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Autour du rire

Offstage Laughter: Restoration Comedies and the Female Audience

Aloysia Rousseau
p. 209-222


L’Angleterre de la fin du xviie siècle est celle de la comédie de mœurs et de son lot de controverses, parmi lesquelles la diatribe de Jeremy Collier pour voyait dans la comédie une incitation à la débauche. Les critiques puritains déploraient les rôles assignés aux femmes dont la sacro-sainte pureté était discréditée par les dramaturges de la Restauration. Si la condamnation des personnages féminins dissolus et des actrices supposément perverses a fait l’objet de nombreux ouvrages et articles, il semblerait qu’une troisième posture ait été négligée : celle de la spectatrice devant l’humour grivois de ces comédies. Cet article propose de mettre en lumière le rire féminin de la Restauration, vu, plus précisément, à travers un prisme masculin. Les dramaturges et critiques de l’époque étaient en effet pour la plupart des hommes, selon qui le public féminin était soit dénué d’humour, soit libertin. Selon Jeremy Collier, seules les prostituées pouvaient se délecter de ces spectacles obscènes. La dichotomie catégorique entre la femme chaste et respectable qui ne peut pas (ou n’ose pas ?) rire et la prostituée qui rit à gorge déployée sera bien sûr nuancée.

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  • 1  This is true of Renaissance drama as well, as has been demonstrated by Gurr and Levin.
  • 2  Roberts indeed undermines Smith’s argument according to which the so-called “ladies” would have ac (...)

1This paper emanates from my noticing the limited number of books and articles dealing with the question not of women’s reception of Restoration plays but more specifically of women’s reception of the comic elements in these plays, that is to say female laughter. What we do know is that a great proportion of women from various social backgrounds attended the theatre at that time.1 However, authors focusing on female audiences do so from a moral vantage point so that the comic component is lost. John Harrington Smith’s seminal essay “Shadwell, the Ladies, and the Change in Comedy,” and David Roberts’ The Ladies: Female Patronage of Restoration Drama highlight, and in Roberts’ case qualifies, the part played by playgoing women as censors.2 In other words, the question is that of the influence of women on Restoration drama and not of the influence of these bawdy comedies on women playgoers. Female reception of these plays is studied in terms of ethics and not of aesthetics as if comic elements could only be deemed either shocking or acceptable but not pleasurable. Yet, as we are reminded by John Dryden in his Preface to An Evening’s Love: or, The Mock Astrologer (1671), “the first end of comedy is delight, and instruction only the second” (McMillin 471). My aim here is be to shed light upon the depiction of the female audience’s reception of the bawdy puns in Restoration plays. Their supposed inability to laugh, as exemplified in Congreve’s assertion in 1695 that “by reason of their natural coldness, Humour cannot exert itself to that extravagant degree which it often does in the male sex” (Congreve 183), will be envisaged as a social constraint and construct rather than a natural reaction. I will first analyse the way women’s reactions to the plays’ libertinism are reported in primary sources: diaries (mostly Samuel Pepys’), essays and pamphlets like Jeremy Collier’s diatribe against Restoration drama, letters, and the Restoration plays themselves, prefaces, prologues and epilogues in which the playwrights address their audience. What we can notice here is that, with the exception of Aphra Behn’s texts, these primary sources are men’s discourses on the female audience’s laughter. I then offer hypothetical conclusions based on the definition of laughter in the Restoration era on the one hand and on the representation of women on the other hand, identifying what seems to be profound incompatibility. This paper will therefore suggest that the supposed outrage preventing female audiences from laughing at the double-entendres of Restoration drama is based mostly on men’s expectations of women’s good-breeding.

Laughter and modesty

2A first step will be to compare the theory of laughter during the Restoration era with feminine attributes as subject matter, and wonder whether women were in fact perceived as endowed with the ability to laugh. Could women be both modest and beautiful, two essential qualities that a lady was supposed to possess at the time, and able to take a joke?

3In The Ladies Calling, Richard Allestree reminds his readers that a modest woman should first and foremost be discreet, something identifiable not only in the content of a woman’s speech but in the very sound of her voice, as is exemplified in this excerpt from the first chapter entitled “On Modesty:”

Nor does she only refine the language, but she tunes it too, modulates the tone and accent, admits no unhandsome earnestness or loudness of Discourse. […] A womans tongue should indeed be like the imaginary Music of the spheres, sweet and charming, but not to be heard at distance.

Women were considered modest if they were, if not silent, at least not audible, a characteristic jarring with the resonant nature of laughter, the sound of laughter being the prime criterion distinguishing it from a mere smile. The difference was confirmed by Richard Steele half a century later in the first issue of The Theatre, in which he describes a group of well-bred young ladies whose conversation he praises: “There is a purity in their manners and a kind chastity in their dress. Their mirth has no noise, their joy little laughter” (2). What is of interest in Steele’s description is that women are not discouraged from feeling emotions like mirth and joy, but they are required not to express them. Laughter is here defined as the externalization of an inner feeling of joy, which does not tally with women’s expected modesty. The use of the words “purity” and “chastity” pinpoint the value judgment in Steele’s description. If the absence of laughter is described as pure, it can easily be inferred that the sound of laughter can only be produced by impure women. Yet the dichotomy established in these essays is not only between pure and wanton women but also between uneducated and educated women, and more generally between people of breeding and common people. This would explain why servants are allowed to laugh in Restoration comedies, whereas laughter is considered indecorous behaviour in ladies. In other words, class distinction supersedes gender distinction, as is made obvious in Lord Chesterfield’s advice to his son in March 1748:

I could heartily wish, that you may often be seen to smile, but never heard to laugh, while you live. Frequent and loud laughter is the characteristic of folly and ill manners: it is the manner in which the mob express their silly joy, at silly things; and they call it being merry. In my mind, there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill bred, as audible laughter. (68)

A close look at this quote reveals that laughter is not adamantly denied. Lord Chesterfield opposes a visual expression of mirth (“seen to smile”) described as tolerable, to an intolerable auditory expression (“heard to laugh”). It is again the sound produced by laughter rather than laughter itself that is dismissed, as exemplified in his use of “audible.” It is the resonant nature of laughter, its bodily expression which is frowned upon as unseemly. Conspicuous laughter is deemed repulsive, unlike discreet laughter which might be considered attractive. This explains the celebration of women’s laughter in Renaissance poetry: it is not the laughing faces of women that are seen as enhancing their beauty but merely their smiling faces. Laughter described in their blazons by Renaissance poets or praised by Richard Steele in The Theatre is a restrained and silent laugh, the only kind that women were entitled to let out. Celebration of feminine laughter is thus seen as artificial since its object is not what it claims to be. Women’s fixed smiles have little in common with the violent laughter which sets the body uncontrollably trembling. Laughter disrupts the static beauty and the expected modesty of women by introducing movement, surprising the onlooker, as is exemplified in Samuel Pepys’ following entry in his diary on 16 September 1667, describing a female member of the audience at the King’s Playhouse. Pepys was attending The Scornful Lady, a 1616 play by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher which was very popular in the Restoration era: “One of the best parts of our sport was a mighty pretty lady that sat behind us, that did laugh so heartily and constantly, that it did me good to hear her.” What is interesting is not only that Pepys seems to enjoy listening to this lady’s laughter (one might wonder if his reaction was shared by his contemporaries) but that he considers such laughter worth noting in his diary. Pepys’ surprise suggests that hearty laughter was not expected from a “mighty pretty lady,” leading us to wonder whether these beautiful modest women could attend playhouses and laugh at the bawdy puns of Restoration comedy without eliciting surprise in the male part of the audience or even, less benevolently, incurring their self-righteous condemnation.

The female audience’s outrage

4Because they were deemed modest, pure, and meek, women playgoers were considered as either clueless or inevitably scandalised by the sexual innuendos of Restoration drama. They were supposed to have an “innocent, literal understanding,” to quote the aptly named Horner (yet another element that female playgoers were not expected to grasp), of the word “china” in the famous china scene of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife’s (Lawrence 74-75). The premise was that women theatregoers did not laugh because their sense of decency prevailed over their sense of humour. They did not, or pretended not to understand the innuendo in Horner’s multiple references to “china.” Hence the numerous comments on women’s outrage against Restoration playwrights as opposed to the rare testimonies to their laughter. The question was not whether women were receptive to the playwrights’ bawdy comedies or not but whether they found them shocking or acceptable. Female theatregoers were seen as moral guarantors as was the case when actresses were first introduced on stage in 1660. Both on and offstage, women seemed to be confined to the realm of ethics. The patents issued to William D’Avenant and Thomas Killigrew in 1660 and reissued in 1662 show that actresses were perceived as a means of raising moral standards in the theatre. In other words, they would rid the Restoration plays of their smuttiness:

We do likewise permit and give leave that all the women’s parts to be acted in either of the said two companies from this time to come may be performed by women, so long as these recreations, which by reason of the abuses aforesaid were scandalous and offensive, may by such reformation be esteemed not only harmless delights, but useful and instructive representations of human life. (Fitzgerald 73)

  • 3  This has been thoroughly analyzed by Pullen.
  • 4  This is one example among many. According to David Roberts, 40 percent of the plays’ prologues in (...)

5This was, as we know, not carried out. There was no reformation of the stage, no smooth transition towards harmless delight and instruction brought about by actresses. It was quite the opposite as actresses came to be likened to prostitutes.3 That such a change from an immoral to a moral theatre did not occur throws light upon the discrepancy between fantasy and reality. Actresses were expected to morally improve Restoration drama but failed to meet these expectations. This might be considered as a clue to what happened in the audience: a similar discrepancy might be identified between the perception of women as moral guarantors and their actual stance on Restoration drama. The female audience’s outrage was a feature of the plays’ prefaces and prologues in which the playwrights called for the audience’s leniency. The so-called “ladies” were constantly taken to task. The playwrights’ tone alternated between sarcasm and reassurance that no lewd remarks were to be found in the plays, as is exemplified in this excerpt from Thomas Otway’s prologue to Friendship in Fashion (1678):4

I’ th’ next place, ladies, there’s no bawdy in’t,
No, not so much as one well-meaning hint.
Nay more, ’twas written every word he says
On strictest vigils and on fasting days,
When he his flesh to penance did enjoin –
Nay, took such care to work it chaste and fine,
He disciplined himself at every line. (Payne Fisk 250)

Thomas Otway’s prologue shows that female outrage was yet another source of mockery for the playwrights whose supposed discipline was not to be taken in earnest. My aim here is not to deny female outrage. Even though it was often mocked and inflated, it should not be disregarded. It was derided by the playwrights but not in any case invented by them. We can even infer from Edward Ravenscroft’s prologue to Dame Dobson (1684) that female playgoers were active, sometimes gathering in protest against the plays’ smut:

His London Cuckolds did afford you sport.
That pleas’d the Town, and did divert the Court.
But ’cause some squeamish Females of renown,
Made visits with design to cry it down,
He swore in’s Rage he would their humours fit,
And write the next without one word of Wit.

  • 5  John Harrington Smith depicts female playgoers as a uniform entity aiming to rid Restoration drama (...)

Ravenscroft’s use of “some” highlights the fact that not all women were offended, something that both Restoration playwrights and modern critics seem to have disregarded. Contrary to her fellow playwrights, Aphra Behn did acknowledge that a female audience was not an indissoluble entity but was made of various personalities offering a range of reactions to the plays. In her preface to The Lucky Chance, Behn describes her male counterparts as feeling threatened by her successful plays, and trying to convince the ladies of their lewdness: “When they can no other way prevail with the Town, they charge it with the old never failing Scandal – That ’tis not fit for the Ladys” (185). The phrase “the old never failing” contributes to toning down the authenticity of the scandal, identified by Behn as an artificial condemnation of her plays. She moreover reminds her readers at the end of her preface that “Other Ladys who saw it more than once, whose Quality and Vertue can sufficiently justifie any thing they design to favour, were pleas’d to say, they found an Entertainment in it very far from scandalous” (187). Not only does Behn refuse to consider her female audience as homogeneously scandalized but her use of “entertainment,” underlines that her plays are not to be judged only in terms of ethics, but also in terms of pleasure and appreciation of the comic elements, something that John Harrington Smith has failed to heed in his 1948 article.5 Surprisingly, a similar argument is found in Jeremy Collier’s “A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage.” Although Collier’s aim is to denounce the playwrights’ affront to women’s dignity, he unwittingly admits that they are actually entertained by the licentious content of Restoration drama:

Whence then comes it to pass that those liberties which disoblige so much in conversation should entertain upon the stage? Do women leave all the regards to decency and conscience behind them when they come to the playhouse? Or does the place transform their inclinations, and turn their former aversions into pleasure? Or were their pretenses to sobriety elsewhere nothing but hypocrisy and grimace? (Collier 6)

Collier is here expressing his own outrage rather than that of the ladies. Admitting that female playgoers are entertained by “those liberties which disoblige so much in conversation,” he paradoxically invalidates his own argument by depicting the stage, or at least enabling his readers to perceive the stage as a parallel world, a realm of illusion and transgression. Instead of highlighting women’s natural decency, Collier’s indignation throws light upon entertainment as a natural reaction and suggests, even though this is mentioned only to be denied, that modesty might be an artifice.

Women under the male audience’s gaze

  • 6  Samuel Pepys, Monday 4 February 1667: “Soon as dined, my wife and I out to the Duke’s playhouse, a (...)

6The question of female audiences differs from that of female readership since, unlike reading which was confined to the privacy of the home, women were constantly subjected to the male gaze when attending a play, at a time when the spectacle took place off as much as on stage. This is confirmed by Samuel Pepys’ descriptions of what was going on in the audience, commenting on so-and-so’s hairdo or latest fashion statement.6 Such scrutiny was considered as essential since women’s faces were supposed to be a reflection of their soul, as underlined by Richard Allestree in his chapter on meekness:

[Nature] having allotted to women a more smooth and soft composition of body, infers thereby her intention, that the mind should correspond with it. For tho the adulterations of art, can represent in the same Face beauty in one position, and deformity in another, yet nature is more sincere, and never meant a serene and clear forhead, should be the frontispiece to a cloudy tempestuous heart.

7At a time when exterior beauty was the sign of a pure mind, it was only logical that women should be afraid of the conclusions that might be drawn by men scrutinizing their faces after a bawdy pun was spoken on stage. Women could not laugh or if they did, they had to be particularly vigilant, laughing off the beat when no double entendre was spoken, and their laughter had to be akin to smiling, displaying their modesty and meekness. Restoration playwrights, as is exemplified in this excerpt from John Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife (1697), where Lady Brute confesses she attends the playhouse only to be seen, derided such studied reaction to the plays’ libertinism:

I watch with impatience for the next jest in the play, that I may laugh and show my white teeth. If the poet has been dull and the jest be long a-coming, I pretend to whisper one to my friend, and from thence fall into a little short discourse in which I take occasion to show my face in all humours, brisk, please, serious, melancholy, languishing. Not that what we say to one another causes any of these alterations. (Lawrence 443)

The fourth wall breaks down as it appears actresses are in the audience as well. Lady Brute’s laughter is not spontaneous but is an attempt at portraying the ideal woman celebrated by poets, hence the reference to the Renaissance topos of the ladies’ white teeth, although she does not go so far as to compare them with pearls. When Lady Brute says she wants to show her white teeth, she is not truly laughing but merely displaying the smile expected from a lady. Moreover, the “jest” in question is an innocent display of wit and not in any case a saucy remark, hence the distinction established by the young Belinda:

But my glass and I could never yet agree what face I should make when they come blurt out with a nasty thing in a play. For all the men presently look upon the women, that’s certain; so laugh we must not, though our stays burst for it, because that’s telling truth and owning we understand the jest. And to look serious is so dull, when the whole house is a-laughing. (Lawrence 443)

Belinda’s dilemma is as follows: she cannot laugh at a double entendre if she does not want to compromise her reputation, yet not participating in the audience’s general mirth makes her feel marginalized. Moreover, Lady Brute reminds her that not laughing is in fact as suspicious as laughing, the female audience thus being caught in a double bind:

Lady b. Besides, that looking serious does really betray our knowledge in the matter as much as laughing with the company would do; for if we did not understand the thing we should naturally do like other people.
Bel. For my part, I always take that occasion to blow my nose.
Lady b. You must blow your nose half off then at some plays.
Bel. Why don’t some reformer or other beat the poet for’t?
Lady b. Because he is not so sure of our private approbation as of our public thanks. Well, sure there is not upon earth so impertinent a thing as women’s modesty. (Lawrence 443)

Not only does Vanbrugh stage the conflict between private enjoyment of a libertine play and public disapprobation but he challenges his female audience’s modesty by creating in the auditorium the situation described on stage. Ladies could not laugh at Belinda’s and Lady Brute’s comments at the risk of betraying their connivance with the duplicitous characters. Despite the comic nature of the scene, what is at stake here is a cruel and disquieting trap set for the female audience to fall into. The bawdy pun becomes akin to sexual assault.

The victimization of women

8Freud’s theories on laughter and women’s reception of smut in Jokes and their Relations to the Unconscious can be used to throw light on the double bind the female audience was confronted with in the Restoration era. According to Freud, a woman to whom a bawdy pun is addressed is necessarily aroused, even when expressing embarrassment, which Freud identifies as a defense mechanism against excitement:

Smut is directed to a particular person, by whom one is sexually excited and who, on hearing it, is expected to become aware of the speaker’s excitement and as a result to become sexually excited in turn. Instead of this excitement the other person may be led to feel shame or embarrassment, which is only a reaction against the excitement and, on a roundabout way, is an admission of it. (97)

In case the gender of the “particular person” is not clear, Freud feels the need to specify that smut is "originally directed towards women and may be equated with attempts at seduction” (97), which he later describes as an assault, using the language of fighting:

Smut is like an exposure of the sexually different person to whom it is directed. By the utterance of the obscene words it compels the person who is assailed to imagine the part of the body or the procedure in question and shows her that the assailant is himself imagining it. It cannot be doubted that the desire to see what is sexually exposed is the original motive of smut. (98)

9The verb “to compel” and the opposition between “assailed” and “assailant” pinpoint the aggressive nature of smut, women appearing as the targets of a male attack. Women’s victimization is confirmed by Freud’s use of the language of vision with the occurrence of the polyptoton “exposure”/“exposed” and the verb “to see.” The double entendre is thus likened to visual disrobing. This accounts for women’s attempt at hiding their faces by using masks or vizards when attending a Restoration play. Women playgoers tried to avoid exposure and the satisfaction of the male audience’s libido: “Through the first person’s smutty speech the woman is exposed before the third, who, as listener, has now been bribed by the effortless satisfaction of his own libido” (Freud 100). Women in the audience thus suffer the same fate as female characters: they are the butt of the playwrights’ and the male spectators’ jokes. However, while female characters are the victims in absentia of men’s lewd remarks, female playgoers are victimised for their presence in the playhouse: there are no ladies present on stage to hear the shoemaker’s double entendre “ ’Sbud, as smooth as your mistress’s skin does upon her; so, strike your foot in home” in Sir George Etherege’s The Man of Mode: (Payne Fisk 96). The male playgoer’s gaze would be directed at the house to gauge female reactions to the licentious joke. This is why it seems to me that the word “surveillance” could be used in order to describe the scrutiny of women’s faces in the audience. The women whose reactions to smut were dissected could be compared to the prisoners described by Michel Foucault in his commentary on Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon: “Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap” (Foucault 200). Visibility was indeed a trap for female theatregoers whose faces were lit by daylight coming through the windows – the plays being performed in the afternoon – as well as the lamps and chandeliers that lit not only the stage but the house. The dimming of the house lights was not introduced until 1876, meaning that a Restoration audience would not sit in the dark like a modern audience, enabling the male audience to scrutinise the ladies. Women had to refrain from laughing not to sully their reputation, hence the small number of accounts of feminine laughter in the Restoration era: women’s reception of these plays was gauged, as already underlined, in terms of ethics. Whether or not a female spectator was entertained was, as we are reminded by David Roberts, not a point of interest:

When a double entendre occurred in the theater, it was up to a woman to make it clear that she understood only the innocent part, however obvious everyone else’s enjoyment of the humour. In both cases, a woman was allowed to judge a play only in so far as it reflected her declared moral character, and in so far as it did that the quality of her response could be gauged by the extent of her embarrassment. (38)

  • 7  Women themselves seemed to perceive their reaction to comedy exclusively in terms of embarrassment (...)
  • 8  “Here I saw my Lord Falconbridge, and his Lady, my Lady Mary Cromwell, who looks as well as I have (...)

This analysis of the discourses on female laughter has turned out to be an analysis of the absence of such discourses since the unanimously praised modesty of women precluded them from being entertained by the playwrights’ libertine comedies, or at least from overtly expressing their entertainment. A clear-cut dichotomy emerges from my reading of primary sources between masculine sense of humour on the one hand and feminine embarrassment on the other, as exemplified in the following lines from Ravenscroft’s prologue to Dame Dobson: “No double sense shall now your thoughts beguile,/ Make Lady Blush, nor Ogling Gallant Smile.” This shows that discourses on laughter were anything but gender-neutral. Double meanings were supposed to arouse antithetical reactions in the audience. Men were expected to laugh, women to blush,7 hence the female audience’s double-bind that I have underlined: laughing and not laughing were deemed suspicious, meaning that a woman was either wanton or pretended not to be so. Vizards, a possible solution to escape the male gaze, only emphasised this double-bind. As noted by Pepys,8 vizards were in great fashion among ladies, but were equally worn by prostitutes attending the theatre, whom Collier ironically describes as “the Ladys that are too Modest to show their Faces in the Pit” (6), adding that they only could delight in such obscene comedies:

This entertainment can be fairly designed for none but such. Indeed it hits their palate exactly. It regales their lewdness, graces their character, and keeps up their spirits for their vocation (6).

The double bind thus becomes a triple bind: laughing, blushing or trying to hide one’s face was deemed suspicious, and only betrayed one’s licentiousness. Women’s denied laughter thus seems to participate in the general misogynist atmosphere of the time during which “at every level of society men seem to have expected a show of resistance from any woman who was not completely abandoned” (Dickie 200). The ladies’ supposed resistance to bawdy puns appallingly seemed to fuel the playwrights’ creativity in the same way as “the woman’s inflexibility” is described by Freud as being “the first condition for the development of smut” (98). Let us hope, at least, that the ladies could have a good laugh behind their vizards.

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Primary sources

Allestree, Richard. The Ladies Calling (1673). 15 December 2013.

Behn, Aphra. Preface to The Lucky Chance (1686). The Works of Aphra Behn. Vol. 3. Ed. Montague Summers. London: Heinemann, 1915.

Chesterfield, Philip Dormer. Letters Written by Lord Chesterfield to his Son (1737-68). Ed. Charles Sayle. London: Walter Scott Publishing, 1909.

Collier, Jeremy. A Short View of the Profaneness and Immorality of the English Stage. 1698. London: Samuel Birt, 1738.

Congreve, William. Letters and Documents. Ed. John C. Hodges. London: MacMillan, 1964.

Payne Fisk, Deborah, ed. Four Restoration Libertine Plays. Oxford: OUP, 2005.

Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys. 15 December 2013.

Ravenscroft, Edward. Prologue to Dame Dobson the cunning woman spoken by Mrs. Currer. Epilogue to the same : spoken by Mr. Jevorn. 1684. 15 December 2013.

Steele, Richard. The Theatre. 1720. Ed. John Loftis. London: OUP, 1962.

Secondary sources

Dickie, Simon. Cruelty and Laughter. Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental Eighteenth Century. Chicago and London: The U of Chicago P, 2011.

Fitzgerald, Percy. A New History of the English Stage. London: Tinsley, 1882.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. 1975. London: Penguin, 1977.

Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. 1905. Ed. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1960.

Gurr, Andrew. Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London. Cambridge: CUP, 1987.

Lawrence, Robert G., ed. Restoration Plays. London: Dent, 1992.

Levin, Richard. “Women in the Renaissance Theatre Audience.” Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 165-74.

McMillin, Scott, ed. Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Comedy. New York: Norton, 1997.

Pearson, Jacqueline. The Prostituted Muse. Images of Women & Women Dramatists, 1642-1737. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1988.

Pullen, Kirsten. Actresses and Whores. Cambridge: CUP, 2005.

Roberts, David. The Ladies: Female Patronage of Restoration Drama, 1660-1770. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.

Smith, John Harrington. “Shadwell, the Ladies, and the Change in Comedy.” Modern Philology 46 (1948): 22-33.

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1  This is true of Renaissance drama as well, as has been demonstrated by Gurr and Levin.

2  Roberts indeed undermines Smith’s argument according to which the so-called “ladies” would have actively participated in raising the moral standards of Restoration comedy: “If there is no reason to doubt that comedy has changed its style to suit the modesty of the ladies, there is every reason to be skeptical about the ladies’ part in bringing the change about” (127).

3  This has been thoroughly analyzed by Pullen.

4  This is one example among many. According to David Roberts, 40 percent of the plays’ prologues in the Restoration era were addressed to female playgoers.

5  John Harrington Smith depicts female playgoers as a uniform entity aiming to rid Restoration drama of its sexual content: “The ladies had for long been anxious to see risqué wit, facetious lovemaking, and perhaps even coquetry replaced on the stage by decency, sincerity, and honest love” (31).

6  Samuel Pepys, Monday 4 February 1667: “Soon as dined, my wife and I out to the Duke’s playhouse, and there saw “Heraclius,” an excellent play, to my extraordinary content; and the more from the house being very full, and great company; among others, Mrs. Steward, very fine, with her locks done up with puffes, as my wife calls them: and several other great ladies had their hair so, though I do not like it; but my wife do mightily— but it is only because she sees it is the fashion. Here I saw my Lord Rochester and his lady, Mrs. Mallet, who hath after all this ado married him; and, as I hear some say in the pit, it is a great act of charity, for he hath no estate. But it was pleasant to see how every body rose up when my Lord John Butler, the Duke of Ormond’s son, come into the pit towards the end of the play, who was a servant—[lover]—to Mrs. Mallet, and now smiled upon her, and she on him. I had sitting next to me a woman, the likest my Lady Castlemayne that ever I saw anybody like another; but she is a whore, I believe, for she is acquainted with every fine fellow, and called them by their name, Jacke, and Tom, and before the end of the play frisked to another place.”

7  Women themselves seemed to perceive their reaction to comedy exclusively in terms of embarrassment: “Our Sex, form’d for Modesty and Innocence, ought to encourage Tragedy” since comedy can only “draw Conscious Blushes from the Cheek” (The Female Tatler, in Pearson 38). To what extent do these ladies’ guides to proper conduct reflect the general opinion of women at the time is a question we are however entitled to ask. Those who addressed such advice to their female counterparts often did not attend the theatre themselves, thus undermining their stances on the plays. There are unfortunately very few testimonies of women playgoers apart from mediated accounts such as Samuel Pepys’ reports on his wife Elizabeth’s attendance at the playhouse.

8  “Here I saw my Lord Falconbridge, and his Lady, my Lady Mary Cromwell, who looks as well as I have known her, and well clad; but when the House began to fill she put on her vizard, and so kept it on all the play; which of late is become a great fashion among the ladies, which hides their whole face. So to the Exchange, to buy things with my wife; among others, a vizard for herself” (Friday 12 June 1663).

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Bibliographical reference

Aloysia Rousseau, Offstage Laughter: Restoration Comedies and the Female AudienceXVII-XVIII, 70 | 2013, 209-222.

Electronic reference

Aloysia Rousseau, Offstage Laughter: Restoration Comedies and the Female AudienceXVII-XVIII [Online], 70 | 2013, Online since 01 August 2016, connection on 13 June 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Aloysia Rousseau

Université Sorbonne Paris 4

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