Visit Homepage
Skip to content


Hazel Waters, Racism on the Victorian Stage: Representation of Slavery and the Black Character, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 10 illustrations, 250 pps. £50.00, ISBN-10: 0521862620 ISBN-13: 978-0521862622,

Steven Barfield

In nineteenth century theatre, the divide between entertaining popular melodrama and more serious, artistic work intended for the bourgeoisie was both institutionally structured and thematically significant. To this day, such popular melodramas are seldom read, even by specialists in the period, nor are such works revived for the contemporary stage. However, such populist melodramas, where they have been preserved, provide fascinating material for cultural historians, and Hazel Waters, in her enthralling, but disturbing history of the development of racist representations of Africans (both enslaved and formerly enslaved) in nineteenth century British theatre, has mined this treasure-trove of material to great effect. Waters’s book is extremely lucid and detailed, rigorously argued and will no doubt remain the standard work on the subject for a long time to come.

As the nineteenth century began, the gathering movement for the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade had begun to produce an appropriate and interventionist populist ideology for the theatre. After abolition, this tendency grew stronger. In My Poll and My Partner Joe (1833) for example, a freedom-loving British sailor helps strike the shackles from grateful enslaved African in the West Indies. Other plays of the time showed similar events, sometimes juxtaposed with a rousing chorus of ‘Rule Britannia’. Enslaved Africans, as Waters informs us, were typically played by white actors in a crude ‘blackface’ get up. My Poll and my Partner Joe conjoins a number of elements as part of its indicative ideological structure: growing populist sentiment about the evils of slavery that had become so critical from the 1860s onwards; the rising force of Christian Evangelism; the increase of a somewhat narcissistic and ebullient British patriotism linked with the belief that Britain’s empire meant it had a role to civilise the world; Britain’s fast emerging belief that it was morally superior to its upstart, former American colonies.

However, the representation of Africans was already becoming increasingly based around the comic servant in opposition to previous representations of ‘noble savages’, such as Othello or Oroonoko. One-dimensional characters, these servant figures often spoke a pidgin English of dubious credentials, are on the whole passive and in need of rescue and tutored direction by the ‘clearly’ more intelligent and capable British. As Waters suggests, what is most disturbing is that the very stereotypes that were often used to gesture towards the fundamental injustice of the slave’s position, would become hardened as that nineteenth century progressed to become debilitating and demeaning, coalescing in Jim Crow and Zip Coon, African-American comic characters imported into Britain in 1836 by white American comic T.D. Rice. Jim Crow would go on to become the popular name for the segregation laws of the American South that lasted until the late twentieth century, while Zip Coon became synonymous with both the slang term of racist abuse and the comic ‘coon songs’ featured in shows within living memory, such as the BBC’s Black and White Minstrel Show.

Waters’s account is extremely detailed in explaining how and why this happened. For example, chapter 3 documents the sad career of the great and popularly celebrated black actor, Ira Aldridge, who fled America’s segregated theatres, but who was kept from playing in London’s Royal patent theatres until the very end of his life. Chapters 4 and 5 of Racism on the Victorian Stage describe in detail how American stereotypes such as Jim Crow were imported into London’s stages, signalling a difference from traditional British representations. The popularity of such comic figures was dependent on the domestic, everyday nature of white America’s enslavement of Africans. For a London audience distant from African-Caribbeans, however, the effects were pernicious, being black or African became intrinsically humorous and evidence of inevitable idleness and irrefutable silliness as far as British theatregoers were concerned.

A key figure in this process was the Briton Charles Matthews because he incorporated such stereotypes of African Americans as part of his widely regarded mimicry of American figures. Also important was the growing popularity of blackface performance which emerged in America in the 1820s. According to Waters, the 1840s saw a consolidation of the fundamental ‘grotesqueness’ of the way in which Africans were represented, whether slave or freed slave, and a palpable rise in the debasement implied by the antics of these figures on British stages. This is, for Waters, the inevitable consequence of emptying any serious or meaningful content from plays involving black characters, whatever slight subtleties or nuances of development existed, despite the fact that, as Waters reminds us, African slavery was still a dominant feature of American life as the British public was aware. The situation was very different from the way that the earlier nineteenth century theatre of London and Britain had generally represented African slaves.

Chapter 6 shows how the triumph of the irresponsible, lazy Jim Crow grotesque and the continuing economic problems of the West Indies’ declining sugar-based economy led figures such as Thomas Carlyle to argue for what was effectively the reintroduction of slavery as a means of disciplining these unruly subjects. New themes became added to Jim Crow stereotyping, in the form of Britain’s growing popular fascination with quasi-scientific racial categories and an accompanying fear of miscegenation. A number of plays of this period depict what will become a newly emerging stereotype: the white woman threatened by the enslaved male African. Waters in her last chapter, 7, analyses the significance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and the many stage version it gave rise to. In December 1852, for example, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was playing in different versions at no less than eleven theatres in London (Waters, p. 157). While Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not by any means an ambivalent text as regards the abolition of slavery in America, it nonetheless maintains mid-Victorian stereotypes of African slaves, rather than returning to earlier more heroic models. As Waters comments: ‘Uncle Tom and Topsy have survived in the popular imagination because … they fitted so well into the minstrelised vision of the black’ (p. 168).

This is a work of cultural history and while it has much to contribute to our understanding of nineteenth century theatre, it is fair to say that some scholars will be a little wary as regards some of its assumptions about theatre. Trusting theatre reviews in newspapers and the words of play texts to interpret how texts were performed and how audiences (which Waters largely views as homogenous entities) consumed these texts is an unreliable strategy at best, and advances in the field of understanding performance have cast doubt on such methods. The play texts here are treated as quarrying grounds of evidence for arguments, but are regarded as unsophisticated. There seems to be no ambiguity or unreliability of meaning present, but popular culture is not always as one-dimensional as it seems to be assumed to be in the present book. To understand how these plays function without drawing on analysis of any recent attempts to stage them (inevitably there have been none) is much more difficult and hence problematic than Waters allows it to be. It is for this reason perhaps that her chapter on Ira Aldridge is more convincing, because we know far more about the impact of race on playing Othello in Othello or Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, as there have been many twentieth century theatre performances that have explored exactly this issue.

A second guiding assumption to Waters’s account seems to be that comedy is inevitably one dimensional and therefore cannot help but be stereotyping, especially when black characters are portrayed on stage by white actors. Much more preferable, Waters argues, are representations of Africans in terms of earlier stereotypes of their being noble savages or those which trace virtual madness as a result of the violence of their captivity. But such a view does seem to me to be informed by quite a traditional assumption that comedy is the genre whose literary and other value is restricted, when compared to tragedy or realism. However, comic stereotypes continue to be employed by postcolonial and black writers both of highbrow and more popular inclinations, and although one might wish to condemn all such representations as an unthinking, uncritical reproduction of the norms of minstrelsy, it might also be that such writers employ them because comic stereotypes can still do serious work. Do such earlier representations then also have an ability to work differently from the way that they are apparently intended to work by the text? Do such texts inevitably deconstruct themselves and the representations they promulgate? It is hard to know, although Waters’s own account of Ira Aldridge playing in blackface theatre shows that this might be the case when an actual black person is on stage within such melodrama and musicals. Whether this is the case or not, it would require more theoretically nuanced analysis of these plays and their potential for performance, which is perhaps a task for future researchers.

My last point is a simpler one. Surely this book is sufficiently important to require publication in paperback, so that it can be bought by the general public and for general and school libraries where it can be widely available. I hope Cambridge University Press remedy this matter shortly, as this book should be read widely, rather than becoming the preserve of academic scholars alone.

To Cite This Article:

Steven Barfield, ‘Review of Hazel Waters, Racism on the Victorian Stage: Representation of Slavery and the Black Character, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 10 illustrations, 250 pps. £50.00, ISBN-10: 0521862620 ISBN-13: 978-0521862622’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 6 Number 1 (March 2008). Online at Accessed on [date of access]