Daniel O’Quinn. Staging Governance: Theatrical Imperialism in London, 1770-1800. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. ISBN: 978-0801879616. Price: US$60[Record]

  • Tim Fulford

…more information

  • Tim Fulford
    Nottingham Trent University

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 …