- Staging Gender in Behn and Centlivre: Women's Comedy and the Theatre
Nancy Copeland's goal in this book is to 'situate plays by both Behn and Centlivre within their theatrical contexts' and further, through study of the 'afterlife' of the plays, demonstrate how their 'representation and reproduction of gender roles' altered with the 'changing expectation horizons.' The plays selected, Aphra Behn's The Rover and The Luckey Chance, and Susanna Centlivre's The Busie Body and The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret, were performed well into the eighteenth century and beyond. Indeed, Behn's The Rover has been frequently performed in the past twenty years. Copeland ' s method is to offer a brief critical discussion of each play, providing information about its sources, initial casting, relationship to other works performed in the given theatrical season, and reception history. This 'thick description' gives a sense of the contemporary context, reminding one of the initial dramatic aims all too easily obscured by the layers of subsequent critical commentary and recent performance. It is, for instance, interesting to note that the original casting of The Rover gave prominence to Florinda and Belvile, performed respectively by Duke's Company leading actors Mary and Thomas Betterton. Subsequent casting shows that very rapidly, by the season of 1709-10, attention focused on the 'romantic triangle centered on Willmore at the expense of the alternate plot and values represented by the Belvile-Florinda romance.' Copeland also notes that the character Blunt emerged as a key role for 'important low comedy actors.' The general, and inevitable trend that Copeland traces with all four plays is towards gentrification and a toning down of sexuality: she describes John Philip Kemble's 1790 rewritten production as depriving 'Behn's play of sex, danger, and ambivalence, and even spectacle.' Given this movement from overt sexuality and gender ambiguity to pallid respectability, the author whets one's interest to know why initially, at least, revivals stressed the more sexual and farcical aspects of the play.
The Luckey Chance provides Copeland with materials for discussion of the play's adaptations by both Eliza Haywood as A Wife to Lett (1723) and [End Page 259] Hannah Cowley as A School for Greybeards (1786). Copeland demonstrates well how each adapted the rather raunchy materials to more genteel ages. Even so, Cowley faced a barrage of complaints about the work's 'indecency ' and made rapid alterations to conform to new moral demands. As with so many of the Restoration plays that became stock plays in the eighteenth-century repertoire, a moment was reached when the mere removal of sexual language or action was quite insufficient given that basic plot materials, such as adultery, could not be removed.
There is a growing interest in the works of Susanna Centlivre, and Copeland's chapters on her plays provide a great deal of essential information regarding the best-known plays by this prolific and successful writer. Behn and Centlivre make an interesting pair for comparison, and Copeland could have spent longer discussing their styles and approaches to comedy. Early on she notes their very different political allegiances, Behn a staunch Tory and Centlivre equally staunch Whig, but explains that her focus is on 'how the play's stagings of gender participate in broad cultural changes that were taking place at a more fundamental level than partisan politics.' While it may be true that Restoration and early eighteenth-century politics still have as much faction as ideology in their make-up, it is, I think, relevant to see how these playwrights formed their political allegiances, and to consider the ways in which these influenced treatments of sexuality and gender.
Copeland's most stimulating chapter is her final one on twentieth-century productions of the plays, and the ways in which the 'Aphra myth, ' combined with the contradictory staging conventions for Restoration drama - sexy romp versus dark misogyny - have controlled recent performances. In all, this is a useful study of the cultural life of four plays by pioneering professional women dramatists, which will be very helpful...