Dead men tell no tales’: Outlaw John A. Murrell on the Antebellum Stage

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Outlaw John A. Murrell, credited with the planning of a failed slave uprising in Mississippi in 1835, was a significant figure in antebellum popular culture. Previously unrecognized, however, is his use as a character on the antebellum stage. Proof of his employment in this role can be found in the Harvard Theatre Collection, home to a hitherto unidentified manuscript copy of a melodrama entitled Murrell, the Pirate A Play in Three Acts. In this article, its creator is identified as Nathaniel Harrington Bannister, a significant pre-war actor-playwright. An exploration of its performance history reveals its significance in a variety of ways. It highlights the degree to which John Murrell was an adaptable and ambiguous antebellum villain. It helps to illuminate the life and career of Bannister and his contribution to the American stage. It provides new insights into the life and career of Charles Burke, another significant actor-playwright of the antebellum years who developed an important connection to Murrell, the Pirate. And because of Burke's association with the play, it also becomes plausible to place it as an important step on the road in the development of Joseph Jefferson III's production of Rip Van Winkle, one of the most successful and influential nineteenth century American plays.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)263-276
Number of pages14
JournalEuropean Journal of American Culture
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2009

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