Staging the Other in Nineteenth-Century British Drama

by Tiziana Morosetti (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection VIII, 272 Pages


The body of the «Other» – exotic, unfamiliar, fascinating – is the topic of this collection of essays on nineteenth-century British theatre. Arranged chronologically, the volume traces visual representations of the Other across the nineteenth century as well as their legacy in contemporary theatrical culture. Essays explore the concept, politics and aesthetic features of the «exotic» body on stage, be it the actual body of the actor or actress, or the fictional, «picturesque» bodies brought on stage.
Far from focusing exclusively on the subaltern, colonial subject, this volume addresses the Other in its wider meaning, focusing on case studies as famous as Edwin Forrest and Ira Aldridge or as neglected as that of the Māori who appeared on the London stage in the 1860s. Written by an international group of scholars, this collection offers an informed, updated insight into the extensive and multifaceted presence of the non-British in both Georgian and Victorian drama, investigated through new lenses and materials to shed light on the complex engagement of nineteenth-century British culture with alterity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Tiziana Morosetti - Introduction
  • Toni Wein - ‘By a Nose’ or ‘By a Hair’: Bearding the Jew on the Georgian Stage
  • Michael Bradshaw - The Jew on Stage and on the Page: Intertextual Exotic
  • Arthur W. Bloom - Edwin Forrest: The Exotic American Body on the Nineteenth-Century English Stage
  • Tiziana Morosetti - Constructing the Zulus: The ‘African’ Body and Its Narratives
  • Marianne Schultz - ‘An Interest Must Be Strong Now-a days to Raise Much Enthusiasm in an Audience, but It May Be, at the Same Time, of an Unpleasant Nature’: Māori, New Zealand and Empire on Stage 1862–1864
  • Peter Yeandle - Performing the Other on the Popular London Stage: Exotic People and Places in Victorian Pantomime
  • Sara Malton - Impressment, Exoticism and Enslavement: Revisiting the Theatre of War through Thomas Hardy’s The Trumpet-Major (1880)
  • Zara Barlas - Transcultural Operatics: India on the British Stage in The Nautch Girl, or, The Rajah of Chutneypore
  • Serena Guarracino - Singing the Exotic Body across the Atlantic: From The Mikado to the Swing Mikado and Beyond
  • Sophie Duncan - A Progressive Othello: Modern Blackness in Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet (2012)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

| vii →


Toni Wein, ‘“By a Nose” or “By a Hair”: Bearding the Jew on the Georgian Stage’

Figure 1: Portrait of Macklin, author unknown. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Figure 2: Portrait of Kean, by Henry Meyer, published by R. Barnard, after Walter Henry Watts. Mezzotint, published 2 May 1814 (March 1814). © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Arthur W. Bloom, ‘Edwin Forrest: The Exotic American Body on the Nineteenth-Century English Stage’

Figure 1: Drawing of the youthful Edwin Forrest as Spartacus. University of Pennsylvania Library, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Figure 2: Drawing of the youthful Edwin Forrest as Spartacus. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Figure 3: Drawing of the youthful Edwin Forrest as Metamora. University of Pennsylvania Library, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Marianne Schultz, ‘“An Interest Must Be Strong Now-a days to Raise Much Enthusiasm in an Audience, but It May Be, at the Same Time, of an Unpleasant Nature”: Māori, New Zealand and Empire on Stage 1862–1864’

Figure 1: An early interpretation of haka as witnessed by Europeans, with men and women performing ← vii | viii → together. Augustus Earle, 1793–1838, A Dance of New Zealanders, drawn by A. Earle. Engraved by J. Stewart. Published by Longman & Co., London, May 1832, from Narrative of a Nine Months Residence in New Zealand, opposite p. 70. PUBL-0022-3, Alexander Turnbull Library (ATL), Wellington. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any reuse of the image.

Figure 2: Royal Princess’s Theatre (Edinburgh): photocopies of six posters advertising performances by Māori warrior chiefs, Eph- C-Maori -1863-01/06, ATL, Wellington. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any reuse of the image.

Zara Barlas, ‘Transcultural Operatics: India on the British Stage in The Nautch Girl, or, The Rajah of Chutneypore

Figure 1: A photograph depicting a nautch girl (most likely Holly Beebee) from The Nautch Girl at the Royal Theatre and Opera House, Abbey Road in 1901 demonstrates few (if any) elements of ‘Indian-ness’. Photo courtesy of TOPS Musical Productions.

Figure 2: A photograph depicting a nautch girl in ‘exotic’ garb from the 1901 production of The Nautch Girl. Photo courtesy of TOPS Musical Productions.

Figure 3: A photograph of Bumbo from the 1901 production of The Nautch Girl. Photo courtesy of TOPS Musical Productions.

| 1 →



This volume is the outcome of the international conference The ‘Exotic’ Body in Nineteenth-century British Drama (Oxford, 25–6 September 2014), itself one of the dissemination activities of a two-year project on the same topic I undertook as a Marie Curie Research Fellow at Oxford between 2012 and 2014. The conference provided a true testing ground for that project, the main goal of which – an exhaustive bibliography of all plays featuring ‘exotic’ characters, settings, and themes on the nineteenth-century British stage – demanded clarification first of all regarding that very term, ‘exotic’. Inverted commas abounded in my notes, and the conference seemed somewhat bound to confirm the caution of my approach, if only because ‘exotic’ is a term that still awaits full canonization within studies of Empire and its cultural background, its employment, especially since the publication of Graham Huggan’s ground-breaking study,1 mainly established within the postcolonial context. Had not delegates accepted the challenge implied by the call for papers, then, and proposed their own definitions of ‘exotic’, I would have most certainly ended up overlooking its possibilities as a critical term, and for this, I remain deeply thankful for a conference that was as varied as it was rich.

After all, it is only in a second definition of the word that ‘exotic’ may mean ‘Outlandish, barbarous, strange, uncouth. Also, having the attraction of the strange or foreign, glamorous’ (OED) – all adjectives that sit particularly well within a theatrical context in which cultural and ethnic difference, often elaborated through the lenses of Empire, held great fascination for audiences. In the main definition of the word, however, that is, ‘Belonging to another ← 1 | 2 → country, foreign, alien’, or, in a narrower sense, ‘Introduced from abroad, not indigenous’ (OED), ‘exotic’ is still largely under-used to describe ‘otherness’ in nineteenth-century British culture. Yet, it is this technical acceptation that best describes a case such as that of the Māoris on the London stage of the 1860s, or that of the increasingly popular human zoos, in which actual ‘savages’ were displayed and performed – whereas other terms, such as ‘picturesque’, often recurrent in relation to the often fascinating features of Georgian and Victorian theatre, remain as vague as they are informed by negative connotations.

What the conference achieved was in particular to highlight how ‘exotic’ as a critical term can complement and complicate visions of the Other. While, as Toni Wein points out in the essay that opens this collection, ‘it is the very physicality of the marker that distinguishes the exotic body as different from any other Other’, in nineteenth-century drama such physicality worked towards hierarchies in the way people of non-British origin especially were portrayed on stage. As we shall see in the latter part of this introduction, and as pointed out by many of the contributions gathered in this volume, these degrees of exoticism often went in parallel with the degree of realism employed on stage. The ‘exotic’ body came to represent a particular type of Other, a spatial or geographical variation of ‘otherness’, as Zara Barlas suggests, with specific visual connotations that rendered non-European bodies in particular immediately recognizable on stage. Yet, interpreted as basically an ‘unusual corporeal body’, as Arthur W. Bloom has it, the ‘exotic’ also applies to a number of less obvious examples than the Māori or the Zulu, such as the sailor – the press-ganged sailor in particular, ‘often conceived as a primitive being dwelling on the margins of civilization’, as Sara Malton explains – thus embracing virtually each and every character, each and every costume. In fact, if we accept Jonathan Arac and Harriet Rivo’s definition of ‘exoticism’ as ‘the aestheticizing means by which the pain of [imperial] expansion is converted to spectacle, to culture in the service of empire’,2 it is ← 2 | 3 → the entire theatrical process that came to be ‘exotic’ in nineteenth-century Britain. The spectacular nature, as well as the consistent exaggeration of genres like the pantomime, the extravaganza or the melodrama tended to reverberate on all characters and settings involved, so that theatre ‘rendered people, objects and places strange even as it domesticated them’,3 as Graham Huggan has it. In this light, even Britain and the British could be portrayed in a very ‘exotic’ light.

Staging the Other in Nineteenth-Century British Drama includes a selection of the papers presented at the conference (plus three contributions – mine, Schultz’s, and Yeandle’s4 – that were not in the programme), and while it sets out to expand on the issues delineated above, it also proposes a specific focus on the body and the bodily – be it the fictional body of characters as they walk through the copious examples of ‘exotic’, imperial-themed, foreign-oriented drama, and/or the actual body of the actors/actresses that impersonated them. ‘Complicit in colonial and imperial methods of domination’ (Toni Wein) as they were, ‘exotic’ bodies ‘served to enforce colonial ideologies and help generate support for British foreign policy’ (Peter Yeandle), but they also exposed the ‘topsy-turvydom’, in Serena Guarracino’s term, that often accompanied the process of othering on the Georgian and Victorian stages.

Not limited to an analysis of costumes and staging techniques, this collection involves a discussion of all things visual, from make-up to settings, without forgetting, however, that in many cases it is still texts that we are confronted by – both printed plays and the texts (reviews, contemporary criticism, etc.) – through which many of these performances have survived down to us. Although it is physical bodies that represent diversity on stage, ‘When a character is offered or received as exotic, ethnically different, or ethnically typical in some way, these qualities derive from cultural texts in circulation, rather than from physical bodies’ themselves, as Michael Bradshaw points out. This is particularly true for nineteenth-century British theatre, the recurrent intertextuality of which, born out of a general trend to ← 3 | 4 → borrow from a variety of sources, was enhanced by a competition between venues so fierce that plays and performances were consistently recycled in a self-nurturing struggle for survival.

However, while drama, not theatre,5 is the main focus or starting point for most contributions in this collection, it is important to stress that any understanding of ‘drama’ as a ‘script for theatrical performance’6 does not necessarily imply an accordingly hierarchical understanding of authorship. In a context in which ‘virtually anybody could write a play – and virtually everybody did’,7 as Frank Rahill has it, playwrights were also often performers and/or managers at once, so that authorship became intangible and virtually inseparable from production – what Jacky Bratton has termed the intertheatricality,8 and Jane Moody the ventriloquism9 of nineteenth-century British drama.

Nor does the investigation of ‘drama’ in this volume rule out an examination of popular entertainment as well, the contamination between the two – a relevant reason for the nineteenth century being long regarded as ‘the nadir of the English drama, the decades when […] dogs sometimes ← 4 | 5 → had more lines to deliver than great tragedians’10 – remaining a key feature of Georgian and Victorian theatre. When lamenting the lack of ‘works of a truly permanent value’,11 it is their uneasiness at this hybridity that critics have often expressed, above all when trying to establish sure criteria of ‘merit’ or hierarchies within the intricate world of nineteenth-century performing arts. This is the case with an essay published in 1980, Anthony Coxe’s ‘Equestrian drama and the Circus’, the interest of which lies in its attempt to draw a clear line between fiction and reality. Equestrian drama, one of the most popular genres of the century, is by the author defined thus:

A bastard entertainment, the result of a misalliance between the theatre and the circus. The spectacle is seen against a representational background. In the traditional theatre the audience is confronted with make-believe on the stage. Go backstage and the illusion is lost […]. In the circus there is no scenery, no backstage; the spectacle can be seen from all sides, like sculpture. Because the audience holds the spectacle in its midst, there are eyes all round to see that there is no make-believe.12

To see the theatre as ‘interpretative’, and therefore an art, and the circus as ‘demonstrative’, and therefore ‘simply a craft’, just because, as the author goes on, ‘after all, jugglers actually do keep six clubs turning in mid-air’,13 seems to ignore that there are, without saying, a number of other tricks in the circus for which some suspension of disbelief is in fact required (unless one wishes to believe that a woman can be seriously split in six, or that a fire-eater will actually eat fire).

Beside the theoretical objections that one may have against Coxe’s argument, however,14 what matters here is that his interpretation does not ← 5 | 6 → do any justice to the specific notion of circus (or theatre, for that matter) in the nineteenth century. In the frenzy for novelty that was characteristic of the whole century, and laid the train for much of the ‘exotic’ on stage, reality and fiction did often overlap – both on stage and in the ring – to present audiences with pieces of ‘realism’ or ‘truth’ that were, however, all invariably subject to illusion. This is a point ‘Lord’ George Sanger (1825–1911), himself a liminal figure between the circus and the theatre, stresses beautifully in several passages of his Seventy Years a Showman. Audience expectations were central in defining what a show should have been about, so that when, later in the century, as a renowned and wealthy manager, Sanger decided to put a white elephant on show, although he could have acquired a proper one, he only exhibited one that had been whitewashed. The actual, sacred ‘white’ elephant was in fact not properly white, and therefore unfit for business, while ‘the people wanted a white elephant, so […], assisting nature with art, gave them what they desired – a handsome creature white as driven snow’.15

The point is of central relevance to the topic of this collection, as issues of ‘authenticity’ are as problematic as they are unavoidable in examining representations of the Other on the nineteenth-century British stage. Whatever degree of ‘exoticness’ was presented to the audience, it had ← 6 | 7 → to respond to specific expectations, so that, in the case of the American actor Edwin Forrest, for instance, ‘his acting style and the original plays in which he performed were designed to create an American persona and to reinforce both English and American assumptions about what that persona would be’, as Arthur W. Bloom reminds us. Similarly, as I show in my own essay, theatrical constructions of the Zulus and their counterpart in human zoos were centred on what the Zulus, the ‘Kaffirs’ more generally, were assumed to be by British audiences. Whether it was actual ‘savages’ that were displayed on stage or their blackface impersonations made little difference as for their presumed ‘authenticity’. ‘Real savages’ also had to impersonate themselves, as they were to embody in their performances what was expected of them in terms of savagery, dangerousness, and striking appearance. Ira Aldridge’s ‘self-staging as an exotic African prince’, as Sophie Duncan shows in her essay, is yet another example of this process.

Presented as ‘authentic’, not all landscapes and/or costumes resembled a verisimilitude to the original, the degree of realism employed on stage betraying in many ways the degree of exoticism attached to any given production. On the one hand, the overlapping of ‘real’ and fictional elements was partly due to historical circumstances; in the case of colonial melodrama, for instance, as argued by Heidi Holder, its origins ‘in the traditions of equestrian, military and aquatic melodrama […] ensured a persistent emphasis on physical realism and historical accuracy’16 but also meant the permanence of a ‘fantasy element’ that was kept ‘alive and present on the stage’.17 On the other hand, however, different political and cultural perceptions of the Other also contributed to its diversification on stage, stressing ‘fact’ and fiction differently according to who or what was being portrayed. Whereas, for example, ‘spectacle and authenticity went hand in hand in the ← 7 | 8 → recreation of the Ancient World’,18 although ancient Egypt in particular certainly ‘appealed to the cult of the picturesque’,19 other ‘exotic’ productions such as those dealing with the war of Crimea showed, as observed by Jacky Bratton, ‘little regard for actual events’.20 In a production of The Passage of the Deserts, a play set in Egypt during the Napoleon Campaigns, a llama and a wild zebra were introduced, and yet another zebra crossed Tartary in a production of Mazeppa, Andrew Ducrow not seeming to care much ‘for correctness of local colouring’ if he could ‘produce an effect by disregarding it’, as A.H. Saxon has it.21

The ‘effect’ at which most productions were aimed in nineteenth-century Britain should not, however, lead us to false conclusions about audiences. As Jim Davis and Victor Emeljanow have argued in their seminal Reflecting the Audience, audiences have also been constructed as credulous, illiterate, coarse and aggressive in the overall ‘mythologized picture’22 of nineteenth-century theatre, with East End theatres in particular being portrayed by West End critics as ‘something remote and “other”’.23 We may be tempted today to dismiss the audiences’ reactions to ‘exotic’ performances as exploitative and racist, or to see these audiences as fundamentally unaware of the propaganda that was poured on them, but, as I will argue further in my conclusion, audiences may well also have been made aware, if not of the political message, of the tricks that such message conveyed. While it is in fact undeniable that performances such as the pantomime ‘operated as a cultural site for the dissemination of imperial ideology’ (Yeandle), given that it is first and utmost to ‘illegitimate’ genres, as convincingly argued ← 8 | 9 → by Jane Moody, that we have to turn to understand ‘how British imperialism was being transformed into dramatic spectacle’,24 the ambiguity of a theatrical culture that at the same time hid and highlighted the artificiality of such propaganda must yet also be kept in mind.

This is a particularly interesting point made by the opening essay, Toni Wein’s ‘“By a Nose” or “By a Hair”: Bearding the Jew on the Georgian Stage’, which, analysing the beard as a signifier of Jewish ‘exoticness’, stresses how ‘The more the beard becomes a metonymic displacement for the Jew, the more its function as a reality effect calls attention to itself, forcing the thing to simultaneously avow and disavow its own status’. In marking the difference between Edmund Kean’s and Charles Macklin’s interpretation of Shylock, the beard more generally became, on the Georgian stage, a ‘detachable, reproduceable, and hence convertible meme for Jewishness’ – but as such, also an obvious, hyper-visible mark of difference.

A counterpoint to Wein’s analysis is Michael Bradshaw’s ‘The Jew on Stage and on the Page: Intertextual Exotic’, which takes into account two plays in particular, Henry Hart Milman’s Fazio (1815), and Thomas Wade’s The Jew of Arragon; or, the Hebrew Queen (1830), the former employing in his central character a ‘disguised deployment of some of the distinctive features of Jewish caricature’, so that, although it does not openly feature any Jewish character, the play nonetheless contributed to a stereotype that was mainly the result of intertextuality. Both Wein and Bradshaw also aptly show how the Jewish stereotype tended to incorporate characteristics that were common to other ‘Oriental’ types, such as circumcision, equally ‘a marker for Islam, especially in the form of the threatening power of the Ottoman Empire’, as Bradshaw has it.

As Arthur W. Bloom reminds us in his ‘Edwin Forrest: The Exotic American Body on the Nineteenth-Century English Stage’, however, the ‘exotic’ body on the nineteenth-century stage need not be associated necessarily with the features, as mysterious as they are often vague, of any ‘Oriental’ type, nor with those, even more alien, of the black African, as ← 9 | 10 → ‘[d]uring 1836, 1837, 1845 and 1846 the exotic body on the English stage was male, white, muscular and American’. In impersonating the protagonists of John Augustus Stone’s Metamora; or, the Last of the Wampanoags and Robert Montgomery Bird’s The Gladiator, Forrest ‘appeared to embody American freedom while simultaneously foretelling the tragic fate of the Indian and the slave’.

But readers will not fail to note interesting similarities between the masculinity displayed by Forrest, and that of two undeniably ‘exotic’ and ‘picturesque’ groups: the Zulus and the Māori. In my contribution, I juxtapose two famous exhibitions of Zulus, Charles Caldecott’s ‘Zulu Kaffirs’ (1853) and Farini’s ‘Friendly Zulus’ (1879) with their theatrical counterpart, in particular Edward Fitzball’s Amakosa; or, Kaffir Warfare (1853) and The Grand Equestrian Spectacle of the War in Zululand (1879). In constructing the body of the Zulu so as to highlight the valour of British troops on the South African fronts, these performances built on ideas about the ‘African’ body that reveal mixed, diversified, and often contradictory attitudes towards the ‘dark’ continent.

The sensation pursued by these performances was also at the core of productions featuring real Māori actors: Wahena; or The Maori Queen (Princess’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 1863) and J.B. Johnstone’s The Emigrant’s Trial; or, Life in New Zealand (Marylebone Theatre, London, 1864). As in the case of the Zulus, the Māori are also perceived as a ‘superior class of men and women’, and as such distinct from the ‘lower’ savages of other areas of the Empire. But the interest in Marianne Schultz’s essay, which presents rarely investigated materials, lies also in that it highlights how Māori on stage – be it in theatrical performances or in more scientific-oriented displays such as that of fourteen ‘New Zealand Native Chiefs’ assembled at the Alhambra Palace Theatre, Leicester Square, in 1863 – were not just presenting themselves, but more often performing themselves to the delight of British audiences.

The ‘enacted’ body of the Other, as Peter Yeandle shows in his ‘Performing the Other on the Popular London Stage: Exotic People and Places in Victorian Pantomime’, is employed in constant juxtaposition to that, both political and actual, of the British, so that ‘the contrast of “home” and “foreign” bodies’ in Victorian pantomime actively contributed ‘to ← 10 | 11 → collective identity formation’. Employing significant quantitative analysis, and investigating two main areas – pantomimic responses to the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and the evolution of the Jack and the Beanstalk story in the second part of the century – this essay also explores the relation between bodies and landscapes, as it is the place that first ‘positioned the “other” beyond civilization itself’, so that it is the overall visual concept of pantomime that must be examined so as to best appreciate its political impact.

While nineteenth-century theatre was, as mentioned above, highly intertextual in its approach, Sara Malton’s ‘Impressment, Exoticism and Enslavement: Revisiting the Theatre of War through Thomas Hardy’s The Trumpet-Major (1880)’ is an important contribution regarding that other main area of exchange: that between theatre and the novel. In this essay, however, it is not the way theatre responded to the publication of relevant novels that is investigated, but rather the way in which the novel, and one author in particular, Thomas Hardy, responded to the stimuli of the theatrical experience. Through a discussion of a specific but wide-impacting phenomenon, impressment or coerced naval service, Malton investigates the way ‘historical novels often notably revisit and revise earlier dramatic forms in order to foreground the pressed sailor’s plight, exoticism, and […] his connection to slavery’, focusing in particular on how The Trumpet Major was informed by pantomime.


VIII, 272
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
alterity nineteenth-century British drama theatre
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. VIII, 272 pp., 10 b/w ill., 2 tables

Biographical notes

Tiziana Morosetti (Volume editor)

Tiziana Morosetti is based at the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. She studied in Rome and Bologna before moving to Oxford on a Marie Curie Research Fellowship with a project on the representation of the «exotic» body in nineteenth-century British drama. Her publications have appeared in Research in African Literatures, West Africa Review, West African Theatre and Performing Arts Journal and the Oxford Dictionary of African Biography. She is deputy director of the journal Quaderni del ’900, for which she edited numbers IV (Postcolonial Literature in Italian, 2005) and VII (Italy in Anglophone Literatures, 2008). Since 2014 she has been membership secretary of the African Theatre Association (AfTA).


Title: Staging the Other in Nineteenth-Century British Drama
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