Academic journal article Comparative Drama

"Look on This Picture, and on This": Framing Shakespeare in William Wells Brown's the Escape

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

"Look on This Picture, and on This": Framing Shakespeare in William Wells Brown's the Escape

Article excerpt

"With me, socially, politically, morally, character is everything--color, nothing. The negro is no less a man, because he is black; the Anglo-American is no more a man, because he is white."

--Senator Francis Gillette of Connecticut, in a speech at the Senate, 23 February 1855

In his 1854 travel sketch The American Fugitive in Europe, William Wells Brown recounts his many excursions to the Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition while in London. In his wonder at this "great international gathering," Brown states, "It is strange, indeed, to see so many nations assembled and represented on one spot of British ground. In short, it is one great theatre, with thousands of performers, each playing his own part." (1) This gathering undoubtedly occupied Brown's thoughts when he returned to the United States. In 1856, Brown began to read his first drama to New England audiences, entitled Experience; or, How to Give a Northern Man a Backbone, and in 1857, he began to read to various antislavery audiences what would become the first published drama by an African American, The Escape; or A Leap for Freedom. (2) Not coincidently, after returning from five years in Europe, where, according to William Edward Farrison, Brown had read and seen a considerable amount of drama, including many Shakespearean plays, (3) and with the vision of the theater and performers he witnessed at the Crystal Palace firmly in his mind, Brown came to write, perform, and publish a dramatic work. An engaging antislavery orator and lecturer, and writer of the first novel by an African American (Clotel, 1853), Brown returned to the United States knowing, as did Shakespeare's Hamlet, "The play's the thing."

In fact, William Wells Brown included a potent quotation from Hamlet--"Look on this picture, and on this"--as an epigraph on the title page of The Escape, published in June, 1858. (4) Brown filled a cultural niche in producing an original drama, and Shakespeare and the dramatic genre served as powerful vehicles through which Brown could contribute to the advancement of African-American literary activism. Brown's play emerged from within two Shakespearean traditions, one of white cultural appropriation and the other of black cultural appropriation. He engaged and contested the burlesque, parody, and minstrelsy of the white stage and used Shakespeare in ways similar to those of his black predecessors both onstage in its various forms and in print. Brown tapped into the notions of moral and social elevation and utility adopted by black writers before him who protested slavery through such forms as speeches, lectures, debates, newspaper pieces, travel accounts, autobiographies, and slave narratives. Brown performed against the institution of slavery by staging a drama of protest, displaying his oppositional politics through performance of both black and white in the great antislavery theater of the North. (5) And, with Brown's appropriation of drama as his form of resistance, Shakespeare's specter inevitably lurks. (6)

I. Antebellum Shakespearean Specters

The performance and publication of The Escape are situated within the growing cultural tumult of the 1850s. In May of 1854, three months before Brown returned from his five years in Europe, Congress approved the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which legalized white voting residents to determine whether to admit their territory as a slave or free state; racial violence escalated as a result. In 1857, while Brown was publicly performing both Experience and The Escape, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sanford that African Americans could not become U.S. citizens and in turn had no constitutional rights. A year following the publication of The Escape, John Brown led a failed raid on the federal armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. The Escape, then, was written, performed, and published amid these national battles regarding the institution of slavery. For William Wells Brown, drama becomes a national genre of resistance and opposition that he hoped to offer as a supplement to the forms of protest that dominated the cultural landscape. …

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