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  • Spectacular Suffering:Women on the English Stage, 1660–1720
  • Peggy Thompson
Jean I. Marsden. Fatal Desire: Women, Sexuality, and the English Stage, 1660–1720 (Ithaca: Cornell Univ., 2006). Pp. 216. 4 ills. $45. £25.50. ISBN 978-0-8014-4447-0

One will be sorely disappointed, though perhaps hardly surprised, when searching the MLA bibliography for scholarly work on Vertue Betray'd; or, Anna Bullen (1682); The Rape; or, The Innocent Imposters (1692); Ibrahim, the Thirteenth Emperour of the Turks (1696); The Roman Bride's Revenge (1697); The Fatal Discovery; or, Love in Ruines (1698); or Abra-Mule; or Love and Empire (1704). Yet in her finely researched and lucidly written book, Fatal Desire, Jean I. Marsden has provided intelligent, contextualized analyses of these and many other serious dramas of the period. But make no mistake; this book is notable for much more than its attention to plays neglected, or as Marsden points out, dismissed as "unliterary" for their emphasis on emotional display (13).1 Fatal Desire constructs a compelling argument about the "feminization of serious drama" at a time when representations of women were central to the preservation of patrilinear structures, to the increased conflict between aristocratic and mercantile classes, and to the tensions arising over the Hanoverian succession. Ultimately, however, this book is most valuable for illuminating not just various political contests, but sexual politics itself. [End Page 110]

Fatal Desire begins with the introduction of actresses following Charles II's restoration and promises to explore the "ways in which their material presence altered the representation of women in drama and even reshaped dramatic form" (3). Thus entering the robust dialogue on women actors of the Restoration, Marsden invokes feminist film theorists such as Laura Mulvey and Teresa de Lauretis, who emphasize the objectification of women performers under the audience's "gaze" (a word that the book subsequently repeats to distracting excess). Marsden wisely notes the limits of this application by contrasting the living and communal world of Restoration theater with the modern audience's experience in the darkened movie theater, each viewer watching independently, separated from the images projected on the screen. But one would do well to review Deborah C. Payne's "Reified Object or Emergent Professional? Retheorizing the Restoration Actress" to understand more fully the problems involved with "grafting this filmic model onto theater."2 The obstacles Payne describes make Marsden's book all the more impressive because it successfully demonstrates how the particular form of the woman-centered tragedy of 1680 to 1715 did, in fact, encourage a problematic voyeuristic experience that makes the cinematic theory applicable.

Acknowledging the paucity of firsthand reports, Marsden turns next to the female spectator as constructed in debates over the morality of the stage and as represented in two Restoration comedies. The book thus successfully establishes contemporary interest in women as sexual spectators at a time when they were also increasingly the objects of sexual spectacle. However, these well-informed and subtly argued analyses provide only a limited "foundation" for the subsequent discussion of serious drama because Collier and his followers focus their anxiety upon comedy's effects (15). Most intriguing in this chapter, given Marsden's emphasis on she-tragedy, is her reference to a letter by Dennis in which he explains female spectators' apparent indifference to violent tragedy: "A Rape in Tragedy is a Panegyric upon the Sex . . . for she is to remain Innocent, and to be pleas'd without her Consent; while the Man, who is accounted a damn'd Villain, proclaims the Power of Female Charms, which have the Force to drive him to so horrid a Violence" (1719; quoted from 34). One wishes Marsden had unpacked this extraordinary statement, for its assumptions that women enjoy rape and drive men to it are closely related to the theatrical spectacles of eroticized female suffering on which the rest of the book focuses.

Marsden does her most important work as she turns to the she-tragedies of the 1680s and 1690s. Exploited by both Whigs and Tories, this genre unites men as viewers of "pathos, sexuality, and specifically female suffering" (62). The male spectator assumes the power of the cinematic voyeur as the female victim's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3192
Print ISSN
0098-2601
Pages
pp. 110-114
Launched on MUSE
2007-11-08
Open Access
No
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