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'Power in the Tongue:' Staging American Voice



‘Power in the Tongue’: Staging American Voice


Caitlin Simms Marshall

Doctor of Philosophy in Performance Studies

Designated Emphasis in New Media

University of California Berkeley

Professor Abigail DeKosnik, Chair

Voice is the chief metaphor for power and enfranchisement in American democracy. Citizens exercising rights are figured as ‘making their voices heard,’ social movements are imagined as ‘giving voice to the voiceless,’ and elected leaders represent ‘the voice of the people.’ This recurring trope forces the question: does citizenship have a sound, and if so, what voices count? Scholars of American studies and theater history have long been interested in nineteenth-century national formation, and have turned to speech, oratory, and performance to understand the role of class, gender, and race in shaping the early republic (Fliegelman 1993, Looby 1996, Gustafson 2000, Lott 1993, Deloria 1998, Nathans 2009, Jones 2014). However, these studies are dominated by textual and visual modes of critique. The recent academic turn to sound studies has produced scholarship on the sonic formation of minoritarian American identity and an American cultural landscape. Yet this body of research all but overlooks voice performance as site of inquiry. As a result, research has disregarded a central sensory pathway through which democracy operates. Without academic inquiry on the vocal contours of citizenship, we are left with an incomplete understanding of how America selects its constituents, and on what terms.

My project, ‘Power in the tongue’: Staging American Voice addresses this lacuna by analyzing the racialized and queer disabled dynamics of American voice from 1828 to 1861. Leading up to the Civil War, socio-political shifts in settler colonialism and slavery necessitated a new mode of American governmentality. These exigencies catalyzed the reconceptualization of voice from embodied performance practice to a sonic symbol that could record, reproduce, or contest a soundtrack of American citizenship. Taking up dramatic and dramatized literature, and using original archival research on minstrelsy and melodrama, dime museum exhibition, concert song, and dramatic reading, I show how popular performances “split” black, Native, and queer disabled voices from their originary bodies nearly half a century before the phonograph. Staged as the signs of corporeal difference, these voices were deployed in contradictory ways and in service of competing social interests. In this dissertation, I go behind the scenes of performances by Edwin Forrest, Chief Push-ma-ta-ha, P.T Barnum, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary E. Webb, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, and Japanese Tommy to understand how each deployed subaltern voice to underscore their claims for national rights and recognitions.

‘Power in the Tongue’ began in the archives. In examining playbills, broadsides, newspaper reviews, songsters, and scripts at research centers like the Harvard Theatre Collection, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and many more, I began to hear a pattern that disrupted dominant narratives of American history. While scholars concur that by the nineteenth-century the ascendancy of print culture eclipsed public speech as the primary medium of national formation, the primary archival materials I viewed told a different story. They attested to the persistent importance of oral culture as a site of struggle over belonging in antebellum America, particularly for persons excluded from the elite, literary idea of nation: women, especially women of color, Native Americans, African Americans, and, prior to Andrew Jackson’s election, the white, common man. This dissertation hones in on voice performance as the site of struggle of, and between these social actors. Further, the dissertation plots how race and queer disability influenced an evolving counterpoint between embodied voice performance and textuality. I argue that whites like Edwin Forrest, P.T Barnum, and Harriet Beecher Stowe deployed subaltern voice performance alongside textual innovations to ensure their own entrée to American cultural hegemony and bring black, Native, and queer disabled bodies under control, while vocalists of color like Push-ma-ta-ha, Mary Webb, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, and Japanese Tommy played-back their sonic difference to contest both the aesthetic and ideological foundations of American citizenship, and white attempts to (re)produce such sonic and written scripts through subaltern bodies. In tracking the sonic signs of race and queer disability as they reel between archive and repertoire, I offer an historically located genealogy of performativity that accounts for the socio-political force of speech act. ‘Power in the Tongue’ also develops new methods for hearing history and listening to the past – methods that ultimately offer new strategies for registering vocal difference today.

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