Aristocracy, Meritocracy, Inheritance in American Drama

A review of Theatrical Properties: Inheritance and Modern American Drama, by Sarah C. Withers.

Sarah C. Withers undertakes a topic equally important to the fields of literature and theatre that has been studied to a healthy extent in the former, but not the latter: the legality and social anxieties surrounding inheritance in twentieth century American performance. In her dissertation, Withers traces themes of inheritance in theatre through the Progressive Era (1890s to the late 1920s), the Harlem Renaissance (roughly 1918 to 1937), the New Deal era (1933-1938), and throughout the mid-twentieth century. Posited on the notion that “profoundly ambivalent attitudes toward inheritance are a prime source of dramatic conflict in the canon of American theater” (p. 5), this dissertation effectively delineates a history of tension between aristocratic privilege and meritocratic egalitarianism as it plays out on the American stage.

In Chapter One, Withers references Alexis de Tocqueville, who describes inheritance law as one of the central determining factors in whether conservative aristocracy or liberal democracy would prevail in early American society. Yet, through references to the scholarship of Jens Beckert, Lawrence Friedman, and Stanley Katz, Withers reveals that this factor is also inherently paradoxical. Inheritance, whether aristocratic or democratic in its strain, is a mark of America’s equally prevalent tenet of individualism.  It is also a nexus of conflict between equal opportunity, fears of wealth undermining republican values, private property rights, and free enterprise. Ultimately, American views on inheritance are marked by both fear and ambivalence.

Chapter Two employs the writings of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to explore Susan Glaspell’s 1921 play Inheritors (Provincetown Players), a drama that reflects anxieties and ambivalence exacerbated by the first Red Scare. Communism, anarchism, and the rise of labor unions in America are key sites of fear in the play. The Players, a company that moved from democratic experimentation to a professional model during the same season Inheritors premiered, had a heavy influence on the production, as well as Glaspell’s later dramas. Withers utilizes Derrida’s notion of aporia to explicate democracy and inheritance as dichotomous normative injunctions. The chapter concludes with the tracing of Glaspell’s ethics for negotiating aporia, in a democratic tradition that grew out of both a monarchial past and a progressive present.

Chapter Three explores new tensions that emerge in light of the performance and performativity of inheritance, especially those found between national affiliation, citizenship, race, and racial exclusion. These tensions were especially prominent in Langston Hughes’ 1935 play Mulatto: A Tragedy of the Deep South. The character Bert, the son of a white plantation owner and himself of mixed race, is an embodiment of problematic inheritance, as well as white privilege and complex racial identity reminiscent of Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896), a case Withers claims “should thus be read as codifying the social order of segregation that provides the political context and the larger stakes of Hughes’s familial drama” (p. 84). One of the briefs attached to the decision is used to explain white identity as a form of property, a notion that greatly enriches Withers’ initial thesis. “Mulatto thus critically interrogates this conceptual relationship between race, identity, and property through the introduction of a fourth term, inheritance” (p. 88). In the second half of the chapter, Withers delineates how Dion Boucicault’s 1859 mortgage melodrama The Octoroon—although written in the previous century—engaged more directly with nineteenth-century issues of race and inheritance. Peter Brook’s notion of the “spiritual occult,” modified by Withers to be the “moral occult,” allows inheritance to intersect the spiritual, legal, and social implications of race, thus revealing The Octoroon as much of a nuanced political commentary as it is melodrama. In an exploration of theme and character, Mulatto and The Octoroon are compared, thereby bringing into relief the implicit errors of racism and white inalienability.

Using the first two plays as a framework, the chapter concludes with Shirley Graham’s 1939 play I Gotta Home, which includes similarly unrealized expectations about black inheritance. Unlike the previous two plays, however, Graham employed a comic mode. Withers effectively explains how comedy, especially in the instance of this play, proves highly effective in challenging the patriarchal and dominant racial norms that persisted beyond the eras of slavery, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction.

Chapter Four moves the dissertation to the study of queer and cultural inheritances in Tennessee Williams’ 1955 play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Critics have noted the play is distinctly American and Withers makes a strong case for the drama as another iteration of the “anxieties and ambivalences inherent to a specifically American ideology of inheritance that has historically privileged freedom (of testation) over equality (of birth or opportunity)” (p. 139). While temporarily entertaining the possibility of queer transmission within the American nuclear family, the play eventually returns to the stasis of inheritance within the white, heterosexual province. The inheritance conflict is not merely a subplot, but is representative of what Joseph Roach calls a “crisis of surrogation” (p. 140), in which cultural anxieties arise because of the arbitrarily presumed inadequacy of the surrogate (in this case, the character Brick) vis-à-vis the predecessor (Big Daddy). The crisis of surrogacy can only be solved when selective forgetting and remembering is enacted in what Roach calls “rites of surrogacy” (ibid), which are not accomplished in the play. The conflation of homosexuality and disease, manifest in Big Daddy’s bowel cancer, is solved through the rite of surgery; such is not the case for Brick and his more explicit, un-conflated sexuality. In the lack of recognition of Brick as heir, the dichotomy between kinship and kind becomes apparent.

The chapter continues with comparisons to other versions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, including the 1958 Richard Brooks film, and the all-black Debbie Allen production of 2008. Homosexuality is absent in the film version, thus eradicating the possibility of queer transmission, however fleetingly it was presented in the original Broadway production. Withers posits, however, that the eliding of inheritance anxieties, most evident in the re-signification of the plantation as an object of sentimentality rather than real property, does much more to undermine the homosexual implications in the original than the overt edits. Equally rife with sentimentality is the 2008 Allen production, which was noted for both the insignificance of its racial re-casting, and the enhancement of universalism and timelessness. This enhancement effectively erased the historical and racial circumstances that gave credence to the plantation as a site of fear and ambivalence concerning inheritance.

The chapter concludes with an analysis of the“re-queered”Split Britches production of Anniversary Waltz (1989), an adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which restored the“queer possibility of inheritance”(p. 186). The lesbian-identified troupe employed equal parts drag performance, camp, and recorded media from the 1958 film to construct what Withers identifies as a“queer model of cultural inheritance”(p. 190) that is at once critical and sentimental, making Waltz the true heir to the Broadway original.

In a brief conclusion, Withers uses O’Neill’s satirical “Last Will and Testament of an Extremely Distinguished Dog” as a means of understanding and returning to the notion of the inherent inadequacy of the surrogate. While O’Neill could be (and has been) viewed as the most prolific and substantial playwright on the subject of inheritance, his massive popularity, which obscured such contemporaries as Glaspell, served also to obscure the richer, more accurate history of cultural and dramatic inheritance in the American theatre. Just as Withers uses Last Will to provide a final link between prose and drama, this dissertation as a whole accomplishes the same, making it of importance to current discourses in both American literature and theatre studies, far beyond its rethinking of a commonly studied sequence of historical periods. Withers brings into relief an obscure but vital aspect of American theatre history. She has also, quite successfully, brought a solidly thoughtful theoretical matrix, including postmodernism, feminism, performance studies, and interdisciplinary lines of inquiry to bear on canonical plays and traditional understandings of them.

Paul “Spike” Wilson
Department of Theatre Arts
University of Pittsburgh
paulspikewilson@gmail.com

Primary Sources

Inheritors by Susan Glaspell (1921)
The Octoroon by Dion Boucicault (1859)
Mulatto: A Tragedy of the Deep South by Langston Hughes (1935)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee William (1955)
Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896)

Dissertation Information

Indiana University. 2012. 262 pp. Primary Advisor: Shane Vogel.

Image: “American Progress,” by John Gast (1872).

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