2 The plays - Background, content and first critics
2.2 The Indian Princess
3 Language in the plays
4 Noble or ignoble Indian
4.1 How they are introduced
4.1.1 The Indian Princess
4.2 Development throughout the plays
5.1 The Indian Princess
Between the years of 1829 -1845 plays with the Indian themes had a great popularity on the American stage. There were several reasons for this short period of popularity. The claim for a unique national literature, which accompanied the Jacksonians victory and the expansion westward, led to an increasing interest in exploiting native material, including the Indian, as subjects for drama. It is also relevant to note that those years in which the Indian drama was at its peak, coincide with the years that the Indian Removal Policy was put into effort. For this short period of time, Indian themes probably seemed pertinent to people who were then engaged in the process of justifying their defrayal upon the last of the Indian's territory.
In 1829 Andrew Jackson was elected as president, in the following year the Indian Removal Act was enacted. During the years that the Indians were being systematically and ruthlessly thrown from their own land by official policy, the Indian dramas were at the peak of their popularity.
As the removal of the Indians was completed, dramas about the white man and the Indian meeting on the frontier seemed less appropriate. They had limited themes, trivial plots, stereotype characters and stiff dialogue, most of the dramas lost their approval within a couple of years.1
Yet, it is interesting to see how, in their attempt to draw a picture of
a noble savage, above and beyond the vices of civilized men, doomed
to die in a kind of absolute untouchable goodness,“ and an American
ethos „directed toward destroying just such a conception and replacing
it with the conception of a savage in whom nobility was one with ignobility,
the playwrights equivocated.“2
Many authors instrumentalized the „noble savage“ characterization for dramatic effect, in doing so they understated, denied or qualified the primitivistic implications of that characterization: that if the Indians are superior in virtue and nobility to the Europeans, then the primitive state must be superior to civilization3. Also, the fulfiling of the vanishing Indian stereotype was popular. It is the stereotype that Indians are disappearing or not able to go on in their structures of way of living.
European-Americans created this myth centuries ago to free themselves of the guilt of stealing Indians' lands and resources . They told themselves and others that Indians were disappearing, and it was too late to save their culture. Therefore, European-Americans felt comfortable with the U.S. government taking Indian's lands, and they thought Indians should move onto reservations to make room for „progress“. In this case, "progress" basically meant the expansion of European-American power. American Indians stood in the way of frontier expansion and land acquisition.4
In the following I will comparatively analyze how James Nelson Barker in The Indian Princess; or La Belle Sauvage and John Augustus Stone in Metamora, or The Last of The Wampanoags draw the picture of the vanishing Indians in different ways.
John Augustus Stone's Metamora (1829), or The last of the Wampanoags is one of the significant American playscripts of the nineteenth century because of its close association with the careeer of Edwin Forrest and its popular image of the native American at a critical time in White-Indian relations in the United States.
Edwin Forrest, the first native-born and native-trained tragedian, star actor and theatre manager, had read Mordecai M. Noah's preface to „She would Be a Soldier“ which called for a national drama in order to „keep alive the recollection of important events. “5 Forrest was interested in creating a native drama that would display the suggestion of natural nobility and love of freedom, which, as Forrest thought, were representatives of white Americans as well as of Indians and due to this would go beyond the documentary reporting that Noah had envisioned.
The winner of the first playwriting contest held in the United States, that Forrest organized for the best drama on a native American subject, was John Augustus Stones‘ Metamora. The contest asked for „the best tragedy , in five acts , of which the hero, or principal character, shall be an aboriginal of this country“.6
A competition of this type would combine the populistic patriotism engendered by the recently completed Jackson-Adams presidential race with the rising national concern with the Indian removal question.7
Forrest's self-promoting patriotism, his growing celebrity and smart exploitation of an expanding market for popular entertainment are closely linked to Metamora's ability to function as a prop for Jacksonian Indian policy.8
Metamora is a play that is based on the historical Metacomet or King Philip.
Metamora retells the struggle of an Indian chief trying to protect his family and his tribe against Puritan expansion and aggression in New England in the seventeenth century. The drama culminates in the death of the Indian leader Metamora in a battle with the colonists; it takes up the myth of the dying or vanishing Indian which had gained popularity since the 1760s.9 The premiere performance of Metamora was given at the Park Theatre in New York in 1829.
The play, starring Forrest, was enthusiastically greeted by the audience. An anonymous spectator states:
His voice surged and roared like the angry sea, as it reached its boiling
seething climax, in which the serpent hiss of hate was heard, at
intervals amidst its louder, deeper hoarser tones, it was like the
falls of Niagara, in its tremendous downsweeping cadence; it
was a whirlwind, a tornado, a cataract of illimitable rage.10
Never before had the native American been so gloriously and magnificently portrayed on stage. Stone laid extremely romantic attributes on the „noble savage“ in order to display Metamora as „loyal, patriotic, brave, and virtuos, despite his lack of civilization.“11
The final sensational scene, in which Metamora stabs his wife in order not to have her taken away by the white men as a prisoner, had great emotional impact on the
James Nelson Barker (1784- 1858) shared the characteristic faith of his generation in America's literary and cultural destiny as well as John Augustus Stone. He, too, was committed to Jacksonian democracy. His aim was to demonstrate that American experience, past and present, could be useful to build national identity.
In his preface to The Indian Princess (1808) though, he critizes the „stifling effect of Anglophobic criticism“ saying, that the American literature as a foundling child is endangered by „harsh guardians“ and „critic beadles“12.
The story of The Indian Princess is based upon a real story The Generall Historie of Virginia (1624) which tells the story of the marriage of two characters; Captain John Smith (1579-1631), one of the best known early English settlers in Virginia and Pocahontas (1597-1617) from the tribe of the Powhatans13 . The play has songs, music, a contrived plot, and a happy ending. Barker adds characters or changes their importance. The most important change he makes, however, is not only the dramatic changes in order to fit nineteenth century American theatre, but the reconstruction of Smith's mythologies of colonization and national origin. Barker radically changes Smith's vision of relationship among Whites and Natives as well as between Natives and Natives.
Particularly, he explores the erotic dimension between a colonialist and a Native. All this happens to change „history into a pleasing commodity for middling tastes.“14 Barker intended to write a serious drama, but was encouraged by his composer to turn the play of The Indian Princess into a light opera. He called it an operatic melodrama. From today‘s point of view, this cannot be valid anymore. A melodrama by definition
contains a rather frivolous art form that makes the most obvious kind of appeal to an uncritical populace. Its character and style are suggested by such phrases as the following: pursuit and capture, imprisonment and escape, false accusation...15.
Furthermore, the melodrama is understood as counterpart to the tragedy, it can have a happy end. Respecting this definition, the term Melodrama does not seem appropriate with regard to the Native Americans.
Susan Scheckl critizes, that on its surface The Indian Princess dramatizes the succesful establishment of an English Colony in North America. She merely finds the speech of the characters as part of a discourse of national founding and sees in The Indian Princess the topic of domesticity together with the adaption of Pocahontas in order to meet ideological interests. The character of the Indian princess Pocahontas is used
to represent and legitimize American colonialist and nationalist projects; to serve both as the implicitly sexualized object of conquest and as the sanctified figure of the nation, the mother who unites all her citizens/ children in a unified national 'family'16
The language of the play Metamora is a mixture of Indian and Ossian which became traditional on the stage. In Act II, Scene 3 Metamora says:
Then wouldst you pay back that which fifty snows ago you received from the hands of my father, Massassoit. You had been tossed like small things on the face of the great waters and there was no Earth for your feet to rest on. Your backs were turned on the lands of your fathers and the son of the forest took ye as a little child and opened the door of his wigwam. The keen blast of the north howled in the leafless woods but the Indian covered you with his broad right hand and put it back.
The Indians in Barker's Pocahontas, except herself,
are conventional, and their language is only a fair attempt to reproduce their rhythmic utterance. When Pocahontas falls in Love she begins to speak blank verse, but this may be pardonened in Barker, for it gives him an opportunity to write a love scene between Rolfe and Pocahontas in Act III , sc. 2 in which the truest poetry in the play occurs.17
Barker knew that the audience wanted authenticity, not archaeology, therefore Pocahontas shows her love plain and simple in a flexible verse.
Originally, the tribe of the Powhatans was linguistically tied to the Algonquins and flourished in the southeastern part of America18
As mentioned in the introduction, authors of the time often exploited the noble savage characterization for dramatic effect, mostly serving stereotypes of the Indian as a wild, brutal and ignoble person.
In the course of the story that tells in an easy manner episodes with interwoven subplots of the marriage between Captain Smith and Pocahontas, it is difficult to distinct between a noble savage and a noble white man. Nevertheless, Barker wishes the reader to make such a distinction.19
Therefore he develops his characters in the Indian Princess by avoiding this stereotype of noble or „ignoble“ Indians, but implicits this distinction in the first dialogue between her and her Indian admirer Miami. Pocahontas is crying over a flamingo she had killed:20
I go out to the wood, and my heart is light; but while my arrow flies
I sorrow; and when the bird drops through the branches, tears
come into mine eyes21
Miami enters, but, is unaware of her sadness and starts to show off by telling her about his hunting success, which at that point cannot impress Pocahontas at all. By this, Barker establishes him as an „ignoble“ Indian, a tribute that is, according to Walter, valid for all Indians:
They wear men's heads, sir, hanging at the breast; instead of jewels; and at either ear, Most commonly, a child's, by way of ear-drop.22
There is another ignoble Indian displayed, called Grimosco, who is the counselor to chief Powhatan as well as the medicine man of the tribe. Grimosco tries to convince Powhatan to exterminate the Whites before the Indians are driven off their land by them. Grimosco complains about the „superstitions“ of the chief and insists that war with the Whites is a mission from God. Later playwrights will put Grimoscos prophecy of the vanishing race in the mouths of „noble savages“ in order to evoke pity; here Barker discredits the idea by ascribing it to his meanest character23.
The noble Indians Pocahontas and her brother Nantaquas are in contrast to Miami and Grimosco. They are not „noble“ because they are „noble savages“, but because they are potential Europeans.
Looking at the plots of the dramas, a similarity becomes obvious: Both plots are based on renaissance primitivism which draws the picture of the noble savage, stereotypical for a creature of „(...) beauty and natural grace filled with an intuitive knowledge of nature and its secrets, elegant of speech, stoic, and totally loyal to friends, relatives(...)“24. „When this stereotype was brought into conflict with white civilization, three possible methods of adjustment were available: willing victimization, acculturation, and exterminnation.“
Willing victimazation gave rise to the myth of the Indian as Vanishing American, a stoic victim of the forces of history and a member of a race doomed to extinction by the onward thrust of progress. With acculturation the Indian totally rejects Indianness and becomes a white, a process that involves the acknowledgment of the inferiority of the Indian way and a wilingness to become a child in the care of white society.
1 Marilyn J. Anderson The Image Of The Indian In American Drama During The Jacksonian Era 18291845, in The Journal of American Culture, Vol. I , Issue 4, 1978,pp. 800-810, here p. 800
2 John W. Crowley James Nelson Barker in Perspektive, in The Educational Theatre Journal, 24:4 (1972:Dec.) p. 363-369, here p.367
4 Philip J. Deloria. Playing Indian. New Haven,Yale University Press 1998.
5 Marilyn J. Anderson. p. 800
6 Nadja Gernalzick. Tragedy of Autocratic Rule, Melodrama of Republicanism: Genealogy of Dramatic and Political Forms in John Augustus Stone' s Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags (1829), in Melodrama! The Mode of Excess from Early America to Hollywood Universitätsverlag Winter Heidelberg 2007 Hrsg. Frank Kelleter, Barbara Krah, Ruth Mayer
7 B. Donald Grose. Edwin Forrest, Metamora, and the Indian Removal Act of 1830 in The Theatre Journal, 37:2 (1985: May) p. 181-189, here p. 184
8 Scott C. Martin. Interpreting Metamora: Nationalism, Theater, and Jacksonian Indian Policy, in The Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 19, No. 1, pp- 73-101, here p. 75
9 Nadja Gernalzick, p. 146
10 Marylin J. Anderson
11 Scott C. Martin, p. 77 audience. Metamora can be seperated from most of the other Indian dramas though, by its complexity and individuality shown in the central characters.
12 John W. Crowley, p. 363
13 The Romantic Indian. Sentimental Views from Nineteenth Century American Literature Vol. 2
14 Jeffrey Richards. Drama , Theatre and Identity in the American New Republic. James Barker and the stage American Native, p . 169
15 Robert Bechthold Heilmann. Tragedy and Melodrama. Versions of Experience. Washington University Press, 1968
16 Susan Scheckl. Domesticating the Drama of Conquest: Barker's Pocahontas on the Popular Stage in American Transcendental Quarterly 10 (1996)
17 Arthur Hobson Quinn , p. 140
18 The Romantic Indian. Sentimental Views from Nineteenth Century American Literature. Vol. 2 New York 1981
19 Roy Harvey Pearce. Rot und Weiss. Die Erfindung des Indianers durch die Zivilisation. Stuttgart 1991
20 John W. Crowley, p. 367
21 Indian Pricess, p . 15, Act I scene III
22 Indian Princess, p . 33 Act II , scene II
23 John W. Crowley, p. 367
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