JANUARY 16, 2015
ANGLOPHONE 18th-century theaters were dazzlingly carnivalesque. Unlike the privatized halls and passive audiences of contemporary theaters, the auditoriums of the long 18th century regularly housed riotous spectacles. Audience members habitually clambered onto stages, interrupted actors, fondled props, disrupted and reinterpreted scenes, forcibly demanded the repetition of soliloquies, songs, and dances, and largely behaved as if their active participation formed an indispensable element of the performances. If the theatrical performances of this early period looked different than those of our own, did they mean something different, too?
Consider the opinion of a 1794 critic of the theater in Charleston, South Carolina. Theater audiences, this writer felt, formed a “promiscuous multitude,” a social collective unimaginable outside of the theater. The unconstrained bodies of the audience — men and women, black and white, elite and enslaved — openly violated normative 18th-century social regulations. This motley congregation, the concerned critic felt, witnessed “too great a variety of objects” that excited “too many different passions or emotions.”[i] The theater, in other words, was the staging ground for routine unsettlement; a performative laboratory where alternative assemblages formed and devolved; a space where a different kind of social commons might be rehearsed and enacted.
The potential repercussions of the theater goer’s divergent behaviors become even more startling when we take into account the seating capacity of Charleston’s theaters. In a city with an estimated residential population of 12,000 in 1795, one of Charleston’s theaters had 1,400 available seats. In other words, on any given evening, it was entirely possible that roughly an eighth of the city’s population might be congregated together for several hours in an unscripted space. An eighth of the population, and a diverse range of bodies and subjectivities, gathered together and openly intermingling in licit and illicit ways.
One-eighth of the residential population is a higher percentage than could have voted in local or national elections. It similarly outstrips the number of Charlestonians who would have read the authors — Susannah Rowson or Charles Brockden Brown, for example — who literary critics and historians consider representative of the period’s cultural production. But voting and reading patterns have been the basis for countless studies of the Republic’s political and cultural values, while little critical attention has been afforded to the theater as an important index of cultural development.
But this critical myopia seems now bound to change. Enter Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, and her groundbreaking study New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World, 1649–1849. Dillon reverses course on an ill-founded critical doxa that minimizes the significance of theatrical performance. Doing so, she effectively recalibrates our attention, focusing on “the impurity of the dramatic work,” and taking seriously the generative possibilities of the “promiscuous circulation of scripts and improvisational local revisions of these scripts.”
These qualities, for so long seen as obstacles to critical attention, become in Dillon’s book the necessary tools for a remarkable mode of analysis. Across the period of colonial Atlantic development, the theater was a place of wantonness, of a looseness of boundaries and behaviors on the part of performers and audiences alike. This was a theatrical tradition defined by interaction and not by scripted hierarchal arrangement, with each production different from every other iteration. In attending to these nuanced histories, Dillon herself deploys a promiscuous methodology that ranges across the Atlantic world and maps the evolution of the relationship between performance and popular sovereignty.
New World Drama intervenes in at least two long-standing and (Dillon shows) counterproductive critical assumptions. First, the root cause of the critical neglect of theater has been the familiar caveat that, because US theaters were dominated by productions of foreign plays, the theater was an insignificant site for thinking about the formation of the early American republic. In recent years, the fixation on native cultural materials as the best registers of cultural development has lost its totalizing grip on the field of Early American Studies. Yet the fixation on national emergence still remains a central premise. The absence of “American” plays has reduced the study of drama in the early Republic, in the words of the late preeminent critic of early American theater Jeffrey H. Richards, to “a search for national needles in the [British] theatrical haystack.”[ii] A homegrown play remains the thing, wherein to catch the conscience of the nation without a king.
This neglect has been accentuated by a second critical mispractice: a tendency to value standardized scripts over actual stagings and performances of local adaptions. In other words, critics have focused on de-contextualized and sanitized scripts of plays instead of more provocatively thinking about what it was that audiences actually encountered and participated in authoring. But Dillon persuasively recovers how the theater functioned as a living and contested space, an undisciplined incubator for the performative commons that shaped development in the New World. She highlights how the theater operates as a “cultural site at which the dynamics of political belonging, modern sovereignty, and aesthetics are coarticulated.”
Thus not only at its core, but also on almost every page, New World Drama productively works against the reductionist tendencies of outmoded scholarly taxonomies: stable national literatures, retrospectively bounded periods. These paradigms, framed by inadequate classificatory patterns, cannot account for the fluidities of the circum-Atlantic world. Yet these kinds of isolating imaginaries continue to hold a great deal of critical currency. The very chapter headings of New World Drama – The Colonial Relation, London, Transportation, Charleston, Kingston, New York City – resist the import of static geographies and encode the book’s attention to mobility. Indeed mobility and adaptability to local circumstances are central lenses by which Dillon analyses the cultures of performance — of actors, theater companies, scripts, audiences, costumes, and reviews — across the circum-Atlantic basin. In this book, Dillon persuasively foregrounds how the theater became a foundational staging ground for the colonial relation, in all its cultural and spatial unevenness.
Discourses of Intimate Distance
Dillon’s study introduces a key phrase — “intimate distance” — to mark both a spatial designation and a marker of interpersonal proximity. Objects or subjects that are intimately distant enact definition onto one another, even as their disconnectedness belies their distinctiveness. In her accounting, the phrase embodies the tension inherent in a system designed to perform two tasks: first, bridging the Atlantic and asserting kinship across oceanic dislocation, while second and conterminously maintaining an irreconcilable division between white and non-white bodies. As economic networks conjoined distant sites ringing the Atlantic basin — and rendered them legible and bound to one another by the promotion of a trans-Atlantic Englishness — the displaced and forcibly transported bodies that generated the wealth produced for this new capitalist world system were simultaneously and violently estranged from the operant social compact. Intimate closeness and intimate separation are, in other words, central to the formation of the colonial relation.
Indeed the colonial relation, predicated on an everyday closeness of bodies (despite racial, ethnic, gender, and class distinctions) which had no corollary in prior European history, could not function, as Dillon astutely demonstrates, without the simultaneity of a “disavowed presence” and a “presence in the face of absence.” These seemingly incongruous categories of social organization, which Dillon frames as ontic and mimetic intimacies respectively, accentuate how intimate distance is at its core a performative gesture. (As such, the Janus-faced nature of settler colonization cannot simply be unearthed by attending to the print public sphere, which is where many critics have sought to find it. While print might register the mimetic dimensions of the colonial relation, it fails to account for the ontic stages in which it was continually rehearsed and staged with definition.)
Building on the foundational work of critics like Joseph Roach and Jurgen Habermas, but moving beyond the frames they established, Dillon connects the violent erasure of African Americans and indigenous people to the construction of the colonial public sphere to more accurately engage the politics of Atlantic world representational strategies. To continue to predominately focus on print, “risks” Dillon observes, “reinscribing the technologies of ‘social death’ associated with race slavery (such as forced a-literacy) rather than attending to the rematerializations and resignifications of enslaved and indigenous peoples that take place through performance.” Turning our attention to the realities of circum-Atlantic performance, Dillon charts how the colonial relation’s intricacies staged imperial designs within the theater’s space as a kind of testing ground for their unfolding elsewhere.
Representations of non-white bodies were central to the theatrical cultures of the long 18th century, and Dillon examines (for example) productions of Oroonoko, Robinson Crusoe or Harlequin Friday (which she describes “as something of a creole Tempest”), The Enchanted Island, School for Scandal, A West-Indian Lady’s Arrival in London, The Beggar’s Opera, Fair Penitent, Richard III, and The Drama of King Shotaway (reportedly the first drama written by an African American performed in the United States) in order to register how these plays were adapted to inscribe and manage intimate distance. By examining how certain plays (such as Oroonoko) were forbidden from appearing on certain colonial stages, even as other plays were adapted so as to highlight the potentiality of non-white reproduction, Dillon displays how theatrical representations enabled early Americans to imagine the social consequences of colonial and imperial expansion.
One of the primary strengths of Dillon’s intervention is how she works against the grain of what we might call scholarly colonial relations. Her work displays how cultural historians have inhabited a systemically flawed classificatory structure: even when they have recognized the contradictions that colonial discourses of “intimate distances” sought to elide, their work has often duplicated or exacerbated those contradictions. While some scholars have acknowledged the closeness of such supposedly “distinct” fields as performance studies, 18th-century British literary studies, early American Studies, theater studies, and histories of colonization, much of the work done under these rubrics has unfolded in separate realms. Or to put it another way, these fields coexist as distinct from and never quite intimate enough with similar performances in other areas. In the professionalizing urge to maintain distinctiveness, scholars have limited their range of inquiry to the restrictiveness of retrospective national borders, failing to fully account for the intimate relations between London, Charleston, and Kingston in the 18th-century world. Such a monocular focus has collectively blinded us to the realities of lived experiences.
The stunning failure of much of British literary and cultural studies to account for how Englishness was, in the 18th century, a performative practice which routinely staged the unbridgeable differences of racial categories has perpetuated technologies of social erasure. Similarly, the exceptionalist trajectories of some early Americanist scholarship is equally implicated by Dillon’s intervention, for she unpacks how these studies have misunderstood colonialism’s lingering aftereffects by restricting themselves to cultural productions generated within the borders of the post-Revolutionary nation. If we understand — following the work of such critics as Paul Gilroy, Ian Baucom, Marcus Rediker, and Stephanie Smallwood, to name just a few — that slavery and capitalism are the extraordinary twins that engender the emergence of modernity, then any critical engagement aligned to the borders that circum-Atlantic slavery and capital openly flaunted is an exercise in futility. Dillon’s promiscuous critical geography understands the legacies of this ineffectiveness, and her book is a model for thinking both more flexibly and more fluidly about the circulation of ideas and texts.
The Performative Commons
New World Drama is enclosed by regicide and riot. It opens with the January 1649 execution of Charles I, and does so in order to register how this moment announced a key shift in cultural ideas of sovereignty. The House of Commons justified Charles’s death sentence by asserting that state sovereignty resided with the people and not with the crown. They very publicly staged Charles I’s beheading so as to signal new possibilities for political and social organization. For Dillon, the event serves as a nodal flashpoint in a constellation of events across the age of revolutions in the Atlantic world: the source of sovereignty shifted from the monarchical to the popular.
Dillon emphasizes, too, that the force of this execution depended not only on its occurrence but also on its public visibility. The theatricality of the execution renders it a key moment in the complex history of popular sovereignty, for, as Dillon suggests, it manifests “the commons as the new location of political authority.” This avowal of a political commons emerged as the literal public commons in England — lands long held in trust for public usage (for harvesting, foraging, farming, and grazing) — was increasingly subject, across the 17th and 18th centuries, to privatization and consolidation under private authority. By foregrounding these seemingly disparate figurations of the commons, the political and the spatial, Dillon marks them as “mutually constitutive.” In so doing, she advances the idea that the loss of the commons as tangible public rights into an abstract figuration to describe political authority is akin to a transformation of the commons from the realm of the material into the virtual.
This substitution — the movement of material practices and rights into virtual ones — anchors many alterations in 18th-century social practices, wherein communal aesthetic debates take on larger significance. Aesthetics, indeed, shape and inform “the communal decision as to what constitutes meaning.” The theater, as a possible location for the forging of consensus, as a space that generates a commons, thus becomes a key site for understanding how performance became central to these emerging forms of sovereignty through popular decision making. While capitalist enclosure evicted unpropertied people from traditional spaces of assemblage, the assertion of sovereignty as performative offered them a new stage on which to achieve representational force. Considered in this light, the aesthetic becomes the grounds on which “to attend to a world mediated by the relation between materiality and figurality, and to the deeply political nature of this mediation.”
The infamous 1849 Astor Place Theater Riots, for example, have long occupied the conceptual corner at the crossroads of the material and the representational. For Dillon, these riots are a performative counterpoint to the beheading of Charles I. Long understood as an attempt by white working class laborers to forcibly announce their xenophobic patriotism, the Astor riots are commonly figured as an attempt to decry the continual influence of English culture on American life. Yet, reading the event as primarily a demonstration of anti-Anglophone sentiments “occludes the centrality of colonial relations to the construction of white nationalism that was at stake in the riot.” As Dillon demonstrates, the appropriation of the term nativeness on the part of the rioters is part of a systematic pattern of erasing preexisting claims that are more about promoting an Americanized version of whiteness. At stake for the rioters was the promotion of a nationalized theatrics, predicated on the violent appropriation of Native American identities in order to promote violence against foreigners and African Americans. Colonial relations were superseded by national ones, as representations of blackface minstrelsy and vanishing Indians became central recurrent staging grounds for a defiantly national American white supremacy.
For Dillon, the legal reactions to the Astor Place Riots closed a final curtain on the idea of a public performative commons. Audiences who had participated in theatrical performances as a way of expressing their claims to sovereignty were policed into a different relationship with the theater. As the interiors of theaters became privatized, and as legal structures sought to regulate against the kinds of behavior that had dominated theater attendance since the 17th century, the idea of a public performative commons, of a mutually interactive dimension to theatricality that was predicated on unscripted audience participation, was pushed off stage. The riot had gone too far in asserting public interest over and above all other concerns, and in order to regulate against such behaviors, a middle class aesthetics of propriety conditioned audience members into becoming passive observers. By the middle of the 19th century, as the theater was enclosed much like public land had been earlier, scripted distance supplanted intimacy.
Across the last decade, there has been an explosion of scholarship that seeks to import Giorgio Agamben’s conception of homo sacer, or bare life, to describe the abject position of enslaved people forcibly transported to the western hemisphere. Agamben’s concept of bare life aims to name a surprisingly common legal contradiction: in many social orders, particular bodies are condemned to be outside the law’s protection while still being located within its jurisdiction. Many have suggested that this juridical process is one way capitalism rendered enslaved people disposable, and thus one way in which capitalism, particularly in its colonial and imperial forms, was fundamentally racialized.
But Dillon illustrates that Agamben’s formulation, while generative, has been insufficient as a mode for describing slavery. Agamben’s conception of bare life emerges out of his consideration of the harrowing violence of Nazi concentration camps, and he vividly defines how incarcerated victims of such abusive technologies of power were denied the prerogatives of social life. While potentially generative, this critical transposition falls short of accurately accounting for the ways in which slavery sought to extract as much use value as possible from the laboring bodies it subjugated. Agamben’s ideas become more germane, Dillon shows, when they are aligned with Orlando Patterson’s formative articulation of the connections between slavery and what he terms “social death” — the totalizing disbarment from the resources of sociality. Dillon concretizes the link between Agamben and Patterson by advancing the term “bare labor” as a means of thinking about the invasive horrors of New World slavery.
Dillon rightly asserts that New World colonialism was predicated on the centrality of slave labor to generate “the economic existence of the polity.” Doing so, she underscores how colonial social formation was intimately dependent on slavery. Unlike concentration camps, plantations were not foundationally aimed at eliminating enslaved bodies, but in maximizing the profit that could be mined from them including, at times, attempts to incentivize biological reproduction (particularly in the wake of legal restrictions on the trans-Atlantic slave trade) to increase the enslaved labor force. Violence and erasure were indeed socially and juridically central to New World slavery, but so too was colonial expansion, which was almost always predicated on the labor of enslaved Africans. Bare labor, as a term, more accurately captures these deeper and more insidious dimensions of colonial and settler-colonial relations, and registers the simultaneous erasure and dependence that bare life cannot inscribe. Dillon’s acute refinement of Agamben’s terminology should, one hopes, replace the continual use of bare life as a descriptor of enslaved Africans in the New World.
New World Drama deftly exhibits how indigenous peoples, diasporic Africans, and diasporic Europeans were all actors on the imperial stage, and on the actual stages where the Atlantic world’s colonial relation was performed and remixed. By focusing on these mobile and fluid populations, some forcibly moved and others willing emigrants, the residual configuration of New World drama as a static production — the one so many critics of colonial culture have clung to — fades from view. In reworking our sense of that script, Dillon leaves us with a much more complex sense of cultural development across time. She deftly demonstrates the reductiveness of remaining attached to national borders as a means of thinking about this period, even as she provocatively maps the fluidity of the Atlantic for our consideration. When one reads Dillon it becomes impossible to imagine Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe without thinking about the pantomime of Harlequin Friday, impossible to read The Tempest’s figuration of a cursing Caliban and not think about how The Enchanted Isle more vividly staged his reproductive potential. New World drama was never simply old world plays imported for a newly constructed stage, and Dillon’s attention to the performative commons and the colonial relation will reshape critical debates in several fields for years to come. This is an important book, and one that should have a promiscuous impact on our sense of the long 18th-century Atlantic world.
[i] City Gazette and Daily Advertiser, January 27, 1794.
[ii] Jeffrey H. Richards, “Politics, Playhouse, and Repertoire in Philadelphia, 1808,” Theatre Survey 46:2 (2005), 199.