September 10, 2013 — Mary Isbell

“Maintaining the Dignity of the Stage” at Sea: Nineteenth-Century Shipboard Theatricals

On January 1, 1819, the ordinary sailor David C. Bunnell managed and took the leading role in a production of the farce The Weathercock (1805) aboard the USS Macedonian, which was approaching the Falkland Islands en route to the Pacific. Bunnell’s production was reviewed in The Thespian Critic and Theatrical Review and The Macedonian Scourge, two newspapers published by crew members aboard the ship; reviewers criticized Bunnell’s pronunciation and deemed the member of the carpenter’s crew playing the female lead “immeasurably disgusting.” When these reviews prompted retaliation from Bunnell, the editor of The Macedonian Scourge explained that the criticism was offered “with no other view than to maintain the dignity of the stage.” I argue that the majority of the spectators at Bunnell’s production did not perceive, much less mourn, any diminished dignity of the stage aboard the ship. This is because the most important feature of shipboard theatricals was the fact that spectators knew performers personally or recognized them as members of a common shipboard community.

Drawing on an archive of playbills, reviews, and images documenting shipboard theatricals in the British and US navy throughout the century, I argue that shipboard theatricals created alternate cultural hierarchies aboard naval vessels. I illustrate this with traces of the Macedonian performance, which reveal a theatrical manager and drama critics vying for the top position in the ship’s cultural hierarchy. I also consider the relationship between voluntary shipboard theatricals and compulsory participation in ritual hazing known as the crossing the line ceremony, which had taken place when theMacedonian crossed the equator on December 12. As I will show, both instances of shipboard performance carried the potential to displace the traditional naval hierarchy that placed officers from the elite class absolutely above lower-class sailors.