David Humphreys's 1790 play, The Widow of Malabar, has been little studied, but it demonstrates surprising complexity as a cultural artifact of the American new republic. Written as a close adaptation of Antoine-Marin Lemierre's La Veuve du Malabar (1770), Humphreys's version appeared in Philadelphia and New York as a vehicle of American social liberality toward women, developing a theme barely visible in Lemierre, and as the rare product of an American author on a U.S. stage otherwise dominated by British dramas and actors. Replaced in U.S. theaters by Marianna Starke's British version of the same French source, the old Widow made way for an adaptation radically different from Humphreys's close translation. Starke's drama on the Philadelphia stage represents a turn away from French ideas and characters and toward a reconception of the early republic as a nation culturally dependent upon Great Britain. In addition, sati itself becomes a dynamic theatrical sign of a variety of local and international concerns connected to Asian Indians, Native Americans, and the place of the United States in global politics and culture. It reflects, among other things, both American awareness of events and manners on the subcontinent and its confusions over its own Indians. In the end, sati in Philadelphia is not merely an exotic displacement but a domestic site for sometimes contradictory national self-conceptions.
Jeffrey H. Richards; Sati in Philadelphia: The Widow(s) of Malabar. American Literature 1 December 2008; 80 (4): 647–675. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2008-034
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