Kris Collins interrogates the mutually affirming racial discourses of the theater and the natural sciences in nineteenth-century America.
“The nineteenth-century scientific community’s fascination with the black body,” Collins explains, “provides a contemporary analytical template for the racialized anxieties expressed in both minstrelsy and mainstage productions of Othello: white America’s struggle to define and defend the whiteness of their own bodies” (88).
Collins focuses on the work of several white Euro-American scientists: George Gliddon, Josiah Nott, Herman Burmeiter, Cesare Lombroso, Samuel G. Morton, and Louis Agassiz. All of these men classify races hierarchically and by taxonomies putatively dependent on racial intelligence. Because of the inherent differences between the races, these scientists argue, the white population should not mingle, sexually or otherwise, with the black population. Collins thoroughly debunks these claims, which she relates to nineteenth-century minstrel performances of Othello that solidify racist significations of the black body.
While the scientists that Collins identifies opined on racial distinction, another scientist, the young Charles Darwin, dissertated on theories of natural selection and evolution. One wonders whether Darwin’s ideas about genetics and heritable traits influenced the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century stage as much as Collins’s subjects influenced the stage in the preceding era.
More to the point, Herbert Spencer’s appropriations of Darwin—epitomized by the phrase “survival of the fittest”—may have justified and authorized racial divisions at the same time that high brow / low brow and elite / popular distinctions began to congeal. This simultaneous segregation (scientific and socio-cultural) was not so much coincidental as mutually (re)affirming.
Bardification and Shakespeare idolatry proliferated along with scientific discourses suggesting that whites were “better adapted” or “more advanced” than people of color. Shakespearean performances—most notably blackface performances of Othello but also early twentieth-century performances starring African American actors as Othello—gradually and perhaps unwittingly reflected the Spencerian drive to “preserve” the “favored” races.
This argument is the logical extension of Collins’s work; it compels a look at the continued influence of natural science on the next generation of American actors, directors, and theater-goers. Although the display of scientific racism and its corresponding effect on the theater may have changed, the underlying idea of racial superiority remained in place.
For further reading:
Collins, Kris. “White-Washing the Black-a-Moor: Othello, Negro Minstrelsy and Parodies of Blackness. The Journal of American Culture 19.3 (June 2004), pp. 87-101.