For the second speaker in the 2017-2018 Home, Exile and Return series, the UTM English and drama department hosted Dr. Elizabeth Maddock Dillon. Dillon, who is a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, teaches courses in the fields of early American literature, Atlantic theatre and performance, and transatlantic print culture. She is the author of two books, The Gender of Freedom: Fictions of Liberalism and the Literary Public Sphere, and New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World, 1649-1849, which won the Barnard Hewitt Award for Outstanding Research in Theatre History from the American Society for Theatre Research. In the context of her book, New World Drama, Dillon speaks about staging freedom in the Atlantic world.
“I hope to explain some of the key claims I have mentioned in the book that will help frame the talk,” says Dillon, “This book began with a simple observation that there was a lot of interesting things going on in early American theatre that no one ever talks about. And the reason that no one talks about it in the scholarly world has to do with the way we carve out disciplines.” When we currently speak about American literature, English literature, and Canadian literature, it is often not realized how most of the plays that were performed in colonial North America were written by British authors, as Dillon explains, and “They were often performed by British performers as well, and that meant that scholars of American literature didn’t read them because they didn’t count as being American text. So, there’s a way in which early American theatre just falls through the cracks.” Although it is not considered national American because it’s written by British individuals, despite the fact, as Dillon notes, that “Hundreds of thousands of early Americans, including blacks, whites, and native Americans, attended these plays, performed in these plays, regularly quoted lines from these plays, and even died in the streets fighting over performances of these plays.”
A national view of culture, according to the English professor, is one that occludes the history of these performances from view, “But if we change the geography of the field, in how we describe culture, and if we look just not at early American but also the Atlantic world, which I do in this book, an entirely new scene of literature and culture shows up.”
Referencing ideas discussed in UTM’s 18th century theatre class taught by professor Terry Robinson, Dillon provides background for theatre in the 18th century by stating, “Theatre in the 18th century was a very different place than it is today.”
The professor says, “Imagine being more like at a football game than at the theatre.” She adds, “In fact, I always laugh when I’m at the theatre and there’s this announcement that says, ‘If you have any candy, please unwrap it now.’”
Although now theatre is largely a quiet, observation-centered experience, according to Dillon “When in fact, in 18th century America, there’s this phrase that you see in newspaper reports about theatre. Quite often, it says ‘The performance continued in dumbshow.’ That means the audience were screaming so loudly that no one could hear what the actors were saying.” With there being a regular phrase, according to the theatre researcher, it conveyed that this was a normal occurrence, “There was so much noise coming from the audience, and that noise mattered just as much as what was going on stage.”
Another term that has been used to describe this, as Dillon says, is the active audience. Dillon shows the audience a picture of people “not sitting quietly” in the dark at the theatre and says, “huge numbers of people went to the theatre. One small fact that shows how significant theatre was as a kind of cultural common language in the 18th century, of course, is that there was no television, no movies.” She gives the example of Charleston, South Carolina where, “In 1795, the city of Charleston’s theatre had a seating capacity of about 1,400 people and a population of less than 12,000. So that meant at a given night, more than one-tenth of the population of the city would be gathered in one place, engaged in and responding to a theatrical performance.” According to Dillon, many people would have seen one play together and held that cultural experience in common, than people who would have read the same novel, or the same book of poems, or even the same newspaper. She continues, “So when we talk about the public sphere in early America, when we leave the theatre out of it, we are missing something really important—a really important location where public was formed and composed and understood.”
The professor elaborates by describing that as she turned the study into an Atlantic and Anglo-Atlantic project, which also changed some of the terms that she needed to use to talk about this field of culture: “The terms that emerge for me, one is performative commons, and one is what I call the colonial relation.”
Dillon settled upon using the term “performative commons” as an alternative to public sphere: “Particularly the notion of the print public sphere, which is one that has a lot of currency in literary studies, in particular early American literary studies.” As Dillon describes, the space of the theatre resembles a public sphere, “But it is very embodied rather than abstract.” When Dillion first considered the term ‘embodied public sphere’, “I didn’t like that term either because of its resonances with other works […] and the way that that term was related to the state. And the state, again, linked to a kind of national framing, rather than an Atlantic framing of politics, people, and culture.”
Dillon suggests in her book that the place where we most often see this gathering of people in the 18th century is the theatre, and as she shows a picture of an 18th century theatre performance next to the Leviathan, she says, “There’s a way in which putting those next to each other, you alan wealth, culture, and shaped the aesthetic world of the 18th century Atlantic.”
To provide a more specific example, Dillon takes a Caribbean-centred account of performance in the Atlantic world. She says, “In the ubiquitous advertisement of slaves for sale,” showing newspaper advertisements from 1786-1795, “18th century Jamaican newspapers display and exercise a technology of slavery, the imposition of social death by way of […] restructuring of identity of value around bare labour.” Dillon uses the term bare labour to describe the position of slaves in the Atlantic economy of capitalist modernity; “Despite receiving inhumane treatment, slaves were assigned economic value, although that value, according to which they registered,” as Dillon references the 18th century text, “units of labour alone—just labour, no social identity, just labour” and slaves, as Dillon quotes arguments presented by Sylvia Winter, “were seen as “not a man essentially, but as so many units of labour power in the colonial Caribbean.” According to Dillon, the significance of the social death and the destruction of social identity that slavery sought to affect by stripping slaves of genealogical identity and kinship relationships “did not aim to eliminate life altogether, but to turn life into units of labour, unfettered by the frictions of human connection and sociality.”
Dillon then shows the audience images of newspaper advertisements, to contrast between runaway ads and the quotes on sales ads.
Quotes say “New negroes for sale,” which, as Dillon says, “Identify them solely in terms of what kind of work they can do, and contrasting them to the runaway ads, where it turns out that despite the notion that slaves have no social identity, we get a whole lot of really interesting information about their social identity.” She reads: “The property of […]. He was purchased in this place, he was seen here, he was in the employ of this person and this person. And so, we get on the one hand, ads for slaves for sale that suggest that they have no social identity—the only identity as labour. And on the other hand [an ad] for runaway slaves, which indicate that they have a very rich social identity.” Dillon reads another runaway ad: “Runaway from the subscribed, on the 11th of August […] a negro woman […] born in Kingston, remarkable for […] a head not having the smallest appearance of hair on it. Also, her daughter Fiba calls herself often Cuba and Abba—she is marked on both shoulders AW.” The ad also mentions them visiting other relations, friendships with other individuals on the lane, and mentions that they are well acquainted with another girl who vanished from town at the same time.
From these ads, as Dillon describes, we learn many things about them including names, “unlike the nameless labouring slaves, she has a place of birth, a daughter named Fiba or Cuba, she has a male partner, she has a son named Johnny, she has a friend named Bessie, and she has a unique hairless scalp. In comparison with the concise advertisements for slaves for sale, the runaway advertisement [is] lengthy and replete with proper names and connections.” She continues to elaborate how in this instance, it is clear that the runaway woman is deeply embedded in a system of social relations that identify her as a social individual and not just a unit of labour. Dillon says, “We have a lot of very rich information and social signifiers. One of the things that I’m interested in is the significance of textiles and of clothing. [. . .] Often in runaway ads we see lengthy descriptions of clothing that the runaway slave had.”
Dillon references the costume collection available on campus to theatre students, but says that in the 18th century, “[People] could not go to the store to buy a pink shirt if they wanted to change their shirt. If they ran away in a white shirt, they didn’t have another shirt—it was just the white shirt. So, there’s a way in which clothing is incredibly distinct and not interchangeable and incredibly expensive. Costumes were also a big part of what theatres owned.” Dillon reads a description of a runaway slave that says: “‘A young negro man named Sharper, who had on, when he went away, a pompadour coat with frogs of the same color,’ according to the advertisement, it’s probable that Sharper may attempt to pass as free, ‘having already under an imposition of that kind having taken a cruise in one of his majesty’s ships of war by the name of Tom Jones,’”
Then we learn that Sharper “is given to cruising in a ship in a pink coat with matching pink ornamental fastenings. Clothing here presumes a particularly evocative and provocative status in these advertisements.” The English professor notes the contradiction that emerges between these two genres as we see conflicting ideas about embodiment, about naming and about the performance of social value.