African Characters

Introduction to Character Type | List of Plays | Up One Level

Introduction to Character Type

Characters of African origin occur only in Isaac Bickerstaff’s The Padlock (1768) and David Garrick’s The Irish Widow (1772). Both plays exemplify the treatment of black servants by white – but curiously, non-English – masters: the Spanish Don Diego, and the eponymous Irish Widow.

The Irish Widow’s only African character is Pompey, a footman, who is onstage for a brief scene. Pompey does not advance the action of the piece, nor reveals anything about the play’s main characters; this calls into question the purpose of Garrick’s inclusion of a black footman. Two interpretations of this character’s role can be offered. First, Pompey’s speech complements the Widow’s transition to strong brogue in this scene with the marked dialect of his only line: “The Baccararo whiteman no let blacky boy go first after you missis, they pull and pinch me” (Garrick 26). The contrast of the Widow’s Irish dialect to her fiancé Whittle’s Standard English is paralleled by the relationship of Pompey’s non-standard speech to the sophistication of that of the English footman (“It is a shame, your ladyship…” (26)).  Secondly, the content of Pompey’s speech is a telling indication of the treatment of black servants according to a racially-based social hierarchy, despite a government edict giving them equality (26):

Footman. It is a shame, your ladyship, that a black negro should take place of English christians---we can't follow him indeed.

Widow. Then you may follow one another out of my sarvice; if you follow me, you shall follow him, for he shall go before me; can't I make him your superior, as the laws of the land have made him your aqual? therefore resign as fast as you plase, you shan't oppose government and keep your places too, that is not good politicks in England or Ireland either, so come along Pompay, be after going before me---

The Widow’s spirited political commentary draws another parallel between the treatment of British citizens of African and Irish origins, suggesting that both are viewed as inferiors despite an equal legal status. Pompey thus counterpoints the Irish Widow linguistically and nationally in this scene.

Mungo (The Padlock) is a nuanced character who is instrumental to the action of the play. First acted in blackface by Charles Dibden, Bickerstaff’s musical collaborator, the popular role was later taken on by black actors and continued to be played well into the nineteenth century (Rudolph). The sympathetic and comic Mungo ruminates on his lot as a servant, concluding “Me wish to de Lord me was dead” (Bickerstaff 11). His non-standard grammar and orthography (“massa”) distinguish him linguistically as well as racially from the other characters, focusing the audience’s attention on his plight. Pompey’s complaints about harsh physical punishment are matched with Mungo’s (10):

Mung. No, Massa, you lick me every day with your rattan: I'm sure Massa, that's mischief enough for poor Neger man.

Deig. So, so.

Mung. La, Massa, how could you have a heart to lick poor Neger man, as you lick me last Thursday?

Deig. If you have not a mind I should chastise you now, hold your tongue.

Mung. Yes, Massa, if you no lick me again.

Although they are servants, not slaves (Mungo confirms this: “me very good servant” (11)), both characters are subjected to physical punishment by their social superiors. Tellingly, no white servants in this collection complain about the physical cruelty of their masters or of other servants. Despite the stereotypical portrayal of the characters, Mungo and Pompey exemplify concerns about the ill-treatment of African servants in this period.

Works Cited:

Bickerstaff, Isaac. The Padlock. London: W. Griffin, 1768. Literature Online. 7 August 2008.

Garrick, David. The Irish Widow. London: T. Becket, 1772. Literature Online. 7 August 2008.

Rudolph, Valerie C.‘Isaac John Bickerstaff: September 26, 1733-1808’. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 89: Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Dramatists, Third Series. Edited by Paula R. Backscheider, University of Rochester. The Gale Group, 1989. LiteratureResourceCenter. 23 May 2008.

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The Padlock (Bickerstaff)

The Irish Widow (Garrick)

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©2008 Arden Hegele