Empire on the English Stage 1660-1714

By Iwanisziw, Susan B. | Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Empire on the English Stage 1660-1714


Iwanisziw, Susan B., Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research


Orr, Bridget. Empire on the English Stage 1660-1714. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 350 pages. ISBN 0521773504. $60.00.

This book is a must-read for all scholars and students of Restoration and 18thcentury drama. With a sure grasp of the semiotic multiplicity of dramatic literature and its performance, Bridget Orr addresses the conflicted ideology of empire encoded in English drama from 1660 to 1714 as a supplement to existing criticism that explicates the local political analogies long recognized in these plays. In her identification and categorization of this dramatic corpus-the catalog of canonical and non-canonical plays in and of itself an impressive display of scholarship-she cultivates the ground for further refinement and development. At first glance, the title implies a study of the performance of English empire. However, few plays from this period deal directly with England's own colonial project so that, like the political valence, the colonial valence generally constitutes a discourse of philosophical and moral parallelism rather than direct reflection of historical action.

Drawing on an imposing array of poetry, primary and secondary histories, and contemporaneous and modern literary criticism, Orr sets the discursive parameters by which we might best interpret these plays, heroic tragedy in particular. While she notes the ideological transformation of the Renaissance emphasis on "similitude" to the postRestoration emphasis on "irreducible difference," she foregoes insistence on an epistemic shift since Renaissance themes in masque, pageantry and drama were co-opted to represent trade and empire-building as enterprises subject to public criticism as well as celebration. From a stance premised on the historical ambiguities embedded in the record of intercultural contact, she reviews England's 17th-century interest in colonial trade and imperial acquisition to demonstrate the gradual and highly ambivalent accommodation of imperial ideology and slave-based economics. Arguing that the variation in and scope of England's dramatic representations of colonialism and empire at this time attest to the centrality of this process of accommodation, she sets before us a vast range of plays invested in whole or part with colonial themes, all of which originated in or were adapted during the Commonwealth era and afterwards when New World exploitation began in earnest. Her meticulous but always compelling evaluation of dramatic and historical texts as well as her evenhanded approach to notions of racial bias, cultural chauvinism, and differential power does full justice to this ambitious project.

The plays she brings to bear vary generically, temporally, historically, and thematically. They range from heroic tragedy to comedy, from the decayed imperial empires of Rome and Persia to the subsiding empire of Spain, to the still flourishing empire of Ottoman Turkey, to the embryonic empire of England and the ambitious empire of France. Neither then nor now do these examples indicate a universal sense of English cultural superiority, and Orr necessarily refrains from attempting a definitive ideology of English imperialism at the time of its inception and expansion, choosing instead to document the obsessive anxiety attendant upon its development. Indeed, if we might occasionally dispute individual readings and limited acknowledgment of dramatic cross-fertilization, her structural form, historical pertinacity and vigorous critique constitute a firm ground for trenchant refinements to and complications of our often oversimplified notions of the interrelation of global history and its dramatic representation.

Understanding the Restoration theatre as "an instrument of empire," Orr organizes the plays under particular rubrics that illuminate the complexities of imperial power, national identity, and European oppression as these topics appeared to playwrights following the Restoration. …

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