- Privacy, Playreading, and Women's Closet Drama, 1550-1700
Marta Straznicky's thorough scholarship, in terms of politics, stage, publication, and reception history, as well as her provocative thesis, make Privacy, Playreading, and Women's Closet Drama a valuable resource for a somewhat overlooked group of writings. The volume covers works by Jane Lumley, Elizabeth Carey, Margaret Cavendish, and Anne Finch, four women who, Straznicky asserts, [End Page 275] purposefully wrote drama for reading — both silently and aloud — rather than stage performance. Their rationale, says the author, is that they wrote for a selective audience, rather than the uneducated masses that would attend the public theater. Thus their use of this genre is one of choice, not mere necessity. Straznicky's conclusion clearly restates her thesis thusly: "Closet drama is an alternative to the commercial stage . . . its very difference from the public theatre was mobilized by women writers to engage in a discourse that was, until the Restoration, systemically inaccessible to them" (112).
Straznicky provides rich contextualization for the women's plays, including details of the plays' first printings, complete with reproductions of manuscripts and first edition pages. Her discussion of the private theaters, such as Blackfriars, and their male playwrights Ben Jonson and John Webster, aptly situates the closet drama within the larger theatrical world. Drawing parallels between these more intimate, enclosed, and expensive theaters with their elite audiences and the female closet drama she covers, she sees both as offering alternatives to the wider, publicly presented, dramas.
The coverage of the four featured writers provides interesting insights. The chapter on Jane Lumley is particularly helpful in providing background on Lumley's education and translation of classical plays. Straznicky convincingly demonstrates that Lumley disregarded many of the traditional early modern translation guidelines to produce a version of Euripides' Iphigeneia ideal for reading aloud by a small group, as designated by her manuscript format. Elizabeth Carey's The Tragedie of Mariam was marketed to a select readership, much in the same way that works by Samuel Daniel, John Marston, and John Webster were sold: all used prefatory materials that emphasized the literary quality of the plays. Closet drama, although a necessity for Margaret Cavendish — who wrote while public theaters were closed by the Puritan government — also lent itself to her long, didactic passages and the difficult politics that caused her and her husband's exile. Finally, Anne Finch, though writing after the opening of the Restoration stage, chose non-staged drama as a genre to protect herself from both an unlettered and critical public.
Despite the strong positives, several deficiencies exist in Straznicky's work. In terms of editing, there is some repetition; some short sections of the introduction reoccur verbatim in later chapters. There is also less consideration of economics than seems necessary, given the book's emphasis on elite readers and audiences, for the discussion of literary taste is inextricably tied to the readers' education, which is based upon their social class. The author acknowledges the importance of this issue in her introduction with her statement: "Although my study does not focus consistently on the issue of class, it is important to acknowledge at the outset that the positive value of privacy in this period is determined by notions of social, political, and economic exclusion" (5). This astute pronouncement needs deeper support throughout the following chapters, woven through the coverage of the playwrights and their readership. The context of religion is also scant, as Puritan and Anglican are confusingly conflated, making the final chapter's consideration of [End Page 276] the closet as a sacred space less than effective. Also missing is a rationale for why these four women were selected for focus, as there are noticeable important absences of other women who wrote drama that was not intended for performance, including Mary Sidney, who is referred to but not given full coverage. Finally, the most glaring omission is mention of the most famous closet drama of the era, John Milton's Samson Agonistes. Some comparison...