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  • A "Birthright into a New World":Representing the Town on Brome's Stage
  • Denys Van Renen (bio)

England in the 1630s witnessed increasing hostilities between Puritans and Royalists as different religious and political groups competed to shape the way the English conceptualized the newly constructed town locales. During this period, sites such as Covent Garden, Asparagus Garden in Lambeth across from Whitehall, and the New Exchange in the Strand at Westminster, among others, emerged as contested spaces among the court, the city, and the country.1 Most critics characterize the dramatist Richard Brome as siding with the town gentry and depicting these upscale districts in his plays as oppositional hotbeds to Charles's increasingly autocratic rule. While R. J. Kaufmann, Julie Sanders, Martin Butler, and, more recently, Matthew Steggle and Adam Zucker emphasize the setting in Brome's plays, they largely overlook the way these suburban developments were imagined as colonial ventures.2 This essay examines how the establishment of the town, as represented in Brome's plays, is framed by European models of both internal colonialism and New World expansion.3 Although my essay treats mainly Carolinian drama, I also discuss Ben Jonson's plays, in order to contextualize the ways in which Brome brings together two seemingly different functions of Jacobean drama: to familiarize recent arrivals to London to their fast-changing milieu and to marginalize an English underclass that cannot assimilate into the competitive marketplace of these new urban spaces. Teasing out the tensions of these two representational models, Brome identifies how elite speculators and the state collude as they attempted to increase profit margins and solidify their control of these expanding districts. By dramatizing how developers incorporate foreign architecture, install foreign workers in the town, and construct the town as an overseas territory, Brome lays bare an [End Page 35] urban topography that upends traditional social relationships grounded in land ownership among the underclass, "middling sort," and aristocracy.4

In the first section of the essay, I analyze Ben Jonson's The Entertainment at Britain's Burse (1609), which registers the bewilderment of Londoners who have trouble comprehending the transformation of the western suburbs, as formerly remote green spaces became integrated into a global network of commerce. In this masque, which was performed before James I at the inaugural ceremony of the New Exchange in the Strand at Westminster, Jonson depicts this high-end shopping center as an initial foray into the town by developers who intended to displace the area's inhabitants. The New Exchange, one of the main developments of the West End, along with Hyde Park, Tottenham Court, and Covent Garden, specializes in luxury consumer items from the Far East—products from a region of the world that testified to Dutch trading supremacy. As I will demonstrate, because the Netherlands permeates the way the English conceive of the town, these sites come to be characterized as extensions of Dutch commercial activities, alienating the English from their homeland.5

I then consider the construction of London's suburbs as a New World plantation that must "weed" undesirable elements in order to form a community fit for the nobility in Brome's topographical comedy, or "place-realism" play, The Weeding of Covent Garden (1633). Alternately called a "forest" and a "lawless" precinct inhabited by "Amazonian trulls" and "tribe[s]" of men and women,6 Covent Garden contains an underclass thriving on the disorder inherent in this new suburb. Primarily, developers of the suburbs introduced foreign architecture to draw the city's elite to the area to maximize profits; in his study of this play, Zucker points out that the "building of the Covent Garden piazza signaled the consolidation of the city's first neighborhood based on wealth."7 As contemporary pamphlets demonstrate, this gentrification was disguised as a colonial venture—an inducement to nonlocals to settle in the area, but only if they strictly conform to the builders' image of the development as an exclusive setting designed for a new merchant elite. Yet, Brome depicts residents as treating the area as a temporary stage set, subverting and supplanting the developers' scheme to control who can occupy the suburbs.

Finally, I turn to The Sparagus Garden...


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