Introduction

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'Introduction'

1.        Mary Robinson (1757?-1800), [1]  née Darby, achieved great celebrity during her lifetime as an actress, courtesan, fashion icon, and prolific author of poetry, essays, novels, and plays. Over the past twenty years, her life and work have received fresh attention from scholars and biographers who have become fascinated, as her contemporaries once were, with her dazzling personality, social prowess, thespian skill, and literary artistry. [2]  Despite this resurgence in interest, however, relatively little is known about Robinson’s dramas, The Lucky Escape, a Comic Opera (Drury Lane, 1778; never published), Nobody (Drury Lane 1794; never published) and The Sicilian Lover: A Tragedy in Five Acts (never performed; published 1796). [3]  Though they comprise an important component of Robinson’s histrionic and literary legacy, they have received less critical attention than her poems, essays, and novels, due in part to academic prejudices and to access issues: Romantic-period plays have traditionally received the short end of the canonical stick, so to speak, and, as a result, Robinson’s contributions to the genre have only ever existed, until just recently, in manuscript or rare book form. [4]  Even in the face of these setbacks, Robinson’s dramas are worth investigating because they provide a key to understanding Romantic-period society, the late eighteenth-century stage, contemporary satire, the birth of celebrity culture, and Robinson’s engagement with the theater during and after her acting career, when she took on her new role as a woman of letters. [5]  This Romantic Circles edition of Nobody thus represents an effort to bring Robinson’s dramatic work out of obscurity and onto the boards of modern scholarship and the literary stage by making it widely available through an open-access online environment.

2.        In order to understand Nobody and its reception, it is helpful to know about Robinson’s background. Born in a Bristol home constructed within the Gothic ruins of the medieval monastery of St. Augustine, [6]  Mary initially enjoyed a comfortable childhood as the daughter of Hester and Nicholas Darby, a well-to-do American-born merchant. Her early life began to be clouded with difficulties when her father abandoned his wife and their children after his plan to establish a fishery on the coast of Labrador failed. Fortunately, Mary had already gained an early education at a Bristol school run, in part, by the social reformer and author Hannah More, and despite her father’s subsequent desertion, the loss of their family home, and the auctioning off of the family’s more valuable possessions, she was able to continue her education at London schools in Chelsea and Battersea and to complete her studies at Oxford House, Marylebone. While attending the latter institution, her future fate began to crystallize when her dancing master introduced her to the Covent Garden Theatre actor Thomas Hull. Not long afterwards, she was called upon to meet the manager of London’s Drury Lane Theatre, David Garrick.

3.        Mary Darby’s audition for Garrick at his Adelphi Terrace home was so successful that Garrick immediately adopted her as his protégée, instructing her in acting and dancing and tutoring her in the part of Cordelia opposite his Lear. Her 1773 stage debut in that role was cancelled, however, due to her marriage in April 1773 to Thomas Robinson, a man who proved feckless and unfaithful. She serendipitously gained another chance to ascend the stage when the actor William Brereton introduced her to Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the new part-owner and manager of the Drury Lane Theatre. Sheridan was impressed with Robinson’s budding talent and called Garrick out of retirement to tutor her. The old Roscius worked tirelessly with his former pupil, preparing her for her debut as Juliet in his own reworking of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and, as a result, the production, which opened on 10 December 1776, was an instant hit. Robinson “was received with uncommon and universal applause” from the beginning to the end of her performance, [7]  and her success ensured her continued roles during that season and in those following.

4.        Robinson’s most prominent role during her stage career was as Perdita in Florizel and Perdita, Garrick’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. On 3 December 1779, during a royal command performance of the play, her charming stage persona captivated the seventeen-year-old Prince of Wales (the future King George IV), and a scandalous romance between the newly styled “Florizel” and “Perdita” began shortly thereafter. Their affaire de coeur—a crossed-class liaison between the heir apparent and a merchant’s daughter-cum-actress—became the subject of heated gossip and formally launched Robinson’s career as a courtesan, fashionable trendsetter, and high-society sybarite. After her relationship with the Prince ended and she retired from the stage at the close of the 1779-1780 season, [8]  her ensuing celebrity and savvy navigation of public opinion made her wildly famous (and infamous) among the British public. The newspapers continually reported on her whereabouts, documenting, for instance, her 1781 sojourn to France, where, feted as “la belle Angloise,” [9]  she frequently attended the opera and dined with French aristocrats, including Marie Antoinette. The papers also detailed, in addition to her intrigue with the Prince, the ups and downs of her other amorous relationships, including her famous dalliance, begun in 1782, with the dashing Colonel Banastre Tarleton, the renowned leader of British troops in the American Revolutionary War.

5.        In the summer of 1783, Robinson’s center-stage lifestyle took a sharp turn when, while traveling to Dover to meet Tarleton, she contracted acute rheumatic fever, possibly from a badly handled miscarriage. She never fully recovered, suffering from severe arthritis throughout the rest of her life, a condition that eventually resulted in her inability to walk. Because her rheumatism prevented her from conducting her life as she previously did, she became ever more devoted to one of her true loves—writing. Robinson had already published two volumes of poetry in 1775 and 1777, the latter under the patronage of the Duchess of Devonshire, and had seen her comic opera, The Lucky Escape, produced on the Drury Lane stage in 1778. Now, during her illness, she embarked on a literary career with renewed determination. In 1788, she commenced a “poetical correspondence” [10]  in the newspaper The World with Robert Merry, who a few years prior had contributed poems to The Florence Miscellany (1785) under the pseudonym “Della Crusca.” After inserting herself into the Della Cruscan circle and quickly establishing a popular poetic reputation, she moved from The World to the rival publication, The Oracle. In 1791, the first volume of her newest verse collection, Poems, was published (the second volume would be released in 1793), and the following year saw the release of her first novel, Vancenza, or, The Dangers of Credulity. During her life, she published many additional volumes of poetry, including her important Sappho and Phaon (1796) and Lyrical Tales (1800), a stylistic homage to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s and William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (1798); social-political critiques, including Impartial Reflections of the Present Situation of the Queen of France (1791) and A Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Subordination (1799); along with a number of novels, including The Widow, or a Picture of Modern Times (1794), Angelina; A Novel (1796), Hubert de Sevrac, A Romance, of the Eighteenth Century (1796), Walsingham; or, The Pupil of Nature: A Domestic Story (1797), The False Friend: A Domestic Story (1799), and The Natural Daughter. With Portraits of the Leadenhead Family. A Novel (1799). Her unfinished novel, Jasper, A Fragment, was posthumously published in the Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Robinson, Written by Herself (1801), an autobiography begun by Robinson, completed by her daughter Maria Elizabeth Robinson, and sought after by those curious about the life of such an iconic woman. [11]  Embarking on a literary career allowed Robinson to maintain her place in the spotlight, where she achieved widespread public and critical approval both during her lifetime and after her death.

6.        One of Robinson’s most remarkable productions was her two-act farce Nobody (Drury Lane, 1794), though now, even among scholars of the Romantic period, it is a play almost completely unknown. A biting satire on female gamblers, Nobody documents the financial ruin and rescue of the recently widowed aristocrat, Lady Languid, who, having become caught up in a world of fashionable dissipation, squanders her fortune while playing faro, vingt-et-un, and rouge et noir, among other high-stakes games. At the outset of the comedy, Lady Languid laments her newfound addiction, crying “Play, destructive Play! Perpetual Losses, & no rest have destroy’d me!” [12]  Even so, she remains resolutely determined to risk her fortune and reputation in the name of pleasure and “taste,” proclaiming the virtues of her aristocratic associates: “they are so pleasant! They know so well how to live! . . . to see the fritting, frowning beauteous Circle! – bending over pyramids of Rouleaus [rolls of coins] – To behold their delicious agonies! – their charming Anxieties – their laughable vexations, and provoking Triumphs! . . . Where else can a Woman of Fashion be happy?” [13]  Her friend and admirer, a London banker and philanthropist aptly named Sir Henry Rightly, checks her enthusiasm by suggesting to her that more pleasure is to be found in assisting those in need than in gambling. Doubting that this is so, she characteristically makes a bet with him: “If you will for once enter into the Spirit of the Play [i.e., gamble] – I will sink into the Apathy of Sentiment. . . . I will relieve a distress’d object Tomorrow – We will then compare Notes, and whoever is most satisfied shall be proclaimed the Victor.” [14]  Sir Henry accepts her challenge and later appears at the agreed-upon gaming venue, but arrives before Lady Languid does and overhears a group of bon vivants engage in mean-spirited gossip about his friend. His subsequent defense of Lady Languid invites their mockery of him, but over the course of the evening, in his banter with the gathered party, Sir Henry comically exposes the fact that Lady Languid’s comrades are, rather than important somebodies, unfeeling fools and social nobodies, who will claim an affiliation with Lady Languid just so long as she has money to spend. Lady Languid soon arrives only to be met with a barrage of accusations about her sexual conduct, to lose her entire fortune at a game of Faro, and to be deserted by all of her associates except for Sir Henry Rightly who, having been a winner in the game, returns all of her money to her, but not without enjoining her to keep her promise to help the unfortunate. In this case, the hapless being turns out to be himself: while she is overwhelmed with his generosity, he declares his love for her, saying “believe me Lady Languid, ’till you are mine, no Man exists more wretched than myself!” [15]  The play ends with the suggestion of their imminent engagement, but Lady Languid does not let the curtain close upon her story without aiding the less fortunate. When her maidservant bursts into the drawing room in the final scene, shedding tears over the fact that she was teased earlier in the day by Lady Languid’s friends, Lady Languid placates her with five guineas; the elated maid exclaims, “By Jingo I’ve had many fine promises but a Bird in the Hand is worth Two in the Bush,” [16]  thereby suggesting one of the morals of the tale—that a tangible advantage is better than the chance of a greater one, or in the context of the play, holding on to one’s actual wealth is preferable to gambling it away in the expectation of more.

7.         Nobody opened as an afterpiece at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on Saturday, 29 November 1794 and was performed again on Monday, 1 December, and on Saturday, 6 December. The Morning Chronicle, The Morning Post, The London Chronicle, The Oracle, and The Times, among others, carried advertisements for the performances, touting the comedy’s cast of top actors—among them, John Bannister, William Barrymore, Robert Bensley, Charlotte Goodall, Jane Pope, and Dorothy Jordan—and promising a grand sartorial spectacle: “With New Dresses, &c.” [17]  Unfortunately for Robinson, the show did not go well, and the newspaper reviews, while not bad, were less than enthusiastic. Though many of the reviewers tipped their hats to Robinson by acknowledging her established talent as a poet and citing the play’s positive features, including clever dialogue (though overly laced with double entendre), truthfulness in its depiction of high-society dissolution, and a high degree of comic pleasantry, they were, nonetheless, hesitant to acknowledge her dramatic success, one paper expressing near regret for noting the comedy’s flaws and stating, “we cannot flatter Mrs. ROBINSON with saying that her muse is likely, in this instance, to shine with the graceful eclat that u[s]ed to accompany her personal appearance on the Boards.” [18]  Contemporary assessments of Nobody as promising but unexceptional cannot be read, however, as definitive measures of the play’s merit, since incidents surrounding its performance suggest that such judgments may have been colored by the social climate in which the drama debuted, a climate created by those in the auditorium who reacted negatively, less to its putative mediocrity than to its message. [19]  Indeed, in the case of Nobody, concerns over merit take a back seat to the more compelling and controversial issues that the comedy and its reception raise.

8.        Not long after the first performance of Nobody, news began filtering in about the utter commotion it had caused. The Sun reported that when Dorothy Jordan, in the character of Nelly Primrose, duly repeated an “air” (the 'Ballad of Barbara Allen') for which she had been encored, she received only “ill-humour” from the audience. The paper states that throughout the performance, the play “met with some opposition” and that at its conclusion, Jordan had become so “agitated” by the mixed and often hostile reaction of the crowd that she was unable to speak the Epilogue clearly, omitting lines and, according to The Times, botching it altogether: “Mrs. JORDAN proved much at fault; . . . the little effect intended, was entirely destroyed.” [20]  While The Oracle reported a consensus of opinion in favor of the play, claiming that “the MANY had a struggle against the ILLNATURE which a FEW were forward in displaying,” [21]  The London Chronicle, after the play’s second performance, remarked more bluntly that “Last night NOBODY was brought forward for the second time, and Somebody was found to applaud it, although Nobody appeared to be entertained.” [22]  Though one newspaper speculated that some audiences members responded negatively because they were “disgusted with the manners, and disappointed by the use and disposal of the characters and their escape of justice” [23]  (in other words, that the play simply did not go far enough in reprimanding the unprincipled and speculative behavior of its characters), The Morning Post—a newspaper with which Robinson had intimate ties, both as a poetic contributor and as a celebrity informant [24] —suggested an altogether different explanation:

The scene [of Nobody] is taken from high life, and is intended as a laudable exposure of those dames of Fashion, who in departing from the delicacy of their sex, commence Gamesters, involving by such conduct, not only their own characters in ruin, but that of others in this Vortex of fashionable depravity. . . . The House was full of Fashion, and to this we attribute the sentiments of disapprobation manifested at the conclusion, as Gambling is become a vice so general that there were few in the Boxes that were not displeased at the exposure of their dissipation and depravities. [25] 
To put it another way, female gamblers were none too pleased with Robinson’s indictment of their activities, and voiced their objection not only at the play’s conclusion, as indicated here, but throughout the performance, as mentioned above, and even before the curtain rose. According to Robinson’s Memoirs, a threatening letter was sent to Dorothy Jordan prior to the opening night “informing her that ‘Nobody should be damned!’”, and Robinson also received a “scurrilous, indecent, and ill-disguised scrawl, signifying to her that the farce was already condemned.” [26]  Pre-show tensions mounted so high that the actress Elizabeth Farren—eager to avoid confrontation with her aristocratic associates, including her future husband, the Earl of Derby—gave up her role as Lady Languid, because, she claimed, “the piece was intended as a ridicule on her particular friend.” [27]  The show, nevertheless, did go on, but not without significant trouble. “On the drawing up of the curtain, several persons in the galleries, whose liveries betrayed their employers, were sent to do up Nobody. Even women of distinguished rank hissed through their fans,” and while they were quieted during the first act for a short time, they soon resumed their vocalizations after Dorothy Jordan’s encore “with redoubled violence.” [28]  Though Robinson made alterations to the play for its third performance—adding patriotic appeal through the introduction of a new character, a naval captain—the production, as stated in The Sun, caused near mayhem:
Considerable disapprobation was expressed through the whole of the last act; and towards the conclusion, a disposition to riot began to manifest itself. That there were persons in the House who came predetermined to condemn, was very obvious; . . . a Gentleman . . . leapt from the Gallery into the Boxes, wither he was followed by several more. . . . had not a body of Gentleman taken these Rioters into custody, very serious consequences might have ensued. [29] 
The Morning Post also commented on these events, saying,
It is a known FACT, that the Lady Gamblers made a party to oppose Mrs. ROBINSON’S Comedy; their vices are of so black a cast, that fine colouring could not make them pleasing; the depravity of Fashionable Life will not bear the Pencil of so delicate an Artist.
A Servant in Livery was heard to say in the Gallery, on Saturday night, that he was come to DO UP NOBODY. [30] 
As this report claims, the sabotage was planned and duly effected. “Instead of Nobody,” the same newspaper remarked, “we advise her [Robinson] to call it, ‘St. James’s square in an uproar.’ . . . The Farce of Nobody has admitted, what few will confess, that among the Daughters of Pharaoh, there is even one woman of character and principle.” [31] 

9.        By 1794, gambling had become a veritable institution in aristocratic society, but as early as 1783, The Morning Herald observed that “The influence of gaming is so prevalent in polite circles, that in the house of a lady of the first quality, after the money is gone, they actually play for articles of dress, diamond pins, aigrettes, &c. &c. Their husbands may justly fear, lest their honor go with the odd trick!”. [32]  This quotation suggests that female gamesters had become socially commonplace, and yet their activities were considered threatening to themselves and to those connected with them. In the creation of her play, Robinson exploited this perspective while, perhaps, underestimating the power of the nobility. By attacking one of their favorite pastimes, she was, in essence, attacking the patrician way of life. Robinson was certainly aware of this, and, indeed, Nobody can be read as an indictment of aristocratic extravagance and “double-dealing” in general, [33]  but her play’s inability to affect the habits of the nobility or their total ability to overrule her play seems to have surprised her. In short, if one can rely upon contemporary reports, Nobody was doomed to failure from the beginning, for the people Robinson needed to please in order to ensure the play’s success—the modish elite—were the very ones whom she offended. Some of the day’s most notorious gamesters were, in fact, her own patrons and associates: Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, who in the early 1790s owed at least “£61,917 . . . Roughly £3,720,000 today, or $6 million” in gambling debts [34] ; Charles James Fox; and the Prince of Wales, whose upcoming marriage to Princess Caroline had been arranged, in part, as a means to relieve his debt.

10.        One of the most striking phenomena surrounding Nobody is that its scorn for fashionable imprudence, pretension, and extravagance was prefigured in The Morning Post. Indeed, it might be said that the newspaper engendered the nettled reaction to Robinson’s play well before its debut. In the weeks prior to the first staging of Nobody, 'The Fashionable World' section of The Morning Post—in addition to puffing Mary Robinson and Dorothy Jordan—reported repeatedly on the sartorial follies and monetary fecklessness of the elite classes. It contains, for instance, colorful quips reprimanding fashionable interests: “Certain titled Ladies say, that the short waist, and flowing drapery is Grecian: we wish they had a taste for elegant literature, for which the Grecian women were also celebrated.” [35]  It also makes moral judgments about female gambling: “The scarcity of Ladies in the lower Side Boxes, may be attributed to the rage from Plays amongst our Dames of haut ton. Faro, and rouge et noir, have wholly banished a gout for rational amusements. This is indeed a serious, disgraceful evil; that ‘has encreased, is encreasing, and ought to be diminished.’” [36]  And after mentioning, in a separate issue, that upcoming soirées are to be hosted by Mrs. Concannon, Lady Buckinghamshire, and Lady Archer—women who were known for hosting gambling parties—and, further, that many “Courtiers” plan to purchase new carriages in order to impress the Princess with “Courtly Splendour,” The Morning Post observes, “The proud excesses of the Gay World this Winter will occasion no inconsiderable number of Bankrupts the next. Since the War, the Tradesmen’s Books are over-laded with Debts, and if one of them should press a Nobleman for his money, he is immediately denounced, 'a Jaçobine!'”. [37]  By linking aristocratic profligacy with the country’s wartime ills, these lines boldly assert that high-society socialites drain the nation’s coffers, and what’s worse, claim justification in doing so.

11.        That Morning Post commentaries such as these were meant to set the stage for the debut of Nobody, there can be no doubt. First, the popular London daily was known for its clever use of insinuation and association, [38]  and, second, not only do the commentaries' subject matter echo that of Robinson’s play, but a few of them also refer directly to it. On 6 October 1794, for example, The Morning Post features the following account: “A Turban, and single White Feather, is the simple head dress worn by our Belles. Equality seems the motto of the most dashing Fair, as they still appear as Nobody.” In addition to making a suggestion about the insubstantiality of high-end fashion and of those who indulge in it, the report contains the title of the play and discusses the very hat that Lady Languid wears in the second act. It is possible, given these connections, that Robinson herself had a hand in peppering The Morning Post with these entries, if not the reviews of the performances themselves. This possibility increases when we consider the fact that their appearance in October-December of 1794 was accompanied by two poems composed by “Bridget,” one of Robinson’s pseudonyms, and addressed “Primrose-hill”—Primrose being the name of Lady Languid’s waiting maid in Nobody.

12.        Both poems appear as “letters to the editor” of The Morning Post. [39]  The first, published on 18 October 1794, opens with a discussion of a recent scandal in which an actress, Miss Wallis, was invited by a gentlewoman, Lady Loughborough, to sit with her in her theater box—a gesture that resulted in outrage amongst the nobility. This incident serves as a springboard for the rest of the poem, which spotlights aristocratic snobbery and insensitivity. A woman entitled “her Grace” announces,

Tis vastly odd, though I’m a Duchess,
(But now the vulgar manner such is)
That women, lowly born, pretend
With clay of finer mould to blend!
I swear ’tis arrogant and rude,
To shock our eyes with such a brood;
In every Theatre, the Boxes
Are fill’d with Cits, and low-bred Doxies!
They have no Titles! ’tis a shame;
The Managers are much to blame!
And I shall speak to Sheridan,
To alter this indecent plan.
Her discourse is followed by that of “Lady Di,” who empathizes with her crony, saying,
—’tis much too bad!
All, all presume to take a seat,
Where Duchesses, and Princes meet!
And think, since fortune is their lot.
Their origin, is quite forgot!
The poem concludes with the women’s assertion that because the masses display their emotion, because they “cry, when Siddons calls their tears!” and “laugh, ’till they have crack’d their ears, / (When Parsons plays, or Comic Suett;),” they lack refinement. For the elite, Lady Di declares, “All, all should be Delight and Fashion, / Sans Sentiment, sans Taste, sans Passion!” This divorce between fashion and feeling is one of the central concerns of Nobody. While the modish set in the comedy refuse to “sink into the Apathy of Sentiment” (2.2), Sir Henry Rightly does, and he is ridiculed for it by a character who disdainfully tells him, “You’re . . . All Sentiment and feeling” (2.3). The poem, then, foreshadows Nobody, for just as the titled women who voice their disapproval of Wallis become the object of ridicule, so, too, do the aristocrats in the play—who object to Rightly—become mocked as “nobodies.”

13.        The second poetic “letter to the editor,” published on 5 November 1794, builds upon this hierarchical inversion and again features the indignation of noble women. “Lady Tippy” appears “in a rage” stating,

Iv’e been at Covent-Garden Play—
But could not, on my conscience, stay;
I wonder how the Mob’s amus’d,
To see their betters so abus’d,
To hear a saucy low Plebian—
For vulgar Virtue, raise the Pean!
And with his Gothic maxims teach
Such stuff as Grandmothers would preach!
Here, a “low Plebian,” having advocated virtuous action through the vehicle of a drama, has spurred on the ire of one of his “betters.” In Nobody, Sir Henry Rightly—who is deemed “the very Salmagundi of moral Maxims,” “a perfect walking Horn:Book,” “a perfect Mentor – a diciplinarian” (2.3)—similarly instructs his aristocratic superiors in how to better conduct themselves. In response to Tippy’s report, “Lady Jane” declares,
It is a scandal to Bon-Ton—
That such a Knave his rig shou’d run!
But Education now-a-days
Is up to all his dirty ways.
Women, who know the world, defy
The dullness of Morality.
Vowing that they will seek the “Monster” and “horse-whip him,” Tippy adds,
Oh! may I never win a bet,
Or beat Old Quizzy at Piquet;
Oh! may I never name the Horse
That wins the Plate on Beacon Course;
Oh! may I never hunt the Fox,
Or shake, with winning grace, the Box;
With Jockey ride a race again,
Or know the trick of Seven’s the Main;
May I ne’er cock a Card, or waste
The winter months with Souls of Taste;
Ne’er deal at Faro—or Vignt Un
From midnight hour till rise of Sun!
. . . . . .
Till I have found this saucy Wight,
And dragg’d him—by the nose—to light!
In these lines and towards the end of the poem, it becomes clear that gambling and morality stand at odds with one another. As a third character, “a Duchess,” observes,
Nay not a single learned Quiz,
In well-bred circles, shews his phiz—
He would not understand our ways,
He neither shuffles, deals, or plays.
In Nobody, Lady Languid similarly points out this particular social and intellectual divide between herself and Sir Henry Rightly. Just as Lady Tippy tells of a plebian with “Gothic maxims,” so Lady Languid speaks of how Rightly was “Educated in Gothic Simplicity” (2.2) and because of this, objects to her shaking a “Dice:Box.” Taken as a whole, these two Morning Post poems showcase the discourse of indulgent and self-centered female aristocrats. The final verdict is clear: according to the poem of 18 October, “Fashion is a jade capricious, / Her vot’ries giddy, vain, and vicious.” Here, in the second poem, the women’s class-based concerns are ultimately written written off as “noisy.”

14.         The Morning Post commentaries and the late 1794 “Bridget” poems shed light on the dynamic and interconnected nature of theatrical, socio-political, and economic concerns in the Romantic period. They also suggest the possibility that Robinson wrote for The Morning Post prior to 1795 as a means to advertise, set the tone for, and defend her drama. [40]  Further, they provide a clue as to why the “Lady Gamblers” may have felt compelled to sabotage Nobody both during and before its debut. Robinson’s comedy, we find, was not meant simply to generate laughs but to transform public opinion.

15.        Two weeks before the curtain rose on Nobody, The Morning Post optimistically proposed that dramatic comedy could prove “beneficial to Society” when “the preposterous manners of high life and Fashionable Folly” are “checked by the pen of fair and unoffending satire.” [41]  While Robinson certainly intended this outcome for her play, it was a goal it failed to achieve. In the weeks following its condemnation, The Morning Post contained the following entry: “If certain persons, in high life, are allowed to damn every piece that aims to correct their follies, the Stage will cease to be the mirror of the times, and vice will triumph over public opinion.” [42]  In the next issue, the paper goes so far as to suggest that if drama cannot affect a change in social behavior, perhaps graphic artistry can: “Why don’t the Caricaturists make a subject from a Faro Table, where an assemblage of Furies nightly afford ample scope for the pencil? Such an instance of just ridicule would be very acceptable to the world.” [43]  As we shall see, that is precisely what happened.

16.        Nobody may have been ill-met, but was, even so, not ill-timed. Despite its negative reception, Robinson’s play serves as a marker of the age’s shifting moral compass and a harbinger of the increasing anti-gaming sentiment to come. In May 1796, for instance, less than two years following the production of Robinson’s play, the Chief Justice, Lord Kenyon, indignantly proclaimed from the King’s Bench,

it is extremely to be lamented, that this vice [gambling] has descended to the very lowest orders of the people. It is to be resented that it is so prevalent among the highest ranks of society who have set the example to their inferiors, and, who it seems are too great for the law. I wish they could be punished. If any prosecutions are fairly brought before me, and the parties are justly convicted, whatever may be their rank or station in the country, though they should be the first ladies in the land, they shall certainly exhibit themselves in the pillory. [44] 
When, in 1797, Lady Buckinghamshire’s Faro bank was reportedly stolen and her own footmen divulged her illegal gambling activities, the authorities intervened, and Lady Buckinghamshire and her fellow players were fined. Though Kenyon did not preside over the Buckinghamshire prosecution, the incident prompted a barrage of visual satire, which included images by James Gillray and Isaac Cruikshank. In May 1796, for instance, H. Humphrey published Gillray’s Exaltation of Faro’s Daughters, which features the pilloried Lady Buckinghamshire and Lady Archer exhibiting bemused resignation as the public throws mud and refuse at them. The same month also saw Cruikshank’s Faro’s Daughters, or the Kenyonian blowup to Gamblers, which depicts Charles James Fox in the stocks, supporting on his shoulders one of four female gamblers in the pillories, and Lord Kenyon fanning the flames of a fire that burns dice, cards, and a Faro table. In February 1797, Gillray produced Loss of the Faro Bank; or, the Rook’s Pigeon’d, showing Lord Buckinghamshire, Lady Buckinghamshire, Mrs. Concannon, Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Colonel Hanger, and Lady Archer interrupted at Faro by the disconcerting news that the Faro bank has been robbed. The month following, he released Discipline à la Kenyon, depicting Lord Kenyon whipping the bare back of Lady Buckinghamshire who is tied to a cart, while two of her fellow female gamesters observe the action from the pillory. Gillian Russell saliently observes that in such images “the female aristocrat . . . [is] reduced to the social level of a common whore” and that in the 1790s, in general, gambling amongst the “men and women of the Whig elite” was increasingly “condemned as a sign of the moral degeneracy and irresponsibility of the fashionable classes.” [45] 

17.        As Robinson had indicated in Nobody, moral authority was supplanting class-based authority, and, consequently, gambling was becoming a vile activity associated not with the high, but with the low. At a time when women were increasingly expected to be moral models, [46]  Robinson speculates about the future of the female gamester and places her bets on the kind of woman exemplified by Lady Languid, an aristocrat who, at the very end of the drama, breaks away from the pack and takes her own chances. By acting out a new role through the procurement of a respectable husband and the sentimental exhibition (some might say guise) of charity, she adapts to the changing times by performing a new version of female power and privilege. True to form, the ever-fashionable Robinson had predicted, in the decline of gambling, the emergence of the next cutting-edge trend for high-class British women: domestic virtue.

Works Cited

Boaden, James. The Life of Mrs. Jordan. Vol. 1. London: E. Bull, 1831. Print.

Brewer, William D. 'Mary Robinson as Dramatist: The Nobody Catastrophe.' European Romantic Review 17 (July 2006): 265-73. Print.

Brewer, William D., ed. The Works of Mary Robinson. 8 vols. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2009-2010. Print.

Byrne, Paula. Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson. London: Harper Perennial, 2005. Print.

Davenport, Hester. The Prince’s Mistress: A Life of Mary Robinson. Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2004. Print.

Elyot, Amanda. All For Love: The Scandalous Life and Times of Royal Mistress Mary Robinson. New York: New American Library, 2008. Print.

Foreman, Amanda. Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire. New York: The Modern Library, 1998. Print.

Gamer, Michael, and Terry F. Robinson 'Mary Robinson and the Dramatic Art of the Comeback.' Studies in Romanticism 48 (Summer 2009): 219-56. Print.

The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (11 December 1776). Print.

Gristwood, Sarah. Perdita: Royal Mistress, Writer, Romantic. London: Bantam P, 2005. Print.

The London Chronicle (29 November-2 December 1794). Print.

The Morning Chronicle (22 March 1783, 29 November and 1 December 1794). Print.

The Morning Herald (24 February 1783). Print.

The Morning Post and Fashionable World (6 October, 18 October, 5 November, 11 November, 12 November, 29 November, 1 December, 2 December, 3 December, 9 December, and 10 December 1794). Print.

The Oracle (11 January, 21 February, 23 March, 5 April, 17 and 25 October, 1793; 29 November, and 3 December 1794). Print.

Pascoe, Judith, ed. Mary Robinson: Selected Poems. Peterborough, ON: Broadview P, 2000. Print.

Pascoe, Judith. Romantic Theatricality: Gender, Poetry, and Spectatorship. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1997. Print.

Robinson, Daniel. The Poetry of Mary Robinson: Form and Fame. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.

Robinson, Mary. A Letter to the Women of England and The Natural Daughter. Ed. Sharon Setzer. Peterborough, ON: Broadview P, 2003. Print.

Robinson, Mary. A Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Subordination. Ed. Adriana Craciun, Anne Irmen Close, Megan Musgrave, and Orianne Smith. May 1998. Web.

Robinson, Mary. The Lucky Escape. San Marino, CA.: Larpent MS 447. Henry E. Huntington Library, 1778. Print.

Robinson, Mary. Memoirs of the Late Mrs Robinson, Written by Herself with Some Posthumous Pieces. Ed. Maria Elizabeth Robinson. 4 vols. London: Wilks and Taylor, 1801. Print.

Robinson, Mary. Nobody. San Marino, CA.: Larpent MS 1046. Henry E. Huntington Library, 1794. Print.

Robinson, Mary. The Poetical Works of the Late Mrs Robinson, including many pieces never before published. Ed. Mary E. Robinson. 3 vols. London: Phillips, 1806. Print.

Robinson, Mary. The Sicilian Lover: A Tragedy in Five Acts. London: Printed for the Author by Hookham and Carpenter, 1796. Print.

Robinson, Mary. The Songs, Chorusses, etc. in The Lucky Escape, a Comic Opera. London: Printed for the Author, 1778. Print.

Robinson, Mary. Walsingham; or, the Pupil of Nature. Ed. Julie Shaffer. Peterborough, ON: Broadview P, 2003. Print.

Russell, Gillian. '‘Faro’s Daughters’: Female Gamesters, Politics, and the Discourse of Finance in 1790s Britain.' Eighteenth-Century Studies 33 (2000): 481-504. Print.

Strachan, John, ed. British Satire 1785-1840. Vol 4: Gifford and the Della Cruscans. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2003. Print.

The Sun (3 December and 8 December 1794). Print.

The Times (1 December 1794, and 9 May 1796). Print.

Notes

[1] Though Mary Robinson’s gravestone and her edited Memoirs (1801) state that she was born in 1758, Robinson’s biographers have uncovered evidence suggesting that she was actually born a year or two earlier; see Robinson, Memoirs 1: 4; Paula Byrne 429-430; Hester Davenport 6-7; Sarah Gristwood 17. Paula Byrne has concluded that she was likely born in 1757, based on the fact that Robinson’s own, pre-edited memoirs state that she was fifteen when she married Thomas Robinson and that a Morning Herald newspaper report divulged her year of birth as 1757; see Byrne 430. BACK

[2] In addition to the many academic articles, book chapters, and editions devoted to the study of Mary Robinson, see the recent biographies of Robinson by Paula Byrne, Hester Davenport, and Sarah Gristwood, the historical fiction All for Love by Amanda Elyot, and the first book-length study of her poetry by Daniel Robinson. BACK

[3] The Lucky Escape was never published, though soon after its performance, a collection of the play’s songs appeared in the bookshops; see Robinson, Songs, Chorusses. The licensing manuscript of The Lucky Escape is held in the Larpent Collection at the Henry E. Huntington Library in San Marino, California. The Sicilian Lover, while completed in the autumn of 1795 and intended for stage representation, was never performed. According to Robinson’s daughter, Maria Elizabeth, its presentation at Drury Lane was so long delayed by the managers that Robinson “resolved to print the tragedy, and leave its merits and defects to the decision of the public” (Robinson, Poetical Works 1: xv-xvi). Robinson also authored an opera, which was neither performed nor published, though The Oracle announced repeatedly in 1793 that it was to be produced. Plans for its representation were apparently halted, however, and on 17 October 1793, The Oracle stated that Robinson “Means to print her Opera on her return to town; and with it, a full explanation of her reasons for withdrawing it from Drury-Lane Theatre.” According to Paula Byrne, the opera was entitled Kate of Aberdeen, and the libretto was never printed. See The Oracle for 11 January, 21 February, 23 March, 5 April, and 17 and 25 October 1793, and Byrne 309-310. BACK

[4] Robinson’s dramas have been published in volume 8 of The Works of Mary Robinson, ed. William D. Brewer (Pickering & Chatto, 2010). BACK

[5] For an analysis of how Robinson engineered this transformation from actress to author, see Michael Gamer and Terry F. Robinson. BACK

[6] In her Memoirs, Robinson speaks of her birthplace as “A spot . . . calculated to inspire the soul with mournful meditation” (1: 3). BACK

[7] The Gazetteer, 11 December 1776. BACK

[8] The oft-repeated claim that Robinson returned to the stage in 1783 is incorrect and is based on connected reports in the 24 February 1783 Morning Herald, the first concerning a “Mrs. Robinson” in the role of Victoria in Hannah Cowley’s new comedy, A Bold Stroke for a Husband, at Covent Garden Theatre, and the second concerning the visual appearance of Mary Robinson’s opera box. The first “Mrs. Robinson” referred to is, however, not Mary Robinson but Hannah Henrietta Robinson, a different actress altogether. For more information on this matter, including a discussion of Robinson’s whereabouts in 1783, and an investigation into how contemporary newspapers juxtaposed reports about pubic figures, see Gamer and Robinson. BACK

[9] Robinson, Memoirs 2: 90. BACK

[10] Robinson, Memoirs 2: 124. BACK

[11] For selections of Mary Robinson’s poetry and prose, see, among others, the collections edited by William D. Brewer, Judith Pascoe, and John Strachan. Broadview Press has also released A Letter to the Women of England and The Natural Daughter, edited by Sharon Setzer, and Walsingham, edited by Julie Shaffer. Romantic Circles features an edition of A Letter to the Women of England, edited by Adriana Craciun, Anne Irmen Close, Megan Musgrave, and Orianne Smith. BACK

[12] Robinson, Nobody 1.3. BACK

[13] Robinson, Nobody 2.1. BACK

[14] Robinson, Nobody 2.1. BACK

[15] Robinson, Nobody 2.3. BACK

[16] Robinson, Nobody 2.3. BACK

[19] Newspaper reviewers sitting in the theater auditorium on the first night of the play likely had no knowledge of the planned sabotage of Robinson’s drama. The hisses of those offended by its message could have led the reviewers to conclude that Nobody lacked merit. BACK

[20] The Sun, 1 December 1794; The Times, 1 December 1794. The Oracle also notes Jordan’s “agitation” (1 December 1794). BACK

[24] For information on Robinson’s affiliation with The Morning Post, see Judith Pascoe, Romantic Theatricality 163-183 and Daniel Robinson 153-195. BACK

[31] The Morning Post and Fashionable World, 3 December 1794. “Pharaoh,” here, is a play on “Faro.” BACK

[32] The Morning Chronicle, 22 March 1783. BACK

[33] Robinson’s retaliation against the nobility seems probable in light of her vexation over the high “cost” of her relationship with the Prince. In a letter composed the month prior to the debut of Nobody, she writes that while she had “sacrificed reputation . . . and the conscious delight of correct conduct,” the Prince was obliged only to pay her an annuity of £500, a meager amount, Robinson complained, in comparison with his other lavish expenditures. See Mary Robinson to John Taylor, 5 October 1794. Rpt. in Pascoe, Mary Robinson 365-67. See Brewer, 'Mary Robinson,' for an assessment of how Nobody evinces the changing moral and fiscal climate—from "fashionable aristocrats" to "enlightened plutocrats"—in late eighteenth-century England (271). BACK

[34] Foreman 245. BACK

[38] For more on The Morning Post’s savvy use of suggestion and innuendo, see Gamer and Robinson. BACK

[39] For the complete text of these poems, see the “Contexts” section of this edition. BACK

[40] In 1831, James Boaden pointedly states that Robinson used her influence with the newspapers to defend Nobody after its poor reception: "Mrs. Robinson was a good deal connected with newspapers; and as her lameness confined her to the chair when at home, she was constantly writing, and tolerably free in her remarks. This always operates mischievously upon the mind of an actor, who is quite sure that the writer turned dramatist will visit failure upon any thing rather than his piece" (272). BACK

[44] 'Gaming.' The Times, 9 May 1796. For more on Lord Kenyon’s proclamation, the late eighteenth-century controversy over gambling, and its connection to national well-being, see Gillian Russell. BACK

[45] Russell 495, 481. See Gillian Russell for a detailed analysis of the relationship between Faro, female gamesters, the Lord Kenyon ruling, contemporary political satire, and the late eighteenth-century banking crisis. BACK

[46] Russell 482. BACK

Published @ RC

March 2013