Monday, December 11, 2017

Robinson Crusoe and Figaro walk into a bar... official and unofficial culture

When I was a little boy I learned about American history as a parade of heros in colorful situations: George Washington stoicking it out at Valley Forge, Benjamin Franklin and the kite, Abe Lincoln walking twenty miles to return a borrowed book while his Mamma wilted away with the mysterious “milk sickness”. No women save for Betsy Ross, and no African-Americans down to the very name. It was all so long ago, but this version of America runs like muzak in the veins of heartland patriots, so there is that. In the meantime, history got sexy: there was the civil rights movement, there was feminism, there was Foucault, there was deconstruction, there was the new historicists, chorus chorus chorus.
This has revised our view of the American Revolution by broadening it, for one. It is not in the context of a number of Atlantic Revolutions – the French, the aborted Irish, the Haitian – and it is now something much greater than the sum of battles the Yankees fought with the redcoats. Among other things, we are learning to see creole diasporas – the black diaspora, the English, the Irish, the Spanish – interact with each other. The connections between black slaves in South Carolina and, say, Jamaica, or St. Domingue, is still not fully explored, but one has a much stronger sense of networks and movement than the older, static picture of the state of the 13 American colonies.
Of the innumerable historiettes that show these hidden connections, I am fascinated by the trajectory of a pantomime that combines in itself a number of zones of contact: Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Robinson Crusoe or Harlequin Friday.
Sheridan was a violent Whig. Unlike his fellow Irish whig, Burke, he supported the French Revolution when it broke out, up through the Terror. Unlike Burke, he felt that the excesses of the Revolution were the fruit of the old regime that it overthrew, “that dealt in extortion, dungeons, and tortures; that set an example of depravity to the slaves it ruled over." Sheridan had already entered politics by the time he created the Robinson Crusoe pantomime in 1781. It was a creation of the left hand – a pantomime, after all, built for guffaws and a few songs, which was immediately successful in England.
The pantomime at first seems to stick to the story we know, with a few extra dashes. Crusoe is shown rather comically building his little solitary place on his island. He sees the famous footprint. He witnesses the “savages” commence to prepare a meal of their captive, Friday. He fires his gun, and the savages flee. Friday is so grateful he dumbshows his willingness to become Crusoe’s slave. But at this point there is an intervention from the side of Whiggery: Crusoe refuses that role, and gives Friday a gun. The two use it to free two captives, the harlequin characters Pierrot and  Pantaloon, and then help a captain take back his ship from mutineers. Act One ends with the cast going back to Europe. Act two opens in Spain. Here something new happens. Crusoe leaves Spain, and the next bit of the panto concerns the romance of Friday, a black man, and Columbine, a white woman.  Columbine seems to be Pantaloon’s daughter, and Pantaloon throws Friday out of his house. Here another theme sounds, as a Prospero like magician proposes to help Friday to spite his enemy, Pantaloon. A Cupid comes down from the sky, gives Friday a sword, a purse and a cap, and re-christens him Harlequin. After this scene, there is the usual tumble of slapstick towards the inevitable conclusion. Pantaloon and his people give chase through many changes of scenery to Halequin and Columbine until finally, due to the magician, he gives his permission for them to wed.
This crossing of themes from the Tempest with those from Robinson Crusoe has a mighty modern feel. But we don’t, perhaps, feel so much the Figaro element. It is, though, surely there. Beaumarchais enjoyed Sheridan’s plays when he visited London; the Barber of Seville was staged by David Garrick in London in 1775, six years before Sheridan’s pantomime. Here, then, is a text in the crossroads. But even more so when one follows its performance history. It was first performed in Montego Bay, in Jamaica, in 1785. Jamaica was England’s great slaveholding colony, and was, due to its sugar production, the single most valuable asset in the British empire of that time. It was performed by Hallam’s American Company, a theater troupe that fled to Jamaica from New York City when the Continental Congress, mimicking Oliver Cromwell’s legislation, shut down theaters in the American colonies.  Hallam’s company put on many of Sheridan’s plays – which were popular among the plantation owners. Still, it is interesting to think about the divided reception of a pantomime that implies such interesting things about slavery and race. Here is James Scott’s theory of hidden transcripts set in motion.

Perhaps the panto was destined to sow double meanings wherever it went. The play might well have a Figaro-like dimension in presenting, in comic guise, erotic equality between blacks and whites; but it continues the tradition of the savage, ending with a Savage Dance. Yet here’s the moment of social contradiction, which history turns out like the abattoir turns out sausages,  that amazes me: when Hallam’s company came back to New York, they put on the panto, and it was a great success. So much so that when the “the Indian chiefs of the Oneida Nation” came to New York City in 1786, it was the Sheridan panto that they were invited to see.

Scott’s theory of the relation between the big and little traditions – elite urban culture and peasant local culture – has the defects of any big dualism. But it does allow us to find moments in which cultural messages seem to be split at the very moment of their emission. It is not just dual culture, but a culture that is scratched at the root: “What may develop under such circumstances is virtually a dual culture: the official culture filled with bright euphemisms, silences, and platitudes and an unofficial culture that has its own history, its own literature and poetry, its own biting slang, its own music and poetry, its own humor, its own knowledge of shortages, corruption, and inequalities that may, once again, be widely known but that may not be introduced into public discourse.”

The problem here is resides in “its own”, for this too severely segregates official and unofficial. The unofficial is always there to appropriate the official culture, to fill it with fan fic and juxtapose it in liberating or ridiculing samples. And official culture is as recuperative – which is how such things as “cool” become prisons in America. Which is why I think the career of this obscure and forgotten panto shows a lot about the secret tracks that lead through a history we don’t fully understand, yet. Or maybe I should say: ever.    

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