The plays for class this week move from Behn's lusty Restoration comedy, to Centlivre's tamer and extremely popular formula for
marriage comedy. Many historical factors shaped a changing context in the brief scope of time covered (The Rover 1677 to The Busybody 1709), including
the Jeremy Collier controversy and the reign of Queen Anne. As you analyze the plays, put them into the historical context to better understand
the cultural achievement of each work.
According to Melinda Finberg, how did women playwrights change/affect dramatic production during the Restoration and
eighteenth century? What factors contributed to their successful practice? What changed by the end of the eighteenth century that
caused women to recede from the role?
In an article on new directions for theatre research in Literature Compass, Laura Rosenthal claims that scholars of
Restoration drama “are more likely to consider whether libertinism means the same thing for women
as it does for men; when, if, and why the stage reformed; and how seventeenth-century audiences understood English identity in the context of
the French, Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Native American, and African figures on stage.” The new directions for theatre research include the
identification of plays as newly deemed of interest (by women, by Whigs, etc.), the performance and the culture of performance, and the sociology
of the theatre. How might these concerns open up the plays for today to new discussion?
Susan Staves argues that the plays reflect a change in power relations within the culture at large. After the beheading of
Charles I, "the same questions that had been raised about the absolute authority of the king were now raised about the absolute authority of fathers and husbands."
According to Earl Miner, "the fact that marriage was the basis of this society economically as well as personally and that it
repeatedly involved estates, lawyers, priests, and parents suggests the extent to which sex is commonly a shorthand for
social freedom and convention throughout a wide range of subjects. The realism of detail and the witty questioning of
social standards should not blind us to the romantic and socially affirmative conclusions."
Does Miner's assessment of the meaning of sex and the positive conclusions apply to the plays by Behn, Pix and Centlivre? How else might we understand these things?
Notes on the Collier controversy:
Jeremy Collier from A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698):
The business of plays is to recommend virtue and dicountenance vice; to show the uncertainty of human greatness, the sudden
turns of fate, and the unhappy conclusions of violence and injustice; 'tis to expose the singularities of pride and fancy,
to make folly and falsehood contemptible, and to bring everything that is ill under infamy and neglect. This design
has been oddly pursued by the English stage. Our poets write with a different view and are gone into another interest. . . . That
this complaint is not unreasonable I shall endeavor to prove by showing the misbehavior of the stage with respect to morality
and religion. Their liberties in the following particulars are intolerable, viz., their smuttiness of expression; their swearing,
profaneness, and lewd application of Scripture; their abuse of the clergy, their making their top characters libertines and giving
them success in their debauchery. This charge, with some other irregularities, I shall make good against the stage and show both
the novelty and scandal of the practice. And, first, I shall begin with the rankness and indecency of the language.
. . . . Sometimes you have it in image and description; sometimes by way of allusion; sometimes in disguise; and
sometimes without it. And what can be the meaning of such a representation unless it be to tincture the audience,
to extinguish shame, and make lewdness a diversion? This is the natural consequence, and therefore one would think
'twas the intention too. Such licentious discourse tends to no point but to stain the imagination, to awaken folly,
and to weaken the defenses of virtue.
. . . . I grant the abuse of the thing is no argument against the use of it. However, young people particularly should
not entertain themselves with a lewd picture, especially when 'tis drawn by a masterly hand. For such a liberty may
probably raise those passions which can neither be discharged without trouble, nor satisfied without a crime. 'Tis not
safe for a man to trust his virtue too far, for fear it should give him the slip! But the danger of such an entertainment
is but part of the objection; 'tis all scandal and meanness into the bargain. It does in effect degrade human nature;
sinks reason into appetite, and breaks down the distinctions between man and beast. Goats and monkeys, if they could speak,
would express their brutality in such language as this.
Obscenity in any company is a rustic uncreditable talent, but among women 'tis particularly rude. Such talk would be
very affrontive in conversation and not endured by any lady of reputation. Whence then comes it to pass that those
liberties which disoblige so much in conversation should entertain upon the stage? Do women leave all the regards
to decency and conscience behind them when they come to the playhouse? Or does the place transform their inclinations
and turn their former aversions into pleasure? Or were their pretenses to sobriety elsewhere nothing but hypocrisy and
grimace? Such suppositions as these are all satire and invective. They are rude imputations upon the whole sex. To
treat the ladies with such stuff is no better than taking their money to abuse them. It supposes their imagination
vicious and their memories ill-furnished, that they are practiced in the language of the stews and pleased with scenes
of brutishness. When at the same time the customs of education and the laws of decency are so very cautious and reserved
in regard to women -- I say so very reserved -- that 'tis almost a fault for them to understand that they are ill-used.
To what extent are Collier's charges valid? What aesthetic values do these criticisms embrace? What moral values? In what ways is this a class-based criticism?
With regard to women, how does Collier’s view compare with what we have read by Behn or others? What role do the "ladies" play in these plays? In the prologues and epilogues?
Drama is meant to be seen: take a few moments to watch some clips from contemporary approaches to staging Restoration dramas.
Scenes from The Country Wife – various. Good for contemporary use of the prologue/epilogue. Bawdy.
Scene from Way of the World, Waitwell as Sir Roland and Mirabell and Foible.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sy241_g6Xm8 part two of above.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFicEfCjRwg A contemporary British take on staging The Rover to raise
awareness about rape and rape culture.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKHNiO94314 Short video of scenes from The Rover.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWGYztVoZsk 4 minute send up of The Rover in contemporary terms.
Consider how you would adapt one of the plays for today for a contemporary audience. What themes seem most relevant and how would you realize them for
people today? Consider constuming, music, staging, scenery, etc.
I've asked you to read through or skim the introduction to the magesterial reference work, The London Stage. Two of the plays we are reading are covered in
Part I and Centlivre's Busybody will be in Part 2. For those of you interested in studying drama, this is a must read. For all the rest, dig around to discover
something that you didn't know about the drama of the era. What was it like to attend theatre before the age of electricity? How does this theatre differ from
Shakespeare's large, open stages? Who were the clientele during the Restoration? What was the role of music and dance in theatre? Who were the prominent people in
Restoration theatre and what were their roles?
Finberg claims that Behn's influence allowed for an efflorescence of female dramatic production in the decade following her death. What evidence do you see for
this influence in the plays of Pix and Centlivre?
Are their thematic continuities among the three plays for today? What makes each play unique?
The Busybody was one of the four most popular plays of the eighteenth-century. Explain its appeal.
Willmore from Behn's The Rover is such a favorite character that she plans a sequel around his return (The Rover Part II); Marplot is such a popular character from
Centlivre's The Busybody that she writes a sequel focused on him. Explain the appeal of these characters. What might their differences suggest about changing
tastes, gender scripts, customs?
According to Staves Behn was the most successful female playwright of her time, and second only to John Dryden in production of original plays; Centlivre was "the most
successful woman playwright between Behn in the seventeenth century and Hannah Cowley in the late eighteenth century" (155). What can we learn from these
examples of successful female playwrights?
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