America In Play

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By Deborah Brevoort, playwright

Two years ago Lynn Thomson presented an evening of scenes from early American comedies at New Dramatists. In these plays was a fellow named Jonathan, who was the first-ever American archetypal character to appear on the American stage. Listening to these plays and meeting Jonathan was like looking into a mirror. I understood America, and myself, in ways that I never had before.

As a folk character, Jonathan’s origins are obscure and claimed by many, and therefore we think of him as having been created “by the people.” Perhaps the earliest Jonathan sightings were as Yankee Doodle (with a feather in his cap) during the Revolutionary War – a pivotal moment in our nation’s history when we were forming our identity as Americans. He appeared later as Uncle Sam (the pictures you see today on the “Uncle Sam Wants You” posters are Jonathan). He is America’s first reflection of itself. He quickly leapt off the stage and entered the culture to become a staple of American humor and the subject of cartoons, songs, political essays, and editorials. So, who is Jonathan? And why was he so familiar?

Jonathan was a simple, uneducated fellow from rural America. He was often portrayed as a peddler who was good at business. He had a knack for making people’s silver leap into his pockets. He was rough-hewn and uncouth-rural to the core. He was practical, charming, innovative, and smart. He possessed a homespun, native intelligence.

Jonathan was always shown in opposition to the English, who were portrayed as foppish, over-educated, and insincere. Jonathan’s unschooled intelligence was always shown to be better than the cultured, book-learning kind. In these early American plays there is a repeating dramatic situation: Jonathan, the country cousin, comes to the big city where he meets up with the elite, educated crowd and invariably outsmarts them.

In Jonathan we find the beginnings of the American distrust of intellectuals. Our current Blue State, Red State divide can be understood by looking at Jonathan stories. George W. Bush cast himself as a modern-day Jonathan with great success by characterizing Kerry and Gore as overeducated intellectuals who were out of touch with middle America.

Jonathan, it turns out, is still very much alive in our culture even if no one is consciously aware of him.

I discovered I had performed Jonathan myself-without even knowing it-when I was the Producing Director of Perseverance Theatre in Alaska in the 1990s. It was my job to raise money for the theatre. I would call the east coast funders and adopt a folksy way of talking that always got me put through to the head person. When I made my annual fundraising trip to New York I made sure to “dress the part” wearing Alaskan boots and a parka to my meetings. Once there, I would regale funders with exotic tales of theatre on the last frontier. Like Jonathan, their silver leapt into my pockets. Little did I know that I was reenacting an American archetype that was born on the American stage in the 1700s.

In addition to being a mirror to our national character, Jonathan is also a mirror to the American theatre. He was first elaborated by playwrights in a theatre that played a central role in developing our national identity. What kind of theatre created such a powerful character that was able to have an impact on the larger culture in this way?

The answer: A popular theatre.

In early America, people from every segment of society attended the theatre on a regular basis-rich, poor, rural, urban, educated, and uneducated alike. It was a populist activity, and the community’s main form of entertainment. A typical evening of theatre in early America looked something like this: The performance would begin with an American farce or comedy, followed by a Shakespearean tragedy. During intermission, there would be jugglers and animal acts. The evening would conclude with strong men doing physical stunts. There were often musical selections performed throughout the evening, too.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the notion that America ought to have an “art theatre” was advanced by the educated urban classes who didn’t want to rub elbows with the common folks who liked their Shakespeare served with farces and animal acts. Going to the theatre became an elite activity. The common folks fled, and no amount of “audience development” programs have been able to bring them back.

Jonathan has taught me two things about the theatre. First, when theatre loses its popular roots and turns its back on the common folk, it loses its power to impact a culture. The reason that Jonathan had the impact he did was that the theatre was central to American life, and the entire community was in attendance. Second, the ability of the theatre to have an impact on a culture is directly tied to the amount of pleasure and variety it provides. The reason people went to the theatre is that it offered entertainment and diversity-all on the same bill. It didn’t pander to the educated crowd, like it does today.

Perhaps one of the reasons television (instead of theatre) is at the center of American culture today is that TV has replicated the format of early American theatre performances. A perusal of the TV Guide reveals the same diversity of programming: sitcoms (farces), serious dramas, and variety shows. There are animal acts, too: “stupid pet tricks” on Letterman and “wild animals” on Leno. Obviously, this is a format that works-it has captured today’s audience, as it captured our early American forbears.

So…what did Jonathan teach me as a playwright?

If playwrights wish, once again, to be a major cultural force, we must have broader shoulders. We must pay attention to what Walter Kerr described as the “natural appetite of the audience for a wide, constantly changing, unpredictable menu.” The eclecticism and variety of early American drama reveals a “simple joy in the medium.” That joy gives theatre its power and enables the characters created there to leap, like Jonathan, off the stage into the culture.

Kerr, Walter. The Theatre In Spite of Itself. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963.

Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow, Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Rourke, Constance. “Corn Cobs Twist Your Hair.” American Humor: a Study of National Character. New York: New York Review Books.

Tyler, Royall. The Contrast. Source unknown.