- India on My Mind: French Theatre, Enlightenment Orientalism and The Burning Widow
Contrary to Edward Said’s monolithic notion of Orientalism, Enlightenment Orientalism frequently challenged ideology and narrative forms, often defying easy categorization. Srinivas Aravamudan notes that both French and English Enlightenment Orientalism provided a temporal and spatial field where literary creativity opposed the inevitable ascension of the realist, nationalist novel. According to Aravamudam, the second part of the eighteenth century witnessed the rise of a “[n]ovelistic culture,” one that “gained in strength and identity by setting itself off as domestic authenticity against Enlightenment Orientalism.”1 It countered the rise of the nationalist novel by fashioning fables, tales, and performances that challenged boundaries, an artistic and literary endeavor quite distinct from the discourse of Orientalism as explicated by Said, who famously constructed Orientalism as a Western ontological and imperialist agenda, singular in its cohesiveness and comprehensive nature, ahistorical as a constant since Ancient Greece.2 Aravamudan suggests that Orientalist tales—Antoine Galland’s translation of The Arabian Nights (1704–1717), Giovanni Paolo Marana’s Letters Written by a Turkish Spy (French 1684; English 1687), and Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes (1754) are prominent, early examples—provide a locale that transforms cultural, temporal and spatial demarcations:
Enlightenment Orientalism is the term that I propose for this nebulous form of transcultural fiction that interrogated settled assumptions . . . an imaginative Orientalism, circulating images of the East that were nine parts invented and one part referential, but it would be anachronistic to deem these images ideological, as they did not tend principally toward domination of the East in any single register. These fictions opposed the domestic yoke brought by novel practitioners, who eventually triumphed . . .3 [End Page 45]
Aravamudam’s conflicting, dialogic genres of Orientalist tales and the novel do not exhaust the possibilities. Theatre forms the ideal genre to explore the representation of the “Orient,” utilizing text as well as performance. This complex of performance traditions and innovations on the stage in France served to expand the scope of eighteenth and nineteenth century theatre and Orientalism.
In this article I examine Antoine Lemierre’s 1770/1780 tragedy La Veuve du Malabar and two variations on the same theme: La Nouvelle Veuve, ou Madame Angot au Malabar, Melo-Tragi-Parade en Trois Actes (1803) by Jospeh Audé, and La Veuve du Malabar, Vaudeville En Un Acte (1822) by Eugène Scribe. I argue that these three plays, when considered together as a dialogue on culture and identity, contest the idea of Orientalism as a singular agenda, one whose complicity with colonialism and imperialism, according to Said and other critics, only solidified during the time period covered by the three plays under consideration (1770–1822).4 Said notes, in Culture and Imperialism, that “[b]etween France and Britain in the late eighteenth century there were two contests: the battle for strategic gains abroad—in India, the Nile Delta, the Western Hemisphere—and the battle for a triumphant nationality.”5 While the initial La Veuve du Malabar parallels orthodox readings of Orientalism as a constituent of colonialist hegemony, Said’s “triumphant nationality” is displaced in Audé’s and Scribe’s versions, which instead create a performance space somewhere between the “here” of France, and the “there” of Malabar. These two shorter works function as transcultural parables, ones which frequently challenge both nationalist concepts of identity and the identity of the “other,” instead providing a hybrid cultural space which questions notions of French superiority abroad. Questions concerning cultural identity and hybridity are of paramount interest today as globalization and technology proliferate cultural contacts and contexts in myriad ways. Similar questions about identity and hybridity arose during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as Western colonists and travelers encountered the many different cultures of South Asia. Said constructs these colonial encounters as invariably one-sided, with one ultimate outcome: a monolithic West would dominate and subjugate various Asian countries, with literature serving as a handmaiden to economic, political, and ontological subservience for Asian countries, for, as he writes in Culture and Imperialism: “the enterprise of empire depends upon the idea of having an empire … and all kinds of preparations are made for it within the culture.”6...