Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Sexuality and Consumer Culture in Eighteenth Century England: 'Mutual Love from Pole to Pole' in the London Merchant1

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Sexuality and Consumer Culture in Eighteenth Century England: 'Mutual Love from Pole to Pole' in the London Merchant1

Article excerpt

The fifth act of George Lillo's 1731 play, The London Merchant, includes a remarkable reconciliation scene between two central male characters, a demonstration of affection which - with no equal at any other point in the play, and by taking place within a prison - deserves attention, as a way to reconsider both the relationship between the participants, and through them, the play as a whole. For when Trueman visits Barnwell in prison, after Barnwell's arrest for murdering his uncle, Barnwell responds, in part, by "throwing himself on the ground" (V.v.32). After reassuring Barnwell that "Thy miseries cannot lay thee so low, but Love will find thee" (V.v.34-35), Trueman asks Barnwell to "Come to my arms" (V.v.28). Barnwell, understanding that Trueman has "propose[d] an Intercourse of Woe" (V.v.40), rises, embraces Trueman, and asks that he "take, take some of the joy that overflows my breast!" (V. v. 45-46), to which Trueman exclaims "I do, I do" (V.v.47). Although, on one level, of course, this scene represents Barnwell's partial reintegration into a male-dominated, mercantile world, through which "Lillo's work enhances the notion of business as homosocial network,"2 as Elizabeth Kowaleski -Wallace puts it, it is also possible that there is more particularly what might today be considered a homosexual implication. With their "mutual groans" (V.v.42), their "sighs" (V.v.43), and their "mingling tears" (V.V.44), the scene becomes more than a reconciliation; with words like "propose," "exchange," "I do," and "intercourse," it seems to self-consciously approximate something akin to a wedding. Because, as Alan Sinfield writes, "early-modern Britons drew the boundaries of sexualities in different places from those where we draw them,"3 it is of course possible that there is not a sexual implication to this scene. So, rather than, in Sinfield's terms, "hunt the queer,"4 and given the fact that Barnwell can never fully reconcile himself to whatever emotions he feels for either Trueman or a female prostitute Millwood, I am interested in what that tension over sexual orientation might mean for the play. Lee Edelman claims that "the signifier 'gay' comes to name the unknowability that is sexuality as such,"5 that "'gay' designates the gap or incoherence that every discourse of 'sexuality' or 'sexual identity' would muster."6 As we shall see, Barnwell's desire exceeds categorical difference or organization. Although that may not be enough to make Barnwell "gay," even according to Edelman's definition, the presumptive polysexuality of his desire does raise the question of what, in the early modern period, began to indicate sexual orientation.

It has become commonplace that Lillo's The London Merchant was one of the first plays "to have analyzed the moral outlook and social psychology of the bourgeois merchant,"7 albeit as a tragedy. On the one hand, the story of The London Merchant "boast[s] a straight-forward, sexist didactic message: Passion is dangerous, because one moment of sexual license suffices to transform a virtuous man into a criminal."8 Although this point may have some connection to the bourgeois merchant, it is probably not an exclusively bourgeois claim. More important within the study of the eighteenth century has been the fact that, on the other hand, the play contains what would become constituent elements of sentimentalism and affective individualism; it "concurrently advocates indulgent treatment of children, voluntary choice in marriage, wedded love, the intermarriage of merchant and aristocratic families, [and] the appropriateness of bourgeois merit at court," according to Laura Brown's summary.9 Thus is The London Merchant generally treated as one of the earliest morality plays for an emerging social and economic consensus.

I agree that those implications are part of what makes it such an important work, but believe that it is with attention to some of the seeming ambiguities in the sexual orientation of the play's lead male character that one can see how the play makes an argument about the relationship between merchandising and identity. …

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