Neo-Victorian Review – Theatrical Time Travel: Putting the ‘Neo’ in Victorian Drama

Hannah Greenstreet holds a Master of Studies in English: 1830-1914 from the University of Oxford, where she was a Clarendon Scholar. She graduated with a BA in English from Cambridge in 2014 and was Joseph Hodges Choate Memorial Fellow at Harvard University. She is the winner of the Theatre and Performance Research Association 2016 Postgraduate Essay Prize. Her research interests span nineteenth-century to contemporary theatre, particularly questions of form and the real. You can follow her on twitter @hgreenstreet1.

The BAVS 2016 conference, ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’, encouraged reflections upon the identity of the neo-Victorian. Author Patricia Duncker’s keynote drew on her own practice to define a neo-Victorian novel as a ‘modern novel with a modern sensibility, which addresses Victorian fiction’.[1] Similarly poet and academic Damian Walford Davies argued in his workshop on creative writing that what differentiated ‘neo-Victorian’ fiction from historical fiction was irony, an awareness of the distance between the nineteenth century and the present day, which makes the author unable to write as a nineteenth-century author.[2]

The paper I gave in the music and theatre strand of the conference on ‘Contemporary (Theatrical) Responses to Victorian Theatre’ aimed, in part, to respond to the lack of critical attention that has been paid to ‘neo-Victorian’ works on the stage. While neither Duncker nor Davies explicitly acknowledged the potential of drama as a neo-Victorian form, their concepts of the neo-Victorian prove relevant to a number of recent plays, which take the Victorian period as their subject matter. These plays often feature a sense of (spatial and temporal) distance, irony and a feeling of belatedness. Crucially, the ‘neo-‘ and the theatrical offer each other enormous potential to play with time. These plays’ historically conscious re-appropriation of anachronistic theatrical devices can enable them to realise a dynamic, politically engaged theatre history.

Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti (first directed by Indhu Rubasingham at the Tricycle Theatre, London, October 2012) and An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (first directed by Sarah Benson at the Soho Rep, New York, April 2014) both employ Victorian theatrical techniques to explore longstanding issues of race and representation that extend into the twenty-first century. The plays’ appropriation of Victorian theatrical techniques, including blackface minstrelsy, melodrama and Victorian acting styles, reveal the theatre’s historical, racialised appropriations, which underlie some twentieth and twenty first-century theatrical traditions and institutions. They also provide a way of writing back, of appropriating the appropriations.

Red Velvet is a semi-fictionalised account of the life of Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to perform at a legitimate theatre in Britain in the nineteenth-century. The play focuses on Aldridge’s engagement to succeed Edmund Kean in the role of Othello at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1833. The play was cancelled after only two performances, in part due to the press’s virulently negative and racist reaction to Aldridge. Rubasingham’s critically acclaimed production of Chakrabarti’s play hilariously burlesques early nineteenth-century acting styles. The acting in the play-within-a-play of the 1833 production of Othello is marked by poses, gestures, rhythm and hyperbole; the actors do not look at each other but the audience.

In contrast, Chakrabarti presents Aldridge as resistant to the ‘teapot school of acting’; he encourages Ellen Tree to play what she feels as Desdemona.[3] The theatre historian Errol Hill argues that Ira Aldridge should be numbered among the originators of a more naturalistic playing style from his performance of Aaron in Titus Andronicus in 1857.[4] The anachronism of having Aldridge be a champion of naturalism in the 1830s emphasises Aldridge’s status as a man born before his time. When the Covent Garden cast are not ‘acting’, the twenty-first-century actors embody them in a naturalistic performance style. This results in a clash between two performance styles: the naturalism of the twenty-first century actors’ impersonation of historical actors and the laughably gestural style of the play-within-a-play of the Victorian production of Othello. The deliberate anachronism could work to defamiliarise naturalism as a default playing style and reveal its artifice and exclusions.

Ayanna Thompson argues that Red Velvet reveals that a Shakespearean performance ‘is always racialized’.[5] This is brought home in the final stage image of Rubasingham’s production of Red Velvet, when Adrian Lester as Ira Aldridge confronts the audience in white face, as he prepares to play King Lear. The discomfort of the historically accurate final image – Aldridge did ‘white-up’ to play traditionally ‘white’ parts[6] – encourages members of the audience to interrogate their assumptions about the race of leading parts in Shakespeare and which bodies they expect to see onstage.

An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is a highly metatheatrical adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play, The Octoroon. As Verna Foster argues, ‘while Jacobs-Jenkins critically revises the racial attitudes expressed in his predecessor’s play, he does so without attacking Boucicault himself’.[7] Jacobs-Jenkins makes use of racial drag to suggest the performative nature of race, echoing but re-appropriating Boucicault’s ‘redding up’ to play the Native American chief, Wahnotee, and the portrayal of black slaves by white actors in blackface in the 1859 Octoroon.

The extent of Jacobs-Jenkins and Benson’s use of racial drag is conveyed by the list of Dramatis Personae at the front of the playtext. This list is at once astoundingly specific (and potentially essentialising) in listing ethnicities ‘in order of preference’ and yet performative in its list of options, suggesting that theatre troubles a distinction between being and passing as a race (as Boucicault did by having his white wife, Agnes Robertson play Zoe, the one eighth black woman sold into slavery in his 1859 play). In Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon, for example, a black/ African American actor, who plays ‘BJJ’, whites up to play the ‘white’ parts of George and M’Closky, while the ‘Indigenous American actor/ actress, a South Asian actor/ actress, or one who can pass as Native American’ playing Assistant blacks up to play the slaves Pete and Paul.[8] The dissonance created by this theatrical device gives a new, ironic emphasis to Boucicault’s lines, many of which are spoken verbatim. The effectiveness of this defamiliarisation depends upon the twenty-first-century American theatre audience’s squeamishness about blackface and its racist connotations.

Although, as Sheila Stowell rightly points out, theatrical forms and techniques are not ‘in themselves narrowly partisan’,[9] they carry their histories with them, including racist exclusion and oppression. This does not discount them as valuable tools for representation. However, their histories must be acknowledged by theatre makers in their re-appropriation in order to counter those histories and restore lost stories. In Red Velvet, Ira Aldridge remarks that there is ‘something about velvet – a deep promise of what’s to come, the sweat of others embedded in the pile. A crushed map of who was here folded in’.[10] This is an apt metaphor for neo-Victorian plays’ aesthetic and ethical engagement with theatre history.


[1] Patricia Duncker, ‘Imagining George Eliot’, British Association of Victorian Studies 2016 Annual Conference: ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’, 31 August 2016, Cardiff.

[2] Damian Walford Davies, ‘Creative Writing in Academia’ workshop, BAVS 2016, 31 August 2016, Cardiff.

[3] Lolita Chakrabarti, Red Velvet. 2nd edn (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama: London, 2014), p. 36.

[4] Errol Hill, Shakespeare in Sable: A History of Black Shakespearean Actors (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984), p. 19.

[5] Ayanna Thompson, ‘Introduction’, Lolita Chakrabarti, Red Velvet. 2nd edn (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama: London, 2014).

[6] Bernth Lindfors, ‘”Mislike Me Not for My Complexion…”: Ira Aldridge in Whiteface’, African American Review, 33 (1999), 347-54 (348).

[7] Verna A. Foster, ‘Meta-melodrama: Braden Jacobs-Jenkins Appropriates Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon’. Modern Drama, 59 (2016), 285-305 (9).

[8] Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, ‘Dramatis Personae’, An Octoroon (On Stage Press: New York, 2014).

[9] Sheila Stowell, ‘Rehabilitating Realism’, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 6 (1992), 81-87 (87).

[10] Chakrabarti, Red Velvet, p. 12.


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