F20 Black Atlantic: Resources, Pedagogy, and Scholarship on the 18th Century Black Atlantic

Oroonoko: True Story and Tragedy

           Researching Oroonoko led me down a rabbit hole of annotated bibliographies, blogs, and lesson plans. One resource of particular interest was a blog post from Claire Dawkins's Pixels and Pedagogy titled "Teaching Aphra Behn's Oroonoko." Dawkins broke Oroonoko down into different methodologies that could be used to approach the text. Her pedagogical background is interesting since she specializes in “pre-collegiate studies” which aims to bridge the gap between high school and undergraduate studies. Therefore, in some areas her suggestions are more for the younger crowd while other areas serve a more advanced level of study. The section on textual adaptations covered a short comparison between the original Oroonoko and Thomas Southerene’s play adaptation. While I did not have time to read Southerene’s version, the blog mentioned his choice to cast Imoinda as a white woman in the play. Aside from that major difference, the title was also changed from Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave A True History to Oroonoko A Tragedy. The word “tragedy” would most likely speak to the theatre folk of the 17th century. Evoking the word undoubtedly was a marketing choice, but was that the only purpose it served? In just eight years what caused the shift from “the royal slave a true history” to “a tragedy?”
            Many sources note that Behn seems to have a preoccupation with Oroonoko’s nobility and the author of Pixels and Pedagogy credits this preoccupation with her inability to neatly fit the work under the heading of an abolitionist text. Dawkins writes,

“On the one hand, the narrator condemns what happens to Oroonoko and Imoinda as a horrible crime against humanity; on the other hand, she seems to be preoccupied with the fact that they were royalty in their own country. In the second reading, the problem is not slavery per se but the fact that their royal sovereignty was subjected to ‘unnatural’ slavery.” (Pixels and Pedagogy)

            This seems to be why such change occurred in the title of the play. Calling it a tragedy not only speaks to the theatre types but it distances it from the “true story” and moves it into the realm of something Shakespearean. Looking at the story as a tragedy, we can now apply tragedic jargon to the text and discuss Oroonoko as a tragic hero and his story as a tragedy.
            Aristotle defines tragedy as something that makes one feel both “pity and fear” (Poetics, IV). The point of the tragedy is for the audience to sympathize with the tragic hero. This is where I feel like Behn’s preoccupation with nobility is duplicated in Southerene’s subtle renaming of the play. Focusing on Oroonoko’s social status rather than his race tailors the story to an audience that can relate to the fall of a nobleman rather than the fall of a Coramantien man. I don’t know much about 17th century theatre, but I would assume that this character would be played by someone in blackface. Hence, Oroonoko’s blackness on the stage is reduced to nothing but a costume or a plot device, dealt with in the same way as a playwright might use the trope of mistaken identity to explain a character’s enslavement.
            All this aside, I run into two issues with this thought process. First, I haven’t read Southerene’s text and so I can only assume about how Oroonoko’s blackness is used/dealt with/exploited for the progression of the play. My second obstacle is that I have no idea where these thoughts are going, but they perhaps they can jumpstart someone else’s views on the text and its adaptation.

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