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Book Project

“From Foreign Shores: Eighteenth-Century Adaptation and Empire”

In my book project, I argue that eighteenth-century theatrical adaptations set in the Orient destabilize categories of difference, introducing Oriental characters as subjects of sympathy while at the same time defamiliarizing the people and space of London. While scholars such as Jean Marsden and Fiona Ritchie have shown how adaptations of Shakespeare contributed to the creation of a national identity, stage adaptations depicting the Orient in the period have been underexplored. Applying contemporary theories of emotion by Scottish Enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume and Lord Kames, I contend that in eighteenth-century theater, the actor and the character become distinct objects of sympathy, increasing the emotional potential of performance beyond the narrative onstage. Adaptation as a form heightens this distance, by drawing attention to narrative’s properties as an artistic construction, rather than a reflection of nature. In adaptations portraying the Orient, these settings provide a reflexive space for eighteenth-century English texts to explore questions of genre, nation, and feeling as British imperial power expanded but before European hegemony was a foregone conclusion.

My project explores a paradox at the heart of eighteenth-century performance studies reveals that while the term “adaptation” did not have a specific literary or theatrical definition until near the end of the period, in practice adaptations and translations proliferated on the English stage. The reliance on revivals and adaptations emerged in part from the historical and economic circumstances of the moment: the loss of a generation of playwrights during the Civil War, the creation of the patent theater monopoly in the Restoration, and the 1737 establishment of state censorship. Anticipating Linda Hutcheon’s theory of adaptation, I argue that eighteenth-century playwrights and performers theorized adaptation as both process and product, often employing metaphors of clothing and manufacturing as refurbishing older garments in the prologues and epilogues that contextualized the play for audiences. While nineteenth-century bourgeois realism sought to suspend the audience’s disbelief, I show how the eighteenth-century theater anticipated Brecht’s alienation effect in their metatheatrical practices, believing that audiences became emotional participants when the artifice of theater was brought to the forefront.

I begin with the theatrical genre of Oriental tragedy and its French sources in both fiction and drama. My first chapter looks at Restoration oriental tragedies to examine how the practice of adaptation was instrumental in creating a new definition of tragedy after the Civil Wars. While plays like William Davenant’s The Siege of Rhodes (1656, rev. 1663) and Elkanah Settle’s Ibrahim (1677) have been interpreted as exemplars of the heroic drama, they have not been read together as adaptations of the same text, Madeleine de Scudéry’s popular romance Ibrahim (trans.1652). I argue that adaptation crystallizes the generic necessity of female pathos to all Restoration tragedy, centering the actress in the important contemporary generic debates that emerged in the artistic and political chaos of rebellion and restoration. Considering the next generation of Oriental tragedies in the mid-eighteenth century, my second chapter argues that English translations of Voltaire like Aaron Hill's The Tragedy of Zara (1735) and James Miller's Mahomet the Imposter (1744) increase the display of sentiment in language and staging when they appeared on the London stage, and in doing so created a national form of sensibility. Voltaire and Shakespeare in particular were positioned as competing representatives of their respective national traditions of tragedy.

My project then shifts to examining eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century adaptations of the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (1706-1721), the English translation of Antoine Galland’s groundbreaking French translation Les mille et une nuits, the first time Alf layla wa layla was available in a European language. The third chapter explores adaptations of Scheherazade in the frame tale of the Nights. Starting with the little-known subplot of the jinn’s mistress’s padlock, I show how English adaptations of Scheherazade connect the tale with European stories and genres of marital sexual violence. For example, Eliza Haywood’s novel The Padlock (1728) synthesizes the tropes of Oriental tales with the narrative Cervantes’ The Jealous Husband (1613) in order to articulate a powerful and realizable form of female sexuality. I argue that these adaptations, instead of opposing a despotic East with a free England, make the violence of domestic patriarchy palpable and real. In my fourth chapter, I show how, just as the legal separation of genre enacted by the theater monopoly was beginning to disintegrate, the performances of Nights adaptations on the popular stage blurred the separations between their Eastern-set tales and the urban experience of their London audiences. John O’Keeffe’s 1780s Arabian Nights trilogy and the 1811 stage adaptation of Frances Sheridan’s novel Nourjahad (1767), based on the story of "The Sleeper Awakened," trouble stable depictions of difference within the metropolis, toying with the boundaries between recognition and dis-identification. The pleasure of Orientalist popular theater productions, then, came as much from similarity between Orient and Occident as it did from exoticized difference.