Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Teague and the Ethnicization of Labor in Early Modern British Culture

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Teague and the Ethnicization of Labor in Early Modern British Culture

Article excerpt

It has become a scholarly commonplace to assert that English representations of the Irish became more benign over the course of the eighteenth century, and it has also become usual to read this amelioration as an effect of political changes and Enlightenment modes of thinking. Thus, for example, David Hayton links the evolution of a more positive and sentimentalized Irish stereotype in the drama in the 1660-1750 period to "the lowering of the politico-military profile of the native Irish" and the "refinement in English Protestant attitudes towards Catholicism," and J. O. Bartley connects the more sympathetic treatment of the "Stage Irishman" in the second half of the eighteenth century to the diminishment of the Irish "threat" and to England's "growing humanitarianism." (1) In this article, however, I will suggest that the needs of British labor were a more important impetus for the changes in the dramatic representation of the Irish in the eighteenth century, and I will suggest that the sentimentalism that inflected the Stage Irishman figure at this time is better read as an early instance of how liberal societies legitimate the labor exploitation of groups that are perceived to be racially different--an exploitation process that Rey Chow terms "the ethnicization of labor." (2)

At the broadest level, it could be said that sentimentalism emerged in eighteenth-century British culture as a way of resolving an ideological problem for the property-owning class that came to power in the wake of the Glorious Revolution, a problem created by the increasingly obvious disjuncture between this class's self-legitimating rhetoric and the material reality of so many of its subjects. This class asserted its right to rule on the basis of its superior morality and civility, but this virtue and civility was always in danger of being undermined by the ever-more visible evidence of the human cost of this class's own economic success? Sentimentalism emerged, then, to manage this problem. As Ann Jessie Van Sant has demonstrated, public philanthropic institutions, which were a product and generator of sentimental discourse, served to deal with this threat in one way by taking the poor off the streets and by rendering them invisible as a social class, and the sentimental novel managed it in another way by aestheticizing and individualizing the suffering of those who were the casualties of the developing market economy. (4) It is evident from George Lillo's The London Merchant (1731), a play that sentimentalizes the corporal punishment of an apprentice, that there was also a labor dimension to such aestheticizations, and this labor focus was not restricted to the work force at home. (5) By representing the British imperial subject as a "man of feeling" and the colonized subject as his grateful and happy servant--as Daniel Defoe does, for example, with the Robinson Crusoe-Friday relationship, or as John Stedman does with his relationship with the slave Joanna--the sentimental colonial text also sanitized forced labor in the colonies. As Mary Louise Pratt puts it, it "mystified exploitation out of the picture." (6)

The amelioration of the Irish stereotype in British drama takes its meaning from this kind of history; indeed, as I will suggest through an analysis of Sir Robert Howard's comedy, The Committee, the management of the Irish-English relationship on the London stage created the paradigm for managing these troubling others and, more specifically, for managing the problem of labor exploitation at home and abroad. The Committee first appeared on the London stage around 1662, and its purpose in its own day undoubtedly was to legitimate the recently restored aristocratic order. The play, which is set during the time of the Civil War, tracks two cavalier colonels and their royalist female accomplices as they struggle to free their estates and (in the case of the women) their persons from the control of the Puritans. As is typical in royalist productions, the cavalier characters are given a monopoly of the play's wit, virtue, and daring, so that when they eventually triumph over their Puritan opponents, their victory (and by extension the restoration of the monarchy) seems appropriate and natural. …

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