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Teaching British Women Playwrights of the Restoration and Eighteenth Century (review)
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Teaching British Women Playwrights of the Restoration and Eighteenth Century, edited by Bonnie Nelson and Catherine Burroughs, is an excellent new collection for an instructor interested in teaching early women’s writing on and around the stage. Part of the Modern Language Associations’ Options for Teaching—a venerable pedagogical series—Teaching British Women Playwrights provides instructors with an extensive selection of essays situating playwrights like Behn, Pix, Cowley, Centlivre, Inchbald, and Baillie both within and against the received dramatic traditions of the period. Given the new availability of earlier drama by women through several recent and forthcoming print anthologies, in addition to web-based primary source archives and the growing body of scholarship committed to making the contributions of these writers more visible, understood, and appreciated, the volume’s goals are significant. “By bringing to light the considerable contributions of women playwrights of the Restoration and eighteenth century,” the editors note, “the collection seeks to make a place for them in college curricula, particularly surveys of British literature, drama, and theater history, as well as courses in women’s literature (12). Persistent themes throughout the collection include the salience of the stage as an arena for the discussion and negotiation of national politics, in addition to the utility of material stagecraft, performance, and reception for a fuller understanding of the period’s theatrical culture. Several essays also address the way that early playwrights (and actresses) dealt with the complex intersection of gender and publicity.

Throughout the collection, production concerns and an attention to the use of space allow authors to move from issues of theme and genre to interdisciplinary and sometimes highly difficult contexts like political history, the history of class and commerce, marriage law, and philosophical empiricism. The stage becomes, here, an important site at which publicity, privacy, national identity, and gender are both intertwined and negotiated. Michelle Ruggaber Dougherty’s essay on Frances Brooke, for example, offers a particularly clear model for instructors seeking to elucidate why public success and dramatic authorship was so problematic for female dramatists (209–212), and Misty Anderson’s piece on Susanna Centlivre draws on contract history—particularly marriage law—to interrogate the comic plot. This kind of approach ensures the utility of the collection not just to teachers who may have the opportunity to teach the kind of “dream course” on Restoration and eighteenth-century women’s drama (a sample syllabus concludes the collection), but also for teachers who are responsible for broad first or second-year surveys that require concise historical framing, even for those who teach disciplinary introductions in the major, theater history, the history of the novel, and thematic courses organized around performance, gender, and nation.

The thirty-five essays are divided, albeit unevenly, between five sections: “Historical Contexts,” “Individual Playwrights,” “The Playwright-Novelist,” “Comparative Approaches,” and “Classroom Strategies.” While the fullest sections include between ten and twelve brief essays each, the remainder include between four and five. Opening the collection are four essays treating the historical contexts of women on and around the stage; they provide highly accessible overviews of important framing issues like spectatorship, the arrival of the actress, and the economics of playwriting. Jane Milling’s opening essay inaugurates the collection’s general interest in material history at the expense of essentialism; there, she surveys the “playhouse economy” (19), warning readers against looking for a clear or clearly “female tradition.” As with dramatists more generally, the number of female playwrights increased after the Restoration largely because the stage represented an opportunity for professional development. Given the powerfully commercial nature of the stage, that women were both actresses and authors is, however, significant, because it means they were not only respected but also trusted by their male counterparts (22). These essays nicely integrate gender difference and received critical tradition through attention to the material stage. The emphasis on context, interdisciplinarity, economics, publicity, and stagecraft not only permeates the collection but also reflects a deeply constructivist and historicized approach to gender -- a topic which, as many instructors know, can quickly become rooted in binary logic.

The editors locate the “heart of the volume” (4) in part two -- the “Individual Playwrights” section, covering Behn, Pix, Centlivre, Trotter, Griffith, Sheridan...



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