David Gardner

Andrew W. Mellon Graduate Fellow in the Humanities

20112012 Forum on Adaptations

David Gardner


Theater in the Novel: The Dramaturgy of American Fiction in the Age of Edwin Forrest

The years leading up to the American Civil War saw radical changes in theatrical practice, as blackface minstrel shows catapulted in popularity, melodramas focused on controversial local themes like slavery, labor, and temperance, and homegrown stars like Edwin Forrest deployed new acting techniques with staggering success. Literary historians and critics have largely scorned antebellum stage practice for being "subliterary" entertainment, but my project takes these theatrical innovations of the 1840s and 1850s seriously, for they offered major novelists—like Melville, Hawthorne, and Fanny Fern— cultural fodder for their lasting works of art. In particular, my dissertation argues that these authors adapted mid-century "stage language" and "theatrical thinking" to their work in order to confront serious questions about race, gender, and freedom in aesthetically, philosophically, and politically sophisticated ways.