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Digital edition of anti-slavery play links it to 1700s opera

Friday, April 24, 2015


LAWRENCE — Two University of Kansas researchers have created a digital edition of a previously unpublished anti-slavery play attributed to the 19th century playwright and actress Kate Edwards Swayze.

It is believed to be the first time Swayze's play, the truncated title of which is "Sweethearts," has been transcribed for the public, and the play's editors, Associate Professor of English Laura Mielke and graduate student Martha Baldwin, have framed the work with a historical introduction and extensive notes. The edition was published recently in the open-access journal Scholarly Editing: The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing.

The only play attributed to Swayze and published during her lifetime is the 1859 "Ossawattomie Brown," a work that typically gets attention from scholars focused on abolitionist John Brown. Four other plays attributed to Swayze, including "Sweethearts," were copied into notebooks by her husband, Jason Clarke Swayze, while he was living in Georgia in the late 1850s. These manuscripts are held in the Manuscripts Collection of the Kansas Historical Society in Topeka, having been donated by Swayze's son, Oscar Kepler Swayze, a prominent Topeka businessman and official who inherited the manuscripts and who died in 1949.

Mielke said she and Baldwin felt it was important to transcribe the play to expand on the understanding of Swayze's personal and professional engagement with political events of the late 1850s, when slavery threatened to tear the nation apart at its seams. "Sweethearts" is an anti-slavery play that depicts interracial marriage but is also marked by racist language and caricature.

"Certainly the history of slavery and racism in the United States is relevant to contemporary racial inequities and injustice, which have been highlighted by recent events in Missouri, New York and Oklahoma," Mielke said. "This play is a piece of that history, a dramatic text that demonstrates the deep ironies of a democracy founded in slavery, where even those whites committed to the end of enslavement often could not or would not imagine African-American equality."

"Sweethearts" is an adaptation of the popular British comic opera "Inkle and Yarico: An Opera, in Three Acts," written by George Colman the Younger in 1787. Colman wrote the play in the context of the late-18th century British abolitionist movement, Mielke said. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and passed an Emancipation Bill in 1833. Swayze rewrote “Inkle and Yarico” in a mid-19th-century US context, incorporating references to an infamous case of illegal international slave trade in 1858.  

The title of the play actually includes a racially derogatory term, which Mielke and Baldwin mention once in the introduction to the edition, though other times they refer to the play as "Sweethearts." The title and other aspects of the play, including Irish caricature and black minstrelsy, add a layer of complexity to the historical and literary significance of the work, Mielke said.

"Put simply, Swayze made a famous British comic opera a vehicle for an American anti-slavery message as well as a potential theatrical crowd-pleaser. That's where the racism of the text comes in," she said. "Swayze does not hesitate to have a ridiculous stage Irishman or African characters that are really minstrel characters. Her inclusion of the 'N-word' is essential to the humor of the text but also makes clear how an anti-slavery work was not necessarily anti-racist."

Mielke said part of the mystery surrounding "Sweethearts" is why the title page is missing.

"Perhaps the nature of the play, and in particular its endorsement of interracial marriage, led to the damage. That is, perhaps someone who handled the manuscript was upset by the title and/or the content and attempted to deface the work," Mielke said. "Then again, the notebook might have simply been damaged."

To create the digital edition, Mielke and Baldwin encoded the transcribed text of the play in TEI XML and used the online tool Juxta to create a visual collation of the two plays in order to show how Swayze crafted her play from the British text. Mielke and Baldwin credit the KU Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities with providing helpful workshops for learning these skills.

Baldwin said that, fortunately, the handwritten manuscript for "Sweethearts" was legible. The copiest, Jason Clarke Swayze, was a printer and may have been creating a fair copy in preparation for printing.

"This made transcribing the manuscript a relatively straightforward project, though encoding that manuscript was more challenging," Baldwin said. "We wanted the digital rendition of the text to reflect what appears on the manuscript page."