This essay considers how rowdy theater audiences contributed to a broader cultural understanding of democratic politics in the early United States, showing how raucous and occasionally riotous theater patrons enacted a form of popular rule that was predicated on the paying audience’s sovereign right to pleasure. Agonistic audiences thrived on the conflictual dynamics of disorder and dissidence, but their unruly practices only rarely devolved into mob violence, precisely because theatergoers largely understood themselves to be at play. I examine various accounts of theatrical disturbance, including Washington Irving’s famous depiction of a disorderly audience, to demonstrate how patrons cultivated a comic mode of sociality, one that foregrounded and maintained the essential playfulness of social contest. Such comic play acknowledged a horizon of popular enjoyment that stood in excess of rational-critical public discourse. The comic mode has long been undertheorized in literary and cultural studies of the early United States, yet it holds key insight into the practices of both early national theater and early national politics. By way of example, I offer a comic reading of Royall Tyler’s The Contrast (1787) that reveals the imprint of the agonistic audience on the repertoire of the period, shedding new light on nineteenth-century genealogies of performance.

You do not currently have access to this content.