New World Drama

The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World, 1649-1849

New World Drama

New Americanists

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Book Pages: 368 Illustrations: 17 illustrations Published: August 2014

American Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism, Theater and Performance > Theater

In New World Drama, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon turns to the riotous scene of theatre in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world to explore the creation of new publics. Moving from England to the Caribbean to the early United States, she traces the theatrical emergence of a collective body in the colonized New World—one that included indigenous peoples, diasporic Africans, and diasporic Europeans. In the raucous space of the theatre, the contradictions of colonialism loomed large. Foremost among these was the central paradox of modernity: the coexistence of a massive slave economy and a nascent politics of freedom.
Audiences in London eagerly watched the royal slave, Oroonoko, tortured on stage, while audiences in Charleston and Kingston were forbidden from watching the same scene. Audiences in Kingston and New York City exuberantly participated in the slaying of Richard III on stage, enacting the rise of the "people," and Native American leaders were enjoined to watch actors in blackface "jump Jim Crow." Dillon argues that the theater served as a "performative commons," staging debates over representation in a political world based on popular sovereignty. Her book is a capacious account of performance, aesthetics, and modernity in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world.


"New World drama was never simply old world plays imported for a newly constructed stage, and Dillon’s attention to the performative commons and the colonial relation will reshape critical debates in several fields for years to come. This is an important book, and one that should have a promiscuous impact on our sense of the long 18th-century Atlantic world." — Duncan Faherty, Los Angeles Review of Books

"Taken together, Dillon's concepts not only constitute valuable analytic tools for the study of colonialism, New World slavery, and capitalism but also open up new ways to think about the politics of performance. Through its attention to detail, deft theorizations, and formulations of new critical paradigms, New World Drama offers a model for future scholarship and brings important new insights to ongoing discussions in the fields of theater and performance studies, literature, cultural studies, and history." — Juliane Braun, William & Mary Quarterly

"Relying equally on exhaustive archival research and sharp theoretical engagements that span the disciplines of literature, performance studies, and political history,New World Drama is also, importantly, a joy to read. Dillon's real achievement here is her elegant ability to make visible the ways in which eighteenth-century politics of popular sovereignty and the aesthetics of the stage—whether Anglophone or Americanist—are inescapably haunted by the shadowy presence of Atlantic colonial relations." — Daniel Gustafson, Eighteenth-Century Fiction

"New World Drama is, in short, the most contextually expansive, and most theoretically sophisticated, study of the early American theatre we have to date.... [The book] is a major achievement that should command the attention of all Atlanticists, and that will surely induce and provoke greater debate about theatrical culture and its performative, aesthetic and political significance. In wedding so many seemingly disparate ideas so successfully, one might say that Dillon's book finally offers a new and lasting ancestry for the 'bastard art'." — Matthew Pethers, Symbiosis

"[B]uilding upon the seminal works of Joseph Roach and Paul Gilroy, Dillon’s study reframes Atlantic cultural history in innovative and welcome ways." — Meredith A. Conti, Comparative Drama

"[Dillon's] study of two centuries of performance in the Atlantic world, keyed to specific cities, theaters, and texts, is thoughtful in synthesizing the past decade and a half of scholarship on American theater and the ways in which the theater engaged with issues of race and class. It offers a powerful vocabulary and point of entry for scholars beyond the fields of theater studies and performance studies looking for new ways to juxtapose the elusive realm of performance with the tangible world of print culture." — Heather S. Nathans, Early American Literature

"Dillon challenges and encourages her readers to revisit familiar theoretical and historical models while at the same time expanding what it means to be interdisciplinary and transnational." — Dana Van Kooy, BARS Review

"Students of eighteenth-century theatre will find Dillon’s scholarship to be of critical importance to their work." — Matt DiCintio, Theatre Research International

"Dillon asks meaningful questions about the interrelationship between the purported voice of the people and the language of race, class, and nationality. . . . [T]he lessons she draws remain relevant to all of us who share the twin roles of actor and spectator in the performative commons." — Jason Shaffer, Modern Drama

"New World Drama raises productive questions that reach beyond its own historical boundaries and, more broadly, beyond the conventional boundaries of discipline and periodization in literary studies." — Kate Perillo, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

"Through her comparative approach and focus on audiences as opposed to authors, Dillon offers fresh interpretations and reveals the extent to which reception changes the significance of play-texts." — Helen C. Scott, Journal of American History

"... Dillon’s study is not only ambitious in its geographical and interpretative scope. It is also an important book that will shape and instigate further scholarship on early American drama for years to come. It will undoubtedly stand next to such seminal works as Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic or the scholarship of Joseph Roach and Diana Taylor on intercultural performances in the Atlantic world." — Frank Obenland, Amerikastudien

"Beginning with regicide and ending in riot, New World Drama re-visits key sites along the Atlantic rim to show how theatrical audiences, electing their representatives from a ballot of dramatic characters, expanded the print-world 'public sphere' into a dynamic 'performative commons.'  In this innovative book, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon has completely reframed the terms of discussion across the disciplines of literature, history, cultural studies, and performance studies." — Joseph Roach, author of Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance

"Substituting a performative commons for a nation-based public sphere, an Atlantic imaginary for an American one, across a period in which racial capitalism came raging into being, richly informed by a reconceptualized theater history, subtended by a colonial relation she has researched extensively, Elizabeth Dillon's New World Drama productively intervenes in several domains and debates at once. It won't be possible to disregard this very fine book." — Eric Lott, CUNY Graduate Center


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Elizabeth Maddock Dillon is Professor of English at Northeastern University. She is the author of The Gender of Freedom: Fictions of Liberalism and the Literary Public Sphere.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction. The Performative Commons and the Aesthetic Atlantic 1

1. The Colonial Relation 31

2. London 60

3. Transportation 97

4. Charleston 131

5. Kingston 165

6. New York City 215

Notes 263


Index 341
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Honorable Menion, 2015 John Hope Franklin Book Publication Prize, presented by the American Studies Association

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5341-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5324-9