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  • Female Spectatorship, Jeremy Collier and the Anti-Theatrical Debate
  • Jean I. Marsden

In 1662, Richard Baker defended the stage by protesting “Indeed, it is not so much the Player, that makes the Obscenity, as the Spectator himself.” 1 Baker’s words, written in response to William Prynne’s massive diatribe against the theater, Histrio-Mastix, the Players Scovrge, or Actors Tragaedy (1633), express the shift in emphasis from actor to spectator that was to become the central focus of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century writing for and about the stage. Taking issue with Prynne’s description of the actor as not only obscene but hypocritical, Baker represents theater as the interaction of spectator and spectacle, a communal experience in which the audience plays a crucial role in interpreting the representation. This emphasis on audience response is a critical component in the many discussions of the theater published during the next fifty years. While Baker’s own work deals more with exposing the fallacies of a previous generation of anti-theatrical prejudices, its emphasis on theater as representation and the dynamics of audience response is crucial to the Restoration and eighteenth-century understanding of drama. His book represents the first of a series of often sophisticated discussions of the complex relationship between visual representation and the spectator, and between spectatorship and desire.

These commentaries, most notably those in opposition to the theater, articulate a complex concept of spectatorship, prefiguring Lacan and an entire generation of film theorists. 2 They detail a system of voyeurism, involving an image (here a living image), an audience which watches that image, and a reflexive gaze which excites desire. As Baker explains, it is the spectator who makes the obscenity, who creates the erotic context for what he—or she—sees. In addition, as revealed by attacks on the theater such as Jeremy Collier’s Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698), concerns of spectatorship cannot be separated from sexuality, particularly female sexuality. While critics had attacked the immorality of the stage for over a millennium, among English writers the link between spectatorship and female sexuality can be traced to the explosion of publications which followed Collier. Earlier writers, such as Prynne or Stephen Gosson, had focused their arguments on issues such as the corruptness of actors or the [End Page 877] hypocrisy involved in acting, and in particular on the evils of dressing men in women’s clothing. 3 This late seventeenth-century concern with spectatorship appears to be an English phenomenon; continental writers express little interest in the dynamics of audience response. 4

It is only in the late seventeenth century that attacks on the stage begin to focus directly and repeatedly upon the effect of theater on the audience, and in particular on the female members of the audience. Sexuality becomes the issue upon which this controversy pivots, both the sexuality of the female spectator and the sexuality of the female image that she watches. Specifically, the anti-theatrical writers express an unconcealed fear of the female gaze and its ramifications. How will women respond to what they see upon the stage—and how will their reaction affect family and state? Interestingly, these opponents of the stage take women more seriously than those who defend it, admitting the consequences as well as the potency of the female gaze, a gaze which they link inexorably to a woman’s sexuality. Defenders of the stage not only downplay any potential danger, but frequently ignore the female spectator altogether.

Ironically, there is no female voice in this debate. Despite the widespread concern with the effect of theater upon women, and the emphasis on the female spectator that appears in prologues and epilogues, few women actually recorded their responses to the theater. For us, they remain a silent and mysterious presence upon whom a generation of moralists projected their own fears. We know they were capable of expressing both displeasure and pleasure, as Wycherley’s bitterly witty “Epistle Dedicatory” to The Plain Dealer makes clear; the ladies in the London audiences plainly objected to the obscenity of The Country Wife and were adept at communicating their objections. 5 Nonetheless, no woman...

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