- New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World, 1649–1849 by Elizabeth Maddock Dillon
Drama, modernity, eighteenth century, early American theatre, colonialism, Black Atlantic
How does early modern drama travel across time and space? In her new book New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World, 1649–1849, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon offers an insightful account of how Shakespeare’s plays, among others, were revised and re-performed in the centuries following the early modern period and across the Atlantic, particularly in ways that reflect the specific colonial histories and racial politics of various New World localities. For instance, consider the following parody of The Tempest (1611), which Dillon notes as having been published in a Kingston, Jamaica, magazine in 1799:
PARODY OF SHAKESPEARE
Sayings, ca iras, drums, flags, twanging instruments,A thousand different cries, sometimes riots,Do stun my ears by day; unruly horses,And scoffing negroes, break my rest at night;Or, if I sleep, in dreaming I awakeWith shrieks of fire; methinks I see the streetIn horrid blaze around me, that I longTo quit this isle for Britain once again.(qtd. in Dillon 209)
As Dillon explains, these verses recall “a passage [in act three of The Tempest] in which Caliban offers a poetic ode to the sweet sounds of the island that is his home” (209). However, in contrast to the original text, the above version “conveys how deeply disturbing the non-English soundscape of Jamaica felt as it pressed itself on those who sought to be British” (208–09). Here, Dillon illustrates [End Page 153] how an early seventeenth-century English play resurfaced in late eighteenth-century colonial Jamaica—and how its Shakespearean elements were redeployed in ways that speak to the racial (and racist) anxieties of white British citizens living in Caribbean colonies. Further elaborating on the political significance of the racialized, “non-English soundscape” that the poem’s white speaker describes, Dillon explains that “[w]hat is unspeakable, but nonetheless heard, within this noise is the sound of revolution—the possibility of a black collectivity that may be mobilized against the regime and episteme of ‘British liberty’ ” (208). In considering this parody alongside plays staged by white actors in colonial theatres, local advertisements for runaway slaves, and black slaves’ annual Jonkonnu performances (including a Jonkonnu version of Richard III that “reach[ed] well beyond a satirical reappropriation of English performance and toward an aesthetic of indigenization” ), Dillon’s discussion of colonial Jamaican performance establishes generative links among a number of literary and theatrical traditions. She also offers a compelling account of how those traditions have been translated across temporal, geographic, and racial divides.
Of course, New World Drama—recently published as part of Duke University Press’s New Americanists series—presents as a work of American Studies and not primarily as an engagement with the early modern. Yet as the above foray into Dillon’s “Kingston” chapter suggests, the book’s transnational re-envisioning of early American theater is an instructive one for Americanists and non-Americanists alike. In particular, Dillon takes issue with “the way in which the field of literary studies privileges a national frame for the understanding of culture, and determines the national character of a performance on the basis of the play’s authorship rather than on the basis of the location at which a performance is staged or the composition of the audiences and actors involved in the performance” (20). This shift in focus from authorship to performance—as well as from bounded national space to the broader Atlantic world—enables Dillon to examine “improvisational local revisions” of putatively British scripts (21), including many plays that we might more readily categorize as works of early modern English drama or Restoration comedy than as examples of American theater. New World Drama traces these local revisions throughout the Anglophone Atlantic world, beginning with the transformations in London theater after Charles I’s 1649 execution (ch. 2), and closing with a discussion of the...