The Rival Widows, or Fair Libertine was the first, and only published, play of Elizabeth Cooper, who at the time of writing was (probably) the widow of a Covent Garden auctioneer (or, according to other sources, bookseller) with five surviving children. She had tried her hand at acting, and this play, her authorial debut, was a modest success, running for six nights. It is no undiscovered masterpiece. As a comedy it is formulaic, derivative, and wordy, with little variety or action. The stereotyped characters are contrasted with geometric regularity. As well as the rival widows, there are two contrasting fathers, one foolishly miserly, one foolishly extravagant, and two contrasting sons, the gentleman lover who is rewarded and the foolish beau who gets his comeuppance.
Possibly the magic of theatrical performance makes the play live in a way it cannot on the page. In one comic moment, young Modern tries to reinvent himself as a Georgian puritan, as Horner in The Country Wife pretends to be a eunuch, to gain access to women. This plot does not really go anywhere, and, as a contemporary reviewer thought, we could take it as a sign of the play’s lack of consistent characterization, since every character “UN-CHARACTERIZES him, or her self” somewhere, and “CHANGES oftner [sic] than the scenes.” The play is derivative of earlier character types—Millamant, Foible, Shadwell’s characters—but, as the same reviewer grumpily puts it, her changes are “unfortunately for the worse.”
Ruthlessly pruned, it could make a fair radio play. It distinctly struggles to transform unpromising material into a play of ideas, seriously attempting to discuss the relationships via key early eighteenth-century terms—nature, reason, pleasure, virtue. Behind the comic surface, how human beings achieve the maximum of pleasure without harming themselves or others, or compromising reason and nature is a constant serious theme. Ms. Potter rightfully notes that the female protagonist Bellair, the “fair libertine” of the title, presents Cooper’s message: “Pleasure, I have ever thought the chiefest good: but that Pleasure is to be found no where, but in obeying Reason and Virtue.” As the epilogue tells us, she is “but a Libertine in name”; her libertinism, apparently, is confined to shopping and manipulating men. (Indeed, in typical comic form the real sexual, and economic, transgressor is the apparently strictly moral hypocrite Lady Lurcher.)
Ms. Potter claims that Bellair embodies a “conflation of libertinism and sentiment as a strategy for an empowered femininity,” and that the play’s originality lies in the way it “looks outside rigid binaries.” This view might work, for instance, in Behn’s Rover, where the courtesan Angellica-Bianca offers Wilmore a “virgin heart” and the chaste Hellena is “wild” and free-spirited, but for Cooper? If she does aim to sidestep rigid binaries, this only seems to reinforce their ubiquity. As Haywood demonstrated in her hilarious short novel Fantomina (1724), the limits of female libertinism might be set not by society but by biology. The end of Cooper’s play restores equilibrium through conventional plot devices—Bellair and Freelove [End Page 76] agree to a marriage that retains elements of freedom for both, her fortune is restored having been appropriated by her rival, Freelove’s father gives him his inheritance and Modern’s limits his. Bellair is, perhaps, modestly “empowered” by regaining her dead first husband’s legacy and making a companionate marriage with a built-in escape clause, but the play’s rethinking of gender binaries goes no further. The libertinism of the fair libertine remains firmly limited.
Ms. Potter’s discussion of libertinism and sentiment is revealing. The edition perhaps makes too much of the looming Licensing Act—more than half of the appendixes deal with this, without adding much to our understanding of the play. I would have appreciated more detailed contextualization within the repertoires and practices of the early eighteenth-century theater: the influence of Cibber or Congreve (to whom the reviewer already quoted alludes), Centlivre and Fielding (to whom he does not), and even such earlier writers as Wycherley, needs...