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Theatrical Aesthetics and Transatlantic Representation in Robert Hunter’s Androboros

Leopold Lippert


This essay argues that New York governor Robert Hunter’s 1715 play Androboros relies on a theatrical aesthetics that transcends dramatic form. Even though the play was never performed, its dramatic narrative still focuses on the body-on-stage, and negotiates the contingency that characterizes the coincidence of material and symbolic bodies in the theatre. Hunter’s theatrical aesthetics, this essay suggests, has political implications, as it intervenes in what Jacques Rancière calls the ‘distribution of the sensible’ in the context of the early modern Atlantic world: Androboros’ comic (and scatological) representation of bodily materiality on stage is deeply connected with the dramatic dialogue’s regard for various political bodies (the colonial assembly, as well as representatives of the British crown and the Anglican Church). As the play negotiates the unresolved mismatches between physical and representative bodies, it deliberates persistent questions about the significance of transatlantic political representation in colonial New York.

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  • 1 Literary historians assume various starting points for a “genuinely” American theater. While the fi (...)

1In the dedication that prefaces New York royal governor Robert Hunter’s (1666-1734) drama Androboros: A Bographical [sic] Farce in Three Acts, viz. The Senate, the Consistory, and the Apotheosis (1715), arguably the first American play,1 there is a curious indictment of a character named Fizle, which revolves around particular functions of the human body. As part of a song that is interspersed between the prose of the dedication, Hunter writes:

And it was a most Masterly stroke of Art
To give
Fizle Room to Act his part;
For a
Fizle Restrain’d will bounce like a F—t, […]
Long Kept under Hatches, ‘twill force a Vent
In the Shape of a Turd, with its Size and Scent,
And perhaps in its way may beshit a Vestment (n.pag.).

2This playful invocation in rhyme of bodily excreta, of farts, turd, and “beshit” vestments, can be contextualized in historical terms as relating to Hunter’s power struggle with both the New York colonial assembly and the Church of England. In writing Androboros, Hunter was satirically commenting on an ongoing political conflict in which he himself was deeply involved. By using as dramatis personae thinly veiled stand-ins of actual historical figures, Hunter discussed real-life events in dramatic form: Fizle, for instance, who is also the explicit addressee of the derisive dedication and its scatological humor, represents William Vesey (1674-1746), the first Anglican rector of Trinity Church in Manhattan, while Hunter himself appears throughout the play as a character named Keeper. Moreover, the allusion to soiled vestments refers to an actual incident that happened on February 10, 1714, when unknown vandals entered Trinity Church at night and desecrated prayer books and several of the priests’ robes. Whereas Vesey immediately blamed Hunter for ordering the break-in, Hunter publicly suspected that Vesey had instigated the vandalism of his own church in order to incriminate the royal governor and destroy his reputation (see Davis, Androboros 48-49).

3Even though one could certainly explore further the specific historical circumstances that inspired the dramatic narrative of Androboros, this essay pursues a different project. My interest lies not so much in mining the play as a quasi-historical document that provides obviously biased, yet still detailed information about the infighting between the royal governor Hunter, the local colonial assembly and the church in eighteenth-century New York; instead, I want to examine, on a more theoretical level, the aesthetic and political significance of Hunter’s invocation of the human body, bodily materiality, and body functions in the above, and several other, passages in the play. In particular, this essay looks at three exemplary passages in which the representation of bodily materiality is dramatized prominently: a sequence of scenes involving the “ghost” of the eponymous character Androboros; a scene concerned with Hunter’s predecessor as New York governor, Viscount Cornbury, who was slandered by political opponents as a cross-dresser; and a scene that picks up the scatological humour of the dedication, and deliberates the politically appropriate representation of human faeces.

4In order to more adequately apprehend the significance of the body in Androboros, this essay necessarily ventures beyond a historicist contextualization of Hunter’s dramatic text, and attempts to account instead for the particular aesthetics of the body the play brings forth. Even though there is no evidence that Androboros was ever performed on a theatrical stage by actual (actors’) bodies, the play’s dramatization of how bodily appearance, sensation, and excreta can be adequately represented amounts to a theatrical aesthetics that transcends the dramatic narrative. Crucially, this aesthetics is theatrical not because Androboros advances dramatic dialogue and conflict, but because the play is concerned with the uncertain materiality of the body, and with the inevitable difficulties that arise as the material body coincides with its symbolic representation on stage, even if that stage is only implied. In order to trace the ways in which Androboros stages the body, then, I will read the play specifically as a play, that is, as a form of theatrical representation to which the body is central.

5As I will show, Androboros’ theatrical aesthetics, its complex staging of the relationship between material and symbolic bodies, has political implications: Hunter’s comic problematization of bodily materiality always already resonates with the dramatic dialogue’s regard for various political bodies (the colonial assembly, the representatives of the British crown, the representatives of the Church), and thus speaks to larger cultural concerns over various forms of popular representation that emerged in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. Importantly, the delight Androboros takes in the ontic force of farts and turd cannot be separated from its enlightened interest in public argument, legislative procedure, and political representation in the North American colonies – an interest that reaches beyond the concrete power struggle that occasioned Hunter to write the play. In fact, as the play negotiates – through its theatrical aesthetics – between physical and representative bodies, between turd and assemblies, it deliberates questions about the meaningfulness of political representation not only in colonial New York, but also in the wider Atlantic world.

6But if understanding the theatrical aesthetics of Androboros is crucial to understanding the “cultural work” (Tompkins xi) performed by this first American play, how can we conceptualize the political significance of its aesthetic concern with the body and its bouncing farts? In what ways can we configure the relationship between theatrical representation and political representation, or aesthetics and politics in early American culture more generally? And what can a closer scrutiny of Androboros tell us about this relationship?

Apprehending the politics of literary texts

  • 2 Morris (1671-1746) certainly had literary ambitions, as he is known for two later dramatic dialogue (...)
  • 3 On the importance of the Zenger trial for the changing significance of print discourse in eighteent (...)

7Contrary to many other literary texts of the time, there is relatively detailed historical information available about Hunter’s Androboros. In particular, the work of Peter A. Davis sheds comprehensive light on the economic, social, and political circumstances as well as on the textual genealogies that informed the writing of the play. However, Davis’s magisterial book, From Androboros to the First Amendment, understands Androboros solely “as microhistory” (xix), that is, he looks at “the play as a historical document illuminating a particular event and its contexts and consequences” (xix). Davis provides biographical information on Hunter’s dramatis personae, almost all of which constitute theatrical effigies of real-life persons (139-49); he illuminates the political conflict between governor Hunter, the colonial assembly, and Reverend Vesey in the larger context of New York colonial history (25-51); he speculates about a possible co-authorship of Hunter’s ally and chief justice of the New York Supreme Court Lewis Morris (57-58);2 and he attempts to establish a genealogy of free political speech that extends from Androboros through the 1735 Zenger trial (in which the printer John Peter Zenger was accused and eventually cleared of libel) to the First Amendment to the U.S. constitution (103-129).3

  • 4 Davis himself claims that Androboros is a “literary crudity” (Androboros xv) and “a crude theatrica (...)

8Davis’s historicist account, however, is curiously oblivious to the fact that Androboros is a play, and remains unconcerned with its dramatic form and theatrical aesthetics. Davis is upfront about the absence of aesthetic criticism from his book: “It is not my intention to analyze the play for theoretical inferences or aesthetic values,” he states. “That is better left to literary theorists and drama critics” (xix). Arguably, the insistence on a neat division of labour between theatre historians and “drama critics,” and the resulting undertheorization of aesthetic dimensions is symptomatic of scholarship on early American culture more generally: on the one hand, scholars have commonly provided negative assessments of the artistic quality of early American literature, and early American drama is no exception. In a typical reaction, for instance, Hugh F. Rankin suggests that Androboros is an “inelegant drama, coarsely written and filled with uncouth attempts at humor” (6-7).4 Closer literary scrutiny, evaluations like this insinuate, is simply not worth the effort. On the other hand, and perhaps more importantly for current debates about critical interdisciplinarity, Davis’s remarks are indicative of a (perceived) disparity between historical and literary scholarship on the Atlantic world in the early modern period. As Elizabeth Dillon has reminded us in a recent polemic, this “trade gap” (“Atlantic” 205) is firmly hierarchized in that historical approaches (such as Davis’s) are privileged and literary analysis is seen as only derivative.

9Dillon, however, insists on the importance of literary analysis for a thorough understanding of the complex cultural work performed by early American texts. Pointing to the inseparability of historical, political, and aesthetic meaning, she argues: “Literary formalism has been particularly devalued as lacking in historical purchase, yet it is precisely in the analysis of form and genre […] that signifying practices and their meanings within the Atlantic world and within modernity as a whole emerge” (“Atlantic” 208). Dillon’s turn to questions of form and genre not only informs my own approach to Androboros, but is also representative of a wider reorientation towards aesthetic issues in American studies. In a recent collection on American Literature’s Aesthetic Dimensions, Cindy Weinstein and Christopher Looby, for instance, argue that the sensory and perceptual dimensions of (experiencing) literary texts should be recognized for having historical and political significance. As a critical motion, they suggest “to reintroduce aesthetic categories – such as style, form, beauty, pleasure, imagination, in order to demonstrate the ways in which aesthetics and politics are dialectically engaged” (9).

  • 5 Rancière argues that this relationship between aesthetics and politics works only within a configur (...)

10The renewed emphasis on the significance of aesthetic categories for the cultural meaning and political implications of literary texts begs the question: how can this dialectic between aesthetics and politics be configured? And in what ways can aesthetic form acquire political meaning? One way of thinking about the politics of literary texts has been put forward by Jacques Rancière, who claims that politics is, in essence, about the “distribution of the sensible” (“Distribution” 7), that is, about “the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it” (“Distribution” 7). Politics, in other words, frames and partitions common sensory experience; it designates and delineates what is conventionally visible, sayable, and eventually liveable. Because politics is about the distribution of the sensible, Rancière argues, it can and should be assessed as a genuinely aesthetic phenomenon. Conversely, aesthetic practices can intervene in politics not just on the level of their subject matter, but precisely because the particular forms they take shape the distribution of the sensible; they “intervene in the general distribution of ways of doing and making” (“Distribution” 8). For Rancière, to think about the politics of literature – as one such aesthetic practice – thus means to examine how “literature as literature is involved in this partition of the visible and the sayable, in this intertwining of being, doing and saying that frames a polemical common world” (“Literature” 152, my emphasis).5

11Following Rancière’s conceptualization of the relationship between aesthetics and politics, I want to inquire in the remainder of this essay how one such literary practice – playwriting – distributes (and has historically distributed) the sensible. After all, Hunter could have chosen any other – literary or non-literary – form but a play in order to criticize his political opponents, or make a case for free speech. By writing specifically a play that constantly invokes the body, however, Hunter relied fundamentally on the significance of theatrical aesthetics – even though he most likely did not write Androboros with the intention of seeing it performed. In order to explain the politics of theatrical aesthetics more specifically, I will discuss three exemplary material bodies whose representation is problematized in Androboros. By examining the ghost, the cross-dresser, and the turd, I will shed light on various dimensions of the play’s political framing of what was visible and sayable (as well as the cultural anxieties attached to that framing) in the early modern Atlantic world.

Ghostly apparitions

12Perhaps the most conspicuous body in Androboros is that of the eponymous character Androboros himself, a body that, paradoxically, remains invisible most of the time. Androboros (whose name, as the character Tom reminds us in the very first scene of the play, “signifies a Man-Eater” [1]) is a theatrical stand-in for Colonel Francis Nicholson (1655-1728), a long-standing colonial administrator (in various positions), and hence a professional and highly powerful transatlantic representative of the British crown. In the early 1710s, Nicholson had been dispatched to a series of unsuccessful military expeditions against Canada (or as the character Aesop sarcastically puts it, “the most Expeditious Expedition I ever heard of” [15]), and upon return “was given a series of royal and religious commissions that essentially made him the overseer of colonial governors” (Davis, Androboros 46). As a veritable “super-governor,” Nicholson sided with Reverend Vesey and threatened to come to New York and investigate the administration of Governor Hunter. Even though the extent of the actual power Nicholson held remains unclear (the Keeper, Hunter’s theatrical stand-in, even suggests that Nicholson/Androboros had been “Cloath’d […] with Sham-Powers meerly to get rid of his Noise and Trouble” [17]), this threat still posed a political hazard to the besieged governor (see Davis, Androboros 46-47, 139-40).

13Androboros picks up on this scenario in the third act. While the historical Nicholson never carried out the investigation, Androboros (the character) in fact announces his arrival in New York, and causes some consternation among the Keeper and his allies. While the Keeper initially plans to “humour him to keep him quiet” (17), Tom (who has no concrete historical alter ego) comes up with a better (yet ludicrous) idea. “Persuade him that he is dead” (18), he suggests. Mischievously, Tom proposes a concerted effort to convince Androboros that he is a ghost: “Do you but when he appears, behave your selves as if he were Invisible, and take no maner [sic] of Notice of what he shall say or do. […] Here he comes, mind him not” (18). In the course of the third act, this blatantly unrealistic ploy leads to a series of pranks and comic exchanges, all involving bodily re/actions and even violence (for instance, a “Box o’th’ Ear [18], or snuff blown into Androboros’ eyes through a “Tellescope” [25]). As the other characters consistently deny his bodily existence, Androboros eventually begins to wonder about his ontological status. Perplexed, he marvels, “I can’t tell what to think of it; Am I bew’itch’t, or am I really Dead, as they say? It cannot be. Why, is not that a Hand as plain as a Pike Staff? Is not this a Nose?” (22). Eventually, Androboros’ existential predicament is not so much dramatically resolved as it is left in comic suspension in the play’s last scene: blinded by the snuff, the stumbling Androboros falls into a trap set for the Keeper by the two clergymen Fizle and Flip, who, as the stage directions indicate, “Endeavouring to Stop him, Sink with Him” (26). While obviously more farcical than plausible, the quixotic premise of Tom’s proposition is that if Androboros’ physical body becomes ghostly, also his political body (as a colonial representative) will be rendered ghostly, that is, non-functional. By comically denying Androboros materiality, the Keeper and his associates also attempt to suspend the transatlantic power structure represented by the royal appointee.

  • 6 Carlson’s idea of “ghosting” (7), and his more overarching description of the stage as a haunted sp (...)

14Of course, the assumption that Androboros can have a ghostly presence only works if one accepts the specific distribution of the sensible put forward by theatrical aesthetics. In the theatre, it is part of the accepted logic of representation that ghostly apparitions can have live presence, as they are represented by concrete, material bodies on stage. In fact, as Marvin Carlson points out, “ghosting” (7) as a device is so popular in theatrical contexts because the ghost is emblematic of a structural relation that characterizes representation in the theatre more generally: the tension, or mismatch, between material bodies present (or visible) on stage, who symbolically represent someone or something absent (or invisible).6 Inevitably, this mismatch has to be mediated by actors and spectators. As Dillon argues in her New World Drama, the theatre constitutes “a location at which […] the relation between embodied (ontic) persons and represented (mimetic) subjects is definitionally at play” (11). This “definitional playing” with material and represented bodies is never effectually concluded, but essentially, and often uncannily (as in the case of the ghost), lingers on. Theatrical aesthetics routinely makes visible, and negotiates, the unresolvedness, or ambivalence, of such representation: it revolves around the uncertainty of the relationship between the actor’s material body and the symbolic body he or she is supposed to represent on stage, and thus points to the structural contingency that characterizes the representation of persons as characters in the theatre.

  • 7 As Thomas Postlewait and Tracy C. Davis point out, “[a]lthough it obviously derives its meanings fr (...)

15The problematization of the contingency of representation (through the figure of the ghost, but essentially through any kind of theatrical mismatch between material and symbolic bodies) may have made audiences sensible (to speak in Rancierian terms) to the fact that a similar contingency affected an emerging political representation of the people as the people in the Atlantic world.7 Hence, it matters that Androboros is a play because the way its theatrical aesthetics frames what is and what is not representable acquires a political dimension: it distributes the sensible in a way that makes apparent to audiences the doubtful legitimacy of political representatives who only incompletely or ineffectually – in a ghostly manner, as it were – represented the material bodies of their constituents. By turning a powerful political representative into a ghost with doubtful bodily materiality, Hunter uses the logic of theatrical representation in order to call attention to an equally doubtful, and increasingly contentious, political representation of the body of the people in a system of British colonial rule. Even though Hunter himself was a royally installed governor, and thus far from a democratic representative, the ghostly aesthetics of his play still makes evident a deep uneasiness over (in)adequate popular representation that troubled colonial Americans already in 1715, and that would continue to trouble them throughout the eighteenth century.

  • 8 There is no real evidence of theatrical infrastructure in New York before 1732, when Rip van Dam o (...)

16Granted, Androboros is not theatre in the sense that there is historical evidence that it was actually staged; on the contrary, the text was conceived as a closet play that was “poorly copyedited” (Davis, Androboros xv) and published anonymously, in a single edition, as a pamphlet by New York’s only printer at the time, William Bradford. Most likely, the text passed around only in a close circle of friends.8 Despite its nature as a printed dramatic dialogue, however, Androboros relies on theatrical aesthetics: through the figure of the ghost, as well as through two other exemplary uncertain representatives I discuss below, the play reveals the tension between physical and symbolic bodies, and points to the contingent, and often incongruous, ways in which the materiality of the body is represented on the (political) stage. Even though it might not have materialized as theatre, Androboros still performs the unresolved problem of representation, and is thus highly theatrical.

Long robes of both genders

17A second body central to Androboros’ theatrical problematization of (in)adequate representation does not appear as a character in the play at all, but is only referred to on several occasions in the dramatic narrative: Lord Oinobaros, who is a stand-in for a former royal governor of New York and New Jersey (1702-1708), Edward Hyde, Viscount Cornbury (1661-1723). A highly controversial and by most accounts corrupt figure, Cornbury has gained some notoriety due to a series of allegations made by his political enemies that he habitually dressed in women’s clothes in public. In her account of what she terms The Lord Cornbury Scandal, historian of early New York Patricia U. Bonomi doubts the veracity of such allegations, and argues that had the rumours been true, it is highly unlikely that Cornbury would have “escaped severe censure” (141), especially in a colony “where Calvinist influence was strong, biblical injunctions were familiar, and laws against cross dressing were enforced” (141). Despite her reservations about their accuracy, Bonomi still finds the transphobic rumours about a cross-dressing governor compelling because they are indicative of a political culture that organized its gossip around the (deviant) body. In British America around the turn of the eighteenth century, she claims, “[c]ourtiers and statesmen […] were subject to the lurid underside of an opposition rhetoric laced with charges of adultery, incest, sodomy, and assorted other sexual aberrances” (128). For Bonomi, such sexualized gossip must be understood in the larger historical context of the “acerbic partisanship” (8) of the years following the Glorious Revolution (1688-89), and the reorganization of political power in the “largely unexplored terrain of constitutional monarchy” (7). Curiously, thus, as questions concerning representative political bodies became more critical in the British Atlantic world, public discourse simultaneously demonstrated a fascination with the material body and its gendered/sexualized dimensions.

18By humorously alluding to the charge of cross-dressing against Cornbury, Androboros taps into this culture of political gossip fascinated with the body. In a scene set in the New York colonial assembly shortly after the break-in at Trinity Church (where priests’ robes were covered with excrement), the local political body deliberates on how to evaluate the significance of this curious incident. Turning Cornbury’s alleged penchant for long robes into a form of expertise, they decide to ask Lord Oinobaros for advice. Flip, a clergyman associated with Fizle/Vesey, suggests: “If I may be thought worthy to advise in a matter of this Moment, we shall immediately Address My Lord Oinobaros on this head, he being a Devotee to Long Robes of both Gendres, must highly Resent this Affront” (10).

  • 9 The association of theatrical aesthetics with artificiality, deception, or cheating is a staple of (...)

19As Hunter invokes Cornbury’s body-in-drag (albeit without introducing the viscount as a character), he does not necessarily acknowledge the symbolic ambivalence or the transgressive potential of the former governor’s ambivalent stylization of the body. Rather, he sets up a theatrical aesthetics according to which Cornbury’s public appearance in women’s clothes can be read as artificial, or fake.9 Because he does not appear in “adequately” gendered clothes, but is devoted to “long robes of both genders,” Lord Oinobaros emerges as a deeply theatrical figure – a doubtful representation that makes visible the mismatch between the materially and symbolically gendered bodies. Hunter thus employs the cross-dresser in a manner similar to the ghost: as a theatrical figure that highlights the uncertainties involved in the representation of bodily materiality. Importantly, though, Hunter’s theatrical aesthetics of doubtful materiality has political implications, as the way the theatre distributes the sensible easily allows for Cornbury to be considered a fake representative. Such an accusation, of course, must be read not merely as transphobic, but also, and especially in the context of the historical Cornbury’s unscrupulous exercise of power, as a form of political argument: as a fake representative, Cornbury is not just a cross-dresser, but also a colonial statesman who does not adequately represent the people of New York he is supposed to represent. As Hunter introduces in Androboros a colonial political representative as a fake cross-dresser, then, he uses the logic of the theatre, and its association with artificiality, in order to problematize a similarly artificial representation of popular sovereignty in the British colonial Atlantic world. Because the alleged theatricality, or fakeness, of his cross-dressing troubled the conventional distribution of what was visible and sayable regarding gendered appearance.

20To be sure, the historical Cornbury had an explanation for the conundrum his theatrically gendered body presented. As Bonomi explains, there was one rumour in particular which fascinated early Americans, and which entered the historical record through a 1714 letter by the Hanoverian diplomat Hans Caspar von Bothmer. Repulsed, Bothmer describes Cornbury as “a selfish and presumptuous fool,” and claims that the governor “thought that it was necessary for him, in order to represent her Majesty [Queen Anne], to dress himself as a woman, which he actually did” (qtd. in Bonomi, Cornbury 54). The premise of such gossip is hilarious: as a political representative of the British queen, Cornbury also had to represent her gendered body adequately. Somewhat boldly, he thus (allegedly) countered the insinuation that his bodily appearance, his recourse to “long robes of both genders,” was fake. After all, what he had to represent politically was not his “proper” gender identity, but the imperial power of the British queen. It is this particular logic of representation that connects the theatrical and the political: through the theatricality of the cross-dresser, a doubtful representation of the material body becomes conflated with a transatlantic system of political representation that could be, and often was perceived as equally flawed. As a result, the transphobic anxieties concerning Cornbury’s particular stylization of the body double as larger cultural anxieties concerning the adequacy of political representation in the Atlantic world.

21Finally, Hunter’s dramatic use of Lord Oinobaros not only invokes the theatricality of the cross-dressing Cornbury, but also attempts to associate the Anglican clergy – his political opponents – with the controversial former representative of the British crown. By drawing attention to the fact that like Oinobaros, also clergymen wear long robes, Androboros insinuates that the church has a similar problem with “adequately” gendered bodies. Again, the implied association of priests like Fizle or Flip with the cross-dressing governor does not merely constitute farcical slander, but has a larger political dimension: by problematizing an established perception of gendered clothing – men do not wear long robes – Hunter also points to the questionable political representation the Church is granted in the colonies. Androboros thus uses the cross-dresser as a political figure: through the theatrical aesthetics of cross-dressing, through the mismatch between symbolic and material bodies, the play not only asks what is sensible concerning the representation of gender identity, but also, by extension, concerning the representation of political power in a system of colonial rule.

Representing turdure

22The third body to be analyzed in this essay is not an absent/present human body, but excess bodily materiality in the sense of excrement, or faeces. Still, as with the ghost and the cross-dresser, Hunter uses bodily excreta as part of a theatrical aesthetics, that is, in order to make visible and problematize the uncertain relationship between bodily materiality and its representation. In Androboros, the proper representation of shit becomes a political issue: the colonial assembly eventually agrees with Flip’s suggestion to contact the former governor (discussed in the previous section), and the assemblymen decide to set up a letter to “the most Potent Lord Oinobaros” (12), informing him of the break-in at Trinity Church. It is in this scene that the play most forcefully returns to the scatological humour of the dedication: as the assembly deliberates the exact wording of the letter, a conflict emerges over how to best represent the excrement that stained the priests’ long robes. Androboros takes considerable pleasure in ridiculing the lengthy dispute over shit:

Tom. […] some open or secret Enemies to this Consistory broke into our […] Wardrobe, taking from thence some […] Robes appertaining to the Chief of our Number, which they Inhumanely Tore to pieces and Bedaub’d with Odour.
Mulligrub. Hold! I make Exception to that, for there are sweet Odours as well as sower.
Flip. ‘Slid; ‘tis Ordure, (and not Odour) which is but another Name for a T—d.
Mulligr. Write it down so then, for a T— is a T— all the world over.
Aesop. And the more you stir it, the more it will stink. But go on. […]
Mulligrub. I approve of all, except the Ordure; I’ll have it a T—:
Coxcom. You’ll have it a T—, A T— in your Teeth; it shall stand as it is Ordure.
Mulligrub. T—d.
Doodlesack[.] Ick been on the Cant van de T—d.
Babilard[.] Let us Compromise the Matter, and make it Turdure.
All. Ay, agreed (12-13).

Of course, the exchange in the assembly is primarily intended for humorous effect: Hunter comically exploits what Simon Critchley describes as “the gap between being a body and having a body, between […] the physical and metaphysical aspects of being human” (43). In On Humour, Critchley argues that “[w]hat makes us laugh […] is the return of the physical into the metaphysical, where the pretended tragical sublimity of the human collapses into a comic ridiculousness” (43). By invoking the visceral force of human excrement (as well as the smell it exudes) in the context of an esteemed colonial institution, the scene clearly stages that collapse: through the juxtaposition of scatological reference and political rhetoric, Hunter makes fun of assemblymen who, instead of engaging in serious political debate, seem to be concerned with much more trifling matters.

23Despite the farce, however, the sequence not only ridicules the pompous procedural language of the colonial assembly, but also engages the doubleness of theatrical aesthetics: as Mulligrub, Flip, Coxcomb, Doodlesack (who serves as a comic reminder of New York’s Dutch heritage), and Babilard argue over which expression best describes the shit on the priests’ robes, they quite literally negotiate the mismatch between physical bodies (or in this case, bodily excrement) and their symbolic representation (in a letter). Androboros dramatizes the relationship between the ontic force of shit and the words used to adequately represent (and contain) it, and pokes fun at the compromised attempts – or “turdure” – the assemblymen make to reconcile one with the other. As with the ghost and the cross-dresser, Hunter uses theatrical aesthetics, and the way it makes visible the tension between materiality and mimesis, in order to problematize the inevitable flaws that attend the symbolic representation of material bodies. Importantly, because Androboros places the problem of whether one should represent smelling excrement as turd, ordure, or turdure in the context of a rational deliberation of a political body – the colonial assembly –, the play again establishes a link between theatrical and political representation. Using the logic of the theatre, and its always already visible mismatch between materiality and representation, to explain the proceedings of the colonial assembly, Hunter suggests that just like the nonsensical theatrical representation of “turdure,” the political representation that takes place in that assembly is also rather questionable.


24In this essay, I have discussed the cultural significance of Hunter’s invocation of bodies and bodily materiality in Androboros. By analyzing three exemplary bodies represented in the play – the ghostly Androboros / Nicholson, the cross-dressing former governor Oinobaros / Cornbury, and the “turdure” that stained the robes of Anglican priests –, I have claimed that Hunter puts forward more than mere (humorous) dramatic dialogue. Rather, Androboros employs a theatrical aesthetics that revolves around the visible staging of the mismatch between bodily materiality and symbolic representation. By highlighting the inevitable flaws that accompany the representation on stage of the ghost, the cross-dresser, and the turd, Hunter calls attention to the flaws of representative bodies more generally. As I have argued with recourse to the writing of Jacques Rancière, the inadequacy of the representation of bodily materiality in the theatre has political implications: if the theatre distributes the sensible in such a way that the mismatch between material bodies and symbolic representation becomes visible and must be openly negotiated, then paying attention to this theatrical aesthetics might help audiences to develop an awareness of doubtful representatives in the political realm as well.

  • 10 In fact, there is a point to be made that the so-called propaganda plays of the American Revolution (...)

25In the context of the eighteenth-century colonial Atlantic world, the issue of doubtful representatives came to be increasingly contentious. From the Glorious Revolution to the American Revolution and beyond, citizens became more and more sensible to the ways in which particular political bodies (in)adequately, or ineffectually, represented the body of the people. By employing a theatrical aesthetics that problematizes the mismatches between material and symbolic bodies, Hunter’s play actively intervenes in this political struggle over what constitutes adequate popular representation. Through the figures of the ghost, the cross-dresser, and the turd, Androboros becomes political as it intervenes in the ways in which representation was made sensible. Through its theatrical aesthetics, Hunter’s play shows that any kind of representation must remain a contingent, and essentially unresolved, negotiation between material and symbolic bodies. The political dimensions implications of this contingency have continued to haunt Americans ever since.10

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Bonomi, Patricia U. The Lord Cornbury Scandal: The Politics of Reputation in British America. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1998.

Bonomi, Patricia U. A Factious People: Politics and Society in Colonial New York. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2014.

Critchley, Simon. On Humour. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Daniel, Edmond Dale. “‘Dialogue Concerning Trade’: A Satirical View of New York in 1726.” New York History 55.2 (1974): 199-229.

Davis, Peter A. “Determining the Date of Robert Hunter’s Androboros.” Theatre Survey 25.1 (1984): 95-97.

Davis, Peter A. From Androboros to the First Amendment: A History of America’s First Play. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2015.

Davis, Peter A. “Plays and Playwrights to 1800.” The Cambridge History of American Theatre. Vol. 1. Beginnings to 1870. Ed. Don B. Wilmeth and Christopher Bigsby. Cambridge: CUP, 1998. 216-49.

Dillon, Elizabeth. “Atlantic Practices: Minding the Gap between Literature and History.” Early American Literature 43.1 (2008): 205-10.

Dillon, Elizabeth Maddock. New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World, 1649-1849. Durham: Duke UP, 2014.

Fried, Michael. Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1980.

Hunter, Robert. Androboros: A Bographical [sic] Farce in Three Acts, viz. The Senate, the Consistory, and the Apotheosis. William Bradford: New York, 1715.

Lippert, Leopold. “Virtual Theatricality, Transatlantic Representation, and Mercy Otis Warren’s Revolutionary Plays.” Approaching Transnational America in Performance. Ed. Birgit M. Bauridl and Pia Wiegmink. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2016. 57-73.

Nathans, Heather S. Early American Theatre from the Revolution to Thomas Jefferson: Into the Hands of the People. Cambridge: CUP, 2003.

Rankin, Hugh F. Theater in Colonial America. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1960.

Postlewait, Thomas, and Tracy C. Davis. “Theatricality: An Introduction.” Theatricality. Ed. Tracy C. Davis and Thomas Postlewait. Cambridge: CUP, 2003. 1-39.

Rancière, Jacques. “The Distribution of the Sensible: Politics and Aesthetics.” The Politics of Aesthetics. Ed. and trans. Gabriel Rockhill. London: Bloomsbury, 2004. 7-14.

Rancière, Jacques. “The Paradoxes of Political Art.” Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. Ed. and trans. Steven Corcoran. London: Bloomsbury, 2010. 134-51.

Rancière, Jacques. “The Politics of Literature.” Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. Ed. and trans. Steven Corcoran. London: Bloomsbury, 2010. 152-68.

Richardson, Gary A. American Drama from the Colonial Period through World War I: A Critical History. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Roach, Joseph. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance. New York: Columbia UP, 1996.

Schechner, Richard. Between Theater and Anthropology. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1985.

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Warner, Michael. The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990.

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Wilson, Garff B. Three Hundred Years of American Drama and Theatre: From Ye Bear and Ye Cubb to Hair. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1973.

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1 Literary historians assume various starting points for a “genuinely” American theater. While the first recorded account of English language performance in North America is the 1665 performance in Accomac County, Virginia of Ye Bear and Ye Cubb (the play is not extant, but we know of the performance through court records; see Richardson 3, or Wilson 7-8), Hunter’s Androboros is commonly credited as the first play written and printed in America (by an Englishman). Peter A. Davis has shown convincingly that the printing date given on the play’s title page, “since August 1714,” is part of the satirical framing, and that the play was most likely printed in 1715, or even later; see “Determining” 95-97.

2 Morris (1671-1746) certainly had literary ambitions, as he is known for two later dramatic dialogues, “Dialogue Concerning Trade” (1726) and “A Dialogue between a South and a North Countryman” (see Davis, “Plays” 228). “Dialogue Concerning Trade” is available in a modern edition by Edmond Dale Daniel. For historical background on the political association between Hunter and Morris, see Bonomi, Factious 82-86.

3 On the importance of the Zenger trial for the changing significance of print discourse in eighteenth-century North America, see Warner 49-63. Davis claims that because Zenger in 1715 was an apprentice to the printer of Androboros, William Bradford, he “may well have assisted with the typesetting and printing” (Androboros 127) of the play. “Zenger,” Davis speculates, “must have known the meaning and importance of the satirical nature of Androboros and the value of the printed word as a political tool” (Androboros 127).

4 Davis himself claims that Androboros is a “literary crudity” (Androboros xv) and “a crude theatrical polemic” (Androboros xix); Gary A. Richardson points out, though, that “Hunter borrows widely and well” (10), especially from Shakespeare, and that his fascination with farts and turd is “common to much early eighteenth-century English satire” (9).

5 Rancière argues that this relationship between aesthetics and politics works only within a configuration which he calls “the aesthetic regime of art” (“Paradoxes” 138), and which historically emerged in the course of the eighteenth century. Of course, only if one is willing to submit Androboros to the aesthetic regime of art, and not to such earlier regimes as the “pedagogical model of the efficacy of art” (“Paradoxes” 136), can the play be read politically, that is, as more than mere antagonistic mockery or didacticism.

6 Carlson’s idea of “ghosting” (7), and his more overarching description of the stage as a haunted space, builds on the work of performance scholars Richard Schechner and Joseph Roach, who conceptualize this playful redefinition as a form of cultural substitution that always leaves ghostly traces to be reckoned with. In his seminal analysis of circum-Atlantic performance cultures, Cities of the Dead, Roach describes such processes of embodied substitution as “surrogation” (2), a theatrical cultural practice that “does not begin or end but continues as actual or perceived vacancies occur in the network of relations that constitutes the social fabric” (2). This idea of surrogation essentially relies on Schechner’s earlier claim that performance constitutes “twice-behaved behavior” (36): it takes place never for the first time, but always already as substitution.

7 As Thomas Postlewait and Tracy C. Davis point out, “[a]lthough it obviously derives its meanings from the world of theatre, theatricality can be abstracted from the theatre itself and then applied to any and all aspects of human life” (1, original emphasis).

8 There is no real evidence of theatrical infrastructure in New York before 1732, when Rip van Dam opened the New Theatre (see Nathans 28-30). Rankin points out that “some time between 1699 and 1702, one Richard Hunter (no relation) petitioned Governor John Nanfan, begging leave to present plays” (5), a plea that was favorably received but that was not followed by theatrical productions.

9 The association of theatrical aesthetics with artificiality, deception, or cheating is a staple of (religiously or otherwise motivated) antitheatrical discourse. Theoretically, it has been elaborated, for instance, by Michael Fried, who links the theater’s artificiality with the practice of spectatorship. In his classic study of Diderot’s writing on art, Fried argues that Diderot saw the theater as “an artificial construction in which persuasiveness was sacrificed and dramatic illusion vitiated in the attempt to impress the beholder and solicit his [sic] applause” (100). For Diderot, Fried suggests, “the theatrical [implied] consciousness of being beheld, as synonymous with falseness” (100).

10 In fact, there is a point to be made that the so-called propaganda plays of the American Revolution (by Mercy Otis Warren, John Leacock, Jonathan Sewall and a number of anonymous others) are directly related to Androboros not only because they constitute political satires as well, but also because they also used theatrical aesthetics to problematize what constituted adequate representation in the North American colonies. For the case of Mercy Otis Warren’s revolutionary “trilogy,” The Adulateur (1772), The Defeat (1773), and The Group (1775), see my essay, “Virtual Theatricality, Transatlantic Representation, and Mercy Otis Warren’s Revolutionary Plays.”

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Electronic reference

Leopold Lippert, Theatrical Aesthetics and Transatlantic Representation in Robert Hunter’s AndroborosXVII-XVIII [Online], 74 | 2017, Online since 31 December 2017, connection on 13 June 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Leopold Lippert

University of Salzburg, Austria

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