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  • “Hymen’s Monkey Love”: The Concealed Fancies and Female Sexual Initiation
  • Catherine Burroughs (bio)

Theatre historians have not usually portrayed the English interregnum—after the closing of the public theatres in 1642 and during the early years of the civil war—as a period of theatrical innovation. But during the time when Royalists were battling Roundheads and antitheatrical prejudice suspended public acting, househould theatricals offered alternative performance spaces for a fledgling group of writers, particularly aristocratic women who found the domestic sphere they managed a hospitable stage for engaging women’s sexual and social representation. 1 As Suzanne Westfall has observed, because the drama produced in household theatres during the Renaissance was “almost always occasional, deliberately ephemeral, multimedial, and frequently nontextual or metatextual,” 2 household theatricals performed during the first half of the seventeenth century—along with other forms variously referred to as chamber pieces, private theatricals, and amateur dramas—constituted what we might now regard as an underground theatre movement. 3

One such household theatrical, The Concealed Fancies by Jane Cavendish and Elizabeth Brackley, has until recently been regarded as a minor composition, and its uncertain performance history has placed it in the strange position of qualifying as either a household theatrical or a closet play, or both. But precisely because it resists generic labels even as it meets the criteria for several forms, The Concealed Fancies is an [End Page 21] important document for drawing our attention not only to the kinds of stages that accommodated performance once theatre went underground—specifically, to women’s theatrical experiments in domestic space—but also to the kinds of topics fostered by such experiments. For these kinds of performances were staged outside the bounds of commercial public theatres in often marginal performance venues and were advertised by word-of-mouth. Certainly it was the private—and aristocratic—features of these forms of entertainment that afforded the luxury of “female agency through the exercise of fancy.” 4

As an exercise in fantasy, The Concealed Fancies is especially intriguing because it unapologetically shows certain female characters idealizing a male relative as the epitome of sexuality that embraces, rather than eschews, the ludic and liberatory—or to use the play’s terms, the “monkey” and the “toy.” By permitting fantasies of initiation rites in which a father emerges as the model for his female relations’ developing sexual consciousness, The Concealed Fancies demonstrates how Jane Cavendish and Elizabeth Brackley drew upon—and anticipated—a variety of dramatic forms and theatrical traditions for the purpose of re-imagining defloration as the site of stability, gentleness, and familiarity, even as their dramaturgy simultaneously allows for female anger at the idea of an incestuous household initiator. Moreover, the drama’s latent content explores the counter-intuitive idea that fantasies about incest are sometimes the product of conservatism; that is, they can express a desire to remain within a familiar, perhaps even beloved, regime as well as a need to devise alternative approaches to sexual initiation rituals traditionally based upon violence, fear, and strangeness.

The Concealed Fancies, a home theatrical written for a private performance in an aristocratic great house in the 1640s, also has a lot in common with “domestic drama”—a form that flourished between 1590 and 1610. If, as Viviana Comensoli argues, Renaissance domestic plays dramatized “a profound disenchantment with the ideal of the well-ordered, civilized family,” 5 the same may be said of household theatricals like The Concealed Fancies, whose very mode of staging was grounded in the metatheatricality of social performance. Certainly The Concealed Fancies can be read as an expression of its authors’ regret that the Royalists are under siege but the play works not only to uphold aristocratic patriarchy; it also provides an opportunity for an imaginative flight on the part of certain female characters to embrace a powerfully promiscuous sexual behavior radically out-of-step with the conservative politics of many Royalist households. 6

The Concealed Fancies’ examination of the contradictions in domestic relations and its potential performance of these contradictions are complicated by the fact that it may [End Page 22] also be regarded as a “closet drama,” a dramatic work that was either not intended for performance or...

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pp. 21-31
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