Sir William Davenant's American Operas

By Frohock, Richard | The Modern Language Review, April 2001 | Go to article overview
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Sir William Davenant's American Operas


Frohock, Richard, The Modern Language Review


As early as 1656, when he argued the virtues of public entertainment to John Thurloe, Cromwell's Secretary of State, Sir William Davenant attended to the dramatic and propagandistic possibilities that America offered to the London stage:

If morale representations may be allowed [...] the first Arguments may consist of the Spaniards' barbarous conquests in the West Indies and of their severall cruelties there exercised upon the subjects of this nation: of which some use may be made. (1)

Near the end of the Puritan Interregnum, Davenant followed through on his proposition, writing and producing two operas set in America: The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru (1658) and The History of Sir Francis Drake (1659). He later recycled both pieces as acts in The Play-house to be Let (1663).

Davenant's operas were written and produced at a critical juncture in England's colonial history: Oliver Cromwell's Western Design, an imperial initiative to seize Hispaniola in the Caribbean, had recently failed, and the reasons for its failure were being publicly debated in 1656 and 1657. (2) Among the most prominent texts to appear in support of Cromwell's foreign policy was John Phillips's The Tears of the Indians (1656), a translation of Las Casa's Brevissima relacion de la destruycion de las Indias (1552). Phillips, John Milton's nephew, prefaced his translation with a dedication to Cromwell and an address to Englishmen in which he praises Cromwell's endeavours and calls for support for future actions against the Spanish in the New World.

Phillips's Tears of the Indians is often cited as one of Davenant's sources. Views on the relationship of Davenant's work to Cromwell's foreign policy, however, are divided. As early as 1662, Henry Herbert, the Caroline Master of the Revels, claimed that Davenant's operas were intended to propagandize for Cromwell's initiatives:

Sir William Davenant [...] wrote the First and Second Parte of Peru [sic], acted at the Cockpitt, in Olivers tyme, and soly in his favour; wherein hee sett of the justice of Olivers actinges, by comparison with the Spaniards, and endeavoured thereby to make Olivers crueltyes appeare mercyes, in respect of the Spanish crueltyes; but the mercyes of the wicked are cruell. (3)

More recently, Susan J. Wiseman, although she does not specifically address the Western Design, finds that Davenant's Interregnum operas 'can, at points, be linked fairly closely to Cromwell's foreign policies of the later 1650s'. (4) Furthermore, the 'colonialist representations of both The Cruelty of the Spaniards and Francis Drake [...] call up memories of a heroic Protestant past and avoid issues of contemporary domestic import' (p. 198). This apparent displacement of political controversy leads Wiseman to conclude: 'Roman Catholic Spaniards are defined against good Protestant English but no question is raised about whether the good Protestants are monarchic or republican Protestants' (p. 197). For her, 'the discourses of colonial conquest engulf the pressing questions of nationhood'.

Janet Clare reads the ideological import of Davenant's Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru quite differently. Rather than finding an echo of Cromwellian policy, Clare argues that Davenant's Cruelty of the Spaniards is 'ideologically and aesthetically distanced from Cromwell's colonial enterprises' primarily because it eschews the overt providentialism that characterizes the Puritan apologetic. (5) Thus, Clare concludes, Davenant's Cruelty of the Spaniards must have had a mainly nostalgic message for the temporizing royalists in the audience: 'To those who tolerated the Commonwealth in the hope of a royalist restoration, the appeal of Davenant's masque would have resided not in the futuristic vision of English colonial domination but in its representation of the modus vivendi of a pre-Civil War people.' (6) For Clare, questions of nationhood, most specifically interpretations of recent national history, engulf and make irrelevant the issue of colonial conquest.

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