From an Obstacle to an Advantage: American Identity and American Playwrights in the Late Nineteenth Century

Amy Arbogast

For most of the nineteenth century, American playwrights faced an uphill road.  Theatergoers preferred European work and the lack of international copyright protection made European plays essentially free to adapt or pirate in the United States.  For the businessmen running American theaters, then, hiring an American playwright made no financial sense.  Many would not even consider their plays and even discarded them upon receipt.  American playwrights’ native identities marked them as clear “losers” in the American theatrical market.

After the Civil War, however, “Americanness” emerged as a selling point.  It functioned as a novelty, but also proved attractive in the midst of growing and evolving conversations about American identity.  In this paper, I will examine this transformation of Americanness from an obstacle to an advantage in the late nineteenth century, as well as how playwrights capitalized on it and used it to build their careers.  Beginning in the 1870s and continuing into the twentieth century, American playwrights transformed the very feature that had held them back as “losers” earlier in the century – their native identity – into a source of success.