English Ignorance with Regard to The Octoroon

The Octoroon, in it’s original form, is an attempt to give agency to Zoe, a character that is in-between different races and treated as an other by both of those races. The original ending, which shows her poison herself, serves as a final act of agency where she chooses not to identify as either white or black, but as her own person. She chooses not to marry another man, and thus avoids conforming to a full “white transformation.” But in the English version where she is married, she fully becomes a member of the white family, and thus rejects her eighth-black heritage. This ending is problematic because it turns a story about enforcing one’s agency when one does not fit into a certain category into a story that teaches the audience that conformity to whiteness is the solution to Zoe’s issue of racial identity.

While the English applauded the edited ending because it was “happier,” I believe that this ending is far darker due to the pure ignorance of the viewership. The English audience that watched this version of the Octoroon looked at themselves as supporters of the anti-slavery movement, claiming that the institution of slavery itself was purely American and thus “anti-British.” This happy ending of the Octoroon gives the English an opportunity to exclude themselves from the history of slavery, acting as viewers rather than agents of that system. In actuality, the English were the creators of the system of slavery, and deserve a good majority of the blame for all the atrocities that happened as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. What makes the English audience’s sentiments of the play even more troublesome, however, is the appall they expressed with the original ending. They complained because it was too dark, but there are plenty of Shakespeare plays with endings where the main character or prospective lover of the play dies. Romeo and Juliet specifically has a death that involves Juliet poisoning herself, just like the Octoroon. So, the English most likely did not believe that this ending was too dark, but that giving the black main character agency through her death was a problem that could only be solved by an alternate ending where she embraces her whiteness, and thus better fits in with a higher sense of English culture.

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