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Women in British Romantic Theatre:
Drama, Performance, and Society, 1790-1840

by Catherine B. Burroughs

Introduction: Uncloseting Women in British Romantic Theatre

  1. This collection features the contributions to theatre and drama of female playwrights, actors, translators, critics, theorists, and managers who worked during the period traditionally called the ``British Romantic era.'' By circling obsessively about some of the more prominent artists in an age of prominent theatrical women - Elizabeth Inchbald, Joanna Baillie, Sarah Siddons - this volume draws attention to a variety of other figures who participated significantly in the mainstream theatres of Great Britain.[1] Several essays focus on theatre artists who have received relatively little attention - such as Ann Yearsley, Hannah More, Mariana Starke, Anna Larpent, and Mary Russell Mitford - and some essays explore playwrights who have been more commonly associated with non- dramatic genres, such as Frances Burney and Anne Plumptre, or who were affiliated, as Jane Scott was,[2] with playhouses other than the ``major'' theatres of Covent Garden and Drury Lane.

  2. By providing readers with information about women who worked in theatre during the critical transitional years between the neoclas- sical and Victorian eras, the essays collected here contribute to the process of revising narratives of theatre history and reinforce the idea that the dating of a theatrical period depends upon whose perspective is privileged. While this study focuses on the fifty years between 1790 and 1840, it could be said to begin with the successes of several women writers in different genres - Hannah Cowley's comedy The Runaway at Drury Lane in 1776, Hannah More's tragedy Percy at Covent Garden in 1777, and Sophia Lee's comedy at the Haymarket in 1780, The Chapter of Accidents, which was performed yearly until 1824.[3] And its endpoint targets the seven-year stretch that saw the publication of Joanna Baillie's last collection of plays in 1836 and the Theatres Regulation Act of 1843. The French Revolu- tion marks a convenient starting-place for British Romantic studies, but it is not as crucial for gaining a more precise view of the situation facing late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century female theatre artists as is - for example - the Stage Licensing Act of 1737,[4] or the changes in theatre administrations in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries,[5] or the rise of female- controlled theatre spaces in the first four decades after 1800.[6] Certainly the 1770s - though not featured in this collection - are important for having spawned a generation of female playwrights (Hannah More, Hannah Cowley, Elizabeth Griffith, and Frances Brooke) whose achievements partially account for an unprece- dented proliferation of dramatic writing by women between 1788 and 1800.[7] Indeed, the 1770s are particularly significant because Sarah Siddons made her second London debut in 1782, a wildly successful event that took place six years after David Garrick's retirement in 1776 and which represented not only a change in acting styles but also a shift in perceptions of female actors as less ``sexually suspect.''[8] That there are a number of ways to conceptua- lize the beginning and concluding dates of this volume requires that we rethink how periodization has sometimes worked to impede the recovery of women in British Romantic theatre.[9]

  3. Additionally, this collection reinforces current attempts by scholars to reexamine definitions of performance, text, and theatre by balancing theatrical with literary perspectives. But it does so not to argue for infusing a largely literary tradition of scholarship with methods and approaches that attend more to performance and theatricality, though this would not be an undesirable develop- ment.[10] Rather, read collectively, the essays in this volume suggest that the Romantic period is crucial for understanding the historical roots of contemporary discussions about how reading and perform- ing playscripts become (differently) inflected. Indeed, this collection follows the lead of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British theatre theorists - many of them female - who were presciently interested in negotiating the closet/theatre division that has so problematically characterized discussions of Romantic theatre and drama in our own era and which has caused ``Romantic theatricality''[11] to be misrepresented as antitheatricalism throughout the twentieth century. That is, each essay either explicitly or implicitly foregrounds the page/stage opposition to suggest how it has hindered our recovery of women in British Romantic theatre and how an investigation of this opposition can help historicize the knotty relationship between ``text'' and ``performance,'' even as we theorize the relationship anew.[12]

  4. Since the 1970s and the revival of interest in Romantic theatre and drama,[13] much of the scholarship has been produced by literary critics narrowly focused on the plays of the canonical male Romantic poets. Yet it is precisely this focus that has resulted in a relatively small but important body of critical literature[14] that seeks to explain how the genre of closet drama figures ``the disjunction between text and performance,''[15] emerges as ``a forerunner of the gay closet,''[16] and contributes to the growing interest in revising the concept of ``public'' and ``private'' spheres so as not to distort the ways in which late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century women actually lived their lives.[17]

  5. To encourage these developments, part i of this volume explores some of the specific features confronting female theatre artists around 1800. In their analysis of the degree to which women in Romantic theatre exercised cultural influence, Jeffrey Cox and Greg Kucich argue for the necessity of reevaluating traditional critical narratives that present nineteenth-century women theatre artists as either marginalized or self-empowering. Their examination of a variety of archival materials reveals how difficult and misleading it is to attach labels to the cultural performances of women who dominated their specific theatrical arena, such as Joanna Baillie in playwriting, Sarah Siddons in tragic acting, and Anna Larpent in the licensing of plays. Complicating recent claims that these women's art was politically subversive,[18] Cox observes that the dramaturgy and staging of Baillie's most pointedly Scottish play, The Family Legend (1810), reinforced anti-populist views.[19] Likewise, Sid- dons's portrayals of queens and other aristocrats as passive, sexually attractive, yet also sexually restrained paralleled Edmund Burke's anti-Jacobin representation of Marie Antoinette as a heroine in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Anna Margaretta Larpent's diaries indicate how she exerted influence on Romantic theatre through her husband - the Lord Chamberlain's Examiner of Plays - in order to prevent the staging of dramas that featured the spectacle of the French Revolution.

  6. Cox's argument that power in Romantic theatre was constituted variously by aesthetic, textual, social, and institutional performances sets the stage for Greg Kucich's analysis of a subject that has received little attention - the reviewing by male critics of female playwrights and actors.[20] Starting with Hannah More's Percy (1777) and moving forward to Harriet Lee's The Three Strangers (1826), Kucich traces the contradictory responses of male critics[21] to plays and stage perfor- mances by women in order to examine the cultural significance of the opposition of closet and stage between 1790 and 1840. Because the rhetoric of male reviewers often figured the female-authored text as an embodiment of the playwright's gendered position, expressing a keen desire to see her play in performance, reviews of the period underscore the intense cultural need to fetishize the female body and prescribe proper performances of feminine identity as a strategy to preclude female power. Thus, interest in (the performance of ) female playscripts became a way not so much to encourage the proliferation of women writers as to submit them to yet another cultural test of whether they - as writing women - could conform to gender expectations while inhabiting a harshly scrutinizing arena.

  7. One of the reasons that female dramaturgy from the period alternately reinforced and discouraged revolutionary tendencies is that it often identified with the politics of those in power while trying to promote the rights of the disenfranchised. Part ii of this collection - ``Nations, Households, Dramaturgy'' - offers examples of this ideological ambivalence. Those women writers whose work was most popular in late eighteenth-century British and American repertoires - Susannah Centlivre, Hannah Parkhouse Cowley, and Elizabeth Inchbald[22] - wrote mostly variations of social comedy, which seems to have allowed female authors to participate in topical debates without alienating those audiences who would be resistant to the idea of an ``unfeminine'' - that is, politically serious - woman writer. Yet, as Catherine Newey describes, several British women playwrights who published between 1770 and 1830 helped to estab- lish another pattern - one associated primarily with male Romantic poets - of writing historical tragedies[23] set in distant time periods and exotic places as a means of engaging with topical issues while still eluding the corrosive effects of the censorship institutionalized by the Licensing Act of 1737. According to Newey, playwrights like Hannah More, Ann Yearsley, Frances Burney, and Mary Russell Mitford registered their interest in the social impact of the American and French revolutions by exploring some of the ways in which women have historically challenged domestic tyranny.

  8. Newey's essay suggests how other dramatic genres of the period managed to make political statements and still obtain licenses for performance. Certainly, the strategy of displacing controversial material to foreign locales and distant time periods appeared even in a form we might describe today as ``early musical comedy.'' During the 1790s in America, for instance, British-born Susanna Rowson managed to intensify the pro-abolitionist and pro-feminist views of her play, Slaves in Algiers (1794), by setting the piece in Africa, and, simultaneously, to diffuse hostility to her work by introducing songs at potentially serious moments.[24] Indeed, a number of women playwrights - including Joanna Baillie, Hannah Cowley, Maria Edgeworth, and Elizabeth Inchbald - participated in the late eighteenth-century debates about slavery by creating plays that represented a ``strange mix . . . of anti-slavery sentiments and racist attitudes.''[25]

  9. Like Cox and Kucich's essays, Jeanne Moskal's analysis of Mariana Starke's abolitionist comedy, The Sword of Peace (1788), manages to avoid the assumption that enlightened or progressive attitudes were (consistently) articulated by women in Romantic theatre. As Moskal explains, Starke engaged briefly but intensely with the London theatre scene in order to explore the complicated relationship between merchant imperialism, feminism, and the slave trade. Challenging cultural and legal restrictions on women's political engagement, Starke's dramaturgy shifts between conserva- tive and liberal positions, alternately aligning her with Edmund Burke and Mary Wollstonecraft. The topical context for this shift is the 1788 impeachment trial of Warren Hastings - the former Governor-General of Bengal - and Moskal comments on some of the ways in which Starke's dramatic response to this trial drew upon theatrical convention.[26] Certainly in comparison to other genres for which Starke would become better known (such as travel writing), drama allowed this temporary playwright to explore her vision of a desirable nationalist identity as one that middle- to upper-class women could promote through their marriage choices, even though any agency they might enjoy during courtship would most likely recede after the wedding. For this reason, Starke's dramaturgy provides an opportunity to study the ideological complexities that can emerge from texts of the period, many of which aimed both to amuse their audiences and to confront controversial issues.

  10. This double impulse structures Joanna Baillie's first comedy, The Tryal (1798), which also drew upon the public fascination with legal trials and contributed to the intensifying debates about women's social position during the last decade of the eighteenth century. Along with Hannah Cowley and Elizabeth Inchbald - whose playwriting careers, for the most part, ended in the 1790s - Baillie's dramatic and critical output distinguishes her as one of the more important theatre artists between 1780 and 1810. While she lacked Inchbald's experience with commercial theatre, Baillie compensated by becoming one of the era's premier theorists of theatre, attaching prefaces to her published plays that are historically significant for confronting some of the differences between reading and seeing plays (especially as these differences drastically affect reception). Furthermore, Baillie's prefaces suggest that exciting drama can be located in ``closet stages'' outside the bounds of ``legitimate'' and commercially viable playhouses.

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