Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Balloon and Seraglio: Burkean Anti-Imperialism in Elizabeth Inchbald's the Mogul Tale

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Balloon and Seraglio: Burkean Anti-Imperialism in Elizabeth Inchbald's the Mogul Tale

Article excerpt

The ballooning craze began with a rivalry between two French teams, and even before the Montgolfier brothers had successfully launched their first unfettered passenger flight from the palace grounds in the Bois de Boulogne on November 21st, 1783, the frenzy had spread to London's theatres.1 Drury Lane's playbill for November 8th advertised an air balloon as part of its after piece Fortunatus (1753), and two days later, Covent Garden staged a farce by John O'Keefe entitled Lord Mayor's Day; or, a Flight from Lapland in an Air Balloon (1782). After both patent theatres had featured balloons in their February productions, Covent Garden quickly reconsidered, explaining that "the Real Air Balloon having been found, in the confined Air of a Theatre, to be not only very offensive, but in a Degree dangerous, it cannot be again exhibited" (Hogan 678). When George Colman the Elder produced The Peasant Metamorphos 'd; or, Delpini's Voyage from Dublin in an Air Balloon ( 1784) that spring, the title balloon was a mere pretext for the singer's performance in several languages. By July, however, the Haymarket Theatre manager was promising more- "new Scenery, Machinery and other Decorations"-for the debut of Elizabeth Inchbald's The Mogul Tale; or, the Descent of the Balloon (700). Because of the danger associated with inflating real balloons indoors, the new machinery advertised for the farce was probably only a fly machine with a balloon flat attached to the front.2 Even so, the combination of serious contemporaneous concern over the East India Company and public fascination with the new technology made the accidental landing of a British balloon in one of the more fraught reaches of the British Empire an exceptionally timely spectacle.3 Mogul was performed ten times during the 1784 summer season, an excellent run given its late debut on July 6th.4 In the vexed political climate associated with the Warren Hastings affair and the failure of the Fox/North coalition government, theatre managers were bypassing even the predictable choices, such as long-established "India" main pieces by Samuel Foote and Richard Cumberland that might have elicited unfavorable responses from theatre spectators.5 Nonetheless, once it had been vetted-formally, by the Lord Chamberlain's office, and, informally, by its London audiences-Mogul enjoyed sustained success during the impeachment and trial of Hastings, and in the ensuing period that one historian has fittingly described as an "extended crisis of imperial nerve in Britain" (Travers 5). Colman could not have imagined that the script he had acquired for one hundred guineas and commended as "droll, as well as temporary" would be performed every season excepting only one throughout the remainder of the century, for a total of 57 performances (qtd. in Boaden 1: 186).6

If crash landing a British balloon into the gardens of the Great Mogul's seraglio was an inspired diversionary tactic on Inch-bald's part, the compressed plot launched by that spectacle masked its politics with equally brilliant comedy. The hilarity that ensues as three British balloonists discover that they have violated the boundaries of the seraglio would have ensured a sympathetic response from Haymarket audiences, whatever their political affiliations. Initially at least, the play's evocation of common "Indian" stereotypes -the seraglio, eunuchs, and a despotic mogul-must have placated those with vested interests in the East India Company.

The first of many challenges Mogul issued to British nationalism began with the appearance of its title character.7 Several steps ahead of the balloonists whom he has been secretly observing and not at all baffled by their air craft, Inchbald's Mogul proposes to take advantage of their accidental landing by exacerbating the fears of the "Europeans" and studying their reactions. His experiment is set in motion when the head eunuch warns the unwilling guests that their only hope of escaping the cruel Mogul is to bluff-to deceive his master with false identities. …

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