kneels down to rouse him.” To his “horror,” Wahnotee discovers that Paul is dead, and as the stage directions indicate, he “expresses great grief” (469).

Like Zoe and George, Wahnotee suffers here. Rather than simply embracing it, however, he lashes out. Instead of stemming the flow of emotions as George did, he expresses his fury passionately. Seeing the camera, he lets out a “savage growl, seizes [his] tomahawk and smashes [the] camera to pieces” (469). On the one hand, Wahnotee's smashing of the camera seems futile—a far cry, for instance, from what would have been the potentially deadly and plot-altering result of George's tussle with MʼClosky. On the other hand, while he does not sink a dagger into the villain's heart, Wahnotee's passionate outburst stands in stark opposition to George's inert rage. When it matters most, when the plot of the play hangs in the balance between a melodramatic ending and one that rejects this aesthetic, George retreats into the melodramatic formula of suffering heroism. Wahnotee, on the other hand, when his actions mean little, when suffering would allow him a modicum of melodramatic heroism—and the identity it provides—explodes in passion. What we see in this contrast are distinctly different aesthetics and modes of self-definition: recollecting the self versus releasing the self; meaningless words versus wordless meaning. By comparing these two suffering figures—as Boucicault intends us to do—we see the glimmer of an aesthetic alternative to melodrama's command that its practitioners (p.110) script their own destruction. Tending to the subplot, we see a mode of expression that encourages its artists to resist the problematic black-or-white semantics of melodrama's formulation.

As this alternative mode's key figure, Wahnotee avoids the sinister effects of operating within the melodramatic mode in a way that George, and Zoe in particular, do not. While Zoe was incapable of sustaining an amalgamated identity—constructing her identity through the problematic denial of her hybridity in order to perform the tragic mulatta of melodrama—we can see how Wahnotee avoids this self-destructive construction of identity by embracing exactly what Zoe's melodramatic mode did not allow. Boucicault highlights the amalgamated nature of Wahnotee's identity most clearly in his “haunting” of MʼClosky after he discovers in the play's trial scene that it was indeed MʼClosky who killed Paul. Wahnotee is a “mashed-up” character, and as he begins pursuing MʼClosky through the swamp, the Indian's hybridity is what terrorizes the villain. “In some form, human, or wild beast, or ghost,” MʼClosky enunciates breathlessly, “it has tracked me through the night. I fled; it followed” (491). Boucicault underscores how Wahnotee's identity is hybrid here in two ways. First, in the dialogue, we see how the Indian's identity becomes not only an “it” rather than a “him” but how he also becomes both a “human” and a “wild beast.” Second, as David C. Miller has shown, the swamp through which Wahnotee pursues MʼClosky was a space of terror in the minds of white antebellum America because its uncontainable geography—simultaneously both fluid and solid, fecund and decaying—symbolically reflected the terrifying uncontainability of the ever-increasing numbers of violent, murderous slave rebels, like Nat Turner, who found the swamp a perfect location from which to organize their attacks.33 Through both dialogue and setting, Boucicault codes Wahnotee as not only hybrid and unsettled but, because of this hybridity, also terrifying and unsettling to someone like MʼClosky. Thus, although Wahnotee and Zoe are both hybrids, Wahnotee's identity remains hybrid, while Zoe restricts hers to the black “taint” of her body. For Zoe, in effect, hybrid identity leads to her own destruction, while for Wahnotee, his hybrid identity effects a kind of moral justice. If Zoe is haunted by the persistent presence of the black blood in her veins, MʼClosky is haunted by the almost absent Indian who is nevertheless persistently present in his imagination.

To be sure, Wahnotee is, in many ways, the stereotypical stage Indian, just as Zoe is, in many ways, the stereotypical tragic mulatta, but whereas Zoe suffers because of the melodramatic role she accepts, Wahnotee resists the black-or-white mode of melodrama. Boucicault's Indian is pointedly not the inhuman villain of Manifest Destiny, killing settlers and terrorizing the nation. He is not the monstrous bogeyman, the “ruthless savage” demonized in the American imagination during this period.34 While George can (p.111) only helplessly and mutely record the tragedy of Zoe's death, Wahnotee acts, his humanity fully displayed as he responds with passion to the death of Paul. That being said, Wahnotee is not a version of the staged noble savage either, heroically helping imperiled white citizens and then leaving the scene at the end of the play.35 Wahnotee's violent acts and feelings, his “savagery,” are neither condemned nor dismissed in the play but are rather celebrated, for it is the Indian and not George who dispatches the villain and restores moral order. In this way, Boucicault avoids essentializing Wahnotee's identity, allowing him to operate within both the subplot with Paul and, substantially, in the main plot with MʼClosky.

In the first run of the play, the fact that Boucicault performed the role of Wahnotee helped underscore the character's easy hybridity, for the play-wright was a hybrid: He was an Irishman of French descent writing an “American” play as well as being a white man playing a “red” one, a “civilized” European playing an American “savage.” Part of the pleasure the audience experienced in Boucicault's performance must have come from the staging of his “mashed-up” identity, an identity that underscored what Wahnotee stands for in the play. I suggest the playwright's recoding of how the frontier was performed clarifies what he meant when he wrote that drama should entail a “philosophy of pleasure.” Distancing his play from melodrama's fetishizing of suffering, Boucicault imagines the frontier embodied in Wahnotee as a pleasurable and nonessentialized shuttling between various overlapping and interweaving performances of the self—an amalgamated drama in which the fluidity of this frontier fantasy stands in stark contrast to the monopathic characters of the main plot. Unlike Zoe's anxious role-playing that limits her to her blackness and trades on her suffering, Wahnotee's performance stitches together a range of identities that allow him both to feel passionately for Paul and to avenge him. The pleasure involved in this performance springs from all of the ways it avoids melodrama's insistence on re-collecting a character's suffering self as he or she goes down the path to self-destruction. For an antebellum American audience dependent on the melodramatic fetishizing of good taste, Wahnotee offered this audience another flavor of American identity.

The Frontier Freak

When The Octoroon finished its brief initial run at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City in 1859, and after simultaneous performances at both the Old and the New Bowery Theaters in 1860, it traveled uptown to the stage at P. T. Barnum's American Museum. As theater historian George C. D. Odell suggests, it landed at Barnum's venue “to reap the golden (p.112) harvest of provincial awe,” for it “ran comfortably to mid-March, largely aided by the presence in the hall of freaks of Barnum's What is It? a ‘most marvelous living creature found near the source of the River Gambia,’ a combination of gorilla body and human intelligence.”36

As we can see in the figures that follow (Figures 4.1, 4.2), taken from a rare double-sided theatrical broadside, part of the pleasure of going to Barnum's Museum on March 10, 1860, was not only seeing Boucicault's popular work but also encountering Barnum's equally popular freak. They were two sides, as it were, of the same aesthetic experience. As we can see from

                   What Is It?The Frontier, Melodrama, and Boucicault's Amalgamated Drama

Figure 4.1 Detail from broadside, Barnum's American Museum, March 10, 1860.

Source: Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

                   What Is It?The Frontier, Melodrama, and Boucicault's Amalgamated Drama

Figure 4.2 Detail from broadside, Barnum's American Museum, March 10, 1860.

Source: Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

these images, what attracted audience members to the play was not only the drama's sensational steamboat fires and the relentless hunting of the villain by a tomahawk-wielding Indian, such as we see in Figure 4.1, but also the strange and perplexing creature we see in Figure 4.2. For, as the broadside relates, this creature, presented as the Missing Link in human evolution, would be displayed in between the acts of the melodrama about cross-racial love on the Southern frontier. What you got as an audience member was a two-for-one deal: two “freaks” for the price of one.

Half man, half ape, Barnum's What is It? drew a crowd because it was an amalgamation, and Boucicault's play is perfectly paired with it because the play is also an amalgamation. There are the amalgamations that are Zoe and Wahnotee, but the play itself, with its two different plots, was a generic hybrid, an amalgamation as well. The main plot was a melodrama, though a self-conscious one, scripting character and action as natural and essentialized and deploying standard character types and set pieces. The subplot, by contrast, was a new mode of drama, trafficking in a more performative conceptualization of identity in the context of the frontier, recalibrating the meaning such stereotypical figures as the Indian could have on and for the ideology of the play. In short, like the nature of its melodramatic heroine, The Octoroon was both black-and-white.

(p.114) Turning our attention to the broadside again and focusing on the section of it directly below Figure 4.1, we can see how the presence of Barnum's freak has permeated, quite literally Boucicault's play (Figure 4.3). In this space, where The Octoroon's cast is enumerated, we see an inverted image of What is It? that has bled through the paper and becomes, as Wahnotee did to MʼClosky, a ghostly presence haunting the characters of Boucicault's play. While this is, of course, inadvertent (likely due to the printer's failure to have used sufficiently thick paper stock or to have put too much ink on the press), we cannot also help but read this tantalizing mistake symbolically: Hybridity defines not just What is It?, Zoe, and Wahnotee but all of the characters in this play and, by extension, all of the people seeing this performance. “What is It?” was the question Barnum insisted his audience ask of his creature, but it was also the question that both Barnum's and Boucicault's shows made their audience ask of themselves.

What is also evident about both performances is that the drive to question one's own identity was at least partially generated by redefining what the frontier might mean in antebellum America. For, in addition to being sold as a freakish creature who refused categorization, Barnum's “amalgamation” was also sold, in several instances, as “The Wild Man of the Prairies,” a creature discovered in “the wilds of California,” where “for the last 10 months it has been living with a tribe of Indians.”37 The broadside gestures to this same idea, for at the bottom of Figure 4.3, we can see how it is being

                   What Is It?The Frontier, Melodrama, and Boucicault's Amalgamated Drama

Figure 4.3 Detail from broadside, Barnum's American Museum, March 10, 1860.

Source: Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

(p.115) paired with a “Black Sea Lion” and a “Grizzly Bear,” both “[j]ust arrived from California.” All of these attractions, Barnum suggests, are frontier creatures, even if What is It? is the most important in that it fixates directly on the notion of human identity. Barnum often changed the supposed origin of What is It? to capitalize on the interests of different audiences, but what is important here is the parallel between Barnum's frontier amalgamation and Boucicault's Wahnotee, who was one as well. Showcasing What is It? between the acts of The Octoroon thus made sense aesthetically. Just as Wahnotee's performance resisted the melodramatic ideology of the frontier—noble savage versus ruthless killer—What is It? pushed against the same ideology that insisted on a clear black-or-white line dividing savagery from civilization.

What is It?, however, also achieved something as an entrʼacte spectacle that Wahnotee never could. Barnum's freak radically altered the stage machinery that insulated its audience members from the presence of this performative identity, bringing them face to face with a kind of radically “nondescript” performance of the self. In this Currier and Ives's print of What is It? at Barnum's American Museum (Figure 4.4), we encounter a performance with none of The Octoroon's formal mechanics to work through, no plot twists to account for, no character development to follow. As James W. Cook has shown, What is It? was a black man from New York City; unlike other Barnum freaks—the Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, or the dwarf, Tom Thumb, for instance—the various actors who played What is It? throughout its tenure at the American Museum were, as a contemporary writer noted of one of them, “unexceptional” (128). The identity of What is It? as a freak was entirely a matter of performance, and thus when he thrilled audience members, he was simultaneously highlighting how performative identity really was. As Boucicault's dramaturgical innovation involved the aesthetic encounter between the main plot and subplot, What is It? energized audiences by confronting them directly and tangibly with the question of identity—an identity, as the lithograph illustrates, that could be observed, experienced, and even touched by an entire middle-class family. Moreover, Barnum's refusal to pin down What is It?—it was both man and ape, African and Western, black and white—helped accentuate not the terror of social blurriness but rather the pleasure of performative identity, for as the lithograph's caption states of Barnum's creature: “He is playful as a Kitten and in every way pleasing, interesting, and amusing.” This language may have been used to alleviate middle-class fears of miscegenation: The caption obliquely reassures us that What is It? is not the savage black rapist of the white American imagination. Instead, it is presented as being as playful as a kitten but a creature nevertheless “pleasing, interesting, and amusing” for all of the ways it flirted with identity itself as an amalgamation. Like (p.116)

                   What Is It?The Frontier, Melodrama, and Boucicault's Amalgamated Drama

Figure 4.4 Circus poster: “What Is It?” or “Man Monkey,” circa 1860.

Source: Currier and Ives, The New-York Historical Society, negative no. 67612.

Barnum's exhibit, Boucicault's self-conscious melodrama was pleasurable precisely because it offered to its audience in its vibrant subplot what this same group of citizens had been told would not be tolerated in the main plot: identity as an amalgamated, black-and-white performance.

Boucicault's play, like the spectacle of What is It?, used its critical distance from the melodrama, with its black-or-white ideology, to develop a new kind of performative practice, one epitomized in a scene that occurs at the end of the play in which Salem Scudder condemns a group of white settlers who are bent on lynching Wahnotee for the murder of Paul.

Here's a picturʼ for a civilized community to afford: yonder, a poor, ignorant savage, and round him a circle of hearts, white with revenge and hate, thirsting for his blood: you call (p.117) yourselves judges—you ain't—you're a jury of executioners. It is such scenes as these that bring disgrace upon our Western life. (485)

Here, Boucicault again complicates the “moral stereotyping” of melodrama, for it is the settlers, not the Indian, who are the “savages” in their “thirsting for … blood.” With this kind of role swapping and racial remarking, the scene undercuts the melodramatic ideology of the frontier even as it gestures to a new kind of performative practice that understood subjectivity itself as something black –and white.

Moreover, by dubbing this moment both a “picturʼ” and a “scene”—a kind of theatrical spectacle—Boucicault also highlights the self-consciously theatrical nature of the “Western life” Scudder outlines: The frontier is not so much a historical or geographical boundary as a set of performative practices inflected by history and geography. By presenting the frontier as something always and already a “scene,” The Octoroon usefully illustrates one configuration of these performative practices, a configuration that offers both an alternative to the melodramatic mode and evidence of exactly how fungible the concept of the frontier really was. In linking frontier performance to hybrid identity, What is It? also coded the frontier as a performative practice. To see What is It? was to see the frontier enacted. More important, Barnum's refusal to categorize the creature by referring to it as a “nondescript” effectively avoided the scripting of the frontier as the ideological extension of Manifest Destiny and American imperial power.

In essence, Boucicault's play did three things simultaneously. First, it destabilized the melodramatic mode by alienating the audience from the main plot's melodramatic investments and pointed to the way melodrama's black-and-white mode, which could not tolerate figures who were black and white, had become the common language for the articulation of racial power in America. Second, the pleasure involved in undermining the melodramatic mode laid the groundwork for the way Boucicault then recoded the frontier through Wahnotee as an alternative to the melodramatic modes of identity. Finally, by focusing on the fact that the play was put on in the same venue where Barnum presented What is It?, we see how Boucicault's version of the frontier generated a new kind of performative practice that opened up the meaning of the frontier even as it substantively framed identity differently. If “[e]verybody talk[ed] about the ‘Octoroon,’ wonder[ed] about the ‘Octoroon,’ [and went] to see the ‘Octoroon,’” as the reviewer for the New York Times stated, then this drama played a vital role in revealing antebellum America to itself. Punctuated by the entr'acte spectacle of What is It?, Boucicault's play showed its audience how a stage performance could rescript what it meant to perform or “act” as an American offstage as well.

(p.118) If we study the carte de visite below from Barnum's American Museum (Figure 4.5), then we see both the kind of amalgamated identity being performed and the tenor of its performance. On the right we see What is It?, kitted out in boxing gloves and his “wild man” suit, and to the left we see Barnum's Leopard Boy, a young black boy whose body was covered with white splotches, generated by a rare form of albinism, also sporting boxing gloves. Taken as a whole, this image is a blur of racial categorization: The white boxing gloves on the otherwise dark figure of What is It? highlight his racial mixing by figuring him, literally, as both black-and-white. To an

                   What Is It?The Frontier, Melodrama, and Boucicault's Amalgamated Drama

Figure 4.5 What Is It? and Leopard Boy.

Source: Cabinet photographs, Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

(p.119) even greater degree, Leopard Boy reinforces this racial amalgamation by again literally figuring in his body the racial mixing going on—he is, as was abundantly clear to Barnum's audience, both black-and-white. Yet it is the arrangement and narrative of the scene that most dramatically punctuates the effect of both Barnum's freaks and Boucicault's “freak.” As with The Octoroon, the scenery is natural and wild, not Africanized or exotic, a cognate for the frontier in the antebellum American imagination, thus helping to code both of Barnum's freaks as frontier figures. What is even more startling about this image, however, is the narrative the two people perform. While it is clearly meant to evoke a boxing match, it is also clearly not about their sparring with each other or, for that matter, their involvement with each other. If it is a boxing match, in other words, it is evidently not about the contest between the two figures. With their three-quarter profiles and the directness, even aggressiveness, of their body language—particularly Leopard Boy's crossed arms—the image suggests a kind of combativeness with the viewer, a steady and unflinching return of the viewer's gaze. What this image captures is far different from the Currier and Ives's depiction of What is It? as safe and “playful as a kitten” (Figure 4.4); rather, it frames these figures as dangerous, aggressive, and self-aware, aware of their own socially problematic identity as black-and-white and, through the performance involved in this image, committed to pushing that identity right up in the face of the viewer. Like Wahnotee's smashing of the camera, these figures do not play by the rules of melodramatic identity—they are not content to espouse the black or white dictums of melodrama. Rather, if we look at the pendant hanging from the chest of What is It? depicting both the profile and name of Washington, perhaps the most celebrated of Americans, we see how these figures are making a claim to Americanness, aggressively performing another idea of what it means to “act” American, this time in black-and-white. If the performance of figures like Wahnotee, Leopard Boy, and What is It? were “pleasurable,” these performances were also provocative and political. Unlike the doomed octoroon who perishes at the end of Boucicault's play, these two aggressive figures subversively refused to disappear from an American social scene that was always already amalgamated.


(1.) New York Times, 15 December 1859: 4.

(2.) The term miscegenation, with which we are more familiar, originated after Boucicault's play, in 1864. Boucicault's audience would have known the kind of interracial identity that Zoe represents, therefore, not as miscegenation but as amalgamation. For more on these terms, see Debra J. Rosenthal, Race Mixture in Nineteenth-Century U.S. and Spanish American Fiction: Gender, Culture, and Nation Building (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004) 4.

(3.) Richard Fawkes, Dion Boucicault: A Biography (London: Quartet Books, 1979) 107.

(4.) Dion Boucicault, “Letter from the Author of ‘The Octoroon’ to the Editor of the Herald,” New York Herald, 7 December 1859: 5.

(5.) Dion Boucicault, “Letter to the Editor,” London Times, 20 November 1861: 5.

(6.) “A young and wealthy planter in Louisiana,” Boucicault recalls, “fell deeply and sincerely in love with a Quadroon girl of great beauty and purity. The lovers found their union opposed by the law; but love knows no obstacles. The young man, in the presence of two friends, who served as witnesses, opened a vein in his arm and introduced into it a few drops of his mistress's blood; thus he was able to make oath that he had black blood in his veins, and being attested the marriage was performed,” Dion Boucicault, unpublished manuscript, Theatre Museum, Covent Garden, London, 1861.

(7.) Spirit of the Times, 17 December 1859: 529.

(8.) Joseph Jefferson, The Autobiography of Joseph Jefferson (New York: Century, 1890) 162.

(9.) Review, New York Times, 15 December 1859.

(10.) Nancy Bentley argues that while the mulatta has “a potentially disruptive” character, a tragic mulatta like Zoe uses the “humiliation” of her body as a kind of social policing; see (p.181) “White Slaves: The Mulatto Hero in Antebellum Fiction,” American Literature 65:3 (September 1993): 503, 505. P. Gabrielle Foreman suggests that Boucicault's play popularized a “scheme of racial difference” that demanded the suicide of Zoe at the end; see “Who's Your Mama? ‘White’ Mulatta Genealogies, Early Photography, and Anti-Passing Narratives of Slavery and Freedom,” American Literary History 14:3 (Fall 2002): 521. According to Jennifer Devere Brody, The Octoroon is a play that is “continually concerned with the maintenance and production of civilized subjects,” and by disappearing from the play's final scene, the potentially problematic Zoe “ultimately serves to establish the establishment” (55–57). Daphne A. Brooks underscores this point by suggesting that the text's potentially disruptive critique is smoothed over by its “visually policing racial liminality.” As Brooks summarizes, “Boucicault's play aims to rein in the very excess it had produced in its title character. … The Octoroon worked toward the ultimate reinstatement of social stability and ‘clarity’”; Daphne A. Brooks, Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006) 38, 41.

(11.) Dion Boucicault, The Octoroon; or, Life in Louisiana, in Early American Drama, ed. Jeffrey H. Richards (New York: Penguin, 1997) 491. All further quotations from the play come from this edition and use its pagination.

(12.) Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996) 179.

(13.) Like its source text, Mayne Reid's The Quadroon, which in one of its early editions changed its subtitle from A Lover's Adventures in Louisiana to Adventures in the Far West, Boucicault's work consistently references itself as a frontier play. Salem Scudder, one of the key figures in it, defines the “here” of the play as the “wilds of the West” (486), and unhesitatingly dubs its action as “our Western life” (485).

(14.) Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) 27.

(15.) See Werner Sollors's treatment of the Indian play in Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) and, particularly, Roger Hall's assessment of mid-nineteenth-century stagings of the frontier as only helping to bolster American's “own sense of righteousness and destiny,” Performing the American Frontier, 1870–1906 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001) 228.

(16.) Robert B. Heilman, Tragedy and Melodrama (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968) 85.

(17.) Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1976) 4–5. Also see theater historian David Grimsted, who notes melodrama's “black-or-white” formation. “No one argued that melodrama was true to life,” Grimsted insists, “but the moral was always there, writ large and obviously. Every spectator knew who was good and who bad and how the final chips of poetical justice would fall,” Melodrama Unveiled: American Theater and Culture, 1800–1850 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987) 41.

(18.) Linda Williams, Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001) 40.

(19.) For more on the influence of Pixérécourt and other French melodramatists on the American theater, see Bruce A. McConachie, Melodramatic Formations: American Theatre and Society, 1820–1870 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992) 29–68.

(20.) Marc Robinson, The American Play, 1787–2000 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009) 28.

(21.) Williams's assessment of melodrama's dependence on pain builds on Saidiya V. Hartman's argument that blackness in antebellum America was frequently established—and managed—by the violence enacted on the black body. In melodrama, she writes, “the (p.182) battle of good and evil was waged at the site of the tortured and chaste black body; suffering announced virtue” (28).

(22.) It is worth noting that in Reid's novel, Edward Rutherford, the melodramatic hero, responds to the lament of the tragic mulatta, Aurore, by boldly dismissing her “stigma” of mixed-race identity, saying, “In the eyes of Love, rank loses its fictitious charm—titles seemed trivial things;” see Mayne Reid, The Quadroon; or, A Lover's Adventures in Louisiana (New York: Robert M. De Witt, 1856) 97.

(23.) Russ Castronovo, Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth-Century United States (Durham, NY: Duke University Press, 2001) 42.

(24.) Lauren Berlant, “Poor Eliza,” American Literature 70:3 (1998): 636. See also Berlant, “The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy, and Politics,” in Cultural Studies and Political Theory, ed. Jodi Dean (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000) 42–62.

(25.) For more on this, see Bentley 503–504.

(26.) See McConachie, 225–227.

(27.) Dion Boucicault, “The Decline of the Drama,” North American Review 125 (September 1877): 236.

(28.) Dion Boucicault, “The Art of Dramatic Composition,” North American Review 126 (January 1878): 52.

(29.) New York Herald, 15 September 1859: 7. By 1873, suggests Bruce McConachie, most urban playhouses had “eliminated the pit, shoved the remaining boxes nearer the proscenium, and adopted orchestra/balcony seating for most spectators. The pricing and reserve seating policies of the bourgeois theatres kept most of the orchestra and first balcony seats within the reach of modest business-class households, but beyond the means and the planning of most workers, who sat in the upper balcony if they attended at all” (200).

(30.) Walt Whitman, “The Old Bowery,” November Boughs in Walt Whitman: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, ed. Justin Kaplan (New York: Library of America, 1982) 1189.

(31.) For more on this phenomenon, consult Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830–1870 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), and David Nasaw, Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

(32.) William Winter, Other Days: Being Chronicles and Memoirs of the Stage (New York: Moffat, Yard, and Company, 1908) 132.

(33.) See David C. Miller, Dark Eden: The Swamp in Nineteenth-Century American Culture (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989) 77–104.

(34.) Michael Paul Rogin insists that during and after the Indian Removal Act of 1830, “Indians were the bogeymen who frightened children in early America,” and it was their supposed savagery that was the key to this representational scare tactic; see Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian (New York: Knopf, 1975) 120. Jeffrey D. Mason suggests that the history of the printing of Henry Trumball's History of the Discovery of America indexes exactly how prevalent the notion of the savage, blood-thirsty Indian was in the mid-nineteenth century. Between 1802 and 1831, this work, which details the savage atrocities enacted by Native American peoples, went through thirteen printings, and its successor, History of the Indian Wars, went through seven printings between 1841 and 1854; see Melodrama and the Myth of America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993) 31. Competing with the noble savage, in other words, was the ruthless savage, epitomized onstage by works like Louisa Medina's staging of Robert Montgomery Bird's Nick of the Woods (1837), which Bird imagined as a rebuttal of James Fenimore Cooper's Uncas and Chingachgook. For more on this distinction, see Don B. Wilmeth, “Noble or Ruthless Savage?: The American Indian on Stage and in the (p.183) Drama,” Journal of American Drama and Theatre 1 (Spring 1989): 39–78. Rosemarie K. Bank argues that this distinction structures the ideology of the frontier in the antebellum period, but as Wahnotee's characterization suggests, this firm binary between “noble” and “ruthless” savage did not entirely define frontier representation; see Rosemarie K. Bank, Theatre Culture in America, 1825–1860 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997) 71–72.

(35.) On the staging of the noble savage, see Shari M. Huhndorf, Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001) and Susan Scheckel, The Insistence of the Indian: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century American Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998). For more on the symbolic architecture of the noble savage narrative, see Werner Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) 102–130.

(36.) George C. D. Odell, Annals of the New York Stage, Volume 8: 1857–1865, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931) 254.

(37.) James W. Cook, The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001) 133. For more on how What is It? was produced as a frontier piece, consult Joy S. Kasson, Buffalo Bill's Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000) where she notes that while Barnum later described his freak as African, “in the decade after Catlin's exhibitions Barnum claimed American Indian status for his performer” (68).