Georgian Era Theatre, History

Miss Searle and her Abolitionist Performance

One of the most interesting aspects of my research for my novel An Actress of Repute was discovering the fascinating topics of the performances my main character, Elizabeth Searle, took part in at the Royal Circus Theatre, south of the River Thames. The Royal Circus was a non-patent theatre, meaning dialogue was not allowed. However, theatre manager John Cross was very clever at finding ways to bypass these restrictions. By performing ‘Burlettas’, mini-operatic pieces could be sung. This could sometimes disguise more contentious topics. If more explanation was needed, draperies and banners that featured key descriptions would be unfurled during performances. This would have a similar effect as words flashed onto a silent film, as seen in the early twentieth century.

Slaves in Surinam, from John Stedman’s autobiographical account

Mr. Cross often chose sensational topics for the time in order to lure in audiences and sell tickets. In the summer of 1804, Mr. Cross wrote and produced Johanna of Suriname. This was based on the best-selling account of soldier John Gabriel Stedman entitled The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam. The autobiographical book outlined the shocking accounts of inhumane acts against slaves in the Dutch colony. His romantic involvement with a slave by the name of Joanna – who became mother to his son, is also revealed. Stedman’s disgust at the harsh treatment of the enslaved captives of the plantations is clearly outlined and the horror was amplified by the graphic prints (engraved by two of the top artists of the time – William Blake and Francesco Bartolozzi) of the torture endured by the unfortunate souls at the hands of their captors. The book became very influential and was circulated widely amongst those in support of the abolitionist cause to bring an end to the evil slave trade.

Scenes of plantations in the Dutch colony of Surinam

Miss Searle was chosen to portray the slave Joanna. I was very honoured to include the fact that the main character of my novel was taking part in such a noble endeavour. Yet it also brought about some troublesome issues that I thought could potentially offend the modern reader. First and foremost was the idea that Miss Searle might perform in what is now known as ‘blackface’. I am not sure that Miss Searle would have darkened her face and skin to portray the character of Joanna, but I feel quite certain that there would have been no qualms about doing so back in Late-Georgian times. As far as I am aware, there were no performers of colour on the stage at the time in London ( the earliest I am aware of is Ira Aldridge in the 1840’s – I tweeted a link to information about his career awhile back: https://twitter.com/ronanbeckman/status/1281818253304750080?s=20 ) – so Elizabeth would have been cast in the role without a thought (she portrayed a Chinese princess at Covent Garden in later times). I felt that, in the context of the times, it was important to describe Elizabeth Searle portraying her role onstage as it would have been at the time. I hoped that the positive effects of educating her audience about the evils of the slave trade would outweigh the modern feelings about portraying someone of a different ethnicity onstage.

A mixed race slave in Surinam. She would have had a higher status than other slaves due to her partial European ancestry – yet she would still be regarded as a slave regardless.

A ‘tweet’ that I saw led to a very last minute and final edit to my chapter regarding the performance of Johanna of Suriname. The tweet highlighted the fact that there were 10,000 people of colour in Regency Era London, yet they never received even one mention in modern Regency fiction. I felt so moved that I want to play my part to rectify the situation – but my novel was due to be published in just two weeks. I did a very quick rewrite that I hope went some way to addressing this issue. At such short notice, it was difficult for me to imagine a character to place appropriately within my book. The performance of Johanna of Suriname was an ideal opportunity I felt. So I made one evening’s performance a special one – to serve as a benefit event for the abolitionist movement. Who might attend such a prominent event? I thought of someone who was perhaps amongst the most prominent person of colour and someone from London’s history that I adore. I included Dido Elizabeth Belle in the audience. Dido was the daughter Sir John Lindsay, and greatly loved by her family in England. I thoroughly recommend the amazing 2013 film of her life – Belle ( https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2404181/ ) Some little bits of karma that made me feel that this was the correct decision: Dido Belle was baptised in the church of St. George’s in Bloomsbury – just 3 doors away from where Elizabeth Searle lived. The church features prominently in my novel, and you can explore it virtually in this brief video: https://youtu.be/QESj0z2lvSc Dido Belle sadly passed away in the month of July 1804 – the same month that the play was performed. In my novel, Dido and Elizabeth have the opportunity to meet each other and speak about the performance. She gives Elizabeth her approval and blessing, as I would have hoped she would have done in real life. And deep down, I truly hope that they did indeed meet each other in reality.

Close-up of Dido Elizabeth Belle by Johann Zoffany

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