Age and Politics in Early American Drama

Zoe Detsi*


This paper seeks to explore how age as a determining category of identity was represented on the American stage in the years following the American Revolution. By bringing early American drama—a field largely neglected in itself—into the discussion of performance and age studies, this paper examines age from a political perspective, as performance of the emerging American republican culture and as metaphor for national identity-formation and development.
Keywords: early American drama, age, national identity, political rhetoric

In one of the most popular political cartoons of the American Revolution, “The Female Combatants” (anon. 1776),[1] the increasing animosity and irreconcilable conflict between the Old and the New World takes the form of a domestic brawl between mother and daughter. Falling within the colonial paradigm of a parent-child relationship, the cartoon portrays Britain as an opulent older woman who chastises her young Native American daughter for her rebellious behavior.

Although the specific cartoon has received multiple interpretations that combine its political intent with issues of gender and race, the age difference in the allegorical representation of the two women has been overlooked. Within a context of age dynamics, America is presented as young and vigorous, lacking the pretentious refinement of Britain and embodying the innocence and naturalness of the new land as well as the determination to attain liberty and independence. America’s youthful impetuousness and disobedience are justifiable in the face of an abusive and tyrannical Britain whose controlling attitude pertains to an age-old loss of innocence. 

The notion of America as a young nation among the older European nations has been a powerful ideological constant in American history. It was Oscar Wilde who wittily remarked that “The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on for three hundred years.”[2]

If nations are conceded to be “imagined communities,” then the imagining of the United States has been a complex process of forsaking an immemorial European past and reinventing a bright new destiny and future on the American land.[3]

The birth of the American nation during the turbulent revolutionary years occurred within an ideological context where political rhetoric and cultural representation existed in powerful convergence. Images of America as a divinely-ordained land of freedom and democracy, in stark contrast to an old, decadent, outworn Europe, pervaded both political and cultural texts, in an attempt to construct a new national identity defined by the regenerative potential of republicanism and the promise of rebirth and dynamic growth.

“Betsy Ross presenting the first American flag to General George Washington,” painting by Edward Percy Moran, 1917, from the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. The painting captures the heightened feeling of nationalism and patriotic ardor that permeated the American consciousness across generations in the aftermath of the Revolution

Historian Sacvan Bercovitch has drawn special attention to the sense of continuity and undiminished fervor in the realization of the national project as well as the role the younger generation of Americans were called upon to play in the new republic. As he explains, the Revolution in America required “the ordained succession from one generation to the next. What the American Puritan fathers had begun—their sons were bound to complete—bound by covenant and precedent” (38).

It is the aim of this paper to explore how, in the process of reinventing the American nation and changing public mentality in the years following the American Revolution, the concept of age was invested with political significance and became associated with the emerging—albeit rather abstract—notion  of “Americanness.” By focusing on early American drama, I have sought to expand the still limited scholarly attention to the concept of age and examine how age as a determining category of identity was represented on the early American stage reflecting and, at the same time, inviting audiences to evaluate—consciously or not—the changing political ideas and cultural values of their new nation.[4]

Though there have been a number of studies attempting to redress the neglect of the concept of age when analyzing identity in drama, they have mostly engaged with canonical plays, elaborating primarily on the performative elements inherent in age as cultural construction.[5] It has been intriguing to bring early American drama—a field largely neglected in itself—into the discussion of performance and age studies. Despite their ostensible dramatic weaknesses and their persistent tendency to draw heavily on European theatrical conventions, post-revolutionary American plays, as both product and expression of their political culture, contributed to the national narrative of republicanism and American exceptionalism.

Interior of the Park Theatre, built in New York City, in 1798. After the Revolution, opposition against the theatre began to gradually wane and anti-theatre laws were repealed. Theatres were built in big urban centers, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and drama was considered part of the national effort toward cultural independence and indoctrination in the new republican values. Photo: Wikipedia

Given the distinct role of early American theatre as a public platform for staging national identity, I am less concerned with the appearance of age on early American stage than with its representation as political trope for the ideological transition into the republican values of the new nation.

My starting point has been the assumption that age is both solid and fluid— solid in the sense that it is firmly rooted in the materiality of the body,[6] and fluid since audience members respond to the performances of age based not only on their own perspective and experience of age, but also on the often-changing cultural dynamics of their sociopolitical context. Kathleen Woodward has broken age down to a number of categories arguing that “to subjective or personal age [how old we feel we are], we must add social age [how age affects the ways other people treat us], which is mediated by chronological age (how many years old we are) and biological age (the state of health of the body)” (Aging and Its Discontents 149). Exploring representations of youth as well as older age[7] in early American drama, I suggest approaching age from a political perspective, as performance of the emerging American republican culture, as metaphor for national identity-formation and development.

Age becomes a complex matter when brought into the domain of political ideas and the framework of an incipient nationalism. When Royall Tyler’s comedy of manners, The Contrast (1787), appeared on the post-revolutionary American stage, it was greeted with enthusiastic applause and critical acclaim earning a distinguished place in the annals of American theatre and an unremitting scholarly attention to this day.

The Contrast possessed all the staple ingredients for a successful rendering in its time: it was customized to meet the developing cultural needs of a republican audience,[8] it was proudly advertized as the work of “a Citizen of the United States,” it employed themes and types from the American social landscape, it reinvigorated patriotic sentiment and fostered national consciousness.

As the title itself suggests, the play follows the ideological line of the revolutionary discourse bringing to the stage, with an obvious tinge of didacticism, the sharp contrast between a socially bankrupt European culture of pretentiousness and artificiality and an invigorating American culture of simplicity, honesty and moderation. However, the specific reference to America’s “modern youth” in the Prologue to the play and the cast of young characters place The Contrast in a different light, with age as a defining factor in the political construction of a republican self.

The emphasis on the younger generation of Americans as the future of the republic is burdened with political demands and cultural expectations. The new nation, proud of its achievements and confident of its prospects, is ready to embark on a long process toward the materialization of the revolutionary promises.

All the characters in the play are young people, with the exception of Maria’s father, the aptly named Van Rough, a domineering man who calls his daughter “little baggage” (99), demands that she marry a man “of his choice” (49), and poses, in truly melodramatic fashion, a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to the loving union between Maria and Colonel Manly. Verging on the grotesque, Van Rough stubbornly clings to a patriarchal model of parental control in total dissonance with the new republican patterns of family and social life, especially as regards women’s education and greater freedom over marriage choice.[9]

The Life and age of woman, stages of woman’s life from the cradle to the grave. New York: James Baillie, c1848. Library of Congress. Prints and Photographs Division. Although the social status of American women was not substantially affected by the republican promises of the revolution, the emergence of the concept of “Republican Motherhood” gave political significance to the domestic role of women charging them with the responsibility to instill republican values into their children. Within this context, more women gained access to education and were given greater freedom to choose their marital partners

His language is a cacophony of obsolete ideas and gender prejudices, relics of an old colonial social order and provincial outlook. However, after a series of plot twists, Van Rough awakens to a realization of his own false judgment and narrow-mindedness and consents to Maria’s marriage to Colonel Manly, no longer being able to resist the republican forces at work that challenge traditional authorities and usher in new cultural paradigms and gender ideals.

Age theorist Margaret Morganroth Gullette has defined “two dominant American fables of aging” (Agewise 7) that position age identity in terms of narratives of progress and narratives of decline. The idea of progress—so optimistic and desirable—has been ingrained in American mythology since the time of colonization and expansion, while the idea of decline is associated with cultural forces that have demonized “aging-past-youth” (8).

In The Contrast, the concept of decline does not refer to the experience of aging as physical deterioration, but rather to an aged mentality, a mentality of conservatism and regression, while the concept of progress is inextricably linked to youth, newness, growth. The ending of the play is a celebration of the younger generation and the revolutionary values they have been nurtured into. Even those young characters in the play who have rather naively advocated a more European life-style are duly reformed and readily embrace the fundamental principles of equality, freedom and virtue that constitute the essence of the American national identity.

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, a major shift occurred in American drama from the cultural juxtaposition between American virtue and European vice to a concern over the increasing discrepancy between the egalitarian rhetoric of republicanism and the reality of political restrictions in the process of social reconstruction. As the new nation was rapidly growing within its own borders and as an international power, the need to establish its political character became all the more imperative.

In Judith S. Murray’s The Medium; or, Virtue Triumphant (1795),[10] the intersection of age and politics falls within the wider political debate over the shape the American society should take in terms of social hierarchies and democratic governance. In the play, age becomes a barometer of the opposing ideologies of revolutionary radicalism and political conservatism, each seeking to determine the future of the nation.[11]

Judith S. Murray. The first-ever theatrical revival of The Medium was mounted by the North Shore Folklore Theatre in Murray’s hometown of Gloucester, Mass. on December 13, 2015. Photo: Wikipedia

Mr. Maitland, a member of the older generation of the American elite, who strongly opposes his son’s romantic attachment to Eliza on the basis of social class, espouses a rigid mentality of social stratification and economic distinction, expressing the fear that the egalitarian promises of the revolution might lead to social disruption and cultural dissolution. Echoing pre-revolutionary patterns of patriarchy and class hierarchy, Maitland’s ideas betray a lingering anxiety regarding the new nation’s changing social profile and cultural attitudes. However, in his meeting with Eliza, Maitland is surprisingly disarmed by the force of her values and principles, by her autonomy and sound judgment, evident in her determination to “never, but on equal terms,” plight her faith with Charles’ (32). Although Eliza herself appears to be class conscious, and is conveniently rewarded with social status and wealth at the end of the play, she represents the new generation of American women whose experience of the post-revolutionary political culture of equal rights and opportunities have led them toward a redefinition of their social role and gender identity. Eliza is the new American girl who wins Maitland over with her frankness and confidence. She supports the more “republican” view of marriage as woman’s choice, based not only on love, but also on mutual respect and admiration.

In both The Contrast and The Medium, the time-honored association of wisdom with older age is undermined as both Van Rough and Maitland seem to lack a capacity for sound judgment and reflection in matters of life, conduct and interpersonal relations. Their age-old experience is fraught with rigid ideas and long-held biases. They insist on judging the social and political changes taking place in the new nation by the standards of an older regime whose validity is steadily fading. They both appear ill-adapted to the new social order and, eventually, withdraw to the margins, without any feelings of bitterness or anger. The weakening of their influence is a smooth—and inevitable—process of relinquishing authority and control to the younger generation of Americans, whose political system and social vision are endorsed.    

The association of youth with national regeneration, optimism and progress is a dominant metaphor in early American plays. In Mary Carr’s The Fair Americans (1815),[12] the focus is on the impact of the War of 1812 on the mentality of the younger generation of Americans. The play explores the role of young people as doers, as agents of action, as participants in the political arena of decision-making. The young men and women of the new nation, experiencing a renewed state of patriotic fervor and national pride, assume responsibility for safeguarding the revolutionary values and republican ideals their predecessors had heroically fought for. In this moment of national crisis, the revolutionary metaphor of the rebellious child acting against an abusive parent is replaced by the image of deferential young Americans trying to emulate the heroic virtue of their forefathers (Detsi-Diamanti, Patriotic Revival, 2012: 134-35).

The young men and women, armed with the legacy of the Revolution, respond to national matters with political maturity and confidence. The “fair Americans” of the play’s title are the young women of the nation who successfully combine their domestic role with an active involvement in public affairs. The girls engage in discussions of political matters and seek fulfillment in more substantial education. The play draws a clear dividing line between the younger and older generation of American women. Mrs. Fairfield is portrayed as the epitome of the traditional domestic woman whose constant nagging about unfinished household chores transforms her into a caricature, a comic reminder of America’s provincial past (Detsi-Diamanti, “Patriotic Revival” 141). What is at stake in the play is no longer the easily identifiable juxtaposition between the disparate political systems and social cultures of Europe and the United States, but the challenge of national development from the post-revolutionary atmosphere of ideological probing and political conflict to a society of unity, coherence, morality and greatness.    

Donald Pease has described the “national narrative” as a means of creating a nation by constructing “imaginary relations to actual sociopolitical conditions” (3). Approaching age in the plays as part of the American national narrative involves an examination of how age—like race, class and gender—is not a fixed identity category, but embodies inherent contradictions pertaining to the changing social and political context as well as to personal experience and social outlook.

In The Medium, the rigidity of old age, represented by Maitland, is sharply undercut by the wit and open-mindedness of Matronia Aimwell. An older, single woman, Matronia has not fulfilled her culturally prescribed destiny to become a wife and a mother. Yet, instead of feeling marginalized, slowly retreating into the “invisibility of old age,”[13] she moves in the public world with an air of confidence and independence, carrying out her own business affairs and enjoying the esteem of society.

Godey’s Lady’s Book (Jan.-June 1853). While American women’s destiny remained to become wives and mothers, single women enjoyed greater freedom under the law to conduct their own business and public affairs

Maitland and Matronia’s chronological age is filtered through their gender identity, the social ideas they espouse and the cultural meanings they convey. As a result, age is inflected with the degree of acceptance or rejection of specific ideas and behaviors. Though belonging to the same age group, Maitland represents an outdated, waning patriarchal mentality, while Matronia stands for a new alternative social existence for older American women, one that entails a considerable degree of freedom and autonomy.

The same applies to the younger generation of Americans, who are not presented as a homogeneous group in their social behavior and cultural pursuits. In The Contrast, the young people are divided among those who have eagerly adopted the republican principles of the new nation and live by them, and those who adhere to European values and manners, exhibiting a dangerous frivolity.

In the plays, the present and the past, the young and the old, meet to negotiate the ideas, values and attitudes that will carry America into the unfailing progress of its national future. In this process, however, a number of questions inevitably arise: What role should the past play in determining the present and the future of the nation? To what extent should the present be recognized as an improved continuance of the past, or as a disruptive force? Which ideas, values and attitudes should define and defend the new national identity through time? What does it mean to be old in the new nation? What does it entail to be young?

The concept of age adds a new perspective to the underlying complexities of America’s journey to nationhood. The representation of age is a political act in the sense that it enacts conceptions of national identity through narratives of America’s relation—real or fabricated—to the past, present and future. America’s relation to the past has assumed two contradictory doctrines, each contributing equally to the shaping of an enduring American national consciousness: 1. embrace the past as a reminder of America’s “manifest destiny” in the world, and 2. repudiate the past, its dogmas and traditions, to declare a fresh start, a new beginning.

Within a context of generational tension between parents and children, old and new regimes, age becomes politicized emphasizing both conflict and continuity. Especially during the post-revolutionary period, the past acquired contradictory meanings depending on the changing discourses of the time. On the one hand, it represented the oppressive regime of British monarchy and the discredited European political values, and, on the other, it stood for the legacy of the American Revolution and the triumph of republicanism.

Nevertheless, the challenge of nation-making would be met through a Freudian-like “rhetorical patricide” that would enable the American youth to “supersede their own fathers and other ‘heroic’ founding figures to achieve their own identity” (Wallach 6).

The image of America as a perennially youthful nation, whose heroic flight from the past had been a reassuring reminder of the nation’s potential and power, gained momentum and dominated the American national imagination for the years to come. In his essay, “The Young American” (1844), Ralph W. Emerson attributes to the American land all the qualities associated with youth. For Emerson, America is “new-born, free, healthful, strong”; “it is the country of the Future”; “it is a country of beginnings, of projects, of designs, and expectations.”[14] Another American writer and lecturer of the time, George William Curtis also embraces the new against the old, the political and literary freshness against the inert adherence to the past. As Curtis pointed out in 1853, “all these works of antiquity are only partial and incomplete affairs, not to be compared with what can be done in our day” (qtd. in Eyal 252).

In this day, however, the way young Americans understand their relationship to the past and the future seems to cause more frustration than optimism. According to social historians, although there’s a lot of focus in the media on the younger generation of Americans, financial power, political power and consumer power are still in the hands of the baby boomer generation (Frey 35). Overshadowed by those aged 60+, young Americans have a hard path to follow in determining political life and social culture, especially in the face of pressing issues, such as war and climate change, among others. It appears that today’s youth are inheriting, along with the obligation to defend the legacy of their forefathers, the errors of the previous generation. “The mistakes of the past are fast creating a crisis for younger Americans, writes Lyman Stone in The Atlantic (June 24, 2019).[15] In these challenging economic times and globally-connected culture, young Americans see progress as a break from the previous generation’s conservatism and as a move toward embracing diversity and tolerance.


[1] See McKellop. Also, for more information regarding the political cartoons of the American Revolution, see Jones.

[2] The quote is from Oscar Wilde’s play A Woman of No Importance (1893, Act I).

[3] I have borrowed the term from Benedict Anderson to refer to America’s transition from colony to nation. In this transition, the narrative of America as a “New World,” a “New Eden,” a mythical land of promise and rebirth, became a powerful metaphor in the construction of America’s cultural profile and political mythology.

[4] Particularly at the time of the American Revolution and in its aftermath, American drama held a unique position as a powerful ideological mechanism for representing republican values and encouraging a mentality of common heritage and shared future among the diverse American citizens. For more information on the political resonances of the American theatre and its role in the construction of American identity, see Detsi-Diamanti (2004); Mason; Richards; Wilmer.

[5] See, Basting; Lipscomb; Lipscomb and Marshall; Mangan.

[6]Judith Butler’s argument regarding the concept of gender, that “the matter of bodies will be indissociable from the regulatory norms that govern their materialization and the signification of those material effects” (2), can also be applied to an understanding of the formation of age as cultural identity.

[7] In Aged by Culture, Margaret Gullette has proposed an exploration of all ages redefining the field of aging studies as age studies.

[8] The Contrast was tailored after Sheridan’s The School for Scandal. It was “both entertaining and corrective, a school not for scandal but for new American identities (Richards 299). The play’s significance lies in its role in reinforcing a sense of national identity among a diverse citizenship and as a first attempt toward the creation of a distinctly American theatre. 

[9] For more information, see Kerber; Norton.     

[10] The Boston newspaper Federal Orrery announced that a new comedy, written by a “Citizen of the United States” would be performed at the Federal Street Theatre on March 2, 1795 (Skemp 254). Though it enjoyed only one performance, the play has come down to early American theatre annals as the first American-authored play to have been performed on Boston stage.

[11] The process of party formation gave rise to divergent political orientations regarding the future of the nation. On the one hand, the Federalists proposed a strong, centralized government favoring a clearly stratified society and the leadership of a wealthy and educated elite. On the other hand, the Democratic Republicans envisioned a social order in which race and gender, instead of class, were the principal factors determining one’s access to public sphere and eligibility for self-government. For more information about the political and social vision of the two competing parties, see Ben-Atar; Horn.

[12] There is no production information for The Fair Americans. However, it is probable that the play may have been produced under the title The Return from Camp on January 6, 1815, at Philadelphia Chestnut Street Theatre (Kritzer 17).

[13] I have borrowed the term from Woodward who has made a case regarding the invisibility of older women in everyday life (1999).

[14] Emerson is among the first to mention “Young America” as a promising concept in the American national project toward “greatness,” in terms of technological and commercial development, as well as literary achievement. For Emerson’s essay, follow this link. See also, Eyal for information on “The Young America Movement” of the 1840s and 1850s.

[15] See here


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*Zoe Detsi is Professor at the Department of American Literature at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. She has been teaching and researching in the fields of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American culture and ideology, American drama and politics, and popular culture. Her publications include articles in American Drama, American Studies, New England Theatre Journal, and Prospects. She is the author of a book on Early American Women Dramatists, 1775–1860 (New York: Garland, 1998), and has also co-edited The Flesh Made Text Made Flesh: Cultural and Theoretical Returns to the Body (New York: Peter Lang, 2007), The Future of Flesh (New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2009), and The Viewing of Politics and the Politics of Viewing: Theatre Challenges in the Age of Globalized Communities (Thessaloniki: Aristotle University Press, 2017).

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