Professor Andrea Stevens of the University of Illinois of Urbana-Champaign was visiting Oxford as a Sassoon Fellow in Michaelmas Term 2022. Professor Stevens, author of Inventions of the Skin: The Painted Body in Early English Drama (2013), gave a talk at the English Faculty on 8th November 2022 on ‘Racial Masquerade at the Caroline Court’, or ‘after Othello’. Shortly afterwards, DPhil student and CEMS member Caroline Taylor interviewed Andrea for CEMS. Here is a transcript of the interview:
Caroline: I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about the research project that has brought you to Oxford.
Andrea: One of my current book projects is called Racial Masquerade and the Caroline Court, and it’s looking at a range of plays, masques, and other entertainments that involve the trope of the ‘Maid as Moor’: a white woman who temporarily disguises herself as a Moor, but crucially within the timeframe of the fiction is miraculously shown/revealed to be white at the end. This archive isn’t, of course, homogeneous, and the book explores how the trope can vary play to play. But unmistakably, this archive constitutes its own distinct subset of English blackface performance that hasn’t really been unpacked and assessed in its own right or read together as a specific ‘genre’. I’m here at the Bodleian looking at a manuscript of Arthur Wilson’s King’s Men play The Inconstant Lady that, alone among versions of the play, includes a blackface disguise (MS Rawl Poet 128).
Throughout the book I also explore the influence of Queen Henrietta Maria, who took a clear interest in entertainments involving racial transformations. One of the pieces I talk about is this incredibly punishing, but in its own time I think really influential, performance called The Shepherd’s Paradise (1633), which essentially was a prose romance that was acted as a play (here, a character called ‘Fidamira’ disguises herself as an African woman called ‘Gemella’). It took seven or eight hours to perform; apparently Joseph Taylor from the King’s Men helped rehearse the women actors for it, and I wish he had kept a diary or notes that survived giving an account of what that was like! But in any event, I think Shepherd’s Paradise was a really influential piece of drama that other professional plays of the time respond to and reflect back. And so, I try to trace all the connections between these different entertainments in the project.
Caroline: I tried to read The Shepherd’s Paradise yesterday. It’s impenetrable! It’s written as if Walter Montagu was afraid the ladies would fight over who had the better role. The speeches are all so long and so self-indulgent!
Andrea: No, and as an actor, think about memorising! It’s like memorising Mary Wroth’s The Urania, but speaking it, so I just cannot even imagine!
But in any event, this trope peaks in popularity by the mid to late 1630s. One of the last examples of the Maid-as-Moor play is William Heminge’s The Fatal Contract (1638) which is a very transgressive example in that it takes place in a rape-revenge tragedy – most examples of the trope occur in comedies or tragicomedies – and also adds a layer of gender disguise. In writing this play, Heminge references a wide range of earlier work, including recent blackface disguise plays such as Richard Brome’s The English Moor (1637). I’m still on the fence – even after editing the play – about whether The Fatal Contract might be an intentional parody of the trope of the disguised maid because it’s so transgressive. But on the other hand, I think reading The Fatal Contract through a twenty-first century lens might distort my ability to appreciate the play on its own terms. There’s no indication that it was interpreted as a parody at the time, so in the end I edited the play imagining that it was a straightforward, albeit unusual, adaptation of this convention.
I’m actually working on an article right now about a Restoration adaptation of the Heminge play, Elkanah Settle’s 1674 Love and Revenge. Of course, in that production the disguised Moorish character is played by an actress, Mary Lee, in other words played by a professional actress for the first time. But it is worth noting that, again, in assembling this archive I necessarily discuss women performers in the seventeenth century – that is, elite women amateurs, not professional actresses. Put differently, talking about this convention means, necessarily, talking about the pre-history of the early English actress.
Caroline: What do you think made the ‘Maid-as-Moor’ trope so enticing both for playwrights, but also for audiences, because it’s clearly very popular in the 1630s?
Andrea: That’s a great question. I think, one way to answer that is that I think it was a twist on what by the 1620s and 1630s was the already familiar convention of the stage Moor, so it offered a new way to imagine racial transformations on stage. I think the actual special effect of this trope as it’s executed in drama was a draw, and I would suggest that plays like The Lost Lady (1637) and The English Moor (1637) – the texts of those plays – give us the most insight into how this special effect was managed in a live show. I think a considerable part of the draw was the innovation of the technique.
I think that for Henrietta Maria, working with the trope allowed her to comment on the reign of her predecessor Queen Anna, because clearly the trope references The Masque of Blackness which itself was a very significant production of 1605. But there are a whole range of reasons why the English court at this moment might want to imagine fantasies of racial transformation that end up reinforcing whiteness as the ideal at the end. That’s going to be a huge thing to unpack, but it is significant.
Caroline: I was going to say, I was really interested when you said in your seminar yesterday that this is not a study of blackness, it is a study of white fantasies of blackness.
Andrea: That’s it precisely: the question is why are these fantasies so attractive for the court to explore at this particular time such that a host of private court entertainments as well as popular plays feature the disguise device.
There are aspects of these plays that offer limited defences of black beauty as such. In some instances, these characters who disguise themselves are heroines, they are presented as virtuous, their black skin is narrated as being emblematic of constancy and fidelity and chastity. That reverses associations in earlier plays with black skin and lechery, and so on.
That being said, again, the trope is not at all ‘progressive’ as we understand the term. It requires a transformation back to whiteness, and it ultimately insists on the superiority of white female beauty.
But this is a book about white fantasies of racial otherness rather than a book that reconstructs actual black lives as such. There’s lots of work that does that, for example Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives (Routledge, 2008)
Caroline: Work by Professor Nandini Das’ TIDE project like Lives in Transit in Early Modern England (Amsterdam University Press, 2022) is also great on that.
Andrea: In its own right, I hope that, when finished, my project will help advance our understanding of ‘racial thinking’ in the early modern period and, more specifically, of English co-options of Black otherness at a key historical moment.
Caroline: One of the things I love about your first book Inventions of the Skin is the questioning of the idea that the early modern stage is bare – as that never made any sense to me – and how much of this trope is purely about spectacle.
Andrea: Yes. It always frustrated me that original practices had to depend solely on words when we know there was so much more going on. If you just look at the richness of stage directions, there’s so many more interesting things.
In a separate project that is quite different to this, I want to think about some really interesting stand-alone props that we see in stage directions. There’s a great special effect in Middleton’s The Lady’s Tragedy that clearly involves some purpose-built tomb prop capable of sustaining lighting effects: On a sudden, in a kind of noise like a wind, the doors clattering, the tombstone flies open, and a great light appears in the midst of the tomb; his Lady, as went out, standing just before him all in white, stuck with jewels, and a great crucifix on her breast.
Caroline: Like in Women Beware Women when Isabella is murdered with a shower of poisonous gold!
Part of the draw of this theatre was spectacle. And certainly, that’s very true with the indoor theatres which offer different dynamics of sight and sound, different lighting options, a more intimate space. So, the effects change over the course of the decades of commercial playing before the closing of the theatres.
Caroline: You also wear a directorial hat as well as an academic hat.
Andrea: A little bit, I wish I had a larger directorial hat. I certainly have loved the times I’ve been able to adapt/cut early modern plays for performance. When I’ve had the chance to do that at the University of Illinois in conjunction with the theatre department, it’s been incredibly rewarding.
I’ve adapted Romeo and Juliet and Titus Andronicus most recently; Titus was a more substantial cut that really did reshape the play in fundamental ways. And in 2015 I adapted and co-directed with Cassandra Cushman, an MFA candidate at the time, a production of The Duchess of Malfi in which she played the Duchess – that was incredibly fun, had student actors (and musical numbers!) and I would love to keep doing that.
Caroline: Which plays would be on your bucket list to adapt or direct?
Andrea: My bucket list to adapt or direct: Spanish Tragedy and The Revengers’ Tragedy. If we want to get very deep in the bucket list, there are some great theatres in Chicago and I wish I could forge the relationships that would allow me merely to make the case that they even consider putting on some of the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries (I think Chicago has Shakespeare already covered). So, for example, I would love to see a company such as A Red Orchid Theatre perform new adaptations of lesser-known early modern classics. The last show I saw before the pandemic was an absolutely brilliant play called Grey House by one of their ensemble members, Levi Holloway, and as I watched it, I kept thinking how amazing it would be to see an early modern revenge tragedy performed in that intimate space by those actors; at the time I was thinking about The Spanish Tragedy in particular. The actor Michael Shannon is one of the founding members of this company and he’d be a brilliant Hieronimo. Consider this answer my attempt to manifest Michael Shannon inviting me to lunch to talk about The Spanish Tragedy.
In any event, I find great pleasure in tasks like editing, adapting, and directing. I do want to reiterate, there’s no better way to understand a play than to approach it with the idea of cutting it for performance, or imagining it for performance. You really get this intimate understanding of how the play is sutured together.
Caroline: As final ‘fun’ question, if you could press a big red buzzer that meant you could meet someone from early modern London – but you did not get to choose who – which person would you least like to bump into?
Andrea: Oh God! That’s amazing! So, some sort of Puritan Witchfinder. A terribly appalling, dour kind of religious person. Maybe William Prynne! I don’t care to … let’s say I don’t want to meet him. Pre or post ear mutilation! Neither scenario. Not on my list.