Oroonoko was not a very substantial success at first. The stand-alone edition, according to the English Short Title Catalog online, was not followed by a new edition until 1696. Behn, who had hoped to recoup a significant amount of money from the book, was disappointed. Sales picked up in the second year after her death, and the novel then went through three printings. The story was used by Thomas Southerne for a tragedy entitled Oroonoko: A Tragedy. Southerne's play was staged in 1695 and published in 1696, with a foreword in which Southerne expresses his gratitude to Behn and praises her work. The play was a great success. After the play was staged, a new edition of the novel appeared, and it was never out of print in the 18th century afterward. The adaptation is generally faithful to the novel, with one significant exception: it makes Imoinda white instead of black (see Macdonald), and therefore, like Othello, the male lead would perform in blackface to a white heroine. As the taste of the 1690s demanded, Southerne emphasises scenes of pathos, especially those involving the tragic heroine, such as the scene where Oroonoko kills Imoinda. At the same time, in standard Restoration theatre rollercoaster manner, the play intersperses these scenes with a comic and sexually explicit subplot. The subplot was soon cut from stage representations with the changing taste of the 18th century, but the tragic tale of Oroonoko and Imoinda remained popular on the stage.

Through the 18th century, Southerne's version of the story was more popular than Behn's, and in the 19th century, when Behn was considered too indecent to be read, the story of Oroonoko continued in the highly pathetic and touching Southerne adaptation. The killing of Imoinda, in particular, was a popular scene. It is the play's emphasis on, and adaptation to, tragedy that is partly responsible for the shift in interpretation of the novel from Tory political writing to prescient "novel of compassion." When Roy Porter writes of Oroonoko, "the question became pressing: what should be done with noble savages? Since they shared a universal human nature, was not civilization their entitlement," he is speaking of the way that the novel was cited by anti-slavery forces in the 1760s, not the 1690s, and Southerne's dramatic adaptation is significantly responsible for this change of focus.[27]

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