Rival Queens: Actresses, Performance, and the Eighteenth-Century British Theater

By Felicity Nussbaum | Go to book overview

Epilogue: Contracted Virtue

How long have Females merited our scorn?
They have pow’rs superior to perform
Than Men, and why not Females equal share The just reward of Fame, the envied Chair?

—James Leigh, The New Rosciad (1785)

It is not a little remarkable, that the drama was uncommonly pro-
ductive, the theatre more than usually attended, during that season
when the principal dramatic characters were performed by women
under the age of twenty. Among these were Miss Farren (now Lady
Derby), Miss Walpole (now Mrs. Arkins), Miss P. Hopkins (now
Mrs. John Kemble), and myself.

—Mary Robinson, Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Robinson (1801)

Near century’s end a canon of plays emerged with the publication of the twenty-one-volume Bell’s British Theatre (1776–81) and later the twentyfive-volume edition of The British Theatre (1808) accompanied by Elizabeth Inchbald’s remarkable critical prefaces.1 Each volume in the first edition of Bell’s British Theatre consisted of five comedies or five tragedies, the volumes alternating evenhandedly between the two genres to convey a sense of their equivalence. In his advertisement to a similar set of British Poets, John Bell wrote that the little volumes were designed to “form a truly elegant ornamental appearance, in the drawing-room, dressing-room, or study, and may be cased so to render them a portable and complete traveling poetical, biographical, and critical library.”2 The theater volumes resembled the extraordinary poetry editions in their compactness: one could seem to master the whole of English drama, or of English poetry, by reading through the sets.

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