by John Augustus Stone
To what end fantasy? Does it enable us to see deeper into our own spirits? To understand our past? To set our sights on the future?
In 1829, the stage fantasy Metamora took the violent events of our settler past and turned them into a fast-paced vehicle for a star actor, a rallying point for national pride, and an homage, of sorts, to a vanquished culture. Today, the play also offers a chance to delight in the theatrical conventions of a bygone era, as well as to examine our culture’s changing depictions of heroism.
Metamora was written in 1829 by a Massachusetts native named John Augustus Stone. You may never have heard of Stone, but that is par for the course of this theatrical era. Commissioned by the famous and famously irascible actor Edwin Forrest, the play was associated with him alone. Indeed, Stone’s name doesn’t even appear on one surviving poster. What audiences wanted was Forrest, Shakespearean star and the brightest light of the American stage. A giant of a man and a commanding stage presence, he was well fit to the stagecraft of the time, where eight bars of music accompanied the tenser moments, thundersheets heralded the heavens’ displeasure with mortal ignominy, footlights articulated the heavily made-up faces, and stylized language spoke the deepest passions. Metamora includes all these devices, and it became the greatest hit of Forrest’s remarkable career.
In commissioning a tragedy "of which the hero...shall be an aboriginal of this country," Forrest was taking a daring step on the leading edge of literature. Native Americans were no longer much a threat to New England (this was before the big push westward), but they certainly weren’t heroes. However, literary Romanticism was coming to the fore, and as the movement took a love of nature to new literary highs, it was possible to depict Indians, who lived close to nature, as more innocently noble—and even heroic—than the overly civilized white community. Metamora is a man of straightforward honor who will risk his life to keep a promise, quite unlike his white antagonists, all misled by greed and lust. James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans had been published to acclaim in 1826, and Forrest was no doubt banking on continued interest in the subject to expand his fame beyond Shakespeare. Further, given Forrest's grudge against European snobbism, particularly as regarded his own craft, his literary gambit was also a display of self-promoting nationalism. He sought singlehandedly to create a new American mythology from the tales of our young nation’s past.
But what of the truth, both the colonists’ and the Native Americans’? King Philip’s War was a bloody and brutal conflict, said to have caused the heaviest losses in proportion to population of any war ever experienced by the region. Turning the battle into a melodramatic tale of nobility and passion, Metamora creates a Romantic hero, but he is an Anglo-American ideal, hardly a truthful portrait of a Native American. And as fond as the play seems to be of the noble savage, the tragedy only succeeds by putting him to a helpless death. Meanwhile, the deepest pains felt by the characters are idealized as well—they are the pang of guilt, the ache of lost love, the sting of betrayal, but little effort is made to evoke the actual suffering on either side of the battle. Instead, history and a lost culture are appropriated to create a titillating tale and a romantic diversion.
Demonized or glorified, fantastic portrayals of others help to redefine ourselves. Our first play in Metropolitan’s Season of Heroes comes on the eve of an election and in the middle of a foreign war. In this histrionic entertainment from the past, we find the roots of our self-promoting present.
EDWIN FORREST AND THE CREATION OF AN AMERICAN IDIOM
Edwin Forrest's (1806-1872) colorful life and career made him an international superstar long before the word was coined. Apprenticed under Edmund Kean, he debuted in New York in 1826 as Othello, which imediately established his prowess and fame. A Herculean figure whose physical presence was matched by an acting style that was at the very least forceful, and at the worst bombastic, he became the first actor-manager of the melodramatic stage who raised American performance to challenge the British. His prominence actually caused the famous Astor Place riot in 1849—a dispute among fans over the relative abilities of two Shakespearean actors, Forrest and the British William Charles Macready, in which 22 people were killed. A champion of American art and artists, he was nonetheless a self-serving businessman in the tradition of the day, and claimed ownership of the plays written for him, at times withholding pay from writers whose works made him famous. More magnanimous in death than in life, Forrest left much of his fortune to found the first home for aged actors, in his native Philadelphia, and his mark is indelible on the stage he helped create.
Metacom, or King Philip, was born about 1639 near Bristol, Rhode Island, near land controlled by the Pilgrim settlers in Plymouth. Metacom became the leader of his Wampanoag tribe in 1662, when the Pilgrims were expanding geographically and trying to impose European law (and even taxes) on all the region’s inhabitants. Neither of these goals sat well with the Wampanoags. In 1675, a misunderstanding over a land sale—perhaps deliberately caused by the Plymouth government—led to violence that eventually stretched from Rhode Island to upstate New York. Captives were taken on both sides; entire towns were destroyed. Eventually, Metacom was betrayed and beheaded, and he was so demonized that his head was displayed on a pike in Plymouth for years. Some of his supporters escaped to Canada, but many others were sold into slavery in the West Indies or stripped of their land and forced into servitude at home.
There is a long tradition of projecting one’s darkest fears and one’s greatest hopes onto idealized characters from other cultures, or even from one’s own.
BELOW, A SAMPLING: