My dear friend and acting mentor, Ed Shea, a brilliant director and the Artistic Director at 2nd Story Theatre, in Warren, RI asked me to write the scholarly essay for the current production. I was not only honored for the opportunity but thrilled to learn about yet another woman, ahead of her time, who changed the world for many. Check them out at www.2ndstorytheatre.com
Hannah Cowley was one of few women in the 18th Century to make it as a playwright on the English stage, following behind Aphra Behn and Susanna Centlivre. Raised by a bookseller father, she was provided with a basic classical education unknown to most girls of her generation going on to support herself as a playwright, writing thirteen plays. Her entry into playwriting as a career reveals her personal agency as a woman. As the story goes, after a disappointing night at the theatre, Cowley told her husband that she could write a play just as good and did so. The early draft of The Runaway, her first play, was produced at Drury Lane. Her most successful play, The Belle’s Stratagem allowed her to become the breadwinner in her family, another rarity of the time.
The Belle’s Stratagem is also a perfect example of Cowley’s engaged female characters who examine women’s agency, the role of women’s education, and the institution of marriage. This play calls attention to the discrimination of women during a time when women were far from getting the vote in the U.S. or Britain.[i] In Act Two, Scene One, a discussion of women’s oppression ensues reminiscent of Marilyn Frye’s landmark 1982 essay “Oppression,” where she asks readers to consider a birdcage as a metaphor for oppression. When examining one wire at a time, the viewer is unable to see why a bird would not just fly by the wire to leave. Only when one steps back to see the entire cage do they can realize why the bird cannot escape. Frye writes, “It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.” Like that bird in the cage, Lady Frances Touchwood is asked by Mrs. Racket and Miss Ogle if she would like to stay longer to explore London and she replies “I have not the habit of consulting my own wishes.” Never given the opportunity to think for herself, Cowley’s feminists, Mrs. Racket and Miss Ogle, decide to encourage Lady Frances to do so.
Of course Sir George is quite alarmed by Mrs. Racket and Miss Ogle’s desire to take his wife out on the town and a discussion on what makes a “fine lady” ensues between Mrs. Racket and Sir George. His definition amounts to a worldly and independent woman being a traitor to her home and one who is controlled by vanity. Mrs. Racket accuses him of living in the old days and counters his definition by stating that a “fine lady” is one “for whom nature has done much and education more; she has taste, elegance, spirit, understanding . . . a fine lady is the life of conversation, the spirit of society, the joy of the public!” This debate mimics even today’s dualistic stereotype of woman as either Madonna or whore. Sir George implies that all women are alike and states that even Mrs. Racket fails in her proper position of widow. Jumping to her defense, Miss Ogle replies that Sir George wishes for a society of 150 years ago when families had dedicated roles assigned to them.
During this debate, Mr. Flutter enters and reveals that Sir George had let Lady Frances’ bullfinch fly away because he was jealous of her love for the bird. Sir George then tells Mrs. Racket and Miss Ogle that Lady Frances will not be going out with them. Alarmed, she states this is the first time he has used the expression “shall not” in reference to her. Mrs. Racket and Miss Ogle insist she leave with them, even when Lady Frances expresses concern that Sir George is angry. They gently remind her that her husband got rid of her bird and that this moment will define their relationship from now on. Lady Frances agrees, saying “I won’t give up neither. If I should in this instance, he’ll expect it forever.”
Cowley uses the play, with comedic wit and characterization, to deconstruct 18th century courtship, expose oppression in marriage, and explore women’s independence. Yet she simultaneously allows Lady Frances to make a choice about her life and her marriage. At the end of the day, Lady Frances returns to Sir George and tells him she missed him and that she would rather spend her time with him as “Every body about me seem’d happy but every body seem’d in a hurry to be happy somewhere else.” For Cowley, women’s independence is not about being without men, but in having the choice to be with them. Hannah Cowley, while absent from many theatre history texts, was two hundred years ahead of her time.
[i] Women could vote in 1918, two years before U.S. women, but they had to be at least 30 years old. In 1928 they were allowed to vote at the same age as men.