Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags
On November 28, 1828 a contest was posted in the New York Critic by American actor, Edwin Forrest, offering a prize of 500 dollars for an original play which met such criteria as, “a tragedy, in five acts, of which the hero, or principal character, shall be an aboriginal of this country.” Forrest, looking to produce a play suiting his strengths, created the contest as an opportunity to boost his acting career. With his play, Metamora, or the Last of the Wampanoags, playwright and actor John Augustus Stone stood out among his competitors and took home the prize. The play, which opened on December 15, 1829, was an instant hit. Due to a combination of the highly publicized contest, Forrest’s growing celebrity, and the timely subject matter of the play itself, the performances resonated with audiences across the growing country, earning theaters record profits, of which Stone received very little. Gaining almost no profit from Metamora and earning little success with his subsequent plays, Stone threw himself into the Schuylkill River on June 1, 1834. His death was heavily publicized in the press, and soon after his death, Forrest erected a memorial in honor of Stone, which reads: “In memory of the Author of ‘Metamora’ By his Friend, Forrest."
In the wake of Stone’s death, Metamora flourished even more in American theatres, with Forrest in the spotlight. In fact, no other actor “in the character of the hero qualified Mr. Forrest’s claim to the highest excellence. It was created for, and entirely fitted all his peculiarities." Though he played the lead in Metamora for forty of its sixty-years run, Forrest garnered a reputation as a respected actor and collectively had one of the best and most prolific careers of any actor of the time. Some historians argue, however, that he never fully stepped away from his famous Metamora, and any leading roles he undertook “were extensions of his stage Indian, Metamora transplanted to another time and place, but still the proud, doomed individual."
Metamora, or the Last of the Wampanoags follows the story of its eponymous Indian hero and his downfall at the hand of English settlers during Puritan infiltration in seventeenth century New England. At the opening of the play, Metamora is cordial, if hesitant, towards the Puritans, even befriending Walter and his love Oceana, who is betrothed to Fitzarnold. The remainder of the play is devoted to the converging stories of Oceana and Walter, among other Puritans, and Metamora, his wife Nehmeokee, their son, and the remainder of the Wampanoag forces. The ending is bittersweet as Oceana is at last able to marry Walter, but Metamora lies slain next to his wife and child, cursing the English with his final breaths.
Themes and criticism
Though Metamora is referred to as an Indian tragedy, its themes of love, war, dramatic deaths and suicides, and declaratory speeches make the play better described as a romantic melodrama. The depiction of Metamora as a kind and “noble savage,” turned violent by force especially resonated with the mid-19th century audience. However, the play’s cultural popularity did nothing to convince critics of its literary value. Critical response was mostly negative, and as one critic very harshly put it, “Mr. Stone did what he could to atone for the injury which he had inflicted upon the world by the production of this play. He drowned himself. We will accept the presumptive apology.” Though widely unpopular with contemporary critics of the day, most acknowledged the success of Forrest as the play’s lead. “This drama was indebted for its success almost entirely to the actor, as its literary merits were feeble” states biographer James Rees.
American character types: the Indian
In the years following such pivotal events in history as the American Revolution and the war of 1812, a strong feeling of nationalism infiltrated early America. This sense of national pride influenced not only everyday life, but also became evident in the arts, including early American theatre. After a time when mostly British theatre was performed in America, a desire to create drama specific to America emerged. America needed to establish itself in the midst of the well-developed drama and literature of other nations, as well as set a standard for what is uniquely American. However, this need for nationalism soon manifested itself in drama through American character types: the Negro, the Yankee, and in the case of Metamora, the Indian. As historian Walter Meserve points out, “American literature became identifiable only after writers had recognized the potential of American scenery, custom, characters, and ideas... in a sense, they were bound together by a similar desire for freedom: the Yankee from the English, the Indian from the Yankees, and the Negro from bondage.” Depictions of oppressed, underdog characters such as the Yankee, Negro, and Indian overcoming captivity, or dying gloriously, represented the themes of freedom and liberty that characterized the newly independent America.
In the nineteenth century, about seventy-five Indian-related plays were written. The first American play with an Indian hero was a closet drama from 1776, marking the beginning of what would become one of the biggest trends of the century. The character Metamora was inspired by New England Chief, Metacomet or King Philip, who was famous for attacking the English in 1675-1676. By the mid to late nineteenth century, the popularity of Indian drama quickly declined, mostly due to many satires written in jest of the excessive bravado and grandiose common to such plays.
Metamora and the Indian Removal Act
Opening only one year before the passage of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, Metamora’s depiction of a scorned and violent savage against English settler victims raises questions about the motives of both Forrest and Stone. In an essay analyzing the issue, Scott Martin remarks, “Recent interpretations insist that Stone’s play and Forrest’s personation of the title character, coming as they did when the fate of the southeastern tribes emerged as an urgent issue in congressional debate and the public mind, represented more than a mere coincidence in the realm of popular culture." Mark Mallett argues that Forrest’s partiality to the Democratic Party, and to Jackson, was the driving force behind Metamora. “Forrest’s play,” he asserts, “brought the Democrat’s message back into the theatre... effectively distracting public attention from the horrors of the government’s Indian Removal campaign.” However, others contend that Metamora was simply a vehicle for Forrest’s career and a story that suited the romantic ideals of its audience. “The overemphasis of political and racial ideology as the preeminent analytical context may cloud rather than clarify the relationship between Metamora and Jacksonian Indian policy. A close consideration of Metamora’s place in antebellum culture, and the contexts in which it can be interpreted, should give pause to scholars who are quick to detect efforts to engineer political advantage in very corner of art and popular culture."
- Metamora: Or, the Last of the Wampanoags, Feedback Theatre Books, August 1996, ISBN 978-0-937657-24-9
- Barrett, Lawrence. American Actor Series: Edwin Forrest. Bronx: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1881
- Martin, Scott C. “‘Metamora’: Nationalism, Theater, and Jacksonian Indian Policy.” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 19, No. 1. Spring: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. JSTOR.org. 2, Mar. 2011 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3124923>.
- Meserve, Walter J. An Outline History of American Drama. 2nd ed. New York: Feedback Theatrebooks; Brooklin: Prospero Press, 1994.
- Moody, Richard. Dramas from the American Theatre 1762-1909. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1966.
- Rees, James. The Life of Edwin Forrest. With Reminiscences and Personal Recollections. Philadelphia: T.B. Peterson and Brothers, 1874.
- "Metamora, by John Augustus Stone ROMANTICIZING WAR", Metropolitan Play House
- "The last Indian" syndrome revisited: Metamora, take two., Intertexts 22-March-06
- Tony Pastor presents: afterpieces from the vaudeville stage, Susan Kattwinkel, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998, ISBN 978-0-313-30459-0