Freaks, Beasts, and Gadgets: Performing Order and Disorder in Early America
Abstract: The earliest American immigrants were always on the brink of
discovery. New peoples, new animals, and new ways to engage the physical environment
offered to new arrivals and their next generations the opportunities to structure an
existence that was constantly threatened by the unknown and the unknowable. Performances
that featured anomalous human bodies, unfamiliar and dangerous ani... read moremals, and devices of
mechanical ingenuity map critical moments in the early American imagination when many
Americans saw themselves against the other, against the frontier, against different and
emerging considerations of race, sexuality, and gender. Histories of early America have
demonstrated the perpetual anxiety many Americans felt about the natural world and its
inhabitants, but the appearances of freaks, beasts, and gadgets have received little
critical attention. This dissertation consists of case studies of American popular
entertainments between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries and argues that
early Anglo-Americans derived power from exhibiting freakish bodies, captured animals, and
scientific demonstrations. Furthermore, some marginalized Americans, including black men
and disabled women, gained an agency in exhibiting themselves which their audiences did not
assume they had. Whether the performances were hegemonic acts or forums for dissent,
freaks, beasts, and gadgets allowed early Americans of all backgrounds, abilities, and
creeds to live on the verge of discovery and assert themselves as vital citizens of the New
World, even when cultural and political structures urged otherwise.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Tufts University, 2016.
Submitted to the Dept. of Drama.
Advisor: Heather Nathans.
Committee: Barbara Wallace Grossman, Amy Hughes, and Laurence Senelick.
Keywords: Theater history, American history, and American studies.read less