Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

A Gotham Election: Women and Performance Politics

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

A Gotham Election: Women and Performance Politics

Article excerpt

In 1715 the first play depicting electioneering and an election campaign almost made it to the British stage, and in the preface its author imagined the attendance of the newly installed George I, as well as the popular interest that a performance would have attracted: "When I writ this little Farce, I was not without Hopes of having it represented on the Stage; what I propos'd to myself, was, the Honour to show their Royal Highnesses the Manner of our Elections, and entertain the Town with a Subject entirely new ..." (Centlivre "Preface"). Indeed, a play that offered its political content not through metaphor, but as explicit representation of and topical commentary on electioneering and voting practices was unprecedented on the stage. Yet A Gotham Election has languished unperformed and largely unnoticed by theatre historians.1 This oversight is even more marked given that the author of this politically astute farce was a woman, the well-established female dramatist Susanna Centlivre.2

Centlivre's A Gotham Election brings into question how women were involved in parliamentary politics in the early part of the century. Although excluded from exercising the vote by "a combination of convention and prejudice," should we imagine women like Centlivre as mere bystanders during election campaigns, disenfranchised and thus unconcerned with party politics and electioneering itself, as the "rage of party" gripped the country? (Harris, Politics of the Excluded 18). Certainly A Gotham Election represents common women as intimately involved in electioneering. Goody Sly, Goody Gabble, and Goody Shallow negotiate for "benefits" from the Tory candidate Squire Tickup, promising to deliver their husbands' votes, and engage in public displays of support by dancing with, and kissing, the Squire. The play reflects the way that election campaigns, particularly for contested seats, had frequent moments of performance within them; from the hustings and public displays of civic patronage, to processions to the ballot box and chairing the successful candidate through town. Many of these moments of civic political performance included women, and in the first part of this essay I look briefly at a couple of illustrative examples of ways in which women of the lower sort were involved in performative politics.

As we shall see, women's political activity can be read as performative in its theatrical sense-as a public, symbolic display-but their performances also summon the political efficacy lurking in the Austinian sense of performative speech acts as those that "do something" (Austin 22). Judith Butler, following Derrida, inverted Austin's proposal on the power of speech acts and argued that whilst "the subject as sovereign is presumed in the Austinian account of performativity" as the authorising doer, it is rather through iteration and citation, somewhat in the manner of the "hollow" repetition of an actor that Austin denigrates, that the subject-figure is produced and that a performative action has force (Butler 202). Thus it might be through participation in performative political acts that a woman of the lower sort could be constituted as a political subject.

Elin Diamond extends this idea of performativity back into performance itself, arguing that:

When performativity materializes as performance in that risky and dangerous negotiation between a doing (a reiteration of norms) and a thing done (discursive conventions that frame our interpretation), between someone's body and the conventions of embodiment, we have access to cultural meanings and critique. (5)

In A Gotham Election, Centlivre uses the conventional mechanisms of farce, working to her strengths in plot and action, to offer a recognisable, mimetic representation of election activities, an unconventional subject matter. She reveals a detailed understanding of the mechanisms, corrupt practices and party agendas of election campaigning. By combining the popular, indeed populist, form of farce with an extremely partisan presentation of the subject matter, and in writing the play for performance in the lead-up to the January 1715 election, it is clear that Centlivre was writing for political effect, and party-political effect at that. …

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