- New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World, 1649–1849 by Elizabeth Maddock Dillon
From London’s teeming playhouses to Kingston’s sugar cane plantations, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon’s New World Drama takes readers on a circumatlantic journey through the long eighteenth century in search of new publics. She locates these [End Page 236] emergent communities in “performative commons,” lively sites of representation and embodiment where colonial identities (both indigenous and non-native) were staged, negotiated, and revised. As Dillon writes, performative commons provided a space for exercising popular sovereignty within “a new world system—one in which colonialism and capitalism structured new relations of belonging and nonbelonging across disparate and distal sites around the Atlantic” (15). At once both a people and a material place, Dillon’s notion of “commons” replaces the traditional public sphere, which she argues remains doubly limited by the geographical boundaries of nation-states and the varied literacies of language-bound print cultures. The performative commons, in contrast, acknowledges in its relative fluidity and porousness the diversity of peoples, ideologies, and systems inherent in Atlantic colonial formations, though it is also capable of disenfranchising or erasing undesirable groups and ideas. Commons often developed in outdoor spaces where publics assembled (to participate in Jamaican Jonkonnu revelries in Kingston or witness Charles II’s execution in front of Whitehall’s Banqueting House, to cite two examples); however, New World Drama continuously returns to the theater, where actors and audiences alike tested a wealth of colonial identities.
Central to Dillon’s process of “commoning” are her affiliated notions of “colonial relation” and “intimate distance.” Colonial relation describes the various networked connections between the colonial territories and locations of European political and economic dominance, particularly metropolitan London. Rather than flowing in a single direction from Europe to the colonies, the colonial relation refers to “an assemblage of connections that shapes peoples and polities around the Atlantic littoral (including the metropole) in the form of colonial modernity” (31). According to Dillon, relations between the metropole and the colonies depended on the establishing of intimate distance. Colonials endeavored to maintain and express their intimate ties to European culture, politics, and society, despite being separated from them by an ocean’s distance. This claim of intimacy operated concurrently with a collective and repeated assertion that “vast cultural (if not biological) distance separated [European colonials] from the individuals with whom they shared the intimacies of daily life and physical habitation in the colony,” particularly Native Americans and New World Africans (16). Moreover, the creation of performative commons and popular sovereignty within the colonial Atlantic world, Dillon argues, necessitated a paradoxical process of perceiving and erasing racialized bodies. The health of British colonial enterprises could be measured in the quantities of laborers needed to build infrastructures, harvest and transport goods, and support the lives of colonialists. A swelling population of slaves, then, signaled colonial prosperity. However, in order to sustain the fledgling notion of English liberty, [End Page 237] people of color also had to be expunged from the public landscape; indigenous populations in particular were physically displaced or hidden from view. Dillon suggests throughout the book that efforts to distance, erase, or negate the presence of people of color in Atlantic commons were rarely complete; indeed, she details the creole commons operating in Charleston and the existence of an “impossible commons” in Kingston (a location that encouraged “un-commoning” through its manifold economic, social, and racial divisions and yet provided a singular site of “dissensus” for its inhabitants).
New World Drama is bookended by two fatal demonstrations of popular sovereignty: Charles I’s execution in 1649 and the Astor Place Riots in 1849. Dillon presents the latter incident as “a closing point of sorts for the history of the Atlantic performative commons” (259). Between these events, Dillon investigates in separate chapters the development of performative commons in London, Charleston, Kingston, and New York, as well as a commons that transitioned across trade and travel routes in...