General Editors: Thomas C. Crochunis and Michael Eberle-Sinatra

O'Quinn, Daniel J. 'Elizabeth Inchbald's The Massacre: Tragedy, Violence and the Network of Political Fantasy.' British Women Playwrights around 1800. 1 June 1999. 8 pars. <>

Copyright © Contributor, 1999-2008. This essay is protected under the copyright laws of the United States and the Universal Copyright Convention. Publication (print or electronic) or commercial use of any of the copyrighted materials without direct authorization from the copyright holder is strictly prohibited.


What are we to make of a cultural document such as Elizabeth Inchbald's The Massacre? Written in 1792, the play's obvious political topicality guaranteed that it would not be staged. It was typeset for publication but withdrawn on the advice of friends. The suppression of the print version means that we are dealing with a political document which did not enter the realm of public political discussion. Its political effectivity therefore was confined to its private circulation until James Boaden chose to include the play in his Memoirs of Mrs. Inchbald of 1833. However, the specifics of the play's private circulation are notable. Inchbald sent the play to both William Godwin and Thomas Holcroft and there is every indication that the play may have been written expressly to intervene in the private political discussions of the Jacobin circle. I will try to outline the substance and the limits of that intervention below, but first I want to consider the import of Boaden's description of the play as a 'curiosity' in his preliminary note.

2. The Massacre is a curiosity in both of the word's primary eighteenth century usages. First, it is unquestionably a 'rarity': it is Inchbald's only tragedy and aside from its keen sense of the material possibilities of the stage, it seems quite disconnected from the preoccupations of both her farces and her more serious five act comedies of the late 1790's. However, I will be arguing below that the play is intimately related to the political if not the aesthetic project of both her theatrical and novelistic production. Furthermore, Inchbald's highly practical relation to the London stage means that one finds very few plays that were 'never intended for representation' in her oeuvre. Second, like a traditional curiosity it is a textual object which prompts enquiry. As a cultural fragment it seems to throw up a discrete set of historical problematics which have the potential to substantially intervene in the on-going re-formulation of Romantic Studies. Perhaps most directly, it is crucial to the current critical discussion regarding the nature of the 'closet' in Romantic drama. (1) It also poses key questions regarding the history of radical politics in Britain in the late 1780's and early 1790's not only in its barely veiled representation of events in France, but also in its cogent gender critique of both Jacobin and Anti-Jacobin positions. Furthermore, it gives us a brief glimpse into the problem of gender privilege within the discourse network which linked feminist thinkers to the public figures most commonly associated with radical social reform in Britain. And finally, it poses some intriguing questions regarding the theorization of tragedy and its relation to political praxis at a particular moment in the consolidation of the middle class.

The title page of The Massacre states simply that the play is a tragedy of three acts taken from the French. As far as I know there is no specific French source so the suggestion that the play is somehow a translation needs careful consideration. At one level, the gesture could be an attempt to establish authenticity, but this seems highly unlikely considering the vague quality of the historical events represented in the play. A few footnotes attempt to ground the text in accounts of St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, but it is clear from Inchbald's own remarks in the 'Advertisement' that the play is a meditation on 'the unhappy state of a neighbouring nation' in its current time of crisis. It is much more likely that the statement that the play is of French origin is a generic specification that directly impinges on how one reads. The play exhibits the generic hallmarks of French neo-classical tragedy and by extension its Athenian forbears. It adheres to the unity of time and place, it deploys minor characters as if they were a chorus, and it demonstrates a crucial tragic reversal which directly critiques the actions of the hero. And it explores the specific conflict between individual desire and the desires of the state. It is illuminating to consider Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet's remarks on the social function of Athenian tragedy for they resonate with Inchbald's practice in The Massacre:

Tragedy is not only an art form; it is also a social institution that the city...set up alongside its political and legal institutions....In this way [the city] turned itself into a theater. Its subject, in a sense, was itself and it acted itself out before its public. But although tragedy, more than any other genre of literature, thus appears rooted in social reality, that does not mean that it is a reflection of it. It does not reflect that reality but calls it into question. By depicting it rent and divided against itself, it turns it into a problem. (2)

This sense of tragedy exploring a problem in social reality is helpful for two reasons. First, it prompts one to consider which social reality is being reflected. It is clearly a problem to read the play as an exploration of French politics either at the time of its setting or its composition. The play is much more concerned with problems in the social fabric of Britain as I will clarify below. And second, it prevents one from making the mistakes that William Godwin made when he read the text. In a fascinating letter written in response to Godwin's critique of the tragedy Inchbald thanks him for his critical acumen and then emphasizes that his request for historical authenticity is aside from the point. Furthermore, she responds to Godwin's concerns regarding the play's political effects in a fashion that indicates how she sees the play's political project:

There appears an inconsistency in my having said to you, 'I have no view to any public good in this piece,' and afterwards alluding to its preventing future massacres: to this I reply that it was your hinting to me that it may do harm which gave me the first idea that the play might do good. (3)

What kind of harm Godwin and Inchbald have in mind is debatable, but it appears that Inchbald is responding to what all of her readers appear to have felt was an excess of violence in the text. (4) Inchbald's response indicates that the play's political effectivity is tied to its potential to 'do harm'. In light of the play's rigorous exclusion of violent acts from the stage and its intense examination of the signs of that violence it makes sense to understand the harm discussed here in relation to the affect generated by the violence of tragic reversal.

4. As Paula Backscheider remarks, The Massacre is an extraordinarily violent text. (5) As the play loosely grafts events from the French revolution onto the events of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, each of the tragedy's three acts engages the representation of violence in a distinct fashion. In Act I, Eusèbe Tricastin narrates, in the play's longest speech, the assassination of his wife's family and the proliferation of violence in the streets of Paris. Act II's most resonant moment returns to the same events not through verbal description but through the appearance of the dagger which Eusèbe pulled from the breast of Mme. Tricastin's dying mother. The shift from the verbal evocation of horror to the concentration of horror in the physical object prepares us for the incarnation of physical violence in Act III. After a series of political negotiations between Eusèbe and different insurgent factions, the murdered bodies of his wife and two children are brought on stage upon a bier in what amounts to an almost ceremonial presentation of tragic death. The play, therefore, starts with the verbal description of family slaughter, passes on to the iconic manifestation of that slaughter in the dagger stained with the mother's blood, and finally rests on the presentation of the body of a second murdered mother and her children. The movement brings one closer and closer to the body and by extension to the physicality of death.

The sex of this body is far from incidental and constitutes the phantasmatic core of the play's political intervention. At the basic level of plot, Eusèbe survives the actions of the murderous mob not once but twice; and in both instances the play counters Eusèbe's good fortune with horrific descriptions or embodiments of familial slaughter. Between these two moments Inchbald presents Eusèbe covered in the blood of his wife's mother and grasping the assailant's knife. The force of the tragic action demands that one question the relationship between Eusèbe and that knife, and by extension the spilled blood of his wife and mother-in-law. Especially since in Act I, Eusèbe emphasizes that the only reason he escapes the mob is that 'my sword in my hand reeking with blood, my hair dishevelled, and my frantic features caused me to be mistaken for one of the murderers' (364). I would argue that this ambiguous relation to the murderers is crucial to Inchbald's critique of both Jacobin and Anti-Jacobin politics and cuts to the core of the masculinization of public discourse and the feminization of private space.


The play explicitly links the political crisis it is analyzing to the sequestration of women and children in ostensibly 'safe spaces'. This sequestration allows the family and the political to become realms of exclusively male homosocial transactions. That these transactions are unable to protect mothers and children is an important critique of late eighteenth century governmentality whether conceived in terms of bourgeois hegemony grounded on the deployment of sexuality or in terms of Burkean paternalism. In my opinion, The Massacre's importance lies in this political gesture for it explicitly argues a) that it is women who primarily suffer the violence of male homosocial relations and b) that this is a problem in the constitution of politics itself. The play also insists that this gender critique is not party specific but rather universal. The trial which dominates Act III at first seems to be setting up Glandeve's rational advocation of political difference as the sign of true liberty. This re-establishment of civil society is explicitly figured as the solution of the threat of class warfare embodied by Dugas. However, Glandeve's simple re-assertion of bourgeois dominance may save Eusèbe Tricastin and his father, but does little for the preservation of his wife and children. In this light, Glandeve's rational jurisprudence begins to look like a salvage project in which bourgeois and landed men are saving themselves from the tangible violence instantiated by the social inequality which defines their privilege. Inchbald seems to be re-asserting the cost of such a practice.


However, this re-assertion has its own problems which come leaping forward in the final speech of the tragedy. After the disclosure of the dead body of Mme. Tricastin and her children, Glandeve shifts from the discourse of rational jurisprudence to a portentous amalgamation of religion and monstrous rhetoric:

Glan. My friends, I conjure you to take every care that the perpetrators of this barbarous outrage are secured. This man [to Dugas] and his followers shall be made prisoners till our researches prove successful. Then, the good (of all parties) will conspire to extirpate such monsters from the earth. It is not party principles which cause this devastation; 'tis want of sense—'tis guilt—for the first precept in our Christian laws is charity—the next obligation to extend that charity EVEN TO OUR ENEMIES.

[The bier is carried off in slow procession—Tricastin and Eusèbe following as mourners, and the attendants singing a dirge]

I want to close this section with a somewhat tendentious reading of the shift between the legal rhetoric of the first two sentences to the normative rhetoric of the latter two. The horror elicited by the presentation of the dead woman's body de-stabilizes Glandeve's rhetoric such that his advocation of liberty, equality and above all fraternity are superceded not only by the othering of some of the insurgent lower orders as monstrous beings, but also by the proclamation of Christian charity and obligation as societal norms. Equality as it is presented by Glandeve early in Act III is rightfully shown to be an assertion of masculine privilege. But instead of solving the social inequality which lies at the heart of the French Revolution and of the violence portrayed in The Massacre, the cathartic force of Inchbald's gender critique opts instead for crucial mechanisms of social control aimed at consolidating the middle class. Inchbald's gender critique, therefore, is intimately tied to an assertion of bourgeois privilege. And this assertion leans toward the enculturation strategies of Maria Edgworth or Hannah More rather than the rational liberalism of Mary Wollstonecraft or Mary Hays. At one level Inchbald's prescient feminist analysis of Jacobin rhetoric is at the same time a class-based advocation of disciplinary technologies. (6)

8. The complexity of Inchbald's political analysis here gains in intensity when one recognizes that Inchbald used The Massacre to intervene in the discourse network of Jacobin aspirations in Britain. As I have already noted above Inchbald circulated The Massacre, often in a package with A Simple Story, not only to Godwin, but also to Holcroft and less prominent members of Jacobin circles. Interestingly, her remarks in the play's 'Advertisement' provide a way of understanding why such a publicly oriented document both in its concerns and its generic function may have been composed as a means not only of entering but also of altering a historically significant but unquestionably private discourse network. Inchbald argues that The Massacre was never intended for production at one of the London theatres because, like Horace Walpole's tragedy The Mysterious Mother, 'the subject matter is so horrid, that I thought it would shock, rather than give satisfaction, to an audience' (353). This is an odd remark because she also quotes Walpole's statement that he 'found it so truly tragic in the essential springs of terror and pity, that I could not resist the impulse of adapting it to the scene' (353). This seems to suggest that tragedy's elicitation of intense emotion, which drives its political critique of social reality, no longer has place in the public spaces of the late eighteenth century theatre. This is more than a matter of social decorum. I would suggest that it is precisely the category of intense affect that poses irreducible problems for Godwin's political project as expressed in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. It is an only a slight exaggeration to suggest that the privatization and minimization of affect in each political subject constitutes both the ground and the blind-spot of Godwin's political vision. For Inchbald to privately send a tragedy which both generically and substantially asserts the power of emotion in social relations elegantly stages a problem in the separation of spheres that is shared by the characters in the play and by what appears to be her specific target audience. The containment of tragedy in the act of reading like the sequestration of women in the private sphere interferes with the political effectivity both of the tragic critique of the social and of women as social subjects. Entry into the discourse network requires the privatization of a publicly-oriented aesthetic project—the tragedy abandons the staging of social action in favour of a readerly meditation on the social. One could argue that a similar replacement of social praxis by a theorization of the political is precisely the limit of Godwin's politics. This seems remarkably similar to the moment in Act III when Glandeve expatiates on things as they should be at the same time that Mme. Tricastin and her children are being murdered. In Inchbald's eyes, theorizing the political at the very least must be accompanied by the careful regulation of the eruption of anger instantiated by social inequality otherwise women will continue to pay the violent cost. This call for governance not only fractures her relation to Godwin's rational anarchism, but also marks the passage from one discourse network to another—from the realm of revolutionary activism to that of reformist enculturation.

Daniel J. O'Quinn
University of Guelph

Daniel J. O'Quinn is an Associate Professor in the School of Literatures and Performance Studies in English at the University of Guelph. His articles have appeared in ELH, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, European Romantic Review and other journals.


1. Thomas C. Crochunis's recent 'The Act of Reading Drama: Women Writers, Dramatic Closets, and Literary Studies' reads the play as 'the ne plus ultra of closet drama' and emphasizes its centrality to this discussion. I would like to thank Prof. Crochunis for allowing me to read this unpublished essay and for his comments on an early draft of this Introduction. (back)
2. Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, trans. Janet Lloyd (New York: Zone Books, 1988) pp. 32-33. (back)
3. Quoted in Roger Manvell, Elizabeth Inchbald: A Biographical Study (Lanham: University Press of America, 1972) pp. 94-5. (back)
4. As is probably apparent, I am working inductively from Inchbald's letter to establish Godwin's criticisms. A less charitable—and less supportable—reading of the Godwin's reservations about the play's harmful qualities would be to suggest that the political critique embedded in The Massacre could do harm to his soon to be published An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. (back)
5. Paula Backscheider, 'Introduction' to The Plays of Elizabeth Inchbald vol.1 (New York: Garland P, 1980) p. xvi. (back)
6. For a more sustained consideration of this issue see my 'Scissors and Needles: Inchbald's Wives as They Were, Maids as They Are,' Theatre Journal 51 (1999): 105-125, and 'Inchbald's Indies: Domestic and Dramatic Re-Orientations,' European Romantic Review 9.2 (Spring 1998): 217-230. (back)