Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Hannah Cowley, the Dilemma of the Female Playwright, and the Pseudonymous Prelude to Which Is the Man?

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Hannah Cowley, the Dilemma of the Female Playwright, and the Pseudonymous Prelude to Which Is the Man?

Article excerpt

In 1794, Hannah Cowley abandoned the stage, tired of an audience for whom "LAUGH! LAUGH! LAUGH!" was the sole criterion of a plays value. Her departing injunction was to ask "the rising generation, to correct a taste which, to be gratified, demands neither genius or intellect;- which asks only a happy knack of inventing TRICK. I adjure them to restore to the Drama SENSE, OBSERVATION, WIT, LESSON! And to teach our Writers to respect their own talents."1 All the emphasis in this passage about correction, restorative trickery, and lost values is the author's. Her driving impulse, to control the audience and restore a didactic element to English drama, both embodies her stance and summarizes her achievement in her almost two decades as playwright. The frustration of these lines is that of playwrights in general as expressed from the Restoration onwards, but it is, as Ellen Donkin has shown, especially that of the female playwright, who was much more limited in her creativity and who was often forced to employ more devious means to ensure her success in the cutthroat theater world.2

More than a decade before she abandoned her hitherto ceaseless struggle with audiences, Cowley's comedy Which is the Man? was performed in 1782 with a prelude, The Dramatic Puffers. The latter was published separately in 1782 and has been attributed to Sir Henry Bate Dudley, a newspaperman and public figure still known as Henry Bate in the early 1780s.3 On February 19, 1782, The Public Advertiser simply advertised The Dramatic Puffers, "now performing, with great Applause, at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden," not stipulating an author for the piece. In March, 1782, The European Magazine and London Review created, in its syntax, ambivalence over the authorship of Cowley's play, its prologue, and the prelude, when it published the prologue under the following title: "Prologue To the New Comedy of Which is the Man? Written by Mr. Bate. Spoken at the end of the Prelude by Mr. Lee Lewis, in the character of a Military Author." Without doubt, Lewis spoke the prologue. The ambiguity over authorship of the prelude and even the play, which was certainly Cowley's, however, is reflected in the Biographical Dictionary of Actors and Actresses, which at one point claims the actor John Whitfield performed "in Hannah Cowley's comedy The Dramatic Puffers" and at another attributes her play, Which is the Man?, to Henry Bate.4 The entry for Cowley's Which is the Man? in The London Stage also manifests the eighteenth-century newspaper ambiguity but attributes The Dramatic Puffers to Bate (496). The Eighteenth- Century Collection Online also gives Bate as author of the prelude. The Larpent manuscript of Which is the Man? includes the prelude without mention of authorship.

This confusion over the authorship of the prelude and prologue, I argue, is a ploy on the part of a female author eager to distance herself from the masculine stances of her opening addresses. The two prefatory pieces embody evidence of collaboration at the least, and more likely an arrangement of pseudonymous publication, between the successful female playwright and the lesser known male playwright, who was embroiled in political scandal at the time The Dramatic Puffers appeared. Both prologue and prelude bear the hallmarks of Cowley's writing, while the focus of The Dramatic Puffers is wholly the frustration with audience response that dominates her discussions of her dramatic practice in her supplementary pieces. The brief play also involves an invention of technical trickery of the kind that Cowley wishes for in her departing remarks of 1794, in desiring aloud the "happy knack of inventing TRICK." Such collaboration - between Cowley and Bate - can develop our understanding of the survival instincts and devices of female playwrights, particularly in the post-Garrick theater world. In its own right, however, the prelude deserves attention for its presentation of a machine (or an imaginary machine) that would dictate audience response well over a century before the appearance of canned response mechanisms. …

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