- National Identities in Performance: The Stage Englishman of Boucicault’s Irish Drama
English dramatists created the drunken, stupid, and violent Stage Irishman; the Irish dramatist Dion Boucicault (1820–90) reinvented him as drunken, clever, and charming; and Irish critics have been suspicious of him ever since. 1 Although Ireland suffered dislocations of culture, language, and identity analogous to those experienced by colonized peoples in India and Africa, the Irish could not be distinguished from their imperial rulers by the color of their skin. 2 They were “proximate” rather than “absolute” Others, a disturbing mixture of sameness and difference, geographical closeness and cultural distance. 3 English dramatists therefore indicated Irish inferiority and need for governance by emphasizing those character traits that signaled political incompetence. Stage Irishmen were not all identical, and some were positively depicted, but they belonged to a well-established theatrical genre that mocked non-English characters as different, dangerous, or ridiculous. 4 The Stage Foreigner has always been good for an easy laugh or a frisson of horror: the Elizabethans, for [End Page 287] example, represented Italians as machiavels, Germans and Danes as drunks, and Frenchmen as vain fops. While recent postcolonial critics have explored the negative stereotypes of Irishness, my essay reverses that practice by examining Boucicault’s representations of the English colonizer. 5 These counter-stereotypes demonstrate the pressure of generic conventions, the fear of censorship, and Boucicault’s need to please London audiences; they also reveal the complicated and ambivalent attitude to power of the politically powerless.
The performance of both English and Irish characters was inflected by the gender typing associated on stage and in print with each nation. English imperialists saw themselves as masculine, even paternal, in relation to their colonial subjects; in his influential essay “On the Study of Celtic Literature,” cultural critic Matthew Arnold, for instance, described the Irish as an “essentially feminine race.” 6 In his anthology of English travel writings John Harrington conceptualizes Ireland as “spectacle.” 7 There is no comparable anthology of the writings of Irish travelers in England. The feminized Irish were defined and subordinated by the masculine English gaze, as English visitors obsessively chronicled the characteristics of the neighboring island. 8 As if complicit with this imbalance between watchers and watched, many Irish dramatists responded to English constructions of Paddy by restaging Irish identity, not by returning the gaze of the colonizer. No English roles exist in the plays of Yeats, Synge, or Gregory. Shaw argued that a secure national identity must be achieved before it can be forgotten: “A healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones. But if you break a nation’s nationality it will think of nothing else but getting it set again.” 9 Nineteenth-century British imperial power was so great as to permit the imaginative universalization, and thus paradoxically the disappearance, of Englishness. The theatricality of Englishness, which is no less performative than is masculinity, lies in its apparent refusal to perform, its strategic withdrawal from scrutiny. The Englishman on the nineteenth-century English stage appears to the English as “universal” rather than merely “English”; the Irishman is always marked as different, as Irish, even by his own countrymen.
Stage types are not peculiar to colonial situations, although the political sensitivity of the colonized may render them especially contentious. As Shaw argues, “there are not many types of character available; and all the playwrights use them over and over [End Page 288] again. Idiosyncrasies are useful on the stage only to give an air of infinite variety to the standard types.” 10 Although Boucicault said it was his “vocation” to abolish the Stage Irishman, but detractors accused him of reinstating the caricature: the same thing happened to Synge and O’Casey. 11 But no questions were raised about his Stage Englishmen. L. P. Curtis notes “the absence from the Irish scene of a stereotype of English character as rigid and elaborate as Paddy”; but in response to the persistent denigration of their own people Boucicault and his followers produced several “Stage English” types. 12 With the exception of Shaw’s Tom Broadbent, their Englishmen are minor characters and outsiders...