English 6236: Restoration Literature
Drama -- Female Wits
Assignment: Pix: The Beau Defeated (Lyons & Morgan 161-234)
Centlivre: The Basset Table (Lyons & Morgan 235-292); or The Busybody (293-363)
Presentations: Crystal Sidell and Catherine Ratliff
The title for today's class is really a misnomer, as only Mary Pix was recognized in the cruel satire on female playwrights of the 1695-1696 theater season in London. Still that anonymous play by a group of male players and playwrights entitled The Female Wits voiced a general animosity toward professional, learned women whose plays began, for the first time, to be a threat to their own livelihood. The popularity of the plays by women and the vicious attacks they inspired constitute a complex social dialogue about the changing ideologies of woman and art, which informs the later production of plays by Pix and Centlivre. The criticism on these two women writers is particularly sparse, and much of the earlier writing is guilty of some of the worst misconceptions about women and drama. As we examine these plays, consider the social and political contexts which they reflect. What literary genres do they adapt, mimic or modify? What are the general characteristics of the plays in form and content? What kind of ideological presuppositions do they embody?
Juliet McLaren in "Presumptuous Poetess, Pen-Feathered Muse: The Comedies of Mary Pix" (in Gender at Work: Four Women Writers of the Eighteenth Century, 1990) explains some of the problems we encounter when reading early criticism of women writers:
Scholarly work in the texts of a past age tends to follow the dominant model of male scholarship and male reading, particularly in a period where until recently there have been only male texts. And it has been a critical assumption of long standing that the fledgling authors in petticoats were somehow attempting nothing more than copies of masculine literary genres and not doing that particularly well. [She cites a number of more egregious examples.] A reexamination of this notion is overdue, for on the evidence of their texts many of these early writers can be defined as consciously feminist in their intentions. Most of the female playwrights were choosing to present characters and events in their plays from a perspective different from that of their male peers and associates, in spite of the difficult task of pleasing the critics -- who were often their rivals -- and the audiences of the day. (79)
One such example of this narrow reading can be found in Bonamy Dobrée's English Literature in the Early Eighteenth Century 1700-1740 (from the Oxford History of English Literature series) 1959:
Symbolic also, and of dread significance, are the plays of Mrs. Carroll, better known as 'the celebrated Mrs. Centlivre', who began her career as a playwright in 1703. It is difficult to imagine anything sillier or emptier, and their popularity does more than anything to attest the extremely low level of taste in the new middle-class audiences. Mrs. Centlivre was one of those writers who have what is known as 'a sense of the theatre' and little other sense at all. Her plays are sheer comedies of intrigue and situation, of silly intrigue and obvious situation. They belong to the history of theatre rather than to literary history. Again, to make a selection, it may be said that The Gamester (1705), from Regnard's Le Joueur, is a brisk enough play, made up of counters, devoid of any of the grace, the light touch with reality, the intellectual amusement which distinguishes Regnard's work. Mrs. Centlivre spoils it by romanticizing it crudely, disguising her heroine as a man, and giving the play a happy ending. The Busy-Body (1709) is an empty comedy of intrigue, without any reality of emotion whatsoever, but A Bold Stroke for a Wife (1719), though equally a comedy of intrigue, is more amusing, and is at least free of the sham sex-antagonism which the writers of the Restoration decadence dragged on into an unsuitable ethos. (236).
What is the tone of this criticism? What does he specifically find at fault in Centlivre's plays? Based on these criticisms, what literary values does he uphold? To what extent do assumptions of class and gender inform his expectations for a play? How might a critic find value in the romantic, affirmative plots, female cross-dressing and the "sex-antagonism" in Centlivre's plays?
Consider the genre of these plays. To what extent is the comedic form essential to the representation of what McLaren sees as feminist intentions?
McLaren: "While the new women writers attempted both comedy and tragedy, it is comedy -- so often the medium for social comment, both open and covert -- with its traditional focus on love, courtship, and marriage, that their particular and sometimes radical ideas about the nature of women and the relations between men and women can most easily be seen" (78).
Both McLaren and Paula Backscheider suggest that these plays by women represent the most relevant issues in women's lives from a uniquely female perspective.
Examine the roles of courtship, marriage, sexuality, economic status, and female friendship in these plays. How important are they? To what extent do they differ from the plays by men that we have read? In what ways do they challenge social or political authorities? To what extent are the plays valuable or significant because of these differences?
In the second section of Spectacular Politics: Theatrical Power and Mass Culture in Early Modern England (1993), Paula Backscheider addresses the dramatic (in both senses) cultural change manifested by the startling 1695-1696 London Theater season. This section provides excellent theoretical consideration of the role of drama and women's writing in the culture.
Backscheider argues that "access to and control of representation is power" (67), and this Foucauldian concept lies at the heart of her investigation of this period.
What evidence of either cultural or literary power do the plays for today represent? To what extent are the representations by women authors powerful? How do we assess this power in legitimate ways from a twentieth-century perspective?
Backscheider researches what she calls the "author-function" of Aphra Behn and the effect her experience had on future generations of female authors (as do Jacqueline Pearson and Ros Ballaster). "Behn helps give others the confidence to write and publish, and their cumulative successes encourage others and add authority to the female voice" (81).
Behn is a particularly important figure because, Backscheider argues, she transgresses social and political assumptions about women and others. Because these works (and the transgressive works of women like Pix and Centlivre) became popular with the theater-going public, Backscheider argues that they become part of the hegemonic dialogue, as theorized by Gramsci:
One group of consumers when encountering a text that challenges established ideological positions attempts to protect and propagate these elements, for they represent desires and needs they recognize and wish to keep in circulation. A second group attempts to appropriate the text and reproduce it in ways that support the hegemony. Thus they seek to control transform, or at least incorporate oppositional ideologies. (86)
Often these oppositions are
manifested by paralleling or opposing characters and plots within these
comedies. Examine the dualities in
these plays. What ideological dialogue
do they voice? Which position is
dominant in the end?
Backscheider claims that the plays of the 95-96 season by women, and the flood of plays by women they ushered in, demonstrate that "[w]omen were seeking to wrest away man's power to define women's nature, needs, aspirations, and acceptable conditions of existence" (83).
Examine the plays by Pix and Centlivre in this light. Do they significantly challenge the previous representations of women? In what ways? To what extent does class affect these changes?