Friday, July 27, 2007


The "stage Yankee" was a stock character on the early American stage, said to begin with the character of Jonathan in Royall Tyler's The Contrast (1787). Federal-era America was eager to develop nationalistic icons, and the Yankee type, with his unself-conscious bearing, pride in origin, and idiosyncratic speech, was ideal. [Click link for "Stage Yankee" at left.]

The British actor Charles Mathews observed the Yankee on his American tour in the 1820s and created "Jonathan Doubikins." Mathews, a gifted mimic and writer, brought Doubikins to life in his theatrical "At Homes", in which he played numerous characters with the help of quick-change in costumes and voice and facial characterizations.

Other Yankee actors followed, the most famous and popular being James Hackett, George Handel Hill (image above), Dan Marble, and Joshua Silsbee. The Yankee character appeared in plays like The Forest Rose (1825), She Would Be A Soldier (1832), Cut and Come Again (1840), The Pilot (1843), and The Stage Struck Yankee (1849), culminating in the stage Yankee best remembered now, Asa Trenchard in Our American Cousin (1858). Stage appearances of the character would often consist of an improvised narrative, the "Yankee story." Theater historian Francis Hodge has called the practice of the stage Yankee "the American commedia dell'arte," and his role in drama was often that of a Harlequin, as a uniter of lovers and a catalyst of transformation.

The Yankee man was an almost surrealistic mixture of naivete and cunning. He always got the better in a bargain or a swap, but was childishly innocent in the matters of fashion, language and politics. His clothes were peculiar, in the manner of a man unused to city ways: striped trousers, often too short; bright flashy waistcoats; an oversized "bell-shaped" hat; suspenders or "galluses"; a long coat almost to the ankles, or a swallow-tail jacket; a chin beard. This should sound familiar -- it was the origin of our "Uncle Sam". He spoke in a nasal twang, with a stage accent based on western New England dialect, studding his conversation with homely metaphors and outlandish words ("splendiferous," "absquatulate."*). The changes in dramatic taste after the Civil War meant that the stage Yankee faded out in all but the most cliched stage pieces, but the type was important in establishing national taste in the theatre and in representing America across the sea.

*See link at left for Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms (1848)-- while not confined to Yankee talk, it has many, many examples, including "sockdolager", famous from Our American Cousin.

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