Alien Heat

Jonathan Gil Harris

  • The Island Princess by John Fletcher, edited by Clare McManus
    Arden, 338 pp, £16.99, December 2012, ISBN 978 1 904271 53 6

On 7 January 1669, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that he and his wife had seen ‘a pretty good play’ at the king’s playhouse, with ‘many good things being in it – and a good scene of a town on fire’. The ‘town on fire’ – a pyrotechnical display involving the controlled detonation of low-grade gunpowder or squibs – must have had a particular force for an audience still recovering from the Great Fire in September 1666. But the burning town wasn’t London. The play was John Fletcher’s The Island Princess, a tragicomedy written half a century earlier, and set on the islands of Ternate and Tidore in what is now Indonesia. The opening stage direction, however, states: ‘The Scene India’.

The Island Princess is the only surviving pre-Restoration English drama to be set in what was then known as ‘India’, a catch-all term spanning the vast area from the Subcontinent to the Spice Islands. The plot is straightforward. Armusia, a dashing Portuguese venturer, woos Quisara, the princess of Tidore. She entertains numerous other suitors, including the evil governor of the neighbouring island of Ternate, as well as her initial favourite, the indecisive Portuguese aristocrat Rui Dias. Armusia wins Quisara’s affections by freeing her brother, the king of Tidore, from the prison in which the governor of Ternate has cruelly confined him. Armusia and his men’s scheme to liberate the king gives rise to the scene that arrested Pepys: cramming a cellar next to the prison with gunpowder, they blow it up and set fire to the town, allowing the king to escape. Despite her growing love for him, Quisara tells Armusia that she will marry him only if he converts to her religion. He angrily refuses. The governor of Ternate, infiltrating Tidore disguised as a ‘Moor priest’, persuades the king to arrest Armusia for heresy; but when the Portuguese threaten another explosion, he is released, and Quisara – impressed by his ‘constancy’ – yields to him in both marriage and religion, converting to Christianity.

The play was immensely popular for more than a century after its first recorded performance in 1621. But after falling out of the repertory in the mid-18th century, it languished in critical and theatrical oblivion for more than 250 years. Since 9/11, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in it. Clare McManus’s edition is to a large extent organised around what she sees as the play’s ‘striking topicality in the post-9/11 moment’. The cover image seems designed to illustrate her point. Over an eerie, sepia-tinted image of a beautiful tropical scene – a river flanked by palm trees – we can make out the spectral form of a burqa-clad woman, her hands cupped in dua or prayer. The sepia tint either places the tropical scene in a distant past or suggests the haze of a conflagration just out of frame: perhaps it’s the burning town. It also recalls the pictures of Ground Zero taken as dust and debris fell from the burning towers. The ‘tropical’ thus blurs into the ‘topical’ – the eponymous island princess, the illustration tells us, is a devout Muslim.

McManus works hard to ground the play’s native characters in Islamic culture. When the governor of Ternate arrives in Tidore disguised ‘like a Moor priest’, she glosses the phrase as ‘an imam, a Muslim priest’, and she calls the island princess herself, Quisara, ‘a fully sexualised Muslim woman’. These glosses merge Fletcher’s 17th-century characters with what readers might understand Muslims to be now. Of course, this is what glosses are meant to do: translate unfamiliar terms into familiar words and concepts. Yet much can get lost in translation, especially when we dissolve the messy plurality of complex early modern representations, with all their unassimilable detritus, into the singularity of supposedly self-evident identities. If we think of The Island Princess’s ‘Moor priest’ as an ‘imam’, we might all too easily finesse the fact – noted by McManus – that he makes pantheistic references to ‘the gods’ and is addressed as ‘Don Governor’, a Spanish Catholic title. There is little in the text that identifies Quisara as ‘Muslim’: there is, for example, no indication that she is veiled. And when she asks Armusia to convert to her religion, she – like the governor – invokes her ‘gods’ in the plural.

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