- "Incle and Yarico" and "The Incas"; Two Plays by John Thelwall
In 1787 John Thelwall wrote his first play, an anti-slavery afterpiece called Incle and Yarico, while he was a lawyer's clerk in the Inner Temple and just a few months prior to the publication of his first book, Poems [End Page 320] on Various Subjects. He wrote his second play, The Incas, five years later in 1792 at the height of his radical political activism and just two years before being acquitted of high treason. Though he submitted both to the patent theatres, advertised a version of The Incas, and wrote a brief headnote for Incle and Yarico in 1814, Thelwall never published his two plays, and their existence has been virtually unknown. One would not be remiss in thinking that the appeal of an edition of Thelwall's plays would be limited to Thelwall specialists, or scholars of Romantic theatre history. But in their general introduction the editors, Michael Scrivener and Frank Felsenstein, insist that both plays also "strike a peculiarly contemporary note" (18) in the ways in which they engage with issues of race, social reform, and intellectual property. I think the editors are right, and for that reason, as well as for the high quality of the edition, they should be thanked and praised.
Are Incle and Yarico and The Incas any good as plays? Neither is likely to be staged off-Broadway or in the West End. The value of Thelwall's dramaturgy lies in its vivid realization of the practicalities of late-eighteenth-century theatre. The Incas features several processional marches calling for stage designs and numerous extras rivalling anything to be found in later works by Baillie or even Verdi. Both plays are full of songs, some of which are quite moving even without music. Thelwall's lyric sensibility shines through here, and also helps to register the operatic quality of English drama generally at the turn of the nineteenth century. Also typical for their era, both plays blend high Romantic tragedy with comic burlesque, and the comic scenes are genuinely funny, especially those in Incle and Yarico involving the pompous and addle-minded Incle family—characterizations that are distinct to Thelwall's version of this story. Another point of dramatic interest is the problem of the plays' provenance. In their respective introductions to Incle and Yarico and The Incas Felsenstein and Scrivener both devote considerable attention to Thelwall's claim that these plays were later plagiarized, Incle and Yarico first in 1788 by George Colman the Younger and the composer Samuel Arnold for their opera of the same title, and The Incas by Thomas Morton for his Columbus (staged at Convent Garden in 1792) and by Richard Brinsley Sheridan for Pizarro (one of the most popular plays of the century, staged at Drury Lane in 1799). No definitive evidence lends credence to Thelwall's charges, but both cases demonstrate how fluid intellectual property was in this era, especially in the highly competitive business of English theatre, where collaboration and imitation were necessary expedients.
What makes Thelwall's plays distinctive is their radical and anti-colonial politics. Earlier versions of the Inkle and Yarico story, notably Richard Steele's in the Spectator (1711), had stressed that it [End Page 321] was a useful moral fable for understanding the inequities of British colonial expansion—the main story concerns the betrayal of a beautiful West Indian princess by a young English merchant, who, after protesting love and protection for her, sells her and her unborn child into slavery. Through the century, many retellings and stagings of the story had directed more attention onto the story's anti-slavery subtext by incorporating African characters. But the ubiquity of the stories and the off-handed way that sexual relations between English colonizers and their slaves were treated in them gradually lessened its moral impact, and by the time Thelwall came to the tale it...