The Belle's Stratagem
Hannah Cowley's The Belle's Stratagem was first produced in 1780 and is considered her most famous play. It is a lighthearted comedy about manners and courtship, set in the fashionable society of late-eighteenth-century London. Scholars often note that Cowley's style in The Belle's Stratagem is suggestive of her predecessors. Even the title of this play pays homage to one such Augustan playwright, George Farquhar, and his play The Beaux's Stratagem.
Many of the stories from the Restoration and Augustan playwrights juxtapose two storylines; The Belle's Stratagem is no different. The two plot-lines are Letitia Hardy's ingenious scheme to entrap and win the heart of her arranged husband, Doricourt, and the marital problems of the insanely jealous Sir George Touchwood and his wife, the sheltered and beautiful Lady Frances. Both plots focus on men learning to respect women; however, there is added depth to this story, as it is also layered with questions about identity and feminism. The role of the masquerade as a metaphor for the many masks women must wear within society becomes an important element in both plotlines. The two juxtaposed stories meet with a crescendo at the masquerade ball, creating a bewildering parody of fashionable society, marriage, and the role of women in the eighteenth century.
Hannah Cowley is one of the foremost playwrights of the late eighteenth century. Often underrecognized,
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possibly because of her gender, her skill for writing fluid dialogue and developing spirited, unforgettable comic characters places her in a category with her better-known, male contemporaries.
Cowley was born Hannah Parkhouse in 1743 in Tiverton, Devonshire, England. Her father Philip Parkhouse, a bookseller with extensive schooling, provided Cowley with an impressive and rare education for a young eighteenth-century woman. As a result, Cowley was well versed in many subjects.
In 1772, Hannah married Thomas Cowley, son of another bookseller, who worked in several jobs, including as a theatre critic. In 1776, she decided to try her hand at writing for the stage to supplement the couple's income. She submitted her first finished play, which she penned in only a few weeks' time, to David Garrick, a theatre manager and actor. Surprising to everyone, including Cowley herself, her debut work The Runaway was produced on February 15, 1776, at Drury Lane, and was well received by critics and the public alike.
After Garrick's retirement later in 1776, Cowley initially had difficultly getting new plays staged. In a bizarre twist, another woman playwright, Hannah More, staged several plays that bore an uncanny resemblance to one of Cowley's as-yet-unproduced plays, leading some, including Cowley herself, to accuse More of plagiarism; the dispute, however, was never resolved.
In 1780, Cowley's luck began to turn. Her play The Belle's Stratagem premiered on February 22, 1780, and was a great success. The School of Eloquence (April 3, 1780) was equally successful, but The World As It Goes (February 24, 1781) essentially bombed. This failure led to another, and, thus, in search of steadier income for the family, Thomas Cowley departed for India in 1783 to work for the East India Company, leaving behind Cowley and the couple's children.
Thomas Cowley never returned to England; he died in India in 1797. Hannah, however, began to prosper in her playwriting, producing at least seven plays between 1783 and 1794. As her popularity grew, she attempted writing poetry, but found it far less lucrative than her work for the stage. In 1789, she suffered personal tragedy when her eldest daughter died, followed in death the next year by Philip Parkhouse, Cowley's father.
Cowley's popularity as a writer began to wane in the late 1790s and early 1800s. She decided to return to her hometown in Devonshire, where she remained until her death in 1809. She continued to write in her final years, undertaking a revision of her earlier works to make them more palatable for the conservative audiences of the early nineteenth century. The Works of Hannah Cowley (1813), published after her death, contains these revised, or watered-down, versions of her plays, and, as such, has been largely ignored by twentieth- and twenty-first-century scholars. To get a true feel for Cowley's writing, readers should seek out the publications of her original plays.
The Belle's Stratagem opens at Lincoln's Inn, where Saville is looking for his good friend, Doricourt, who has recently returned from travels. While waiting, Saville talks with a townsman, Courtall, about the plentiful unmarried women throughout town. They also discuss how the unwed women are extremely eager to marry because so many young men are away fighting the Americans in the Revolutionary War. Saville tells Courtall that Doricourt is to marry Letitia Hardy. Courtall is excited that Doricourt is to be wed, because Doricourt is a heavily courted young man. His Page 31 | Top of Article marriage will free the minds of many women for other men.
Later, at Doricourt's, Crowquill, the author of a local gossip column, attempts to pry scandalous information from Doricourt's porter. It is to no avail as, according to the porter, Doricourt is free of such trifle. Saville arrives, still looking for Doricourt, and eventually he is taken to see his friend's apartment by a Frenchman employed by Doricourt.
At the apartment, Doricourt and Saville discuss servants. Doricourt employs French and German servants because he believes they are less intelligent and, thus, more loyal. Saville disagrees, and the two men change topics, discussing instead marriage and women of the world. Doricourt explains that he finds Letitia Hardy attractive, but he believes her soul is lacking fire and lust. Doricourt speaks of the beautiful women of France and Italy, while expressing his indifference for British women. Again, Saville disagrees. The two men end the conversation agreeing that British men do, in fact, make the best friends, companions, and business partners.
Meanwhile, at an apartment owned by the Hardy's, Flutter, Villers, and Mrs. Racket discuss the upcoming marriage between Doricourt and Letitia. Eventually their conversation shifts to the marital problems between Sir George Touchwood and his wife, Lady Frances. Mrs. Racket finds Touchwood to be an excessively jealous brute. Villers and Flutter believe Mrs. Racket is being a bit too dramatic. Flutter tells a wildly embellished story, whereupon Villers says, "I never believe one tenth part of what you say," exposing Flutter as an extravagant gossip.
Letitia makes her first appearance and complains that Doricourt expressed indifference for her at their first meeting. She is disappointed, but Mrs. Racket reminds her that Doricourt has courted and been courted all throughout Europe and that the young Letitia should not expect much from him at first. Hardy, Letitia's father, enters the room and professes that Doricourt loves his daughter. Letitia begs to differ and sets in motion a plan to truly win Doricourt's heart. She plans to first make Doricourt hate her, then to transform his hate into passionate love, because, Letitia believes, "'tis much easier to convert a sentiment into its opposite than to transform indifference into tender passion."
At Sir George Touchwood's house, Mrs. Racket and Miss Ogle confront Sir George about his jealousy, claiming that he is oppressive and that his beliefs in marriage are a century and a half old. Lady Frances remains quiet until Flutter reveals that Sir George released her favorite bullfinch, out of jealousy for the bird. Lady Frances becomes upset, and for the first time leaves her husband's side to go about town with Mrs. Racket and Miss Ogle. The three women visit an auction house owned by Silvertongue. While there, Courtall spies Lady Frances and begins to lust after her.
Back at Hardy's, Letitia has set her plan into action. When Doricourt arrives for dinner, Letitia acts like a fool, making brash, unintelligent comments; insulting Doricourt's expression; and alluding to the fact that she is not a virgin. Letitia's plan nearly backfires when Doricourt decides to leave London immediately. Mrs. Racket, knowing of Letitia's plan, begs him to stay the night and to attend the masquerade ball. Although upset with Letitia, Doricourt agrees to attend the ball.
After meeting Lady Frances, Courtall sets his own plan into action, although, unlike Letitia's plan, his is not for love. Courtall tells Saville that he plans to seduce Lady Frances at the masquerade ball by posing as her husband. Courtall sends his servant, Dick, to discover what type of costume Sir George will be wearing. This spiteful, immoral plan enrages Saville and he feels compelled to foil Courtall's plan. Saville leaves Courtall's apartment and catches up to Dick. Saville tells Dick that if he brings the information back to him, without telling Courtall of his plan, then Saville will provide him with extra pay. Dick is excited to comply, and Saville sets his own counterplan into motion.
Back at the Touchwood's, Sir George is lamenting that he and his wife are disunited. Villers tells Sir George that Lady Frances missed him desperately during her day on the town with Mrs. Racket and Miss Ogle. Lady Frances returns and is sad. She missed her husband. The two embrace and Lady Frances tells Sir George that she never wants to be anywhere but by his side. The couple decide to attend the masquerade ball together.
At the masquerade, the three plans—Letitia's, Courtall's and Saville's—come into play. Letitia arrives alone dressed in a costume that conceals her identity. She spies Doricourt and dances gracefully in front of him. He is immediately smitten, but Letitia floats away. She soon returns, this time singing beautifully. Again, Doricourt pines for her attention, begging to see her face. Letitia talks to Page 32 | Top of Article Doricourt, but refuses his advances. Doricourt is full of love and passion; he follows Letitia, showering her with compliments. Finally he grabs her and explains that he believes fate has ordained that she should be his wife. She agrees, but tells him he must wait until tomorrow. She then leaves the masquerade. Doricourt is dizzied by his experience and when Flutter asks about his mood, he points to Letitia and exclaims that he is in love. Flutter, forever the liar and embellisher, professes that the woman Doricourt is smitten with is married. Doricourt is devastated. Hardy sees this exchange and tries to explain that the woman is not married and that, in fact, it was Letitia. Doricourt does not believe Hardy, and he leaves the masquerade.
Meanwhile, Saville has arrived with an amorous young woman named Kitty Willis. Saville is dressed identically to Sir George, and Kitty Willis is dressed identically to Lady Frances. Saville, knowing that Courtall plans to seduce Lady Frances under the guise of being Sir George, has enacted an elaborate plan to trick Courtall into believing that Kitty Willis is Lady Frances. When Sir George and Lady Frances arrive, Saville whisks Lady Frances away, explaining that there is danger at the ball. Courtall arrives and sees Saville sitting with Kitty Willis, but he mistakenly believes it is Sir George sitting with Lady Frances. When Saville leaves, Willis is sitting alone. Courtall swoops in and pretends to be Sir George. He tells Willis that they must leave and the two depart. Unbeknownst to Courtall, he is leaving with Willis, instead of Lady Frances.
Courtall takes Willis back to his apartment. Saville, Flutter, and others barge into Courtall's apartment before Courtall can unmask Willis. Courtall claims he has the delightful Lady Frances in his bedchamber. As he announces this, Willis comes prancing out, revealing herself to everyone. Courtall is humiliated. Everyone laughs, and Courtall states he must immediately leave London for Paris.
After the masquerade, Doricourt is distraught that the woman of his dreams is married. Saville tries to console him, but Doricourt is depressed that he must marry Letitia. He decides to fake insanity and he enlists Saville's help. Saville reluctantly agrees to tell the Hardys that Doricourt was poisoned at the masquerade and that it has caused him to go insane. Mrs. Racket is saddened to hear this and explains to Saville that the woman Doricourt was swooned by was, indeed, Letitia. Relieved, Saville immediately reveals Doricourt's ruse. Angered that Doricourt would create such a lie, Mrs. Racket demands that Saville bring Doricourt to the Hardy's, madness and all. Saville, again, reluctantly agrees, and keeps the secret from his friend. Doricourt arrives, acting insane, and Mrs. Racket immediately calls his bluff. Doricourt explains that he fell in love with a different woman at the masquerade and cannot bear the thought of marrying Letitia. Suddenly, the woman from the masquerade enters the room and reveals herself as Letitia. She explains that she concocted her stratagem to entice Doricourt to love her. She tells Doricourt that she is willing to be any type of wife he desires, but he is so smitten that he begs her to be nothing but herself. Everyone rejoices and the celebration of their marriage begins.
Courtall is a womanizer and could possibly even be called a misogynist. His name indicates a character with no discrimination, a man who pursues all women for the sport of it. In the opening scene he talks with Saville about Doricourt. Saville reveals that Doricourt is to be married and this makes Courtall happy because Doricourt is very sought after by the ladies. In fact, Courtall explains that Doricourt's marriage is next best only to his death with regards to increasing Courtall's chances with women. Courtall resurfaces later at an auction house and looks lecherously at Lady Frances Touchwood. Lady Frances is a sheltered woman and is taken aback by Courtall's leers. At the auction house, Courtall begins his lustful pursuit of Lady Frances. With the help of a servant, Courtall decides to dress in a costume that matches Sir George Touchwood—Lady Frances's husband—with the hopes of tricking Lady Frances and seducing her. His plan is foiled by Saville's disgust with Courtall and his secret longing for the pure, unspoiled Lady Frances.
Crowquill is the author of the local gossip column. His name is a type of quill used as a writing instrument. He divulges information about travels, rumors about families, speculations about relationships, and other gossip and scandals through the local paper. Crowquill tries to extract information about Doricourt from the Porter by paying him a small fee.
Dick is one of Courtall's servants. Courtall asks Dick to discreetly discover what Sir George Touchwood will be wearing to the masquerade. Courtall has bad intentions and ultimately wants to trick Sir George's wife and seduce her. Later, Saville catches up to Dick, telling the servant that he'll double Courtall's fee if, upon his discovery of Sir George's costume, the servant also tells Saville, but keeps their exchange a secret. Saville, knowing of Courtall's deceptive plan to seduce Lady Frances, wants to save Lady Frances from Courtall's lecherous behavior. Dick agrees and delivers the information to both Courtall and Saville, but keeps Saville's inquiry from Courtall.
Doricourt is a handsome, wealthy, sought-after single man. His name comes from the term d'or meaning golden, hence he is the golden courtship, i.e. the man all women seek. In an age when many young men are off fighting a war against the American colonies, young men are in high demand—especially men like Doricourt. He is well traveled, intelligent, and amusing. Also, it has been arranged that Doricourt will marry Letitia Hardy, daughter of a wealthy man. However, upon meeting Letitia, Doricourt is not terribly impressed with the young lady. It is not that he finds her unappealing; he is simply indifferent to her. Doricourt is not bothered by the prospect of marrying a woman that he is indifferent to because he can roam freely, travel, and cavort with various women. However, this becomes a much larger issue for Letitia. Given her intelligence, Letitia knows that a marriage built upon a foundation of indifference results in misery for a wife. Thus, she enacts and elaborate plan to ignite Doricourt's heart, making him lust after her with all of his being. Her plan involves changing Doricourt's feelings first from indifference to disgust, then from disgust to love, because she believes "'tis much easier to convert a sentiment into its opposite than to transform indifference into tender passion." Amazingly, she near-flawlessly completes her plan and it appears that Letitia and Doricourt will have a long, happy life together as husband and wife.
Mrs. Fagg is a puffer and employee of Silvertongue. Puffers are hired to inflate the prices of objects at auctions either by bidding for them to run up the price or by extolling them in the presence of would-be buyers. Mrs. Fagg is dreary, exhausted woman, plagued with fatigue and worn down by her hard work for meager pay puffing for Silvertongue.
Flutter is renowned for his constant embellishment of stories. His name means to make an ostentatious display and to create perpetual meaningless chatter. Needless to say, Flutter lives up to his name. He defends himself stating that he never lies, but believes that the common stories of the world aren't worth talking about without a bit of added imagination. Flutter causes much trouble throughout the play with his incessantly lying and non-stop gossip. In one such instance, he upsets Lady Frances Touchwood and enrages Sir George Touchwood when he reveals to Lady Frances that her husband released her favorite pet bullfinch out of jealousy for the bird. Although the story is true, it was only a rumor and Flutter felt compelled to tell the seedy story and stir up unrest in the marriage. In another scene, Letitia Hardy has concealed her true identity at the masquerade and has successfully entrapped Doricourt's heart. He is smitten with the unnamed, masked woman. Flutter approaches Doricourt and questions why he is so a-twitter. Doricourt points to Letitia, explains that the woman has stolen his heart, and asks Flutter if he knows of the woman. Flutter, never to be caught without an answer, states that Letitia is, in fact, a married woman. He tells Doricourt to get over his obsession and that his only hope is an affair. Doricourt is devastated and Flutter's lie almost destroys Letitia's plans. Essentially, Flutter's role is to embellish stories, disrupting relationships, plans, and emotions.
Hardy is Letitia's wealthy father. As his name implies, he is physically robust. Hardy is apparently a good businessman, but he lacks any connection to the activities of the heart. He is confused by Letitia's unrest with the prospects of marrying Doricourt, citing that her feelings of his indifference are ridiculous. Hardy believes that marriages always start from this point and they move forward. It is apparent that he sees Letitia as too much of a thinker, caught up in emotions and things in her head, e.g. her need for love over stability. Nonetheless, Hardy loves his daughter and supports her needs. At the masquerade, when Doricourt falls madly for the masked Letitia, only to fall into despair when Flutter explains that the woman is a married, Hardy attempts to clear up the misunderstanding. He tells Doricourt that Flutter is mistaken and that the masked woman is indeed Letitia. Page 34 | Top of Article Doricourt does not believe Hardy and leaves in a huff. With this, Hardy is willing to carry out Letitia's plans, pretending to be deathly ill, finalizing the last stage of his daughter's elaborate plan to win Doricourt's heart.
Letitia Hardy is an intelligent, independent, attractive single woman. Her father, Hardy, is wealthy and caring. Letitia is also remarkably courageous and daring. She is an example of feminism in an era when such an idea was virtually undiscovered. Upon her initial meeting with her prospective husband—Doricourt—Letitia is shy and unmoved by the man. He responds to her behavior with indifference. Unsatisfied with the status quo life of being married to an indifferent husband, Letitia decides that she would rather have Doricourt hate her than feel little for her. However, showing her understanding of eighteenth-century society and a desire to live within it, Letitia concocts and elaborate plan to show Doricourt her true self, believing that her physical and intellectual beauty will win his heart. First, Letitia decides she must change Doricourt's feeling from indifference to hate, believing it is easier to change someone's feelings from hate to love, than from indifference to love. When Letitia and Doricourt are scheduled to meet for dinner she does not attend, but arrives late, behaving unpolished, amorously, and unintelligently. Doricourt finds her repulsive. Then when they meet under at the masquerade under disguise, Letitia unleashes her amazing talents, creative wit, poetic mind, and seductive beauty. Doricourt is unknowingly redirected and finds the unnamed, masked woman incredibly appealing, seductively intelligent, and wonderfully beautiful. Although her plan is nearly thrown of track by the meddling Flutter, she is able to keep it together. With the help of Mrs. Racket, Miss Ogle, her father and others, Letitia successful turns the table on Doricourt and traditional eighteenth-century courtship, igniting her marriage with unheard of desire, lust and passion.
Mask is a puffer and employee of Silvertongue. Puffers are hired to inflate the prices of objects at auctions either by bidding for them to run up the price or by extolling them in the presence of would-be buyers. Mask, as his name implies, makes his living through impersonation. Unlike the other puffer, Mrs. Fagg, Mask has not yet been fatigued by Silvertongue.
Miss Ogle is a friend of Mrs. Racket. Both women are keen on the workings of eighteenth-century social life and the roles of women. In a way, they are quite progressive. Although they are singled or widowed (Mrs. Racket), they move about town and work hard to convince other, younger women to live more freely. In particular, Miss Ogle finds Sir George Touchwood to be an example of male oppression. She scolds Sir George, telling him that his ideas of marriage and relationships are a century and a half dead and that he treats his wife, Lady Frances, with disrespect. Miss Ogle and Mrs. Racket insist that Lady Frances accompany them about town to auctions, forcing Sir George to comply. The two women leave with Lady Frances and take her about town where she is lustfully followed by the lecherous Courtall.
Crowquill tries desperately to extract information for Porter in an early scene. Porter ends up pocketing Crowquill's money, explaining that Doricourt is free of scandals, gossip and other such trifle that might usually appear in Crowquill's column.
Mrs. Racket, as her name implies, is a boisterous woman with an active, busy social life. She is a widow, but often talks of her desire to someday marry Villers. She, like her good friend Miss Ogle, is a progressive woman, eager to spread the word to younger women to live more freely. In particular, Mrs. Racket finds Sir George Touchwood to be a brute and an oppressive husband. Sir George explains that he likes his wife by his side and that he did not marry a woman of society because they lack morality. Mrs. Racket becomes upset with Sir George. She explains that a true fine lady of society has a liberal mind and is sought after for her abilities in conversation and her polite nature. Mrs. Racket and Miss Ogle insist that Lady Frances accompany them about town to auctions, forcing Sir George to comply. The two women leave with Lady Frances and take her about town where she is lustfully followed by the lecherous Courtall. In addition, Mrs. Racket helps Letitia understand society's expectations of a woman's role in courtship. Mrs. Racket is very blunt and curt. She reminds Letitia that the finest women from all across Europe have been courting Doricourt and that his indifference should be expected. However, she supports Letitia's desire to build a relationship upon love, not indifference. With Mrs. Racket's Page 35 | Top of Article help and the support of others, Letitia is able to win Doricourt's heart.
Saville is a quiet, kind, caring man and good friend of Doricourt. His name is often believed to be a combination of savoir which means "to know" and ville, which means town. As to be expected by his nomenclature, Saville seems to have a very keen understanding of what happens throughout the town. He is not a gossip like Flutter and he uses his knowledge only at crucial moments. Most impressively, Saville is able to counteract and defuse Courtall's lecherous plan to seduce the pure Lady Frances Touchwood. With remarkable networking and a crisp, deductive intellect, Saville not only stops Courtall's plan, he also turns the table and humiliates the despicable man. In a strange twist, the ever-jealous Sir George Touchwood cannot bear to know that another man, Saville, saved his wife from seduction. However, Sir George believes that if Saville were his brother, then such an action would, in fact, be acceptable. Sir George decides that Saville must marry his sister in order to preserve his marriage with Lady Frances. Saville also uses his knowledge to save Letitia's plan. After Letitia won Doricourt's heart from behind her mask, Flutter nearly spoiled her plans by stating that the masked Letitia was a married woman. Doricourt entrusts Saville with his feelings, stating that he cannot marry Letitia when he knows that a woman of such magnificence exists. In order to escape his marriage to Letitia, Doricourt plots to fake insanity, stating that an Italian woman at the masquerade drugged him, destroying his mind. Saville complies for his friend's sake, only to later learn that, once again, Flutter was lying about the masked woman. When Letitia and Mrs. Racket reveal their plan to Saville, he, in turn, reveals Doricourt's insane rouse, allowing Letitia's plan to be completed. Without Saville's knowledge of the town, many unfortunate events would have been carried out and many lives would have been hurt.
Silvertongue is the owner of the auction house and employer of Mrs. Fagg and Mask. As his name implies he is sweet spoken, eloquent, and, although he does not pay his employees well, he is a successful auctioneer.
Lady Frances Touchwood
Lady Frances Touchwood is the beautiful wife of the amazingly jealous Sir George Touchwood. Her character is not particularly deep, but serves mostly to polarize Letitia Hardy. Where Letitia acts with intelligence, wit, and individuality, Lady Frances is defined by the presence of her husband. She is not a society woman, meaning Sir George selected her to be his husband because she would not be a woman about town. He desired a wife that would always be by his side, never wander, and have little inclination for parties, auctions, or any event outside of the home or away from her husband. Lady Frances met all these criteria up until Flutter exposed Sir George's jealousy of even her favorite bullfinch, which he release from its cage because he could not bear to witness his wife love anything but himself. Oddly, Lady Frances's one day away from Sir George resulted in the Courtall's lecherous pursuit. This unfortunate turn of events immediately cauterized Lady Frances's new inclination to become a society woman.
Sir George Touchwood
Sir George Touchwood is the brutish, unattractive husband of the sheltered, beautiful Lady Frances Touchwood. His name means a woody substance that easily catches fire, like tinder, and as his name implies, it takes very little to ignite Sir George into fiery jealousy. Sir George, aware of his own insane jealousy, selected a sheltered wife from the outskirts of society to limit his jealous explosions. Lady Frances met his qualifications, but his dedication to keep her behind closed doors baffles his friends and infuriates progressive women like Miss Ogle and Mrs. Racket.
Villers is a sophisticated man about town. He knows much about everyone in town, but is quiet and keeps to himself. People often confide in him and he is honest with his response to questions. Mrs. Racket states that if she were to ever remarry it would be to Villers. Although his role in the play is minimal, he helps complete Letitia's plan.
Kitty Willis is a loose, amorous woman who plays an essential role in Saville's plan to save Lady Frances Touchwood from Courtall's lecherous plans. She dresses up exactly like Lady Frances and when Courtall approaches, pretending to be Sir George Touchwood, Kitty Willis leaves with Courtall. Courtall believes that Willis is Lady Frances. However, he is also under the impression that the woman he is leaving with believes him to be Sir George. Courtall then takes the masked Kitty Page 36 | Top of Article Willis back to his apartment with plans of seduction. Saville, Flutter and others arrive, knowing that Courtall believes Kitty Willis is Lady Frances, burst in, and catch Courtall in the act of seducing not the beautiful, pure, married Lady Frances, but a sluttish, loose tramp. Kitty Willis loves the plot and plays along until the bitter end and she final reveals herself when the men burst into Courtall's apartment. Courtall is devastated and immensely embarrassed. He exits the room stating that me must escape to Paris.
Marriage and Courtship
Marriage and courtship are the primary themes of The Belle's Stratagem. Courtship is used to construct the foundation for marriage. However, it is apparent that regardless of the quality of courtship or the extent of love, an eighteenth-century marriage will proceed—unless, of course, a future spouse falls ill or dies. In the case of Letitia and Doricourt, their union is considered arranged and inevitable, even though the two feel indifference toward one another. Doricourt has little trouble accepting this type of arranged marriage for the sake of family and money, because, as an attractive man in the late 1700s, he will have little trouble finding passionate, sexual relationships with mistresses once he is married. However, Letitia feels differently. It is expected that Letitia will remain loyal to her husband and steadfast to her commitment of marriage, a prospect that seems very difficult and unpleasant to imagine if she marries a man who feels little for her. Her life would become fairly meaningless if she were to marry a man who did not love her; her freedoms would be limited and her sense of joy and love would be extinguished. Knowing this, Letitia decides to take her future into her own hands, turning conventional eighteenth-century courtship on its head.
Juxtaposed against Letitia's situation is the situation of Lady Frances Touchwood, kept wife of Sir George Touchwood. Sir George's intense, fiery Page 37 | Top of Article jealousy has completely limited Lady Frances's exposure to the world and to other people. He contains her like a jewel that he allows to shimmer only for his eyes. Their courtship was short and it was understood that Sir George wanted a wife who would love him and him alone. He has no room in his jealous heart for her friends, for children, or even for pets.
Letitia refuses to become a wife about town living a loveless marriage, or a kept, sheltered wife, isolated from the world. She would rather abandon the institution of marriage and live alone, true to herself, than to live a lifetime of lies. However, she is also aware she cannot walk away from an arranged marriage. Instead, she makes Doricourt hate her, hoping to turn his disgust into passion. This is an ingenious plot because, if Doricourt hates her and she is unable to turn his heart, then he will leave her and she will not be seen as a woman who abandoned marriage. In fact, Doricourt is willing to go so far as to fake insanity in order to avoid marrying Letitia, before he realizes that she is the mystery woman from the ball. In the end, her paradoxical approach to courtship does, in fact, win Doricourt's heart, and it appears that the two will share a good, equitable, passionate marriage.
Jealousy plays a remarkable role in the play, almost destroying a marriage. If not for Sir George's jealousy, he would never have let go his wife's favorite pet, a bullfinch. When Flutter reveals to Lady Frances that Sir George freed the bird out of insane jealousy, Lady Frances is angry with Sir George. Her anger, fueled by his jealousy, compels Lady Frances to go with Mrs. Racket and Miss Ogle without her husband for the first time. Her trek sparks Courtall's lecherous desires, and, if not for Saville's counterplan, it is quite possible that Courtall would have seduced Lady Frances and destroyed the Touchwood's marriage.
Feminism and Identity
Feminism and identity are crucial to the construction of the play. Letitia's plan that turns traditional, eighteenth-century courtship on its head is an incredibly stark and feminist movement. It empowers Letitia, placing her in the role of guiding and dictating the courtship. However, in order for her plan to work, she must hide her true identity. Upon first meeting Doricourt, she is indifferent because he is a stranger. Her indifference is reflected by her future husband, which sets the stage for a weak, impassionate marriage. Knowing this, Letitia concocts a plan and dons a new identity at the ball. At this second rendezvous, Letitia pretends to be dim and amorous, turning Doricourt's emotions from indifference to disgust. At their third encounter, Letitia disguises her physically identity and uses her true charm, beauty, and intelligence to turn Doricourt's emotions to love and passion. At their fourth encounter, Letitia finally reveals herself, stepping out from behind her physical and mental masks to expose her true identity. This revelation is both uplifting and disheartening. It is uplifting because Doricourt sees her true beauty, both physically and mentally, and he falls madly in love, begging Letitia to be forever herself. However, it is disheartening because she had to compromise her identity and manipulate a male-dominated system to gain Doricourt's attention.
Conflict and Tension
The Belle's Stratagem relies heavily on conflict to create tension between characters and to raise anxiety in the viewer. Conflict in a play is the issue to be resolved in the story. In this play, conflict arises repeatedly in different arenas, creating great tension. Letitia's, Courtall's, and Saville's constant planning leave countless opportunities for their plans to be disrupted. For example, Flutter disrupts Letitia's plan, and it looks as if the couple that have finally fallen in love may never marry. Also, it looks as if Courtall may be successful at seducing Lady Frances unless Saville's remarkably complex plan is not completed. At any moment, this conflict could unravel, leaving Courtall to either seduce the lovely Lady Frances or to walk away from his immoral pursuit unscathed. All of these conflicts create substantial tension, enrapturing the audience or reader.
The Role of the Heroine in Eighteenth-Century Comedic Drama
Given Cowley's era, the role of Letitia as a heroine is remarkably progressive. Not only does Cowley create a wildly successfully comedy, but she delivers a feminist message under the guise of humor. Letitia is the most intelligent, courageous character in the play. Without her daring prowess and desire to live a good life married to a loving husband, Letitia would not be a heroine. In fact, she would become a victim of a male-dominated, oppressive society. Her determination and creativity are essential to the plot development and intrigue Page 38 | Top of Article that Cowley creates within the conflicts of the play. In a brash way, Cowley herself becomes a heroine through her writing, by delivering her feminist message in a palatable, comedic format. If it were direct or overly dramatic, her message may have never been produced, let alone cherished and applauded.
American Revolutionary War
On April 19, 1775, the night after the ride of Paul Revere, the infamous "shot heard round the world" rang out, signifying the start of the American Revolution. Over the next eighteen months, the American militia grew substantially, capturing British forts and creating a navy. In addition to military advances, many American writers, such as Thomas Paine, began an intellectual assault on King George III. In May 1776, King Louis XVI of France committed one million dollars in arms and munitions to the Americans, whereupon Spain also promised support. Soon thereafter, a massive British war fleet arrived in New York Harbor, with over 40,000 soldiers and sailors. On July 4, 1776, the thirteen American states declared independence from England.
The enormous number of British troops was nearly too much for the American armed forces, but keen planning and a series of small victories led to an unlikely American victory in the war. The struggle for independence then spread abroad, as British vessels fired on French ships and the two nations declared war on each other. Spain entered this war as France's ally in 1779, and soon thereafter, Britain declared war on the Dutch, who had been trading with France. Britain's overextended armed forces were not only battling the Americans, French, Spanish, and Dutch, they were also fighting in the Mediterranean, Africa, India, and the West Indies. Although war raged on, the American Revolution officially ended April 11, 1783, when the new American Congress declared an end to the Revolutionary War.
The Effects of War on Eighteenth-Century British Women
The American Revolutionary War and its effect on British women is touched on in The Belle's Stratagem. In 1780, when the play first ran in England, the number of marriageable men was palpably diminished. In order to fight the many battles in which the British were engaged and still have reserves to defend their own borders from invasion, the bulk of young British men were
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recruited for the armed forces. In fact, in the play, Courtall even goes so far as to state, "The ladies are going to petition for a bill that, during the war, every man may be allowed two wives." The majority of young, single men were off at war far and wide across the globe, defending England's interests.
With so much competition for available men, the rules of courtship underwent a temporary shift. Instead of men eagerly pursuing women, many women were struggling to catch the eye of a few men. The majority of the men who did not go to battle were extremely wealthy; their families' financial standing and their ability to ship their sons off on travel adventures enabled many of these men to escape mandatory service. Thus, the men who were left in England were often the upper echelon of the fashionable society—the most sought after men in all of England. Although this change in courtship due to the lack of men may have been a worrisome burden for many women, the lack of men may have helped fuel a brief, but prolific explosion for creative, intelligent women. It can be argued that a lack of male writers forced people to consider female playwrights like Hannah Cowley, giving women a chance to show their writing prowess and giving a voice to the unheard masses of British women writ large.
Although The Belle's Stratagem premiered over two hundred years ago, there is still little written about Cowley or about other eighteenth-century female dramatists. It is remarkable that one of the first, formidable female playwrights of the English language has not received greater attention. However, it does speak to the oppression women endured during the male-dominated centuries that followed Cowley's premiere. During the eighteenth century, women playwrights received little exposure, often having to funnel their writing through theatres dominated by men. It is often believed that much writing by women dramatists was lost or has been wrongly attributed to men. Plays like The Belle's Stratagem, however, would not have been claimed by a man because of its powerful female protagonist. As Jean Gagen states in the University of Mississippi Studies in English, "[Cowley's] most celebrated characters are undoubtedly her witty Page 40 | Top of Article young heroines, who are often the prime manipulators and intriguers in her plays, which usually center on courtship and marriage."
Although Cowley made no attempt to disturb or reform the status quo of eighteenth-century courtship, she was an independent, resourceful feminist. Without disrupting the place of men—a surefire way to impede working in theatre—Cowley instead focused on making a statement about women's abilities, rights, and intelligence. She selected comedy to delivery her progressive message. If she would have selected another device to express her opinion, there is a chance her voice would not have been heard.
Martinelli is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor. In this essay, Martinelli examines how physical and mental masquerades change the rules of courtship, successively freeing and damning eighteenth-century women.
In The Belle's Stratagem, Hannah Cowley constructs, at face value, a lighthearted comedy about manners, courtship, and marriage in fashionable society in late-eighteenth-century London. The play pays homage to a play by one of Cowley's favorite playwrights, George Farquhar, titled The Beaux's Stratagem. However, as in many of Cowley's works, her protagonist is a heroine and, although the play is a comedy, Cowley has much to say about male-dominated, eighteenth-century society. As if to foreshadow the underlying message of her play, The Belle's Stratagem wears a mask resembling Farquhar's play, bending not only the play's title but its content. In her play, Cowley shrouds Letitia Hardy behind three masks—indifference, vulgarity, and costume—to upend eighteenth-century courtship, exposing the oppressive nature of marriage in a male-dominated society.
In the early scenes of the play, it is revealed that Letitia Hardy is to marry Doricourt and that the two have recently met for the first time. During their first meeting, Letitia is not moved by Doricourt. She is an intelligent woman and she is not easily motivated by the standard cultural norm that she is forced to obey, namely that her marriage is arranged and that she must marry Doricourt. Since she has little motivation or feeling for Doricourt, both because they do not know each other and because she does not approve of the rules of marriage, she presents herself behind a veil of indifference to her future husband. Doricourt feels her indifference and explains to his friend Saville that Letitia is "a fine girl, as far as mere flesh and blood goes," but that she lacks "spirit! Fire! L'air enjoué [a certain aura of playfulness or sprightliness]! That something, that nothing, which everybody feels, and which nobody can describe." Unfortunately, Letitia's first mask leaves Doricourt unfulfilled.
The real tragedy of Letitia's first mask is that she truly possesses everything that Doricourt so desires in a wife. Letitia is courageous, daring, intelligent, and beautiful. She is well spoken and thoughtful. She is not deceptive or immoral. Yet, the rules of courtship force her to draw up a shroud between herself and her future husband, one that covers her impeccable beauty. More so, her decision to veil herself disrupts the courtship but does not remove her from its grasp. Thus, Letitia finds herself still locked into her arranged marriage, which is beginning on a foundation of mutual indifference, damning her to a loveless future.
However, being a daring, creative woman, Letitia does not succumb to her position. She discusses with Mrs. Racket her own indifference toward Doricourt and his indifference toward her. Racket, an older but progressive-thinking widow, tells Letitia,
Can you expect a man, who has courted and been courted by half the fine women in Europe, to feel like a girl from a boarding-school? He is the prettiest fellow you have seen, and… he has seen a million of pretty women.
Racket is not being rude but realistic. She knows that men are not smitten by looks and looks alone, especially those who are as affluent and well traveled as Doricourt. Racket does not intend to discourage Letitia, but she hopes that the young girl will at least approach her future husband with an air of realism. Letitia, forever a strong woman, states, "I will touch his heart, or never be his wife" and then she sets into motion an amazingly elaborate plan to win Doricourt's heart.
In order to change Doricourt's feelings, Letitia decides that she must first turn his indifference to hatred because she believes, "'tis much easier to convert a sentiment into its opposite than to transform indifference into tender passion." With Racket's warning that her belief may be a "good philosophy" but a "bad maxim," Letitia heads off behind her first mask of indifference to begin making her second mask of vulgarity. Erin Isikoff writes in Look Who's Laughing: Gender and Page 41 | Top of Article Comedy, "through the agency of a mask, of a false identity, Cowley reconciles respectability and accomplishment. Masks, then, not only mediate identity but also manage to protect it, so that a woman in disguise can plot with gentility." As Isikoff eloquently states, Letitia is still in a position to reveal her amazing qualities. Doricourt has seen nothing of Letitia's true qualities, other than her physical beauty. With this in mind, Letitia is empowered to use her veiled position to her advantage, mindful, of course, that her plan could backfire. Nonetheless, Letitia would rather not marry than concede her life to a loveless marriage.
Before Letitia dons her vulgar mask, she tries to anger Doricourt by not attending a scheduled dinner. When Doricourt expresses no concern of his missing future bride, Letitia decides that she is left with no option. At their next meeting, Letitia is awkward, amorous, and sluttish. She makes rude comments about Doricourt's appearance and even alludes to the idea that she may not be a virgin. Doricourt is remarkably surprised and disgusted with his future bride, proclaiming, "Surely this cannot be Miss Hardy!" All the while, Letitia continues to deal her hand toward hate, and all the while, Doricourt takes each card. Eventually, Letitia's father can no longer stand her banter, because he knows she is not such a woman, and he removes her from the room. Exasperated, Doricourt tells Racket that he cannot marry such a woman and explains that he will be leaving London immediately. Luckily for Letitia, Racket knows of Letitia's plans and begs Doricourt to at least stay through the night to attend the masquerade, and he agrees. With this, Letitia's plan is both working—i.e., Doricourt's indifference has been transformed into hatred—and nearly foiled, because he almost left before seeing her true identity.
With the bait set, Letitia only has to arrive at the masquerade in a costume that conceals her physical self. Her final mask is the only tangible one she dons. Wearing her costume, Letitia arrives at the masquerade alone, first approaching Doricourt with a stunning dance. He is immediately smitten, but Letitia runs off, eager to tantalize him with her other offerings. She returns again, this time with a beautiful song, which only continues to enrapture Doricourt. Yet again she leaves. At their next interaction, Doricourt grabs Letitia. He is drunkenly charmed and demands to know her name, stating, "Fate has ordained you mine." With this, Letitia has hit her mark. Doricourt has fallen madly in love with the true Letitia, although she is still hidden away behind her costume. With this, the paradox of her stratagem becomes apparent. Although Letitia has tricked Doricourt into loving her true identity, she still finds herself trapped in the inescapable conundrum that is eighteenth-century courtship. Even at the bitter end, after she reveals herself to Doricourt, she damns her position stating, "You see I can be anything. Choose then my character; your taste shall fix it." With this, all of Letitia's actions have done nothing but force her to create an elaborate scheme that could have easily been prevented had she simply shown her true colors at their first meeting. Hence, whether she won Doricourt's heart upon their first meeting or later, Letitia is still oppressed by her role in the male-dominated society through her willingness to be anything for her husband. Plus, her inability to step outside of the constrictions of eighteenth-century decorum does nothing but lock her into her role, no matter how creative her plan may have been.
Here, though, arises an incredibly important aspect of Cowley's work and Letitia's plan. Although, as Isikoff smartly states, "[Letitia's] revolutionary stratagem, while it steals from Doricourt the energy of their courtship, [it] does not challenge its existence." However, given the time period during which Cowley was writing The Belle's Stratagem, even a brief examination of the rules and oppressive nature of courtship and marriage was a daring feat. It is damning that a woman of Letitia's intelligence would be left with no option other than to don various masks and trick the fool into becoming her husband. Yet, it is empowering that she can use her wit and guile to circumvent traditional rules of courtship and change the course of her life by Page 42 | Top of Article turning her loveless future into one of passion. Nonetheless, all of the strength of Letitia's plot is lost based on its origin. To be moved to reject a system—as Letitia does when she wears her first mask of indifference—and then look diligently to find a way to reenter the system—as Letitia does when she enacts and completes her plot—does not at all free Letitia from society's restrictions. Essentially, Crowley uses Letitia to expose the problematic oppression of women in late-eighteenth-century England, but she offers very little detail with regard to how it can be changed.
Anthony Martinelli, Critical Essay on The Belle's Stratagem, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Elizabeth Kowaleski Wallace
In the following essay, Wallace describes how Cowley endorses a "cosmopolitan" and "performance-based theory of identity" in The Belle's Strategem and how that allows for social liberation.
In act 3 of Hannah Cowley's 1780 comedy The Belle's Stratagem, the character Hardy contemplates the choice of a costume for an upcoming masquerade:
Let me see.—What shall my dress be? A Great Mogul? No.—A Grenadier? No;—no, that I foresee, would make a laugh. Hang me, if I don't send to my little Quick, and borrow his Jew Isaac's dress:—I know the Dog likes a glass of good wine; so I'll give him a bottle of my Forty-eight, and he shall teach me. Aye, that's it—I'll be the Cunning Little Isaac! If they complain of my want of wit, I'll tell 'em the cursed Duenna wears the breeches and has spoiled my part. (3.1, p. 40)
The humor of this scene relies on a metatheatrical in-joke: Hardy was originally played by the versatile actor John Quick (1748–1831), who had played not only the role of Isaac Mendoza in Sheridan's The Duenna (1775) but also Tony Lumpkin in a 1773 production of She Stoops to Conquer. Cowley counts on her audience to recognize the transparency of Hardy's announcement: Quick both calls attention to the idiosyncrasies of his previous role and reminds us that he only plays at being Hardy here. This metatheatrical moment is consistent with Cowley's attempt to foreground performance throughout her comedy as she encourages her audience to recognize a Shakespearean paradox: if human subjectivity is defined by constant role-playing, then only on the stage do people really appear as what they are. The actor is Page 43 | Top of Article the only truly sincere being since her performance is the explicit demonstration of ever-shifting human potential.
And so in act 4, Quick plays Hardy playing the Jew Isaac Mendoza, whom the audience (and presumably the characters also, for they seem to have seen The Duenna as well) recognize not as an actual Jew—nor even as a representation of an actual Jew—but as a specific dramatic rendering of Jewish identity. Hardy enters into an altercation with another masker, who taunts him with racial slurs: "Why, thou little testy Israelite! Back to Duke's Place; and preach your tribe into a subscription for the good of the land on whose milk and honey ye fatten.—Where are your Joshuas and your Gideons, aye? What! all dwindled into Stockbrokers, Pedlars, and Rag Men?" Putting his fingers to his head, Hardy replies: "No, not all. Some of us turn Christians, and by degrees grow into all the privileges of Englishmen! In the second generation we are Patriots, Rebels, Courtiers, and Husbands" (4.1, p. 50). This is certainly an interesting response, one that could be played in a number of different ways. Is the playwright condemning or condoning the process by which Mendoza's ethnic origins are erased? Is a Jew who has turned Christian still a Jew who only masquerades as what he is not? Does he therefore only perform the role of Patriot, Rebel, Courtier, or Husband, thereby covering, hiding, or disguising what was originally stamped upon his character? Or, is Cowley here endorsing the idea that the Jew turned Christian leaves behind his origins and that he successfully adopts a new English identity?
On the one hand, as a play, The Belle's Stratagem evinces an awareness of the destabilizing effects of performance as well as the anxiety this destabilization can produce. As the character Sir George Touchwood complains, society has become "one universal masquerade, all disguised in the same habits and manners" (2.1, p. 27). He is unsettled because he can no longer recognize distinction of character or class of female. Indeed, the masquerade scene in act 4 introduces us to a variety of poseurs—shady characters who exploit appearances to get what they want. Miss Flutter claims she can tell the histories of half the people at the event: "In the next apartment," she alleges, "there's a whole family, who, to my knowledge, have lived on Water-Cresses this month, to make a figure here to-night—; but to make up for that, they'll cram their pockets with cold Ducks and Chickens, for a Carnival to-morrow" (4.1, p. 52).
Yet, on the other hand, Hardy's speech as Mendoza could be said to be a gesture toward an early modern cosmopolitanism, an atmosphere that is reinforced elsewhere in the play. Cowley's imagery is permeated by references to eighteenth-century globe-trotting. Cosmopolitanism is further enforced by the fact that so many characters in this play are in movement. We watch them as they shift geographic location (from country to city), as they travel (to the continent and back), as they traverse the length of the metropolis, and visit tourist sites, auction houses, masquerades, and other diversions. All of this movement brings an open feeling to the text, but it also unlocks the theme of identity: many characters in this play are depicted as fluid, capable like Quick/Hardy of assuming more than one face. Thus, we can hypothesize that Quick interjected a Shylock-like moment of pathos into the scene as textual evidence suggests the author's endorsement of Hardy-as-Mendoza's pronounced fluidity. Cowley seems to lean toward the notion that identity (and even ethnic identity) need not be stamped irretrievably and essentially on the soul. Instead, this play promotes the idea that the role can become the defining mark of who you are, and that authenticity is achieved not in "being who you really are" but in playing your role to its fullest extent.
What makes The Belle's Stratagem most remarkable as a play, then, is its endorsement of a theatrical cosmopolitanism that forms the basis of a potentially progressive nationalism, one in which individuals are free to make themselves—as British women and men—what they will. Choosing the category of the "inauthentic" over the apparently Page 44 | Top of Article authentic, the performance of an identity over a native character, Cowley champions the experience of those like Jews—or, as we will see, more centrally, women—who stand to gain much from a performance-based theory of human identity. For her, cosmopolitanism affords the opportunity for a social performance with liberating potential.
Furthermore, Cowley's comedy capitalizes on the inherent connection between theatricality and "traveling culture," a historical coupling with a long tradition. Theatrical culture, from the commedia del l'arte to the opera, has always been characteristically mobile, moving across both national and local borders. Not only dramatic texts, stage effects, theatrical styles but also actors themselves traditionally travel and thus resist in their movements strict efforts to police an indigenous art. In her discussion of cosmopolitanism and the stage, Una Chaudhuri argues that the theater functions "as a laboratory for observing the new dynamics of identity formation, and for testing the identities" generated in transit and translation. This function stems from an important similarity in the protocols of theater making and cosmopolitanism. Both cultural projects are rooted in a doubleness. While theater "produces and reproduces something that is prior to it (the script)," diasporic experience—like that of the Jew in eighteenth-century London—can be said to reproduce an originary experience that lies elsewhere. "The theater is a space of creative reinscription," writes Chaudhuri, "a space where meaning, like deterriorialized identity, is not merely made, but re made, negotiated out of silence, stasis, and incomprehension." For theorists of both performance and diasporic studies, the question of exactly what is "reproduced" on the stage and in a diasporic setting is open for debate: What is the status of the script/originary experience? To what extent can these be said to exist unproblematically at all?
Throughout the eighteenth century, the status of both the script and the originary experience was hotly contested: while theater critics and theorists debated the relationship of the "real" and true in human experience to what was represented on the stage, political essayists discussed the relationship of native origins to national identity. For an example of the first discussion, we need only turn to Jeremy Collier's polemical attack on the nature of the theater, an attack that launched a voluminous debate that continued well into the eighteenth century (and, for that matter, still continues today). Collier maintains that, prior to the dramatic effect of the theater, "[t]he Lines of Virtue and Vice are struck out by Nature in very legible distinctions; they tend to a different Point, and these are the Native appearances of Good and Evil: And they that endeavor to blot the Distinction, or rub out the Colours, or change the Marks, are extremely to blame." In other words, theatricality is sinister precisely because it distorts what would otherwise be perfectly clear—the "native" nature of good and evil. His choice of the word "native" links the debate over the distorting effect of stage to the distorting effect of cosmopolitanism, for cosmopolitanism is also said to distort "native" identities that would otherwise remain perfectly legible. To put on an act—as a Briton who is really a Jew, for example—is to unsettle not only the "native" categories of right and wrong but also the categories necessary to an indigenous identity.
Stepping back from the long eighteenth century, we find that Collier's comments inaugurate an age that was deeply divided in its response to theatricality. For most of the eighteenth century, a passionate love for the theater coexisted with powerful attempts to contain certain kinds of performance. A large and active theatergoing population continued to thrive despite a series of efforts—ranging from the Licensing Act of 1737 to Pope's satirical attack on theater impresario Colley Cibber in the 1742 Dunciad—to curb broadly based, popular forms of theatrical spectacle. In Hogarth's print Southwark Fair (1733/34), for example, a range of entertainments, from a contortionist to a tightrope walker, from a peepshow to a tiny puppet show, suggests not only the proliferation of theatrical shows but also a middle-rank moralistic response to the licentiousness, salaciousness, and even criminality associated with such shows. Hogarth devotes a large portion of his print to the "legitimate" theater, represented to the left of the print by a collapsing stage. In this scene, Cibber and Bullock, among others, tumble to the ground, while the show cloth above the calamitous scene tells the story of the theatrical in-fighting that brought about such ruin. Clearly Hogarth finds much to satirize and critique in the broad range of eighteenth-century theatrical practices, and he crowds them altogether in a way that makes them practically indistinguishable. Yet, the richness of detail—the very energy that goes into representing the lurid and illicit—arguably undercuts the explicit morality of the print. The eye is drawn to the very thing it supposedly learns to reject; the very point of the print is to entertain the viewer vicariously through access to a range of performances that are cast in a morally dubious light. The emphasis falls less on Page 45 | Top of Article "the danger of performance" and more on everything that happens when performance is both literally and metaphorically unlicensed.
But the concern with licensing theater—that is, controlling both its content and its effect—is only one expression of a persistent eighteenth-century anxiety over uncontrolled performance. Whether that performance occurred in an unlicensed theater, in a drawing room, at the gambling table, or simply on the streets, it provoked an equally didactic response. In the pages of the Tatler and the Spectator and elsewhere, an ascendant middle-rank sensibility increasingly insists upon the adaptation of a nontheatrical, deep, and "authentic" character, one that eschews showy behaviors, gestures, or postures in favor of an abiding sensibility. Richard Steele, for example, extols the virtues of the "new" man whose "outward Garb is but the emblem of his Mind, it is genteel, plain, and unaffected; he knows that Gold and Embroidery can add nothing to the Opinion which all have of his Merit.… He is still the principal Figure in the Room." For Steele, true masculinity resides in a refusal to egregiously act the part of a man, as sartorial restraint is but a signal for a whole new kind of manhood. As Erin Mackie explains, "from the bourgeois point of view… good taste emphasizes modesty, restraint, and practicality, and decorum in distinction to bad (aristocratic) taste corrupted by ideologically retrogressive qualities of personal ostentation, irrational excess, arbitrary election, and libertine abandon." In keeping with this insistence on the absence of show, any kind of obviously dramatic behavior indicates the inauthentic self. That even the most sincere among us must at one time or another necessarily play a role is an irony lost on the polemicists. I have written elsewhere about the special pressures exerted on the stage by an antiperformance discourse: how does one celebrate the virtues of deep and authentic nonperformative identity in a performative setting? How does one act the part of someone who is not acting?
By 1817, Jane Austen takes full advantage of the notion that theatricality and inauthenticity are inextricably linked in Mansfield Park, as Henry Crawford's superior acting skills make him immediately suspect. But Crawford is additionally suspect for his cosmopolitanism. In this novel in particular, Austen counts on her audience to recognize the implicit connection between those who travel, refusing the pull of local attachments, and those who fail to achieve moral depth. Throughout most of the eighteenth century, the binary opposition between the local or the parochial and the not local or the cosmopolitan coincides neatly with the division between the "authentic" and the "inauthentic," categories which in turn are aligned with native "innocence" and foreign "corruption." Pope gives us one example of this coincidence in book 4 of The Dunciad where the traditional grand European tour serves only to lead a young English gentleman away from the virtues of his indigenous culture. Far from enlightening the young scholar, contact with Europe only corrupts him:
Intrepid then, o'er seas and lands he flew:
Europe he saw, and Europe saw him too.
… [H]e sauntered Europe round,
And gathered ev'ry Vice on Christian ground;
Saw ev'ry Court, heard ev'ry King declare
His royal Sense, of Op'ras or the Fair;
The Stews and Palace equally explor'd,
Intrigu'd with glory, and with spirit whor'd;
Try'd all hors-d'oeuvres, all liqueurs defined,
Judicious drank, and greatly-daring din'd;
Dropt the dull lumber of the Latin store,
Spoil'd his own language, and acquir'd no more.
To complete his attack on Continental corruption, Pope refers by name to the locally situated Sir Henry Jansen, Charles Fleetwood, and Colley Cibber, all managers of Drury Lane:
See now, half-cur'd, and perfectly well-bred,
With nothing but a Solo in his head;
As much Estate, and Principle, and Wit,
As Jansen, Fleetwood, Cibber shall think fit.
The last couplet explicitly links the licentious pleasures of European travel, an especially dissipated kind of cosmopolitanism, with theatrical production. It suggests that both the theater and European contact—perhaps precisely because the stage is so responsive to European trends—are a source of corruption. Both lead the innocent away from a truer form of culture, and both result in a less authentic English identity. The only solution is, apparently, to stay home—and away from the kind theater that Jansen, Fleetwood, and Cibber represent.
By the end of the century, the virtues of staying close to home were similarly apparent to Hannah More, who accordingly abandoned her own career as a playwright to return to her native Bristol. In an essay entitled "Moral Sketches of Prevailing Opinions and Manners, Foreign and Domestic," More urges her readers to celebrate their insularity: "In making our country an island, Divine Providence seems to have made a provision for our happiness as well as our security. As that circumstance has protected us from the sword, it should also protect us from the manners of our foreign neighbors. The more she labours to resume them, the more she will lose of her independent Page 46 | Top of Article character.… The British character, we hope, will always retain its indigenous flavour." For More as for Pope, national integrity can only occur where the danger of the foreign has been kept at bay. "We will not say that [Britain] may acquire a superiority over other nations—of that she has long been in possession," writes More, "—No; we must not try her by her comparative, but by her positive merit: not by placing her in juxta-position with other countries, but with the possibilities of her own excellence."
However, in The Belle's Stratagem, just as Cowley uses the theater to interrogate the relationship between inauthentic and authentic identity, between performed and "true" subjectivity, so too does she undo the opposition between cosmopolitanism and insular parochialism. In this play, cosmopolitanism is the precondition for a certain kind of provincialism. Or, to put it another way, in this play cosmopolitanism facilitates the definition of indigenous "Englishness," which provides for an enhanced sense of the local. To take one example, the character Doricourt claims that his continental travels have sharpened his understanding of the English character. He declares what he knows from experience: "Englishmen make the best Soldiers, Citizens, Artizans, and Philosophers; but the very worst Footmen" (1.3, pp. 7–8). He describes travel abroad as the opportunity to study Italian music or to appreciate French fashion and ornament. After finishing the Grand Tour, he opines, "we return to England, and find the nation intent on the most important objects; Polity, Commerce, War, with all the Liberal Arts, employ her sons; the latent sparks glow afresh within our bosoms; the sweet follies of the Continent imperceptibly slide away, while Senators, Statesmen, Patriots and Heroes, emerge from the virtu of Italy, and the frippery of France" (1.3, p. 8). Here, continental pleasures are not simply discounted as foreign dissipations; instead they are formative experiences that can be brought home where they can ignite the passions that make for better Britons. England enthusiastically consumes foreign culture by appropriating and transforming what is best abroad. Doricourt speaks not for a phobic drawing of boundaries but for a more complicated relationship, one wherein Britain would be impoverished by absence of a foreign culture that is decidedly "lesser," yet also constitutive of Englishness. A cosmopolitan experience makes Britain more, not less, British than it was.
In a similar fashion, Letitia Hardy, in disguise at the masquerade in order to win Doricourt's affection, calls on a full range of global images to articulate the depth of her passion. In answer to the question "what if you loved your husband, and he were worthy of your love," she enthuses that she would be anything and all. She would "live with him in the eye of fashion, or in the shade of retirement—change my country, my sex—feast with him in an Esquimaux hut, or a Persian pavilion—join him in the victorious war-dance on the borders of Lake Ontario, or sleep to the soft breathings of the flute in the cinnamon groves of Ceylon—dig with him in the mines of Golconda, or enter the dangerous precincts of the Mogul's Seraglio—cheat him of his wishes, and overturn his empire to restore the Husband of my Heart to the blessings of Liberty and Love" (4.1, p. 59).
This terrestrial sweep alludes to the outposts of the expanding empire—Northwest Territories, Persia, North America, Ceylon, India, the mysterious "East." But Letitia's speech also suggests that imperial expansion is the natural backdrop for a decidedly English love. Her last statement, analogizing the wars of love and imperial struggle, arguably neutralizes the violence of imperial expansion. But it also suggests that English domesticity comes into clearest relief when seen against a global backdrop. Here what is local and particular—the love of an English girl for an English boy—can be expressed only through the terms of an non-English geography.
If a dramatic discourse like Letitia's speaks to the lure of globalism, antiperformance discourse characteristically insists on the pleasures of staying at home, often associating a life on the town with the dereliction of domestic duty. This insistence has special meaning for women, who bear the burden for domesticity and are particularly instructed to avoid opportunities for performance of any kind. In an often-cited passage from Hannah More, parents are counseled to teach their daughters that "this world is not a stage for the display of superficial or even of shining talent, but for the strict and sober exercise of fortitude, temperance, meekness, faith, diligence, and self-denial." Yet, ironically More resorts to the language of the stage to define woman's "true" role, as she writes of woman's "due performance of which Christian graces, angels will be spectators, and God the judge." This irony aside, throughout More's writings the world of balls, fashionable assemblies, theaters, and card tables is to be shunned in favor of quiet domesticity, a relative invisibility within the confines of the home. At the same time, most types of motion—the quick turn from one activity to the next, or the too eager gravitation toward a social pleasure or dissipation—increasingly mark the problematic female subject.
In The Belle's Stratagem, as if to answer Hannah More and those promoting female provincialism, Cowley positions the character of Lady Frances Touchwood between two characters, her husband, Sir George, and Lady Racket. Where will Lady Frances be safer—at home in the country, isolated from the public eye and under her husband's protection, or at loose in the city and under the tuition of the Fine Lady? Yet Cowley stacks the deck against Sir George: he is represented as so pathologically jealous that he released his wife's favorite bullfinch because he was jealous of the kisses she gave it (1.3, p. 12). Sir George, proselytizing against an urban life for women, finds in the lifestyle of the Fine Lady everything that is inimical to proper womanhood—mobility, antidomestic sentiment, dissipated social performance. He complains that the Fine Lady "is seen everywhere but in her own house. She sleeps at home, but she lives all over the town. In her mind, every sentiment gives place to the Lust of Conquest, and the vanity of being particular. The feelings of a Wife, and Mother, are lost in the whirl of dissipation. If she continues virtuous, 'tis by chance—and if she preserves her Husband from ruin; 'tis by her dexterity at the Card-Table!" (1.1, p. 25). According to Sir George, a Fine Lady is too visible: she fails to stay with the walls of her husband's house and hence resists in her movement the prescribed roles of wife and mother. Female gambling only exacerbates the sense that women can operate beyond patriarchal control. Yet Sir George seems to assume that the "real" woman who opposes the Fine Lady is not only housebound but largely invisible. Her roles are presumably not "performed" but rather innate, even "authentic."
Sir George further equates an absence of performance with the kind of transparency among the ranks of women that previously assured stable social relations: "Heaven and earth! with whom can a man trust his wife, in the present state of society? Formerly there were distinctions of character amongst ye: every class of females had its particular description; Grandmothers were pious, Aunts discreet, Old Maids censorious! but now aunts, grandmothers, girls, and maiden gentlewomen, are all the same creature;—a wrinkle more or less is the sole difference between ye" (2.1, p. 26). For Sir George, then, society ought to be a structured hierarchy where human beings discover their "natural" roles and where women in particular find their places predetermined by gender, rank, and age. However, in his eagerness to assign women their natural places, he misses the idea (now a feminist commonplace) that femininity itself is inevitably another kind of masquerade, with wife and mother as two of the most exacting social roles for women. Indeed, he accuses Mrs. Racket herself of refusing her "natural role" as a widow: "[Y]our air should be sedate, your dress grace, your deportment matronly, and in all things an example to the young women growing up around you" (2.1, p. 26).
To answer Sir George, Cowley creates in Mrs. Racket a rare type—an outspoken, fashionable woman who is neither dissipated nor devious. This character offers an unusual late-century defense of cosmopolitanism and especially of the opportunities it affords for women. According to Mrs. Racket, a "Fine Lady" is someone who takes full advantage of a diverse and thriving social scene. She is someone "for whom Nature has done much, and Education more; she has Taste, Elegance, Spirit, Understanding. In her manner she is free, in her morals nice. Her behaviour is undistinguishingly polite to her Husband, and all mankind; her sentiments are for their hours of retirement. In a word, a Fine Lady is the life of conversation, the spirit of society, the joy of the public!—Pleasures follow her where ever she appears, and the kindest wishes attend her slumbers" (1.1, p. 25). Unlike Hannah More, Mrs. Racket defends a cosmopolitan setting as the appropriate backdrop for a vibrant female intellect. Though her character is not above reproach, she does exude an exciting energy, and she does articulate well the stakes of urban immersion for women.
As the plot unfolds, Lady Frances finds herself drawn into a series of exciting but potentially dangerous social situations. In particular, stalking her at the masquerade in act 4, Courtall plans to trick her into an affair by disguising himself as her husband. The plot is foiled by Saville, who substitutes a courtesan named Kitty Willis for Lady Frances. In rendering Lady Frances as a character who can be brought to the brink of destruction yet ultimately be preserved, Cowley makes her point: a deep sense of domestic responsibility occurs not where a woman has been isolated from the forces of corruption but where she is free to fall. Only by participating in the social masquerade does Lady Frances inure herself to its dangers. Moreover, paradoxically true female virtue is only possible where libertine threat looms large. Saville delivers this moral and further insists that Sir George must allow for his wife's performance as it serves a useful social purpose: "Lady Frances was born to be the ornament of Courts. She is sufficiently alarmed, not to wander beyond the reach of her Protector;—and, Page 48 | Top of Article from the British Court, the most tenderly anxious Husband could not wish to banish his Wife" (4.5, p. 77). The relative freedom Saville urges for Lady Frances—the liberty to attend public assemblies and functions—is not quite the full range of movement given to Mrs. Racket. Still, it is clear that public performance serves here not to undermine female character but to facilitate and enhance its representation.
And this point is nowhere clearer than in the play's primary plot, that concerning Doricourt and Letitia Hardy. With his appetite whetted by foreign travel, Doricourt initially sees little that attracts him to Letitia. He finds previous parental provisions for their marriage chafing—until Letitia performs the role that convinces him he cannot live without her. Cowley borrows and improves upon Goldsmith, who in turn only foregrounds a more widely acknowledged paradox: no one is ever so much herself as when she deliberately acts what she is not. In this case, Letitia veils herself mysteriously and finds a range of opportunities in her disguise. We have already seen how her costume widens the scope of her vocabulary. No longer bound by the language of modest domesticity, she opens up and, against the backdrop of the masquerade, becomes the charming and alluring creature of Doricourt's dreams.
In her groundbreaking work on English masquerade, Terry Castle writes that customarily eighteenth-century "masqueraders did not dress as themselves, nor did they dress as people like themselves.… [O]ne was obliged to appear, in some sense, as one's opposite.… The conceptual gap separating true and false selves was ideally an abyss." Yet Cowley's use of the masquerade not only contradicts this assertion but also exposes the stable binary understanding of human identity on which this statement depends: to say that one went to the masquerade as one's opposite is to imply that someone knew precisely who she or he was. In Cowley's comedy we see how the "true" self is nothing more than a provisional category; the mask neither covers an "authentic" identity nor reveals the "opposite" of the truth since the categories of a "true" and "false" identity collapse into one another. For Cowley, the masquerade enables the presentation of the "truth." As we have seen with Hardy, not only is John Quick his other role, but he also is John Quick. Similarly, at the masquerade, Hardy's daughter Letitia is utterly charming in her disguise: she is sophisticated, witty, and exciting. More importantly, she is what she really is, if only English decorum had not scripted for her a more modest and less demonstrative role.
The theme of Letitia's true identity is resolved in act 5. Just when Doricourt believes that he is inextricably bound to marry Letitia Hardy—a woman he does not love—the mysterious masquerader—in fact Letitia Hardy covered by a mask—returns to him. Cowley's imagery shifts from masking to veiling, partly to echo the Alcestis story, to which act 5 alludes, but partly also to reintroduce the theme of what it means to perform a specifically English version of womanhood. As she presents herself to Doricourt in her true identity, Letitia refers simultaneously to her nation's "veiling" of female subjectivity and to a reserve that was naturally her own. Doricourt's initial dislike of her English maiden-hood led her to reject what had been imposed on her: "The timidity of the English character threw a veil over me, you could not penetrate," she explains. "You have forced me to emerge in some measure from my natural reserve, and throw off the veil that hid me." Claiming that she can be anything her mate desires, she asks him, "shall I be an English wife?—or, breaking from the bonds of Nature and Education, step forth to the world in all the captivating glare of foreign manners?" (5.4, p. 81).
The curious alignment of "Nature and Education" suggests that the playwright wants it both ways here: the modesty so common to English womanhood is indigenous and put upon, just as Letitia's reserve was natural and imposed. These concepts appear paradoxical, even contradictory, until we remember the dramatic context in which the lines are delivered: we as the audience have been watching an actress who has been simulating both a modest reserve and a captivating flair. The question of what is "natural" in English womanhood evaporates when the discussion is framed by a proscenium arch: for what is truly natural in a performance that only imitates a "natural" inclination that is supposedly beyond art? Thus Cowley may allow her actress to claim an "indigenous" or authentic grounding for English womanhood, but in the end that supposedly authentic grounding comes alive best in performance.
However, what about the destabilizing effect of making Letitia's "natural" reserve an effect of performance? After all, like Kate Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, Letitia is mistaken for a woman of easy virtue: at the end of act 4, rumor convinces Doricourt that she is the kept woman of Lord George Jennet. This rumor can be construed as a simple comic misunderstanding—or as a potentially uncanny doubling, since the audience might well have expected the actress (Frances Younge in the original production) to have been, in point of fact, of somewhat questionable character. In a Page 49 | Top of Article similar fashion, the morally impeccable Lady Frances (Mrs. Hartley) is easily doubled by Kitty Willis, suggesting once again that the lady and the whore—like the lady and the actress—are distinguished only by the roles they act.
The instability introduced by Letitia's playing appears to have especially affected Mrs. Inchbald when she wrote the introduction to an 1806 publication of the play: "The incident, from which the play takes its title, is, perhaps, the least pleasing, and the least probable, of any amongst the whole; still, this stratagem, as the foundation of a multiplicity of many others, far better conceived and executed, has claim to the toleration of the reader, and will generally obtain admiration from the auditor, by the skill of the actress who imitates a simpleton." Inchbald's comment epitomizes the position of those who find moral stability in the refusal to play, yet who find pleasure in the very nature of performance. In particular, she appears appalled by the idea that Letitia used the art of the masquerade to win her lover: "Who does not scorn that romantic passion, which is inflamed to the highest ardour, by a few hours with a woman whose face is concealed?" She further implies that Letitia is—and always was—quite simply the woman beneath her mask. Rejecting the complex dialectic between Letitia's "assumed" and "real" identities, Inchbald claims instead to locate the pleasure of the scene in the moment of Letitia's unveiling: "And yet, who does not here have sympathies with the lover, and feel a strong agitation, when Letitia, going to take off her mask, exclaims in a tremulous voice—'This is the most awful moment of my life'?" To privilege this remark over others may clear Letitia from the charge of duplicity, but it also deprives the scene of its theatrical richness, a richness that depends precisely on a metatheatrical awareness. Inchbald seeks to rescue a play which seems curiously attractive to her despite its clearly unacceptable pro-performance message. It is little wonder, then, that her edition omits the final epilogue, which, as we will see, explicitly engages the audience on the question of its own performance.
By the time we reach act 5, Cowley has made her point clear: in this play, human identity is fulfilled not in the consistent refusal to perform but in the recognition that all social interaction is necessarily an act. The epilogue taunts those who insist on thinking themselves beyond acting their parts. First, female audience members are reminded that the most natural female face is already a mask:
What Lady Bab, or Grace,
E'er won a woman—in her natural face?
Mistake me not—French red, or blanching creams,
I stoop not to—for those are hackney'd themes;
The arts I means are harder to detect,
Easier to put on, and worn to more effect;—
Do pride and Envy, with their horrid lines,
Destroy th' Effect of Nature's sweet designs?
The mask of sweetness is at once applied,
And gentlest manners ornament the Bride.
More chilling is the role-playing that covers up the violence of paternal tyranny:
And you, my gentle Sirs wear Vizors too:
And here I'll strip you, and expose to view
Your hidden features—First I point at you.
That well-stuff'd waistcoat, and that ruddy cheek;
That ample forehead, and that skin so sleek,
Point out good-nature, and gen'rous heart—
Tyrant! stand forth, and, conscious own thy part:
Thy wife, thy children, tremble in thy eye;
And peace is vanquished when the Father's nigh.
While the Shakespearean allusions are unmistakable here, Cowley's tone is significantly darker than the Bard's, and it is worth asking how the stakes of performance are different for her. Why does she feel compelled to defend the actor as the only "authentic" individual in the playhouse?
Sure 'tis enchantment! See, from ev'ry side
The Masks fall off! In charity I hide
The monstrous features rushing to my view—
Fear not, there, Grand-Papa—nor you—nor you:
For should I show your features to each other,
Not one amongst ye'd know his Friend or Brother,
'Tis plain, then, all the world, from Youth to Age,
Appear in Masks—here, only on the Stage,
You see us as we are: here trust your eyes;
Our wish to please, admits of no disguise.
For Cowley, only the play can rescue humanity from its own savage potential, for the play has the virtue of veiling and unveiling its citizens. The play demands not that we be who we absolutely and essentially are, but rather that we admit that human beings are slippery, multifaceted individuals who engage in a range of self-defining behaviors. In this way, Cowley endorses masking as movement or as the free play of identity that refuses to fix character as only this or that. Quite simply, she celebrates the pleasure, power, and truth of play.
However, in the end, Cowley's performance-based theory of human subjectivity is equally important for what it implies about not just individual but also national identity. Returning full circle to the Jew Issac Mendoza, we recognize that Cowley's play locates national identity not in terms of place, or essentialized "native" character, but in terms of fluidity, self-invention, and self-awareness. Moreover, The Belle's Stratagem implies that nationhood itself Page 50 | Top of Article is formed through play. A nation is comprised of individuals, men and women alike, who have freely made themselves as national subjects, and the native citizen has no patriotic advantage in this making.
Under early modern vagrancy laws, actors were problematic subjects partially because they—like the cosmopolitans Rob Wilson discovers in the writings of early modern philosophers—appeared to be "rootless and mobile, avowedly universal, uncommitted and detached." However if (as Wilson also argues) the "world citizen" can be also characterized as "enlightened and mobile, all but freed from particularized prejudices, fixed ties, and narrow local/national boundaries," then the actor becomes an appropriate figurehead for a progressive nationalism. In his very mobility, the actor embodies openness to plurality. He practices a tolerance of multiplicity and difference. In this way, he becomes the nation's most promising citizen. But those of us who are not actors can also learn an important lesson from Cowley's play. To accept and promulgate a performance-based definition of national character leads away from static and bounded definitions of nation as a territory, definitions that are far too often based on an essentialist understanding of Englishness. Like certain kinds of cosmopolitanism, a performance-based theory of identity such as that endorsed by Cowley in The Belle's Stratagem also "undermines the 'naturalness' of ethnic absolutisms, whether articulated at the nation-state, tribal, or minority levels." In the moment when an English actor plays a Englishman who plays a Jew, the concept of nation is temporarily expanded: England becomes a creative space of possibility and play—not a bounded space for the static policing of identity but a platform where imagined nationhood is meaningfully staged.
Elizabeth Kowaleski Wallace, "Theatricality and Cosmopolitanism in Hannah Cowley's The Belle's Strategem," in Comparative Drama, Vol. 35, No. 3–4, Fall–Winter 2002, pp. 415–31.
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In the following essay, Gagen analyzes Cowley's comedies, including The Belle's Strategem, remarking on how Cowley's heroines are "independent and resourceful."
Hannah Cowley, who lived from 1743 to 1809, is just beginning to receive some of the notice and appreciation as a playwright which she deserves. A recent critic who refers to Cowley as the finest woman playwright since Aphra Behn perhaps overstates Cowley's merits. Certainly Susanna Centlivre's achievement as a playwright earlier in the century has been much more widely recognized than Cowley's. Nevertheless, Hannah Cowley's plays deserve a place of honor in the roll call of eighteenth century playwrights. In fact, as early as 1782, the reviewer of The Belle's Stratagem in The Critical Review asserted that this play was the "best dramatic production of a female pen… since the days of Centlivre, to whom Mrs. Cowley is at least equal in fable and character, and far superior in easy dialogue and purity of diction" (vol. 53, p. 314). The reason for the neglect of Cowley's plays in this century is not easy to understand. But the appearance in 1979 of the two volume edition of her plays edited by Frederick Link now makes her dramas much more readily accessible than formerly.
Mrs. Cowley wrote thirteen plays—two of them tragedies—but her reputation rests on her comedies. The way in which she began writing for the stage has often been repeated. While attending a theatrical performance with her husband, she remarked, "Why I could write as well myself!" She took her husband's laughter as a challenge, and the next day she began to write a play that she eventually called The Runaway. She finished it quickly and sent it to Garrick to read; he encouraged her and suggested revisions. In 1776 Garrick presented the play at Drury Lane, where it met with more success than she dreamed possible. In fact, a reviewer for The Critical Review marveled at the skill which this "untutored genius" displayed (vol. 41, p. 239). Cowley continued to write for the stage for eighteen years, and many of her comedies were popular successes with long runs and frequent revivals.
Her characters are often stereotypes drawn from Restoration and earlier eighteenth century comedy, but at her best she is able to give them freshness and vitality. Although she was much more deeply influenced than Centlivre by the emphasis on moral reformation in drama, Cowley's desire to write plays free of moral offense did not stifle her sense of humor. Her plays are full of laughter and wit. Not only did she have unusual skill in the handling of dialogue but she was also capable of portraying well a wide variety of types of characters. Her most celebrated characters are undoubtedly her witty young heroines, who are often the prime manipulators and intriguers in her plays, which usually center on courtship and marriage.
Cowley was not primarily a reformer or disturber of the status quo. She was not a feminist in any militant way. Yet in the independence, resourcefulness, and daring of her witty heroines, Cowley is surely making a statement about women, their capabilities, and their rights. She defined comedy as "a picture of life—a record of passing manners—a mirror to reflect to succeeding times the characters and follies of the present." One of the follies on which she often focused was the failure to respect and cultivate the minds of women and to give them more control over their lives, especially in the choice of a husband. She ridicules men who have patronizing attitudes towards women and who undervalue them and their abilities. Moreover, the agents of her ridicule are women of wit and ingenuity who are capable of manipulating and deceiving these men and gaining from them or in spite of them what they wish to have.
In Who's the Dupe (1779), a short farce which became one of Cowley's most popular dramatic productions, Cowley satirizes what she refers to in a perfatory note as "the disgusting vulgarity in an upstart citizen." In the prologue, moreover, she remarks that since learned men and writers have often satirized the "petty foibles" and faults of women and exposed their "whims and vanity," she as a woman asks leave to laugh at these same learned men, whose sarcastic pens have spared neither "Matron Maid or Bride." And this is precisely what Cowley has done in this broadly amusing farce.
Old Doiley, the vulgar "upstart citizen," wealthy but ignorantly enamoured of "Larning," is the chief butt of Cowley's satire. Old Doiley is determined to have a son-in-law who is "Larned" and has chosen the pedant Gradus from Oxford to be his daughter Elizabeth's husband. Elizabeth, however, dupes both her father and Gradus and wins for her husband the man Granger whom she loves. She engineers the ruse by means of which Gradus is discredited as a learned man in her father's eyes, while Granger, who has never seen the inside of a university, entrances Old Doiley so thoroughly with his display of bogus learning that Doiley offers to leave him every farthing of his fortune if he will only marry Elizabeth.
The humor of this situation is made all the more pointed by the fact that when Old Doiley and Gradus are talking together shortly after Gradus' arrival, Old Doiley complains of the money wasted on educating girls in such matters as French and dancing, "Jography" and "Stronomy," while Gradus eagerly seconds these opinions and extols those "immortal periods" when women could neither read nor write. Both men underestimate the wit of women and deservedly fall victim to the stratagems which Elizabeth devises in order to escape marriage with Gradus. Gradus, of course, is a familiar comic figure—the pedant who may know a great deal about what is in books, particularly ancient books, but who knows almost nothing about life in the real world, including women.
When Old Doiley repudiates Gradus in favor of Granger, Gradus knows that he has been duped and that the oration by means of which Granger has enraptured Old Doiley is only high-sounding, polysyllabic gibberish without a word of Greek in it. But Doiley, declaring himself the happiest man alive, remains in blissful ignorance of how completely he has been duped. In fact, he patronizingly urges Gradus to trot back to Oxford for further study so that he can learn the difference between Greek and English.
Letitia Hardy in The Belle's Strategem (1782), Cowley's most popular comedy, faces a situation very different from that which confronted Elizabeth Doiley. Letitia was contracted in marriage to Doricourt when both of them were children. But until the time for their marriage was approaching, neither had seen each other for years. Unfortunately for Letitia, Doricourt is not impressed by Letitia's reputation as a beauty. "Why, she's only a fine girl: complexion, shape and feature; nothing more… she should have spirit! fire! l'air enjoué! that something, that nothing, which everybody feels, and which nobody can describe, in the resistless charmers of Italy and France" (I.iii.9). Despite this lack of enthusiasm for Letitia, Doricourt is nevertheless determined to do the honorable thing and marry her. Letitia, however, is deeply troubled over Doricourt's apparent indifference to her because she is more attracted to him than ever before. But she has no intention either of marrying a man who does not love her or of letting this handsome man she adores escape without a struggle.
She tells her father that she has a plan to win Doricourt's love, although this plan may seem a bit paradoxical. She intends to heighten Doricourt's indifference to actual dislike because she believes that "'tis much easier to convert a sentiment into its opposite, than to transform indifference into tender passion" (I.iv.18). Her plot, quite simply, is to appear before Doricourt as a simpleton, loud, garrulous, crude, and completely lacking in refinement. Doricourt is so thoroughly repelled by her that he wants to set off for Bath that very night. But a friend who is privy to Letitia's plot persuades him to stay one night more and attend the masquerade.
At the masquerade, Doricourt notices how divinely a masked beauty dances. Soon he learns how bewitching as well as beautiful she is, how spirited and wild. Soon he is madly in love with this beautiful unknown, who, of course, is Letitia. Letitia continues to tease Doricourt and to refuse to show him her face. She also makes it quite clear that she will never be snared unless Hymen spreads the net to catch her.
On the advice of a friend, Letitia agrees to torment Doricourt further by seeing if he will promise to marry her even when he thinks she is a simpleton. Poor Doricourt is thus trapped, so to speak, into doing what he considers honorable—that is, marry a revolting simpleton.
Shortly after the wedding, Letitia, now disguised as the unknown beauty of the masquerade, enters and pretends to be deeply distressed over Doricourt's marriage. She claims that Doricourt's professions of love won her "Virgin heart," and that her honor is as spotless as that of the girl he has married. Her birth is also equal to his and her fortune large. Then she leaves Doricourt desperate with misery and wretchedness. Later, however, after a few more complications in the plot, Doricourt learns the identity of the masked lady and the tricks played on him. But he is overjoyed to find himself married to the witty and beautiful Letitia, who, because she has the "delicate timidity" of the English character, threw a veil over her charms. But now that he knows her better, he insists that no woman in France or Italy or even in the entire world could surpass her in delightfulness. Letitia's stratagem has worked. Her wavering, reluctant fiancé is now an ardent lover, and one supposes he will be an ardent husband too.
A Bold Stroke for a Husband (1783), set in Madrid, deals not with one woman but with two women who take bold strokes for husbands. In one case, Victoria, a deserted wife, regains her husband Don Carlos, who has succumbed to Laura, an unscrupulous fortune hunter; Don Carlos, in an alcoholic stupor, has even deeded to Laura the estate that came to him through his wife Victoria. In the other plot, Olivia repels two unwelcome suitors selected by her father and wins for her husband a man she truly loves. In these interwoven plots, women are the prime manipulators; they are the brains and boldness behind the strokes that gain them their husbands. In comparison with these women, the men are relatively weak and passive, and, in the case of Don Carlos, grossly culpable and foolish also.
Victoria has to overcome her repugnance for the role she feels compelled to play. But she is determined not merely to win back her husband, whom she still loves, but also the property, without which she and her children will be financially ruined. Disguised as a young man named Florio, she easily wins the love of the fickle Laura, who promptly discards Don Carlos, though she keeps the deed to the property he has given her.
Eventually Don Carlos appreciates the goodness of his wife and is half mad with remorse over his treatment of her and with fury over Laura's perfidy. In a rage he decides that he will kill this new paramour Florio. When he bursts in on Laura and Florio ready to plunge his sword into the bosom of his "blooming rival," Florio doffs his hat and reveals "himself" as Victoria, who now urges him to plunge the sword into her bosom since she has already been stabbed far more deeply by the anguish of betrayed love.
This is too much for Don Carlos, and we are simply told that "he sinks." Then Victoria rushes to him begging forgiveness for her too severe reproaches and assuring him that he is as dear as ever to her. When Carlos protests that she knows not what she does, for he has made her a beggar, she joyfully informs him of another bold stroke by means of which she has regained the estate he had deeded to Laura. She has engaged a friend to impersonate her uncle Don Sancho. He has convinced Laura that the deed Carlos had given her was invalid because Don Sancho himself was the owner of this property. In a rage, Laura tore up the deed. Now, realizing that she has been tricked out of this estate, Laura stalks out in a fury, vowing revenge, while Carlos turns to his "charming wife," full of gratitude and love.
Olivia's stratagems to free herself from the suitors chosen for her by her father and to win Julio instead are equally successful and much more lighthearted. She has repelled her music-loving suitor by claiming that the Jew's harp is her favorite instrument. She has driven another suitor away by posing convincingly as a shrew. She has also sought out Julio, met him at the Prado, and won his love while veiled and her identity unknown. Only after a number of amusing complications does she reveal her identity and accept him as her future husband. Thus the play ends with the restoration of a marriage and with an imminent marriage, both brought about by the bold strokes of two strong, ingenious, and daring women.
In More Ways than One (1786) another strong-minded and delightfully witty heroine appears in the person of Miss Archer. Beautiful, wealthy, and Page 63 | Top of Article sophisticated, she has a well-cultivated mind, the experience of traveling in Europe, and the reputation for rejecting scores of adoring suitors. Though she is under the guardianship of a wealthy and avaricious old man Evergreen, she is not in the least threatened by him in any way. Evergreen apparently has no control over her fortune and makes no attempt to arrange a marriage for her. In fact, he is eager to get rid of her. Annoyed by her impudence and independence, he tells her to go ahead and marry one of her suitors—she has his consent. But she tartly replies that she wants the consent of a much more important personage—herself. In the meantime, she is not yet ready to give up the right to make conquests. But when the time comes to "retire from the scene of action," she promises to pick out the most constant of her adorers, to "go gravely with him to church," then "drive soberly to the seat of his ancestors" and thereafter become a dutiful wife, studying family receipts and making wine. She ends her sarcastic picture of her future married life by claiming that when the sixteen year old girl Arabella whom Evergreen is planning to marry has become a "young widow," she will invite her and her new husband to drink to Evergreen's memory in a cup of "cowslip" of her own brewing (I, i, p. 6).
When Evergreen in a rage orders Miss Archer to seek new lodgings immediately, she cheerfully refuses and continues to twit her "own dear, sweet guardian" who in marrying a sweet young wife is going to become a "sweet simpleton, at the sweet age of sixty" (p. 7).
Evergreen's prospective young bride is under the guardianship of her uncle Feelove, who is not only an avaricious but a ruthlessly incompetent physician. Moreover, he has subjected her to a repressive upbringing which has left her ignorant, naive, and utterly unable to help herself out of the predicament Feelove has placed her in by arranging for her to marry Evergreen. Raised in the country by two spinsters who taught her only such household arts as sewing and "making seed-cake, and stewing codlings," she cannot read or write, has never heard of "Point or Brussels," and her only card game is "beggar my neighbour." Arabella knows so little about the ways of the world that she supposes she has to marry the old man Feelove has chosen for her. Feelove never allows her to stir from his home, and Evergreen intends to continue this kind of incarceration in his own home. But Arabella finds a sympathetic friend and mentor in Miss Archer. To Evergreen's face she vows that no matter how stringently Evergreen tries to protect his young bride from the dangers of young men and the infections of fashionable life, she herself will teach this "pretty young cherub" to captivate the whole town and to acquire a greater desire for laces, feathers, diamonds, and fops than can be satisfied in six years. But what Miss Archer actually does for Arabella is much more important. She helps her to escape marriage to Evergreen and to marry instead young Bellair, who had fallen so desperately in love with Arabella that he had feigned an illness in order to gain entrée into Feelove's home and be nursed by Arabella. Although Cowley avoids any suggestion of lasciviousness on the part of either Bellair or Arabella, the tears of pity Arabella feels for the supposedly dying Bellair are symptoms of her quite natural attraction to him. Her childlike frankness in expressing her distaste for Evergreen and her preference for Bellair is the source of several pleasant comic scenes.
When Bellair finally seizes an opportunity to declare his love to Arabella and to assure her that she need not marry the old man whom she detests, Arabella is delighted and astonished and more than willing to flee from Feelove's house with Bellair. Unfortunately, not knowing the identity of Arabella's prospective husband, Bellair takes her to Evergreen's home thinking that this "grave gentleman" will provide a sanctuary for her until Bellair can arrange the elopement. Cowley makes good comic use of Bellair's mistake and Evergreen's glee over it. But through the help of Miss Archer, all is still not lost.
When she learns that Evergreen has already hired a coach to whisk Arabella off to an unknown destination to protect her from Bellair, Miss Archer acts quickly. Evergreen has already enveloped Arabella in a large white riding cape and hood in preparation for her drive. But in the few moments that he is absent, Miss Archer bribes the foppish knight from the country, Sir Marvel Mushroom, who has fortunately appeared at just the right moment, to conceal himself in the riding cape and hood while she and Arabella jump into Marvel's waiting carriage. Miss Archer then directs the driver to take Arabella to a lodging for safekeeping.
Eventually everyone concerned with Arabella's future ends up at this lodging, where Bellair wins Feelove's consent to marry Arabella and both Feelove and Evergreen, though they angrily wrangle with each other, have to accept the fact that they have both been outwitted and outmaneuvered. Once again a resourceful and clever young woman has frustrated the attempt to force a young woman Page 64 | Top of Article into a repulsive marriage as if she were a mere pawn in a financial negotiation.
During her efforts on behalf of Arabella, Miss Archer has been carrying on a rather tempestuous courtship of her own, marked by many misunderstandings. By the time Arabella's happiness is sealed, Miss Archer and Mr. Carlton, who are well suited to each other, are also looking forward to marriage.
Again in School for Greybeards (1786) a young girl Viola, who is about to be hustled into a marriage to a man she does not love, is spared this fate through the help of a forceful and fearless young woman—in this case, her young mother-in-law Seraphina, who has recently married Viola's father Don Alexis. Don Alexis has already realized that he has made an ass of himself in marrying a mere girl, for he now knows from experience that it is easier "to spin cables out of cobwebs… than to manage a young rantipole wife" (I, p. 11). Seraphina often reminds us of Sheridan's Lady Teazle as she playfully torments her husband by her many pointed references to his age. She admits that she loves to sit on her balcony while "All the impudent young face-hunters in Lisbon" fall prostrate before her, "adoring, and deifying" her. In fact, she insists that she will enjoy admiration until she becomes "old, shrivell'd" and "grey-pated" as Don Alexis is now (II, pp. 18–19).
When Alexis threatens to block up all the windows and nail shut the doors to secure his honor, she retorts that if he cannot find better security than these devices, he'll be one of the herd of cuckholds. The best security for his honor, she tells him, is her honor: "It is due to my own feelings to be chaste—I don't condescend to think of you in the affair. The respect I bear myself, makes me necessarily preserve my purity—but if I am suspected, watch'd, and haunted, I know not but such torment may weary me out of principles, which I have hitherto cherish'd as my life" (II, p. 19).
Although marriage to Seraphina has taught Don Alexis that youth and age do not mix well in matrimony, the importance of love between the partners still escapes his rather dense mind. When his friend Don Gasper remarks that his son Don Octavio is sufficiently attracted to Alexis' daughter Viola to be willing to marry her, Don Alexis snaps at the suggestion. It apparently never occurs to him to consult Viola herself about her feelings.
Viola happens to be deeply in love with Don Sebastian and has no interest whatsoever in Don Octavio. Fortunately, when Octavio comes to woo Viola, he mistakes Seraphina for Viola and proceeds to woo her in all the trite, conventional ways, which provide her with a great deal of ironic amusement. Because she enjoys his mistake, she does not undeceive him. Then she suddenly realizes that she can use this mistake to help Viola escape from her father's house and meet and marry Don Sebastian. Seraphina as Viola convinces Octavio that she despises the sober, quiet prudence of a courtship which is approved by her father. Only if her father opposes the marriage and she will have to face all sorts of "blissful" difficulties, such as scaling ladders to elope and being pursued, will she believe that Octavio really loves her. Of course, all this very clearly reminds us of Sheridan's Lydia Languish.
Don Octavio unsuspectingly accepts all these conditions and persuades Alexis that they must plot against this "dear little madcap." Don Alexis accordingly orders Viola to see Octavio no more. In fact, Don Alexis is vastly amused by what he thinks is a clever ploy to secure Viola's marriage to Octavio while she imagines that she is eloping without her father's consent. Of course, it is Seraphina (still playing the part of Viola) who climbs down the ladder from Don Alexis' house, though she has stipulated that she has a friend who must accompany her. That friend is Viola who, once out of her father's house, meets and marries Don Sebastian. Thus, once again, men—both Don Alexis and Don Octavio—who regard women as property to be disposed of in marriage without any regard for their own inclinations—are outmaneuvered and made ridiculous by the sex which they patronizingly brand as the weaker sex.
Cowley apparently thought of marriage as the normal and desirable goal for women. Her witty heroines all look forward to marriage, but they demand a marriage based on love and mutual respect and trust, and they expect to have the deciding vote in the selection of their husbands. Cowley glorifies these women who are independent and resourceful, intelligent and well educated without becoming pedantic, and completely undeterred by the authority that men attempt to impose on them in the choice of their mates. Instead of weeping or arguing against the injustice of tyrannical fathers or guardians, they often devise very complicated stratagems by means of which they outwit would-be tyrants and win for husbands the men they love. Sometimes they also exercise their wit and ingenuity in rescuing some of the weaker members of their sex from the unwelcome marriages which domineering parents or guardians Page 65 | Top of Article try to force on them. These courageous ladies have insight and initiative. They can think for themselves, make their own decisions, and act with intelligence and daring. They are Cowley's "new women."
Jean Gagen, "The Weaker Sex: Hannah Cowley's Treatment of Men in Her Comedies of Courtship and Marriage," in the University of Mississippi Studies in English, Vol. VIII, 1990, pp. 107–16.
Cowley, Hannah, The Belle's Stratagem, in Eighteenth-Century Women Dramatists, edited by Melinda C. Finberg, Oxford University Press, 2001.
Gagen, Jean, "The Weaker Sex: Hannah Cowley's Treatment of Men in Her Comedies of Courtship and Marriage," in University of Mississippi Studies in English, Vol. 8, 1990, p. 108.
Isikoff, Erin, "Masquerade, Modesty, and Comedy in Hannah Cowley's The Belle's Stratagem," in Look Who's Laughing: Gender and Comedy, edited by Gail Finney, Gordon and Breach, 1994, pp. 101, 108.
Canfield, J. Douglas, and Maja-Lisa von Sneidern, eds., The Broadview Anthology of Restoration and Early Eighteenth Century Drama, concise ed., Broadview, 2003.
Composed of twenty-one plays, this anthology concentrates on Restoration drama and revolution drama with various subgenres. Each play contains extensive annotation and important historical information.
Gagen, Jean, "Hannah Cowley," in Restoration and Eighteenth Century Dramatists, 3d ed., edited by Paula R. Backscheider, Gale Research, 1989.
Gagen gives a brief yet thorough synopsis of Hannah Cowley's life and work. Information about Cowley is scarce; thus Gagen's short biography is an excellent resource.
Garrick, David, Diary of David Garrick, Ayer Press, 1928.
David Garrick, an eighteenth-century actor and theatre manager, was known for his openness to dramatic newcomers, especially women.
Woodfield, Ian, Opera and Drama in Eighteenth-Century London: The King's Theatre, Garrick, and the Business of Performance, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
This book explores the cultural and commercial life of opera in late-eighteenth-century London. It includes a rare examination of the role of women in opera management.