John Durang: Man of the American Stage

by Lynn Matluck Brooks


In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville commented that “when the revolution that has changed the social and political state of an aristocratic people begins to come to light in literature, it is generally first produced by the theater, and there it remains always visible.” John Durang: Man of the American Stage takes the perspective of the theater as a crucible for the forging of American identity and culture. John Durang (1768–1822) is both an exemplary and a remarkable figure in early American theater. Among the first native-born Americans to appear on the stage, he was the first to make the theater his life. The son of French-German immigrants, he established an American theater dynasty that extends to the present day (playwright Christopher Durang). He is best remembered as a dancer, famed for his hornpipe and other dance specialties, but he was also an actor, puppeteer, singer, musician, pyrotechnician, scene painter, circus clown, acrobat, and manager of his own company. While his career focused on Philadelphia, he pioneered theater in inland towns, playing some roles in German. He toured with the first circus to perform in Canada, and played in cities throughout the northeastern United States.

Yet Durang’s life was also emblematic of early America, covering the colonial era, revolutionary America, and the earliest struggles of the new nation. Born in 1768, when Pennsylvania was still under William Penn’s constitution, one of Durang’s early performance opportunities came with the ratification of the new Constitution, when he represented Ben Franklin and the printing trades in a celebratory parade—a forum for playing out themes of national character. With the American Company in Philadelphia, he performed before the nation's first president. Durang toured during the War of 1812, turning his pyrotechnical skills toward munitions making. He died in 1822, as Andrew Jackson’s political career heated up. His Memoir comments on some of these events, yet it is also rich in the fascinating detail of everyday life: technologies of early American performance and modes of travel, as well as Durang’s fluid shifts between urban and rural cultures, his interest in new peoples, his homely mixture of pride and humility, and his insights about colleagues.

Durang’s Memoir shows awareness of, but no shrewd strategizing about, both his American status and his European background. He embodied qualities frequently identified as “American”: he was enterprising, self-reliant, risk-taking yet practical, and egalitarian toward associates—as he expected them to be toward him. Durang participated in the mediation between genteel and popular culture, nowhere more evident than in the new United States. Several of Durang’s theatrical representations demonstrated a major concern of early Americans: establishing a sense of nationality in a land inhabited by people of many ethnicities. Yet, as an American-born performer surrounded by colleagues from England, France, and elsewhere in Europe, Durang himself embodied the distinctness of American identity. Dramatists grappled with creation of the Yankee character’s dialect, outlook, and physical behavior, their plots reflecting American political events and resistance to European encroachment. Durang—creating and adapting his own work, carrying theater to new territory, facing an increasingly sophisticated audience, and infusing his performances with characters current to American life—embodied and responded to these forces.

In the memoirs of no other contemporary theater personality (i.e., William Dunlap, Edward Cape Everard, James Fennell, William Wood), has a figure quite like John Durang emerged. His eagerness in grasping opportunities, expanding his skills, shaping his career, and establishing a home are unique, not only in themselves, but also in his articulation of these enterprises. Looking at his life through the lens of American national development illuminates the role of the theater in this critical and ongoing process, while also revealing the forms and repertory that shaped this theater. Remarkably few significant biographies are available of American dance and theatrical figures whose lives preceded the twentieth century. A small handful of memoirs by actors of the period fill in a small part of this gap, but memoirs—like John Durang’s—need context and connections to be fully appreciated. The role of dance and theater in shaping the young United States is highlighted in this biography.

John Durang: Man of the American Stage serves both a general and theater-educated readership. Interested groups include readers of American studies, dance, and theater.


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