Since the focus of American melodrama has mostly been on contributions from Eastern urban centers, it’s a pleasure to see Lawrence I. Berkove and Gary Scharnhorst turn the spotlight to the neglected contributions of playwrights from the Old West.
The editors highlight the little known dramatic works of authors Bret Harte and Sam Davis, which stand as enjoyable specimens of dramatic literature. The editors, however, neglect to discuss the importance of spectacle in early American drama (wonderfully demonstrated by the second text in this collection); Nor do they provide adequate focus to the theatre’s role in shaping an emerging American identity. The latter is a particularly glaring omission given how both plays provide a fascinating snapshot of an adolescent U.S. forging its own identity in the world. Harte’s The Luck of Roaring Camp tells the story of rugged prospectors in antebellum America who strike gold and wind up spending time in Paris. Set some fifty years later, Davis’ The Prince of Timbuctoo shows a more mature America, one that can handle some criticism of its own. Once again, the protagonists are enterprising Americans in an exotic land. These two plays are a welcome addition to the American theatrical canon and would be of great interest to aficionados of either early American theatre or the culture of the Old West.
—Michael K. Saar