In late 1696, Drury Lane staged The Female Wits, a burlesque that, despite its wholesale ridicule of one woman, became a catchall phrase for the three women playwrights lumped together in its title. From the nineteenth century onwards, these writers, Delarivier Manley, Catharine Trotter, and Mary Pix, have been collectively known as the "female wits," and inevitably considered together in critical studies (including, I must admit, my own). This collective classification has brought three often overlooked playwrights back into critical discussion, a definite boon. It has, however, also had more subtle negative consequences when critics seek to conflate the three writers and to make value judgments based on questionable criteria when their works do not mesh. In this case, of the three women who constitute the "female wits," two have been regarded with critical favor--especially for the ways in which they adhere to what we, in the later twentieth century, find critically and ideologically correct literature, while the third has been left to languish, as it were, in the shadow of her more celebrated colleagues.
Ironically, Mary Pix, the "female wit" most successful as a playwright in her own time, is the figure most commonly overlooked or even maligned today. A middle-class merchant's wife lacking the more extensive education of Manley and Trotter, she has been labeled unoriginal and a "mental lightweight" by critics in the twentieth century (Lock 30). Often considered by feminist critics to be conservative, Pix is described by Jacqueline Pearson, for example, as "attempt[ing] to write in a gender-neutral way, but in fact this means assuming male viewpoints and stereotypes"; on the other hand, "Trotter and Manley have a more feminist vision" and thus they, unlike Pix, "succeed in producing sympathetic and vivid portraits of women" (201). General histories of Restoration and eighteenth-century drama, while less kind to Trotter and Manley, reserve their harshest criticism for Pix. Derek Hughes, for example, claims that Pix, especially in her comedies, "distinguished herself as a slavish upholder of male authority" (419).(1) Yet this "mental lightweight" and "slavish" anti-feminist was a modest success in her own day, with at least two plays that were revived several times and a solid string of stageable plays to her credit. The discrepancy between Pix's contemporary success and her recent slide into disrepute suggests that our standards of literary achievement differ substantially from those of the late seventeenth century. Even The Female Wits grudgingly admits that Pix was a capable playwright. Discussing the Pix figure (Mrs. Wellfed) and her plays, Praiseall exclaims, "A Bouncing Dame! [referring to her girth] But she has done some things well enough" (11). This is hardly high praise, but in a burlesque where Delarivier Manley is ridiculed unmercifully for both her personal vanity and her absurd and antiquated style of writing and Catharine Trotter is portrayed as a conceited prig, the comment stands as a testament to the theatrical community's recognition of Pix's abilities.
I suggest that the disparity between Pix's success in her own time and our late twentieth-century view of her lies in her ability to recognize and adjust to the changing demands of the literary marketplace. In order to make this modest claim for the commercial efficacy of Pix's plays, I examine Pix's first tragedy, Ibrahim, Thirteenth Emperor of the Turks (1696), in terms of its connections to emerging dramatic practices. At the time Pix wrote Ibrahim, theatrical conventions had changed significantly since the heroic tragedies of the Restoration. The tragedies and heroic dramas of the Restoration included sweeping portrayals of kings and empires, with larger-than-life characters sweating oaths on the competing claims of love and honor.(2) Although tragedies from the 1670s were frequently revived at the end of the seventeenth century, the heroic style was, at least, moribund. In place of grandiose actions, playwrights used pathos to influence emotional response; the depiction of suffering became the new dramatic currency. This focus on the pathetic, usually located in the plays' female characters, can be traced back to Thomas Otway, in particular to his two great tragedies, The Orphan (1680) and Venice Preserv'd (1682). In the dry theatrical seasons of the mid-1680s and the early 1690s, the pathetic play became the dominant tragic mode, with particular emphasis placed on the suffering of innocent female characters, following the pattern established by Otway's Monimia. Even favorite heroic plays, such as Nathaniel Lee's The Rival Queens (1677), were modified to fit this model; "the Players, when this Tragedy first appeared, made it a Favourite one to the World, but for want of a Barry and a Bracegirdle, the Characters of Roxana and Statira are a perfect burlesque on the Dignity of Majesty and good Manners" (History of the English Stage, 19). For the players and audiences of the last years of the seventeenth century, the broad heroic figures of an earlier generation needed the refining influence of the age's two great actresses, both famous for their ability to represent female distress and pathos.