Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Mary Berry's Fashionable Friends (1801) on Stage

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Mary Berry's Fashionable Friends (1801) on Stage

Article excerpt

From the late 1780s and well into the 1810s, Mary Berry (1763-1852) was an influential blue stocking in London and on the Continent. She was an engaging conversationalist, well-read, comfortable, and familiar with the great Figures and ideas of her age, from Horace Walpole, to whom she was a protege and who ultimately provided for her and her sister, to Malthus whose controversial ideas she defended. Her interest and involvement in the London theater and abroad raises the question of how salonnieres related to things theatrical. Her journal abounds with references to performances of all sorts. She befriended Joanna Baillie and wrote a comedy herself, Fashionable Friends (staged privately in 1801 and at Drury Lane in 1802). While Gary Kelly's six-volume edition On the blue stockings (1999), or Elizabeth Eger's monograph (2010), deal with the bluestockings' literary production, their poetry, essays, translations, or literary criticism, for example, their interest in the theater and theatricality is underrated. (For two contrasting views on the status of women dramatists, especially Baillie, Donkin [159-83] and Cox.) Taking Mary Berry, as an example of the theatrical bluestocking, I shall look at her friendship with Baillie and her comedy Fashionable Friends, to winch Baillie contributed prologue and epilogue. Like Baillie, Berry was marginalized by the male theatrical establishment. If her privately staged comedy was well received, it aroused a storm of criticism when it went public (Burroughs, "A Reasonable Woman's Desire," 188).

Mary Berry's play Fashionable Friends, was first successfully staged as a private play at Strawberry Hill towards the end of 1801, but six months later failed at Drury Lane. It was originally written and performed in the fashionable context of private theatricals, where women had a role front which the major patent theaters excluded them. Well-known women writers of the Romantic period such as Hannah More, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Fanny Burney similarly built their reputations in other genres although they also authored plays. Male competitors ruled the licensed theaters and female dramatists such as Baillie were unwelcome. Women could be celebrated if they appeared on the stage as actresses, such Sarah Siddons or Elizabeth Farrell, although even on stage such activities was considered questionable, often linked to prostitution and scandal (Bolton 33).

In contrast, private performances, "theater of the closet" (Burroughs, "A Reasonable Woman's Desire," 188), enabled women to explore the world of the theater with fewer attacks on their reputation. Private theatricals, fashionable in the late 18th and early 19th century were, as Burroughs points out, no "avant-garde movement" ("A Reasonable Woman's Desire," 187) rather, to use Gillian Russell's phrase, "a key social ritual" (191); they could be exclusive but were not necessarily so private as the label denotes. They often occurred beyond the immediate circle of the family, included friends and neighbors, and as the reviews some of them received in print publications such as The Times or The Morning Post document, they could be brought to the attention of the public. The costly performances staged at Richmond House in the later 1780s, for example, drew large audiences yet remained socially exclusive, attracting members of the bon ton only (Rosenfeld). As part of salon sociability, these theatricals were situated between public and private, the same transitional space as assemblies and dinner parties. Private theatricals enabled female participants to be creative, to move among the roles of author, actress, producer, manager, and hostess. However, as the fictitious staging of August von Kotzebue's Lover's Vows (1791) illustrates in Jane Austen's novel Mansfield Park (1814), even private theater could be disruptive. Baillie's comedy The Tryal (1798) also deals with one such private performance arid the upheavals it causes.

Sociable female networks were central to the private theaters. …

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