New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World, 1649-1849

New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World, 1649-1849

by Elizabeth Maddock Dillon


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In New World Drama, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon turns to the riotous scene of theatre in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world to explore the creation of new publics. Moving from England to the Caribbean to the early United States, she traces the theatrical emergence of a collective body in the colonized New World—one that included indigenous peoples, diasporic Africans, and diasporic Europeans. In the raucous space of the theatre, the contradictions of colonialism loomed large. Foremost among these was the central paradox of modernity: the coexistence of a massive slave economy and a nascent politics of freedom.
Audiences in London eagerly watched the royal slave, Oroonoko, tortured on stage, while audiences in Charleston and Kingston were forbidden from watching the same scene. Audiences in Kingston and New York City exuberantly participated in the slaying of Richard III on stage, enacting the rise of the "people," and Native American leaders were enjoined to watch actors in blackface "jump Jim Crow." Dillon argues that the theater served as a "performative commons," staging debates over representation in a political world based on popular sovereignty. Her book is a capacious account of performance, aesthetics, and modernity in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822353249
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 09/01/2014
Series: New Americanists Series
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Elizabeth Maddock Dillon is Professor of English at Northeastern University. She is the author of The Gender of Freedom: Fictions of Liberalism and the Literary Public Sphere.

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New World Drama

The Performative Commons In The Atlantic World

By Elizabeth Maddock Dillon

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9573-7




In the simplest terms, the "colonial relation" refers to the connection between the colony and the metropole in the Anglo-Atlantic world of the eighteenth century. It concerns, then, the way in which far-flung territories become entwined with the central site of English political and economic power—namely, London. In more complex terms, however, the colonial relation names the centrality of colonialism to metropolitan modernity and denominates the representational strategies that simultaneously conveyed and masked this fact. Coloniality is not external and ephemeral with regard to the advent of metropolitan modernity (defined here specifically in relation to forms of popular political sovereignty and the economy of capitalism) but internal and constitutive as well as inimical to dearly held propositions concerning English liberty and the political authority of the British commons. More specifically, the colonial relation takes shape as a racialized segmentation of labor and a differential distribution of humanness across races from the seventeenth century forward: this racialization emerges in relation to the development of an Atlantic world economy shaped by European colonial appropriation of lands, peoples, and resources in Africa and the Americas. Importantly, the colonial relation is not a one-way vector of power (in which the metropole dominates the colony) but an assemblage of connections that shapes peoples and polities around the Atlantic littoral (including the metropole) in the form of colonial modernity.

The enduring and intractable contradiction of the eighteenth-century Anglo-Atlantic world appears in the simultaneity of the growth of doctrines of political liberty and popular sovereignty, together with the advent of systems of enforced labor, enclosure, and violent dehumanization in the form of race slavery. The colonial relation, insofar as it informs both political freedom and race slavery, is at the core of this contradiction: perversely, an account of the colonial relation both is required to narrate the emergence of popular sovereignty and freedom in the Atlantic world, and must be erased in order to articulate this very story. Thus, we might think of the colonial relation as naming the interdependence of two seemingly separate scenes: one of the extraction of land and labor in the colonies and a second concerning the establishment of political liberty and parity among Europeans and, later, among white creoles in the Americas. And it is on the stage itself, and in the dynamics that inhere between and among the bodies and geographies that inhabit and constitute Atlantic world theatre, that the colonial relation appears most fully.

For a concrete illustration of the colonial relation as it appears in performance, we might turn to the theatrical figure of the enslaved African prince, Oroonoko, in Thomas Southerne's play of the same name, or related figures such as Belcour, the title character in Richard Cumberland's enduringly popular play The West Indian (1771), and Montezuma, the tortured Aztec king in John Dryden's The Indian Emperour (1665). Belcour is, literally, a colonial relation—a white creole born in the West Indies (specifically, the illegitimate son of an English businessman), who arrives in the metropole with a pocketful of money and dubious credentials as an Englishman. By the close of the play, Cumberland has successfully integrated (laundered, one might say) West Indian riches into a promising bourgeois, English marriage uniting the creole Belcour with the lovely English Louisa. The colonial relation, in this instance, underwrites the romance of bourgeois, English marriage in the eighteenth century. Similarly, the royal slave, Oroonoko, stars in a plot that results in his own torture and suicide together with the consummation of two bourgeois, English marriages, each enabled by an infusion of West Indian wealth accumulated from slave labor. The colonial relation—embodied on stage in figures such as Belcour, Oroonoko, and Montezuma—displays the colony in association with the metropole, making visible (often fleetingly) a set of Atlantic connections that are not peripheral to life in the metropole (as traditional accounts would have it), but that underwrite and sustain evolving forms of metropolitan economic, political, and cultural life.

As I argue in this chapter, however, theatrical stagings of the colonial relation are significant as much for the publics they convoke and articulate at sites around the Atlantic world as they are for their performance of events and characters on stage. Any particular staging of the colonial relation is also a staging of relations among the members of the audience gathered to respond to the play they are watching—gathered to respond as a "people" according to the new dispensations of popular sovereignty that emerge in the eighteenth-century Atlantic arena. As such, a theatrical commons develops in the Atlantic world—one that is both interracial and racializing in different ways. Performative practices in specific sites, I argue, both proliferate and secure political identities in res communis, opening a space for an aesthetic and political commoning that has porous and contested boundaries in an imperial geography. Civic commons thus emerge and develop at sites of theatrical performance, and these performative commons articulate emergent possibilities and foreclosures of popular sovereignty by means of embodiment and representation, and in the promiscuous interaction between the two.

The model of the colonial relation articulated here recasts two central theoretical narratives of modernity by bringing the abject colonial scene into focus as spatially connected to the European metropole—namely, the narratives of modernity associated, respectively, with Michel Foucault and Karl Marx. According to Foucault, a historical transition takes place as the terrorized and punishable body of the subject of monarchical sovereignty is replaced by the disciplined body of the liberal political subject: at some point during the eighteenth century, Foucault argues, we move from a social and political organization based on punishment to one based on discipline, from sovereign power to what Foucault calls, variously, "governmentality" or "biopower"—namely, a power that does not operate by external force, but that operates by way of constructing (and thus controlling) viable bodies and lives. In contrast to Foucault's temporal narrative, however, I propose a spatial one: the theatre of horror deployed by sovereign power is not supplanted by the disciplined body of governmentality; rather, it is displaced to the colony. Consider, for instance, the statements of four (white) judges in Antigua, in the mid-eighteenth century, as they contemplate their juridical response to a thwarted slave uprising there: "Wee Conceive the former ways of puting the Criminals to Death was too lenative and not Sufficiently Examplary, because the Criminals were not long Enough under their Sufferings which has prevailed upon us to lengthen their Pains in hopes of striking greater Terror into the Slaves that may see their Sufferings." Three months into the proceedings of the trial, sixty-nine slaves had already been "made Examples of on the Wheel[,] the Jibbet[,] and at the Stake" in the English colony of Antigua and "about thirty to forty more" were scheduled for banishment.

By 1736, the "Wheel, the Jibbet, and ... the Stake" had disappeared from the public squares of London, but they nevertheless appeared in public spaces there—namely, on the stages of Drury Lane and Covent Garden. As I discuss in the next chapter, the torture rack appears on stage in London in 1658, with the opening of the public theatre under Oliver Cromwell's rule in William D'Avenant's drama The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru. If Londoners were unable to view the sixty-nine slaves who were tortured to death in Antigua in 1736, they were nonetheless able to view Oroonoko tortured and killed on stage at Drury Lane, Covent Garden, and Lincoln's Inn Fields—once "by command of their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales"—during the same year. And too, in 1736 they might have viewed Montezuma tortured on the rack in performances of John Dryden's Indian Emperor at Lincoln's Inn Fields and Goodman's Fields. On stage in London, the "wheel" represents the faraway space of the New World; torture thus appears as what has "disappeared" into the colony. As such, then, the theatre of horror is disappeared (embedded, buried) within the theatre of a newly self-governing (politically modern) people.

On Marx's account, the New World is, too, a scene of violence and horror—but one characterized less by an effort to control bodies by means of terror than by an economy of disappropriation; that is, by systems dedicated to enabling the European extraction of raw materials, labor, and life from the colony. Specifically, Marx argues that the colonies are a scene of "primitive accumulation" or, to render Marx's German term, ursprüngliche Akkumulation, more exactly, "original accumulation." Given that capitalism requires capital for investment, one must ask where that capital or excess money comes from in the first place. According to Marx, that original capital is acquired by theft or violent disappropriation—namely, by ejecting peasants (or, I would add, indigenous peoples) from the land and taking that land and its resources. Much of Marx's work describes this theft in terms of the enclosure of the commons in England; however, in a few instances, he states that primitive accumulation also occurred in the colonial exploitation of the New World:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation.

Marx thus places the colony on the map of capitalist production but does so in a way that locates the colony in the distant past—in the "dawn" of capitalism associated with feudalism rather than in the present or even the more recent past. Further, Marx argues that primitive accumulation is associated with proletarianization: when individuals are ousted from the land, they are forced to work for others (rather than themselves) and thus become members of the proletariat.

In contrast to the narrative proposed by Marx, which relegates primitive accumulation in the colony to the distant past, I would suggest that the distance between capitalist production and primitive accumulation should be viewed as spatial rather than temporal. In the eighteenth-century Anglo-Atlantic world, the colony is not the long-ago scene of primitive accumulation but is a contemporary scene of violent disappropriation, institutionalized in the form of slave labor. Further, the labor of the slave cannot be described as proletarian because that labor is extracted by means of technologies of social death—that is, by a system that does not reproduce proletarian workers as a class, but that extracts life itself from the workers, replacing the lifeless bodies of slaves who have been worked to death with "new negroes" from Africa. The slave is, then, a figure of "bare labor"—labor stripped of the resources of social life and the capacity for social reproduction. Thus, for instance, in Southerne's play we see Oroonoko stripped of his ability to parent his child and to husband his wife when he is transformed into bare labor by the system of slavery. Simultaneously, however, Southerne's play narrates the success of two white, English sisters, Charlotte and Lucy Welldon, in finding husbands and entering into relations of social reproduction (marriage) because of the wealth that the English have extracted from the colony of Surinam. Taking full advantage of the spatial (not temporal) distance that characterizes the colonial relation, Charlotte and Lucy—who have overstayed their welcome on the marriage market in London—cross the ocean to Surinam and acquire wealthy English husbands in the colony: Charlotte and Lucy thus go directly to the source of wealth that underwrites eighteenth-century English social reproduction—a source that is located in Surinam, not London. The uncomfortable simultaneity of the scenes of English social reproduction (the comedic marriage plot involving Charlotte and Lucy) and African-diasporic social death (the tragic torture-suicide plot involving Imoinda and Oroonoko) is managed on stage by a discourse of sentimentalism, but significantly, the stage is the location where the simultaneity (the spatial colonial relation) of the colony and the metropole does appear.

Both Foucault and Marx contribute, to some extent, to derealizing the colony and the significance of the colonial relation by proposing that structures of violence embodied and enacted in the colony are not germane to modernity; that is, both relegate colonial violence to a temporally distant moment, and as a result, the colony disappears from the map of modernity—a map that is increasingly drawn in terms of discrete nation-states and in terms of citizen-subject relations and identities. This map of discrete territories and the doctrine of territorial sovereignty is associated with the interstate European system formalized in the 1648 Peace of Westphalia—one that, as Carl Schmitt argues, relegates colonial expansion and inter-European warfare occurring in the New World to a location "beyond the line." This geography expunges the colonial scene from the map of European nation formation, relegating New World colonialism to a site utterly distinct from a territorial England where new models of popular sovereignty emerge at precisely this time. Notably, the execution of Charles I and the advent of parliamentarian rule occurs in 1649. The political story of the development of English liberty into a politics of popular sovereignty in England thus seemingly occurs in isolation from the development of race slavery in the colonial Atlantic world, mitigating any sense that a contradiction inheres in the simultaneity of these developments. In terms of simple chronology, it is worth noting, however, that the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa was granted the first monopoly charter over the English slave trade in 1663 (reorganized as the Royal African Company in 1672); in 1688 the Glorious Revolution assisted in establishing modern parliamentary democracy in England; and in 1713, England's South Sea Company acquired the lucrative Asiento, a thirty-year contract to supply an unlimited number of slaves to Spanish colonies in the New World.

If there is increasing consensus among historians that changes in the economy and class structure of England in the eighteenth century were underwritten by returns on investments in an Atlantic economy fueled by slave labor, there remains a wall of sorts separating political and cultural accounts of English liberty and the rise of popular sovereignty—often rehearsed in terms of the development of the public sphere—and Atlantic slavery. While there is a vast historiography on the advent of the public sphere and popular sovereignty, virtually none of this literature entertains any discussion of colonialism. However, popular sovereignty and the growth of the public sphere were entwined with colonialism in England and at sites around the Atlantic world. Indeed, colonialism had a role in both the economic and the political production of popular sovereignty in England; further, the colonial relation is hidden in plain sight in an Atlantic performance public sphere. In the gathering of embodied publics at theatres in London and around the Atlantic world, the coproduction of liberty, colonialization, and slavery is performed, negotiated, and contested: in the performative commons that appear at sites around the Atlantic world, new forms of popular sovereignty take shape that are articulated in relation to colonial, and not simply national, geographies.


Doctrines of British liberty and popular sovereignty suggest that political authority resides in the British people and, as such, presuppose that the identity of a British people is stable and verifiable. The colonial relation enacts a strategic racialization to separate British from non-British bodies in the colony; however, the strenuous labor performed by discourses of biologism, Enlightenment civility, and law in performing this racialization demonstrates that Britishness is rendered precarious by its transportation to the New World. And indeed, this uncertainty masks a more fundamental question: in what did Britishness consist in England? Although liberty is repeatedly proclaimed as the birthright of Englishmen, the full measure of English liberty—particularly the right to political representation—was never accorded to a very broad segment of the population of England in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries: further, debates over the extent of the franchise are coterminous with the advent of the politics of popular sovereignty in England and persist into the present day. If supreme political authority resided in the English people, who then, were the people, and how might they be accurately represented? As seventeenth-century opponents to popular sovereignty rather accurately pointed out, it was difficult to invest authority in a people that had no defined shape or substance: "for the people, to speak truly and properly, is a thing or body in continuall alteration and change, it never continues one minute the same, being composed of a multitude of parts, whereof divers continually decay and perish, and others renew and succeed in their places." How might the chaotic multitude described here assume the shape of a representable people?


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Table of Contents

Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction. The Performative Commons and the Aesthetic Atlantic 1

1. The Colonial Relation 31

2. London 60

3. Transportation 97

4. Charleston 131

5. Kingston 165

6. New York City 215

Notes 263


Index 341

What People are Saying About This

Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance - Joseph Roach

"Beginning with regicide and ending in riot, New World Drama re-visits key sites along the Atlantic rim to show how theatrical audiences, electing their representatives from a ballot of dramatic characters, expanded the print-world 'public sphere' into a dynamic 'performative commons.'  In this innovative book, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon has completely reframed the terms of discussion across the disciplines of literature, history, cultural studies, and performance studies."

Eric Lott

"Substituting a performative commons for a nation-based public sphere, an Atlantic imaginary for an American one, across a period in which racial capitalism came raging into being, richly informed by a reconceptualized theater history, subtended by a colonial relation she has researched extensively, Elizabeth Dillon's New World Drama productively intervenes in several domains and debates at once. It won't be possible to disregard this very fine book."

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