Sociopolitical Consequences of Tragedy
Drury Lane Theater is an enduring, far-reaching public sphere because many political decisions and social movements of the eighteenth century that take place in England and abroad reflect the issues presented in tragic plays.
Whig and Tory Politics
After the death of Queen Anne in 1714, the Whigs replace the Tories as the majority party in Parliament. Tragedy authors take advantage of shifting powers to pursue personal gain or promote party politics. Early in his life, Southerne identifies with the Tories. His first play (written in 1682) gains him a commission in the army, yet we see that in 1704 Southerne seeks the approval of the Whig party (Leech). In fact, Oroonoko is dedicated to William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire, a Whig statesman. Several of Rowe’s tragedies serve as overt Whig propaganda such as: The Ambitious Stepmother (1700), Ulysses (1705), and The Royal Convert (1707), and especially Tamerlane (1701) which “provided a formidable missive in the campaign to promote Britain’s intervention on the Continent in the War of the Spanish Succession, and the Whigs adopted it as a party piece.” (Kewes; 284).
Southerne’s Oroonoko is used in 1788 by John Ferriar who “adapted it as an anti-slave play with the title The Prince of Angola...” (Loftis; xx). The timing of this is important as the slave narrative Olaudah Equiano is published in 1789. The Slave Trade Act passes in 1807 and the influence of Oroonoko is its ability to contribute its voice to the questions and moral dilemmas of the day. One such debate that occurs revolves around the nature of the black man which this play makes a statement about: Oroonoko is distinguished as being the “noble Negro,” an archetype which distinguished between blacks. A footnote in act one says that “Oroonoko’s iambic pentamenter is a dramatic device, the sign of the heroic perosnage. As the noble protagonist of this drama, he not only speaks exclusively in heroic verse, but inspires those around him to a like pattern” (Loftis; 30). Thus, Southerne takes great pains to distinguish Oroonoko from the rest of the slaves to the white audience.
Ideas about the state and treatment of women also occur during the time of Southerne and Oroonoko’s early performances. Loftis notes that “Protests against the subordination of women were hardly rare in the 1690s” and “an informed awareness of the condition of women existed even before 1688” (Loftis; xxiv). There is a clear parallel in the play to this issue for “Charlotte has to remind Captain Driver that women are not quite on the level of slaves, to be bought and sold - at least not to be bought and sold ‘in public’ “ (Loftis; xxiv). Loftis points out that women are subject to sexual exchange in prostitution and marriage and this is done behind doors.
In the decades leading up to the American Revolution (1750’s and 1760’s), the highly prominent Hallam company popularized Cato with performances in Charleston and New York and is even performed on the frontline during the 1777-8 winter at Valley Forge (Litto). Cato symbolizes the fight to protect civil liberties from Britain, a colonial dictator. It inspires revolutionary soldiers and leaders such as Patrick Henry who ends a revolutionary assembly in 1775 with these lines: “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” (Litto; 444-5) A comparison with Cato’s lines in scene four of act two emphasizes that the tragic play remains enduringly impressionable.
Like a commodity, The Fair Penitent made its way to British colonies in order to admonish against the rise of new sexual practices. The tragedy is first performed in Calcutta in 1786 in order to benefit the Bengal Orphan Society which benefits abandoned mixed-race children and their mothers (Wilson;241). However, in an effort to prevent the adulteration of the English race, the East India Company declares a series of edicts from 1798-1816 that eliminates those benefits (Wilson;241). In 1785, The Fair Penitent is put on in New South Wales, a convict colony of scarce women, in the futile hopes that companionate marriage replaces rampant rape, same-sex relationships, and the auctioning off of women (Wilson;243-7). The last lines of the play contain the moral that is used to promote ideals about English social relationships.
Leech, Clifford. "The Political "Disloyalty" of Thomas Southerne." The Modern Language Review 28 (1933): 421-30. JSTOR. JSTOR. Web. 11 Nov. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3716330>.
Litto, Frederic M. “Addison’s Cato in the Colonies” The William and Mary Quarterly 23.3 (1966). Print.
Loftis, John, Southerne, Thomas, Maximillian E. Novak, and David Stuart. Rodes. Oroonoko. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1976. Print.
Wilson, Kathleen. “Rowe’s Fair Penitent as Global History: Or, A Diversionary Voyage to New South Wales.” Eighteenth Century Studies 41.2 (2008): 231-251. Print.
"Oroonoko." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia. Web. 20 Nov. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oroonoko>.