fbpx Theatre History Podcast #53 | HowlRound Theatre Commons

Theatre History Podcast #53

Rediscovering Sheridan’s Smash Hit Pizarro with Dr. Selena Couture & Dr. Alex Dick



We know Richard Brinsley Sheridan as the comic playwright responsible for The Rivals and The School for Scandal. However, one of his most important plays is a major departure from those works. His play Pizarro, an adaptation of an early melodrama by the German playwright August von Kotzebue about the Spanish invasion of Peru, became a smash hit on the London stage in 1799.

illustration of man holding a baby and a sword
John Philip Kemble as Rolla, in the scene in which he rescues Cora and Alonzo's baby. Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Additional Reading:

You can subscribe to this series via Apple iTunesGoogle Play Music, or RSS Feed or just click on the link below to listen:


Michael Lueger: The Theatre History Podcast is supported by HowlRound, the knowledge commons by and for the theatre community. It's available on iTunes and howlround.com. Hi, and welcome to the Theatre History Podcast. I'm Mike Lueger. If you're a fan of classic theatrical comedies, you might recognize Richard Brinsley Sheridan as the author of such hits as The School for Scandal and The Rivals. But we should also pay more attention to his melodrama, Pizarro, because it just might be one of the most important plays that you've never heard of. Our guests today are Dr. Selena Couture, and Dr. Alexander Dick. Selena is an assistant professor in the drama department at the University of Alberta, which is located on treaty six territory and [inaudible 00:01:05] homelands. While Alex is an associate professor at the department of English at the University of British Columbia, which is located on the traditional, ancestral territory of the [inaudible 00:01:16] peoples. Together, they produced a new critical edition of Pizarro, which is available from Broadview Press. Selena and Alex, thank you so much for joining us.

Alex Dick: Thank you, Michael, great to be here.

Selena Couture: Thank you for having us.

Michael: Can you tell us about Richard Brinsley Sheridan and how Pizarro fits into his career?

Alex: Sure. Sheridan was born in Dublin in 1751, and though he's sometimes thought of as an Irish writer, his family moved to England when he was seven, and he never went back. He came from an intellectual household. His father, Thomas Sheridan, is best known now as an elocutionist and a teacher of elocution, who published books on language and rhetoric, and who had a fairly big influence on enlightened thinkers, including probably most famously, Thomas Jefferson. He was also an actor and a theatre manager in Ireland and then again in England.

Sheridan's mother, Frances, was also a playwright and a novelist, and some listeners may know her novel, The Memoirs of Sydney Bidulph, which was part of the sentimental school, strongly influenced by Samuel Richardson's Pamela. At any rate, Sheridan came from an intellectual, theatrical household, but not a wealthy one. His parents moved around a lot, especially away from creditors. Nevertheless, Sheridan had a good education, first at home, and then at Harold School, which is one of the oldest and best known public schools in England.

When he left school, he didn't really have a profession, per se. He was what we call a gentleman. He eventually found himself in the resort town of Bath, where he fell in love with a young singer named Elizabeth Linley, and this is really how Sheridan's career as a dramatist starts. Linley was at the time being pursued by a married man named Thomas Matthews. Long story short, Matthews challenges Sheridan to fight a duel. Sheridan wins, but without hurting Matthews, and Matthews is forced to write a retraction which is then published, and this causes a public shaming of Matthews.

Matthews gets mad again, challenges Sheridan to another duel, and this time Matthews wins, and Sheridan gets hurt, but he recovers, and he and Elizabeth elope to France. Now the reason this is important is because this story became the basis for Sheridan's first play, The Rivals, which comes out in 1771, and it's a huge hit. Sheridan realizes he's got a new career, and he writes a whole series of very funny plays, including as you've already mentioned, The School for Scandal, which comes out in 1777, and which was the most popular and frequently performed play of the eighteenth century, the second of which is our play, Pizarro. It's a satire on melodramatic sentimentalism. His other most famous play is The Critic, which is a satire of theatrical spectacle and mass marketing. What's interesting about this in relation to Pizarro is that Sheridan ended up using both of the techniques, high sentiment and high spectacle, that he was satirizing in his early comedies in Pizarro.

In the meantime, Sheridan also becomes important enough and financially secure enough to buy one of the two royal theatres, Drury Lane, with his father and father-in-law, and he actually owns it for almost the rest of his life. In 1780, Sheridan entered parliament, and he was a Whig, which meant he had fairly liberal views on commerce and freedom and whatnot, pro American Revolution for instance. But he was still very much involved with wealthy country landowners. He was a very successful orator, but he never held a government post, at least not for very long, and he also was running a theatre, which Selena's going to talk about in a minute. But he didn't write for the theatre between 1781 and 1799. So almost twenty years without an original play. Pizarro ended up being his last work, and it was complete turnaround as I mentioned from his other works. It's a huge spectacle, and it's pure melodrama with oversized villains and excruciatingly noble heroes and heroines.

But it's also the culmination of his political life. It touches on issues of national and even racial identity, revolution and liberty, the colonial conquest of the Americas, all of which were at the top of the cultural mind in Britain at the end of the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, Pizarro became a strong part of the British and international repertoire, playing in America and as far away as India and Sri Lanka. But in the twentieth century, as trends turned towards Modernism, its spectacle and melodrama were thought weaker than the wittier comedies, so it fell out of the repertoire, and the critical conversation about Sheridan and about drama for almost a century.

But it's come back of late, because the conversations about literature and about theatre have turned to these political issues that Sheridan was interested in and which he was addressing in Pizarro.

Michael: Now this is a pretty big turnaround as you were saying, from Sheridan's early comedies, and then a career in politics, and then all of a sudden, we get this play. Where did he get the idea for it, and what does it have to do with this phenomenon called [inaudible 00:06:18] mania?

Alex: Yeah, so a really important thing to remember about this play is that Sheridan actually didn't write it or write the story at any rate. It was a translation of a massive ten-act, two-play extravaganza by the German playwright, August Friedrich Ferdinand von Kotzebue. As you mentioned Kotzebue came from a wealthy merchant family in Weimar, and he was a friend of important German writers like [inaudible 00:06:44] and even Beethoven. He was a political and cultural minister in Russia and in Austria and all over Germany. He actually held quite radical political views for the time, and in fact, he was assassinated in 1819.

But in the 1790s, Kotzebue was known as the author of a number of notorious numbers and spectacular melodramas in what we call the [inaudible 00:07:07] tradition, the thunder and lightning of German tragedy. Though it was often [inaudible 00:07:13] by critics, the risque themes of Kotzebue's plays, personal liberty, premarital sex, illegitimacy, guaranteed full houses.

So Drury Lane had mounted a lucrative production of Kotzebue's [inaudible 00:07:26] translated as the Stranger in 1798, and it featured Sheridan's two lead actors, John Phillip Kimball and Sarah [Siddons 00:07:34]. In the same year, Covent Garden, the other theatre royal, produced Kotzebue's [inaudible 00:07:39], or The Natural Child, which was translated as Lovers' Vows by the relatively well known English author, Elizabeth Inchbald, and this is in fact the scandalous play that the young characters fail to mount in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park.

So Kotzebue was well known, very popular, risque and trendy, and this is one of the reasons why Sheridan picked his play. But the Kotzebue trend didn't make everybody happy. Contemporary reactions to Kotzebue's popularity show both an emerging romantic aesthetic of originality in its nationalistic impulses. Sickly and stupid German tragedies is what Wordsworth called them in the preface to [inaudible 00:08:19], which was published in 1800 while Pizarro was still on the boards, and these were prominent in the English theatrical repertoire [inaudible 00:08:26] period. London audiences were in the grips of what one writer Frederick Reynolds called a cruel disease, and this is what became Kotzebue mania. It was thought of as a kind of illness, a bit like other manias are treated today, pop culture manias, like the way we talk about cell phones or that kind of thing.

The patients of this disease, and I'm quoting from Reynolds' article, were afflicted with a childish passion for noise, faintings, the startings and ravings of others deeply affected with the same. The sickness made women of every rank divest themselves of a great part of their clothes and cut off their hair. The symptoms of Kotzebue mania were especially apparent in the theatres where the people thronged and where the old and the young, the grave and the gay hastened like insects to flutter around the flame of licentiousness.

So Pizarro was often used as a key example of Kotzebue mania simply because the play was crazy popular. In our edition, we produce several accounts of the crush at the theatres and people fainting and fighting and desperate to get seats and tickets. Needless to say, it was a monumental success.

MichaelYes, and it sounds like the play itself is pretty wild. This thing has everything. It's got babies on stage, collapsing bridges. You name it. Can you tell us a little bit about the plot of Pizarro?

Selena: Sure. I'll jump in here. So its subject is the Spanish conquest of the Incan empire in Peru in the early sixteenth century, but I'd like to emphasize this is the European concept of Spanish conquest, in sort of air quotes, capitalized, which is the subject of Kotzebue's original play, and [inaudible 00:10:12] usually refer to the Spanish empirical invasion of the Incas, rather than the Spanish conquest because of the fact that indigenous peoples were never fully conquered in that kind of way that Europeans considered it.

The complicated nature of this and the way that this was used to both perpetuate the concept of conquest as well as respond to and manipulate this conception in later iterations of it is part of why the iteration captured my attention. But back to the plot. So it opens on a magnificent pavilion where Pizarro and his conquistadors debate plans to subdue the Incas and kill their former compatriot Alonzo, who has switched his allegiance to the Peruvian side and married a Peruvian woman, Cora, who was formerly betrothed to the warrior, Rolla, a major leader on the Peruvian side.

The Spanish attacked the Peruvians at the capitol during a ceremony. Alonzo is captured during the battle and condemned to death, when Pizarro's Spanish mistress, Elvira, who's a former novice nun, who's followed him to Peru, learns that he intends to kill the captured Alonzo, she turns against him, calling him cowardly for killing a man who's a prisoner and decides to enlist Alonzo's help to assassinate Pizarro.

Meanwhile, goaded by Cora, who is the woman who's married to Alonzo, Rolla secretly takes Alonzo's place. He sneaks into the Spanish camp, takes his place, frees him so he can go back to his wife and child, and when Elvira goes to enlist Alonzo's help in assassinating Pizarro, she finds Rolla instead, and they agree together to murder Pizarro. They sneak into his tent, but Rolla cannot kill a sleeping man, and instead wakes him to speak to him, and then revealing Elvira's plot.

Pizarro then condemns her to death and decides to free Rolla, recognizing him as an honorable warrior. Alonzo and Cora have then by this time been reunited, but the Spanish soldiers kidnap their young son, Fernando as they are distracted in their joy of being reunited. As Rolla is leaving the Spanish camp after being freed, he comes upon the soldiers who have captured the baby, and Pizarro who at the point when Rolla enters, giving instructions that the child be thrown off a cliff. When Rolla identifies the baby as Alonzo's son, Pizarro then decides that he will actually keep him hostage as a way to capture Alonzo again.

Rolla is horrified by this, and it's a daring rescue of the baby, but is wounded as he escapes over a collapsing bridge, although he does live long enough to return the baby covered in his own blood to Cora. In the very final scene, Pizarro attacks the Peruvian forces once again, in their secret gathering place, and while he and Alonzo fight, Elvira who had been condemned to death a few scenes earlier, appears dressed in her nun's robes. She's distracting Pizarro long enough that Alonzo kills him in [inaudible 00:13:04] fight. The play ends with both the joy of the Spanish defeat, and then a speech by Elvira, in which she expresses remorse and counsels the Spanish to reconsider their greed and violent place.

Then finally, [inaudible 00:13:16] magnificent funeral, is the final cue. This final scene of Pizarro's death is a major part of Sheridan's adoption.

Michael: When and where was Pizarro first performed, and what was notable about its cast?

Selena: So the play, as Alex mentioned already was first noted at the royal theatre, Drury Lane, which was one of the three [inaudible 00:13:38] theatres, which has a license to perform serious drama, and it's also part of the London theatrical scene, which was a critical medium of popular culture and political commentary at that time. Sheridan had owned Drury Lane for twenty years by 1799, as Alex has mentioned, although since the 1780s, he'd been working as opposition and key in parliament. His lack of management skills as well as his attention elsewhere as well as the expectation of mounting costly productions with new scenery and impressive effects meant that the theatre was always a losing concern.

In 1791, in order to create space for larger audiences, Sheridan had the old Drury Lane, which was built in 1674 demolished, and the new Drury opened in 1794 with a cavernous auditorium holding more than 3,600 people. It featured the latest [inaudible 00:14:30] stage spectacle and scenic technologies and was built to withstand their rigorous demands. Putting further strains on the company's finances through this huge renovation that took three years.

So Sheridan was barely able to pay his leading actors, and in the 1798/99 season, they desperately needed a hit production as they were playing to empty houses according to Matthew [inaudible 00:14:50], who's one of the original collaborators on the work before he had a falling out with Sheridan. The play was being discussed in newspapers six months before it opened with great anticipation as it was going to combine a number of huge talents, the very popular Kotzebue as we've already discussed, Sheridan who hadn't written a play in twenty years by this point, as well as the most famous celebrity actors at the time, which we'll talk about in a few minutes.

After a rocky start, we're on opening night. It ran for five hours. It was later edited. Although the length of time was also partly attributed because of a really important speech, which we'll discuss, spoken by John Phillip Campbell, who played Rolla, which was very patriotic. Certainly the first night and then throughout the run, audiences would regularly stop Campbell and make him repeat the speech over and over again, which certainly added to the length of time of the play.

It ran for thirty-one nights and saved Drury Lane from bankruptcy. Then [inaudible 00:15:45] the tragic repertoire, with Rolla, the Peruvian hero, being compared to Shakespeare's Othello and Brutus. Its popularity was also enhanced by the royal command performance when King George III came back to Drury Lane for the first time in five years, and it ran regularly in the next season as well with playbill advertisements indicating it was being brought back to satisfy those who had been turned away.

Alex: I'll set out some of the wider concept as well. So in 1799 when the play opened, Britain was at war with France, soon to be Napoleonic France. Many critics have thought that the character Pizarro, the way that Sheridan characterizes him is partly based on accounts of Napoleon, hot headed, big temper, thinking about principle rather than practicalities and so on. Oh and violent and ravenous. People in Britain were actually convinced that at any moment they were going to be invaded by the French. This had bene going on for two or three years. In fact, the very very last time in British history that a foreign invasion successfully landed in Britain had happened about two years before in February of 1797 when twenty French sailors landed at a place called fish guard in southwest Wales, and they were captured almost immediately and sent home, and that was the last successful invasion.

But people were in a bit of a state of panic. One of the ways that Sheridan made his play so popular was to associate the British so the soon to be victims of a French invasion, with the Peruvian people on stage, who appeared in the play to be exceedingly British, through Rolla particularly, as we'll talk about.

The other important thing that was happening at the time was this vogue for Spanish America. Kotzebue's play was itself not original. It was based in part on a historical novel [inaudible 00:17:29], which had been translated into English in 1777. That novel had been in turn inspired by Francois Renault's philosophical and political history of the settlement and trades of the Europeans in the east and west Indies. Another influential work that appeared about the same time was the Scottish historian William Robert's History of America, which has a long section on the Spanish invasion of the Americas and the conquistadors and in particular Pizarro. Pizarro was a big figure in all of these, along with Alonzo de Molina and other figures who appear in the play, although not Rolla. Rolla is Kotzebue's original invention.

But at any rate, in all of these historical works, the conquistadors and especially Pizarro appear to be very violent, but the real target in a lot of them is actually the Catholic church. These are French and Scottish enlightenment figures who are writing against a restrictive and restrained church infrastructure, and they're advocating right of conscious and commercial liberty and so on. They tend to view the Peruvians as anticipating those values. They're noble savages in some respect, but they're also proto British believers or almost proto American believers in personal improvement and liberty and so on. Being led by Alonzo, the European.

So the popularity of these histories was also intensified by the [Mestasachy 00:18:54] rebellions in Peru and Columbia in the 1770's and Bolivia. Interesting in the early 1790s, there was an embassy of representatives from these rebellions in London, seeking funding from the British government for their struggles against Spain. This was happening precisely at the time when Britain was still reeling from its losses in the United States, fighting to retain its holdings in the Caribbean against the French and intensifying its rule in India.

This kind of ambivalence about colonialism is really what's at stake in Sheridan's play. One of the things we try to present in the edition is the play is completely entangled with the contradictions of Britain's imperial mandate. Selena's already mentioned Rolla's speech, this very patriotic speech in Act II, that Rolla had to give again and again and again. In that speech, Rolla compares the invading Spanish to vultures and the Peruvians to lambs. This image actually comes from a speech that Sheridan himself had given in 1788, when he and other Whig opposition politicians were prosecuting a man named Warren Hastings in the House of Lords. Hastings had been the governor of Bengal in India for the East India Company, and he was accused of having manipulated several Indian princes into terrible deals for his own personal gain.

Sheridan made the speech absolutely excoriating Hastings over four days. It was really a theatrical event in and of itself. At the end of these speeches, Sheridan fainted rather dramatically into the arms of his friend, the [inaudible 00:20:22] and political philosopher, Edmund Burke, saying "My lords, I have done." But what's interesting is this speech very much makes the English look like the colonial oppressors, whereas in Rolla's speech, they are the victors. This is a point we make several times in the edition. Pizarro helped to cultivate these two sides of British imperialism. On one hand, we know we are oppressors and victors, but on the other hand, we love liberty, and we identify strongly with the indigenous victims of imperial oppression.

Rolla, by the way, was played by John Phillip Campbell, who is one of Sheridan's stars, and Campbell was known for playing grave, stoic types. His style of performance was very rational, but brawny and heroic. He epitomizes the stiff deportment that actors at this time were known for, kind of the George Clooney of his era. His portraits show this really well, including those in which he appears as Rolla. One of these by Sir Thomas Lawrence, which was painted in 1800, Campbell actually had a body double. The head was Campbell's, and the body was that of the boxer, [inaudible 00:21:22] Jackson, to make Rolla look really impressively buff.

Anyway, the speech that Sheridan adapted from the Hastings trial is the one that's similar to described in Act II, and which he cajoles the people to take up arms against the invaders. This is the high point of the play at which Rolla had to do again, again, and again. Interestingly a few year later in 1803 when a brief period of peace between France and England fell apart, the peace [inaudible 00:21:50] fell apart, Sheridan actually published Rolla's speech as a standalone poster or broadsheet entitled “Sheridan's Address to the People”, and we have a version of that in the edition as well.

I think Selena's going to talk about [inaudible 00:22:04].

Selena: Yeah, there's a few other really important casting choices we need to talk about to really fully understand this original production, and even also how the play, how Sheridan made choices as he adopted the play. The first I'll talk about is Sarah Siddons, though Siddons is Campbell's older sister, also a very famous actor, probably the most celebrated at the time. Sheridan significantly adapted the role of Elvira to suit Siddons, both her public persona and her acting abilities. She was forty-four years old when it opened, and had been a London acting sensation since the 1782 season. She came on the scene and was immediately considered a very very fine actor, and she was appointed by the king to be the reader to the royal children in 1783. She's very famously painted by Joshua Reynolds as the tragic [inaudible 00:23:02] in 1784, which according to Joseph Roach in his book, it was an expression of her iconic status as the tragedy queen that she played both on and off the stage.

Siddons was particularly famous for her Lady Macbeth, a figure associated with madness, brought on by remorse as well as great ambition. She first performed Lady Macbeth in London in 1785, and the part stayed in her repertoire until her retirement from the stage in 1812. She was renowned in the role so much that Charles Lamb in his work on the tragedies of Shakespeare which he argues against the performance of Shakespeare cites her performance as one of the reasons why Shakespeare shouldn't be on the stage because somebody like Siddons overwhelms Shakespeare's text, and you can't actually think about Lady Macbeth without thinking of Siddons.

So Siddons had seven children, three of whom had died by the time she performed Elvira. Her public persona was very carefully managed. She was always known as Mrs. Siddons, although her performances were full of emotional and sexual power, her offstage identity was based on her role as a wife and a mother, and a grieving mother at this point because of the loss of her children. She was also known to be able to move rapidly between passions in her acting. In terms of a public persona, she also in 1789 during the regency crisis when King George III was ill, once he recovered, she was then listed to play Britannia, the female personification of the country in order to celebrate King George's recovery.

So that was kind of her status. Sheridan carefully designed Siddons', the role of Elvira to match Siddons' abilities and as well as this public persona she had as an idealized British, remorseful colonialist, I'd guess you could say. In Kotzebue's play, the character of Elvira betrays Pizarro for the love of Alonzo, and then is not yet seen again after she's sent away to be tortured. So it's sort of a crass motivation in Kotzebue's play. Elvira is Pizarro's mistress. She follows him to the camp, she falls in love with somebody else, and then tries to kill him. So she's kind of a pretty base character in lots of ways, although a very interesting one.

In Sheridan's version, he expands Elvira's speeches throughout. She makes many many speeches, many of which have commentary on moral choice and heroism and she remonstrates Pizarro for his cowardly nature, and then her motivation in Sheridan's version is shifted away from an attraction to Alonzo, instead to a moral choice, that she no longer supports Pizarro because of his vile, base nature. So the most significant change also comes to Sheridan's editing. As I mentioned before, Kotzebue's play ends when Rolla returns Alonzo's and Cora's child, and he dies. That's the end of the original play. Sheridan adds a final confrontation in which Alonzo kills Pizarro, and at first during the fight, Alonzo seems to be losing, but then that fight turns on Elvira's entrance, which startles Pizarro, and then allows Alonzo to kill him. One of the reasons that Pizarro was so startled is because she appears dressed as a nun, which is when he originally met her, but she'd given up her calling in order to follow him, that she comes back dressed in that original clothing. Then once he's dead, she then has her final speech, in which she declares her intention to atone for her guilt and advises all the invaders to Spain and inform their rulers that greed and conquest do not make a nation great.

I would also say that that message is further underscored by Siddons', the actor's presence, which combines that ideal of British womanhood and along with the nun's habit, visually cites her famous portrayal of Lady Macbeth in the sleepwalking scene, when she has gone mad with remorse. So contemporary reviewers found Siddons' portrayal of Elvira to be one of mixed dignity and tenderness and the best in the piece, and Samuel [Gardsley 00:26:54] wrote that Siddons' characterization rendered lofty sentiments, energetic language, and forcible depictions of virtuous struggles of repentance and remorse.

So Siddons' acting skill and celebrity gave her the ability to [inaudible 00:27:04] an enormous salary, approximately 113,000 pounds per night in contemporary currency. Dorothy Jordan, the other famous cast member that I'm going to talk about in a minute also earned an enormous amount of money, but about half of what Siddons earned per night. So these were the actors that drew in the crowds at Drury Lane that they needed so badly, but they were also the actors whose salaries Sheridan could not pay until the success of this play.

Also I'll just talk briefly about Dorothy Jordan, although I could say a lot about her too. She's a really fascinating person. She was the other main female lead in Pizarro, playing Cora, the Peruvian woman who's married to Alonzo. Although not as iconic as Siddons, with a very very different career, Jordan was also a significant performer in the late 1790s. She arrived in London unmarried and with a child when she was twenty-one years old in 1782. She was soon hired by Sheridan and began a relationship with the co-owner of Drury Lane, a lawyer named Richmond Ford, with whom she had two children. When Ford refused to marry her, she left him for William, the Duke of Clarence, who was the third son of King George III and future King William IV.

Their affair was a tremendous scandal, and as a member of the royal family, William could not choose whom to marry, and nevertheless his family would never have approved of Jordan with her illegitimate children as well as her stage profession. They endured scandalous press attention and caricature, never ending caricatures, which eventually waned when they began living together and having children. They stayed together for twenty years and had ten children, all of whom despite their illegitimacy were eventually given the surname [inaudible 00:28:43] and accepted as the king's grandchildren.

When Pizarro opened in 1799, Jordan and the duke were a well established couple, and she was pregnant with their fifth child. The fourth child, Mary, was five months old, and as per acting custom of the day, a company [inaudible 00:28:57] as the baby in the play. In contrast to Siddons' motherly demeanor, Jordan had a spontaneous comic style and harmonious voice, and amazing curly hair, as well as a [inaudible 00:29:07] appearance in boys' clothes or she was known for playing breeches parts. Although we don't have time to go into much detail, we had argued during the introduction to Pizarro that the choice to cast Jordan as Cora, the grieving mother instead of Siddons is deeply related to Jordan's off stage relationship with the duke and the political implications of Sheridan's adaptation, where Jordan was Elvira then the duke would possibly be Pizarro, which would then implicate the royal family in a certain way and would jeopardize the already tenuous patriotism of the play.

So what we do know is that Siddons was cast as Elvira, bringing her physical presence of the ideal British womanhood, strength, and remorse to the role, and Jordan was cast as Cora, the adored and distressed Peruvian wife to the Spanish deserter, Alonzo, and mother to the [inaudible 00:29:53] son, Fernando. This family configuration of Alonzo, Cora, and Fernando has multiple implications as the play starts to circulate and travel and gets interpreted in various ways, which we'll talk about in a minute.

Michael: Yes, your introduction you write that Pizarro was not only, and I'm quoting directly here, the most popular play of its time, but you also say it was a work that was first to do a number of important things. I'm curious, what were some of these really important firsts?

Alex: So one of the important things that Pizarro did that as far as we're concerned hadn't really happened before, was incorporate music all the way through the production, rather than just between acts. Because Drury Lane was one of the three theatres royal, one of the things that the meant was that opera wasn't allowed to be performed, only serious theatre, and opera was performed at the Hay Market theatre down the road, but it wasn't allowed in the legitimate theatres. This goes back to the licensing act of 1737, which had been passed in order to curtail political satire on the London stages, which often appeared in disguise form inside songs. You couldn't have singing on stage during the play because that was a really good opportunity for people to make fun of important politicians. The politicians didn't want that.

So music on the theatres royal was only allowed between the acts, and it wasn't allowed to be used in the performances. Sheridan keeps the music between acts, and there are elaborate stage directions for the music, but he also adds songs and processions and musical like motifs all through the play, which makes the play sometimes feel rather operatic, on a pretty grand scale. Some of this music was by well-known musicians at the time, that Sheridan and the theatre composer Michael Kelly had pulled in, some was by Kelly himself, and in fact, Kelly's reminiscences are full of stories about how Sheridan for instance on one occasion, pulled him out of a dinner party, and dragged him to the theatre, and then made him watch, and look at the sets, and watch the actors, so he could compose the music right away, which Kelly, to his credit seems to have done. In fact, the music was very popular in and of itself.

Kelly published all the music from Pizarro and all the songs separately in 1802, and this went through several editions in itself. Sheridan also contributed some original lyrics, specifically for Cora's song, which is the song that Jordan sang over her child, when she thinks that Alonzo is gone forever. It was also published on its own and entered into the regular musical repertoire all the way through the nineteenth century.

Selena: Another important part of the firsts of the play, has to do with the set. As was expected at the time, the set was magnificent and featured changing scenery and special effects and also had s collapsing bridge, which was the first time this was used. I'll describe a little bit about the set, and well talk about that collapsing bridge. So the scene shifts between starting with a magnificent pavilion near Pizarro's tent, with a view of the Spanish camp in the background to Peruvian scenes in the wild woods with stupendous rocks and an elaborate temple of the sun, which the script tells us represents the magnificence of Peruvian idolatry. Staging the Incan temple of the sun or indigenous sun worship had been recurring on English stages since the [inaudible 00:33:34] cruelty of the Spaniards [inaudible 00:33:36], and most recently prior to Sheridan's Pizarro, being Morton's Columbus.

So that temple of the sun, although it is magnificent is definitely not one of the firsts in this play. That's a reiteration of a longstanding English staging. The set also includes a Spanish dungeon, in which Alonzo is kept prisoner until Rolla frees him, and then very important for the climactic effect the rescue of the baby, is a wild rocky background with a [inaudible 00:34:02], falling down the precipice over which a bridge is formed by a felled tree. This bridge was a collapsing set piece that had to be triggered in the midst of the rescue of the baby as Rolla ran over it and pulled its supports free to prevent pursuit.

Daniel [Laquin 00:34:18] argues, the bridge scene is also a metaphor for the way in which the play crosses the political and aesthetic realms, and Julie [Kosan 00:34:25] in her discussion of the [inaudible 00:34:28] in English theatre also comments on this collapsing bridge and the steps and the importance of this first enactment of that, emphasizing how after Pizarro, there were many plays concerning Africans from the early nineteenth century staged hanging bridges and rescues and calling this a visual cross referencing of scenes in plays that were critical in the colonial power encouraging sympathetic viewers to read or that is preview the new play from a position of resistance.

So the collapsing bridge, which now we recognize as a very very common trope in many action movies in particular, Indiana Jones or ...

Alex: Indiana Jones and the Man Who Would Be King, final scene, they cut the bridge, and the bridge collapse [inaudible 00:35:10].

Selena: But this is, it comes back to Pizarro. So the set design was also enhanced by new technologies, which made the play's special effects, such as the elaborate staging of the Peruvian ritual during the temple of the sun scene with the fireball defending from on high, or the thunder and lightning during Cora's song, and of course the rocky precipice with the cascading waterfall and bridge. It's really hard to represent all this in a text, which we did our best to try and draw the reader's attention to these things. Unfortunately there's a lot of visuals that go along with the [inaudible 00:35:47] so you can have representations of that that's hard to imagine.

Michael: So it really sounds like this play became a cultural phenomenon. I'm wondering how it worked its way into pop culture at the time, and what that said about theatre's role in society at this turn in the nineteenth century.

Alex: That's a really good question. One we spent a lot of time considering in the background of our work. So we already talked a little bit about why Pizarro became so popular and why it was written in the way that it was, vis a vis the Hastings trial and the invasion scare and the two sides of imperialism and the celebrity actors that Sheridan has at its disposal. Sheridan knew what he was doing. He was pushing all the buttons he could kind of all at once, mashing his hands against the buttons to make this play work. I think that's one answer to the question. But it's also I think important as your question suggests that to remember that theatre was, at this moment in the 1790s was really part of the apparatus of political persuasion in the period. That's why it's so interesting that Sheridan comes back from a career in politics, and is doing that simultaneously, he's the theatre manager and an impresario really. He's the impresario of this era.

What he's doing is he's getting people in Britain from all classes in society, cultural models that they need to justify to themselves that's really bizarre place they have in the world, as on the one hand imperial oppressors and on the other hand as the potential victims of imperial outrage. So he does this very careful thing of constructing this again heavily in quotes native figure, that is associated with Britishness at the same time that Britishness is also very patriotically associated with empire.

What Selena said about the set really goes well with this. When you see in a really heroic way an act of rebellion against invasion, it helps to legitimize a national identity that might be struggling on one hand against the invasion, but which is also invading and exploiting other places. This is actually something that in a lot of political rhetoric we see today all the time, a great way to justify imperial action is the claim that it's done in the service against potential imperial victimization. But I think also because of this spectacle, plays like Pizarro had a critical role, very much like that held today by shows and films that were also combined high sentiment and spectacle, things like Game of Thrones, or the new Star Wars film opens today, and it's got that kind of feel to it and so on.

These kinds of popular culture spectacles, you're working through the dilemmas and contradictions of invasion and war and racism and liberty and empire. Words that we often take for granted, we use all the time, but which really need to be unpacked. We often associate this period with these kinds of big political and philosophical contradictions that we call romanticism and often we do that with poetry, the big poets of this era like Wordsworth or Percy Shelly or even Jane Austen in some respects.

But scholars are coming to realize it was in the theatre, which the romantics all wrote for and were all huge fans of, was the place where these chew political issues were actually being acted out, and the popularity of Pizarro is one indication for us of just how much this chewiness was making its way into the social zeitgeist in Britain at this time. You can also see this in the extensive critical commentary on the play, a lot of which we tried to reproduce in the appendices to our edition. It shows people, critics, and viewers working through exactly these kinds of questions in a lot of instances. I mean whole books were written about Pizarro because it was such a huge cultural event. While to some extent these writers were also cashing in on that popularity, they were also asking things like hey, Elvira is both a nun and a fallen woman, and she appears as both of these figures all the way through the play. How do we handle these kinds of contradictions?

So while Pizarro was popular, it's not to be considered as [dross 00:39:55] as some antagonistic critics believed at the time, and a lot of people have made it up to be since. I think it tells us that people in Britain were actually thinking through important political and moral issues of their time by way of the plays that they were all dying to watch.

Michael: Yes, and as both of you have touched upon a number of times already in this interview, one of the most sort of interesting contradictions, dilemmas that we can almost see the audience wrestling with is shown in the depiction of the native peoples of South America. I'm curious what you find particularly interesting, noteworthy about how Pizarro treats the native characters and I'm also curious what you think this has to say about colonialism and its legacy.

Selena: Sure. There's so much to really work through in the play. First, to start by making clear that the depiction of the peoples from the Andes in this play is entirely of an imaginary indigenaiety which because of the volatile dynamics of the nineteenth century can be put to political use in many ways by numerous constituencies. While it is based on extensive European sources, as Alex has already detailed, much of these are entangled in the European conflicts over religion and over the vying for colonial resources and lands. They depict the Incans as civilized by tragically defeated by these ruthless Spaniards.

But this ambivalence allowed the play to circulate around the world, and carry meanings in various places. So there's someplace like the US where Pizarro was performed a few months after it first appeared on Drury Lane, and then every season thereafter in New York City until 1863. So Elizabeth Madocck Dillon in her book New World Drama describes the American interest in Pizarro as linked to an [inaudible 00:41:44] settlers to create an indigenous, white, Creole identity to support the nationalist identity at the time called American nativism.

Pizarro first evokes an English and then an American conformative commons through the marriage of Alonzo and Cora, which we spoke about earlier and the creation of their family. In the context of the newly formed US, the most significant plot revolves around Rolla attempting to keep the family intact. So Rolla sacrifices himself. He becomes the tortured dead Indian on stage so that this new Creole family can exist. So [inaudible 00:42:15] explains that the triangulation of politics in an American could see would be instead of Spanish English Peruvians, it would be understood as a metropolitan English for Creole Americans and the native Americans of the US.

There's other really interesting circulations of this. Rolla was [inaudible 00:42:32] debut performance of the early years of the African theatre company, which Dillon characterizes as a formative expression of horizontal relations between differently colonized peoples, taking up of Rolla as the hero. Rolla initially becomes so well known that [inaudible 00:42:45] cites him [inaudible 00:42:48] when he has Jim Crow play a South American prince in one of his Jim Crow [inaudible 00:42:52] in 1837, which actually he travels and performs that in England.

The Mormons also perform Sheridan's Pizarro to express beliefs about their own indigency and persecution by outsiders. It was first staged in 1844 by a Mormon group raising funds for Joseph Smith's defense, featuring professional actors as well as major church leaders. Alonzo was played by Erasmus Snow, and the Peruvian high priest was played by Brigham Young. So the play became known as the Mormon national play, opening in the first theatre in Utah and was performed yearly between 1863 and 1874.

So the malleable cosmopolitan [inaudible 00:43:30] of the play is also demonstrated by the many translations and adaptations in India. There are four different versions [inaudible 00:43:34], two in [inaudible 00:43:36], one each in Urdu and [inaudible 00:43:38], which include adaptations such as a Hindu Elvira, as captive of the Muslim Pizarro and rescued by Rolla, her Hindu lover. Or another version Spain and Peru are replaced by Turkey and India.

So the legacy of Pizarro and its deployment of indiginaeity is highly ambivalent. It began as part of a Euro centric reckoning with the [inaudible 00:43:59] project as we've discussed and then ricocheted around the world in adaptations by those critical of fighting against or re-imagining imperialism. It's also really fascinating to study Pizarro as there is a corresponding performance history that centers not on an imagined Peruvian victory over Pizarro from this European source, but rather on the death of [inaudible 00:44:20], whose Incan name is [inaudible 00:44:22], and that tradition began as a sixteenth century Andean dance drama. The first written report of one is in 1555 a few years after [inaudible 00:44:31] death, and versions of this drama of invasion are still performed at festivals in Peru and Libya in a mix of Spanish and [inaudible 00:44:38]. One such performance is represented in text, the end of [inaudible 00:44:42], a tragedy by Jesus [Lara 00:44:43], which is published in Dianna Taylor and Sarah Townsend's Stages of Conflict. The play centers in Inca experiences, showing their relationships, trauma and engagement with hate. It invokes indecipherability throughout and even in the final scene has the king of Spain being rendered speechless when confronted by Pizarro's beheading of the Inca.

Once the king regains his ability to speak, he then orders Pizarro burned at the stake for his wrongdoing in this Andean [inaudible 00:45:10] drama version. So in the end Sheridan's Pizarro in its first production and its extensive afterlife demonstrates a metaphorical power of a constructive indigenaeity in the European imaginary as a way to denote a moral heroism and a right to land.

Michael: Now, Selena and Alex, I think for those of our listeners that might not know what goes into editing a play like this, I'd be really curious to hear what the process is like for the two of you, and what you're trying to do in creating this Broadview edition of the play.

Alex: It took us five years to edit it and produce this play, and we should thank Broadview and our editors at Broadview for their patience, which was wonderful. They let us get on with it, and they gave us lots of time and scope, and that was fantastic. I've actually known about Pizarro for some time. I'm primarily a romanticist, and I study literature and politics [inaudible 00:46:10] around 1800. But I wrote my PhD dissertation on the drama of this period, and I got interested in Pizarro and Sheridan at that time. In 2012, was it 2012? Yeah. I taught a graduate seminar here at UBC on British romantic drama, and I put Pizarro on the syllabus, and Selena was in that class. She was a PhD student here, and she wrote a brilliant essay on the play on Elvira and Sheridan's transitions in her role, and this has been published in [inaudible 00:46:43]. Right? Yeah. The play just taught really really well. Because it had all the chewy stuff in it that we've been talking about today, colonialism and spectacle and politics and so on.

So the idea of this edition came largely from that experience. Broadview seemed like the best venue since they're known for the publishing of critical editions with lots of apparatus where you could put a long introduction and lots of notes and all these appendices with some of the contextual material that we've talked about today. But it's only when we started working on the play that we realized just how much stuff this play produced, not just its nineteenth century legacy, which would be a monograph in itself to document, and which we're not going to write. But we collected this huge number of articles, newspaper clippings, and reviews and books from the period, and we were very lucky that Daniel [Laquin 00:47:39] who's at the university of [inaudible 00:47:39], who's written quite a bit on this play, he actually mailed this giant stack of photocopies that he made ten years ago, and delivered it to us. A lot of that material is also searchable and online now, thanks goodness, so all the newspapers from the 1790s, so you can look at the reviews.

We had to look through all of that. We also had to work through all of the historical background on South America that we discussed. We went to London to the theatre archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which I highly recommend to your listeners because it's a wonderful sight. We worked our way through their collection of prints and posters and political cartoons, and that were all associated with the play. The V&A, they even had a series of commemorative plates celebrating the play and featuring images of all the main characters, although they wouldn't let us photograph them because they're quite delicate and they're being held back.

We went to the British Library, we found translations and [inaudible 00:48:37]. We found musical scores and on and on and on, it went. Most of this work involved getting all this material together in a form that was compact and readable. Interestingly enough, the play was pretty easy to edit. Sheridan published a version of the play to coincide with its performance. This came out in early June of 1799, but it didn't have any of the music or songs in it, except for Cora's song, the poem that Sheridan contributed. This went through some like twenty-one editions in the first year, which is an enormous number of editions for a play being published to coincide with a performance.

So luckily this was published so fast, there weren't very many corrections. So we didn't have much to do in terms of the kind of close editorial scrutiny that you would have to use say with a Shakespeare play where there are lots of different editions available [inaudible 00:49:27]. Nothing like that is apparent in Pizarro. Instead, we were allowed to situate the play in these cultural settings, in its performance history and in its colonial contexts, these multiple plural contexts, because as we've said, there are many, and they're all equally important.

But also instead of just the published text, we got access to John Phillip Campbell's prompt book for the play. Now when Campbell left the Drury Lane company, he moved to Covent Garden, and he took Pizarro with him as it were and staged it again in 1807 for the first time and then several years after that. Then the [Folger 00:50:02] Society in Washington DC has and has published Campbell's prompt book from these later productions, which includes a lot of his director's notes, a lot of his changes. He cleaned up the play. He made it a little less controversial.

We also had access, thanks to David Francis Taylor, who's now at [inaudible 00:50:19] university to one of the original manuscript translations, which is held at Harvard, and for some of his research, Taylor had transcribed the manuscript, and he was generous enough to send it to us, which was great. We were able to look at some of that and to incorporate some elements of the editorial changes, which the play had produced and we got an image of one of the pages of the prompt book showing Campbell's changes.

So our editorial process was really focused as much on the performance and performance legacies of the play rather than on the textual, because as you pointed out, the play is crazy, but textually sophisticated in a way that we often think. It just has this amazing cultural presence at this very precise moment and then after, which people know less about than they probably should.

So what we're trying to do with the edition is show to readers and students how we can engage with the drama and its performance history that also speaks to some of the press concerns of our own time, such as empire, such as indigenaeity, such as invasion and the kind of anxieties that attend it, and really that inspired all the work we did for as long as it took to produce this edition.

Michael: We'll post additional information about Selena and Alex's new edition of Pizarro in our show notes, as well as additional links and reading suggestions that will let you further explore the play's historical and cultural context. Selena and Alex, thank you so much for telling us so much about the fascinating story behind this hit play.

Alex: Thanks, Michael.

Selena: Thank you so much for asking about it.

Alex: Thanks for listening.

Michael: If you'd like to continue today's conversation, please visit howlround.com, and follow HowlRound and @theaterhistory on Twitter and Facebook. You can also visit our website at theatrehistorypodcast.net where you can find links to all of our episodes and email your questions and comments about the show to [email protected]. A big thank you to the staff at HowlRound to make this show possible. Our intro and outro music this week are the Grand March and Dead March from Pizarro, both of which were composed by Michael Kelly for the original production of Sheridan's play. They come to us courtesy of Mark Douglass, who is responsible for music consulting and transcription. Thanks as well to Tip [Cress 00:52:49], who designed our logo, and finally thank you for listening.

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark
Thoughts from the curator

This podcast aims to introduce listeners to the artists, scholars, and archivists who are working to bring the history of performance to life. We hope that, by listening to this show, you’ll learn about exciting new performances, fascinating books, and valuable repositories of knowledge, all of which will help you better understand theatre’s history.

Theatre History Podcast


Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First