Performing the West Indies: Comedy, Feeling, and British Identity


Jean Marsden


The plays that form the basis of this essay, Cumberland’s The West Indian and Colman’s Inkle and Yarico, depend upon the experience of Englishness as shared by the playwright and the audience for their dramatic effect. In the later eighteenth century, the interlocking relations and tensions that comprise national identity are especially fraught as England struggles to represent itself as a free and liberal imperial power. Representing figures from the margins of society, playwrights such as Cumberland and Colman depend upon benevolence as a means of negotiating the tensions England faced its own self image. These creations of identity embody what Edward Said describes as the imperial nation’s need to believe itself right, to believe itself different from the flawed empires that came before it. In The West Indian, England’s “need to be right,” to truly be that land of liberty and freedom leads to the performance of benevolence as a means of creating and performing a British identity mediated through characters such as the marginalized title character. In Colman’s Inkle and Yarico, benevolence prevails, however uneasily, despite the collision of idealized British freedom and the ugly fact of slavery.

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