“’Too much tragedy in real life': Jean Margaret Davenport in the West Indies, 1840-1841.” Emotional Journeys: Itinerant Theatres, Audiences and Adaptation in the Long 19th Century. German Historical Institute, London, Eng. Nov. 2015.
In February 1842, a writer for the The Jamaica Despatch [sic], Chronicle, and Gazette cited the upcoming production of the mystical play The Somnambulist as ideal fare for Jamaican audiences. “There is, in fact, too much tragedy in real life in this sadly afflicted island,” he wrote, “to dispose the suffering inhabitants to sit with patience through a five act drama depicting fictitious woe” (“Theatricals”). This writer’s warning speaks to one of the unique challenges facing companies touring the West Indies in the immediate post-Emancipation period, when anger, resentment, and depression dominated the emotions of many white colonists as they adjusted to new social realities.
My paper explores the travels of child actress Jean Margaret Davenport, who toured the British West Indies with her family between 1840 and 1841. A success on the English stage, Jean Margaret was a polarizing figure in the Caribbean. Some theatergoers welcomed her with open arms, seeing in her an opportunity to affirm affective ties to the metropole at a time when the settler population was in steep decline. This was especially evident in the Bahamas, where political and military leaders vied to bestow their patronage upon the young actress and entreated her to extend her stay. Other audiences, however, saw Jean Margaret and her family as talentless interlopers. In Kingston, Jamaica, an anonymous trio of critics attacked the juvenile performer’s repertoire, which included a series of Shakespearean tragedies designed to showcase her expansive range and supposed resemblance to the Romantic actor Edmund Kean. These critics accused the Davenport family of trying to fool settler-colonists with mediocre talent. Through a comparative analysis of the reactions Jean Margaret elicited from colonial audiences and the responses she (and her manager/father) made in return, I will highlight the various ways that child performers participated in the production and promotion of British imperial ideology in the wake of Emancipation.
“Theatricals,” The Jamaica Despatch, Chronicle, and Gazette 19 Feb. 1842, p. 2.