Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Mogul Tale

Elizabeth Inchbald's first play was a light farce called The Mogul Tale. One might be tempted to call is a lighter-than-air farce, since its plot revolves around a hot-air balloon.

When the play premiered in 1784, ballooning was the latest fad in Europe. The Montgolfier brothers had succeeded in the first manned balloon flight the previous year, and British balloonists were trying to repeat their success.

The first balloon flight across the English Channel did not occur until the following year, but Inchbald imagined a far longer trip--all the way to India! Though India at the time was nominally ruled by the Mogul Emperor, the British had set up a Governor General in 1773 who held significant (and largely unchecked) powers.

British colonial authorities in India made such a mess of things in the eighteenth century that parliament tried to impeach the Governor General in 1788. Inchbald, who travelled in radical circles, seems to have seen this coming, as she uses The Mogul Tale not to gape at the "exotic East" so much as to make fun of the British characters in the play.

The piece depicts an unscrupulous doctor who sets down in a balloon in India together with a cobbler and his wife, both of whom the doctor paid to come up in the aircraft as an experiment. At first, the British characters don't know where they are, but they then discover they're in the Seraglio of the Great Mogul, whose entire court conveniently speaks English. Also, the Mogul has already heard about the ballooning craze, so he's not too surprised when people fall from the sky. Deciding to have a little fun with his visitors, the Mogul tells his chief eunuch:

Aggravate their fears, as much as possible, tell them, I am the abstract of cruelty, the essence of tyranny; tell them the Divan shall open with all its terrors. For tho' I mean to save their lives, I want to see the effect of their fears, for in the hour of reflection I love to contemplate that greatest work of heaven, the mind of man.

In order to avoid execution, the doctor pretends to be the English Ambassador and the cobbler pretends to be the Pope. The cobbler's wife gets dressed up in local clothes, only to be hit on by the "Pope" her husband. Inevitably, the impostors are unmasked and threatened with execution. Then the Mogul reveals he will pardon them, because Christians have taught him the virtues of mercy and compassion, but not the way one might think. As the Mogul puts it:

For your countrymen's cruelty to the poor Gentoos has shewn me tyranny in so foul a light, that I was determined henceforth to be only mild, just and merciful.

The term "Gentoos" was used by the English at the time to refer to the native inhabitants of India. Ironically, the English have taught the Mogul Emperor through their bad example! Though light-hearted, Inchbald's little farce is also a scathing critique of British colonialism.