J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, February 01, 2010

The North American Premiere of the Celebrity Actor

The latest issue of Common-Place includes Jason Shaffer’s article “Unveiling the American Actor”, about the rise of theatrical celebrities in late colonial and early republican America. Of course, Boston was late to that game because of the Puritan prohibitions against theater.

Shaffer notes that it took a while for the faces of celebrities from any field to become known:

As Wendy Wick Reaves of the National Portrait Gallery has pointed out, even Washington’s image took time to gain common currency: she documents an engraving of the British poet John Dryden from a 1773 New England almanac that is recycled as an image of Sam Adams in a children’s primer in 1777, then again as an image of Washington in another primer in 1799.
One of the first star actresses in America, Susanna Rowson (thumbnail portrait above, courtesy of Explore PA History), was also its bestselling novelist:
Better known as the author of popular sentimental novels such as Charlotte Temple, Rowson was raised partly in Massachusetts by her father, a British naval officer who was eventually seized by the Continentals, deported, and repatriated in a prisoner exchange. She returned to the United States along with her husband, moved more by economic need than artistic ambition.

While performing with Wignell’s company in Philadelphia in 1794, at which point Charlotte was already available from Philadelphia booksellers, Rowson wrote Slaves in Algiers, a heroic play about Americans held captive by Barbary pirates. The controversy that attended this production illustrates the inherent difficulty of reintroducing British actors to the American stage and the specific difficulties that faced women onstage in the early republic.

While Rowson’s overwhelming emphasis in the play is on the generically American ideal of “liberty,” one of her characters, an Algerian girl named Fetnah who has been sold by her father into the Dey of Algiers's harem, expresses the desire that women should be as free as men.

Meanwhile, Rowson delivered the play’s epilogue not in her starring role of Olivia, a captive of mixed English and American parentage, but as the author of the play. “Disguised” as herself, she comically turned the tables on eighteenth-century gender relations by informing the audience that “Women were born for universal sway, / Men to adore, be silent, and obey.”

Rowson awakened the wrath of the arch-conservative (and fellow immigrant) newspaper editor William Cobbett, who in a pamphlet painted her as an aspiring petticoat tyrant and ally of French radicals while also questioning the sincerity of her conversion to the cause of American patriotism since her emigration from Britain. The controversy was brief, and Rowson went on to enjoy a successful, if short, theatrical career before retiring in 1797 to focus on writing books and opening a school for young women in Boston.
Rowson located her academy in Medford, Newton, and Roxbury at different times. Her school’s curriculum included learning to embroider this map of Boston harbor, featured in a Bostonian Society online exhibit.

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