SO AS TO COMPASS THE INTEREST: ARTISAN DRAMATURGY, COPYRIGHT REFORM, AND THE THEATRICAL INSURGENCY OF 1856
Tobiason, Aaron M.
Nathans, Heather S
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In 1856, a change in American copyright law finally gave playwrights control over performances of their work. That change was the culmination of decades of concerted and sustained efforts by a small number of playwrights and their political allies, men who embraced a theatrical aesthetic at odds with antebellum American production practices. I argue that previous scholarship has underestimated the importance of the 1856 law to the development of American theatre. Using a series of case studies, I propose that antebellum theatrical production was guided by a system of <italic>artisan dramaturgy</italic>. Key to this formulation is the concept of <italic>bespoke playwrighting</italic>: those who composed antebellum performance texts were more wrights than writers, handicraftsmen and women whose medium was the manuscript rather than the printed text. They drew freely from an extensive public domain created and protected by American copyright law. Published and unpublished plays, novels, songs, poems, current events - all were raw materials for the antebellum dramatist, to be combined, recontextualized, and reimagined. The system of artisan dramaturgy encouraged plays tailored to particular actors, companies, and audiences. These practices, among others, vexed playwrights who resented subjecting their plays to the messy, collaborative undertaking of antebellum American playmaking. I explore how their vision for the theatre drew on a particular understanding of natural rights, one that led them to see copyright as the most effective way to alter the economic conditions of playwriting. I document the largely unexplored legislative history of their efforts, which ultimately interposed statutory law into an art form that had been regulated almost entirely by the common law. The1856 legislation accelerated a process that would ultimately alter the balance of power among the various theatrical collaborators in favor of the playwright, driving greater and greater synergy between dramatic text and performance and ultimately allowing playwrights to supplant the primacy of the actor or manager in shaping performances. By so doing, it also significantly reduced the vibrancy, flexibility, and innovation that had characterized the antebellum American theatre.