Female Playwrights, Playwrights of the Past, Unknown playwrights

Mary Pix

The 1690s. The London stage, much like Britain itself, was in a state of flux and turmoil. The merry ways of the Restoration, along with its sex comedies, had changed. James II had died without an heir. Rebellions sprung up. A Dutch king was imported and local and foreign wars increased.

Meanwhile, the theatre in London’s mainstays were becoming less popular. While people are unsure of the reason (it could be that people’s tastes simply changed over a generation – how many people remember Kim Cattrall from Porky’s vs. that one show).

Carving out a living as a playwright was just as precarious as now, it seems. There were a few ways one could make a living as a playwright. One was to be the resident playwright with a yearly contract. John Dryden did this. Another was to get the elusive commission. Thomas Shadwell had a couple of these.

The other way was to simply submit the play to the theatre. This still didn’t guarantee payment, as the play had to run three performances before the writer got paid  – from the profit of the third night. After the theatre’s expenses for that night had been cleared. In the beginning of the Restoration, they were paid ONLY on the third night. However, by the 1690s they had negotiated payment on every third night. One imagines they would’ve pressed their friends to go, kinda like when one’s playwright friends in New York send you a Facebook invite you to their play when you’re in, say, Bekasi.

After the play’s initial run, the play entered the theatre company’s repertory. Residuals and copyright fees were totally not a thing. All chances of making money from a new play died after the final curtain of the final performance. How depressing.

I should also mention that nearly all plays were written by dudes and the theatre, as with society, was dominated by men. True, women were allowed (gee, thanks) onstage after the Restoration, but their presence provoked more lurid rape scenes and of course the breeches role. Naturally, by the 21st Century everything is peachy in modern English-speaking theatre.

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Yes, “breeches role” is my browsing history now. Photo from here.

Mary Pix seemed to have the cards stacked against her simply by being born at that moment in history in 1666 in Buckinghamshire. As if living in a creepy, rapey, pre-electricity England wasn’t bad enough, her headmaster father died when she was “very young.” According to the gossip rag known as Wikipedia, she was courted by her dad’s successor, Thomas Dalby, at the school, but he left due to a smallpox epidemic one year after the schoolhouse mysteriously burned down. Slut-shaming Wikipedia was on the scene:

Rumour had it that Mary and Dalby had been making love rather energetically and overturned a candle which set fire to the bedroom.” (You can seriously read the original here.)

Because, you know, banging dad’s replacement and burning down schools when you’re a teenaged girl go hand in hand.  

I reckon she probably got pissed at creeper Tommy and burnt the damn thing down to be rid of him – or at least so he can’t have a work/creep-place.

Mary married (hehe) a merchant at age 18. She had a son who died young. The couple moved to London, had another son and BOOM Pix burst upon the literary scene in 1696 at the age of 30 when she published her only novel, The Inhumane Cardinal and two plays, Ibrahim, thirteenth Emperour of the Turks and The Spanish Wives.

Sadly, The Inhumane Cardinal isn’t an expose of birds committing war crimes.  

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They don’t look cruel. Via this cool site.

Interestingly enough, Pix found success the same year as two other amazing female playwrights, the awesomely-named Delarivier Manley and Catherine Trotter.

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Mary Pix, a badass for all seasons. Via the wiki gods.

But with success comes hatred, and for women, a particularly virulent, penis-having hatred. The success of these three ladies provoked a play, The Female Wits, which attacked them. Pix was portrayed as a fat, ignorant yet kind, oaf named Mrs. Wellfed. Things were less subtle back then. The play was written anonymously, because male bravery knows no bounds.

Pix was connected to The Theatre Royal (currently owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber) until that theatre produced The Female Wits, after which Pix took her talent to the theatre at Lincoln Inn Fields. She seems to have been mentored by the great William Congreve.

In 1697, Pix sent her play The Deceiver Deceiv’d to The Drury Lane Theatre run by rival playwright George Powell. Note to self: Do not send plays to rival playwrights. Second note to self: Find rival playwrights.

He rejected her play and totally produced a play with the same plot. Plagiarism, anyone? There was much “anonymous” letter writing to newspapers and a mini-scandal occurred. However, Pix’ reputation remained intact. But after that, she only attached her name to one other play, though we think she published seven more.

The first play we’ll review is the awesomely-titled Ibrahim, the thirteenth Emperour of the Turks.

Imitation Maltin summary: Spoiled brat/psychopath (and Ibrahim’s favorite mistress) Sheker crushes on stud-soldier Amurat who in turn loves winsome Morena. Sheker unleashes a wave of violence upon everyone in the story, including the titular Ibrahim.

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“You call me MRS. Pix.” Via a great learning tool.

You can also learn about the real Ibrahim. Never a good sign when historians dub you “the Mad.”

HIGHLIGHTS

  1. Relatively well-written female characters for the era.
    1. Morena, despite being put upon a pedestal by Amurat, is more or less a fleshed out character, albeit a victim.
    2. Satanic spitfire Sheker is a consistently evil character with clear motivation – she has more depth than the infamous Iago in Othello. She loves and she hates. Almost like a real person. And she ruins people’s lives, almost like my old boss.
    3. Sheker’s slave (and apparently only friend) Mirva and Morena’s slave/buddy Zaida/Zada/Zayda (nobody used spell check back then) serve as brief foils to their mistresses – even they have a bit more depth than what one is used to seeing in the era.
  2. Dialogue and pacing
    1. In general, speech feels more natural than one would imagine.  Much of the dialogue is effective – here is Amurat telling his friend Solyman how much he loves Morena, but also senses Sheker’s danger.

AMURAT

Oh Solyman! forgive the frailty of your Friend,

Forgive the follies that Imperious love creates,

Here the Mufti writes, that on earnest business

He craves my presence, if he hath discover’d

The Adoration that I pay his beauteous Daughter,

And then forbid it, how lost a thing is Amurat,

For I know well, though her poor Slave shou’d suffer

A thousand wracks, she’d tread the rigid paths of Duty,

And let me die, rather than forfeit her obedience.

Here is Sheker, all butthurt that Amurat has rejected her advances and left. Mirva is her slave and Achmet is Ibrahim’s eunuch.

SHEKER

Gone! O Devil!

Keep down, thou swelling Heart!

Or higher rise, that I may tear

Thee with my teeth! Mirva!

Break all the flattering Mirrors!

Let me ne’er behold this rejected Face again!

Have I seen Scepter’d Slaves kneeling

At my feet, forgetting they were Kings,

Forgetful of their Gods, calling alone on me;

Passing whole days and hours as if measur’d

With a Moments Sand, and now refus’d

By a Curst Beardless Boy! my Arms too

Open’d, all my Charms laid forth! (for

The Joys of Love are double, when our

Sex desires) heedless and cold he flew

From my Embrace; swift as I will do

To form his ruine—Achmet! I come!

‘Tis he must raise this raging Tempest higher,

Though cold to me, his Bosom’s sure on fire.

Finally, this is Solyman dishing it out to Ibrahim (who has done something terrible to Morena). Solyman truly is a great friend to Amurat. I love the simple stage direction at the end: “Fight.”

IBRAHIM

Traytors are ever loud—

And to colour their own detested sin

Rebellion; with impudence, and calumnies

Bespatter the Throne, they dare attack.

SOLYMAN

Was there a Slave throughout thy wide

Dominions, whom blind fate had cursed

With Wealth: His forfeit—Head

Pay’d for his crime: Whilst his extorted

Treasure fill’d thy coffers, and supply’d

New Luxury. Did vertue Reign in

Any Man, a life Austere; or active Valour

Like our great Progenitors: Strait you,

And your Minious thought, this lookt

With a Reflecting Eye on your Debauches:

Dispatch’d the pious Wretch, and sent him

To his Friends above; then Women

You monopoliz’d—let her be Wife

Or Virgin, fair as Heaven, or monstrous as Hell:

Witness your Armenian Mistress; all serv’d

As fuel to that consuming fire your Lust;

Nay, even the Relique of our late glorious

Emperour, was not free from your Attempt,

But that her Lion Resolution made your

Coward Heart shrink back.

IBRAHIM

What!—ho!—

Is there none to secure this Traitor?

SOLYMAN

I tell thee, Lost degenerate King,

There’s not a Soul will move a Tongue

Or Finger, in thy Defence; thou standst

Forsook by Heaven, and Human Aid—

Think now upon the fair Morena!

And if thy heart of Adamant unmov’d

Cou’d hear an Angel pray; if the angry Powers

So punish’d her spotless Innocence: What

Horrours must remain for thee; who bend’st

Beneath the weight of thousand thousand Ills?

IBRAHIM

Come on, thou Rebel!—

No Souldier sure thou art!

Thy Tongue’s thy sharpest Weapon—yet

If thou wer’t; and did thy acts excel the

Foremost of my Royal Race; thy Ignoble

Tomb must blush to hold thee, the name of Rebel

Wou’d blot out the Hro, and leave thy Fame

Detest’d, to the honest World; as thou

Hast Represented mine!

SOLYMAN

My injur’d Friend, and that unhappy Beauty

Whom thy Lust hast ruin’d, gives Iustice to

My Javelin’s point, and sends it to thy heart!

Fight.

Combined with well-placed dialogue, the action moves quickly.

  1. Emotion
  1. The characters express their emotions well. I was going to include examples here, but I feel the above dialogue examples work well. It is a very emotional piece.

LOWLIGHTS

  1. The play is ignorant of Ottoman culture, religion and – uh, everything.

Even though The Merchant of Venice continues to be produced, for better or for worse, Ibrahim  is basically “old English people pretending to be Turks” and as such would rightly be deemed offensive by pretty much everyone. However, considering its dramatic, tragic and emotional strength as well as historical significance, there are at least two ways the production could be successful.

  1. Go all out on the Turkish/Islamic/Ottoman culture. Go find a cultural consultant and modify the Hell out of it to suit the 21st Century.
  2. Re-set it somewhere else, for example amongst Mormon polygamists. Note to self: totally write “Ibrahim, 13th Emperor of Utah.” 

OTHERLIGHTS

  1. The ending. The ending is harsh. It’s a tragedy and ends like a tragedy.
  2. The title. It makes me want to see 12 prequels and a possible sequel.
  3. There’s a weird song in the middle of the play, because. Just because.

The second play I planned to read was The Beau Defeated. This play was so impressive that the Royal Shakespeare Company thought it was the bee’s knees this year, so they renamed it and you know the rest. Except I tried to read The Beau Defeated and Bryan Defeated or The Blogger Defeated would be more apt titles. You know those plays that are just people talking? Yep, it’s one of those. I’m assuming they chose the play because it’s been regularly produced elsewhere and it is rather tame – it’s like if Quentin Tarantino wrote an episode of Murder, She Wrote and then everyone would just watch that episode instead of True Romance. Anyways, I couldn’t finish The Beau Defeated. It finished me.

But Mary Pix did write an awesome comedy entitled The Innocent Mistress. The plot is extremely convoluted – much more than Ibrahim. I’m leaving the plot synopsis to a smarter mind, that of Jose M. Yebra in his The Flourishing of Female Playwriting on the Augustan Stage:

The Innocent Mistress is a multiplot play with several interwoven love intrigues.  Sir Charles is married to an older woman, Lady Beauclair, supposedly a  widow, who is very different from the witty heroines of other Restoration plays. In fact, she is presented in the Dramatis Personae, together with her daughter Peggy, as “an ill-bred woman”. Her marriage to Sir Charles cannot work  since it is just the product of socio-economic interests. Being Sir Charles a younger brother with no estate, and Lady Beauclair a wealthy woman, Sir Charles’ friends and family induce him to marry her. At the end of the play, we learn that the marriage  is not valid for two reasons. Because it has not been consummated and because Lady Beauclair’s first husband, Mr Flywife, is alive and back to London after several years of voluntary exile in Jamaica. The re-encounter of Mr Flywife and Lady Beauclair makes Sir Charles free to marry Bellinda, his niece’s friend, whom he has been courting throughout the play. Bellinda, whose real name is Marianne, lives at Mrs  Beauclair’s (Sir Charles’ niece) under an assumed name after having escaped from a forced marriage. Mrs Beauclair, presented in the dramatis personae as “an independent woman”, fulfils and updates, together with Sir Francis Wildlove, the “happy couple” stereotype of Restoration comedies. The plot turns around Mrs Beauclair’s attempts to reform Sir Francis from his initial rakishness  to his final “faithfulness”. His reform process is slow. The rake only changes his attitude and reveals his true feelings for Mrs Beauclair when, due to a misunderstanding, he thinks she has married another man. Another couple is formed by Beaumont and Arabella. The former is, like Sir Charles, a character with an “incorruptible” morality, whom Bellinda’s father has sent to find her after her brother’s death. Arabella, her father thinks, has her fortune and person controlled by Lady Beauclair and her stupid brother Cheatall. Once Arabella is liberated with the help of Lady Beauclair’s servant Eugenia, she can marry Beaumont. There is yet another marrying couple at the end, Lady Beauclair’s “ill-bred” daughter, Peggy, and the social parasite Mr Spendall, who tricks both mother and daughter into believing he is a man of quality with a fortune to  inherit. Once Mr Flywife comes back and Peggy’s fortune –the only reason for Spendall’s interest in marrying her– fades away, Peggy is punished with a lazy husband with no fortune. Likewise, Mr Spendall must deal with an ill-bred girl with no properties so far. Finally, even the servants Eugenia and Gentil marry just the way their “betters” do, thus following Roman comedy tradition. Only Mrs Flywife (the mistress of Mr Flywife while in Jamaica) is left outside the marriage fair. We learn that both have been living together, but Mr Flywife, after his first experience, prefers not to marry again. Thus, when they are back in London, the former has to live with Lady Beauclair again, and the second becomes the odd one out in the comedy happy ending.

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From a USC production in 2001. Via here.

HIGHLIGHTS

  1. This play is beyond funny. It’s kinda like a 17th Century pervy sitcom taking satire pills. That is the beauty of this work – it comes on the heels of the anonymous attack on Pix, Trotter and Manley. A heck of a punchback against the misogyny of the theatre. In punching back, it cranks the hyperbole up to “atomic” and KA-Boom! The bombs fall.
  2. The dialogue carries the play. Especially put downs and what have you. Here are some examples of the dialogue.
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2014 production at Bristol Old Vic Acting School.

This is a dialogue between Sir Francis Wildlove and Beaumont when they first meet up. Subtle it ain’t.

SIR FRANCIS

Get me some Small Beer, and dash a little Langoone in it; else ’twill go down my burning Stomach ten degrees colder than Ice: I should have met my old Friend and Collegian Beaumont,who came to Town last night, but Wine and Women drove it clear out of my Head.

SEARCHWELL

Sir, he’s here.

ENTER BEAUMONT.

SIR FRANCIS

Welcome dear Friend, I prithee pardon my omission, faith ’twas business that could not be left to other hands.

BEAUMONT

Women I suppose, and that excuse I know a Man of your kidney thinks almighty.

SIR FRANCIS

Even so well by my Life, I am heartily glad to see you, why thou hast been an age consin’d to barren Fields and senceless Groves, or Conversation stupid and dull as they: How canst thou waste thy Youth, happy Youth, the very Quintessence of Life from London,this dear Epitome of pleasure?

BEAUMONT

Because excess of drinking cloys my Stomach, and Impudence in Women absolutely turns it; then I hate the vanity of Dress and Fluttering, where eternal Noise and Nonsence reigns; this consider’d, what should I do here?

SIR FRANCIS

Not much in troth.

BEAUMONT

But you, my Friend, run the Career your appetite directs, taste all those pleasures I despise, you can inform me what humour’s most in fashion, what ruling whim, and how the Ladies are.

SIR FRANCIS

Why faith there’s no great alteration, the Money is indeed very much scarcer, yet what perhaps you’l think a wonder, dressing and debauchery increases; as for the Damosels, three sorts make a Bushel, and will be uppermost: First, there’s your common Jilts will oblige every body.

BEAUMONT

These are Monsters sure.

SIR FRANCIS

You may call it what you please, but they are very plentiful, I promise you: The next is your kept Mistress, she’s a degree modester, if not kind to each, appears in her dress like Quality, whilst her ogling eyes, and too frequent Debauches discovers her the younger Sister only to the first.

BEAUMONT

This I shou’d hate for Ingratitude.

SIR FRANCIS

The third is, not a Whore, but a brisk airy, noisy Coquette, that lives upon treating, one Spark has her to the Play, another to the Park, a third to Windsor,a fourth to some other place of Diversion; She has not the heart to grant ’em all favours, for that’s their design at the bottom of the Treats, and they have not the heart to marry her, for that’s her design too Poor Creature. So perhaps a year, or it may be two, the gaudy Butterfly slutters round the Kingdom, then if a foolish Citt does not take compassion, sneaks into a Corner, dies an Old Maid, despised and forgotten. The Men that sit those Ladies are your Rake, your Cully, and your Beaux.

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That Bristol Old Vic production via here.

Here’s another bit between husband and very unhappy wife:

MRS. FLYWIFE

Well, well, thou art a good Boy, prithee no more wrangling Fubby;I vow and swear to morrow I’ll be as great a Slattern as ever was, if that will please you, so I will.

MR, FLYWIFE

Ay, and want to go out to day, for all the gazing Fops to ad∣mire, tho’ I have told you, I can’t appear till I have enquir’d into my affairs, then to morrow, if you stay at home with me, Sackcloth will serve turn.

MRS. FLYWIFE

Lord, you are so froppish, if I was your Wife, sure Fubby,you would not be so jealous.

FLYWIFE

My Wife quotha! no, no, I was once bewitch’d, but I found such a Plague, that—No more Wives, I say.

MRS. FLYWIFE

Well, I’ll be any thing to please Fubby;Will you go in? Our Breakfast will be cold.

Note: “Bottle of hay” seems to refer to a bushel. The phrase is used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well.

Finally, there’s this joyous bit of dialogue. Lady Beauclair is angry at Mrs. Peggy.

LADY BEAUCLAIR.

Ye ye, ye damn’d Quean, he is here,—ha!—and his Minion with him!—let me come at her—

Leaps, and catches hold of her.

SIR CHARLES

Hell and Furies! my Wife!—Madam, why all this Rage? Don’t you see my Neice? the other is a Friend of hers, a Woman of Honour.

LADY BEAUCLAIR

Your Neice is a Pimp, and she’s a Whore! I’ll mark her—Sirrah—Villain! Oh, oh my Fits! my Fits!

“Your niece is a pimp” really isn’t used so often these days.

If pervy humor and insults aren’t your bag, then I don’t recommend the play.

LOWLIGHTS

  1. Characterization and plot take a back seat to dialogue and humor – the plot seems to be a series of complicated situations thrown together to stir conflict and humor.
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A London School of Acting Production circa 1997, aka Nightmare Fuel. Via the director’s site.

OTHERLIGHTS

  1. There’s a mystery that’s bugging me. The play mentions an Indian woman who is variously named Mrs. Bantam/Banter/Bantum – and who, it is implied, runs a brothel called the India House. To add to the confusion, one character has been away in “the Indies” for a long time. Now this usually referred to what is now Indonesia and thereabouts. And Banten is a city on Java. Where cute little bantam chickens come from.

Despite (or because of?) her notoriety, Mrs. Bantam/Banter/Bantum NEVER appears. A sequel, focusing on the adventures of an Indian madam in 1690s London might be pretty cool.

I’d love to see a modern production of this complicated, yet hilarious play. Here’s a trailer from a modern production with Pachelbel, too! 

Mary Pix succeeded in a world much more difficult than our own. She beat each and every odd to give us a strong canon of plays, poetry and a novel. She should be admired and remembered for her skill as a writer as well as her tenacity.

Her plays deserve to be remembered, studied and performed just like that one dude whose plays seem to have a stranglehold on English-language theatre four centuries after his death. Instead of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, maybe we can have the Utah Pix Festival. Ibrahim couldn’t be any worse than what they’re doing. (Note to Utah Shakes: It’s 2018 and the only play you figured you could produce is an anti-Semitic English play from a time when Jews weren’t even allowed in England? Cool story, bro. Check out Mary Pix, please).

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Character of Spendall in a 2014 production at The Bristol Old Vic Acting School. Via the actor’s site.

What do you think of Mary Pix? Would you like to see more of her work?

For a list of all our playwrights, please check here.

Here is a link dump related to any and all things Mary Pix-related.

The Plays

Ibrahim, the thirteenth Emperour of the Turks (1696), full online text.

The Spanish Wives (1696) full online text

A Printer’s Dilemma

The Innocent Mistress (1697) full online text

Cast from a 1983 production

Review of a 1997 production

Blog post from 2006

Another blog post from 2006

Review of a 2014 production at the Old Vic school

Another review of ditto

Some drama school production with Pachelbel

The Deceiver Deceived (1697) full online text

Queen Catharine; or, The Ruines of Love (1698) full online text

Interesting essay about said play.

The False Friend; or, the Fate of Disobedience (1699) full online text

The Beau Defeated; or, the Lucky Younger Brother (1700) full online text

Production from 1995

Review from 1996

Staged reading from 2016

Production from 2018

Review of said production

Female relationships in said play

Several trailers for a 2008 production

Trailer for a renamed version in Shakespeare’s hometown

The Double Distress (1701) for sale here

The Czar of Muscovy (1701), attributed to Pix although not published in her name  Plot synopsis here

The Different Widows; or, Intrigue All-A-Mode (1703), attributed to Pix Plot summary and chart

Zelmane; or, the Corinthian Queen (1705), attributed to Pix (though some scholars still debate this attribution including here)

The Conquest of Spain (1705), attributed to Pix  Discussion in a book

The Adventures in Madrid (1706) attributed to Pix. Print on demand!

The Female Wits (1697) the play written to mock her. Full text online

 

The Playwright

Entry in the DNB

Blog from 2006

Hype from the RSC

A little Q & A

 

Female Playwrights, Playwrights of the Past, Unknown playwrights

Mary Robinson

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).

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Mary Robinson in her early 20s. Possibly as Perdita. Painted by Gainsborough. Nice dog. Via here.

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.

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When one was famous, one got one’s portrait painted a few times. Via here.

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.

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The Prince of Wales aka the future George IV aka the kid who cries before he gets hit in a fight. Painted around the time he was lying to Robinson and acting like a scumbag. Via NPG.
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Cartoon lampooning the affair. Total double standard. Note Mary Robinson’s exposed breast and her cuckolded husband Robinson to the right. The Prince of Wales’ feathers and motto “Ich dien” are on the left along with his annoyed father, who was busy losing his American colonies at the time. Via here. So nice that society has stopped objectifying and vilifying women – oh never mind.

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.

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Cartoon mocking Tarleton, the Prince of Wales (with his feathers) and Robinson.  The men are in front of a brothel. Robinson is the whirligig. Via Pinterest. The scene is taken from Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour. Considering the misogyny of the cartoon, that sounds about right.

 

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).

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Close-up of the above cartoon [but colored differently]. Note the brothel is called The Whirligig that serves “A la mode Beef, hot every Night” and that Robinson is the whirligig herself. Via here.
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

September, 1782

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Pretty boy Banastre Tarleton around the same time and also painted by Cosway. Via here.

 

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.

HIGHLIGHTS

  1. Many female roles, especially considering the era.
    1. The female roles outnumber the male roles and the protagonist is female.
  2. Naturalesque and witty dialogue.
    1. Natural speech, for the most part. This comes from an era when mock-Shakespeare was all the rage (more on this later).
    2. 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.

Enter Nelly

Nelly.

I be com’d to fetch the Boots, I did bring for my Lady by mistake – Odds me. what have e done to her.

Miss Cass.

Poor Soul, she is stabb’d to the Heart.

Nelly.

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 [91]  say.

Ld Court.

Have patience – and Assist your Lady.

Nelly.

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!

Miss Cass.

I’m afraid she’s Dead!

Nelly.

I’ll go fetch a lighted Match, or a burnt Feather, [92]  for I be Subject to Historicals [93]  myself and they do always bring me to – Say but I be innocent[.] I’ll forgive e all my Wagers, [94] and never molest ye more in this world or the next.

Lady Lan.

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; [95] Courtland you are a wicked Creature, and must do Penance before you are forgiven

Exeunt

Nelly alone

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.

Exit

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.

Lady Lan.

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.

All.

(except Sir. Henry & Lady Lan) Let us hear it! Let us hear it.

Sharply.

Nay! ’tis only what happens everyday.

All.

(alarmed – a look at each other.)

Sharply.

I have Lady Languid’s permission to tell?

Lady Lan.

(Bows her head)

Sharply.

(aside)

She’s up to any thing!

Lady Lan.

Any thing you please, Sir.

Sharply.

(Solemnly.)

Damme! I said so.

(aside)

– 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 –

All.

(Whisper.)

Sharply.

Silence!

All.

(Eagerly)

Well!

Sharply.

There we saw hid behind her Toilette –

Lady Faro.

Behind her Toilette!

Sharply.

Two dirty looking –

All.

(Astonish’d and listening eagerly)

Two!

Sharply.

Two, damn’d, dirty looking –

All.

What?

Sharply.

Boots!

All.

(Starting)

And Spurs?

Sharply.

And Spurs! – Here’s a pretty kickup!

Lady Faro.

What sort of Boots?

Sharply.

Of the Masculine sort; splash’d – and evidently just left there by their owner.

Miss Cas.

(Sarcastically)

But how do you know that they were Masculine Boots?

Sharply.

They were Jack Boots [117]  – left in a hurry, by some one who had –

All.

(Eagerly.)

Who had –

Sharply.

Vanish’d!

All.

(Stand amazed.)

  1. 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.

LOWLIGHTS

  1. Characterization. Save for Nelly, the characters lack depth. Could be metaphorical.

OTHERLIGHTS

  1. 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.

HIGHLIGHTS

  1. Kinda violent. Sure it’s no revenge tragedy, but a few characters get killed. Good physicality for a theatre company that likes stage combat.
  2. Very strong female lead. Great part for a young actress.
  3. Some rich dialogue is dished out.

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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.

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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:

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Valmont also has some choice words (after curfew is lifted, obviously).

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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:

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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:

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Cankering worms feeding on the fibers of the heart? Of course they do.

LOWLIGHTS

  1. 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:

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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.

  1.  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.

OTHERLIGHTS

  1. 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.”

For a list of all our playwrights, please check here.

Here is a link dump related to any and all things Mary Robinson-related.

Her Life

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.

Biographical resource time!

Her Acting

Mary gets the acting bio.

Her Poems

Some poems.

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.

Her Novels

Huge Wikipedia article about Natural Daughter.

Online text of The False Friend.

Walsingham; online text.

You can buy a bunch at Amazon.

Her Plays

Nobody (1792) original manuscript with some serious in-depth study

The Sicilian Lover (1797) Online Google book.

A study of Nobody’s disaster.