- Gentility, Governance, and Race in the Eighteenth-Century Theater
In An Anatomy of Drama (1976), Martin Esslin maintains that "all drama is . . . political" because "it either reasserts or undermines the code of conduct of a given society." Esslin explains that "in theatre a human community directly experiences its own identity and reaffirms it. This makes theatre an extremely political, because preeminently social, form of art."1 This idea is now a commonplace in theater studies and underpins the three books reviewed here. Each of these scholars identifies a key term for his or her study—gentility, governance, or blackness—and analyzes the ways in which the theater serves as a kind of experimental lab where dramatists could explore English codes of conduct concerning class, politics, gender, sexuality, and race. Furthermore, these authors examine how class, governance, and race were defined and redefined [End Page 115] not according to some preexisting standard, but by the changing social conditions of early modernity. Mark Dawson's Gentility and the Comic Theatre of Late Stuart London is a book all eighteenth-century scholars, regardless of their individual specializations, will find useful and engaging; Daniel O'Quinn's Staging Governance: Theatrical Imperialism in London is an excellent contribution to the specialized field of colonial studies; and Virginia Mason Vaughan's Performing Blackness on English Stages, 1500–1800 is a good introduction to blackface performances beginning in the Renaissance, but also holding some interest for scholars of Restoration and eighteenth-century drama.
For Mark Dawson, the eighteenth-century theater "was a space where multiple claims of gentility, or elite social placement, were simultaneously and routinely produced and consumed, accepted and rejected—behind the scenes, on the stage, and in the auditorium amongst writers, players, and spectators" (17). It therefore serves as a prime locale for understanding the ways in which gentility was constructed in the late Stuart period, with Dawson particularly emphasizing comic drama after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Focusing on "histories of the marginalized and subordinated," Gentility and the Comic Theatre convincingly reassesses the division of late Stuart society into a "gentle elite" and a "simple majority" (1). As Dawson writes,
In the same way that historians of gender are realizing that they can no longer take the history of dead (white) males as written, but must interrogate masculinity if they are to understand the complexities of both femininity and questions of relative subordination, the first main premise of this study is that we can better comprehend the experience of the socially marginalized if we know more of how they were dominated and why certain people came to presume power over others.(2–3)
Dawson gives this question a greater richness by contending that "gentility" must be seen as a "rhetorical disposition of power constantly in progress" rather than as an inherent quality possessed by a stable, objectively identifiable group of people (8). As he points out, "Gentility was nothing more nor less than one construction, one gloss, on power" (9). Since gentility and its incumbent manners, gestures, and behaviors "were a part of the constant process of elite social ordering, not simply a secondary reflection of a definitive social group heading an already established social hierarchy," Dawson "investigate[s] gentility as a socio-cultural dynamic" and studies its "implications as a discourse of social differentiation" (13). His aim is to offer interpretations of "the most commonly staged re-enactments of claims and counter-claims for social superiority as gentility," as well as to demonstrate how the "presentation and reception [of these claims and counterclaims] were most probably reconditioned, both socially and discursively, for their original audiences" (17). [End Page 116]
Gentility and the Comic Theatre of Late Stuart London is divided into four parts...