A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 4 - Summer 2012

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ISSN 2045-1024


Nineteenth-Century Theatre and the Imperial Encounter reviewed by Heather Marcovitch

In an often engaging survey of some critically-neglected theatrical works, Marty Gould’s Nineteenth-Century Theatre and the Imperial Encounter (Routledge, 2011) argues for a revaluation of Victorian theatre as the most cogent and immediate reflection of popular sentiment towards various imperial concerns, most notably the Indian Mutiny, but also the Australian Gold Rush and British reactions to imperial enterprises. Gould traces the development of imperialist-based theatre not so much chronologically as by specific imperial encounters in India, Australia and South Africa, and at home.

Gould begins with a lengthy discussion of the Robinsonade, the series of nineteenth-century plays loosely based on Robinson Crusoe. The plays that Gould cites over several chapters, and here one can see his impressive archival research, use Defoe’s novel in various ways to provide a critique of imperialism (William Thomas Moncrieff’s The Cataract of the Ganges is a main example). He argues throughout several chapters that the Robinsonade, which in this book either takes the form of a character’s devotion to the novel---Wilkie Collins’ Gabriel Betteredge is his notable example, although the dramatic adaptations of The Moonstone are not included in the book---or echoes more broadly the castaway trope. Gould’s discussion of the plays’ relationship to the novel and the ways in which they comment on the different iterations of nineteenth-century imperialism is compelling and makes a strong case for turning to the popular theatre as a resource of Victorian imperialist texts.

The section, however, is marred by some facile argumentation when it comes to reading the plays closely. Gould makes two claims in this section, both of which seem to disengage from the texts. He argues that the plays are involved in a dialectic with the presumed authority of the novel and that within the Robinsonade one finds a narrative of spectacular performance overcoming the supremacy of the written word. “Unlike the static fixity of text,” he writes, “the drama is dynamic and evolving. Though it is inspired by its fictional antecedent, the play is not bound by it” (41). This seems to be a simplification of adaptation theories and, as such, imposes a static-dynamic binary on novels and plays that the history of both genres challenge.  In analyzing the individual plays, Gould also has a tendency to resort to more well-invoked binaries of containment and exclusion, or of normativity and deviance. Sometimes the argument more or less ends when Gould points the reader to these binaries, and what is lost in this move are the nuances that can render each text a specific iteration of these dialectic relationships. For instance, in discussing J.M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton, to which he devotes a full chapter, Gould writes, “Barrie’s play uses this movement as a means of destabilizing---even deconstructing---normative metropolitan identities such as gender and class” (74). It is a confusing point in that these purported normative metropolitan identities are never qualified (are gender and class even “metropolitan identities,” much less unqualified normative ones?), yet they seem to govern the reading of Barrie’s play as well as quite a few others in the book.         

There are some moments in the book where the argument is genuinely persuasive, and interestingly these moments sometimes lie outside of the main arguments. His section on the character of the Anglo-Indian nabob and his development into a dramatic antagonist to the heroic gold rush entrepreneurs or fortune seekers in Australian Gold Rush plays has stronger analysis and fresher arguments. His portrayal of the cultural slippage of the nabob between East and West is engaging and thoroughly interesting is his discussion of real-life nabob Warren Hastings’ trial and the negative characterization and dramatic analogies used by journalistic reports. The nabob as cultural hybrid becomes a compelling figure whose various representations are found in different genres into the early twentieth century. His Coda to the Australian Gold Rush chapter where he speculates on why the gold rush in South Africa received comparatively little dramatic attention brings up some interesting questions about the distorting lens of popular culture and its selective depictions of its own present.

Gould’s section on masculinity in the Indian Mutiny plays also has an interesting summary of the Drapery Question and the stigmatization of male shopkeepers as being unpatriotic and, by extension, as falling short of the masculine ideal. Some of the arguments do seem a little forced, though, particularly the discussion of heroines embodying masculine ideals. There doesn’t seem to be enough focus on how and why this heroic masculinity gets displaced onto these female figures. There also tends to be the same conclusion repeated with each one of these plays---that gender norms get challenged and then reinscribed. Despite this conventional conclusion, one cannot help but wonder if there might have been more to the plays’ destabilization of gender norms, like the evocation of Shakespearean comedy as an intertextual reference, or whether masculine qualities become disrupted or recast across genders when the heroic body is replaced with a female one. His final section on the Highland Soldier tries to make a case for the Scottish characters in plays, such as the different representations of Highland Jessie Brown, as existing in a tense relationship with their English compatriots. Gould invokes Scottish history to make this argument rather than closely reading the plays, so it’s hard to gauge these characters, especially when these plays also include Indian characters providing commentary on the Mutiny.

This is a book where at times the general argument serves the reader better than the individual readings of the plays. But there are some intriguing perspectives on Victorian theatre, the culture of imperialism, and the relationship between home and abroad.  All in all, despite some of the quibbles over the individual readings, Gould has given us a book that invites further critical inquiry and broadens the field of nineteenth-century textual scholarship.