When first invited by Tom Crochunis to be a respondent to the 1997 MLA session on women playwrights working around 1800, my initial response was, "But I know nothing about them!" Finally being persuaded by him that ignorance was no crime here, but perhaps even useful, I agreed and was thus introduced not only to women writers whose theatrical activities were unknown to me, but also given a chance to reconsider the theoretical and methodological issues which their lives and literary creations raise which are not tied to a particular historical moment.
My first response was embarrassed surprise. I consider myself fairly well-educated and yet I knew nothing about women dramatists in this period apart from work done by my colleague Jeffrey Cox on Joanna Baillie and Gothic dramas. If I thought about it at all, I simply assumed more women writers were working with the novel than the stage. Even though my own work has focused on the recovery of seventeenth and early eighteenth-century women writers, I had gone through my academic life quite happily not knowing about the activities of women dramatists in this later period, or indeed even of their existence apart from one or two names. I suspect that many scholars who have devoted their intellectual lives to the Romantic period have likewise led equally satisfied and fulfilled lives not knowing about these women.
The first question raised by these essays for the non-specialist is why has attention not been paid to the presence of these women in this particular aspect of literary culture? The second question is, having now noticed them, why should we care? I think the answers to these two questions, as seen in these essays, are related: the presence, voices, and performances of these women force us to reconsider our certainty about our historical knowledge and to reexamine the very premises on which we have traditionally organized knowledge about this period's literary and social dynamics. The essays as a group ask for a reconsideration of comfortably established paradigms through their examinations of the material circumstances of the authors' lives and the texts' performances rather than the plots or characters of the pieces.
It strikes me, as an ignorant reader with no investment in preserving the status quo in nineteenth-century literary studies, how much of our academic understanding of the so-called Romantic period depends on our assumption that women living then did what they were supposed to do (or rather, what we believe they were supposed to do from our reading of literary texts such as conduct books and the ways in which their actions are represented in novels and on stage). We assume that they "acted appropriately" in their culturally defined roles. Heretofore, our attention has been on women novelists and the ways in which they created strategies for simultaneously infringing on masculine domains of public speech through print while preserving feminine decorum. We have assumed that the theatre, with its representation of strictly defined gender roles on stage, served to reinforce conduct book recipes for feminine behavior and to solidify the cultural barrier between the domestic, private space of women and the political, public arena of men. In doing so, we have seen the connection between the theatre and the novel from the perspective of the roles that both created for women characters. Nora Nachumi invites us to look again at the links between the stage and the novel. By examining the pragmatic, material circumstances of nineteenth-century women writers' involvement with the theatre, Nachumi moves us from the representations on the page to the roles played in lived experience; she reminds us that, "if actresses could be ladies, then the possibility also existed that ladies could be actresses."
Re-integrating these "ladies" who wrote plays and wrote about the theatre into literary history also forces one to consider the ways in which we are trained to think about literary periods, and how in the effort to define literary movements in order to study and teach them, certain genres are simply dropped by the wayside. As Tom Crochunis notes, "defining a work as a closet drama seems to immobilize it," which of course, simplifies positioning it within the existing framework. Indeed, to preserve our model of gendered separation of spheres for this period, we need women to stay immobile in their closet, writing privately, unperformed, detached from the material world of the stage. But how "private" was this closet into which we keep pushing women writers? How, indeed, have we defined "performance" for the purpose of studying it? Through the very way we teach drama—as a text to be read by students, not a social performance—Crochunis argues, we avoid dealing with all the implications behind the requirements of performance and the social nature of theatrical events.
Catherine Burroughs shares with Crochunis a concern for the ways in which the teaching of drama is done. Noting that current anthologies "tend to skip from Sheridan to Wilde—with an occasional gesture toward Shelley's The Cenci or Buchner's Woycek," she points to the existence of forty-plus plays written by Inchbald and Baillie and to contemporary women's writings on the theoretical nature the stage and performance. Burroughs urges us to reposition these women on "both [the] cultural and theatrical stages." But women are not supposed to be "on stage" if they are ladies, not if they are "acting" appropriately—and yet, as Catherine Burroughs' course syllabus demonstrates, there they were, creating texts, confronting issues, participating in a social literary culture, and now forcing us to reconsider what we thought we knew about literary movements and the history of theatrical performance.
Tracy Davis concentrates on this paradox—"ladies" in the public sphere—by looking at how the public/private dichotomy of politics has shaped the study of women's participation in theatrical activities. "'The public,'" Davis declares, "is not simply a place, a range of eligible activities, or even an idea; and it is certainly not the antithesis of 'the private.'" Conventional theatre history has fixed its gaze on the commercial stage—Davis asks us to look at the other venues of performance, in the home, the school, and, yes, in the closet. By reminding us of the inherently social nature of the theatre, Davis offers a new way to see women's participation in writing, performing, and shaping dramatic conventions. As Davis notes, the closet into which Baillie retreated alone to correct the proof sheets of her plays was in fact a private, female domestic space being used to prepare to stage a very public act, the claiming of fame and status as an author through the creation of a complete, printed edition of her works during her lifetime.
All of the essays in this special issue present us with what we think we know and invite us to reconsider. It is not merely the case that more names are being added to the roster of writers working around 1800, not merely that women's names are inserted into the framework of the existing model. These women very often were "acting appropriately" while engaged in activities which by our definition seem outside the private, domestic sphere; looking at women's participation in theatre causes that domestic space, too, to become more complex and less secure in its boundaries, the "full house" of the commercial theatre merging with the domestic performance space of home and closet. For the non-specialist, this group of essays serves as a provocative reminder of work needing to be done in all areas of literary history: learning about women dramatists reminds us to consider not only the content of the texts they produced, but also the circumstances under which they wrote, and the context in which their works were received and performed.