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Juliane Braun, Creole Drama: Theatre and Society in Antebellum New Orleans

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1Creole Drama: Theatre and Society in Antebellum New Orleans. By Juliane Braun. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019; pp. 260.

2Zoe Detsi, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

3Julian Braun’s well-researched history of Francophone theatre in New Orleans from its beginnings in 1792 until the Civil War makes a most significant contribution to the field of early American drama and theatre as it brings to light a rather unexplored niche of early American theatrical activity, namely the performance of non-English-language plays. Focusing on the essentially diverse and multicultural/multilingual society of New Orleans, Braun argues convincingly that the city’s French-language theatre played a dynamic part in the Francophone community’s “struggle to maintain their political, economic, and cultural sovereignty in the face of growing Anglo-American dominance” (6). Creole Drama explores theatre as a focal point for the creation of a distinct cultural identity and as a social and political space where questions of citizenship and belonging were registered and negotiated.

4In analyzing the Francophone theatre in New Orleans, the book offers multiple insights into the city’s social and cultural makeup as well as its key role as a site of transatlantic cultural exchanges. In chapter 1, Braun approaches theatre from a circum-Atlantic perspective providing a meticulous account of the city’s social dynamics and the diverse cultural influences that shaped theatrical production. This chapter draws a valuable socio-cultural framework for the thorough understanding of the theatre’s Caribbean roots and Creole heritage. The Francophone theatre in New Orleans was primarily shaped by the powerful interaction between the imported French plays and the theatrical practices of the Caribbean immigrants who began flowing in Louisiana in the wake of the Haitian Revolution. The result was the intense creolization of the New Orleans theatre in the sense that it marked a process of blending Old and New World elements giving rise to new cultural paradigms. While taking as a case study the Théâtre d’ Orléans, Braun expands her analysis to embrace less important, but equally vibrant, theatres in the city whose repertoires ranged from adaptations of popular French plays to opera, to vaudeville, equestrian shows and circus performances.

5The Francophone stage in New Orleans is explored against the backdrop of its transatlantic origins, the existing theatre legislations, and the divided allegiances and rival cultural identities. Chapter 2 provides intriguing information about the growing antagonism between the older Creole population of New Orleans and the Anglo-American newcomers over political and cultural hegemony. The division of the city space along ethnic lines and the sudden rise of a strong American dramatic tradition greatly affected the theatrical scene of New Orleans. Through the comparative analysis of three largely overlooked dramas of the time, two French and one English – Auguste Lussan’s Les Martyrs de la Louisiane (1839) and Louis Placide Canonge’s France et Espagne ou La Louisiane en 1768 et 1769 (1850), and Thomas Wharton Collens’s The Martyr Patriots (1836) – this chapter examines how the theatre was turned into a site of cultural affirmation in the face of rapidly changing political and social realities. All three plays dramatize the same historical event, the rebellion of French Louisiana against Spanish colonial rule in 1768, but from different perspectives. The French plays celebrate Louisiana’s heroic past and express faith in the continued existence and prosperity of the French community, while the English drama evokes the rhetoric of the American Revolution in an attempt to stress the common ideological roots and revolutionary background of the two ethnic groups and to reassure the Anglophone population of their right to political agency and equal representation.

6 Recognizing that the persistent cultural rivalry between the Francophone and Anglophone populations had also seeped into the Crescent City’s black community, chapter 3 investigates how the French-speaking segment of the free black people of New Orleans turned to the theatre in order to address issues of racial identity and social equality. While offering a comprehensive account of the history of Théâtre Marigny and the Théâtre de la Renaissance – two playhouses run by and for Creoles of color – Braun argues that although their repertoires primarily consisted of dramatic imports from France, they were in fact “invested with a discourse about community, subjugation, and resistance” that clearly resonated with the experiences of the New Orleans’s free black population (85).

7 Chapter 4 takes a break from Braun’s previous point that the New Orleans’s Francophone population used the theatre as a cultural medium to resist the onslaught of the Anglo-American influence, and explores how French-speaking playwrights began to address the inevitable process of Americanization laying claim to a national identity marked as much by the French cultural heritage as by the adoption of American political tenets and democratic values. By examining Auguste Lussan’s La Famille Créole (1837) and Louis Placide Canonge’s adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s Comte de Monte Christo (1846) against the backdrop of the impending war with Mexico, Braun argues that the theatre exemplified the Francophone population’s shifting allegiances as well as the transition to a distinctly Franco-American national identity.

8 Chapter 5 focuses on Victor Séjour, a renowned Louisianan playwright, who made a career on the other side of the Atlantic. As a free man of color in Paris, Séjour sought to provide a transatlantic perspective on antislavery issues and come to terms with the precariousness of his own racial identity. Through the analysis of Séjour’s plays, Braun takes an incisive look into the playwright’s indictment of slavery and his alliance with the call for legislated emancipation. His works embrace “local and transnational, metropolitan and diasporic, radical and conservative perspectives” (160).

9 Throughout the whole book, Braun exhibits deep knowledge of the New Orleans theatre history and provides well-balanced readings of the interplay among theatre, society, culture, and identity. Creole Drama captures the subtle nuances in the emergence of the Francophone theatrical tradition which combined European, Caribbean, African, and American influences. Braun skillfully moves on a number of levels as she describes the theatres’ material conditions and analyzes the plays produced on their stages, while tracing the complex parameters of Louisiana’s social and political developments. Creole Drama is a very well-written and documented book illuminating crucial aspects of early American theatre and successfully contributing to the field of transnational American studies.

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“Juliane Braun, Creole Drama: Theatre and Society in Antebellum New OrleansEuropean journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2021-2, Online since 13 July 2021, connection on 17 September 2021. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/17088

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