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Sympathy in Translation: Paul et Virginie on the London Stage[1]

  • Luisa Calè

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  • Luisa Calè
    Birkbeck, University of London

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This essay addresses the question of Romantic spectacle and theatricality from the standpoint of literary adaptation. Eighteenth-century aesthetic theorists from Joseph Addison to Jean-Baptiste Du Bos and Henry Home Lord Kames conceptualised the act of reading as a transformation of readers into spectators. While their work used a theatrical analogy to illuminate the act of reading, adaptation offers a chance to explore the different types of spectatorship and identification required by different types of aesthetic experience. For Adam Smith and Jean Jacques Rousseau theatrical relations define the condition of individuals in society. As David Marshall argues, Rousseau identifies the state of nature with “the absence of any consciousness of beholders,” whereas spectatorship marks the fall from nature to society, in which people “become conscious of others as both spectacles and spectators” (137). While a literary text might be read individually, Guy Debord argues that “spectacle is … a social relation among people, mediated by images,” an ideological apparatus for consensus which justifies the existing system (paragraph 4). Drawing on Michel Foucault’s work on governmentality and the micro-physics of power, recent work in Romantic studies has tended to identify the visual field with surveillance over crowds assembling in public places. With its forms of vicarious participation, spectacle was crucial to the consolidation of the body politic. In an appeal to public loyalty and patriotism, transparencies, fireworks and bonfires marked events such as the King’s birthday and military victories. Gillian Russell observes that because Britain “had not been invaded by an enemy since 1745, the majority of the population experienced war as theatre” through rituals aimed at “shaping community response” (17-18). At the theatre private individuals came together as a public as visible as the actors on the stage, all participating in a performance of collective identity. Subject to government censorship, the theatre “supplemented” “juridical governance by more pervasive forms of subjectification,” as Daniel O’Quinn argues. For British sovereignty was under pressure because of the tension between nation and empire since the loss of the American colonies in the 1770s-80s and the disassociation of the people from the king exemplified by the French Revolution (O’Quinn 7).

The theatrical adaptation of a foreign literary text about life in a foreign colony offers an ideal case study to investigate how to address the different public of the theatre. In this essay I analyse Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s pastoral idyll Paul et Virginie (1788, 1789) and its adaptation into James Cobb’s comic opera Paul and Virginia: A Musical Drama, performed at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden in London on 1 May 1800. Saint-Pierre’s pastoral was translated into English almost immediately. Between 1788 and 1799 there were fifty-six editions, of which twenty are translations.[2] Among them the most successful was Helen Maria Williams’s abridged translation and adaptation, published in 1795, which contributed to the circulation of Saint-Pierre’s text in Britain.[3] The dates of publication and performance of Paul et Virginie mark out turning points in the relationship between France and the British. Its publication coincides with an early phase in which the borders of the nation could be crossed by transnational friends of the Revolution. Williams’s translation appeared in the aftermath of that Revolutionary cosmopolitanism when Britain and France were on opposite sides in the Coalition war. The comic opera was staged at the height of the Napoleonic wars. The colonial setting of both the novel and the opera indicates the role of the colonies in the theatre of war. The authors of the pastoral and its adaptation were both involved in the colonial effort. Paul et Virginie was inspired by Saint-Pierre’s encounter with the Île de France (Mauritius), where he stayed after leaving the Madagascar mission on which he had served as engineer. James Cobb was a clerk in the East India Company. Their colonial interests suggest that Paul et Virginie might participate in shaping a “creole nation” that brings together the colony with the centre. By contrast, Saint-Pierre’s text has been recently used to argue for a transnational ideal of literature in which the novel works as a critique of the nation and advocates alternative forms of collective identification. In analysing the transition from the French page to the English stage, this essay explores the transnational, cosmopolitan and international forms of identification which a story evokes in different media and their modes of reception.

Encountered on the page, Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie and Helen Maria Williams’s 1795 translation exemplify the transnational novel advocated by Margaret Cohen and Carolyn Dever, a form which invokes cosmopolitan readers and aims to constitute transnational “communities of sentiment” in-between nations and against metropolitan nation-spaces. For Cohen, the sentimental novel questions, transgresses, and challenges the stable national distinctions and national publics which Benedict Anderson posits in Imagined Communities (1-34)[4]. However, if the translation from the French to the English page may encourage transnational forms of identification,[5] the translation from novel to comic opera reconfigures the practice and limits of sentimental identification and reveals the international tensions underlying the fragile borders of Saint-Pierre’s transnational pastoral utopia.

I. Sympathy and Virtual Spectatorship

The aesthetic response predicated by such a transnational model of sympathy is best exemplified in Adam Smith’s discussion of spectatorship as a mechanism which binds selfish individuals within a society. In his 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith argued that

Whatever is the passion which arises from any object in the person principally concerned, an analogous emotion springs up, at the thought of his situation, in the breast of every attentive spectator. Our joy for the deliverance of those heroes of tragedy or romance who interest us, is as sincere as our grief for their distress, and our fellow-feeling with their misery is not more real than that with their happiness. We enter into their gratitude towards those faithful friends who did not desert them in their difficulties; and we heartily go along with their resentment against those perfidious traitors who injured, abandoned, or deceived them. In every passion of which the mind of man is susceptible, the emotions of the by-stander always correspond to what, by bringing the case home to himself, he imagines should be the sentiments of the sufferer.


Theatrical examples abound in the work of Smith and others to exemplify how an aesthetic mediation might educate the community to exercise virtue through virtual forms of participation. Yet what are the boundaries of such fellow-feeling? For Smith “the propriety of our moral sentiments is never so apt to be corrupted, as when the indulgent and partial spectator is at hand, while the indifferent and impartial one is at a great distance” (154). In other words, spectatorship depends on and reinforces local attachments. As a form of reciprocal regulation it might work for a community of neighbours or for citizens of the polis. However, such a sentimental cohesion breaks down when “nations … are placed at so great a distance that they are almost quite out of sight” (Smith 154). Following Smith, we might wonder about the reach of feeling mediated through the imagination. This essay explores the aesthetic boundaries of fellow-feeling. The aesthetic reach of a story differs when it is experienced in a solitary encounter with the text on the page or a public performance of actors on the stage. If virtual spectatorship might invite the reader to other worlds, theatre-goers are engaged in a double performance of fellow-feeling: on the one hand they become part of the body of the public; on the other, they are invited to identify with the action on the stage. In other words, the adaptation from the page to the stage allows us to investigate the impact of virtual and actual forms of spectatorship on the fashioning of aesthetic communities.

Reading novels involves a practice of virtual spectatorship which brings together sentimental communities across distance and absence. Because the theatre is “a genre that depends on spectatorial presence,” virtual spectatorship depends on the “cross-fertilization between dramatic and novelistic forms” (qtd. in Cohen et al. 113). Theatrical spectatorship can provide the model whereby a “sentimental community extends the affective bonds of presence to define bonds of absence” (qtd. in Cohen et al. 113). Indeed readers of novels can find in the actor a model for an aesthetic practice that teaches them to forget themselves in order to take on the identity of the characters. Yet by sitting together in a theatre spectators discover themselves as part of a public. A theatrical performance puts a story and its characters on a specific stage in a locally specific context; it engages with the identities and interests of the actors and their public and brings the story home to them so that they may feel at home with the story and its characters. Indeed, the translation and adaptation of Paul et Virginie on the London stage suggests that a sentimental community can more easily be shaped through the novel precisely because it works through distance and detachment. For the novel’s lack of presence and embodiment is more likely to guarantee the level of abstraction required to engage in a universalist cosmopolitan love of mankind.

Cosmopolitan spectatorship combines the love of mankind with a form of Stoic detachment. Srinivas Aravamudan explains it as a process of “virtualization”: “a certain loss of detail” makes colonial stories more malleable to accommodate metropolitan readers (17). For Immanuel Kant, a representation can only be shared and universally communicable when particular details and interests are bracketed. This process of bracketing is essential to what he terms “sensus communis,” the feeling of a universal assent which is a “constitutive principle of the possibility of experience” (122-124).[6] Eventually, this aesthetic practice will bring together individuals in the universal community of sentiment which Kant envisages in Perpetual Peace (1795): “the peoples of the earth have entered in varying degrees into a universal community, and it is developed to the point where a violation of laws in one part of the world is felt everywhere” (Kant, Political Writings 107-8). Kant’s cosmopolitan community is predicated on an ethos of Stoic detachment. Stoic detachment involves a process of abstraction visualised as “a series of concentric circles” that isolate what is common to the self, family, neighbourhood, nation (Nussbaum, “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism” 9).[7]

These cosmopolitan circles also involve a movement from the centre to the periphery which has strong colonial associations. For the attempt to combine the love of mankind with local attachments requires that all human beings become “more like our fellow city dwellers” for our fellow city dwellers to identify with them (Nussbaum, “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism” 9). Kant’s universalist cosmopolitanism sits uncomfortably with the particularity of his geography. (Harvey 529-64) Yet the obstructions of race and climate can be mitigated in Kant’s ameliorist ideal of perfectibility: “man possesses a greater moral capacity, still dormant at present, to overcome eventually the evil principle within him … and to hope that others will do the same” (Perpetual Peace 103). Even the unenlightened races living in less temperate climates can become more “like ourselves” so long as they are tutored through stages of “pupilage” supervised by an abstract supranational entity, which Kant modelled on concrete eighteenth-century plans for a Society of European Nations.[8] While waiting for the “positive idea of a world republic” to come true, the possibility of such a purposive plan should be “supplied mentally” (Perpetual Peace 108-9, 105). In other words, it is a task which can be practiced through aesthetic experience.

As a mode of identification predicated on feeling, sympathy might seem incompatible with the detachment and distance that characterise Stoic versions of cosmopolitanism. Yet Kant’s aesthetic experience and Smith’s model of spectatorship both rely on a feeling that depends on the abstraction of difference. Smith’s model of sympathy requires a level of self-reflexivity and detachment insofar as spectators must put themselves in the position of a spectator and tone down actions to the level which can elicit the sympathy of others.

A participatory mode of cosmopolitan spectatorship predicated on the abstraction of the spectator’s national attachments is practiced by Saint-Pierre’s translator Helen Maria Williams in the first volume of her Letters from France (1790). Writing from revolutionary Paris, Williams took on an engaged cosmopolitan position that questioned the national borders of fellow-feeling in the transnational public sphere of the Revolution:

You will not suspect that I was an indifferent witness to such a scene. Oh no! this was not a time in which the distinctions of country were remembered. It was the triumph of human kind; it was man asserting the noblest privilege of his nature; and it required but the common feelings of humanity, to become in that moment a citizen of the world.[9]


However, by the time she translated Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie, the revolutionary scene had radically changed. Indeed, the earlier cosmopolitan revolutionary public sphere was threatened by heightened national distinctions during the French Revolutionary Wars. After England joined the Coalition at war against the French Revolutionary Government in 1793, Williams the “citizen of the world” ended up imprisoned as an “alien” for six weeks.[10] In her preface to her translation, she presented Paul et Virginie as an explicit if virtual alternative to such a dystopian reversal of the cosmopolitan revolutionary republic (Williams iii-iv). Saint-Pierre’s pastoral offered Williams a way out into a different sentimental mode of identification which took its force as a transnational matriarchal utopia.

Yet national publics were central to the dissemination of the text. In his 1789 prefatory statement to Paul et Virginie Saint-Pierre pointed out the success of Paul et Virginie in England and especially among women readers (199).[11] When Williams adapted Saint-Pierre’s text, she was attentive to national distinctions. To appeal to a British public she highlighted the “pathetic narrative” and “rapid succession of incidents” and therefore pruned “general observations” and “long philosophical reflections” (Williams vi-vii). Having thus eliminated the traits that she considered too specifically French, she went on to augment Saint Pierre’s text with her sonnets. Marked as her own in the frontispiece, these sonnets are however embedded in the text as spontaneous productions of Virginie’s mother. Through such a transfer of authorship author, translator and character come together in the performance of reading, which makes it possible for readers to practice virtual identities in the text’s matriarchal utopia. In other words, the readers’ virtual spectatorship is what ensures their participation in the story.

II. Paul et Virginie in Île de France

Saint-Pierre’s pastoral is set in a secluded spot of Île de France (now Mauritius), where with the help of two slaves two exiled French single mothers of different class extraction bring up their two children as siblings. Located in a Rousseauian part of the island where the codes of dress and education can be ignored, the community lives “in the manner of creoles”.[12] Eventually, however, as the little Virginia reaches puberty and discovers more than fraternal feelings for Paul, she is sent to France to be educated in a way appropriate to her high social status. This failed “re-patriation” precipitates the tragic finale as Virginia perishes in shipwreck on her return to the island.

The story of Mademoiselle de la Tour, which provides the core of Paul et Virginie, was initially planned as a fifteenth letter to be added to Saint-Pierre’s Voyage to the Island of Mauritius, a text based on the writer’s stay on the island in the late 1760s and first published in 1773 (Veyrenc). The 1720s pastoral setting Saint-Pierre chooses for Paul et Virginie reads as a fragile antitype against the conditions of the islanders in the 1760s described in the Voyage:

The late war in India, inundated upon the Isle of France, the scum of Europe and of Asia, Bankrupts, - ruined Libertines, - Thieves, and wretches of every kind, who driven from the former by their crimes, and from the latter by the bad success of our arms, attempted to reestablish their fortunes upon the ruins of the public, … a people of different nations who hate each other most cordially.

90, 94

Nor is the new offspring represented in the Voyage anywhere close to the idyllic scene represented in Saint-Pierre’s pastoral. Rather, the state of nature in which children are brought up “leaves them in an almost utter ignorance; but the vices of the negro women, which they imbibe with their milk, and their caprices, which they are suffered to exercise upon the poor slaves to a degree of tyranny beyond all bounds, adds to this ignorance all the depravity inherent to society” (96).[13] In the light of this fear of miscegenation, Megan Vaughan argues that the prospected marriage of Paul and Virginia is an extreme attempt to ensure the uncontaminated purity of the blood-line, despite its incestuous connotations (150). Vaughan’s study of the Mauritian archive illuminates Saint-Pierre’s pastoral. Paul and Virginia’s Norman and Breton mothers can be understood in terms of the social engineering of the French colonial project: the French East India Company had tried to address the island’s gender imbalance by paying the travel costs and a dowry for Breton peasant girls to settle and thus ensure social stability and the growth of the community on the island (Vaughan 27, 48). While the matriarchal community of Paul et Virginie sounds more aspirational than real compared to the demographic rarity of white mothers, it fits the reality of abandoned wives and the incomplete family units resulting from mortality rates, war or business (Vaughan 140-3).

As Adam Smith argues, extreme situations must be abstracted if the spectators are to identify with the situation presented before their eyes (22). Saint-Pierre’s Voyage encountered hostile responses from the inhabitants of Île de France, whereas his negative portrayal of the French colony may well have been among the reasons for the text’s translation into English.[14] By contrast, Paul et Virginie had a national and transnational appeal. Instead of the dystopian military foothold represented in the Voyage, the novel projected the story of Paul and Virginie into an idealised past of the colony. In its presentation of a timeless Rousseauian Arcadia, Paul et Virginie became a founding myth for the Mauritius.[15] In one of the many prefatory statements which Saint-Pierre added to Paul et Virginie he claimed that what eventually convinced him to publish the story (first in Etudes de la Nature in 1788 and then reissued separately in 1789) was the opportunity to read it aloud at Madame Necker’s Salon. There is some doubt as to whether the story touched Madame Necker and her friends to the point of tears as Saint-Pierre argued,[16] but the idyllic setting in an ideal time of consolidation of the French colony in the early 1720s was certainly more likely to trigger identification than the 1760s dystopia presented in the Voyage. It might, in fact, suggest the need for a renewed colonial effort on the island and a prospect for Saint-Pierre’s own self-advancement in the colonial administration.[17] Its much blander denunciation of slavery suggested a workable form of paternalism which is coherent with the fantasy of the family of mankind which Saint-Pierre proposed in his 1789 Vow of the Nations.

Paul et Virginie certainly triggered an identificatory response in its English translator Helen Maria Williams, a key figure in the network of the Société des Amis des Noirs in Paris, which combined abolitionism with colonial projects in Sierra Leone.[18] A different kind of interest must have attracted Cobb to Saint-Pierre’s colonial pastoral. Working for the East India Company, he must have been very aware of the strategic position that Île de France held in the Pacific, a base for the Indian wars and for commerce, colonisation and slave trade in Madagascar. Yet Cobb too had to appeal to a public which was larger and less clued into Pacific affairs than the East India Company. For the French colony of Île de France would not have meant as much to the London public as it did for the French. If Saint-Pierre’s novel appealed to a transnational reading community, Cobb had to “bring the story home” to his public. When transported to London the pastoral needed to be relocated in a new and more familiar setting. As a result, Saint-Pierre’s transnational sentimental community gave way to an international plot for a national audience.

III. Paul and Virginia on the London Stage

Paul et Virginie had been turned into a play, with the addition of a comedic ending, as early as 1791 at the Comédie Italienne in Paris (Darlow 129-142). On 26 March 1795, “a new grand Dramatic Pantomime Ballet, in 3 Parts, called PAUL et VIRGINIE” was performed after the second act of the opera Semiramide at King’s Theatre in London and repeated very frequently throughout 1795 and 1796 (Times 1795; Morning Chronicle 1795).[19] The choreography was designed by Giacomo Onorati, an Italian dance master who had recently come to the King’s Theatre after working in Marseille. The score, composed by Joseph Mazzinghi, provided the basis for the adaptation into the comic opera scripted by Cobb, which premiered at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden on 1 May 1800. Reviewing the comic opera, the Times looked back to the ballet and argued that “the subject of it is well known on the Continent; and the Fable has not only been written in ‘choice Italian,’ and excellent French, but exemplified in the English Operatic Ballet.” The review acknowledged the continental circulation of Saint-Pierre’s text and the cosmopolitan artistic collaboration that went into the comic opera. Cobb’s productions were seen as “the manufacture of Cobb and Co. for certainly the composer and the scene-painter furnish the principal attractions of Mr Cobb’s Operas” (Dutton II: 255). In the case of Paul and Virginia too Cobb’s authorial contribution seemed to fall short of the music and “scenic embellishments.” In this sense, Cobb’s theatre exemplifies the Romantic spectacles in which William Hazlitt found the text as no more than a “vehicle for connecting scenery, pantomime, and song in one dazzling appeal to all our different faculties and senses” (V: 367). In the process of adaptation, as the words are adapted to music, the text is broken up and gives way to lyrical elements such as the arias, which “paint either a picture, which must be seen from different points of sight, or a sentiment, in which the heart is interested” (Rousseau 19-20). The repackaging of Paul et Virginie continued after the performance, when texts and scores of the arias, duets and choruses were sold separately and therefore acquired a life of their own.[20] Even though the script was dismissed as “trifling” and little more than “a vehicle” for the music, it is very indicative of the mediations necessary to adapt Saint-Pierre’s story for an English audience (London Chronicle 1800). [21]

According to Cohen, work on the “transnational appeal” and “international portability” of sentimental communities needs to examine how transnational features “interact with specific national contexts” to “solicit the spectator’s sympathy” (“Communities” 108). Reviews of Paul and Virginia identified “the triumph of love and constancy over wealth and selfishness” as the story’s subject.[22] Another “portable” ingredient of Paul et Virginie was the episode of the runaway slave, which was excerpted in a review of an early translation (Gentleman’s Magazine 60 [May 1790]: 444-46). Both the Romantic plot abridgement and the runaway extract have an immediate universalist potential which Cobb’s script abstracts from those attachments that might obstruct the story’s appeal to a British public.[23] Consequently, the comic opera bears no trace of Saint-Pierre’s idealised Île de France; the “regulative ideal” Saint-Pierre had envisioned for the renewal of French colonial interests gives shape to a very different sentimental community.[24] Cobb’s story is transplanted to a Spanish island in the West Indies. This new setting was likely to prove more familiar to the local public of Covent Garden, because the West Indies had been a theatre of war between France, England and Spain throughout the 1790s. The Times commented that the “patriotic sentiments happily expressed were felt with national enthusiasm by the audience” (2 May 1800). By contrast, the Dramatic Censor argued that “the author has copiously interlaced his piece with political allusions, and high-seasoned sentiments, which are crammed and foisted into the Drama .. for the purpose of entrapping applause from weak minds who never look below the surface” (Dutton II: 138). Set against the universalist love of mankind inherent in the revolutionary cosmopolitanism of Helen Maria Williams’s first Letters from France, this transatlantic scene called into question the possibility of a love of mankind which escapes local and national interests.

The reason for such a change in setting and international confrontation is clear from the start. The play opens with the climactic moment of Virginia’s fifteenth birthday, but the celebrations are interrupted by an intruder, the Spanish slave-master Diego, who tries to enter Virginia’s cottage in search of a runaway slave, but is stopped by Dominique. This encounter rearticulates critical terms and arguments deployed in the debate on the slave trade. Cobb’s Dominique is the character Saint-Pierre identified as the slave Domingo (Paul and Virginia 7, 12; Paul et Virginie 106, 110). As the plot is moved to the West Indies his name is changed to Dominique, perhaps to avoid a too direct equation with Saint Domingo.[25] With the change of name comes emancipation, for the stage character Dominique is a free man. Memory of the character’s textual identity as a slave is rearticulated in the comic opera, where the term ‘slave’ is emphasized as an inappropriate appellation with which Dominique is addressed by the Spanish slave-master. As Dominique corrects Diego, he declares to be Virginia’s “servant… her friend; but I am no slave, for I have British blood in my veins.” Dominique’s mixed-race status rearticulates the colony within a creole imperial nation. In Cobb’s manuscript version, his account celebrates the open-mindedness of the English navy for being the son of an English sailor “who, being above vulgar prejudices, admired a Black Beauty” (7). In other words, the terminological distinction gives a transatlantic and international dimension to the discourse of slavery. Dominique’s miscegenated version of English liberty is further emphasised when the Spanish Diego suggests to his employer, the good English planter Tropick, that “you Englishmen do not understand how to deal with your slaves. Your own country affords no practice in that way” (Cobb 16). Tropick’s response recalls Sir William Blackstone’s legal judgement against domestic slavery: “A slave or a negro, the moment he lands in England, falls under the protection of the laws, and with regard to all natural rights becomes eo instanti a freeman” (123). According to Tropic: “it is the boast of Britons, that from the moment a slave imprints his footstep on our shore, the moment he breathes the air of our land, he becomes free” (Cobb 16). It is important to note, however, that in presenting this view in terms of an “absolute power over my slaves,” Tropick reasserts his right over them as his property and makes their freedom dependent on an act of free will of the owner rather than on positive law.

Tropick’s ameliorist policy and the familial and paternalist approach to slavery presented in Paul and Virginia are significantly offered to the British public as an antidote against mutiny, a very topical reference for the colonial governance of the West Indies. As a free mulatto questioned about a runaway slave, Dominique evokes an established stereotype, for free blacks and mulattoes were often accused of hiding runaways. However, such a potentially subversive commonplace is soon corrected by Dominique’s patriotic claims. In contrasting an ameliorist British model to a cruel Spanish approach to slavery, Cobb’s adaptation implicitly evokes the Black Legend, a negative example frequently used to condemn the Spanish treatment of slaves. Witness the suggestion that the Saint Domingo uprising fulfilled a providential retribution for the crimes committed by the Conquistadores rather than a response to the planters, published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1794 (qtd. in Geggus, “British Opinion” 129). However, such a long-period explanation had to be set against a specific 1790s West Indian scenario in which the rhetoric of English freedom and Spanish brutality must be read against an absent third, France. All three major powers were keen to secure the black and mixed race population to their side and used the promise of freedom to recruit black slaves in their armies.[26] On the ground of freedom and the rights of man, however, it was hard to beat the National Convention, which had freed all slaves in February 1794.[27] The move gave temporary advantage to the French, who regained the favour of black Jacobins and Toussaint Louverture, who had previously militated on the Spanish side in Spain’s war against France in 1793 (Geggus, “Volte-Face” 119-136). According to David Geggus, Toussaint’s change of sides could also have been motivated by rumours that the Spanish might restore slavery on their plantations. By the late 1790s years of attempts to gain the West Indian colonies from France and Spain had largely failed and Britain had instead entered a pact with Toussaint Louverture who pledged not to interfere with the British Colonies.[28]

This colonial theatre of war is crucial to the varied emotional impact of Paul and Virginia on the London stage. In a much anthologised aria, Virginia presents Tropick with the case of the runaway slave: “Ah! cou’d my fault’ring tongue impart / the tale of woe that pains my heart…”. Her singing touches the cords of sympathy and thus appeals to Tropick’s and the public’s ‘compassion,’ but also to their national pride: ‘The injur’d, ne’er in vain addrest, / in plaints of woe a Briton’s breast’ (Songs 8). In the opera the aria is followed by a few exchanges which act as a mise en abîme of the public. The spectators’ reactions are anticipated, mediated and shaped by the effect Virginia has on her audience on stage: Diego is ashamed and leaves; Tropick decides to support the runaway’s cause and glosses the situation as ‘the distress of a fellow creature’, thus sealing the first act (Cobb 22). While the aria moves the heart through effects of sympathy, such emotional bonding needs to be rearticulated at a more explicitly ideological level. The exchanges between Dominique and Diego and between Diego and Tropick enact a “theatre of governance.” Insofar as the good negro figure embodied by Dominique is a protector, servant and friend of the children Paul and Virginia, he offers a model of governance which can be contrasted to both the harsh regime of slavery embodied by the Spanish slave-master and the outright abolition of the slave trade in the West Indies. In the play (unlike Saint-Pierre’s text) the runaway slave turns out to be an orphan whose parents had died in the slave ship that brought them to the colony (Cobb 14). This narrative certainly has an immediate abolitionist appeal. However, in the economy of the play it participates in a critique of the extreme conditions of slavery not only on humanitarian but also on tactical grounds, for cruel treatment could be adduced as a cause of insurrection.[29] By contrast, the portrayal of Tropick as a good English planter who cares about his slaves points to an ameliorist model of governance.

Once disseminated through the theatrical circuit, Saint-Pierre’s text was perceived, performed through, and interspersed with, stock ingredients circulating on the stage. Chief among them were nautical motifs. Just how important they were may be judged by Cobb’s earlier play The Glorious First of June (1794 and 1797), which went so far as to transform the stage into a sea. As Gillian Russell observes, the theatre had a crucial role in identifying the roles of soldier and citizen, navy and nation (25, 60-64). In Paul and Virginia Cobb returned to this motif, taking the identification of the navy with the nation to a higher level in Tropick’s imperial identification with mankind itself: “mankind are brother sailors, thro’ the voyage of life. – ‘tis our duty to assist each other” (18). However, lest the audience should mistake this humanitarian statement for a transnational claim for human rights, the nautical motif is soon specified in patriotic terms as Tropick goes on to intone one of the most successful songs in the play: “Our country is our ship d’ye see, / a gallant vessel too…” (Songs 7). These transformations at the level of the plot undergo further changes in their performance on stage, where the transnational sympathy evoked by the novel takes the local features of local actors known for roles that reveal local or national rather than cosmopolitan attachments. For instance, the Spanish slave-master Diego “looks and acts the part of a stern, savage, unrelenting task-master,” but the ’savageness’ of the Spaniard is brought home in terms of a foreignness within the nation by Mr Emery, an actor famous for his dialect impersonation of northern characters (Dutton II: 136; III: 125). Of particular interest is the different treatment of creolization in the novel and in the opera. In Saint-Pierre’s text, Virginia “performed a pantomime with Paul in the manner of the negroes,” for pantomime is “so expressive, that the children of the European inhabitants catch it with facility from the negroes” (Paul and Virginia 64; Paul et Virginie 157). No trace of this type of creolization of Paul and Virginia is left in Cobb’s adaptation. Although black parts are played by white actors in black face, black and white parts are kept clearly distinct. The local flavour of negro dances and songs is devolved to the characters in black face and performed with ironical distance. Consider Dominique’s song: “When the moon shines o’er the deep, / Ackee-o Ackee-o… From their huts the negroes run, / full of frolic, full of fun, / Holiday to keep. / ‘Till morn they dance the merry round, / to the fife and cymbal…” (Songs 5). This “negro song” affords the actor Joseph Munden “a fair opportunity for drollery and grimace”(Dutton II: 136). Styled the “comic hero of Covent-Garden theatre,” Munden was famed for his use of “caricature, … calculated for the galleries” (Dutton III: 161). Sanction of the comic casting of black parts comes even from the Morning Chronicle, which praised “the incident of the runaway negroe” for placing “the characters of Paul and Virginia in that prepossessing point of view with which they are delineated in the story” and added that “the Planter’s humanity to the poor slave is an alteration grateful to the feeling.” Nonetheless, after this sentimental take on the slave theme, the newspaper goes on to argue that “the Piece is happily relieved by making Dominique a character of a comic cast, and excellently supported by the humour, spirit, and feeling of Munden” (Morning Chronicle 1800). Munden’s comic inflection undermines Dominique’s claim to be British, his gestures towards the navy, his attenuation of racial difference (“I was born in this island, and the sun gave a gentle tinge to my complexion to mark me as a favourite”) (Cobb 7). However, in the printed text of the play Dominique’s part is less comically stereotyped than in the manuscript version submitted to the Examiner of Plays John Larpent. In the manuscript when Paul asks him about Virginia’s history, Dominique is unable to focus on the conversation, captured by the rhythm of the tunes sung in celebration of Virginia’s birthday: “scene music is heard, which so distracts the attention of Dom. That he continually breaks off his story abruptly, beats tune to the music and almost dances” (Cobb ms 9: Cobb 7). No trace of Dominique’s rhythmic distraction is left in the printed text. Some of the stereotyping of Dominique’s bodily reactions to rhythm may have been expressed in Munden’s acting. On the other hand, to ridicule Dominique’s claim to Britishness would mean to undermine the ideological presentation of tropicopolitan subjects engaged in the renewal of a British colonial order. The racial stereotype appealed to the need for recognition, but it had to be compatible with a sense of shared values across racial divides if the theatre was to shape an imperial nation (O’Quinn 30).

Black face acting emphasizes the performativity of race. As Felicity Nussbaum argues in The Limits of the Human, “in becoming black, the white man exerts control over its effects”; the thrill of black masculinity can be foregrounded while “reassuring the viewer that the actor was actually a white beneath the make-up” (217). The fact that the black-faced Dominique harbours the famous actor Munden underlines the double performance of the black slave and of Munden, who calls attention to himself parodying his role as a black slave. The parodic element harks back to a tradition of comic parts for black-face slaves that stand alongside the tragic parts of Othello and Oroonoko. Beside the comic coding and parodic self-reflexivity of Munden’s black-face performance lives a further level of debasement in the impersonation of the runaway slave. In Saint-Pierre’s text, the runaway is “a negro woman almost wasted to a skeleton,” who “had no other garment than a shred of coarse cloth thrown across her loins” (Paul and Virginia 30; Paul et Virginie 124). By contrast, in the play she undergoes a sex change to become a proud brother who explains leaving the plantation on account of the need to find help to protect his sister who cannot endure the working conditions on the plantation. There are two reasons for this sex change. First, it may be that the emaciated and almost naked negro woman was too much for the London stage of the time. Such an image might have defied theatrical presentation, whereas it would have been more moving and less troubling if presented through her “brother”’s account. Yet a further sex change occurs from script to performance: the male runaway is played by a diminutive actress specialised in cross-dressing.[30] This specialty would have been quite prominent in those evenings when Paul and Virginia was preceded by Liberal Opinions, a play in which the same actress engaged in the opposite gender travesty by cross-dressing as a boy as a plot device to escape her house.[31] Another reason for this multiple sex change is that a diminutive actress domesticates the subversive potential of the runaway slave, with its threatening associations to maroon communities and insurrections. In the play, Alambra’s feminised size suggests an almost childlike helplessness and thus reassures the audience that Alambra’s “avenging hand” is unlikely to be very dangerous. As a reviewer pointed out, “we looked in vain for the manual strength which could fell to the ground so powerful an opponent as Emery” playing the part of Diego (Monthly Mirror 9: 366).[32] Visualised as small and feminised, Alambra inspires fondness and affection. Edmund Burke ascribed these qualities to the beautiful. In contrast to the sublime, “which … always dwells on great objects, and terrible,” the littleness associated with the beautiful can be explained in terms of self-preservation: “we submit to what we admire, but we love what submits to us” (I, 273). While denouncing the cruelties of Spanish power, Alambra’s smallness goes hand in hand with his docile behaviour with Paul and Virginia.

The perfomative domestication of the runaway motif may well explain another difference between novel and stage adaptation. In Saint-Pierre’s story Paul and Virginia’s intercession is counterproductive. Rather than obtaining more humane working conditions, the slave is subjected to harsh punishment: her “feet are chained to a block of wood, and an iron collar with three hooks fastened round her neck” (Paul and Virginia 40; Paul et Virginie 136). The sentimental powerlessness of Virginie in the runaway episode as encountered in Saint-Pierre’s pages is mirrored in the tragic ending in which she drowns rather than taking off her clothes (Paul and Virginia 147-8; Paul et Virginie 251-2). As Carolyn Vellenga Berman argues, nakedness would have identified Virginie not only with the scarcely-clad runaway, but also with the slaves on sale in their nakedness for ease of inspection. Clothing, on the other hand, stands for the fated choice of death rather than loss of self-sufficiency (75). Both negative turns are erased from the stage adaptation. In the shipwreck scene, what was a racially undefined Herculean figure entreating to help Virginie in the novel is identified as the freed slave Alambra in the comic opera. Insofar as Alambra succeeds in saving Virginia from drowning and therefore is instrumental to her reunion with Paul, the West-Indian theatrical ending heals the separation between colony and metropolis that seals the fate of the Mauritian narrative. By contrast, the averted tragic ending marks an alternative model of colonial power for the two young creoles in the comic opera. Rather than white self-sufficiency, the comedic ending celebrates the creole continuity between European descendants, mulattoes, free coloreds and slaves.[33]

Such performances of race and international encounter help rethink presence and absence as defining modes of sympathy and sentimental communities. In this essay I have explored what transformations were necessary for Saint-Pierre’s pastoral utopia to appeal to a locally specific theatrical community. On the one hand, theatrical embodiments hamper the transnational identification inherent in tropicopolitan stories read at a distance. The stage confirms Adam Smith’s suggestion that local attachments are crucial components of the dynamic of sympathy. If the process of identification requires an attenuation of difference, by remediating the black body through the body of black-faced white actors the performance realigns the structure of sympathy to the attachments of a body politic defined in local and national terms. On the other hand, Cobb’s adaptation reconfigures Saint-Pierre’s imagined community to serve a different model of colonial governance. Rather than “transnational” or “cosmopolitan,” the stage adaptation turns the story of Paul et Virginie into a script for encounters “between peoples” in the sense of the neologism “international”, which Jeremy Bentham coined out of a dissatisfaction with the former term “ius gentium” or “law of nations” (cccxxiv).[34] Dissatisfaction with the “law of nations” led Kant to posit a different alternative: “civic alliance” and a “society of nations” that would build on a cosmopolitan public sphere.[35] “Weltbürgerrecht,” Kant’s term for ‘cosmopolitan right,’[36] retains the sense of citizens of the world coming together in a universal community. While Saint-Pierre’s novel could appeal to such a cosmopolitan readership beyond and even against national distinctions, in the space of the London theatre the public was identified by local and national bonds of presence. Accordingly, the theatrical adaptation rearticulates the story as an international encounter between nations in Bentham’s sense, rather than as a cosmopolitan public in the Kantian sense. However, this international encounter reconfigures the boundaries of the nation. While the Spaniard is represented by the internal wilderness of the northerner, the metropolitan audience is encouraged to participate in the imagined community of creole nationhood within the empire. The colony of Virginia may well be lost, but the creole Virginie can prove a strategic asset when reimagined as a creole Virginia of Spanish descent transplanted to the West Indies to mark an alternative model of British power in the form of a creole nation.