Closet Drama, Literary Form, and Politics in Early America

Doctoral Dissertation


Theater and drama occupied a precarious position in early American culture. On one hand, the professional theater was banned and vilified by many in the colonial and early republican periods, damaging its legitimacy. On the other hand, much scholarship has demonstrated that early American theaters and the plays staged there contributed greatly to the development of American culture and politics. Little has been said, though, of the dramatic literature of this period that did not find its full realization on the stage, but instead on the page as closet drama, plays that were written but not performed publicly. Why, though, would authors write drama if not to be performed on a public stage? In what ways might we interpret the literary artifact of theater—printed, textual drama—alongside cultural and historical developments? What do manifestations of dramatic form, such as within other genres of literature, suggest about the affordances of drama? Questions such as these about closet drama have been explored by scholars in the contexts of early modern and Romantic England, and this dissertation seeks to explore them in the context of early America.

Closet Drama, Literary Form, and Politics in Early America is a study of closet drama’s development in America to the middle of the nineteenth century. It argues for a traceable archive of the genre in early America and proposes that we can conceive of authors’ turning to closet drama at various times (and to various effects) in early American cultural history, demonstrating its effectiveness at exploring topics of immediate political concern. We can see closet drama operating in situations and with opportunities as diverse as early America. The dissertation begins in the early colonial period by tracing dramatic form’s appearances in other literary genres, such as poetry and court proceedings before transitioning to closet drama of the later colonial period and the American Revolution. It then considers the closet drama of the nineteenth century and beyond to conceive of a diverse, malleable archive. Ultimately, the dissertation argues that because closet drama is eminently associated with live performance, it traffics in a sense of potentiality and possibility that its textuality necessitates as a private, reflective experience for the reader.


Attribute NameValues
Author Kaden Ivy
Contributor Sandra M. Gustafson, Research Director
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline English
Degree Name Doctor of Philosophy
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Defense Date
  • 2022-03-24

Submission Date 2022-04-09
Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

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