minstrel plays


“Humbugs and fol-de-rols!”: Highlights from Nineteenth-Century American Drama

This final release of plays from Nineteenth-Century American Drama includes a devastating assault on Abraham Lincoln, an all-female cast in a courtroom drama meant to ridicule women, and a “Negro sketch in two scenes.”


The Royal Ape. By William Russell Smith (1863)

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William Russell Smith was a U.S. congressman from Alabama who served from 1851 to 1857. He subsequently served as a member of the first and second Confederate Congresses. Smith was not the first, nor the last, to describe Lincoln as a simian. He wrote this “dramatic poem” after the Union’s defeat in the Battle of Manassas as the South preferred to call what the North called the First Battle of Bull Run. It is dated January 1, 1863, in anticipation of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Smith’s cast of characters—with the exception of two former slaves, two White House maids, and extras including officers, soldiers, citizens, and senators—are all prominent politicians and generals of the time. In following the action of the play, knowledge of the actual events of the time provides some perspective.

Act I, Scene I, occurs in the White House on the eve of the battle which Smith refers to as Manassas. We discover Mrs. Lincoln and her son Robert who would have been age 20. He has just returned from the House of Representatives and describes with gusto a physical fight that had broken out there.

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“Humbugs and fol-de-rols!”: Highlights from Nineteenth-Century American Drama

Why de dickens?: The Lampooning of African Americans as an American Form of Entertainment

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Included in the second release of Nineteenth-Century American Drama: Popular Culture and Entertainment, 1820-1900, are several minstrel plays. Developed in the United States beginning in the 1830s, minstrel shows mocked the appearances and language of black characters, reinforcing white views on race for more than a century.  This first example, An Elephant on Ice, is subtitled "An Ethiopian Interlude, in One Scene":

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Costumes

Sam Johnson.—Well worn grey pants and vest, a black patch covering entire seat of pants, with patches on knees; dark back, with huge red patch between the shoulders on vest; fancy striped shirt; large shoes; and battered white hat, high crowned.

Sol Squash.—Dandy dress, wig parted in the middle, silk hat, cane; kid gloves and eye glass.

An example of the dialogue as the play opens:

Scene.—A street in second or third grooves.

Enter Sam Johnson R., carrying a buck and saw on his shoulder.

Why de dickens?: The Lampooning of African Americans as an American Form of Entertainment

Now available for trial! Nineteenth-Century American Drama: Popular Culture and Entertainment, 1820-1900

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The inaugural release of Nineteenth-Century American Drama includes plays that range over the most popular genres of its 80-year time span. There are comedies and melodramas, Revolutionary and Civil War dramas, plays with all-women and all-black casts, temperance plays, and plays for children for school and home entertainment, as well as many plays written by women. Here are some examples of the diversity of genres and titles now available:

Histories:

  • ‘Pocahontas. A Historical Drama, in Five Acts’ by Robert Dale Owen (1837)
  • ‘The Ku Klux Klan, or, The Carpet-Bagger in New Orleans’ by Elizabeth Avery Meriwether (1877)

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Tragedies:

  • ‘Mohammed, The Arabian Prophet. A Tragedy in Five Acts’ by George Henry Miles (1850)

Comedies:

Now available for trial! Nineteenth-Century American Drama: Popular Culture and Entertainment, 1820-1900

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