This slim book ambitiously covers the tragedies and tragicomedies of women playwrights from Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Miriam (1613) to Anne Finch’s folio works (1713). Ms. Cuder-Dominguez proposes to close the “unbridgeable gap” between the early Stuarts and the early eighteenth century because “the Stuart monarchy undoubtedly endows the period with a relative ideological continuity in contents, themes, and concerns.” She focuses on publication instead of manuscript circulation (in the early Stuart period) or production (in the later), because it “does away with the problem of so-called ‘closet’ drama” and because publication “would entail their author’s [sic] will to let their works enter the public sphere in which they would become part of a tradition of women’s writing.”
The book benefits from significant scholarship over the past thirty years on early women writers, and Ms. Cuder-Dominguez provides an extensive Bibliography along with rescued texts and scholarly editions. Yet that same Bibliography contains few critical works written before 1980, suggesting that “the power of feminist criticism to redraw the boundaries of the literary canon” supersedes virtually all previous scholarship.
She contends that tragedy and tragicomedy appealed to women playwrights, although not in the form defined by Sidney and Dryden, which focused on the fall of princes and other noble men. With the “feminization” of serious drama in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, women authors were newly empowered to write tragedies and tragicomedies.
The works of well-born, highly educated Elizabeth Cary and Margaret Cavendish were circulated in manuscript among a small group of people. The “very fact that these plays were not intended for public performance … empower[ed] their women authors by allowing them some more latitude in their interrogation of gender.” In response to most critics’ deprecation of Cavendish’s plays, she sees postmodern texts: “by refusing to tie up loose ends or to voice a neat, round moral[,]… Cavendish’s plays open up spaces for reflection and response in performing ‘jarring’ disjunctions, whereby we are called upon to make our own judgment and to work out the moral, if any, to be learned from the events performed.”
Restoration women playwrights did not “see themselves as part of a tradition of women’s writing.” Ms. Cuder-Dominguez analyzes Boothby’s Marcelia and four plays by Behn as if they existed alone, outside the cut-and-thrust Restoration theater of Dryden, Wycherley, and popular revivals of Shakespeare and Fletcher. Her analyses of Behn and Boothby suffer from this lack of context. In discussing Behn’s [End Page 52] Abdelazer, for example, Ms. Cuder-Dominguez refers briefly to Dryden’s Conquest of Granada, only one example of the enormously popular heroic dramas on the Restoration stage. The similarity between Behn’s The Widow Ranter and Dryden and Howard’s The Indian Queen, both set in the New World with heroic female characters, goes unnoted. Generally, she ignores the importance of popular appeal on a working playwright. In looking for reasons for Behn’s shift to comedy after Abdelazar, for example, she suggests “the conflict between Behn’s royalist and feminist politics,” not that comedy was popular and that The Rover was lucrative for Behn.
On Pix, Manley, and Trotter, Ms. Cuder-Dominguez’s emphasis on feminist and political interpretation becomes more solidly grounded. In the last decade of the seventeenth century, the confluence of new thinking about women’s roles and new opportunities in the theater created an opportunity for women playwrights, and these authors responded by creating “a tradition of women’s writing.” Ms. Cuder-Dominguez notes that “Despite substantial differences in their class and upbringing” these writers “also outspokenly supported each other in what they perceived to be a man’s world.” Surprisingly, she makes only a passing reference to Astell, who with Haywood and others was part of these changed ideas.
Ms. Cuder-Dominguez appropriately notes the importance of actresses in Betterton’s and Rich’s companies (Elizabeth Barry and Anne Bracegirdle, Frances Knight and Jane Rogers) to Pix’s and Manley’s plays, along with the “shift...