Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Rape on the Restoration Stage

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Rape on the Restoration Stage

Article excerpt

In her essay "Rape, Voyeurism, and the Restoration Stage," Jean Marsden quotes a passage from Otway's The Orphan (1680), in which a young page describes his reaction to seeing the heroine, Monimia, in bed:

"These lines," Marsden writes,

draw attention to Monimia's sexual attractiveness, establishing her as erotic object. The emphasis is on the act of looking; the page's words invite us to imagine the bed and the white and swelling breasts. The passage also invites the audience to rediscover this erotic spectacle in the person of the actress who enacts Monimia, whose breasts would be clearly visible. (189)

True: a description of white and swelling breasts certainly invites us to imagine white and swelling breasts-though the speech fairly clearly creates a contrast between the fully clothed Monimia on stage and the nearly naked body that greets the speaker's gaze every morning. But what is the status of the page's gaze? Does it, as Marsden suggests, direct and represent the unanimous gaze of the entire male audience? Is this moment a microcosmic abstract of the Restoration theatrical experience?

Obviously not. The speaker is a sex-crazed child experiencing the first stirrings of puberty. His prurient curiosity and tale-bearing about sex is an important catalyst in bringing about the tragedy, in which one brother surreptitiously takes his twin's place in Monimia's bed, without realizing that the pair are married and that the act is therefore incestuous. The page's heated imagination certainly reflects the sexual obsessions of the slightly older males, but it is an idiosyncrasy of his personality and age group-one that has tragic consequences. Marsden's reading, however, never entertains the possibility that the page might be critically observed, imperfect, or indeed intensely objectionable. His eyes are those of the Restoration audience. Even though played by a girl, he is the Male Gaze incarnate.

By 1976, when Robert D. Hume decisively transformed the study of Restoration drama with his The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century, it seemed that the squabble over the morality of Restoration comedy was long over.2 Hume's concern was not to mount yet another challenge to Macaulay, whose day seemed long done, but to deal with more recent aberrations: the inadequately based generalization, or the thesis-driven search for profundity. Now, however, the battle over morality has emerged in a new form, for a prominent sub-genre of criticism has arisen whose concern is not the meaning of the plays, or their staging, or their cultural reception, but their-alleged-exploitation and gratification of male lust. Restoration drama has, once again, become pornographic. In another milestone in the criticism of Restoration drama, Doug Canfield's Tricksters & Estates, there is searching analysis of the sexual dynamics of Restoration comedy, and the ways in which its plots engage with the gentry's need for eugenic self-perpetuation.3 Few other critics, however, have dealt so subtly with sex in relation to procreation, and with both in relation to specific configurations of class and culture.4

For Marsden, for example, not only is the Restoration audience fitly represented by a sex-mad pubescent, it is complicit in rape:

the rape becomes the physical manifestation of the desire perpetrated by the rapist but implicit in the audience's gaze. Thus the audience, like the rapist, "enjoys" the actress, deriving its pleasure from the physical presence of the female body. (186)

"[T]he proliferation of rape scenes," she urges, "coincides with the appearance of actresses upon the British stage" (185). Similarly, Elizabeth Howe stresses the "titillation" of rape scenes: "the sense of the actress's body being offered to the audience as a piece of erotic entertainment."5

Both Howe and Marsden rightly observe that rape is far more common in post- than in pre-Restoration drama. Yet how far is this a direct consequence of the emergence and exploitation of female players? …

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