Article Title

“Look on this picture, and on this”: Framing Shakespeare in William Wells Brown’s The Escape


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

“With me, socially, politically, morally, character is everything—color, nothing. The negro is no less a man, because he is black; the Anglo-American is no more a man, because he is white.”—Senator Francis Gillette of Connecticut in a speech at the Senate, February 23, 1855

In his 1854 travel sketch The American Fugitive in Europe, William Wells Brown recounts his many excursions to the Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition while in London. In his wonder at this “great international gathering,” Brown states, “It is strange, indeed, to see so many nations assembled and represented on one spot of British ground. In short, it is one great theatre, with thousands of performers, each playing his own part.”1 This gathering undoubtedly occupied Brown’s thoughts when he returned to the United States. In 1856, Brown began to read his first drama to New England audiences, entitled Experience; or, How to Give a Northern Man a Backbone, and in 1857, he began to read to various antislavery audiences what would become the first published drama by an African American, The Escape; or A Leap for Freedom.2 Not coincidently, after returning from five years in Europe, where, according to William Edward Farrison, Brown had read and seen a considerable amount of drama, including many Shakespearean plays,3 and with the vision of the theater and performers he witnessed at the Crystal Palace firmly in his mind, Brown came to write, perform, and publish a dramatic work. An engaging antislavery orator and lecturer, and writer of the first novel by an African American (Clotel, 1853), Brown returned to the United States knowing, as did Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “The play’s the thing.”


1William Wells Brown, The American Fugitive in Europe, in The Travels of William Wells Brown, ed. Paul Jefferson (New York: Markus Wiener, 1991), 171. Brown’s words here echo Jaques’s famous speech in 2.7 in As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.” The June 30, 1855 edition of the African American newspaper the Provincial Freeman reprints a piece from The London Punch, entitled “The Seven Ages of a Public Man,” which the editor terms “a clever parody on Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man”:

Public Life’s a stage,
All men in office merely players:
They have their characters and salaries,
And one man in his course plays many parts,
And acts through seven ages. First, the infant,
High-born, inheriting a coat of arms.
And then the Public School boy, with his satchel,
And shining lot of fag, going by rail
Uncaringly to school. Then the Collagian
Boating and driving, with a comic ballad,
And supercilious eyebrow. Then the Patriot
Full of strong oaths and moustached like the pard,
Anxious for honor, and not disposed to quarrel
With any decent situation
Suffice that can one’s mouth; and then the Member
Quoting old saws and modern instances,
In fair round paunch, with public dinners lined;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered Minister,
With spectacles, and prose, and votes on side,
His youthful views renounced, a world too wide
For his shrunk wits, and his once manly voice,
Trying in vain to hoax the people, pipes
A miserable sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this sad disgraceful history,
Is childish Red-tapeism, sans pluck, sans everything.

See my discussion of parody and burlesque in the section entitled Antebellum Shakespearean Specters that follows. All articles from the Provincial Freeman, Frederick Douglass Paper, The North Star, The Colored American, and The National Era that appear in this essay were obtained from the Accessible Archives Database.

2Experience was never published and is not extant. For more on this play and its other potential titles, see William Edward Farrison, William Wells Brown: Author and Reformer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 277–80. See also James Haskins, Black Theater in America (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1982), who remarks, “Although William Wells Brown’s plays were never performed on an actual stage, it must have given him comfort in his later years to know that he had played a part, however small, in bringing about the abolition of slavery” (17). Errol Hill notes, in Errol G. Hill and James V. Hatch, A History of African American Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), that Brown considered The Escape to be superior to his first play, and states, “Most critics found the playscript to be inadequate, an unruly hodgepodge of different scenes, with language that is artificial, but they are prepared to excuse the author since he did not expect his play to be staged” (50). William Edward Farrison, in “Phylon Profile, XVI: William Wells Brown,” Phylon 9 (1948), remarks that Brown seems not to have enjoyed reading the play; he quotes from a letter Brown wrote to Marius R. Robinson on November 29, 1857, which reads, “I had rather give two lectures than to give one Reading” (22). Frederick W. Bond, discussing the reception of Brown’s first play Experience in The Negro and the Drama: The Direct and Indirect Contribution Which the American Negro Has Made to Drama and the Legitimate Stage, with the Underlying eConditions Responsible (Washington, D.C.: McGrath Publishing Company, 1969), quotes a review from the Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle: “His lectures are among the best ever delivered on that subject, as all who heard him testify, and his drama interested and amused his audience, bringing the subject before them more vividly than any amount of argument could have done” (26). Finally, according to Shelley Fisher Fishkin, “Brown firmly believed that drama had its role to play in the struggle,” in “The Bondwoman’s Escape: Hannah Crafts Rewrites the First Play Published by an African American,” In Search of Hannah Crafts: Critical Essays on The Bondwoman’s Narrative, eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Hollis Robbins (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 118.

3Farrison, William Wells Brown: Author and Reformer, 279.

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