Friday, 16 May 2014

DRAMA 2013 - Representations of ‘non-white’ cultures in The Secret Garden

Monica Taylor - 4522884
Dr. Jim Ellison
March 12, 2013

Representations of ‘non-white’ cultures in The Secret Garden

In this paper, I will argue that Frances Hodgson’s The Secret Garden offers a socially and historically contingent stereotypical depiction of non-white identity.  Having established these stereotypes and the processes through which they are constructed and continue to operate, I will argue for specific performative strategies and/or adaptations aimed at highlighting the social and historical factors that surrounded this depiction.  In The Secret Garden, adapted for the stage by Jerry R. Montoya employs stereotypical representations of non-white-ness in order to both mobilize what Lott refers to as the ‘power and interest’ (Lott 106) of marginalized cultural practices and simultaneously to subdue the potential danger this power represents by subordinating the essentialized traits of Indian and Black-ness to those of the dominant (white) culture. Through the use of manichean oppositions such as Master/Slave, black clothing/white clothing and behaviors of white/nonwhite, Frances Hodgson’s The Secret Garden can be viewed as supportive of the hegemonic phase of Indian and Black colonization, contributing as it does to the interpellation of a constructed Indian and Black identity and thus to the success of the ongoing colonial project.  By reinforcing stereotypical representations of Indian and Black-ness, The Secret Garden contributes, as Lott suggests it will, to the ‘commodification of the native subject’ (JanMohamed 100), masking the covert colonialist goals of and assimilating non white people into the dominant white culture with the much more benign overt goal of colonialization.  Through my suggested changes to the play (see Appendix 1-4, and also quotations drawn from Appendix 2-4 to support my argument), I aim to highlight the social and historical contingency of The Secret Garden’s representation of Indian and Black-ness through costume suggestions (that include a costume sheet and script with costume cues written in) and dialogue change (by adding an additional character to highlight the black-ness of the first character). By doing so, I will problematize the stereotypes portrayed in the play and expose the contradictory messages inherent in assumptions of the ‘flexible positional superiority’ of the Westerner (JanMohamed 100) and the ‘colonialist discursive practices’ (JanMohamed 98) which attempt to justify the ongoing colonial project.  In my analysis of these proposed changes, I will argue that they have the specific effect of moving the message of The Secret Garden from the realm of histoire, an established, unquestioned truth about the way things are, to that of discours, where the presence and agency of those telling the story today is made evident, and audiences are invited to take a critical and dialectical position on the performance they are viewing.

Ethnicity is contextualized within this play in three central ways as outlined in the thesis. The text involves a simultaneous production and subjection of non-white ethnicity through Mary’s journey as she becomes a proper white girl and in turn becomes happy. These examples from the text range from being subtle to sub textual but all reveal author Frances Hodgson’s inability to escape racist connotations and denotations in her writing. This play, originally created as a novel and then closely adapted for the stage is a classic children’s story that youth and adults have read all over the world. The racial messages written into the text have been widely read and viewed as non-offensive as this script has remained a classic.

Frances Hodgson, a white English female author born in 1849 and who wrote this play/story in 1911 provided a hot bed of cultural revelations of the time.  First, the representation of ‘other than white’ in this play is shown through the binary contrasts between life in England and life in India. Mary’s many references to India that will be explored in depth in this essay reveal England’s cultural dominance over India. Secondly, Martha the housemaid is revealed as having many “black slave” qualities to her that reveal to the audience her position of authority (or lack thereof) in Misselthwaite Manor. Although Martha is “white” she is characterized by coming from a less than desirable neighborhood, she speaks in a different ‘slang’ speech pattern that Mary finds frustrating to listen to and demands that Martha change to suit Mary’s needs. It is clear that Hodgson used ‘black’ characteristics for Martha to convey to the audience that Martha is inferior and subordinate to the other white characters. Finally, there are many incidents that show Mary stripping away her Indian ‘blackness’ and godlessness to become a happy functioning young white girl that include her clothing changes and her adoption of the Christian model of Adam and Eve’s garden.
When Mary is introduced to the reader, she is a foul mouthed, sour child who had adapted the behaviors of the Indian culture as her essential characteristics. Throughout the play, Mrs. Medlock insists on ridding Mary of her “disgusting habits” and introducing her to the proper (white western) way of living. Mary is thrust into a hegemonic whirlwind of western culture. When she resists the new ways of living at first, Hodgson illuminates the anger and dislike for life that Mary has as she doesn’t want to play jump rope, sing or bake like a “normal little girl”. As the story progresses, Mary finds that the more she adopts the white, Christian western way of living her life she becomes happier and full of life. Hodgson writes Mary into a classic example of how powerful Western coercion can be as hegemony happens when “the natives accept a version of the colonizers’ entire system of values, attitudes, morality, institutions, and, more important, mode of production” (JanMohamed 98). The highlighting of mode of production is an interesting point to consider as Mrs. Medlock consistently brings up the fact that everything that Mary does needs to be tailored to how she is going to function as an adult. How productive will Mary be in a white Western society? Mrs. Medlock believes that only a proper white English upbringing will be able to provide the level of perfection and integrity needed for white adulthood, where her Indian upbringing “just won’t do”. 

It is near the end of the script that Mary is ‘coming around’ to the proper way to live a white western life. And with this new adoption of white values inevitably comes happiness. Her mood becomes tolerable and she is finding pleasures in day-to-day activities that include bonding with her white cousin who is sick. Mary finds that the more she rids herself of her ‘blackness’ the happier and freer she feels. Many instances Mary refers negatively about her black clothing and the dark window coverings that are keeping her from experiencing a western life. Once Mary begins to make these revelations she is compelled to share them with Colin (her bed ridden cousin) and release him from the hold that the dark has on him. Throughout this process, Mary is unaware of her attitude changes as Mrs. Medlock and the western influence is creating a dominant force of western internalization for Mary as “during this phase the ‘consent’ of the native is primarily passive and indirect” (JanMohamed 98). Mrs. Medlock exercises “direct and continuous bureaucratic control and ‘military’ coercion of the natives” in order to keep Mary in line and on track to becoming ‘civilized’ (JanMohamed 98). Mrs. Medlock uses threats such as sending her back to India or keeping her locked up inside to keep a bureaucratic control over Mary.

The staff members are worried when Mary arrives at the Manor as they believe she must have some sort of ‘Indian sickness’ as her parents and house servants has died from Cholera. It is common knowledge, as described by the housekeepers, to the white English population that India is no place for an English child. The script suggests that the fault for her ever-continuing illnesses lies with India and how it is unfit for white people to live there. The knowledge of this comes from discursive practices that perpetuate the stereotypes that were created by white people about their experiences in India. Drawing conclusions that illness and misfortune was the work of India itself and creating general ‘thought to be correct’ statements that perpetuate fabricated truths about the ‘non-white culture. India is consistently presented as a place which breeds illness and distasteful qualities through discourse that is being presented to the servants and staff at Misthlewaite Manor. Colonialist discursive practices as Foucault theorizes “are a system of statements within which the world can be known. It is the system by which dominant groups in society constitute the field of truth by imposing specific knowledge, disciplines and values upon dominated groups” (Ashcroft et al).

Mrs. Medlock attempts (successfully) to rid Mary of her Indian past in order to make her into a proper child. It is as if Mary herself is not white by the way Mrs. Medlock wants her to assimilate to the proper white English way of life.  “Now miss Mary” Mrs. Medlock says to Mary swiftly upon her arrival at the manner “things will be different from India. Count yourself lucky that you are back in England. You’ll have a maid, but you’ll have to learn to take care of yourself. A girl your age should be able to do the simple things expected of regular folk” (The Secret Garden 1.1. p.9).  It is stated in the play that Mary’s parents lived in India to reap the benefits of the culture there and the job prospects.  As white people, they covertly exploited the colony’s natural resources, as many other rich White men and women did at the time during Britain’s invasion of India through the various imperialist material practices. Mary’s father, a colonialist businessman, was attempting to change the nature of Indian business and was so passionate about it he never was able to spend time with Mary. Mary then, seen as an ‘Indian project’ was taken in by Master Craven and Mrs. Medlock in attempts to overtly “’civilize’ the savage and to introduce him to all the benefits of Western cultures”(JanMohamed 98). It is this assumption of the necessity of Mrs. Medlock’s duty to assimilate Mary into a proper ‘white – English’ culture that makes her involvement in Mary’s change interesting to note as the reader watches a form of colonization happen through the simultaneous production and subjection of non-white ethnicity.

This play is full of forms of Manichean Allegory. The binary parallel between many key features, characters and actions in this script addresses Hodgson’s relation to the field of racism and imperialist colonialist practices. There is a distinct difference between the white and ‘non white’ parallels that attribute an innate understanding of right and wrong as one side is always seen as better than the other. JanMohamed defines the Manichean allegory as “the dominant pattern of relations that controls the text within the colonialist context is determined be economic and political imperatives and changes, such as the development of slavery, that are external to the field itself” (98). The Manichean allegory developed as the need to control and situate white imperialist practices as correct and “better”. Hodgson paints a strong correlation between Mary’s unhappiness and her ties with her Indian upbringing. For example, when Mary is dressed in Black Indian styled dress she is unhappy and is treated poorly by the White house staff of the manor. But when Mary begins to adopt the proper white way of dressing, she is treated much better by the staff and becomes a happier more lively child as if the transformation was ‘magic’. Hodgson, growing up in England herself where this story takes place, as a white privileged child may not have been aware of the Manichean allegory presented in every day life and then transferred unintentionally to her writing. Counsel and Wolf address this when they speak of how “the writer is easily seduced by colonialist privilege and profits and forced by various ideological factors to conform to the prevailing racial and cultural preconceptions” (JanMohamed 98).

The treatment of Martha in the text is revealing of how characters of ‘non white’ descent are commodified by the white dominant class. Martha’s lack of education and knowledge of the world outside of her own allows Mrs. Medlock to have complete control and influence over Martha’s life as a servant. Although Martha is technically white as the script says she has a thick Yorkshire accent that Mary finds hard to understand and is frustrated that Martha cannot speak like the rest of them “I can’t understand a word you are saying” Mary says to Martha on many occasions (The Secret Garden 1. 1. p.10). Martha is not described by her skin color in the play and when reading it, it is easy to assume that she is black based on culturally defined stereotypes of how black servant women act. For example Martha tells Mary that “Mrs. Medlock is always sayin’ how I got no sense and if the Mistress of the house were still alive, I’d have no job at all” (The Secret Garden. 1. 1. P.10). As well, Martha describes her poor upbringing and how she has ten brothers and sisters. Popular productions of the play, including the on screen adaptations have had a white woman play Martha which is interesting based on the stereotype that her character falls under. The treatment of Martha is a representation of the commodification of the native subject. Martha is given little to no rights and performs her duties under the supervision of the superior white female. Hodgson’s use of descriptors and character traits in Martha is an example of how imperialists “ ‘administer’ the resources of the conquered country, so colonialist discourse ‘commodifies’ the native subject into a stereotyped object and uses him as a ‘resource’ for colonialist fiction” (JanMohamed 100). Hodgson uses these ‘black stereotypes’ to aid the reader in understanding more about Martha’s character. Although Martha is in the script a lot, the reader isn’t given a chance to view character development and understanding with her character as she is constantly under direct orders from Mrs. Medlock. The white staff and Master of the house use Martha as a commodity and pay her very little money and respect for the job she does. Mrs. Medlock routinely reminds her that she is lucky to have a job and it seems as if she is telling Martha that it is a privilege to be around a proper dominant group of white people. Giving Martha these stereotypes allows the reader to imprint a full set of characteristics and understandings that they have learned as “typical black people” through various colonialist discursive practices that depict black people as only acting this way.

Although the plays focus is on the protagonist Mary, there are many incidents where the reader is seeing the action through the eyes of the head housekeeper Mrs. Medlock. Medlock provides the reader with a multitude of examples of the Manichean allegory that happens with both the Indian characters mentioned (including angry Mary) and the black character of Martha. Medlock represents a flexible positional superiority which “puts the westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the [non-white] without ever losing him the relative upper hand” (JanMohamed 100). Medlock as a representation of the proper white side of the binary, her interactions with the concepts and characters that represent ‘non white’ in the play demonstrate how in every scenario white will always dominate. It is as if Hodgson (like any other author/playwright that has elements of flexible positional superiority in their text) is stating the Manichean allegory of the dualistic nature and then showing how this concept happens everywhere all of the time by showing the flexible positional superiority of the white westerner. In one instance, Mrs. Medlock provides an example of how Mary would have been raised better if she had more interaction with her white mother instead of always being with the Indian maids; “perhaps if her mother has carried her pretty face and her pretty manners often to the nursery Mary might have learned some pretty ways too” (The Secret Garden 1. 1. P.7). Hodgson is thus creating a representational economy in her script. She is “administering the relatively scarce resources of the Manichean opposition in order to reproduce the native in a potentially infinite variety of images, the apparent diversity of which is determined by the simple machinery of the Manichean allegory” (Lott 100).

This script provides the audience with a view into a world of ‘racial integration’. Racial integration was a process decided upon as a strategy of ‘non-white’ control when communities of segregated ‘non-white’ people became resistant to the colonial ideologies. Mrs. Medlock (and staff’s) distaste and opposition to the Indian culture is a perfect example of how white supremacy “was effectively maintained by the institutionalization of social apartheid and by creating a philosophy of racial inferiority that would be taught to everyone” (hooks 112). This separation of geographical space nurtured the embedded philosophy that whites and blacks are meant to be separate. This separation fuels the previously exposed Manichean allegory that creates the concept of a right and wrong binary that assists the production and continuation of colonialist ideologies. Mrs. Medlock makes it clear to Mary that it is necessary to rid herself of her Indian attitudes, dress, language and behaviors if she is going to have any hope of becoming a respectable young lady. This attitude that Mrs. Medlock has is problematic for the reader as the script is written to sympathize with the white characters, therefore seeing Mrs. Medlock’s suggestion as valid.

Critical understanding of how this play represents ‘otherness’ in its historical colonial representation has lead to a deeper understanding of the issues and why they have come to be. The rest of this paper will seek to understand two major methods of colonial representation and displace their material to challenge their existence and necessity in theatre discourse (and white discourse in general). The first challenge will address Mary’s transformation from an ‘Indian savage’ to a ‘proper white lady’ through exploring changes to the script and identifying concepts of, costume and staging of the show itself. The second challenge will address Martha’s characterization as a black slave to expose how colonial discourse has shaped readers minds to envision a black woman based on key textual identifiers that have been attached to the ‘non-white/black’ stereotype.

Abrogation will be used as a tool and method to unpack these colonialist truths that are written and perpetuated in the discourse of the time. Abrogation “refers to the rejection by post-colonial writers of a normative concept of ‘correct’ or ‘standard’ English used by certain classes or groups, and of the corresponding concepts of inferior ‘dialects’ or ‘marginal variants’ (Ashcroft et al). The Secret Garden, first written as a children’s story was then adapted for the stage for a wide variety of audience groups that is generally regarded as a cultural activity (to read to/with your child and to see theatre to both educate and entertain). The intent of challenging this material is to take a post-colonial critical stance and abrogate central concepts of the ‘correct’ way of doing things are re-defining the practice in a different setting or context. Abrogating these concepts within the play will lead to explore the appropriation within this play. Appropriation is “a term used to describe the ways in which post-colonial societies take over these aspects of the imperialist culture – language, forms of writing, film, theatre, even modes of thought and argument such as rationalism, logic and analysis – that may be of use to them in articulating their own social and cultural identities” (Ashcroft et al).

Mary and Colin Craven progress throughout the script into two proper, happy white children when they discover the ‘secret magic’ that they had been missing in their life. At the beginning of the script, Mary is portrayed as a sour dispositioned angry girl who dresses in heavy black clothing. This notation of clothing is interesting to watch as Mary gradually begins to dress in brighter (whiter) clothing the happier she becomes and the more time she spends doing the activities that Mrs. Medlock suggests and spends time outside. It is interesting to note the close relation the children’s experience in the garden has to the Christian story of Adam and Eve. Many references to the word ‘magic’ is used and if some of the text was changed, one would be able to directly see the links between Mary’s journey and that of a ‘non – white’ subject becoming colonized into a white Christian society.

In the costume list (see Appendix One) Mary’s clothing suggestions have been amplified to include more detail about what she is wearing. Mary is depicted at the end of the script being depicted as a ‘classic Sunday school child’ that shows her acceptance and assimilation into the white Christian ideal. The audience will then be able to visually see the evolution of Mary’s acceptance of white culture. The instances where Mary mentions that “there must be magic in the air, there is magic in the garden” prove how Mary is unaware of exactly what is making her life so much better. The ‘magic’ is in fact the White hegemonic and dominant power that is creating a proper white young lady out of her previously muddled Indian upbringing. The ‘magic’ is representational of God and of the general subjugation that is happening to Mary over the course of this play. A changed section in the script (see Appendix Two) that pull attention to Mary’s clothing when she mentions ‘magic’ so the audience can pick up on the correlation between the two. It is important that the audience is not fed a complete answer to the displaced postcolonial issue as it can wash over an audience. When attempting to portray an idea or concept to an audience it is important to engage critical thinking that guides the audience to conclusions and questioning attitudes about the topic at hand. It is also important to note that removing racism from The Secret Garden would strip the play of the integrity of the plot as the plot is about Mary’s change through her experiences. Her changes are inevitable when there is the ever present colonizing force from Mrs. Medlock and the white house staff and members. Making these changes maintains the integrity of the plot but adds the necessary depth to Mary’s change that enables the audience to see what is actually happening to her, that the magic is not coming from the garden but from the ever pressing colonizing force.

The character of Martha, as outlined earlier in the paper, is depicted through her use of language and stories that describe her like a ‘typical black slave’. This is problematic on the basis that Hodgson (who originally was writing for a white audience) uses these stereotypes that ‘everybody knows’ to give Martha her background information without having to ‘waste’ lines on Martha telling her story. Her story is thus implied in her behavior, attitude and way of speaking (orality). Gilbert, in her essay ‘De-scribing Orality: Performance and the Recuperation of Voice’ speaks of how if the dialogue is written in a way that showcases the linguistic connotations to the speakers true self then “the results are a Brechtian defamiliarization of language as a transparent signifier and a focus on ‘voice’ itself as a site of contestion” (Gilbert 121). Hodgson provides an attempt at giving Martha dialogue that is written as if she was actually a black person (see Appendix Three for the original scene). If the scene was to entice the audience into considering the heritage and meaning of Martha as a black character that represented a colonized population subjected to the hegemonic imperialist movement, the scene would have to, in my opinion, show two sides to Martha. One Martha would be the original character with her accent written as she was saying it to provide the reader with an accurate depiction of the accent. This original Martha would be played by a black woman and would be written in the script so there would be no confusion. The second Martha would speak the exact same words but in a proper white English tone that will be understood and provided to the audience through orality (see Appendix Four for changes).

Martha 2 would be a white woman that, although would be a house servant like Martha 1 she would be seen in the eyes of the audience as proper and correct. It would be written so that Mrs. Medlock, although subtle, sided with Martha 2 over Martha 1 based on Martha 1’s implied heritage. Choosing a scene that allows Martha’s character to speak lots allows the truth of the scene to be spoken, “in performance contexts, the truth, if any, is in the telling. By offering a wide range of potential articulations, dramatic texts amplify the splitting and hybridization of dominant discourses” (Gilbert 120). Changing this scene to include two Martha’s provides abrogation in the sense that the scene is rejecting a normative concept of ‘correct’ or ‘standard’ by playing devils advocate and providing both so the audience can see and hear the binary opposition (Manichean allegory). Abrogation in this scene provides a counter to the “theory that use of the colonialist’s language inescapably imprisons the colonized within the colonizer’s conceptual paradigms” (Ashcroft et al).

By analyzing the text in terms of how the stereotypes alive in this play one can see how inevitable they had become through the colonialization process. The processes through which the stereotypes are constructed and continue to operate reveal social and historical factors that influence the writer to engage with perpetuating colonial discourse. The stereotypical representations of both Mary (as an Indian girl at the beginning of the play) and Martha (a character depicted as black) mobilize what Lott refers to as ‘power and interest’. Through the analyzing of colonialist methods by defining and locating them in the text allowed a thorough understanding of what is wrong with the text. We can conclude that what is wrong is the use of previous imbedded knowledge of ‘what is correct’ (dominant white) to give context to the story without having to say anything. Hodgson is relying on the fact that her audience will be part of a white dominant group that, of course, will understand the stereotypes as true and valid and will not question the production. The character of Mrs. Medlock provided insight to how the dominant white class uses; hegemony, colonialist discursive practices, Manichean allegory, commodification of the native subject, flexible positional superiority of the Westerner, representational economy, white supremacy and social apartheid to control Martha and to change Mary into a proper white girl.

Making changes to key elements of the script has allowed exploration of appropriation and abrogation of the dialogue and costume elements of two scenes. Making these changes addresses the issues (as defined in the first part of the essay), answers the problem with a solution and then responds to why and how these changes will be effective. These changes provide the audience with insight to how The Secret Garden is historically and culturally contingent with the colonial discourse that was being written at the time (1911). By making these changes I am providing the audience with the vehicle to make their own conclusions about how and why these stereotypes have been constructed and perpetuated over time. Without ‘preaching’ to the audience about both sides of the history of colonialization making these changes will allow the audience to see this play in a natural light which is the true context of the time period in which it was written. Thus giving modern audiences the opportunity to see the specific effect of moving the message of The Secret Garden from the realm of histoire, an established, unquestioned truth about the way things are, to that of discours, where the presence and agency of those telling the story today is made evident.

Works Cited

Ashcroft, Bill; Griffiths, Gareth; Tiffin, Helen. Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies.     
London, GBR: Routledge, 1998.

Gilbert, H. "De-scribing Orality: Performance and the Recuperation of Voice’."      Performance Analysis: an introductory coursebook. Ed. Colin Counsell and      Laurie Wolf. New York: Routledge, 2001. 116-123. Print.

hooks, b. "Teaching Resistance: The Racial Politics of Mass Media’." Performance           Analysis: an introductory coursebook. Ed. Colin Counsell and Laurie Wolf. New       York: Routledge, 2001. 111 - 116. Print.

JanMohamed A. "The Economy of Manichean Allegory: The Function of Racial   Difference in Colonialist Literature’." Performance Analysis: an introductory    coursebook. Ed. Colin Counsell and   Laurie Wolf. New York: Routledge, 2001.     97 – 103. Print.

Lott, E. "Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class’."           Performance Analysis: an introductory coursebook. Ed. Colin Counsell and   Laurie Wolf. New York: Routledge, 2001. 104 - 110. Print.

Montoya, J. R. The Secret Garden. 1st ed. New York: Playscripts Inc, 2008. Print.

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