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The Sacred Museum: Azaël, Sardanapalus, and Exotic Display in Victorian England

  • Edward Ziter (a1)


In the last fifteen years, a growing number of theatre historians have examined the relation between the British stage and British Imperialism, suggesting that the theatre has both reflected and helped constitute modern colonialism. Articles examining theatrical orientalism and British Imperialism in Victorian and Edwardian periods include Michael Booth, “Soldiers of the Queen: Drury Lane Imperialism,” Melodrama: The Cultural Emergence of a Genre, eds. Michael Hays and Anastasia Nikolopoulou (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996), 3–20; Heidi J. Holder, “Melodrama, realism and empire on the British stage,” Acts of Supremacy: the British Empire and the stage, 1790–1930, eds. J.S. Bratton et al. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991),129–149; J.S. Bratton, “Theatres of war: the Crimea on the London stage 1854–5,” Performance and Politics in Popular Drama: Aspects of Popular Entertainment in Theatre, Film and Television, 1800–1976, eds. David Bradby, Louis James, and Bernard Sharrat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 119–138; and J. Ellen Gainor, “Bernard Shaw and the Drama of Imperialism,” The Performance of Power: Theatrical Discourse and Politics, eds. Sue-Ellen Case and Janelle Reinelt (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991), 56–74. John M. Mackenzie provides a thorough overview of nineteenth-century theatrical orientalism in Orientalism: History, theory and the arts (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), 176–199, and Gary Jay Williams examines orientalist images of colonial expansion in Covent Garden's 1816 operatic adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Our Moonlight Revels: A Midsummer Night's Dream in the Theatre (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997), 76–92. While scholars have examined colonialism and theatre in a range of periods, studies of Renaissance theatre are particularly rich in this area. Examples include Paul Brown, “'This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine': The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism, ” in Political Shakespeare: essays in cultural materialism, eds. Jonathon Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 48–71; Kim F. Hall, “Sexual Politics and Cultural Identity in The Masque of Blackness,” in The Performance of Power: Theatrical Discourse and Politics, eds. Sue-Ellen Case and Janelle Reinelt (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991), 3–18; Patricia Parker, “Fantasies of 'Race' and 'Gender': Africa, Othello and Bringing to Light, ” in Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period, eds. Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker (London: Routledge, 1994), 84–100; and Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the native Caribbean, 1492–1797 (London: Methuen, 1986). At the same time, there has been an equally prolific effort by historians of the human sciences, examining a host of disciplines whose emergence coincided with colonial expansion.See Felix Driver, “Geography's empire: histories of geographical knowledge,” Society and Space, 10 (1992), 23–40; Brian Hudson, “The New Geography and the New Imperialism: 1870–1918,” Antipode 9 (1977), 12–19; George W. Stocking, Jr., Victorian Anthropology (New York: Free Press-Macmillan, 1987); Billie Melman, Women's Orients: English Women and the Middle East, 1718–1918 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992); and Nicholas Thomas, Colonialism's Culture: Anthropology, Travel and Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994). Of course all of these works, like this essay, are indebted to Edward Said's Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books-Random House, 1979). If, as Talal Asad has asserted, “the colonial power structure made the object of anthropological study accessible and safe” Talal Asad, Introduction, Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter, ed. Talal Asad (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1973), 17. for the European researcher, it would seem by extension that this same power structure made the object of anthropological study accessible and safe to the British theatre-goer. As theatre historians have pointed out, British theatre managers have cited orientalist authorities ranging from Vivant Denon, who accompanied the French expedition in Egypt, to the press artists that accompanied British colonial armies. The Edinburgh Review attested to the popularity of Denon's Voyages dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte, asserting “Few publications, we believe, have ever obtained so extensive a circulation in the same space of time as these travels.” Cited in Patrick Conner, ed., The Inspiration of Egypt: Its Influence on British Artists, Travelers and Designers, 1700–1900 (Brighton: Brighton Museum, 1983), 29. Pieter van der Merwe argues in The Spectacular Career of Clarkson Stanfield 1793–1867 that Voyages soon became “the theatre's major source for Egyptian subjects” (Tyne and Wear County Council Museums, 1979), 89. I argue elsewhere that Augustus Harris's exhibition of artifacts and illustrations lent by soldiers and press artists in the Sudan Campaign was intended to lend credibility to his depiction of the region in his concurrent production. See “From Geography to Landscape: Imperial Theatre and the Domestication of Exotic Space” in Land Scape Theatre: Views of the Twentieth Century, eds. Una Chaudhuri and Elinor Fuchs (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, forthcoming). It was not simply that a new body o f research generated in colonialism's shadow provided raw material for Eastern plays, this research also served to “license curiosity” about the Orient (to borrow Nicholas Thomas's languageNicholas Thomas, “Licensed Curiosity: Cook's Pacific Voyages,” The Cultures of Collecting, eds. John Elsner and Roger Cardinal (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 116–136.), transforming the theatre's detailed representations of the East into a scholarly and respectable undertaking that seemed, in some ways, allied with Europe's Imperial goals.


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The Sacred Museum: Azaël, Sardanapalus, and Exotic Display in Victorian England

  • Edward Ziter (a1)


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