home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

the mogul tale

5 august 2023

The Mogul Tale, Elizabeth Inchbald's first play (1784), is a brisk brief farce with a culturally-relativist message.

The play opens in the harem of some Eastern potentate. The geography is not highly specific. It is the Orientalist world of Mozart's and Gottlieb Stephanie's Entführung aus dem Serail (1782), its near-contemporary.

Into this world float three westerners: a Doctor who has invented a long-distance balloon, and his two passengers, the cobbler Johnny and his wife Fanny. Fresh from London, the trio had expected to land in the Home Counties somewhere, but seem to have overshot their mark by a few thousand miles.

All three English characters are complete idiots. You can't really root for them, but they are harmless idiots, so you don't hope they come to harm, either. Fearing that the local Mogul will kill them in some elaborate barbaric way, or worse, they lie outrageously. The Doctor purports to be an Ambassador, Johnny claims he is the Pope, and Fanny is passed off as a repentant nun on a sort of spiritual pilgrimage.

"Cruel and rapacious" (39), is the Mogul's assessment of "Pope Johnny the Twelfth" (41). By claiming to be Westerners of importance, they've just dug themselves in deeper, because the extreme bad behavior of Westerners globally has given the Mogul no great love for their supposed civilization. But he shows them mercy; as the Mogul explains,

Your countrymen's cruelty to the poor Gentoos [natives of India] has shewn me tyranny in so foul a light, that I was determined henceforth to be only mild, just and merciful. (73-74)
The play's laughs come from banter, but its humor comes from deflecting contempt of the Orient back onto English people. The Mogul Tale ends precisely as Die Entführung does, with the foreign potentate forgiving western wanderers. But Inchbald's play is more sanguine about the good character of its orientals, less cartoon-villainish, than Mozart's and Stephanie's.

Inchbald, Elizabeth. The Mogul Tale: or, the descent of the balloon. 1784. Dublin, 1788. ECCO-TCP, Eighteenth Century Collections Online Text Creation Partnership, University of Oxford. iBooks.