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Anti-Colonist Discourse, Tragicomedy, and the "American" Behn Adam R. Beach Recent critical discussion of The WiddowRanterhas been nearly silent .on the prologue and epilogue that John Dryden authored for the posthumous production oftheplayin 1689.1 HighlightingDryden's prologue forces two salient but little-discussed issues to the fore: the specific mixed-plot form and function of Behn's tragicomedy and the blanket dismissals of colonial American society that were widely circulated in England and forcefullyespousedbymany ofBehn's fellow Royalist playwrights . Writing to an already hostile audience, many of whom would share Dryden's scorn of English colonials, Behn takes advantage of the mixed tragicomedic form to outline an attractive,complex colonial society , but this positive depiction had little appeal to her contemporaries and expresses what continued to be a minority view in England far into the eighteenth century.2 Ultimately,hervision ofcolonial life is trumped on the stage by Dryden's friend Thomas Southerne and his highly successful and more traditional split-plot tragicomedy Oroonoko (1695), which,throughout its hundreds ofperformances, reinstates the image of a hopelesslydepraved colonial world that Behn had contested in her own drama. In his prologue, Dryden reveals that he considers Virginia to be just another "Foreign Shore" (2), and perhaps the most disagreeable one, amongthe manytobe imaginativelyre-createdontheRestoration stage.3 Thus, neither the production problems reported by"G. J." in the dedicatory letter to the 1690 printed edition, nor the fact that it was staged during the distractions of William's campaign in Ireland, tell the complete story of 77ie WiddowRanter's quickexit from both the theater and, until recently,English theatrical history.Alongwith theprologue,Dryden's 213 214Comparative Drama scattered remarks about the American colonies illuminate the resistance that any production ofBehn's play,however well done,would have faced in 1689. One glimpse of Dryden's views can be found in Mac Flecknoe (1682), in which he geographicallylocates Shadwell's empire ofdullness in die followingmanner:"[F]rom Irelandlethim reign / To farrBarbadoes on the Western main."4 Situating the Atlantic colonial world as a social and cultural backwater, Dryden here expresses a somewhatjocular wish that Shadwell would remove,or perhaps be forcibly removed,to either of these locations as recompense forhis literaryoffenses.5 This equation of the empire of dullness and the English Atlantic casually reveals a set of prejudices that finds a decidedly more vehement articulation in a brief passage in The Hind and the Panther (1685): Here let my sorrow give my satyr place, To raise new blushes on my British race; Our sayling ships like common shoars we use, And through our distant colonies diffuse The draughts of Dungeons, and the stench of stews; Whom, when their home-bred honesty is lost, We disembogue on some far Indian coast: Thieves, Pandars, Palliards, sins of ev'ry sort, Those are the manufactures we export; And these the Missionaires our zeal has made: For, with my countrey's pardon be it said, Religion is the least of all our trade.6 This wholesale critique ofcolonial society is enhanced by the use of the term "common shore," which originally meant a particular area in a waterway employed as a public sewer and, by the time ofthis poem, was also a common slangterm forprostitutes.7Thepassage draws upon both senses of the term: the colonies are dumping grounds for undesirables, who are figured as the feces of the English national body, many among them from malodorous "stews" or brothels. The mere imagining of the various effluvia literally and figuratively discharged by English colonial society sparks avisceral disgust in the poet,which suggests that his colonial slur of Shadwell was probably not as jocular as it seemed. Significantly, Dryden's disparagement emerges in a short, shameful aside in his long religious poem, and the poet "blushes" while contemplating what his nation has wrought in America. The digressive gesture Adam R. Beach215 of condemnation flashes up in Dryden's work and powerfully illuminates a wider rhetorical landscape ofcastigation that should inform our reading ofboth The WiddowRanterand much ofthe colonial literature of the Restoration and early eighteenth century. The contours of this landscape become clearer when we recognize that Dryden's scatological figuring ofAmerica as England's chamber...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 213-233
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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