- Playing with Margaret Cavendish and Mary Wroth: Staging Early Modern Women’s Dramatic Romances for Modern Audiences
On March 28, 2014, the New Perspectives Theatre Company presented a staged reading of Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure — as part of their “On Her Shoulders” series — before a select audience at the New School that included early modern scholars attending the Renaissance Society of America conference in New York City. Two months later, on June 8, 2014, the Globe Theatre of London performed a staged reading of Mary Wroth’s Love’s Victory — as part of their “READ Not Dead” series — before an audience of scholars attending the conference, “Dramatizing Penshurst: Site, Script, Sidneys,” held at Penshurst Place itself. In both instances, professional acting troupes performed plays by early modern women for modern audiences of scholars familiar with these plays. My essay explores the interpretive possibilities brought to light by these staged readings, as well as the divergences and continuities between live performance and academic scholarship that engage with dramatic romances by early modern women in twenty-first century contexts. In these instances, the productions could be said effectively to highlight “modern” aspects of early modern plays.1 [End Page 95]
The leadership of Gweno Williams in producing live performances of plays by early modern women, in conjunction with Alison Findlay and Stephanie Hodgson-Wright, has successfully overcome decades of resistance from academic scholars reluctant to assess the plays as “performance texts.”2 Now that the plays of Cavendish and Wroth are starting to find newly appreciative audiences through twenty-first century productions, we can explore intersections between issues of performativity and performability on stage,3 as well as between early modern women’s constructions of gender and desire in theatrical terms. At the present moment we have available a wealth of new scholarship and critical thinking on these plays, alongside a diversity of theatre companies bringing to the stage previously little-known plays that merit new or renewed attention.
The New Perspectives Theatre Company that produced the staged reading of The Convent of Pleasure is an award-winning multi-racial company based in New York. Their “On Her Shoulders” series was founded in 2012 “to present staged readings of plays by women from across the spectrum of time and place, with contemporary dramaturgs contextualizing — and in some cases adapting — them for modern audiences.” Their publicity explains that “the program seeks to make it impossible to deny or ignore the great tradition and value of women’s contribution to the theatrical canon.”4 The next event after the Margaret Cavendish production was a weekend of performances by the “Dark Lady Players,” celebrating Aemilia Lanyer, represented as “the true author of the works attributed to William Shakespeare.”5
In the U.K., the Globe Theatre’s “Read Not Dead” project aims to stage “all 470 surviving plays written from 1576, the time of the opening of the Theatre that preceded the Globe [actually opened in 1599] until the closure of all theatres [End Page 96] in 1642 . . . including ‘bad’ Shakespeare quartos and adaptations of Shakespeare,” with the goal of bringing to light “the largest body of primary evidence of early English theatre that there is.”6 So far, over a thousand actors have taken part in a process in which they have only a day to prepare readings that “work without a single pole of authority, and instead ask for an ensemble responsibility from the cast, for performances as well as props and costumes,” putting actors “in control of rehearsal and performance.” The “Read Not Dead” project allows both scholars and students to have “the opportunity to see plays in live performance that they otherwise never would,” and to enable “these plays to become the things that they were originally mean to be — live events.”7
In this essay, I’m particularly interested in considering intersections and divergences between Cavendish’s and Wroth’s representations of gender identity and same-sex bonds in The Convent of Pleasure and Love’s Victory, framed by the lens of these modern stagings of the plays. Comparing details from the two staged readings, as well as from Gweno Williams’s 1995...