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ON THE EVE OF THE first conflict America would wage in part with photographic images, the first actor to play a photographer debuted on the American stage. He took his place alongside the antebellum era's minstrels, Shakespearian actors, and imitators of Jenny kind, and enticed the play's other characters to pose for their portraits. His camera recorded one character's murder of a character in blackface; his apparatus got smashed to pieces by a character dressed as an Indian brave; and a photograph, found within his apparatus, came to "prove" the murderer's guilt. With the opening of Dion Boucicault's drama The Octoroon at New York City's Winter Garden Theater in December 1859, photography made a remarkable American theatrical debut.
During that debut, one medium, a stage performance, including minstrelsy and playing out before an audience, participated in constructing another medium, photography. As the play dramatized it, photography could ascertain the identities of individuals otherwise understood to be ambiguous, as both guilty and innocent, black as well as white, one of "us" and yet one of "them." Photography could help establish some of these identities, like tragic mulattos, as essential and biological; and other identities, like blackface minstrels, as superficial and performative. It could document the performance of criminal acts, subsequently identify or incriminate the performers of those acts, and establish "the truth" behind the criminals' false claims or pretenses. The Octoroon included photography as a dimension of theatrical illusion, as it made photography coextensive with the conventions of minstrel performance, and had it accord with the identities that players assumed onstage as theatrical roles. And yet the play understood photography to dispel illusions, as it constructed photography's capacity to expose facts beyond staged performances, and relied on its supposed ability to reveal criminals' "true" selves, beyond their assumed identities. Photography could form a part of this staged performance, and yet reveal "truths" that lay beyond the merely apparent and consciously performed.
The Octoroon in fact explores what aspects of photography can and cannot be staged, and in turn, what aspects of the stage can and cannot be photographed. This drama and its audiences thereby bring about a fascinating moment in the unfolding history of the representation of evidence and "truth" in these two representational media. One can use such a moment to judge the capacity of a new, developing medium to produce and circulate truths, relative to the capacity of an older medium to present and maintain them. One can understand such a moment as an instance of what Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin have termed "remediation," "the representation of one medium in another." The Octoroon constitutes one of the earliest instances of remediating photography, representing it, as a medium, within the already established media of stage performance and minstrel comedy. "Our culture conceives of each medium or constellation of media as it responds to, redeploys, competes with, and reforms other media," explain Bolton and Grusin, who are, in their words, "offering a genealogy of affiliations, not a linear history, and in this genealogy, older media can also remediate newer ones." (1) The drama in these respects pits the performed pretenses of the stage, with its conventions of minstrel comedy, against photography, with its claims to naturalized, authenticated truth. The media compete as one represents the other, with theater testing photography's capacities and claims, relative to its own. The Octoroon even has the remediated medium resolve the dramatic conflict of the play, "proving" the murderer's guilt, which the primary, performative media cannot resolve by itself. In this play, then, theatrical performance looks to the "truths" photography can establish, beyond what theatrical performance can.
Noted by theater historians but omitted from critical histories of American photography, (2) taken up by performance theorists, but neglected in theories of visuality, (3) The Octoroon "stages" and performs one of photography's first remediations in American theatrical history. As such, it portends the eventual ascendance of mechanical media, such as photography, over performative media, such as theater and minstrelsy. It anticipates audiences who will come to prefer photography's and cinematography's naturalized "truths," rooted in supposed authenticity, to theater's performances, based on minstrel conventions. As members of such audiences, twenty-first-century American readers imagine stage productions of The Octoroon in ways that are mediated by their own experiences with photographic and cinematic media. The play represents an important historical moment, at which Americans first moved toward naturalizing photography's role in surveillance; an analysis of the play today dramatizes, as it were, the extent to which Americans have accepted--indeed, have become saturated with--that very culture of photographic surveillance. Boucicault and the theatrical players had to coach audiences in 1859 to accept photography's role in resolving the conflict of this play; modern readers, because they have been absorbing such coaching from photographers all their lives, find it difficult to imagine this drama playing out any other way.
Identity and Photography
Known for both acting and directing, and already noted for the success of London Assurance (1841), Dion Boucicault not only wrote and directed The Octoroon, but also built the Midtown Manhattan theater, the Winter Garden, where it debuted. He even cast himself and his wife, Agnes Robertson, in starring roles. (4) An Irish-born thespian who had won acclaim from immigrant and "native" audiences, Boucicault represented African-American slaves in The Octoroon's plantation setting. He opened the play within days of John Brown's execution, directly addressing the charged political climate of December 1859. Comparisons with the many stage dramatizations of Uncle Tom's Cabin were inevitable. Overlap with blackface minstrelsy, thriving in multiple venues, was to be expected. (5) The play's articulation of the one-drop rule, its onstage representation o f a slave auction, and its love affair between a white man and an octoroon slave, were calculated sensations. (6) By 1859, Boucicault had clearly become an accomplished, resilient architect of theatrical illusions.
By 1859, American photographers also depicted themselves as both architects of illusion and providers of an important system of identification. First appearing twenty years earlier in the form of daguerreotypes, photographic technology by this time had proliferated into landscape images, commercial portraits, and visual calling cards called cartes de visite. Photography in all of these forms carried the potential of a democratizing medium. The photographic image was the "card of introduction," wrote one authority, "to make all mankind acquaintances." (7) With an inexpensive portrait, commented another authority, "the humblest chamber-maid can today send her lover as true a likeness as a duchess can have at her bidding." (8) The expense of oil painting had reserved portraiture for aristocratic patrons of the arts and made the canvas the exclusive domain of the wealthy and ruling classes. But the accessibility of photographic studios brought portraiture to the masses, so that Civil War soldiers were likely to have cartes de visite of their fiances, families often possessed miniatures of children whom they had lost in epidemics, and the public frequently recognized the faces of wanted criminals from circulated photographs. As the first major advance in representational technology since America's founding as a democracy, photography provided a more democratic access to portraiture than middle- and lower-class citizens had ever before enjoyed.
As it promised to offer a greater number of sitters more democratic access, it also offered viewers unprecedented access to the supposed truths of the sitter's inner being. One authority wrote that, thanks to photographers, artists working in conventional media "have been constrained to present not merely the exact lineaments, facial and figural, of their subjects, but also what is vastly more important, that expression which reveals the mind--the heart--the individualizing soul of the same." (9) When Walt Whitman described a daguerreotype gallery, he recorded a "strange fascination," "a sort of magnetism" he felt around portraits: "An electric chain seems to vibrate," he wrote, "between our brain and him or her preserved there so well by the limner's cunning. Time, space, both are annihilated, and we identify the semblance with the reality--And even more than that. For the strange fascination of looking at the eyes of a portrait, sometimes goes beyond what comes from the real orbs themselves." (10) Portraits not only revealed truths, but also showed especially attuned viewers inner secrets, which they could not glimpse by any other means.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, for his part, described seeing himself for the first time in a photographic negative, and recorded "a perception, for a moment, of one's eventual and moral self, as if it were another person--the observant faculty being separated, and looking intently at the qualities of character. There is a surprise when this happens--this getting out of one's self,--and then the observer sees how queer a fellow he is." (11) Seeing himself in a new way, Hawthorne discerns visible signs of morality and destiny. Photographic portraits seemed to reveal more about the sitter's inner personality, to "vibrate" more, …