25 Playwrights and their Plays, 1700-1799
August 22, 2021 2:06 PM Subscribe
Mary Pix (1666-1709): Manchester Metropolitan University recently posted a complete performance (production credits) of Mary Pix's comedy, The Beau Defeated (1700). The play was also adapted by the Royal Shakespeare Company under the title The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich (trailer), reviewed by Aparna Gollapudi: "Pix's successful play ... features two wealthy widows search of new husbands--Lady Landsworth pursues the disenfranchised younger brother, Younger Clerimont, to assure herself that he is indeed as honest as he is handsome, while Mrs. Rich is determined to marry into aristocracy ... The play includes many classic elements of Restoration comedy, such as the amorous widow, the bumbling country squire, and the extravagant fop; but it also looks forward to eighteenth-century comedy in its valorization of sober moderation, moral behavior, and economic prudence."
- Catharine Trotter Cockburn (1679-1749): Increasingly well-known for her contributions to philosophy, e.g. A Defence of Mr. Locke's Essay of Human Understanding (see also her SEP and IEP entries), Catharine Trotter Cockburn was also the author of five plays, including a tragedy staged in 1701 that Joanne E. Myers examines [PDF] for its moral/philosophical content: "The dramatic structure of The Unhappy Penitent, which emphasizes a series of dilemmas that characters must resolve, helps to justify the claim that casuistry, or the process of moral reflection that entails applying general principles to particular cases, is a relevant context for the play. At the outset, the chief problem is whether Charles is obliged to go through with his arranged marriage to Margarite or if he is free ... to break off that betrothal and make a politically advantageous match with the woman whom, conveniently enough, he also loves. Later, Margarite faces her own series of dilemmas." Students at Newcastle University recently built a website devoted to the play, including a plot summary and discussions of its incidental music and feminist readings.
- Susanna Centlivre (1669-1723): Margo Collins adds up performances of Centlivre's many plays and finds that The Busie Body (1709) was the most popular play authored by a woman in the 18th C. A documentary about staging it in 2017 offers brief scenes from the play (performance review by Judith Bailey Slagle: "Centlivre's farce introduces two young women, Miranda and Isabinda, who simply want to marry the men they love, not the ones chosen for them by their older guardians ..."). First edition at the Internet Archive.
- Mary Davys (1674-1732): Davys is better known as a novelist, and in a study of 18th C. plays by women connected with the rise of the novel [PDF], James Joseph Howard describes Davys's play, The Northern Heiress; or The Humours of York, which "was successfully performed in York and then in London at Lincoln's Fields Inn in 1716. The third night proceeds provided Davys with sufficient funds to open a coffee house in Cambridge upon which she subsisted for the rest of her life ... This play, set in York, is a comedy of manners, or to some extent, humors, as the subtitle suggests ... The plot centers on the northern heiress, Isabella, who is in love with and courted by Gramont, who lacks a fortune or title until his estranged father dies."
- Delarivier Manley (1663–1724): In a brief biography [PDF], Ros Ballaster writes, "Her last performed play, Lucius, the first Christian King of Britain at Drury Lane in 1717, a work of fervent nationalism, puts centre stage (like her other plays) a powerful woman, Rosalind, Queen of Britain." In a longer article [PDF], Elizabeth Hollis-Berry suggests, "The tragedy's marshalling of Gallic Chiefs, Alban lords, and Cambrian Princes would have given contemporary audiences plenty of political food for thought." First edition of Lucius at the Internet Archive.
- Eliza Haywood (1693-1756): Known primarily as a novelist, Haywood was also an actor and dramatist whose comedy A Wife to be Lett was staged in 1723. Loring Pfeiffer summarizes: "Eliza Haywood lionizes a virtuous wife, centring the play on an upstanding woman who evades her husband's attempt to rent her out to another man. A role originally acted by Haywood herself, Mrs Graspall is celebrated throughout ... Mrs Graspall's greedy husband, on the other hand, serves as the play's antagonist."
- Penelope Aubin (1679-1738): Aubin is better known as a novelist, but in a brief biography [PDF], Dr Debbie Welham comments on her play, The Merry Masqueraders; or, the Humorous Cuckold, performed in 1730: "The jaunty title of the play may well mask its barbed satirical observations, the masqueraders in the play are not merry and nor is the cuckold humorous. The play has traditionally been viewed as a failure, but it was published in 1732 and reprinted in 1733 with a new edition in 1734 which makes its success or otherwise unclear."
- Charlotte Charke (1713-1769): Better known as an actor and a novelist, Charke's autobiography offers the backstory to her first play, written in 1735: "some particular People thought it worth while, by villainous Falshoods, to blow the Spark of Fire between Mr. Fletewood and myself into a barbarous Blaze, insomuch that I was provoked to write a Farce on the Occasion, entitled, The Art of Management; wherein the Reader may be assured I took no small Pains to set him in a most ridiculous Light, and spared not to utter some Truths which, I am sensible, ought rather to have been concealed."
- Kitty Clive (1711-1785): Known primarily as an actor, Clive was also a dramatist; for example, as Shirley Tung explains, Clive adapted the long 17th C. play The Rehearsal into a two-act farce, The Rehearsal: or, Bays in Petticoats, staged in 1750.
- Frances Sheridan (1724-1766): Known especially for her novel Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph, Frances Sheridan was also the mother of the playwright Richard Sheridan (The Rivals, The School for Scandal, etc.) and the great-grandmother of the writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu (Carmilla, etc.). But she was also the author of several comedies, including The Discovery (1763). Her granddaughter Alicia LeFanu describes the play: "The plot is deep and interesting; and the truly tremendous and startling 'Discovery' most artfully concealed ... The imperious character of Lord Medway [played by Sheridan's husband Thomas] finely contrasts with the gentleness of his lady; and the really frigid temper and affected raptures of the romantic old knight, Sir Anthony Branville ... were rendered irresistibly ludicrous and effective by the inimitable acting of Garrick. But still a great portion of the amusement certainly rests upon the two characters of Sir Harry and Lady Flutter ... The quarrels and 'makings-up' of this school-boy and school-girl pair; their mutual reproaches and recriminations ... present altogether such a 'picture of youth,' as was rarely traced by any other pen, in a manner equally true to nature."
- Elizabeth Griffith (1727-1793): A literary critic, translator, anthologist, and novelist, Griffith also wrote several comedies, e.g. The Platonic Wife (1765), which is described at Classic Irish Plays: "it simultaneously challenges and conforms to late eighteenth-century views on gender ... [T]he wife leaves her husband, because he is not 'emotionally available' to her (as we would put it today); audiences at the time were shocked at the idea of a wife having expectations of her husband."
- Charlotte Lennox (1730-1804): Better known as a novelist, Lennox was also a literary critic who commented extensively on Shakespeare's sources and his use of them. For example, regarding All's Well That Ends Well, she writes, "It is not easy to conceive a Reason why Shakespear has thus mangled the Characters of Boccace; when, except in a few trifling Circumstances, he has so faithfully followed the story. It was not necessary to make Helena less amiable, or the Count more wicked in the Play than the Novel, since the Intrigue in both is exactly the same." As a result, her play The Sister (1769; based on her novel Henrietta) met opposition recorded in Boswell's Life of Johnson: "Dr. Goldsmith, upon occasion of Mrs. Lennox's bringing out a play, said to Dr. Johnson at THE CLUB, that a person had advised him to go and hiss it, because she had attacked Shakspeare in her book called Shakspeare Illustrated. JOHNSON. 'And did not you tell him he was a rascal?' GOLDSMITH. 'No, Sir, I did not. Perhaps he might not mean what he said.' JOHNSON. 'Nay, Sir, if he lied, it is a different thing.' Colman slily said, (but it is believed Dr. Johnson did not hear him,) 'Then the proper expression should have been,--Sir, if you don't lie, you're a rascal.'"
- Dorothea Celesia (c. 1738-1790): Jennifer Breen describes Celesia's only play: "Celesia came to brief prominence in London literary and dramatic circles when Garrick was instrumental in having her blank verse tragedy, Almida, which was a free translation of Voltaire's Tancrède (1760), performed at the Drury Lane Theatre from 12 January 1771 for ten nights, featuring Mrs Ann Spranger Barry. As her title Almida implies, Celesia pivoted the action on the characterization of the heroine rather than the valorous warrior Tancred, although generally she kept to the main plot of Voltaire's dramatization of an eleventh-century tale of ill-fated love. But whereas Voltaire used vers croisés she employed blank verse, and in contrast to Voltaire's neo-classical language she enlivened her dialogue with a vivid use of metaphor."
- Hannah More (1745-1833): More was an abolitionist Bluestocking known for Slavery: A Poem and also several plays such as Percy: A Tragedy (1777), about which Eleni Siatra writes, "More draws on the conventions of the heroic romance to link and examine issues of race and gender. Elwina, who is the central character in Percy firmly declares that all acts of aggression are incompatible with Christian doctrine. This becomes evident in Act III, when Elwina jeopardizes her position in the court and risks her father's affections by challenging the legitimacy of the Crusades."
- Frances Burney (1752-1840): Burney is well-known for her novels, among which Evelina, or The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World (1778) is the most widely-read today. But her plays--mostly unpublished in her lifetime--have also become objects of study, e.g. The Witlings (1779). Barbara Darby's monograph Frances Burney, Dramatist [PDF] offers extensive details about this play, "in which public image is molded by forces that include gossip, art, and finance. A draft of the play was completed by May 1779 ... The conversations Burney reports in her letters reveal a bevy of consultants, including Thrale, Crisp, Johnson, and Murphy, who indicated that her play would probably be successful;" but "both Crisp and Dr. Burney feared that the witlings were identifiable contemporaries who would retaliate against such sharp satire. Specifically, Lady Smatter, who holds a literary 'Espirit Party,' was seen to resemble Elizabeth Montagu, the famous Bluestocking."
- Hannah Cowley (1743-1809): Cowley was a prolific dramatist, and Jean Gagen offers an overall perspective: "Mrs. Cowley wrote thirteen plays—two of them tragedies—but her reputation rests on her comedies ... Her witty heroines all look forward to marriage, but they demand a marriage based on love and mutual respect and trust, and they expect to have the deciding vote in the selection of their husbands." Wendy Arons gives further details on Cowley's most well-known play, The Belle's Stratagem (1780): "This is a play I'm deeply familiar with – I’ve researched it, written about it, and taught it in class for many years ... The play tells the story of a young heiress, Letitia Hardy ... who has been betrothed since childhood to the rakish Doricourt ... When they first meet again as adults, she senses his indifference, and comes up with a complicated scheme to win his heart before they are married ... [W]hile I'd hardly suggest that Cowley's plot is one that has strong resonances with today, the play's depiction of women's limited agency, its positioning of gender as a coerced performance, and its portrayal of a world in which women are generally at the mercy of patriarchal structures of power continue to resonate."
- Sophia Lee (1750-1824): Lee is best known as a Gothic novelist (previously on Metafilter), but as Rebecca Garwood notes in a brief biography [PDF] it was her play The Chapter of Accidents: A Comedy (1780; influenced by Diderot's Le Père de famille) that gave her initial success and the funds to open a school she ran with her sister (Harriet Lee--see below). Catherine Burroughs describes the premise that sets the play in motion: "In Act I, set in London during a hotter-than-usual twenty-four hour period in September, we learn that Lord Glenmore has undertaken the responsibility for raising the child of his deceased friend in order to provide his son, Frank Woodville, with a model wife. Glenmore brags to his brother-in-law, Governor Harcourt, that he has, in effect, created an experimental laboratory in which sexual desire is eradicated by proximity: he has 'authorised' Sophia Mortimer and Frank 'to live with innocent elegance, which renders every rank easy, and prevents pleasure from seducing the heart, or ignorance the senses' (I.i.14). Governor Harcourt is shocked by Lord Glenmore's attempt to cultivate sexual innocence by raising a future husband and wife together in the same house ..."
- Elizabeth Craven (1750-1828): Elizabeth, Princess Berkeley, Margravine of Brandenburg-Ansbach, the former Baroness Craven, lived a life full of incidents recorded in her travel writing and memoirs (vol. 2), but she was also a dramatist--e.g. the author of The Miniature Picture; A Comedy, in Three Acts (1781), which Heather A. Ladd analyzes: "The play's action, initiated by the threat of exposure, is driven by Eliza Camply, who aims to retrieve her miniature from the man who left her"; it is "a generically fluid comedy about female objectification, the misuse of women's bodies and images in practices of courtship and marriage, and in the celebrity culture the playwright negotiated throughout her life as an aristocratic woman embroiled in both sexual scandal and theatrical life."
- Frances Brooke (1724-1789): During her five-year stay in Canada, Brooke became the first person to write a novel there, The History of Emily Montague (1769). But in addition to her novels (generally written in England), she also wrote the librettos for comic operas such as Rosina: A Comic Opera in Two Acts (1782).
- Harriet Lee (1757-1851): Harriet Lee co-wrote a new set of Canterbury Tales with her sister, Sophia Lee (see above), and thereby became an influence on Lord Byron, who credited Harriet specifically as the author of "The German's Tale: Kruitzner," which he said he had encountered around age 14 and which "may, indeed, be said to contain the germ of much that I have since written." Her comedy The New Peerage was staged in 1787.
- Mariana Starke (1761/2–1838) is better known as a travel writer, but she also wrote plays informed by her childhood in India such as The Sword of Peace; or A Voyage of Love, which was staged in 1788 and--problematically--combines what Jeanne Moskal calls "strongly nationalistic" sentiments with paternalistic abolitionism. Moskal also summarizes the play: "The romantic plot depicts the sojourn in India of two young women cousins, Louisa and Eliza Moreton. Louisa has come to buy back, on behalf of Sir Thomas Clairville, the sword of his nephew, a young British solider who died in India and bequeathed it to his best friend, Lieutenant Dormer. Eliza's father's will requires her to journey to India in order to inherit her rightful wealth. And, by happy coincidence, she also seeks in India her faithful admirer George Edwards."
- Hannah Brand (1764-1821): Brand wrote the tragedy Huniades; or, The Siege of Belgrade (1791), which David Chandler describes as an "'antirevolutionary' play": "The central dramatic situation is Mahomet's offer to raise the siege if he is given Agmunda as a bride. Agmunda and Corvinus, in love, are hastily married by Campestran in an attempt to avert the crisis ... "
- Elizabeth Inchbald (1753-1821): As Elma Scott notes in a brief biography [PDF], Inchbald is best remembered today as the author of the novel A Simple Story (1791; review on Youtube), but she wrote many plays, including one adaptation immortalized in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. And Wendy Nielsen describes the political context of another play, Every One Has His Fault, A Comedy: "Every One Has His Fault had already been postponed owing to the beheading of the king of France when it finally premiered on January 29, 1793. A voice of moderate conservatism, Reverend Nares probably wrote the prologue in close consultation with Elizabeth Inchbald ... [T]he prologue anticipates and deflects British fears that some of the radical subjects of the play, such as divorce and misalliance, imply other French sympathies, from the rights of woman to an army of women ... Conservative reviewers from the pro-Pitt paper, True Briton, denounced Everyone Has His Fault as dangerously Jacobin. This essay addresses the other critique made by the True Briton, that of genre: 'tis neither Comedy, nor Tragi-Comedy, but something anomalous in which the two are jumbled together' ... [E]ven Inchbald’s politically liberal friend William Godwin, in his anonymous review for European Magazine, questions interweaving a 'tragic tale' with a comedy."
- Mary Robinson (1757-1800): While in debtor's prison with her husband and child, Robinson wrote the poem Captivity (1777; "Where doom'd to every grief, to every pain / The hopeless Captive drags the galling chain / ... Perhaps, a tender Partner shares his grief / Perhaps, a friendless infant craves relief"), expressing an awareness of oppression that would also show up in her more well-known feminist statement, A Letter to the Women of England on the Injustice of Mental Subordination (1799). But in the time between those two publications, she would become famous--a celebrated actor, poet, novelist, dramatist, and fashion icon--and also notorious (see Ellen Malenas Ledoux's "Florizel and Perdita Affair, 1779-80"). And Terry F. Robinson tells the story, both briefly and at length of the reception of one play: "Picture this. It is November 1794 ... Britain and France have been at war for well over a year and a half ... It is at this time, at the very height of this tension, that Mary Robinson ... debuted her two-act comedy Nobody ... [It] did not go well. 'On the drawing up of the curtain,' Robinson recounts in her Memoirs, 'women of distinguished rank hissed through their fans' ... For modern readers, Nobody may appear merely to offer a lighthearted gibe at voguish faux pas ... But what Nobody's riotous reception makes clear is that Robinson's spotlighting of fashionable excess was no laughing matter ... Indeed, once the drama is placed within the timeframe of the French Revolution, it becomes clear that Robinson's critique of fashion is, in fact, a political critique."
- Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806): Smith was a prolific novelist (an influence on Jane Austen) and a prolific poet (an influence on William Wordsworth [PDF]; see also; and further Gothic/Romantic poems like "Sonnet XLIV, Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex" or "Sonnet LIX. Written during a Thunder Storm, September, 1791; in which the Moon was perfectly clear, while the Tempest gathered in various directions near the Earth" in her Elegiac Sonnets, and Other Poems). At BBC Radio 3, Sophie Coulombeau comments on why Smith is an author who "deserves space on our bookshelves." One play is attributed to her: What is She?, a comedy staged in 1799.
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