Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Back To Program.


1B. Staging the New I: Imperialism and Colonialism

Jeffrey Cox (Colorado-Boulder):"Staging Slavery: `My pain is dere game'"
Marjean Purinton (Texas Tech): "British Women Playwrights: 'New' Perspectives on the Commerical/Colonial Enterprise"
Daniel O'Quinn (Guelph): "Colonial Spectacles: the Irish Vizier and the Female Knight in James Cobb's Ramah Droog"


Staging Slavery: "My pain is dere game"
Jeffrey N. Cox
University of Colorado, Boulder

One of the new areas of study shaping the development of romanticism is the "new" world's involvement in the slave trade. While interest has focused on prose writers describing and attacking the trade (i.e. Equiano, Prince, Clarkson) and on the poetic responses to slavery (i.e. More, Barbauld, Cowper, Coleridge), there is also a significant body of drama in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that depicts slavery and the Africans subjected to its horrors. The attempt to stage slavery was shaped by a number of tensions, among them: the desire to dramatize an institution at the center of a current public debate within a theater controlled by a government censor, John Larpent, who largely forbade references to contemporary political controversy; the effort to put African characters on the stages of theaters where there were virtually no black actors (though Ignatius Sancho did make an unsuccessful attempt to act the part of Oroonoko); and the struggle to make dramatic entertainments out of the horrors of the slave trade. These tensions can be read as turning on various versions of propriety, as playwrights seek an acceptable ideology, verisimilitude, and a decorous genre: what is the proper way to stage this very improper institution? For the most part, these plays would seem to evade political analysis in vaguely humanitarian sentiment, to erase real black faces by replacing them with blacked white ones, and to escape the tragedy of slavery in forms such as the melodrama and the pantomime. Yet, these plays--with their sentimental politics, their blackness that is only make-up deep, and their hybridized dramatic forms--could also be seen as offering a critique subversive of slavery. An example of this doubleness of the attempt during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to stage slavery can be glimpsed in some interesting facts about the production history of Isaac Bickerstaff's Padlock.

In the latter decades of the eighteenth century, The Padlock was the most popular afterpiece played at the theaters of Montego Bay and Kingston, Jamaica. These were, of course, theaters filled with slave-owning planters and their families and with many others who made their living directly or indirectly from the slave-dependent sugar trade. Such popularity suggests that the play with its comic portrayal of the enslaved Mungo reassured British West Indians about their treatment of African slaves. Wylie Sypher in our only comprehensive account of eighteenth-century plays on slavery claims that it is exactly in the creation of such comic characters that this body of drama makes a contribution to the representation of Africans and of the conditions of slavery, because these humourous figures are more "realistic" than the noble Africans one finds in Southerne's Oroonoko or Thomas Morton's The Slave. Given the Jamaican popularity of the comic Mungo, we might wonder whether allowing slaveholders to laugh at stage slaves was really a step forward in realism or whether it was still a case where, as Mungo puts it, "My pain is dere game." The spectacle of slavery could be played for laughs or even for tears without ever having an effect upon the reality of slavery. However, the play was cited by Clarkson in his History of the Abolition of the Slave-Trade (1808) because of an epilogue by a "worthy clergyman" "which was attached to it soon after it came out" and which according to Clarkson "procured a good deal of feeling for the unfortunate sufferers" (1: 79-82). This epilogue, highly critical of the slave trade, concluded with the cry, "For, though no Briton, Mungo is--a man." It was this other way of reading Mungo, as a representative of resistance to slavery, that enabled the great black actor Ira Aldridge later in the nineteenth century to make Mungo, along with Othello, one of his triumphant roles.

An exploration of such plays as Bickerstaff's farcical Afterpiece (1768), Thomas Bellamy's The Benevolent Planters (1789), John Fawcett's Pantomime of Obi; or, Three Finger'd Jack (1800), the anonymous harlequinade Furibond; or, Harlequin Negro (1807), and George Colman the Younger's melodrama The Africans (1808) enables us to analyze a variety of attempts to negotiate ideology, verisimilitude, and genre in the depiction of slavery during the long fight to bring about the abolition of the trade, finally won in 1807.

Back To Program.


British Women Playwrights: "New" Perspectives on the Commercial/Colonial Enterprise
Marjean D. Purinton
Texas Tech University

The late eighteenth century was a period of conflicted and complicated visions about the British commercial/colonial enterprise. The 1780's and 1790's marked a transition period during which authority invested in commercial activities, primarily East India Company merchants and nabobs, was giving over to British officials and governments, authority representing imperialistic presence during the nineteenth century. Romantic writers' engagement with colonial politics took various forms in challenging and/or championing Britain's civilizing mission and commercial enterprise. Romantic drama constituted a visible, center-stage, role in what Alan Richardson and Sonia Hofkosh have termed the elaboration and empowerment of Romanticism as imperial culture.

Elsewhere I have argued that Romantic drama, staged and unstaged, was engaged with imperialism indirectly as theatrical structures, but in this presentation, I want to examine the ways in which dramas explicitly about India, the Orient, and Ireland, figure significantly in the British response to commercial and colonial ventures. British women playwrights offered a "new," decidedly female but not necessarily feminist perspective on the politics and commerce of colonization. Like the political and social restructuring generated by the French Revolution and wars, the colonial enterprise created a rupture in culturally determined behaviors, an opportunity for English women, in particular, to challenge an ideology that limited them in terms of gender but privileged them in terms of race.

The stage (actual and conceptual) constituted a significant site for the negotiation of cultural identities during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The stage opened a permissive space where the markers of cultural identity could be interrogated, challenged or reified. Theatrical space was thus politicized and became, for women playwrights, the locus for sharing new (female) perspectives on the commercial/colonial enterprise.

As Balachandra Rajan has pointed out, India serves as a stage upon which female writers could script their own discourse, subjectivity, and identity. India offers them an opportunity to write an alternative to the patriarchal and imperial masculinist discourse. The Orient itself embodies a feminine alternative, an "other," to the masculine principle which the West embodies.

Similarly, "Irishness" offered a performative position upon which English cultural identificatory processes could be played out in various ways, especially in the shadow of the Irish rebellions of 1798 and 1803 plus enforced Anglo assimilation following the 1800 Act of Union. English colonizers' concerns about the politics and culture of the colonized Irish are motivated by similar commercial and civilizing missions that informed colonial activities in the East.

In my presentation, I will examine the "new" perspective on the commercial/colonial activities offered by five women playwrights: Mariana Starke, Elizabeth Inchbald, Joanna Baillie, Lady Olivia Clarke, and Catherine Gore. Their dramas reveal two patterns of dramaturgy conceptually connected with colonial politics. First, the dramas employ varying levels of meta-theatrics, a strategy which situates colonial politics in domestic space. Secondly, the dramas depict various rescues--frequently occurring simultaneously at the personal/individual level as well as at the cultural/collective level, so that characters are literally rescued and cultures are conceptually/spiritually saved.

Mariana Starke's plays The Sword of Peace; or A Voyage of Love (1788) and The Widow of Malabar (1791) are set in India. In The Sword of Peace, Eliza and Louisa Morton employ meta-theatrics to subvert their gendered "objectified" positions as women while they perform as "masculinized" subjects in a colonial space in which they are privileged by race. Performed at the Theatre Royal in the Haymarket, the year in which Warren Hastings's impeachment trial began and one year before the French Revolution, The Sword of Peace examines the cultural implications of British imperial presence in India. The Widow of Malabar is a rescue play that operates simultaneously at the individual level as Raymond, the general of the English forces, saves Indamora, the widow of Malabar, from the Hindu ritual of sati. The play also operates at a cultural level in its depiction of Western, Christian, Enlightenment as the savior of Indian barbarity, tyrannic custom, misogynist honor, and cruel laws.

Although Elizabeth Inchbald wrote five plays reflecting colonial politics, I will consider three. The Mogul Tale, or The Descent of the Balloon (1784), like Starke's plays, conflates familial and national politics so that matters of imperialism are presented in domestic space. The farce satirizes conventional notions of femininity and masculinity in terms of racial differences. Such Things Are (1788), is set in a Sumatra prison, and like The Widow of Malabar, involves a rescue mission linking romantic love and Christian redemption. The marital resolutions of both plays point to a restored socio-political order within the cultural bounds of English superiority and privilege. Wives as They Were, Maids as They Are (1797), like The Sword of Peace, dramatizes the problems associated with class destabilizations following commercial exploitations in the East. Uncultured but newly monied colonial agents cause social and domestic confusions upon their return to England, as behaviors appropriate for British subjects in the colonies are not in London. Reformist politics, for both home and abroad, are played out in domestic relations and with meta-dramatic strategies.

Joanna Baillie's drama The Bride (1826) was commissioned by Sir Alexander Johnston, President of His Majesty's Council in Ceylon for the expressed purpose of civilizing and Christianizing the people of Ceylon. In the Preface to the play, Baillie hopes that "the time will come when the different races of the East will consider every human creature as a brother; while Englishmen, under whose rule or protection they may live, will contemn that policy which founds it security upon ignorance." The play itself has a part in the civilizing mission of colonial rule in the Orient. Like the Oriental women of Starke's and Inchbald's plays, the Bride of Baillie's play is objectified as property by gender and race. She is rescued from becoming a second wife to Chieftain Rasinga through the intervention of Juan de Creda, a Europeanized embodiment of Jesus Christ. Rescues are thus effected on individual and cultural levels.

Irish women's presence in public politics extended and subverted a domestic ideology that sought to contain them in private spaces. They therefore demonstrated that politicized space can be public and private. The collapse of the public/private dichotomy is similarly politicized in the portrayals of theatricalized roles for women. Frequently, political issues are debated in the domestic spaces of a play and staged meta-dramatically. The signifying and performative practices of representational women on the stage are, in essence, signifying and performative practices of actual women participating in the theatre of politics.

Lady Olivia Clarke's comedy The Irishwoman (1819) relies on the conflation of performance and politics, a meta-theatrical strategy similar to what we see operating in Starke's The Sword of Peace, for the complications of the drama involve all the characters in schemes and play-acting. Clarke writes this play in the wake of English anxieties about containing Irishness, Irish-French conspiracies, and Catholic Emancipation motions issued by the Whigs following the Act of Union in 1800. Like the ending of Starke's The Widow of Malabar and Baillie's The Bride, the ending of Clarke's The Irishwoman unites the English army officer and the Anglo-Irish Louisa. In this marriage, we find the familial analogue for the kind of political colonization England sought.

Throughout the 1830's and 1840's, Ireland endeavored to create a sense of nationalism by resurrecting a distant past, especially as revealed by the work of eighteenth-century antiquarians of the Royal Irish Academy and nineteenth-century work of the Ordnance Survey. The discourse of colonial difference is rescripted and restaged so that the Irish appear to be equal or superior to the English in courage, loyalty, self-sacrifice, and generosity. Writers asserted a passionate identification with Ireland's past through the assertion of an emotional attachment of the land. Explicit events or characters from Irish history convey a sense of a shared historical responsibility for a turbulent colonial enterprise that had not yet been settled.

Catherine Gore's King O'Neil; or, The Irish Brigade (1835) recaptures Irish lore of the seventeenth-century war which culminated in the Treaty of Limerick in 1691, an historically distant Irish condition upon which the current "troubles" and reformist activities could be enacted, an historical moment associated with Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. Like The Irishwoman, King O'Neil situates colonial politics in the public sphere of the theatre where cultural transgressions are permitted as play-acting. In his performative role, O'Neil unmasks the abuses, deceptions, and exploitations of the French court of the seventeenth century--and by extension, the English court of the nineteenth century. At its performative level, Gore's play stages a possible scenario for the theatre of domestic and colonial politics that had vexed England for so many years.

Because there has been little scholarship on theses drama, they represent, in a sense, "new" materials for us to consider in Romantic-period studies. In our efforts to reconstruct the discursive response to colonization, it is important to include these women's perspectives.

Back To Program.


Last updated May 24, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell

About this Page

City

ProvinceOrState

NaturalFeature