- Separation Scenes: Domestic Drama in Early Modern England by Ann C. Christensen
How does dramaturgy articulate, and through that articulation, comment upon, changing social conditions? This is the question posed by Ann C. Christensen's Separation Scenes: Domestic Drama in Early Modern England, which argues that the separation scene, along with its dramatization of doors, windows, and other thresholds, serves as a means of interrogating developing ideologies of business, trade, and the separation of spheres. Focusing on five early modern "domestic plays," Christensen suggests that the resources of the stage metaphorize the anxieties of a rapidly changing economy through stories of absent husbands and unpartnered wives. In plays such as the anonymous Arden of Faversham or Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness, plots of murder and infidelity hyperbolically represent the dangers of "business" as it alienates women from their husbands and eventually the social and moral order. The dramaturgical decision to represent marital relations through the separation scene allows these playwrights to offer a commentary on the contradictions and limitations of an ideology of separate spheres, the view "of marriage and domesticity as a 'sphere' separate from and lesser than men's business and travel" (28).
A key question taken up by this book is "How did the absence of husbands affect remaining household members and the labor, activities, goods, and occupations of the household?" (3) Examining both conduct literature and books on business, Christensen emphasizes the contradictions in ideas about domestic life revealed by the practical realities of business travel. Domestic literature [End Page 151] "rationalized and naturalized male absence from home and female presence within it" (17). Nevertheless, domestic handbooks presume cohabitation, while changing economic conditions routinely required separation of husbands from wives for the purpose of "business." Christensen finds that this practical problem is largely ignored in the theoretical literature of the period. Domestic advice books do not provide instruction on, for instance, the deputation of authority on the occasion of a husband's extended absence on business, and, conversely, books on business and travel do not offer advice about how a husband should attend to domestic responsibilities while abroad. This mismatch between the discourse of domesticity and the discourses of business is exploited by the dramatists examined in this study, who discover a "potential for tragedy in the separation of the spheres" (24).
The first four chapters of the book examine plays (A Warning for Fair Women and Middleton's Women Beware Women, in addition to those cited above) that have previously been examined under the rubric of domestic tragedy. Christensen uses the more general term "domestic drama" in order to include the non-tragic play The Launching of the Mary and also to highlight how each of these plays defines domesticity as a site "shaped by male absence" (2). Christensen excavates the importance of business in a group of plays in which business often shapes the plot—and specifically, accounts for the initial alienation of husbands from wives—but is rarely dramatized extensively or in great detail. Business, like the plays' husbands, is an absent presence, which is why separation scenes—and the stage spaces in which they occur—are so important. Thresholds, including doorways, gates, and windows, "dramatize conflicts and vulnerabilities within and between husband and wife that reveal the contradictions within and between the prescriptive discourses of the household and the emerging conditions of business" (13). The most important insight of Separation Scenes is its demonstration of the way that business structures domesticity. This relationship between business and domesticity—often unacknowledged—reveals the vulnerability created by the separate spheres ideology for both husbands and wives.
One key discovery of this book is its identification of the importance of business to domestic tragedy. Husbands are absent, and that absence is a result of business. So, although Thomas Arden of Arden of Faversham is a gentle landowner, the plot of the play—and its tragedy—turns on his "itinerant business obligations" (33). In Warning for Fair Women, George Sanders is a successful merchant in London, and his...