Pamiętnik Teatralny (Oct 2022)

Embracing the Lackluster: Investigating the Life (and Afterlives) of a Nineteenth-Century Workaday Actor

  • Amy E. Hughes

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 71, no. 3


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US actor-manager Harry Watkins (1825–1894) was no one special. He yearned for fame, but merely skirted the edges of it. If Watkins has any “historical significance” at all, it is because he left behind a voluminous diary in which he chronicled his experiences during the years leading up to the US Civil War. When the author discovered the manuscript in 2008, Watkins’s lackluster became the subject of her research, focused on the question: what could this minor actor reveal about nineteenth-century US culture—a culture as obsessed with fame and achievement as today’s culture? The author argues that Watkins is significant precisely because of his ordinariness, his obscurity, his run-of-the-mill-ness. His experiences illuminate how “white mediocrity” (Koritha Mitchell) works and deepens our understanding of the insidious power of the American Dream. Watkins’s lack of visibility during his lifetime and subsequently suggests that mediocrity is a stigmatized state of being, a form of abjection. His cyclical highs and lows bring into focus the cultural forces that still shape the aspirations of today’s theater artists, and the triumphs and failures that define their (our) inexorably ordinary lives.