"This Life Is a Stage": Performing the South in William Wells Brown's Clotel or, the President's Daughter1

By Schell, Jennifer | Southern Quarterly, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

"This Life Is a Stage": Performing the South in William Wells Brown's Clotel or, the President's Daughter1


Schell, Jennifer, Southern Quarterly


Towards the end of William Wells Brown's novel, Clotelle; or The Colored Heroine (1867), the narrator makes the rather Shakespearean comment that "This life is a stage, and we are indeed all actors."2 Thus, concludes the portion of the novel in which, Clotelle, a beautiful, young biracial woman escapes from slavery, marries a dashing French military officer, and travels with him to India as his much adored and admired wife. This remark nicely describes the way in which Clotelle plays different social roles depending on her social standing, but I think it also has significant bearing upon many of William Wells Brown's other works, including his first and more well-known version of Clotelle, entitled Clotel or, The President's Daughter (1853). In fact, I would suggest that this theatrical metaphor provides the key to understanding why the first edition of Clotel contains so much prose borrowed directly from other authors, so much historical errata, and so much chronological inconsistency. Simply put, the southern United States was the stage for Brown's dramatic representation of the incredible hardships of African American life. As such, Brown performs the South - its landscapes, its demography, its histories, its laws, its people - for his audiences. With a keen awareness of who was reading his novels, Brown strategically represents different versions of the South and its history in each version of his Clotel novels. Ultimately, what matters more to Brown than verisimilitude is conveying the evils of slavery, the humanity of African Americans, and the need for unity among all men. It is his various performances of the South that drive home his scathing critiques of antebellum life in America.

Interestingly enough, much recent William Wells Brown scholarship has emphasized the performative aspects of his writing in reference to his characters, namely his claim that "we are indeed all actors."3 This approach is not all that surprising given that Brown wrote several abolitionist plays - including the unpublished "Experience; or, How to Give the Northern Man a Backbone" (1856) and The Escape; or A Leap for Freedom (1858) - which he single-handedly performed for northeastern abolitionist audiences.4 In his introduction to The Escape (2001), John Ernest suggests that one of the reasons that Brown turned to play writing was because "the dramatic mode enabled Brown to emphasize the cultural forces behind the conventions, and to emphasize as well the extent to which identity is itself a performance on the cultural stage."5 While this is, indeed, an insightful reading of Brown's plays, Brown's interest in the performative was not limited to his dramatic productions. In his book, The Genuine Article: Race, Mass Culture, and American Literary Manhood (2001), Paul Gilmore argues that in Clotel, Brown "foregrounds the performative nature of race and gender in both abolitionism and minstrelsy, thus creating a space from which to articulate a black male literary voice."6 Thus, Gilmore lays the groundwork for a reading of Clotel that hinges on understanding it as a kind of dramatic production which performs various facets of African American and masculine identity. What is especially important to note about both Ernest and Gilmore's readings of The Escape and Clotel is their emphasis on the subversive potential of Brown's performances of racialized, gendered, and class-based identities. In claims similar to those Judith Butler makes in Gender Trouble (1999), both Ernest and Gilmore argue that Brown's characters undermine the idea that identity is fixed and stable because they are consummate actors and changelings, capable of assuming a variety of complex, culturallyscripted identities. Drawing on both Ernest and Gilmore's scholarship, I would suggest that Brown's stage - in this case, the South - is just as constructed, performed, and subversive as the identities his characters assume. To elaborate, Brown's various performances of southern life and history serve to undermine the stability of the South's regional identity; this gives Brown a place from which both he and his characters can protest against the hypocrisy of a nation that promises freedom to all men but tolerates the enslavement of African Americans. …

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