By the 1770s, English theatre wasn’t quite as rollicking as before. The success of John Gay’s awesomely satirical play The Beggar’s Opera brought forth that rat bastard known as censorship in the form of The Licensing Act of 1737. This gave the Lord Chamberlain power to censor plays as he saw fit. This power wouldn’t be revoked until 1968. Yay, freedom!
By and large, theatre of this time promoted virtuous heroines who resisted temptation, rather than court it. This trend also existed in prose literature, the major example being Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. The plot is something else. Innocent 15 year-old maid Pamela’s employer (Mr. B)’s mom dies. He then spends much of the novel trying to rape her. When Pamela bravely resists this, Mr. B stops acting all Weinstein-y (or is it Spacey-y?) and behaves like a proper gentleman with an honest proposal. Pamela of course accepts and is rewarded by being accepted into the local aristocracy.
With plots as obtusely silly as these, satire also shone through with Henry Fielding’s Shamela, a direct attack on the novel. Ironically, Fielding was a playwright whose career suffered due to the Licensing Act and he turned to prose, his most famous novel being Tom Jones. There seemed to be two streams of literature and theatre – virtue rewarded and satire of said theme. And this blog post ain’t about Mr. Fielding but rather about Mary Robinson, a Renaissance woman if there ever was one (she also wrote plays).
Mary Robinson lived such a full and interesting life that it is beyond the scope of this article to cover. We’ll keep mostly to her theatrical life and highlights from other aspects of her life. Also, note the way a male-dominated culture objectified and vilified an extremely capable and successful woman.
She had a rough beginning. Mary Darby was born in Bristol in probably 1756. Her dad shacked up with another woman, forcing her mom to support five children by opening a school for girls. Mary was teaching here by the time she was 14. And the dad had it shut down. Jerk.
At 15, she married a guy she didn’t want to and had a daughter with him. He was pretty much useless and ended up imprisoned for debt at the Fleet Prison. And Mary joined him. As did her 6 month old daughter. Her husband had been an articled clerk and was offered the chance of copying legal documents to reduce his debts. He refused. Mary took it upon herself to do the work. She also found a patron to support her first book of poetry, the aptly-titled Captivity.
After her husband managed to get out of prison, Mary turned to the stage, having previously known David Garrick. Garrick was the big shot of the London stage and manager of the Drury Lane Theatre. He cast her as Juliet in his revision of Romeo and Juliet. In his version the doomed lovers get to talk to each other before they die. How nice. She became well-known and appeared in over 40 plays over the next four years. Some of her most popular roles were Ophelia in Hamlet, Rosalind in As You Like It and Perdita in an adaptation of A Winter’s Tale.
Here is her own description of her debut – anyone who’s been onstage can relate:
When I approached the side-wing my heart throbbed convulsively; I then began to fear that my resolution would fail, and I leaned upon the Nurse’s [the character of Juliet’s nurse] arm, almost fainting. Mr. Sheridan and several other friends encouraged me to proceed; and at length, with trembling limbs and fearful apprehension, I approached the audience. The thundering applause that greeted me nearly overpowered all my faculties. I stood mute and bending with alarm, which did not subside till I had feebly articulated the few sentences of the first short scene, during the whole of which I never once ventured to look at the audience. . . . The second scene being the masquerade, I had time to collect myself. I shall never forget the sensation which rushed upon my bosom when I first looked towards the pit. . . . All eyes were fixed upon me, and the sensation they conveyed was awfully impressive; but the keen, the penetrating eyes of Mr. Garrick, darting their lustre from the centre of the orchestra, were, beyond all others, the objects most conspicuous. As I acquired courage, I found the applause augment; and the night was concluded with peals of clamorous approbation.
The role of Perdita would be so connected with her to the point she became known as Perdita Robinson. This is in part because a 17 year-old Prince of Wales fell in love with her. After seeing her as Perdita, he became obsessed and eventually offered her 20,000 quid to be his mistress. Well, the prince was a bit of a liar and broke off their relationship without paying her. Eventually she was able to get a 500 pound annuity from the government since she gave up her career for the doofus.
Apparently because of the scandal with the prince, Robinson couldn’t return to the stage. She did find other prominent boyfriends, including future PM Fox and Banastre Tarleton, whose reputation in the American Revolution depends on which side you ask. Her relationship with Tarleton lasted off and on for 15 years.
Before she met Tarleton, she was coupled with Lord Malden. Then according to Mary’s own words, Malden bet Tarleton he couldn’t seduce Mary away from him (that link has a brilliant breakdown of the political cartoon about it).
And the press had their field day with it, bizarrely turning the lovebirds into ships. “Florizel” represents the Prince of Wales.
“Yesterday, a messenger arrived in town, with the very interesting and pleasing intelligence of the Tarleton, armed ship, having, after a chase of some months, captured the Perdita frigate, and brought her safe into Egham port. The Perdita is the prodigious fine clean bottomed vessel, and had taken many prizes during her cruise, particularly the Florizel, a most valuable ship belonging to the Crown, but which was immediately released, after taking out the cargo. The Perdita was captured some time ago by the Fox, but was, afterwards, retaken by the Malden, and had a sumptuous suit of new rigging, when she fell in with the Tarleton. Her manoeuvering to escape was admirable; but the Tarleton, fully determined to take her, or perish, would not give up the chace; and at length, coming alongside the Perdita, fully determined to board her, sword in hand, she instantly surrendered at discretion.”
London’s Morning Post
In 1783 Robinson suffered a mysterious illness which left her partially paralyzed. She travelled to Germany and Flanders for treatment and returned to England in 1787. She would be crippled for the rest of her life.
Physically unable to act, Robinson turned to writing. History seems to remember her more for her celebrity and relationships. Of course it is difficult to remember great actors when no recordings of them exist. But her literary output is something one can definitely remember her by.
Following the onset of her illness, she devoted herself almost exclusively to writing, penning several novels, many poems and a few political pieces. That literary output can be found in nearly any biography.
Our focus here is on her stageplays, of which she wrote at least four. She wrote a comedy called Nobody which was performed in 1794.
This play is an afterpiece – a farce. To the modern reader it is funny and amusing, albeit light. But in 1794 it was a thing. A thing that pissed off rich idiots. Mary Robinson, you’re my hero.
1794 Britain was going through some tough times. Across the Channel, The French Revolution had gone bonkers, Britain was at war with France, The Treason Trials had proved that Pitt’s government wasn’t a fan of any criticism, The Divine Writ (habeas corpus) had been suspended. For those who haven’t had much experience with the law or don’t know what habeas corpus entails, it is actually a pretty big deal and is one of our most fundamental legal rights. Basically, it is an order written by a judge that the state [law/government] produce a prisoner to determine if that prisoner is being lawfully held or not. Anglo-American law pretty much asserts that we have this right. If we didn’t, then people could just disappear and there would be no recourse. So yeah, they suspended that right. Even our bestest president suspended it once. So Britain had some military, social and political stuff to work through. And there was no Dr. Phil.
Then Mary Robinson dumped a play on the rich idiot class that, well, made fun of the rich idiot class. The newspapers had a lovely build up and reviews. The play lasted three performances, with the audience getting angrier and angrier at each one until the third performance was supposedly a riot – and not of laughter.
This is from St. James’s Chronicle or British Evening-Post
Saturday, November 29, to Tuesday, December 2, 1794
The effect of the Entertainment is a sort of weariness which the French call Ennui; and which was so much felt by the audience, that a great part of it strongly opposed its being given out for a second representation.
Basically the play is about female gambling.
The Morning Post and Fashionable World
(Monday, December 1, 1794)
The scene 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 story of the piece is simple. Lady Languid, the heroine of the scene, is beset by a croud of flutterers, but her admirers diminish in proportion to her ill success at Play. Sir Harry Rightly, a respectable citizen, is rewarded by her hand, in consequence of his generosity and constancy: a reformation takes place in the lady, and the parties are happily united.
The main catalyst is Nellie (also spelled Nelly), a girl from the West Country (where Mary Robinson herself was from). She definitely serves as the heart of the play. She’s a new hire as a servant in London and all the tropes involving the country girl moving to the city are invoked, however they are sentimental and with a heart. This would be a great period dialect role for a young female performer.
The representation of the West Country dialect is fascinating. Here’s some real-life West Country English.
It’s worth noting that Dorothea Jordan played the role of Nellie. It’s also worth noting that Dorothea Jordan became the mistress of the Prince of Wales’ brother, William, but their relationship lasted longer (about 20 years) and produced at least ten kids. Dorothy also had four children with other men. So, here was the mistress of one prince performing in a play written by the former mistress of his brother. Yeah.
- Many female roles, especially considering the era.
- The female roles outnumber the male roles and the protagonist is female.
- Naturalesque and witty dialogue.
- Natural speech, for the most part. This comes from an era when mock-Shakespeare was all the rage (more on this later).
- The dialogue and situations are genuinely, if rather broadly, funny.
In the following scene, people are gossiping about Nellie’s mistress who is facing a scandal because of some misplaced boots (everyone assumes she has a boyfriend). Nellie is the West Country girl and the others are the elite of London. Nellie suffers from terminal malapropisms. Online footnotes are preserved.
I be com’d to fetch the Boots, I did bring for my Lady by mistake – Odds me. what have e done to her.
Poor Soul, she is stabb’d to the Heart.
O lord! Murder! Fetch the Barber to bleed her[.] Send for a Constable – I do wash my hands on’t – I was n’t in the Room! What will the Crowner  say.
Have patience – and Assist your Lady.
What to be brought in a party concern’d, I do know a poor body wou’d be sent to jail, for what a Lady would only be laugh’d at – I be almost beside myself! Oh!
I’m afraid she’s Dead!
I’ll go fetch a lighted Match, or a burnt Feather,  for I be Subject to Historicals  myself and they do always bring me to – Say but I be innocent[.] I’ll forgive e all my Wagers,  and never molest ye more in this world or the next.
Bring my great Coat and Hat – I’ll drive to Hyde Park in my Curricle, My Lady Rouleau, you will take Miss Cassino and Sharply in your Landeau;  Courtland you are a wicked Creature, and must do Penance before you are forgiven
So then ’twas all Sham, to frighten I. – These may be London frolicks – But I do like Old fashion’d honesty better after all – Come along – they shant see I again in a hurry.
Life in the big city can be harsh.
Theatre is certainly a collaborative art. On paper the following passage may not seem like much, but with enthusiastic and talented actors who have a sense of timing, the satire can shine through. Really reminiscent of a sitcom, it speaks well to Robinson’s original calling as an actress. Here we learn just what Sir Henry Sharply saw in Lady Languid’s room.
This is evil insinuation! – More slander is daily drawn from innuendo than ever was extracted from plain truth; you have my permission to tell all you saw.
(except Sir. Henry & Lady Lan) Let us hear it! Let us hear it.
Nay! ’tis only what happens everyday.
(alarmed – a look at each other.)
I have Lady Languid’s permission to tell?
(Bows her head)
She’s up to any thing!
Any thing you please, Sir.
Damme! I said so.
– Why then – this is the Affair – To be sure ’tis rather a serious kind of a comical Business. – Lord Courtland and I, call’d on Lady Languid this Morning, and, on entering her dressing Room –
There we saw hid behind her Toilette –
Behind her Toilette!
Two dirty looking –
(Astonish’d and listening eagerly)
Two, damn’d, dirty looking –
And Spurs! – Here’s a pretty kickup!
What sort of Boots?
Of the Masculine sort; splash’d – and evidently just left there by their owner.
But how do you know that they were Masculine Boots?
They were Jack Boots  – left in a hurry, by some one who had –
Who had –
- The character of Nellie. She’s basically the only sympathetic character and despite being portrayed as a country bumpkin, she’s the most level-headed character in the play. Extremely likeable.
- Characterization. Save for Nelly, the characters lack depth. Could be metaphorical.
- Card games. Who’s up for a game of Faro? Thought so. Using card games from 1794 would certainly preserve the authenticity of the play. Changing to more modern games might make the play more accessible. “Blackjack” AKA “21” is in the play, albeit under the name “Vingt-et-un” because apparently that’s how they rolled in 1794.
Here’s a quick video about Faro, the game whose popularity spanned the Enlightenment, the Regency and the American Old West.
The second play I read was The Sicilian Lover. It’s not as lame as it sounds. The plot is as follows:
Somewhere in Lombardy in the 16th Century, chaste Honoria has a fight with her father Valmont about boys. He wants her to marry Duke Albert, son of Prince Montalva. But Honoria wants to marry Count Alferenzi, a noble Sicilian. A bunch of fights and plot happens. Alferenzi ends up killing dear old Dad. Honoria doesn’t like this one bit and flees to a convent where she meets Constantia, abbess. And, and, you’ll never guess it…but Constantia is Honoria’s mom! But this being a tragedy, the plot doesn’t end there.
Since Nobody pretty much ended Robinson’s playwriting career, she had this one privately printed. Within a few months, it had sold 34 copies – a small amount, but about 34 copies more than what my plays have sold. This play was never performed.
For its bombasticity, The Sicilian Lover isn’t a bad play.
- Kinda violent. Sure it’s no revenge tragedy, but a few characters get killed. Good physicality for a theatre company that likes stage combat.
- Very strong female lead. Great part for a young actress.
- Some rich dialogue is dished out.
I’ve never told anyone to take my scorn before. Where would they take it? Nor have I ever thrown my gauntlet at anyone. My life is tedious when compared to fictional 16th Century Italian characters in an 18th Century English play which was never performed.
Honoria’s dad and Alferenzi don’t really like each other. I’ve never told anyone “‘Tis false as hell!” but I should. And Alferenzi is hedging his bets that Honoria won’t degrade her own soul. And Dad would totally ice Alferenzi, except it’s curfew time. Even bloodthirsty dads must obey curfews.
Now, Honoria’s BFF Agnes has some sage advice about depression:
Valmont also has some choice words (after curfew is lifted, obviously).
Dude descends from the gallery. Calls someone a “disobedient fiend.” The bit about the midnight moon veiling her brow with blood is intense. Valmont needs a hug. Then there’s the “lone owl, with horror-boding shriek” that’ll “pierce they love-sick palpitating heart.”
Can you imagine Valmont leaving Youtube comments? Yeah, me neither. He’d have his owl do it. Finally vengeance calls him hence and he obeys the summons. No wonder he hates the disobedient fiend; Valmont seems to enjoy discipline.
Not to be outdone, later Alferenzi has some choice words about the helicopter father:
Hmm. “Vile assassin,” “barb’rous monster,” “sacrilegious slave,” “demon of insatiate wrath.” Alferenzi calls it like he sees it, though obviously not to Valmont’s face ‘cause Valmont would kill him and stuff.
Honoria gets some good ones in, such as the end of a monologue:
Cankering worms feeding on the fibers of the heart? Of course they do.
- In case you haven’t noticed, the dialogue is way different than Nobody. It is entirely mock-Shakespeare. This was about the era that Shakespeare became cool again and his position as the poet laureate of the English language was secured, often by modifying the original text.
Many playwrights copied the style, even if it was unnatural for the day. This stilts the action and, well…observe Valmont’s speech:
I didn’t even put the entire speech here, since it covered parts of three pages and wasn’t very good, despite the “train of hellish crimes.” Robinson’s hellish crime is pretending to write in a style two centuries too old. It’d be like Tyler Perry writing in E.T.A. Hoffman’s style. Wait a minute, I’d pay to see “Tyler Perry’s Tales of Hoffmann.” Don’t forget, this play was never produced…ever.
For modern audiences, faux-Shakespeare would sound just as false as it probably did in 1797.
- A woman’s worth isn’t determined by how “chaste”, “pure” or whatever euphemism for “never had sex” society can come up with. This play thinks otherwise.
- The ending is harsh.
With some modifications, The Sicilian Lover would make for a bloody good time for a modern audience. I actually did a rewrite and submitted it to an American theatre. No answer yet.
To conclude, Mary Robinson was a renowned actress, one of the first modern celebrities, a first-rate poet, feminist, author of awesome novels, memoirist and all-round Renaissance woman who wrote a few plays, at least two of which are worth performing these days.
Before I leave you, here is an audio recording of her poem “January, 1795.”
Here is a link dump related to any and all things Mary Robinson-related.
Mary gets the Wikipedia treatment.
Mary gets the biographical treatment.
Mary writes her own damn life.
Mary’s life gets the blog treatment.
A VERY thorough article about her affair with the future George IV. I wouldn’t normally include this, but the article covers many aspects of her life.
Banastre gets his shot. Oh well.
The tabloid version of her life.
Mary gets the acting bio.
140 of her poems here. (Be sure to check out the only comment there. Even Mary Robinson cannot avoid catfishing whilst in the grave).
A few poems.
Huge Wikipedia article about Natural Daughter.
Online text of The False Friend.
Walsingham; online text.
You can buy a bunch at Amazon.
Nobody (1792) original manuscript with some serious in-depth study
The Sicilian Lover (1797) Online Google book.
A study of Nobody’s disaster.