Reading Racist Literature
Elif Batuman, Staff Writer
Of the many passages that gave me pause when I first read “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” in high school, the one I remember the most clearly is this conversation between Connie, Clifford, and the Irish writer Michaelis:
“I find I can’t marry an Englishwoman, not even an Irishwoman…”
“Try an American,” said Clifford.
“Oh, American!” He laughed a hollow laugh. “No, I’ve asked my man if he will find me a Turk or something…something nearer to the Oriental.”
Connie really wondered at this queer, melancholy specimen.
For many readers, this exchange might have slipped by unnoticed. But, as a Turkish American, I couldn’t prevent myself from registering all the slights against Turkish people that I encountered in European books. In “Heidi,” the meanest goat is called “the Great Turk.”…
…A few weeks later, I saw “An Octoroon,” Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s refashioning of the Irish playwright Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama of almost the same title (“The Octoroon”). (Jacobs-Jenkins was formerly on the staff of this magazine.) In an opening monologue, B. J. J., “a black playwright,” recounts a conversation with his therapist, about his lack of joy in theatre. When asked to name a playwright he admires, he can think of only one: Dion Boucicault. The therapist has never heard of Boucicault, or “The Octoroon.”
“What’s an octoroon?” she asks. He tells her. “Ah. And you like this play?” she says.
This is the basic dramatic situation: a black playwright, in 2014, is somehow unable to move beyond a likeable 1859 work, named after a forgotten word once used to describe nonwhite people in the same terms as breeds of livestock. What do you do with your mixed feelings toward a text that treats as stage furniture the most grievous and unhealed insult in American history—especially when you belong to the insulted group?
Boucicault’s original script is set on a plantation, Terrebonne, shortly after the death of its owner, Judge Peyton. Peyton’s nephew, George, has just returned from Paris to take control of the property; he falls in love with Zoe, the judge’s illegitimate octoroon daughter, who has been raised as a member of the family. The villain M’Closkey, who has designs on both Terrebonne and Zoe, manages to have both put under the auctioneer’s hammer. The estate is eventually saved, by complex means involving an exploding steamship—but not before Zoe has poisoned herself in despair.
B. J. J., following his therapist’s advice, decides to restage “The Octoroon,” but white actors refuse to work with him: nobody wants to play slave owners. In the play within a play, B. J. J. puts on whiteface and acts both the hero George and the villain M’Closkey himself…
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