- The Convent of Pleasure
Margaret Cavendish warned at the end of her 1662 volume of plays that "I believe I shall not go much further, finding my spirits of Fancy grown weak, and dull, and the vein of Wit empty, having lately writ 21 Playes, with 12 Epistles, and one Introduction, besides Prologues, and Epilogues." We can be thankful that she did persevere to write several more plays alongside her growing philosophical oeuvre. In fact, her greatest play, The Convent of Pleasure, was to be the penultimate work in the 1668 Playes Never Before Printed. Without the Convent (and a handful of other plays) it might be easier to argue that Cavendish did not write [End Page 54] for performance. But with its concision, wit, and spectacular action, The Convent of Pleasure crystallizes all the dramatic talent scattered piecemeal in her other works. Its richness has generated in recent years a hefty volume of scholarship that has neither exhausted the play nor produced any major interpretive consensus.
The Canadian premiere of The Convent of Pleasure took place at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario, 9 July 2005. The production by Gweno Williams, Reader in Early Modern Drama at York St. John University College, marked the highpoint of the Sixth Biennial International Conference of the Margaret Cavendish Society and brought together about one hundred audience members from the conference and the wider public. In 1999, Williams founded the Margaret Cavendish Performance Project and has developed, produced, and recorded on DVD and video six hitherto unperformed Cavendish plays. This conference production drew upon her experience over a decade conducting research and workshops on Cavendish and early modern dramatic performance. The Convent was staged in Convocation Hall on campus, in a simple, open playing space surrounded by the audience. This staging suggested a private production in the hall of a great house such as Bolsover or Welbeck, and emphasized the fact that with simple costumes, a few hand-held props, and minimal musical accompaniment, Cavendish had all the materials necessary to conjure a vivid theatrical illusion.
Cavendish's insistent interrogation of norms of gender and sexuality was the guiding principle behind Williams's production. The play's precipitating event is the death of Lady Happy's father, which leaves her an orphan and the prey of fortune-hunting men. In this way, the play appears to open with a plotline common to countless Restoration comedies—one J. Douglas Canfield usefully termed the "tricksters and estates" plot—but it soon becomes clear that Cavendish disappoints any expectations of a standard sex farce. Inspired by the chance of successfully wooing the "handsome, young, rich, and virtuous" Lady Happy, the gentlemen in this production were all comic energy, increasingly drunk and desperate as their hopes were dashed by the yard-thick walls of the convent and the self-contained pleasures of the all-female space. In stylish period white blouses and black satin breeches, the men showed excellent comic timing and physical acumen. Through bawdy punning and sexual innuendo, the wit that is sometimes tepid on the page in Cavendish's works was made vivid and sharp and punctuated the battle of the sexes in the plot. In contrast to the interior of the convent, where all services are undertaken by women with composure, the men's pleas for physical [End Page 55] and emotional relevance alternated between the silly and the pathetic. Especially memorable moments included John Browning's...