- Racism on the Victorian Stage: Representation of Slavery and the Black Character
In Racism on the Victorian Stage, Hazel Waters traces the history of racism as a practice integral to the Victorian stage and as a discourse "fashioned and altered by material, social, economic and political circumstances" (5). Racism, as Waters tracks and exposes it, is a political and cultural practice that continually reinvents itself, and part of the interest of this book lies in the way in which Waters marks the changing tides and rhythms of the representation of blackness in four hundred years of British stage history. The detailed evidence drawn from performance history makes Racism on the Victorian Stage an excellent source for theatre historians, but it should be of equal interest to anyone studying the nineteenth century who wants to investigate this complex web of British ideologies of imperialism and racial and ethnic identity.
Although the book's title indicates a focus on the mid- to late nineteenth century, Waters starts in the early modern period, suggesting that Shakespeare's Othello and Thomas Southerne's adaptation of Aphra Behn's Oroonoko are formative texts in British stagings of the complexities of race. Waters examines the stereotypes of black characters in these plays as they are mapped against dramaturgical concerns of form and genre. The distinction, she argues, between the slave Oroonoko and the general Othello is to be found as much in dramaturgy, genre, and political context as in any individualized characterization. In comparing Oroonoko and Othello, Waters argues that the "context of enslavement can be seen both as a foil to Oroonoko's natural nobility and a stratagem that allows the evocation of extremes of pathos and sentiment" (16-7). Othello, created as a tragic hero, "could not have existed as a slave" (17) while Oroonoko's position as a slave "provides a context of such absolute control that no protagonist could overcome it" (17). Generic conventions and dramaturgies also direct the comic plot of Oroonoko, in which women in search of marriage are transformed into commodities. By comparing these plots, Waters emphasizes the significance of the female slave's role as a breeder of slaves (that is, of further human capital) and comments on the ways in which generic and dramaturgical conventions both reflect and structure the ideological content of performance.
In her subsequent discussion, Waters's argument about the complexities of both the ideological work of performance and the interactions between racist ideologies and the dramaturgies of popular theatre is fruitful and productive of interesting findings. Throughout this study, Waters maintains an alertness not only to the formation of racist ideologies but also to challenges to those prejudices. These challenges were to be found in the "illegitimate" theatre of the newly emergent urban mass audience; this focus on London's minor theatres is one of the strengths of the book. The experience of African American actor Ira Aldridge—who was accepted as a star at the Coburg, but not at Drury [End Page 265] Lane—says much about the involvement of racist ideologies in framing English concepts of theatrical legitimacy and the national drama.
Waters's chapters on the tragedian Aldridge and the Jim Crow phenomenon give lively accounts of the theatres where both the fame of Aldridge and the popularity of "Crow mania" offered contrasting accounts of what English audiences "thought a black man ought to be" (102). Aldridge found an audience in England that he could not have developed in America. Waters finds, in the details of Aldridge's forty-year career, "an increasingly overt claim for black liberty and equality" (59). The craze for Jim Crow performances at the same time, however, has less positive implications for the British national narrative of liberty and equality. Waters argues that the phenomenon was as much a demonstration of English ideas about America as it was a portrayal of the black character himself. The grotesquerie of the lazy and irresponsible Jim Crow character allowed British audiences to indulge in their fascination with America...