Playing Arab

“Playing Arab: Images of Easterners on Western Stages.” Connections and Ruptures: America and the Middle East. Proceedings of Third International Conference, Center for American Studies. Beirut: American University of Beirut, 2011.


On its surface at least, Rowson’s play would seem to constitute the sort of Manichean encounter between East and West that would warm the hearts of Dean McIntyre and Captain Voelz. The play belongs to a long tradition of captivity narratives — counter-ethnographies written by European-Americans held captive by non- Europeans, usually Native Americans — and, more specifically, Barbary captivity narratives, although in this case a clearly fictional one.


The story, as Amelia Howe Kritzer observes, presents “two separate groups of characters: the captors, who inflict suffering on their victims… and the captives, who hold fast to their ideals while courageously struggling for freedom.” In the play’s concluding dialogue—after the Americans have achieved their freedom through a series of implausible coincidences—the protagonist, Olivia, offers what is clearly intended to be the play’s overarching moral: “may Freedom spread her benign influence thro’ every nation, till the bright Eagle, united with the dove and the olive branch, waves high, the acknowledged standard of the world.”


Nevertheless, the play—in spite of its improbable plot, imperial exhortations and melodramatic tone—is complicated, through both its text and context, in ways that preclude a simple equation of Easterner equals captor equals villain and vice-versa. (from p. 1-2)