The Captive Stage
Performance and the Proslavery Imagination of the Antebellum North
A revealing exploration of Northern proslavery sentiment during the period before the Civil War
In The Captive Stage, Douglas A. Jones, Jr. argues that proslavery ideology remained the dominant mode of racial thought in the antebellum north, even though chattel slavery had virtually disappeared from the region by the turn of the nineteenth century—and that northerners cultivated their proslavery imagination most forcefully in their performance practices. Jones explores how multiple constituencies, ranging from early national artisans and Jacksonian wage laborers to patrician elites and bourgeois social reformers, used the stage to appropriate and refashion defenses of black bondage as means to affirm their varying and often conflicting economic, political, and social objectives. Joining performance studies with literary criticism and cultural theory, he uncovers the proslavery conceptions animating a wide array of performance texts and practices, such as the “Bobalition” series of broadsides, blackface minstrelsy, stagings of the American Revolution, reform melodrama, and abolitionist discourse. Taken together, he suggests, these works did not amount to a call for the re-enslavement of African Americans but, rather, justifications for everyday and state-sanctioned racial inequities in their post-slavery society. Throughout, The Captive Stage elucidates how the proslavery imagination of the free north emerged in direct opposition to the inclusionary claims black publics enacted in their own performance cultures. In doing so, the book offers fresh contexts and readings of several forms of black cultural production, including early black nationalist parades, slave dance, the historiography of the revolutionary era, the oratory of radical abolitionists and the black convention movement, and the autobiographical and dramatic work of ex-slave William Wells Brown.
Praise / Awards
"In this original, vigorous, and deeply researched book, Douglas Jones offers a powerful new perspective on antebellum racial politics. With devastating precision, Jones implicates the antebellum stage as a major site through which white Northerners—and, inadvertently, some African Americans—cultivated a proslavery imagination. Thus the book challenges scholarly conventions that locate proslavery ideology primarily below the Mason-Dixon Line or that consider performance mainly as a source of social transgression or political resistance. Rich with archival discoveries as well as startling, de-familiarizing analyses of well-known texts, The Captive Stage signals the arrival of a major new voice in theatre history and critical race studies."
—Robin Bernstein, Harvard University
"The Captive Stage makes a substantive and exciting contribution to the growing body of literature examining performances of race, slavery, and citizenship in nineteenth-century American culture."
—Heather Nathans, Tufts University
"In The Captive Stage, Doug Jones offers an engaging, theoretically nuanced, and richly detailed historical study of antebellum performances by prominent artists and public intellectuals, including T.D. Rice, William Wells Brown, and Frederick Douglass. Closely reading plays and public lectures, he identifies the "proslavery imagination" of white northerners, a romantic racialist view of African Americans as being unworthy of (or not yet ready for) social equality, and chronicles the efforts of select black performers to challenge that worldview. His book meaningfully and significantly contributes to the study of nineteenth-century American culture as well as critical understandings of embodied black experience."
—Harvey Young, Northwestern University
"What makes Jones’s project exceptional is his ability to balance thorough explications of black activism with incisive explorations of this proslavery imagination."
--Marvin McAllister, Theatre Research International
"Douglas A. Jones Jr.’s The Captive Stage: Performance and the Proslavery Imagination of the Antebellum North offers a provocative and ingenious argument and a suggestive methodology."
--Sarah Meer, Oxford University Press American Historical Review
"Jones illustrates not only the limits set on the aspirations of African Americans by the antebellum theatre, but also the endurance and power of those aspirations for citizenship."
"The Captive Stage offers a provocative and sobering historical and cultural analysis that is, nevertheless, pitched in a way that will appeal to advanced undergraduates and specialists alike."
--Early American Literature
"Jones’s book is a skillful blend of historical context and performance analysis that serves to complicate our understanding of political performance culture in the antebellum North."
--Journal of American Drama and Theatre
"In this welcome new study of black and blackface performance in the early republic and antebellum North, Jones builds on a new generation of scholarship in order to deepen and qualify our understanding of the precise dilemmas faced by black freedom in a young, antiblack, slaveholding nation."
"Jones delivers a crucially important study for our understanding of the ways in which humor functioned to reinforce racial theories, and his book is essential reading for American humor scholars and students."
--Studies in American Humor
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