Female Playwrights and Eighteenth-Century Comedy: Negotiating Marriage on the London Stage

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Female Playwrights and Eighteenth-Century Comedy: Negotiating Marriage on the London Stage. By MISTY G. ANDERSON. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave. 2002. X+ 262 pp. 35 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 0-312-23938.

Misty Anderson offers close readings of the popular comedies of Behn, Centlivre, Cowley, and Inchbald, tracing their comic strategies as they respond to changes in marriage law. She draws attention to the inconsistency between comic events manipulated by the heroines and comedy's final closure of marriage, in which the identity of women is subsumed into that of their husbands. Feminist criticism has found comedy a rich source for the exposure of inequities in the lives of women, and Anderson's work complements Audrey Bilger's examination of female comedy in the novels of Burney, Edgeworth, and Austen (Laughing Feminism: Subversive Comedy in Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998)), and the work on nineteenth-century women dramatists by Catherine Burroughs (Closet Stages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977) and (ed.) Women in BritishRomantic Theatre: Drama, Performance and Society, 1790-1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)), Ellen Donkin, and Tracy Davis (Women and Playwriting in Nineteenth-Century Britain, ed. by Tracy C. Davis and Ellen Donkin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)). However, Anderson emphasizes that her readings show these dramatists exploiting comedy's potential for dissenting points of view that 'do not entail radicalism' (p. 203).

Two introductory chapters lay the foundations for her readings. The first gives a chronological account of theories of comedy, a narrative spanning Aristotle to Northrop Frye and beyond, wittily branded 'a shaggy dog story'. Anderson's own work is set in the context of the feminist 'insights' of Barreca, Walker, and Gillooly; and introduces the theories of comedy of her four subjects. Her second chapter documents marriage and contract law and relevant cases in the period, acknowledging Susan Staves's work as providing the 'legal framework' (Susan Staves, Married Women's Separate Property in England, 1660-1833 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990)). To fit into the pattern of her narrative, Anderson implies a link between legislation to change marriage law and the success of these female playwrights, noting that Lord Hardwicke's 1753 Marriage Act, which resulted in greater power for parents, neatly bisects her two periods of study.

Anderson finds in the emphasis on sexuality in Behn's comedies a mutual desire of men and women, but she claims for her a reputation in the eighteenth century belied by performance statistics, theatre histories, and Jane Spencer's work ('Adapting Aphra Behn: Hannah Cowley's A School for Greybeards and The Lucky Chance', Women's Writing, 2 (1995), 221-34). Despite Centlivre's preoccupation with contracts, Anderson observes a failure to resolve the lack of agency of women in their negotiation. For Cowley, Anderson argues, nationalism gave women an identity as civil subjects, not provided under the law, and she finds Inchbald's preoccupation with divorce challenges comic structure and focuses on domestic instability as a metaphor for the instability of national and international law. …