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

Purinton, Marjean. 'Response to Daniel J. O'Quinn's Essay: Dancing and Dueling in Mariana Starke's Comedy.' British Women Playwrights around 1800. 1 September 2000. 13 pars. <>

Copyright © Contributor, 2000-2008. 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.


Daniel J. O'Quinn's compelling and cogent analysis of Mariana Starke's 1788 play The Sword of Peace; or, A Voyage of Love has impelled me to think anew about the ways in which it engages with its historical moment and British colonial enterprises in India. When I started working with this intriguing play two years ago, I, like O'Quinn, was drawn to the conflation of English class and gender anxieties staged in India where those issues were, in fact, complicated by Anglo-Indian relations and influences. O'Quinn's reading of Starke's play, situated within its cultural and theatrical contexts, enriches my understanding of the comedy as well as Britain's emergent imperialism at the end of the eighteenth century.

2. There are numerous political underpinnings inscribed in the play. O'Quinn's reading of the Resident as embodiment of the actual Lord Augustus Clive uncovers another layer of meaning that compounds the play's allusions to the Warren Hastings scandal and impeachment commencing in 1788. Additionally, the political and economic wrongdoing exposed in the popular press of the 1770s and 1780s, like the anti-East India Company rhetoric of Edmund Burke's and William Jones's debates during Hastings's trial, point to a pattern of British corruption of Indian society which, as O'Quinn demonstrates, Starke's comedy rehearses. (1) It is also possible, I think, to see the Resident as representative figure of another corrupt former Governor of Bengal, the high-handed and capricious John Zephaniah Holwell, who was also recalled for his abusive powers in the 1760s. (2) At a time when India was being made comprehensible to the British public, Starke's comedy, played a significant part in introducing the public to colonial "imperial theatre." (3)
3. Greedy nabobs, like Clive, Hastings, Holwell, and Starke's Resident are cast in feminized terms, and the relocation of political scandal into the private sphere, according to O'Quinn, "opens the way for allegorization of colonial governance in terms of heterosexual relations"—a dramatic strategy particularly risky for a woman playwright who stages anti-Company, anti-Government positions in sexually charged dramaturgy, both forbidden territories for women writers at the end of the eighteenth century. (4) Position and identity of British men are established against a background of sexually incontinent nabobs and feminized indigenous people—even India herself, as Balachandra Rajan terms it. According to Rajan: "India is a stage on which the feminine can be enacted and given its full range of representations with a luxuriance of rendering that is itself feminine in its elaboration." (5) A new "feminized" stage thus awaits Eliza and Louisa Morton, and Starke's emissaries modify and soften the Amazon warrior trope that Laura Brown has argued characterizes early eighteenth-century literary culture. (6) The emergent bourgeois femininity asserts the potential for stability of gender and in governance, for as O'Quinn observes, "deviant homosocial relations threaten the foundation of British imperial power," especially in light of the play's suggestions of effeminacy and sexual predation, what O'Quinn calls the "Indianization" of English society.
4. The performance of Englishness in gendered terms is complicated in the play's abolitionist sub-plot, with its conceptual connection to the exploitation of "others" at the hands of the dominant, ruling culture and its linkage of dangerous effeminancy and interracial relations. These parallel enactments threaten to erode the oppositions of race and gender upon which the binaries of dominance/subjection, self/other rest, and yet the presence of Indians/Africans are essential to the writing of a gendered British nation in the colonial East. The scene between Jeffreys and Caesar in Act 3 illustrates this colonial and dramatic strategy. Jeffreys's "feminized" benevolence in buying Caesar's freedom is tagged with "friendship," a relationship in which he will inculcate proper British behavior, ironically an identification with the very masculinist imperialism that had enslaved him. Jeffrey declares: "I must make you a lad of spirit, like an Englishman, or else, what's your liberty good for" (3.1.). Caesar needs to function as mirror so that Jeffrey may affirm his identity, and the former slave, therefore remains a shadow of his "white" friend, his very soul defined in racist terms of the dominant culture. Magnanimously, Jeffrey tells Caesar: "Your face is black, but your heart is white as a snow-ball" (5.3.). While the Jeffreys/Caesar episode points to the advantages of humane and benevolent masters, the play comes short of advocating abolition, and in fact, its latent cultural politics critique racialized assimilation, the notion that if racial difference cannot be easily "othered" by law, then it can be subsumed as the same by culture.

Joseph Lew points out that miscegenation became a problem for colonial Britain at precisely the time of Hastings's trial and Starke's play. According to the new racial philosophy, "mixed breeds" were odd and anomalous conglomerations, even monstrous. (7) During this transition in imperialism ideology, there was, Peter J. Kitson points out, a paradigm shift in race theory and in the ways "race" was relation to nationality and culture. (8) By 1788, however, commercialism had a leveling effect on racial, class, and sexual boundaries. Affluent hybrids could, on India's stage, perform the attributes of genteel British society that they see exhibited in the corrupted imitations of the English colonists, who are themselves, parodying the aristocratic/bourgeois classes at home. (9) The differences between cultures emerge as a form of what Malcolm Kelsall calls "carnival costuming," as we evidenced in the Jeffreys/Caesar episode. (10) It is in the play's character/caricature dichotomy that O'Quinn discovers dramatic construction and destabilizing of racial identity through a process of multi-layered "othering," an expression of colonial excess as well as Anglo curiosity about the body—its color and features. Body performances make visible distinctions on the Indian stage where mixed breeds and mixed cultures negotiate and re-invent identity.


O'Quinn invokes the period's popular caricaturist Henry Banbury and his famous strip "The Long Minuet as Danced at Bath" as the litmus test for genuine gentility to demonstrate the play's exposure of the pretentious nouveaux-riches of colonial societies. Starke replays the minuet at Coromandel as satire in the card-game scene, an enactment of libertine vice and material excess but charged with sexual and racial connotations. The card-game scene, explains O'Quinn, links the bodily excesses of the Mrs. Garnish, Miss Bronze, and Mrs. Gobble with the representations of corrupt and lazy nabobs—both sexually perverse in their caricatures and therefore critical of hypersexuality, masculinized femininity, and flawed masculinity. Sprawled upon their sofas, the leisurely classed women require female black slaves to assuage the heat with fans and to play their cards. In their burlesque of aristocratic behavior, these women play a role in India that would have been forbidden to them as biracial women in Britain. We see in this comical scene a serious replication of class hierarchies, for the black slaves who embody the radical figure of difference, are "othered" by the mixed breeds, whose colors are identified in Starke's stage directions as "natural brown Complexion" for Mrs. Garnish (3.1.), "a great, fat Woman, very brown" for Mrs. Gobble (3.1.), and "the other Lady [Miss Bronze] is the color of Yarico" (3.1.). These women's liminal colors mark the space between colonial blackness and English whiteness, an increasing space of complicated alterity. Their performance emphasizes how profoundly identity is staged and how at the turn of the nineteenth century "Englishness" was becoming a cultural rather than a racial category.


Against these caricatures, the Morton cousins appear relatively "normal"—characters embodying British bourgeois sexuality. Eliza and Louisa are concerned with their class identity in the colonial spaces where "class" has become fluid and imitative, driven by an imperial economy determining "value." As sexual objects of a different marketplace, Louisa and Eliza are, says O'Quinn, the characters who resist Indianization and commodification. Starke, therefore, argues O'Quinn, advocates for a certain amount of sexual agency for women, for they too participate in a process in which cultures are redefined with the ideals of womanhood (domestic, moral, spiritual, authentic) central. Eliza, especially, resists playing the figure of the commodified woman in the mercantile, captilist accumulation with which the trading and colonizing Britain was involved. Instead, the cousins seem to occupy the idealization of woman as a repository of cultural value and meaning—a role connecting them more with the civilizing enterprises of later nineteenth-century expansion in Britain imperial policies.

8. O'Quinn's discussion of the cousins' monetary and marital missions prompt me to entertain several questions: Do the cousins disrupt the capitalist economy and imperialist ideology of the play's world, or do they facilitate its masculinist-driven objectives and violence, its obscuring of racism, classism, and sexism through claims of egalitarianism, benevolence, and education? Do they become threatening as traders, agents of commercial and marital enterprises? Is their gender difference rendered less threatening in the context of the play's racial and class differences? What is their role in the dramatization and staging of imperialist ideology? At the point when caricature and character dance or duel, do we see the disruptive power of a category of difference that is internal to the dominant ideology? Laura Brown reminds us, "Even in the context of the dramatization of an oppressive ideology, representations of difference cannot be suppressed. The use of the marginal as a proxy for power, although it seems a perfect act of appropriation, might trigger the potential for subversion, however ambiguously it is realized." (11)

Simon Gikandi calls attention to the double-edged sword confronting women who saw the imperial enterprise as a space where they could design new modes of subjectivity, and he asks how we might read what he calls the "complicity/resistance" dialectic in which these women fashioned themselves: "Do we praise them for rising beyond domestic confinement and finding new opportunities in the colonial frontier, or do we condemn them for failing to transcend (male) ideologies of empire, including those of racial and caste superiority?" (12) Gikandi suggests that we renounce the binary opposition between self and other when we read women in the culture of colonialism and instead see imperial femininity as an invitation to read colonialism's culture in its contradictions and complicities, "as a chiasmus in which the polarities that define domination and subordination shift with localities, genders, cultures, and even periods." (13) Perhaps the radical meaning of Starke's comedy lies in this ambiguous space of blurred boundaries, a frontier in which identities can be constructed without adhering to the binary oppositions of Western culture—a fantasy that might have seemed feasible at this transitional moment in Britain's colonial history.


In the cultural context of O'Quinn's reading of The Sword of Peace, dueling, like dancing, functions as an important dramatic strategy for negotiating British identity and governance in India. The Epilogue, he points out, critiques specific forms of public masculinity with its anti-dueling rhetoric, and at a time when dueling is in disrepute, a new vision of society founded upon "reasonableness, Christianity, and commerce" is enacted in Starke's play. Discourses in anti-dueling and anti-nabobry, O'Quinn observes, share rhetorical strategies, including references to degeneracy and monstrosity. Starke's comedy stages a "more socially appropriate mode of conflict resolution" that invites spectators to attend the theatre rather than the dueling field. The sword is given to the female knight, and as playwright, "Starke wields the sword and figuratively enters the masculinized realm of publicity because men have failed to accede to their phallic responsibilities." Louisa's mission to recover a phallic object, O'Quinn insists, raises questions about her femininity as well as Starke's understanding of the roles of violence and honor in the colonial sphere. The sword is connected to a past glory, the paternal neglect of Thomas Clairville's eastern mission, and the shift from violence toward acquiescence in governing colonized peoples is "modeled on the audience consumption of theatrical effects . . . in the space of the theatre itself."

11. I have argued, in fact, that the "little drama" that Eliza and Louisa script in order to acquire their Eastern "treasures" (sword and husbands) is quite different from the script of male conquest enacted in India by agents of the East India Company and governmental representatives. The cousins' script is one of domestic reform in sexual politics, but with limited consciousness of class and racial oppressions. While Eliza refuses to play the conventional woman-as-trophy, she boldly asserts class privilege in the presence of Mrs. Tarter. The meta-theatrics satirically raises the curtain on colonial subjugation masked as commercial enterprise at the end of the eighteenth century. I agree with O'Quinn that the female figure "plays a mediating role between an outmoded aristocratic code of masculine behavior and an emergent form of commercial civility." Louisa, explains O'Quinn, discharges the sword's phallic qualities so that it can assume its appropriate place in Britain's self-fashioning. Women portray restricted masculinized public agency, O'Quinn concludes, "to dramatize the necessity of restraining male homosocial desires in the realm of politics, of commerce, and of love." Jeanne Moskal argues, on the other hand, that The Sword of Peace demonstrates Starke's conviction that the proper patriarchal authority will guarantee women's rights. (14) My reading of the play and its play-acting suggests something more radical about the performativity and artificiality of gender hierarchies, racial categories, and class structures, meta-dramatically performed upon the stage of India where women playwrights like Mariana Starke and Louisa and Eliza Morton can dramatize a "new" perspective on the "absurd customs" (1.1) of cultural boundaries in both the East and the West.
12. It is, I think, at the level of meta-performance, its unmasking of identity as performative (gender, race, cultural, national, colonial) that The Sword of Peace is most radical in its commentary on the process of imperialism. As O'Quinn points out, Starke invites her spectators/readers to pay attention to the subtle gradations of bodily performance, to discern, for example, the difference between the quality of Eliza's laugh and the vulgar laughter of Mrs. Gobble, Mrs. Garnish, or Miss Bronze. The play contains remarkably excessive stage directions for its visual tableaux, interpretative spectacles perhaps more powerful to theatergoers than to readers. Dancing and dueling are really only implied by the drama and not actually staged, what O'Quinn identifies as "ghostly qualities of performance." O'Quinn's comments about the differences between Starke's play as performance and reading texts directs our attention to issues of representation in a culture engaged in pressing its markers onto "others" both at home and abroad at a time of national refashioning and colonial expansion. The drama's meta-performativity demonstrates that representation is identity, a process that seems to demand various figures of alterity, drawing spectators/readers into the very practice of locating and positioning the colonial subject in the incipient English imperial imagination.
13. Like other women playwrights engaged with public and private ambiguities and contradictions around 1800, Starke stages British identity formation and colonial/imperial representation through performance and meta-performance, but with pedagogical implications. Masquerade simultaneously conceals and reveals the contradictions in the British colonizing process, but perceptive readers/spectators recognize how comic, satiric imitation of "Britishness" casts doubt upon a stable notion of British identity. Homi K. Bhabha argues that there is a gap between the pedagogic and historicized narrative of national identity and the performative?the continual re-enactment of national subject formation. (15) At the historical crossroads of colonial activity for Britain in 1788, Starke offers us a peep into that gap, an invitation to recognize and to assess the implications of commercial and governmental policies that would profoundly affect all men and women that would be claimed by the British Empire. The Sword of Peace dramatizes that what "we" rehearse and enact will determine what "we" become, collectively and individually, and it contributed significantly to the founding myths of Empire being constructed during the nineteenth century. In terms of our own understandings of the literary and commercial transactions that shaped the imperial imagination, it is important for us to include Starke's contribution. The electronically available text of her play expands our own pedagogical potential and enriches our engagement with Romantic imperialism.

Marjean D. Purinton
Texas Tech University

Marjean Purinton is Associate Professor of English at Texas Tech University, where she is a member of the Teaching Academy, the Comparative Literature Committee, and where she teaches in the Women's Studies Program. Purinton is the author of Romantic Ideology Unmasled: The Mentally Constructed Tyrannies in Dramas of William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Joanna Baillie, as well as articles on Romantic drama, early nineteenth-century women writers, and pedagogical issues. She is currently working on a book-length project about British Romantic Techno-Gothic Drama and Cultural Identity.


1. About the Hastings trial, see Saree Makdisi, Romantic Imperialism: Universal Empire and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998), 101-; Michael J. Franklin, "Accessing India: Orientalism, anti-'Indianism' and the Rhetoric of Jones and Burke" in Romanticism and Colonialism: Writing and Empire, 1780-1830, eds. Tim Fulford and Peter J. Kitson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998), 48-66; Peter J. Kitson, "Romanticism and colonialism: races, places, people, 1785-1800" in Romanticism and Colonialism, 13-34; Jyotsna G. Singh, Colonial Narratives/Cultural Dialogues: "Discoveries" of India in the Language of Colonialism (London: Routledge, 1996), 65-66; David Musselwhite, "The Trial of Warren Hastings" in Literature, Politics and Theory: Papers from the Essex Conference, 1976-84, eds. Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, Margaret Iversen, and Diana Loxley (London: Methuen, 1986), 77-103. (back)
2. Franklin, "Accessing India,"50-51, and Joseph Lew, "The Necessary Orientalist? 'The Giaour' and Nineteenth-Century Imperialist Misogyny" in Romanticism, Race, and Imperial Culture, 1780-1834, eds. Alan Richardson and Sonia Hofkosh (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996), 173-202. In "The plague of imperial desire: Montesquieu, Gibbon, Brougham, and Mary Shelley's The Last Man," in Romanticism and Colonialism, 261-78, Lew points out that the returned Nabob quickly became a proverbial and literary commonplace (267). (back)
3. See Franklin, "Accessing India," 65. (back)
4. Daniel J. O'Quinn discusses the ways in which Elizabeth Inchbald similarly deploys India and related spaces in her dramas as part of a critique of late eighteenth-century masculinity and an assertion of heteronormative sexuality as the foundation upon which to build stable imperial governance: "Scissors and Needles: Inchbald's Wives as They Were, Maids as They Are and the Governance of Sexual Exchange," Theatre Journal 51 (1999): 105-25, and "Inchbald's Indies: Domestic and Dramatic Re-Orientations," European Romantic Review 9.2 (1998): 217-30. (back)
5. Balachandra Rajan, "Feminizing the Feminine: Early Women Writers on India," in Romanticism, Race, and Imperial Culture, 149-72; see 152. Malcolm Kelsall asserts that the "feminine" Orient is a figure of overwhelming disorder, endlessly furtile (252), "'Once did she hold the gorgeous East in fee . . .': Byron's Venice and Oriental Empire," in Romanticism and Colonialism, 243-60. (back)
6. Laura Brown, Ends of Empire: Women and Ideology in Early Eighteenth-Century English Literature (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993), 155. (back)
7. Lew, "The Necessary Orientalist," 196-97. (back)
8. Kitson, "Romanticism and colonialism," 34. Makdisi similarly acknowledges that the Romantic period marks a transitional moment between opposed sets of colonial projects, two different and conflicting constructions of Britain's Orient, two antithetical paradigms of British imperialism, 101 and 115. Alan Richardson and Sonia Hofkosh point to this opposition of center and periphery in British colonialism in their "Introduction" to Romanticism, Race, and Imperial Culture, 1-11. They state: "Precisely because the discourses of race and colonialism were still in the process of formation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, anxieties are often more overt, contradictions and gaps more visible, and yet codified and smoothed over as they will be at the height of the British empire later in the century" (4). (back)
9. According to Robert J.C. Young, "hybrid" in the nineteenth century referred to a physiological phenomenon rather than its twentieth-century connotations with culture, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race (London: Routledge, 1995), 6. Lew explains that colonial officials imitated the behaviors of their better classes in England while simultaneously immersing and "contaminating" themselves in Indian life, "The plague of imperial desire," 267-71, and in "The Necessary Orientalist," Lew observes that India's function was to turn Englishmen into "instant aristocrast," for India was the space where everyone considered himself a "Sahib" or gentleman (181). See also Ronald Hyam, Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1990), 115-16. (back)
10. Kelsall, "'Once did she hold the gorgeous East in fee,'" 256. Homi K. Bhabha refers to this identificatory displacement as "metonymy of presence," the disquieting mimicking of the colonizers by hybrid beings who personify "inappropriate signifiers of colonial discourse," thereby ironically reimpressing within the colonizer's mind "the difference between being English and being Anglicized. The colonizer becomes nonetheless fearful of having lost the self/other opposition as the mimic relentlessly "acts" to become the object of imitation, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), 89-90. (back)
11. Brown, The Ends of Empire, 168. (back)
12. Simon Gikandi, Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism (New York: Columbia UP, 1996), 122. Anne K. Mellor has argued that female writers construct the East as a space of "female liberation," a "feminotopia of lesbian sexuality and sensual desire," a positive alternative from British domestic confinement (15), "Romanticism, Gender and the Anxieties of Empire: An Introduction," European Romantic Review 8.2 (1997): 148-54. (back)
13. Gikandi, Maps of Englishness, 124. (back)
14. See Jeanne Moskal's forthcoming essay, "The Eclipse of the Private in Mariana Starke's Plays" in Women in British Romantic Theatre, ed. Catherine B. Burroughs (Cambridge: Cambridge UP). (back)
15. Homi K. Bhabha, "Dissemi Nation: time, narrative, and the margins of the modern nation," in Nation and Narration, ed. Homi K. Bhabha (London: Routledge, 1990), 291-322. (back)