- The West Indies, Commerce, and a Play for U.S. EmpireRecovering J. Robinson's The Yorker's Stratagem (1792)
In a 1794 letter to his family, trader James Brown, brother of famous Philadelphia novelist Charles Brockden Brown, urged, "It is time to decide what we ought to think of the real utility of theatres. A patriot had said . . . that theatres are a kind of priesthood exercised over thoughts. We should examine whether our theatres should not in future be set aside for mercantile purposes. This question is of greatest importance and I move that it may be referred to the [Philadelphia] Committee of Public Instruction" (qtd. in Bingham 150–51). Set on a remote, unnamed West Indian island, J. Robinson's The Yorker's Stratagem; or, Banana's Wedding appears on its surface to have little to do with James Brown's imperative about the theater as a space for "public instruction" in U.S. commercial policy. First performed three years into Alexander Hamilton's tenure as Washington's aggressively pro-commerce secretary of the treasury,Robinson's drama has remained obscure since its publication in 1792. It has never been treated in any detail by critics and scholars, and is alluded to but a handful of times, often imprecisely, by historians of U.S. drama.
Still, these fleeting references to Robinson and his play are telling. Famed playwright and drama historian William Dunlap, the "Father of American Drama," notes that Robinson was a West Indian immigrant like Hamilton and conspicuous "in a crowd" for being a "large-framed young man" (unlike the diminutive Hamilton) and indulging in perhaps too great a fondness for flashy dress, a "gold-laced collar" and "three gold hatbands" serving as his fashion trademarks (196). Dunlap accords Robinson considerable praise in the few sentences he devotes to Robinson's play. He notes that The Yorker's Stratagem evinces "much dramatic skill" and an [End Page 1] inventive use of dialogue "well suited to the characters" (221). Further, having viewed a live performance of the play in New York, Dunlap indicates that The Yorker's Stratagem met with "universal applause" by theater audiences there and in Philadelphia (221–22). Citing Dunlap as a source, late-nineteenth-century drama historian George O. Seilhamer lauds The Yorker's Stratagem for its "originality," remarking that Robinson "was a better playwright than player" (2: 345, 364).
Briefly and in abstract terms, Dunlap and Seilhamer gesture to some of Robinson's formal achievements—his inventiveness, his originality, his compelling use of dialogue. The Yorker's Stratagem is far more significant than they acknowledge, however, not only formally but historically and thematically as well. By measuring the play against relevant historical contexts and interpretive paradigms, I wish to rescue The Yorker's Stratagem from obscurity by pointing out the play's artistic achievements, as well as its significance as a theatrical corollary to Hamilton's ambitious plan for U.S. dominance in the West Indian trades. The warm reception to Robinson's linguistic innovations suggests the intriguing polyglossic affinities of urban theater audiences during the early national period, and Robinson's appropriation of conventions and figures from Renaissance and eighteenth-century literature set in and against the "New World" gestures to the play's manifold "creole" properties. Robinson's play also provides a cultural window into the ways in which Hamilton's imperial designs were shaped by, and responded to, an especially turbulent period of mercantile expansion and contraction in the Western Hemisphere. Robinson wrote his plays in response to a notice posted in the Federal Gazette, "in which dramatic writing in this country was advocated" (Seilhamer 2: 324).1 As my argument reveals, The Yorker's Stratagem evokes a triumphant political, commercial, and cultural expansionism while simultaneously mystifying by means of devices like imposture and blackface the ways in which U.S. rhetoric about a budding commercial empire relied on paradoxical postcolonial and imperialist tendencies.2
A two-act afterpiece or farce set in the West Indies, The Yorker's Stratagem centers on the heroic actions of the "Yorker,"Amant, an Anglo-American businessman. Amant seeks to win the hand of Sophia Bellange, a West Indian...