115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Geographical and Sexual Others in Eighteenth-Century Performance Art

Anne Greenfield, Valdosta State University

This presentation discusses depictions of fictional eunuchs on the Restoration and early eighteenth-century stage. This analysis showcases the theatrical techniques underlying the staging of eunuchs during this era, and it illustrates the ways these representations were shaped by imperialist assumptions.

Proposal: 

On the London stage between 1660 and 1735 alone, at least twenty-four plays that were set in the “Orient” showcased eunuchoid characters. Recent scholars have widely acknowledged the importance of the figure of the eunuch as a powerful ingredient in establishing an Oriental ethos in these productions. For instance, Matthew Birchwood points out that, in tragedies set in the East, “the setting, the eunuch’s presence, the sumptuousness of the décor … in fact every detail of this carefully prescribed tableau is designed to evoke the powerful topos of the seraglio” (Staging Islam in England Drama & Culture 122). In plays of this era, eunuchs often take center stage, emphasized as a crucial part of the stereotyped pomp, pageantry, luxury, and indeed sexual depravity of Eastern courts.

Despite this critical agreement on the importance of eunuchs in English theatre, scholars have failed to address the specific ways eunuchs were staged in these productions. How, for instance, did audience members know they were watching a “grand procession of eunuchs” (as Mary Pix calls it in her stage directions to Ibrahim), rather than simply a grand procession of men? What set these characters apart from other often-depicted ministers of a sultan’s court, including viziers, agas, dervishes, and muftis?

This presentation is the first scholarly analysis of the visual signifiers used to denote eunuchoid characters on the stage at this time. As I show, writers and theatre managers adopted a variety of techniques in staging eunuchs, including blackface, whiteface, beardless faces, shaven heads, “Eastern” robes, lean/small physiques, and even—for the first time in English dramatic history—female players cast in these roles, to makes these characters readily identifiable as eunuchs. Ultimately, this presentation highlights the imperial assumptions and theatrical techniques underlying the staging of eunuchs during this era.