The metropolitan public of late eighteenth-century Britain liked nothing better than the theatre and, in the theatre, the dramas they patronised in great numbers were those that put the new colonial world on stage. In this constantly informative and carefully researched study Daniel O’Quinn demonstrates the cultural importance of staging the Oriental regions of the new, second empire in the period 1770-1800. In these regions he wisely includes not just the Indian subcontinent, scene of most of the colonial acquisitions Britain made after 1763, but also the Pacific, the vast ocean into which Captain Cook sailed, bring home sensational news of tropical islands full of luxuriant fruits, strange beasts and exotic people who seemed to have escaped Adam’s curse and to live, still, in Eden.
O’Quinn’s book is two things at once. It is a patient study of a number of Orientalist dramas and of their cultural context; it is also a bid to reconfigure typical assumptions about Romanticism. O’Quinn claims that professional literary critics have over-emphasised the French Revolution as the hinge-point, the historical rupture, from which Romanticism sprang. He convincingly demonstrates that Britons were already beginning to produce new and newly popular forms of culture before this time, in response the several related events that posed a greater threat to their society than the French Revolution did. These events were imperial in origin but struck at the root of life at home: the loss of the American colonies precipitated a crisis of guilt about declining power; the acquisition of Indian colonies produced not only fear about misgotten gains brought home and used to buy influence and power, but also a credit-crunch that came close to destroying the banking system and, with it, the stability of property. Whereas the French Revolution was of foreign birth and scope, these crises were produced by British greed and they demonstrated that the loan and credit system irrevocably linked the fortunes of remote Bengal with the property of London and the broad-acred shires. One of the first writers to voice the insecurities that stemmed from this realisation and to criticise the colonial cupidity that had got Britain into a capitalist mess was William Cowper, who lambasted not only Ex-India Company nabobs but also a British society newly in love with consumerism. Cowper’s The Task deserves to be investigated much more closely by Romanticists: it stands behind Wordsworth’s dissection of London as a consumerist imperial metropolis in The Prelude, as a centre of ‘getting and spending’. It confirms O’Quinn’s thesis about the 1770s and 1780s too, although, focusing on the drama, he has no space to consider it or the numerous visual satires in which the likes of Gillray and Cruikshank lampooned Britons’ lust for and anxiety about Oriental wealth. Those visual satires are carefully analysed in Vic Gatrell’s recent study City of Laughter; two other recent studies support O’Quinn’s argument for the 1770s and 1780s and for Oriental empire as the shaping force on Romantic culture—David Worrall’s Harlequin Empire:Race, Ethnicity and the Drama of the Popular Enlightenment (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2007) and Daniel E. White’s Early Romanticism and Religious Dissent (Cambridge: CUP, 2006). O’Quinn, then, is part of a growing consensus among Romanticists that we must go beyond the French Revolution and the 1790s in order to understand the new styles, genres and topics that constitute our field.
O’Quinn first considers Foote’s The Nabobs, illuminating this highly popular comedy by showing that it dramatises well-known figures from the financial crisis caused by the near-collapse of the East India Company. Rather than simply satirise decadent nabobs, the play also examines the dangers posed by the expanding world of private credit to the stability of the national and imperial economy. This examination ‘drives to the heart of deep-seated cultural anxieties of the period’ (p. 61), crystallising fears about the ‘economic problematics in the relationship between landed property and commercial interest’ (p. 73). It is worth remembering that the middle-classes went to see The Nabob for entertainment: O’Quinn’s sober analysis risks neglecting the fact that audiences were amused and delighted rather than lectured and frightened. He does point out that Foote found dramatic means to contain the anxieties he aroused—presumably a function of comedy’s generic need to produce a happy ending, but his discussion would benefit from an analysis of how Foote’s play made such anxiety-provoking material funny.
The next chapter deals with Omai; or a Trip Round the World the 1785 pantomime jointly devised by John O’Keefe and Phillippe Jacques de Loutherbourg. O’Quinn discusses the tensions between the attempt at ethnographic accuracy in the costumes and the fantastical plot, derived from the commedia del arte. He sees the tension resolved in favour of the latter with the consequence that there is a ‘leeching of almost all the sexual and racial signs from the central triangle of desire in the commedia plot [which] implies that the threats of interracial sexuality, active female desire, and foppish masculinity embodied by Omai, Londina, Don Stuttolando, and their zanni attendants are necessary as examples of potential, but reformed alterity’ (p. 114). As a response to the exploration of the Pacific and the visit of Tahitian islander Mai to Britain, the pantomime is a key transitional discourse. It turns away from the enthographical accuracy and enlightenment enquiry of Sir Joseph Banks (the gentleman botanist and scientific and colonial administrator who managed the representation of the Cook voyages in print narratives, specimen collections, paintings, engravings and exhibitions), replacing it with racist posturing that heralded a new era in which the racial superiority of Britons was asserted in both science and art.
The next part of the book aims to ‘examine the way two related sites of instability and hence anxiety—the state and the sex/gender system—found themselves entwined in the legislative attempts to deal with the East Indian Company in the 1780s (p. 121-22). O’Quinn offers an insightful analysis of the theatre of the Hastings trial, arguing that the presence of women in the audience inflected the performance that was the trial—with Burke attacking the instability of East India Company government, based as it was on fast credit and liquid cash, by using the image of rape. O’Quinn draws attention to contradictions between Burke’s perspicacious analysis of colonial finance and the politics of the Whig oligarchy to which he still adhered. In this section O’Quinn discusses Frances Burney’s diary to gauge female involvement in and response to the trial, thereby expanding our understanding of the cultural context in which the trial resonated. A final section, titled ‘A Theatre of Perpetual War’ takes the responses to the trial as its starting point, examining a series of popular plays by women including Marianna Starke’s The Sword of Peace, critiquing East India Company corruption and imagining a properly military masculinity reforming Company rule and redeeming British colonial honour in the process. Also discussing the pantomime performances at Astley’s Amphitheatre that dramatised British victory at Seringapatam, O’Quinn produces a fascinating survey of little-known popular stagings of Indian colonial affairs, introducing Romanticists to a wealth of unfamiliar cultural material and showing that this material signalled the hardening of imperialist and racist attitudes—an example of popular comedy working to allay the anxieties of the 1780s about the corrupting effect of involvement in Oriental adventures upon English manners, morals and manliness. Exhibiting difference between Britons and Indians, and the superiority of the former to the later, the theatre prepared the way for the segregationist policies that characterised British government in India after 1800.
In conclusion, O’Quinn has written a nuanced enquiry that makes sense not only of little-studied popular drama but also of historical developments that helped shape the redefinition of imperialist and nationalist ideology which gathered pace in the late eighteenth century. Bringing new material to light and placing drama centre stage, he contributes both to the study of Romantic theatre and to that of Romanticism’s involvement with the cultural and literary politics of empire. In this latter respect, he provides a most useful contribution to the debate begun by Javed Majeed in Ungoverned Imaginings (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992) and Nigel Leask in Romantic Writers and the East (Cambridge: CUP, 1992).
Tim Fulford is Professor of English at Nottingham Trent University in Nottingham, England. He is the author of several books on Romanticism, including, most recently Romantic Indians: Native Americans, British Literature, and Transatlantic Culture 1756-1830 (Oxford UP, 2006).