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L’expérience des spectatrices

Commanding Eyes: Female Spectators and the Restoration Theatrical Repertoire

Un regard impérieux : la spectatrice et le répertoire du théâtre anglais de la Restauration
Jean I. Marsden

Résumés

Cet article étudie l’influence des femmes sur le répertoire théâtral de la fin du XVIIe siècle en Angleterre. À cette époque, les spectatrices de théâtre étaient en grande partie anonymes, définies par le lieu où elles se rendaient plutôt que par leur nom. Cependant, les commentaires des dramaturges laissent entendre que le fait de plaire à ce public féminin, en particulier aux femmes de l'élite, pouvait avoir un effet considérable sur le succès ou l’échec des pièces sur scène. Les aristocrates étaient de ferventes spectatrices de théâtre, leur présence dans l'auditorium était remarquée, tant positivement que négativement, et leur réaction était étudiée et jugée par leur entourage. Pour cette raison, les femmes portaient fréquemment des masques au théâtre dans les premières décennies de la Restauration, en partie pour éviter d’être surprises par une pièce licencieuse, comme The Country Wife de William Wycherley. L’article met en relation le port du masque au théâtre avec la réception féminine. Assimilant le port du masque à une attitude hypocrite, la réponse irritée de Wycherley aux femmes de condition dans sa dernière pièce, The Plain Dealer, suggère qu’elles pouvaient avoir une influence sur la réception d'une pièce. Plus généralement, les paratextes de la fin du siècle indiquent que les dramaturges pensaient que les spectatrices pouvaient assurer le succès d'une pièce. Ainsi, le public féminin contribuait à façonner le répertoire théâtral.

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Texte intégral

1Women who sat in the theatres and watched plays during the later seventeenth century were a diverse group, defined more by their venue rather than by any individual qualities. As such, they remain elusive, a shadowy but important presence in the theatre auditorium, one that writers, especially playwrights, imagined as an audience. In her most recognizable form, the female spectator of the Restoration era could be considered the creation of a male observer who projected onto her his understanding of proper and improper female behavior and his understanding of how she should – or should not – respond to the drama she watched. But the female spectator was more than a masculine invention or literary construct, and this article seeks to explore the influence she wielded over the plays that appeared upon the stage. In doing so, I suggest that this female audience was an unexpectedly powerful force that shaped the theatrical repertoire during the Restoration and early eighteenth century.

  • 1 David Roberts, The Ladies: Female Patronage of Restoration Drama, 1660-1700, Oxford, Clarendon Pres (...)

2In general, the women who attended the theatre during this period have been largely obscured by time, and their response to the plays they watched was thus lost or never recorded. Theatrical records from the later seventeenth century in particular are scanty, restricted by political turmoil and by the closing of one of London’s two theatres, making tracing the role of women in the theatre audience challenging. To complicate matters, the information we do have is largely second hand, either filtered through the eyes of male observers or found in general references by playwrights or in the newspapers of the era. As a result, the women who actually attended the theatre remain largely anonymous, and those whose names have been recorded were prominent either in terms of their rank or their notoriety. As David Roberts documents, while we have the names for nearly five hundred men who attended the theatre in the Restoration, we know of fewer than one hundred specific women.1 Nonetheless, from the accounts that we do have and from references in the plays that these women saw, it is clear that the theatres were full of women of all classes sitting in all areas of the theatre, from the pit to the upper gallery. Even if their specific responses to the theatre were not often recorded, the ubiquity of their presence meant that they were a powerful financial force; in particular, success with the elite women in the audience – “the Ladies” – often translated into financial gain for both the playwright and the theatre. As such, female response was of crucial concern to playwrights and managers alike.

3My discussion of the Ladies and their effect upon the theatrical repertoire is divided into two distinct sections. In the first portion of the article, I examine female mask wearing, both actual and metaphorical, as mask wearing was closely associated with the female playgoer and especially with her reaction to what she saw in the theatre. The second segment of the article examines two moments in the Restoration and early eighteenth century that demonstrate the power of the female audience and in particular its ability to shape the theatrical repertoire in both positive and negative ways, first through a consideration of the ladies’ opposition to William Wycherley’s The Country Wife during the mid 1670s and second through examining explicit requests for female support at the turn of the eighteenth century. Interesting in themselves, these examples demonstrate the ways that the Ladies were able to shape dramatic offerings, whether it was to reject drama that they found offensive or to support new drama through their presence in the theatre auditorium.

Masks and Masking

  • 2 Lesley Ferris, Acting Women: Images of Women in the Theatre, New York, New York University Press, 1 (...)
  • 3 Laura Rosenthal, “Reading Masks: The Actress and the Spectatrix in Restoration Shakespeare”, in Kat (...)
  • 4 Will Pritchard, “Masks and Faces: Female Legibility in the Restoration Era,” Eighteenth-Century Lif (...)

4The mask was a key component of women’s experience within the theatre auditorium during the Restoration, and this close association has in the past prompted scholarly commentaries on the implications of women’s mask wearing, especially within the context of the theatre. Most often these studies discuss mask wearing less in terms of the physical mask and the practice of mask wearing and more as a figurative concept that can serve as a vehicle for exploring female power or decipherability within a broader social or psychological context. Thus, Lesley Ferris and Catherine Gallagher have interpreted female mask wearing as a mark of female power, with Ferris describing it as “a subversive act,” and Gallagher describing the mask as a mark of “the impenetrability of the controlling mind.”2 Laura Rosenthal links mask wearing directly to female sexual subjectivity, arguing that the mask “signifies two contradicting forms of sexual positionality: it signifies a sexual being in control of her identity and seeking her own pleasure, as well as an infinitely replaceable visual object whose individual identity and desire have no relevance.”3 Will Pritchard takes issue with these approaches and couches his discussion of mask wearing in terms of the perceived problem of female “legibility,” or how well a woman could be understood by those around her, suggesting that “a woman was more legible masked than unmasked.”4 In contrast to these studies, I do not consider the abstract implications of woman behind the mask; my approach is more narrowly focused on mask wearing as a practice within the theatre. I am especially interested in the ways in which the mask, both by its presence and by its absence, was associated with the ways in which a lady reacted to the plays she watched. In this way, mask wearing was integrally connected to female response and thus of great importance to how their response was perceived by the men around them

  • 5 A rare exception to this appears in Pepys’ account of his wife’s response to Dryden’s An Evening’s (...)

5One of our most valuable sources of information about women in the theatre audience during the Restoration is Samuel Pepys, whose addiction to theatre-going has been well documented. Pepys is a particularly rich source of information on female spectators, in part because he was fascinated by the goings-on of the famous and in part because he was an avid observer of women, especially attractive ones. His Diary is full of references to the titled ladies he saw on his many trips to the theatre. His wife Elizabeth frequently accompanied him to the playhouse, and Pepys records his wife attending the theatre almost two hundred times although he rarely records her response to the plays they saw together.5 It is from Pepys that we have some of our earliest references to women attending the theatre wearing masks. Pepys took as much interest in watching the spectators in the auditorium as he did the play on the stage, and he carefully noted the luminaries who attended the theatre as well as their attire and appearance. Thus, on 12 June 1663 he notes that while attending a “merry but indifferent play” at the Royal Theatre he saw “my Lord Falconbridge and his Lady, my Lady Mary Cromwell, who looks as

  • 6 S. Pepys, op. cit., vol. 4, p. 181.

well as I have known her and well-clad; but when the House begun to fill, she put on her vizard and so kept it on all the play – which is of late become a great fashion among the ladies, which hides their whole face.”6 As his description of Lady Mary Cromwell indicates, the vizard mask was not necessarily meant to hide the identity of the wearer. Lady Mary was in good looks and easily identified by others in the theatre.

Fig. 1. Wenceslaus Hollar, Lady with Mask and Muff (ca. 1638-40).

Fig. 1. Wenceslaus Hollar, Lady with Mask and Muff (ca. 1638-40).

6The mask that Pepys refers to would most likely have been made of silk and velvet and would have covered much of the face, with holes for the eyes and mouth, if necessary, and attached to the head with a cord. Wenceslaus Hollar’s illustration of a seventeenth-century English woman wearing a mask clearly indicates the cords that attach the mask to her head. The lady’s expensive accessories, such as her large fur muff, as well as the lavish display of lace upon her gown, demonstrate her affluence. Hollar’s works frequently represent masks as a sign of status, both in his depictions of stylish women wearing them and in numerous engravings in which masks appear juxtaposed with other signs of wealth, as in this still life in which a mask appears in the lower left alongside a jumble of fur muffs, gloves, and a lace-edged kerchief. Pepys also seems to have interpreted these masks as a stylish accouterment; upon

  • 7 Ibid.

leaving the theatre the day he observed Lady Mary Cromwell, he followed the lead of the luminaries he had just observed and went to the Exchange to buy things for his wife, “among others a vizard for herself,” so that Elizabeth, like other ladies at the theatre, could keep up with the latest fashions.7

Fig. 2. Wenceslaus Hollar, Still Life with a Group of Muffs, a Pair of Gloves, Fans, Mask, and Two Kerchiefs (1647).

Fig. 2. Wenceslaus Hollar, Still Life with a Group of Muffs, a Pair of Gloves, Fans, Mask, and Two Kerchiefs (1647).

7The mask, of course, was more than a simple fashion accessory, and Pepys describes other incidents of seeing women use masks as tools of flirtation and allure, something he certainly would not have envisioned for his wife when he selected her mask. On 18 February 1667, he records seeing Sir Charles Sedley at the Duke of York’s Playhouse talking with two ladies throughout the performance. While their conversation prevented him from hearing the play, he was even more interested in the scene being enacted before him:

  • 8 Ibid., vol. 8, p. 73.

One of the ladies would, and did, sit with her mask on all the play; and being exceedingly witty as ever I heard a woman, did talk most pleasant with him; but was, I believe, a virtuous woman and of quality. He would fain know who she was, but she would not tell. Yet did give him many pleasant hints of her knowledge of him, by that means setting his brains at work to find out who she was; and did give him leave to use all means to find out who she was but pulling off her mask. He was mighty witty; and she also making sport with him very inoffensively, that a more pleasant rencontre I never heard.8

  • 9 W. Pritchard, op. cit., p. 33.

8The fact that the unknown lady wore her mask throughout the performance clearly struck Pepys as unusual, but he identifies her behavior with Sedley as a form of dalliance, specifying that the woman was upper class and virtuous. In this case, the mask serves less as a means of concealing a woman’s identity than as a means of inciting interest, what Pritchard describes as “a puzzle that Restoration culture both wanted to solve and enjoyed being unable to solve.”9 The wittiness of the exchange is possible precisely because she can remain incognito. Pepys’ accounts of female playgoers such as Lady Mary Cromwell and the witty lady provide our best record of women’s experiences in the theatre during the early years of the Restoration, and his descriptions clearly delineate the virtuous women of quality from those less “virtuous.” Interestingly, he makes no references to prostitutes or women of ill repute wearing masks, in contrast to the frequently salacious nature of many paratexts of the era. Most often, however, the literature of the Restoration, particularly that related to the theatre, depicts ladies wearing masks in a far more innocuous manner, with the masks in general being used as a plot device or simple disguise more in keeping with Pepys’ account of the witty lady.

Saving Appearances

9Although not mentioned explicitly by Pepys, the vizard mask served another important function for the women in the audience, that of concealing their response to the play they saw on the stage. While theatergoers might not have been as diligent as Pepys in cataloguing exactly what they saw at the theatre and recording it for the future, they did note the behavior of the fellow spectators. As spectacles as well as spectators, women in the audience were well aware that they were being watched by those around them and that their response to what they saw or heard might be a means of judging their character. In an age when the subject matter of much drama was overtly sexual, this surveillance left women in the awkward position of potentially implicating their deficient virtue by laughing at a sexual double entendre – or, at times, of even being present at a notoriously risqué play. In such situations, the vizard mask served the function of physically blocking a woman’s reaction from judgmental eyes. As Colley Cibber was to observe in 1740 when looking back to the theatre of the Restoration, the drama of the era was notorious for the “Looseness” of its morality and action:

  • 10 Colley Cibber, An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber. With An Historical View of the Stage Durin (...)

while our Authors took these extra ordinary Liberties with their Wit, I remember the ladies were the observ’d, to be decently afraid of venturing bare-fac’d to a new Comedy, ‘till they had been assur’d they might do it, without the Risque of an Insult, to their Modesty; or, if their Curiosity were too strong, for their Patience, they took care, at least, to save Appearances, and rarely came upon the first Days of the Acting, but in Masks (then daily worn, and admitted, in the Pit, the Side-Boxes, and Gallery) which Custom, however, had so many ill Consequences attending it, that it has been abolish’d these many Years.10

  • 11 In his history of the reign of Queen Anne in the year 1704, Abel Boyer records that in response to (...)

10The “ill consequences” Cibber mentions so discreetly were the increasingly common use of masks by prostitutes, a practice so routine by the last decade of the seventeenth century that the mask and the prostitute had become synonymous. This convention had become so recognized that on January 17, 1704 Queen Anne issued an order “being desirous to Reform all other Indecencies and Abuses of the Stage, which have occasion’d great Disorders, and justly give Offence […] That no Woman be allow’d or presume to wear a Vizard-Mask in either of the Theatres,”11 commanding managers, shareholders, actors, and constables to make sure the edict was upheld.

  • 12 Jeremy Collier, A Short View of the Immorality, and Profaneness of the English Stage, Together With (...)
  • 13 Ibid., p. 9. The passage Collier cites appears in Rapin’s commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics, Réflex (...)

11Cibber’s comments also introduce an especially important topic as he as well as a phalanx of other male writers defines women in terms of a single dominant trait: their modesty. Thus, he describes the ladies in the audience as being afraid “of an Insult, to their Modesty,” not from other members of the audience but from the plays that they saw staged. By introducing bawdy language and jokes, dramatists abuse this inherently feminine trait. As Jeremy Collier explained in A Short View of the Immodesty and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698), “Modesty is the distinguishing Vertue of that Sex, and serves both for Ornament and Defence: Modesty was design'd by Providence as a Guard to Virtue; And that it might be always at Hand, 'tis wrought into the Mechanism of the Body.”12 For him, this “mechanism” is manifested visually in the form of the blush so that modesty is not just a trait of mind but an actual bodily feature; a bawdy joke is thus not simply an insult to female virtue but a physical assault. Collier cites French theologian and critic René Rapin in describing modesty as “the Character of women,” adding that to represent them without that quality, “is to make Monsters of them, and throw them out of their Kind.”13

  • 14 Claims such as those made by Collier were commonplace in the Restoration, particularly in the final (...)

12Faced with the affronts to their modesty posed by indecent plays, women wore masks, as Cibber comments, “to save Appearances,” that is, to prevent themselves from seeming to have lost the quality deemed most quintessentially feminine.14 Thus, writing for a female audience – at least in the eyes of Collier and Cibber – necessarily entails writing drama devoid of bawdiness, in language or action. In Cibber’s eyes, the only reason a woman would go to a play before being assured that it was appropriate for female viewership was “curiosity.” By this logic, wearing a mask to the theatre in the first decades of the Restoration demonstrated the individual modesty of the woman wearing the mask. In a more general sense, it also represented a desire for plays that a woman could see unmasked, in other words, plays devoid of overtly sexual humor or action. The physical protection provided by the mask is only a reflection of this desire – as long as it is worn by a lady. In the eyes of Cibber and Collier, the presence of ladies, with their innately modest nature directly correlates to the theatrical repertoire: if the ladies are bare faced, the play staged is appropriately chaste; only by accident would a lady attend an indecent play.

  • 15 J. Collier, op. cit., p. 9.
  • 16 Sir John Vanbrugh, The Provok’d Wife, London, 1697, p. 41.

13By the end of the seventeenth century, modesty and mask wearing were seen as incompatible. (Collier, for example, claims that indecency on the stage can only appeal to those he sardonically describes as those women “that are too Modest to show their Faces in the Pit,” in other words the vizard-wearing prostitutes whose masked faces advertised their profession and thus their complete lack of modesty. Lewd plays, he continues, “hit their Palate exactly. [They] regale their Lewdness, grace their Character, and keep up their Spirits for their Vocation.”15 With masks off limits as a means of protecting their reputations, real ladies had to resort to other means of preserving an appearance of modesty if caught unawares at a risqué drama. Sir John Vanbrugh’s comedy The Provok’d Wife imagines such a predicament as the two central female characters, Mrs. Brute and Bellinda, discuss the measures they resort to when confronted with an “insult to their modesty.” Bellinda describes practicing in advance the appropriate expression to adopt, noting that “my Glass and I cou’d never yet agree what Face I shou’d 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.” She concludes, “For my part, I always take that Occasion to blow my Nose,” to which Lady Brute responds drily, “You must blow your Nose half off then at some Plays.”16

  • 17 Ibid, p. 41-42.

14Where Collier cites modesty as a physiological mechanism manifested physically by the blush, Vanbrugh presents it more cynically as a male vagary projected onto the female spectator. As a result of such expectations, women assume the appearance of modesty in order to be socially respectable. In this scene, Vanbrugh responds directly to attacks on indecency such as Collier’s (Collier was to attack Vanbrugh’s 1696 comedy The Relapse as well as The Provok’d Wife extensively in A Short View), proposing that women are forced into displays of modesty for the sake of a male audience. Thus, when Bellinda asks Lady Brute “Why don’t some Reformer or other beat the Poet [for’t][indecency]?”, Lady Brute responds, “Because [reformers are] not so sure of our private Approbation as of our public Thanks.” Suggesting that women’s appearance of modesty is only playacting she adds, “Well, sure there is not upon Earth, so impertinent a thing as Women’s Modesty.” Her companion, however, clarifies the matter, insisting “[it is] Men’s Fantasque, that obliges us to it. If we quit our Modesty, they say we lose our Charms, and yet they know that very Modesty is Affectation, and rail at our Hypocrisie.”17 For Vanbrugh, then, female modesty as displayed both in the theatre and outside it, is less a feminine virtue than a male fantasy, something that women adopt to satisfy male desire and, one might say, save face.

The Mask of Modesty

  • 18 D. Roberts discusses how court ladies influenced the original reception of the The Country Wife, op (...)
  • 19 Jennifer L. Airey, ““For fear of learning new Language”: Antitheatricalism and the Female Spectator (...)
  • 20 William Wycherley, “Epistle Dedicatory,” The Plain-Dealer, London, 1677, n. p.

15Although Bellinda in The Provok’d Wife wonders why no “reformer” has made it possible for a woman to attend the theatre without worrying about having her modesty offended or questioned, women themselves were able to impact the plays presented to them by supporting some and damning others. One notable example of the real impact of the female playgoers can be seen in the behavior of playwright William Wycherley. His comedy The Country Wife, with its notorious “china scene” in which all references to china are coded with none-to-subtle sexual implications, had had a mixed reception when first staged in 1675, with aristocratic women opposing the play’s indecency.18 This negative response sparked a furious reaction from Wycherley, who, directing his ire at the ladies in the theatre, argued that they adopted a pretense of modesty only to hide their inner corruption, corruption that emerged, he argued, in the less-than-positive response to some of his works. His final play, The Plain Dealer, staged the following year, provides a lurid picture of how he saw the female audience members who denounced his works. Wycherley imagines his female audience as no more than poseurs, much like the society ladies in The Country Wife who used a veneer of respectability to conceal their illicit desires; women’s outraged response to his plays is in his eyes no more than affectation. As Jennifer Airey notes, “Wycherley implies that the relationship between the poet and the female spectator is a powerfully intimate one, and he deliberately and sarcastically sexualizes the female theater-going experience to dismiss female criticisms of the stage.”19 Thus, he complains that his plays have lost favor with the ladies of “stricter lives” in the play house and dedicates The Plain Dealer to Madam Bennett, a notorious bawd, claiming that she is a far better judge of obscenity than they. As he explains, unlike the proper ladies, the bawd has “too much modesty to pretend to’t,” and, as with so many of his male contemporaries, he discusses female response predominantly in terms of modesty – real or assumed. Like Vanbrugh, he claims that what the ladies “renounce in public often entertains ‘em in private,” but, unlike the later playwright, he puts the blame for this discrepancy squarely on the filthy minds of women rather than on men’s demands that women project a front of modesty.20

Fig. 3. Title Page, The Plain Dealer, London, printed by T. N. for James Magnes and Richard Bentley, 1677.

Fig. 3. Title Page, The Plain Dealer, London, printed by T. N. for James Magnes and Richard Bentley, 1677.
  • 21 Ibid.

16Turning from the bawd with her true understanding of obscenity, he uses the motif of the mask as a means of articulating what he sees as the deep-seated dishonesty of women, especially those who sit in judgement of his plays, rather than the “honest” prostitutes who do not pretend to be something that they are not. As with Collier, Cibber, and Vanbrugh, modesty is once again the quality most strongly associated with the female spectator; even if falsely applied, it is still the defining feature of a woman. In his eyes, all women are alike in adopting a “Mask of modesty which [they] wear promiscuously in publick.” They fear exposure rather than being confronted with obscenity, or, in his more graphic terms, “‘tis the plain dealing of the play, not the obscenity, ’tis the taking off the ladies’ masks, not offering at their petticoats, which most offends ‘em.”21 There is no way to please such an audience because they refuse to remove these metaphorical masks. With a startling burst of misogyny, he attacks those female spectators who dare malign his plays:

  • 22 Ibid.

Nay, [he states] nothing is secure from the power of their imaginations, no, not their Husbands, whom they Cuckold with themselves by thinking of other men and so make the lawful matrimonial embraces Adultery; wrong Husbands and poets in thought and word, to keep their own Reputations; but your Ladyship’s justice, I know, wou’d think a Woman’s Arraigning and Damning a Poet for her own obscenity like her crying out a Rape, and hanging a man for giving her pleasure, only that she might be thought not to consent to’t; and so to vindicate her honour forfeits her modesty.22

  • 23 Ibid.

17The very act of articulating a complaint demonstrates a woman’s lack of modesty, an act that he compares not simply to raising a false charge of rape but of being akin to dreaming of and enjoying illicit sexual relations. In Wycherley’s mind, the ladies have taken his “innocent words” and “ma[d]e ‘em guilty of their own naughtiness.”23 The truly modest are not alarmed by innocent words and do not scruple to see plays in public – to pretend otherwise would, he says, “look too much like acting.” While he makes the claim that Vanbrugh was to make twenty years later that the overt appearance of female modesty is an act, unlike Vanbrugh, he faults the women not the men around them. Women really enjoy his plays (or should), he argues, but for the sake of their reputations they pretend otherwise. Ironically, the very vehemence of his attack on elite female playgoers demonstrates the power they wielded over the theatrical repertoire. Pleasing the ladies, rather than the bawds, held the key to a play’s success or failure.

  • 24 As Airey notes, Wycherley’s personal experience with a play denounced by women as obscene colors hi (...)
  • 25 W. Wycherley, op. cit., p. 24.
  • 26 Ibid.
  • 27 Wycherley’s emphasis on the hypocrisy of women is an excellent example of the inappropriate attitud (...)

18In the play that follows, Wycherley dramatizes how dangerous female imagination has distorted the honest “plain dealing” of his plays.24 Referring directly to the infamous “China Scene” in The Country Wife, he stages a confrontation between Eliza, one of those few truly modest women who do not scruple to see his plays in public, and Olivia, a representative of those female spectators whose “mask of modesty” slips to reveal her corrupt core. In the scene, Olivia attacks a mutual acquaintance who was seen at the Country Wife after the first day, and, what was worse, did so without displaying any indication that she found the play indecent, such as hiding behind her fan or blushing. Eliza, on the other hand, argues that “a Woman betrays her want of modesty, by shewing it publickly in a Play-house, as much as a Man does his want of courage by a quarrel there; for the truly modest and stout say least, and are least exceptious, especially in publick.”25 She proceeds to defend The Country Wife while Olivia continues to attack the play, demonstrating, in the process, the true immodesty of her nature. The play’s China scene has so affected her that she has broken all of her china because the sight of it unleashed the lascivious thoughts always present in her mind: As she exclaims in horror, even the name Horner offends her, “O horrid! does it not give you the rank conception, or image of a Goat, a Town-bull, or a Satyr? […] when you have those filthy creatures in your head once, the next thing you think, is what they do; as their defiling of honest Mens Beds and Couches, Rapes upon sleeping and waking Countrey Virgins, under Hedges, and on Haycocks – ”26 This is, Wycherley suggests, hypocrisy in action – indulging in carnal behavior while hiding behind a mask of outrage.27

  • 28 W. Wycherley, op. cit., p. 24.

19To the question Olivia poses to her cousin: “Then you wou’d have a Woman of Honour with passive looks, ears, and tongue, undergo all the hideous obscenity she hears at nasty Plays?”28 Wycherley would reply emphatically yes. Through this scene as through his Preface, he argues that true modesty can only reside with those women who do not complain about what they see upon the stage – or, at least, those who do not object to his plays. By contrast, masks, whether they are the physical mask of the vizard or the partial mask of the fan, represent a mark of agency as well as hypocrisy.

  • 29 The Misanthrope was first performed on June 4, 1666 in Paris at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal. Molièr (...)
  • 30 As A. M. Friedson notes, while Célimène may commit venial acts of hypocrisy, “in the characterizati (...)
  • 31 Molière, The Misanthrope, trans. Richard Wilbur, Molière: The Complete Richard Wilbur Translations, (...)
  • 32 Friedson suggests that Wycherley created Eliza primarily as a foil for Olivia, largely for this sce (...)
  • 33 Clotilde Thouret, “Pudeur et provocation : la représentation des femmes à la comédie, en France et (...)

20The main source for The Plain Dealer was Molière’s 1666 comedy The Misanthrope, or the Cantankerous Lover (Le Misanthrope ou l’Atrabilaire amoureux),29 and comparing the two plays reveals the depth of Wycherley’s concern about the impact of the female audience within the Restoration theatre. While The Plain Dealer follows the general outline of Molière’s comedy, a close examination of the central female characters exposes some key differences. The Misanthrope features a scene in which characters who discuss female modesty and affectation, much as Wycherley’s Olivia and Eliza would ten years later. However, Molière’s representation of female hypocrisy turns on the personal behavior of the two characters involved: the coquette Célimène and the prude Arsinoé. Célimène, the fiancée of Alceste the misanthrope, is a coquette, and, while not entirely honest, she is not corrupt.30 Arsinoé, for whom there is no counterpart in The Plain Dealer, rails at Célimène for her flirting, claiming that it will ruin her reputation, but in this case it is Célimène, Olivia’s counterpart, who wins the argument.31 Just as there is no prude in The Plain Dealer to parallel Arsinoé, there is no counterpart for Eliza in The Misanthrope.32 Eliza appears in only two scenes in The Plain Dealer (act two, scene one, and, briefly, act five, scene one), and in each she berates Olivia for her hypocrisy regarding the comedy of her time; her character thus acts as a means for Wycherley to express his anger at those women who condemn obscenity in drama. Tellingly, unlike Wycherley, for whom the entire subject of modesty and hypocrisy is revealed by how women respond to drama (especially his plays), Molière makes no reference to theatre at all – in these scenes or elsewhere in his play Clotilde Thouret, however, identifies an additional source for The Plain Dealer: Molière’s shorter play, La Critique de l'école des femmes (1663). As Wycherley was to do, Molière’s Critique includes scenes in which two women, Uranie and Élise, defend L’École des femmes (1662) against claims of indecency made by a third woman, Climène.33

Commanding Eyes

  • 34 For a more extensive discussion of she-tragedy and spectatorship, see Jean I. Marsden, Fatal Desire (...)

21Wycherley’s virulent attack on the ladies provides indirect proof of the impact they could have on success or lack thereof of a play, and, by the end of the seventeenth century, playwrights frequently used paratexts to emphasize the importance of pleasing women. References to “the Fair” are a common component of Restoration prologues, but typically they exist as one in a series of references to generic groups, such as beaux, fops or wits. Prologues in the 1660s and 1670s are rarely devoted specifically to the Ladies; requests for favor typically turn to the audience more generally. With the advent of the she-tragedy in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, however, certain plays were identified as especially suitable for ladies,34 as Nicholas Rowe was to write in the prologue to The Tragedy of Lady Jane Grey,

  • 35 Nicholas Rowe, Prologue, The Tragedy of the Lady Jane Gray, ed. Claudine van Hensbergen, The Plays (...)

To you, fair Judges, we the Cause submit;
Your Eyes shall tell us how the Tale is writ.
If your soft Pity waits upon our Woe,
If silent Tears for suff’ring Virtue flow;
Your Grief the Muse’s Labour shall confess,
The lively Passions, and the just Distress.
Oh! Could our Author’s Pencil justly paint,
Such as she was in Life, the beauteous Saint;
Boldly your strict Attention we might claim,
And bid you mark, and copyout the Dame.
35

22Rowe’s words here are less a request for favor from his female spectators than a statement of how they should react if his portrait of the title character was well done. The eyes of the “Fair Judges” do not command the poet but rather indicate the quality of the dramatic representation through “silent Tears.” In contrast to discussions of weeping later in the century, in Rowe’s view, tears are distinctly gendered. As with Wycherley, proper female response to drama is passive, and Rowe completes his address to the ladies by giving them instructions on proper behavior, telling them to “mark, and copyout the Dame.”

23Thus far I have examined the views of a variety of male writers, playgoers, moralists, and playwrights, as they describe how female audiences responded to what they saw on the Restoration stage – and, in the eyes of these male observers, how these women, real or imagined, should respond. A different pattern emerges when we look at a group of female playwrights, the so-called “female wits” – Delariviere Manley, Mary Pix, and Catharine Trotter – who in the 1690s found a temporary solidarity as fledgling playwrights. In their prologues, prefaces, and dedicatory poems, they espoused female community, praising each other and professing kinship with earlier playwrights such as Katherine Phillips and Aphra Behn. As with Nicholas Rowe, they saw themselves writing for a female audience because they thought their femino-centric plays would please them. In the words of Mary Pix, their plays should be of special interest to the women in the audience because they write of “Heroiens [sic] and of sacred Things.” Unlike Rowe, however, they claim that they know how to please the women in the audience because they too are women. As Pix explains in her prologue to The Double Distress:

  • 36 Mary Pix, Prologue to The Double Distress, London, 1701.

Our modest Muse no Fop or Ruffian brings;
But treats of Heroiens and of sacred Things:
Be kind, ye Fair, since of the Fair she sings.
These Characters are for Examples Dressed;
Brave, like our Nobles, like our Ladies Chaste.
36

24The prologue stresses not only that the playwright herself is a woman but links the women in the audience to those they see upon the stage, explicitly comparing her characters to the ladies who watch them. As Pix writes in the prologue to an earlier play, her tragedy Ibrahim, Thirteenth Emperor of the Turks (1696), her plays are specifically designed for the “Commanding Eyes” of the fair:

  • 37 Mary Pix, Prologue to Ibrahim, Thirteenth Emperor of the Turks, London, 1696.

Her only hopes in yonder brightness lies,
If we read praise in those Commanding Eyes:
What rude Blustering Critique then will dare
To find a fault, or contradict the Fair?
Th' humble Offering at your Feet she lays,
Nor wishes she to live without your Praise:
Strict Rules of Honour still she kept in view,
And always when she wrote, she thought on you.
Then Ladies own it, let not Detracters say,
You'll not protect one harmless, modest Play.
The Hero to our Sex is still inclin'd,
Securing you, we’re sure of all Mankind.
If in that charming Circle you will oft appear,
An Empty House we sha'n't have cause to fear.
37

25Claiming to have thought only of the ladies as she wrote, Pix uses the first-person plural to link herself with the women in her audience; she stresses the modesty of her play, not the women who watch it. Where Rowe would claim to find his success in the silent tears of his female spectators, Pix envisions the women in her audience as her protectors, whose “Commanding Eyes” are the key to a successful play. “Securing” the favor of her female audience determines a play’s continued popularity as Pix states that “in that charming Circle you will oft appear,/ An Empty House we shan’t have cause to fear”: the will of the ladies determines what appears on stage.

  • 38 Delarivier Manley, “Prologue spoken by Mr. Betterton,” The Royal Mischief, London, 1696. Although t (...)
  • 39 Ibid., “To the Reader.”

26The assumption that underlies many of the paratexts by Pix, Trotter, and Manley is precisely this, that the women in their audiences control the theatrical repertoire, and their support can ensure the success of a play. Their plays stand out for the number of times they make special pleas to their female spectators for their support. Like Pix, Manley turns to the ladies in the prologue to her tragedy The Royal Mischief, basing her request for sponsorship on the fact of shared gender: “My last Wishes Ladies are for you/ Espouse your Sexes Cause, and bravely Too.”38 The Royal Mischief was attacked when it was first staged because it was too “warm” in its representation of its antiheroine Homais’ sexual exploits. In an address to the reader published with the play, Manley explains that once women read her play, they will perceive that such allegations are false, composed by men scornful of female achievements: “I do not doubt when the Ladies have given themselves the trouble of reading, and comparing [the play] with others, they’ll find the prejudice against our sex, and not refuse me the satisfaction of entertaining them.”39 Ironically inverting Wycherley’s complaints twenty years earlier, Manley appears to blame men for being too prudish to appreciate her play.

Conclusion

  • 40 Cibber’s play, depicts a morally strong woman whose active virtue reforms her philandering, insensi (...)

27We cannot know exactly to what degree ladies in Restoration audiences shaped the theatrical repertoire of their age. What accounts we do have, however, reveal that they were avid theatregoers and that they were an active presence in the theatre, responsible for helping determine the drama seen by their contemporaries. Their presence in the theatre auditorium was remarked upon, both positively and negatively, and they were cognizant both of the play on the stage and of the ways in which their response to that play was studied by those around them. This awareness of the female audience and its importance is conveyed in part through comments on their appearance, masked or unmasked, blushing or boldfaced. It is expressed perhaps most compellingly, however, through the words of playwrights as they beseech the ladies to support their plays and, perhaps most tellingly, through the ire of William Wycherley as he berates the women who did not support his works. Although the later seventeenth century provides only these general indications of influence, by the early eighteenth century, advertisements in newspapers frequently announced that a particular play was being staged “at the Desire of several Ladies of Quality.” These advertisements provide solid evidence of the plays favored by the ladies, plays such as Colley Cibber’s The Careless Husband, whose virtuous heroine Lady Easy stands in contrast to the corrupt and hypocritical women depicted in both The Country Wife and The Plain Dealer.40 Not surprisingly, the Ladies never requested a performance of either play – or any other play by Wycherley – during the early decades of the eighteenth century.

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Notes

1 David Roberts, The Ladies: Female Patronage of Restoration Drama, 1660-1700, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1989, p. 59. See chapter three, “Women in the Playhouse,” for a more extensive discussion of who these women were.

2 Lesley Ferris, Acting Women: Images of Women in the Theatre, New York, New York University Press, 1989, p. 74; Catherine Gallagher, Nobody’s Story: Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670-1820, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995, p. 34.

3 Laura Rosenthal, “Reading Masks: The Actress and the Spectatrix in Restoration Shakespeare”, in Katherine M. Quinsey (ed.), Broken Boundries: Women and Feminism in Restoration Drama, Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 1996, p. 201-218, here p. 207. Rosenthal acknowledges her debt to Gallagher’s argument, p. 216 n. 7.

4 Will Pritchard, “Masks and Faces: Female Legibility in the Restoration Era,” Eighteenth-Century Life, 24.3, Fall 2000, p. 31-52, here p. 47.

5 A rare exception to this appears in Pepys’ account of his wife’s response to Dryden’s An Evening’s Love, Or the Mock Astrologer on 19 June 1668, where he notes that “though the world commends, she likes not.” Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Robert Latham and William Matthews, 11 vols., Berkeley, University of California Press, 1970-1983, vol. 9, p. 247. Roberts dedicates an entire chapter to what we can glean of the literary tastes of Elizabeth Pepys in chapter two of The Ladies (“Elizabeth Pepys, Play-goer”), p. 49-64.

6 S. Pepys, op. cit., vol. 4, p. 181.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., vol. 8, p. 73.

9 W. Pritchard, op. cit., p. 33.

10 Colley Cibber, An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber. With An Historical View of the Stage During His Time. Written by Himself [1740], ed. B. R. S. Fone, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1968, p. 147.

11 In his history of the reign of Queen Anne in the year 1704, Abel Boyer records that in response to “the loud complaints of several pious Men against the Profaneness, Immorality, and indecency of the Stage, having reached the Queen’s Ears, her Majesty thought fit to publish the following Order for regulating the two Play-houses”:

Anne R.

Whereas we have already given Orders to the Master of the Revels, and also to both the Companies of Comedies Acting at Drury-Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Fields theatres, to take care that nothing be Acted in either the Theatres contrary to Religion or Good Manners upon pain of our High Displeasure, and on being silenc’d from further Acting: And being further Desirous to Reform all other Indecencies and Abuses of the Stage, which have occasion’d great Disorders and justly give Offense. Our Will and Pleasure therefore is, And we do hereby strictly Command, that no Person of what Quality soever, presume to go behind the Scenes, or go upon the Stage, either before or during the Acting of any Play. That no Woman be allow’d, or presume to wear, a Vizard-Mask in either of the Theatres. An that no Person into either House without paying the Prices Establish’d for their respective Places. All which Orders we strictly Command all the Managers, Sharers, and Actors of the said Companies, to see exactly Observ’d and Obey’d. And we Require and Command all our Constables, and other appointed to attend the theatres, to be Aiding and Assisting to them therein.”

Abel Boyer, The History of the Reign Queen Anne, Digested into Annals. Year the Second. Containing, the most Memorable Transactions both at Home and Abroad: In which are Inserted several Valuable Pieces never before Printed, London, 1704, p. 207-208.

12 Jeremy Collier, A Short View of the Immorality, and Profaneness of the English Stage, Together With the Sense of Antiquity upon this Argument, London, 1698, p. 11.

13 Ibid., p. 9. The passage Collier cites appears in Rapin’s commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics, Réflexions sur la poétique d'Aristote et sur les ouvrages des poétes anciens et modernes (1674), in section XXV, Rapin’s discussion of Aristotle’s observations on proper manners in drama. For more on Collier’s attitudes toward female playgoers, see Jean I. Marsden, “Female Spectatorship, Jeremy Collier, and the Antitheatrical Debate,” ELH 65.4, Winter 1998, p. 851-872.

14 Claims such as those made by Collier were commonplace in the Restoration, particularly in the final decade of the century when debates over the character of women became heated. The anonymous author of The Freedom of the Fair Sex Asserted: Or, Woman the Crown of Creation, like Collier and Rapin, claimed that modesty was the essential characteristic of women and that without it they were no longer human. The Freedom Of The Fair Sex Asserted: Or, Woman The Crown O The Creation. In a Letter to a Young Lady, London, 1700, p. 21: “Modesty is the Darling Attribute of Woman, the great Moral Distinction between her self, and Man. This it is, that Recommends her Beauty, and Invigorates every Charm; that upholds the Dignity of her Nature, and preserves the whole Circle of her virtues Inviolable. […] To talk of immodest Women is Nonsence; there can be no such: For to loose their Modesty, they must loose a part of their Nature; and then they are no longer Women but Monsters: Consequently such as Degenerate in this particular, bring no Scandal upon the Sex, for they cease to be members of it.”

15 J. Collier, op. cit., p. 9.

16 Sir John Vanbrugh, The Provok’d Wife, London, 1697, p. 41.

17 Ibid, p. 41-42.

18 D. Roberts discusses how court ladies influenced the original reception of the The Country Wife, op. cit., p. 107-109.

19 Jennifer L. Airey, ““For fear of learning new Language”: Antitheatricalism and the Female Spectator in The Country Wife and The Plain Dealer, Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660-1700, 31.2, Fall 2007, p. 1-19, here p. 9.

20 William Wycherley, “Epistle Dedicatory,” The Plain-Dealer, London, 1677, n. p.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 As Airey notes, Wycherley’s personal experience with a play denounced by women as obscene colors his harsh depiction of women such as Olivia in The Plain Dealer. J. L. Airey, op. cit., p. 2.

25 W. Wycherley, op. cit., p. 24.

26 Ibid.

27 Wycherley’s emphasis on the hypocrisy of women is an excellent example of the inappropriate attitude toward women of certain male wits that the author of The Freedom of the Fair Sex Asserted would describe twenty-five years later: “’Tis their Business to Interpret every thing in the worst Sense it will bear; and if it will not admit an ill Construction, yet they scruple not to make it Nonsense, choosing rather to Discover their Hypocrisy, than Conceal their Folly. Thus with them, all that becoming Conduct and mutual Respect, observ’d among the Ladies, is meer Emptiness and Formality; a little Freedom of Talk with our Sex, is down-right Impudence. Innocence of Behaviour is all Trick and Design, and Modesty no more than Affectation. In Short, as every Vertue has its Counterfeit, so every Woman that appears Vertuous, has, nothing of it, they suppose, besides the Appearance.” Freedom of the Fair Sex, op. cit., p. 3.

28 W. Wycherley, op. cit., p. 24.

29 The Misanthrope was first performed on June 4, 1666 in Paris at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal. Molière’s works were a popular source for many Restoration playwrights, including Aphra Behn, John Crowne, Thomas Otway, and Thomas Shadwell.

30 As A. M. Friedson notes, while Célimène may commit venial acts of hypocrisy, “in the characterization of Olivia, Wycherley extends characteristics of Célimène's, which are merely reprehensible, until they become vicious and villainous. We may or may not feel that Alceste has lost anybody worthwhile when he renounces Cé1imène; there is no doubt in our minds that Manly has been eminently fortunate in discovering and rejecting Olivia.” “Wycherley and Molière: Satirical Point of View in The Plain Dealer,” Modern Philology, 64.3, Feb. 1967, p. 189-197, here p. 194.

31 Molière, The Misanthrope, trans. Richard Wilbur, Molière: The Complete Richard Wilbur Translations, New York, Library of America, 2022, 2 vols.

32 Friedson suggests that Wycherley created Eliza primarily as a foil for Olivia, largely for this scene. op.cit., p. 195.

33 Clotilde Thouret, “Pudeur et provocation : la représentation des femmes à la comédie, en France et en Angleterre, au XVIIe siècle (Molière, Wycherley, Vanbrugh),” in Véronique Lochert et al. (éd.), Spectatrices ! Les femmes au spectacle, de l’Antiquité à nos jours, Paris, Editions du CNRS, 2022, p. 81-94.

34 For a more extensive discussion of she-tragedy and spectatorship, see Jean I. Marsden, Fatal Desire: Women, Sexuality, and the English Stage, 1660-1720, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2006.

35 Nicholas Rowe, Prologue, The Tragedy of the Lady Jane Gray, ed. Claudine van Hensbergen, The Plays and Poems of Nicholas Rowe, gen. ed. Stephen Bernard, London, Routledge, 2017, vol. 3, p. 110.

36 Mary Pix, Prologue to The Double Distress, London, 1701.

37 Mary Pix, Prologue to Ibrahim, Thirteenth Emperor of the Turks, London, 1696.

38 Delarivier Manley, “Prologue spoken by Mr. Betterton,” The Royal Mischief, London, 1696. Although the play was published with an additional prologue “by an unknown hand,” Manley’s request for female favor appears to have been the one staged. In addition to the two prologues, the play was published with poems in praise of Manley by Catharine Trotter and Mary Pix and an address to the reader by Manley.

39 Ibid., “To the Reader.”

40 Cibber’s play, depicts a morally strong woman whose active virtue reforms her philandering, insensitive husband. The play’s central figure, Lady Easy, carries herself with dignity even when confronted with evidence of her husband’s infidelity, famously draping her steinkirk over his wigless head to preserve him from drafts – and to alert him to her forbearance when he wakes.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. Wenceslaus Hollar, Lady with Mask and Muff (ca. 1638-40).
URL http://journals.openedition.org/episteme/docannexe/image/15472/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 512k
Titre Fig. 2. Wenceslaus Hollar, Still Life with a Group of Muffs, a Pair of Gloves, Fans, Mask, and Two Kerchiefs (1647).
URL http://journals.openedition.org/episteme/docannexe/image/15472/img-2.png
Fichier image/png, 472k
Titre Fig. 3. Title Page, The Plain Dealer, London, printed by T. N. for James Magnes and Richard Bentley, 1677.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/episteme/docannexe/image/15472/img-3.png
Fichier image/png, 83k
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Jean I. Marsden, « Commanding Eyes: Female Spectators and the Restoration Theatrical Repertoire »Études Épistémè [En ligne], 42 | 2022, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2022, consulté le 02 février 2023. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/episteme/15472 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/episteme.15472

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Auteur

Jean I. Marsden

Jean I. Marsden is Professor of English at the University of Connecticut.  She is the author of Theatres of Feeling: Affect and Performance on the Eighteenth-Century Stage (Cambridge 2019), Fatal Desire:  Women, Sexuality, and the English Stage (Cornell 2006), The Re-Imagined Text:  Shakespeare, Adaptation, and Eighteenth-Century Literary Theory (Kentucky 1995). Other publications include The Appropriation of Shakespeare: Post-Renaissance of the Works Reconstructions of the Works and the Myth (ed., Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), an edition of Nicholas Rowe’s The Fair Penitent (Broadview, 2000), associate editor of The Works of Anne Finch (Cambridge 2020), as well numerous articles on Restoration and eighteenth-century theatre and performance.

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