- Fatal Desire: Women, Sexuality, and the English Stage, 1660–1720
Focusing on the genre of “she-tragedy,” Jean Marsden’s book offers an account of why the British theater of the Restoration and early eighteenth century fixated on the suffering woman as a figure of arousal, sympathy, or condemnation—often, seemingly, all at once. Fatal Desire ably addresses vital theatrical developments during decades typically identified with rakish comedy and heroic tragedy, foregrounding the instrumentality of pathos and the centrality of women to provide a salutary corrective.
Fatal Desire begins by situating the 60 years of the subtitle as a period during which onstage women and the emotional effects they raised in their audiences became a “source of cultural anxiety” (5), imperiling both sexual and national virtues. Tracing the Collier controversy over stage profanity and obscenity, Marsden finds unease over moral contagion spreading from lewd play-action to impressionable audiences, principally female spectators. Anti-theatrical polemicists may have found the female gaze threatening—but at least they forthrightly admit its power. In contrast, defenses of the stage by practitioners including Congreve and Vanbrugh consider female theatergoers moved only to decorous emulation, never to desire. Marsden perceives this as a telling overcompensation, evidence that prominent Restoration and early eighteenth-century playwrights disregarded the female gaze and accordingly relied upon voyeurism and objectification of women for their own works’ emotional and [End Page 57] political effects. Marsden subsequently uses comedy to calibrate a baseline for the “problem of the female gaze” (39) in the Restoration-era theater. While the comedies (like The Plain Dealer and The Provok’d Wife) stage characters who indulge their sexual appetites and seize control of the desiring gaze—in order to scapegoat them at worst or reform them at best—the tragedies reconfigure female agency so as to strip away the “aggressive sexuality” (61) and linger over the spectacle of the woman as victim.
Marsden’s four next chapters, the heart of her argument, are dedicated to what she dubs “female-centered tragedy.” She discusses in detail works by Otway (The Orphan), Southerne (The Fatal Marriage), and Congreve (The Mourning Bride); the “Female Wits” Trotter, Pix, and Manley; and Rowe (The Fair Penitent, Jane Shore, and Jane Gray). Marsden has read impressively widely in the mode, and her work draws on both the nearly-canonical and the ephemeral, anonymous, and scurrilous. Her admonition to continue narratives of British theatrical history past 1700 is especially well-taken. Fatal Desire extends the insights into the cultural work performed by Restoration and eighteenth-century tragedy offered most recently by Lisa Freeman’s Character’s Theater (2002), which in a key chapter argues that the era’s tragedies omit or contain female agency in order to promote nationalism and bourgeois values, and Cynthia Lowenthal’s Performing Identities on the Restoration Stage (2003), whose discussion of gender, exoticism, and tragedy traces the emergence of transgressive female heroism in the 1690s. Marsden aptly connects the pervasive dismissal of she-tragedy to a perception that its characteristic emotionalism is soft-hearted or girlish.
Yet this is not to say that Fatal Desire aims to rehabilitate the often-deprecated she-tragedy. Indeed for Marsden these plays become evidence of a widespread effort to shore up “the stability of English sexual and political culture” (63). In she-tragedy, disorderly women who bring categories into crisis are traded among and displayed by gazing men and finally must be terminated with extreme prejudice. Men are led to watch these tableaux of victimization, especially rape and incest, for vicarious sensual gratification or “visual pleasure”; women are led to sympathize, cry, and become tableaux in turn themselves, heroines becoming both “object of pity and object of desire” (76).
As a result, women who desire and women who have been desired are equally consigned to objectification, debasement, and destruction. Rape plots are sensational staples of the Restoration era, but many tragic women incur punishment for their strong and active passions. Isabella in The Fatal Marriage, whose unwitting adultery leads to her demise, speaks what becomes for...