Article Title

The Politics of Adapting Behn's Oroonoko


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

‘Biyi Bandele’s 1999 adaptation of Aphra Behn’s novel, Oroonoko: Or, The Royal Slave (1688), commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, proved to be an interesting play theatrically. Bandele and the RSC director, Gregory Doran, were particularly successful in evoking the African culture of Coramantien through the song, dance, and mythology. As reviewers of the production noted, Bandele’s Oroonoko was visually stimulating and emotionally arresting. However, some critics noticed that the second half seemed lackluster in comparison with the African first half. Jane Edwards, for instance, remarked that “the originality of the African scenes only serves to show up the more predictable scenario in the West Indies”; Patrick Marmion wrote, “One moment it [the first half, set in Coramantien] is bright and breezy and the next it blazes with incandescent choreography before the descent into darkness. Perhaps the second half loses dramatic focus as the plot diversifies into melodrama, but its momentum is sustained by the memory of paradise lost”; and Susanah Clapp observed that “the second half of the play cracks under the weight of melodramatic events.”1 What these critics instinctively realized is that Bandele’s writing in the first half is much different from what he has stolen in the second half from two earlier dramatic adaptations of Behn’s novel, Thomas Southerne’s Oroonoko: A Tragedy (1965) and John Hawkesworth’s Oroonoko (1759). That the half in which Southerne’s hand is most evident is viewed as less effective dramatically makes one wonder why Bandele stole from Southerne or Hawkesworth at all. Clearly, he is more attuned to contemporary audiences’ tastes and has a keen instinct for dramatic pacing and ironically paired incidence in the two parts.


1Reviews of ‘Biyi Bandele, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko in a New Adaptation, as performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon, in London Theatre Record 19, no. 9 (1999): 583-84, cited hereafter as LTR.

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