Getting into the Act: Women Playwrights in London 1776-1829

By Mackey, Barbara | Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Getting into the Act: Women Playwrights in London 1776-1829


Mackey, Barbara, Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research


Ellen Donkin. Getting into the Act: Women Playwrights in London 1776-1829. London: Routledge Press, 1995. 240 pp. Paperback, $17.95.

In Getting into the Act, Ellen Donkin details the production experiences (or misadventures) of seven women playwrights in late eighteenth century London. Although Donkin includes brief descriptions of the writers' lives, her main interest lies in their relationship with the theatrical managers and their opportunities - or lack of them - to rehearse, revise, and produce their plays.

Because the dramatic market was artificially limited by the existence of only two licensed theatres, it was difficult for any playwright to have a play produced. However, women had two additional obstacles: not only did they not have a formal education in the classics, they also risked their respectability by going to the theatre to rehearse their plays, freely interacting with persons of less acceptable class.

Donkin attributes the increased success some women playwrights did achieve in the late eighteenth century to an improved relationship with the theatre managers, in particular, with David Garrick and his patronal style of theatre management. Unlike the Restoration managers, Garrick worked to create a respectable ethos for himself and his theatre, a venue where middle-class men were not afraid to take their wives and daughters. He also "took particular pride in having helped female playwrights" (26). However, Garrick' s mentorship was also highly selective (fifteen productions by women in twenty-nine years) and heavily paternalistic, so that a female playwright was made to feel entirely dependent upon Garrick for the production of her works.

Less has been written of Garrick in his role as a manager than in his roles as actor and director. It is clear that this side of his personality is less attractive than the others. Donkin feels that the nine female playwrights produced by Garrick at Drury Lane were chosen less for their merit than because they flattered Garrick's narcissism and offered minimal resistance to his advice. Garrick chose those women who "created precisely the right combination of respect, gratitude, and compliance to underscore his own need for unchallenged power and leadership" (55).

Hannah Cowley and Hannah More were two examples of Garrick's "literary daughters" who flattered the manager by competing for his fatherly attentions (60). Donkin's language reveals her outrage at the way those in Garrick's "literary harem" (56) had to submit to a paternalistic control which appeared benevolent, but which was threatened by any indication of independence. Since Garrick took a strong hand in revising, casting, and rehearsing the plays of his female playwrights, these writers were left without a mentor when Garrick died in 1779, and all suffered setbacks in their careers.

Garrick's relationships with many male playwrights were stormy, but these men were able to publish complaints about the devious and selfserving manner in which Garrick treated them. …

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