‘... You'll be made a slave in your turn; you'll be told also that it is right that you should be so, and we shall see what you think of this justice’: Libido, Retribution and Moderation in The Island of Slaves

HOCKENHULL-SMITH, Marie (2008). ‘... You'll be made a slave in your turn; you'll be told also that it is right that you should be so, and we shall see what you think of this justice’: Libido, Retribution and Moderation in The Island of Slaves. Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 31 (2), 223-240.

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Official URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1754-0208.2008.00101.x
Link to published version:: 10.1111/j.1754-0208.2008.00101.x

Abstract

The Island of Slaves. Comedy of two acts, 1761. This is little more than a literal translation of L'Isle des Esclaves of M. Marivaux. It has not made its appearance in print, yet had at least as much merit as many of the petites pieces which we see frequently performed on the stage. It was acted one night only, for the benefit of Mrs Clive, and was the occasion of an epistolary dispute, in print, between her and Mr Shuter, whose benefit happened to fall on the same night. Biographia Dramatica, or a Companion to the Playhouse, 1764.1 When it was Catherine Clive's turn to choose the evening's programme and take the box-office profits at Drury Lane Theatre in March 1761, this popular comic actress decided to air a new afterpiece, The Island of Slaves, a translation of Marivaux's L'Isle des Esclaves of 1725. Actors often used their benefit night to showcase their own particular talents. Clearly this plot attracted Clive because there is a central role for her trademark character, the feisty, plot-stirring maidservant. From 1758 to 1761, for instance, she played arch and resourceful maids in The Intriguing Chambermaid, Amphitryon, The Confederacy and High Life below Stairs.2 However, this afterpiece featured a more politically serious version of the role. It is set on a fantasy island where a law inverts the status of those who are marooned there, giving slaves the ownership of their masters and the judicial task of confronting them with the truth of their exploitative behaviour. Thus it literally interrogates the master and slave relationship through this revelatory, reformatory process. The fascination with the island as a place of transformation clearly has timeless, Shakespearian theatrical resonances; but Marivaux's play also relates to the ethics of service and slavery in French society of the early Enlightenment. It was written for the exiled Comédiens Italiens at the Palais Royal, to be embroidered freely with song and business; and though only a light, short comedy it successfully raises debate on a long-standing issue, working through to undermining national legitimation of slave ownership by suggesting that if there were more understanding of it as a relationship with a person, it would not be tolerated. This is remarkably enlightened, given the fact that, for another century, much of the world treated slavery as acceptable. It is intriguing to consider whether the play's potential for political bite was preserved and appreciated in the English version of 1761. The comment from the Companion to the Playhouse quoted above, claims that the translation followed the original literally; but that it had little impact, disappearing after one performance. However, the compilers seem aware that the play's disappearance was not necessarily a judgement on its quality. Furthermore, the manuscript which survives is the one read by the Examiner of Plays, John Larpent, under the terms of clauses III and IV of the 1737 Stage Licensing Acts and the legible marks of the cuts that he required have significance. This article ultimately aims to arrive at an understanding of why Clive's choice might have failed to fulfil the hopes she might have justifiably had for it. I will come to that in section iii. Firstly, I want to consider what the play stood for in Paris in 1725, whilst bringing out that the play's relation to France's policies also gave it relevance to England's.

Item Type: Article
Research Institute, Centre or Group: Humanities Research Centre
Identification Number: 10.1111/j.1754-0208.2008.00101.x
Depositing User: Sam Wharam
Date Deposited: 28 Sep 2012 09:49
Last Modified: 28 Sep 2012 09:49
URI: http://shura.shu.ac.uk/id/eprint/6353

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