Provocative Eloquence

Theater, Violence, and Antislavery Speech in the Antebellum United States
Laura L. Mielke
Shows how theater was essential to the anti-slavery movement’s consideration of forceful resistance


In the mid-19th century, rhetoric surrounding slavery was permeated by violence. Slavery’s defenders often used brute force to suppress opponents, and even those abolitionists dedicated to pacifism drew upon visions of widespread destruction. Provocative Eloquence recounts how the theater, long an arena for heightened eloquence and physical contest, proved terribly relevant in the lead up to the Civil War. As anti-slavery speech and open conflict intertwined, the nation became a stage. The book brings together notions of intertextuality and interperformativity to understand how the confluence of oratorical and theatrical practices in the antebellum period reflected the conflict over slavery and deeply influenced the language that barely contained that conflict. The book draws on a wide range of work in performance studies, theater history, black performance theory, oratorical studies, and literature and law to provide a new narrative of the interaction of oratorical, theatrical, and literary histories of the nineteenth-century U.S.

“A masterful grasp on performance, theatrical, and rhetorical histories, including the various critical camps. Laura Mielke’s argument is extremely readable, complex yet easy to follow. An excellent book, grounded in rhetorical styles and strategies, dramatic genealogies and debates, theatrical conventions, and performance theories, while actively contesting and reshaping these fields and conventions and how we view them. Her imbrications of 19th-century theater, oratory, and print culture in service to anti-slavery and pro-slavery positions are thoroughly convincing.”
—Marvin McAllister, Winthrop University

“A historical excavation of all the inherited conflicts and inconsistencies that have come to define our present social moment . . . an indispensable accounting of how American culture performed its own divided loyalties, uncertainties, and unspoken internal contradictions about race, freedom, and national allegiances.”
—Peter Reed, University of Mississippi
Laura L. Mielke is Associate Professor of English, University of Kansas.

Praise / Awards

  • Finalist, Vivian and the Frick Book Award, 2020

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Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 296pp.
  • 11 illustrations.
Available for sale worldwide

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  • Hardcover
  • 2019
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-13105-1

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  • $75.00 U.S.

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