Joseph M. Field (1810-1856) was an actor, dramatist, humorist, and theatre manager in the Old Southwest (the term for Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas when they were frontier states) who also contributed a major work to the genre of Old Southwestern humor. The Drama in Pokerville (1847) chronicles a fictional acting company's visit to a backwoods village and draws heavily on Field's theatrical experiences in Alabama.
Field was born in London, England, in 1810 but came to the United States at the age of two. Raised in Baltimore and New York City, he made his acting debut at the Tremont Theatre of Boston in 1827. Around 1830, he went west, where he remained except for sporadic returns to act in such cities as New York and Boston. By 1833, Field was touring in the South with Sol Smith, a northern acting director, and his acting company, playing in Montgomery, Mobile, and especially the smaller towns along the way that he so humorously describes in his writings. By 1835, Field was assistant manager of the company.
In 1837, Field married Eliza Riddle of Boston, who was the lead actress in the company. He wrote plays for her, and he and his wife shared the stage frequently. The couple had one surviving child, Kate, who became a successful public speaker in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Field wrote many humorous works, including fiction, poetry, and plays. While acting in New Orleans for the 1839-40 season, he contributed satirical verses to the Weekly Picayune, under the pen name "Straws." Throughout his career, he wrote and starred in theatrical farces that frequently satirized human gullibility, often ridiculing the many spiritualist movements that preyed upon the public.
From 1844 to 1850, Field edited the St. Louis Reveille, contributing humorous pieces under the pen name of "Everpoint." Many were reprinted in Spirit of the Times, a New York-based weekly journal for sporting men, and afterward were collected in The Bench and Bar in Jurytown and Other Sketches. This collection eventually became the second half of The Drama in Pokerville, published in 1847. Pokerville probably is based on Wetumpka, Alabama, where Field had performed in a two-week theatrical run in a billiard room. Two stories about Sol Smith's company are specifically located in Alabama. "'Old Sol' in a Delicate Situation" takes place in the Mobile Theatre, and "A Night in a Swamp" describes Sol Smith's company en route from Georgia to Montgomery as they pass through the Creek Nation in Alabama. In The Drama in Pokerville, Field ridicules the pomposity of local social leaders and censures small-town prejudice against the theatre.
After managing the Varieties Theatre of St. Louis in 1852, Field returned to Mobile, where he died on January 28, 1856.
Dormon, James H., Jr. Theatre in the Ante Bellum South, 1815-1861. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967.
Field, Joseph M. Job and His Children. In Volume 14 of America's Lost Plays, edited by Eugene R. Page. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1940.
———. The Drama in Pokerville, The Bench and Bar of Jurytown, and Other Stories. 1847. Reprint, Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Gregg Press, 1969.
Smith, Sol. Theatrical Management in the West and South for Thirty Years. 1868. Reprint, New York: Benjamin Blom, 1967.
Charles S. Watson
Published July 7, 2009
Last updated July 19, 2012