Ellen Donkin, Getting into the Act: Women Playwrights in London, 1776-1829. London and New York: Routledge, 1995. ISBN: 0-415-08250-1 (paperback). Price: £12.99.[Record]

  • Michael Gamer

…more information

  • Michael Gamer
    University of Pennsylvania

The past decade has seen a resurgence in interest in Romantic drama thanks to the work of critics like Paula Backscheider, Catherine Burroughs, Julie Carlson, Jeffrey Cox, and Terrence Hoagwood, and Alan Richardson. These critics, among others, have revived interest in the dramas not only of Byron, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, but also of lesser-known playwrights like Joanna Baillie, August von Kotzebue, Matthew G. Lewis, and Charles Maturin. Taking a variety of approaches and theoretical perspectives, their work usually has questioned traditional notions of Romanticism by interrogating how the formation of the traditional canon for Romantic studies has misrepresented the importance of drama in Romantic-period Britain, and how our notions of legitimate and illegitimate drama have failed us in our attempts to understand early-nineteenth-century stage performances. With the exception of the increasing volume of writing on Joanna Baillie, however, the significant number of female dramatists writing during the Romantic period have remained almost entirely unexamined. Attention instead has gone to actresses like Sarah Siddons, whose dominance of the London stage for over two decades has made her the subject of much recent study. In terms of providing scholars with accessible texts, Paula Backscheider's Eighteenth-Century English Drama Series may have made the works of Hannah Cowley and Elizabeth Inchbald available in facsimile, but little has emerged since on these writers. In the face of this relative vacuum of critical and historical inquiry even by feminist literary historians, I find Ellen Donkin's Getting into the Act to be a welcome and foundational work. This absence of critical work on female dramatists during the Romantic period seems especially surprising given Donkin's substantial introduction, which begins by considering that the last three decades of the eighteenth century saw a dramatic increase in the number of women writing for the stage. Exploring why such an increase occurred is the main project of Donkin's book; it becomes an especially interesting question when we consider that stage drama in London did not experience the same kind of immense growth so typical of other genres like the novel and the review in these decades. In other words, the usual narratives for explaining an increase in women writing within a genre—i.e., increased demand opening up the marketplace and creating a space in which women could sell their work—do not serve as well here as they do for other genres. Donkin may note that regional theaters like Bath's Orchard Street experienced after 1770 "a marked increased in activity" (102), but she is careful to point out that even this trend does not apply to London theatres, since their number was strictly controlled by government patents: two theaters in-season and one off-season. As is noted by Donkin and throughout Part Five of The London Stage, furthermore, managers after 1770 showed, for economic reasons, a decreasing willingness to debut new plays. While new playwrights had to be paid, plays already in the public sphere did not receive royalties; as the cost of productions exponentially increased with the size of London's theaters near the end of the eighteenth century, managers became increasingly unwilling to put the necessary money into sets and costumes for any new play, let alone one by a fledgling playwright. When one considers, in addition to all this, that regional theatres like the Orchard Street in Bath did not show new plays and instead functioned as feeders for what whatever productions were successful in London, one wonders how any women were produced in the decades that Donkin makes the focus of her book. Donkin's chapters, consequently, may be named after specific female dramatists, but they are equally about the …