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  • Performing Blackness on English Stages, 1500-1800
  • Ayanna Thompson
Virginia Mason Vaughan . Performing Blackness on English Stages, 1500–1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xvi + 190 pp. illus. index. bibl. $75. ISBN: 0-521-84584-X.

Virginia Mason Vaughan's Performing Blackness on English Stages, 1500–1800 examines "patterns" and "performative tactics" for blackface roles on the early modern stage (5). Her volume distinguishes itself from other works on this subject in two important ways: first, she organizes the book chronologically, attempting to create a narrative about how blackface roles transformed from the medieval period to the eighteenth century; second, she focuses on the actual performance techniques of blackface in order to emphasize the mimetic qualities of these early representations. For the most part, Vaughan treats "non-canonical plays" (174), such as Lust's Dominion, Sicily and Naples, and The Fatal Contract, but she usually weaves in discussions of more familiar plays such as Titus Andronicus, The Merchant of Venice, and Othello to situate the lesser known works.

In the first chapter Vaughan provides one of the most extensive discussions of how blackness would have been conveyed theatrically, arguing that these performance practices changed as the importance of character developed. Because this discussion is more thorough than anything else to date, I have no doubt it will be used as a teaching aid in many classrooms. In chapter 2 Vaughan discusses "Patterns of Blackness" in medieval mystery cycles, court pageants, and urban processions, demonstrating how often blackness was aligned with the demonic. This chapter builds on materials introduced by critics like Eldred Jones and [End Page 969] Anthony Barthelemy, but Vaughan's citations are much more extensive than anything else previously offered. The next three chapters address blackface roles from the 1580s, 1590s, and early 1600s, respectively. Vaughan creates an historical arc in which the popularity of travel narratives, the increased presence of "actual people from Africa" (57), and England's increased trade created a space on the theatrical stage for more complex portrayals of black characters.

Similarly, chapters 7 through 9 continue this historical portrait. Unfortunately, because these chapters are designed to create a coherent historical narrative, the conclusions often have a reductive feel. They frequently end with a note about a specific historical event, which, like a key, is presumed to open up the texts (the impending Civil War, the increased investment in the slave trade, debates about the morality of slavery, and so on). The conclusion to chapter 8 is typical: "While these plays were being performed, laws against miscegenation were being enacted in England's American colonies. The black people who appeared on London's streets signaled England's growing investment in a slave economy, but they were also visual reminders of the danger of biological pollution that accompanied overseas ventures" (147). The complex mimetic nature of blackface performance which Vaughan lays out so convincingly earlier in the book is virtually disregarded in these chapters, in which the performance of blackness and the reality of black people are conflated in an uncomplicated manner.

Performing Blackness is much more engaging, exciting, and demanding when Vaughan addresses the theoretical issues surrounding blackface performance and the inevitable "fissure[s] in . . . mimesis" (6). She begins this discussion in the first chapter, when she writes, "Theatrical performance is by definition a masquerade, which by its very nature negates essentialist notions of reality" (4). Borrowing Ian Smith's notion of the audience's "double consciousness" when watching blackface performances, Vaughan takes on contemporary blackface portrayals of Othello in her sixth chapter. This chapter represents the best of Vaughan's work. She parses out the subtle nuances of "the dynamics of blackface impersonation," by showing that "a major ingredient in the audience's fascination with the Moor is the pleasure of seeing the white actor personate a black man and knowing that this is what he or she is seeing" (97). Vaughan ends the chapter on a note that seems to surprise her: she argues that Othello should be performed as a blackface role in order to maintain the play's and character's quality of impersonation. In a wonderful final chapter entitled "Afterthoughts," Vaughan returns to this notion, arguing that...


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