"Look on this picture, and on this": Framing Shakespeare in William Wells Brown's The 'Escape'
In 1856, Brown began to read his first drama to New England audiences, entitled Experience; or, How to Give a Northern Man a Backbone, and in 1857, he began to read to various antislavery audiences what would become the first published drama by an African American, The Escape; or A Leap for Freedom. Not coincidently, after returning from five years in Europe, where, according to William Edward Farrison, Brown had read and seen a considerable amount of drama, including many Shakespearean plays, and with the vision of the theater and performers he witnessed at the Crystal Palace firmly in his mind, Brown came to write, perform, and publish a dramatic work. Furthermore, William Wells Brown's performance and publication of The Escape emerged from a moment when blackface minstrelsy had just reached the peak of its popularity, the years 1846 to 1854. In Highbrow/Lowbrow, Lawrence Levine writes that Shakespeare and Shakespeare's plays were an integral part of American culture that dominated the theater as popular entertainment for the majority of the nineteenth century. Oratory was a prominent feature in the national lifestyle, and it followed that Shakespeare's word play, dialogues, and soliloquies would attract Americans who already were drawn to the parallels between Shakespeare's characters and situations and their own society. Burlesque and parody were highly popular on the American stage, and because of Shakespeare's cultural currency, his plays were a prime target.
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