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Edwin Forrest's Redding Up: Elocution, Theater, and the Performance of the Frontier


Matthew Rebhorn


When Edwin Forrest “redded up” as the title character in John Augustus Stone’s Metamora in 1829, the American public witnessed the birth of what Walt Whitman called an “American style of acting” that would be “emulated” for years to come. By unpacking the elements of Forrest’s “American style of acting” and detailing their interactions with the antebellum American infatuation with elocution and the grammar of the voice, this project reveals how Forrest revolutionized American acting by recoding what the frontier could mean to American culture. By imagining the frontier as unsettled and unsettling, moreover, Forrest’s performance simultaneously complicated the antebellum American zeal for “Indian plays,” for plays that critics have suggested smoothed the path for American imperial expansion between 1829–1845. Reconstructing Forrest’s acting style—the way Forrest constructed his “savage” voice when he “redded up”—reveals that in performance the play had a much more qualified and resistant relationship to the juggernaut of American imperialism than most critics have allowed it. Attending to the way Forrest negotiated the culture of the voice and orality when he deployed his particular construction of “Indianness” in Augusta, Georgia in 1831 spotlights how the performance of the frontier in the nineteenth century both facilitated and frustrated American imperialist nostalgia’s attempts to make the frontier into a key element of what Lauren Berlant calls our “National Symbolic.”

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.