Article Title

Opposing Forces: (Re)Playing Pocahontas and the Politics of Indian Removal on the Antebellum Stage


Rebecca Jaroff


This article examines two plays about Pocahontas that were produced between 1830 and 1850 that perform nearly opposite agendas regarding the treatment of Native Americans. The earlier play, Pocahontas, of The Settlers of Virginia by George Washington Custis, promotes an unabashedly patriotic theme that celebrates the innate superiority of the white colonial settlers. In this version, Pocahontas’s sole role is to champion the virtues of John Smith and his men at the expense of her own race—rejecting first her spiritual beliefs and customs and ultimately her family/tribal ties. The play was a great hit with audiences and revived several times throughout the 30s. The second play, The Forest Princess by the actress and playwright Charlotte Barnes, seems a clear response and revision of the first. As a teenager, Barnes watched her mother perform the title role in the Custis play, so she clearly knew about it. Nearly diametrically opposed to the earlier version, Barnes’s play depicts Pocahontas as an adept politician who strives for racial and gender equality, rather than a loyal supporter of colonial domination who severs all ties with her own people. While not nearly as successful as her first original play, or the several adaptations Barnes wrote and performed during thirty-plus years on the stage, The Forest Princess best exemplifies her desire to play powerful female leads that offer a political alternative to the dominant culture.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.