In this issue of Romanticism on the Net, a series of essays looks at the fact of women's playwriting and theatre authorship and asks how our understanding of theatre and literary history and our critical and pedagogic procedures must change. This special issue takes "paradigm shifts" rather than "recovery" as its organizing metaphor.
The editorial choice of metaphor should not be taken as a rejection of the important scholarly work of recovering of the texts, professional careers, and histories of women who wrote for theatrical performance. Historical scholarship on their lives and work continues to be essential to any reconceptualization of the period in question or of the institutional positions from which scholars might rewrite history. And yet, recovering historical materials without asking how they got buried in the first place is likely to result in partial—and perhaps temporary—excavation. The theatre writing that women did was able to remain out of sight largely because the stories told about British culture around 1800 had for many years smoothed over the burial plots with such skill that even many feminist scholars could not seem to locate these sites of women's theatre writing.
Something more than recovery of the past is called for. We need reasons to never bury this history again. Unfortunately or not, for the writing of women playwrights to claim a place in our scholarship, curriculum, and teaching, we need to understand the period we study in new ways. We need new paradigms for studying literary and theatrical history that will enable us to make sense of British culture only by studying women's writing for the theatre along with other more familiar texts.
This special issue builds on a session held at the Modern Language Association conference in Toronto in 1997. In that session, "British Women Playwrights around 1800: Rethinking the Paradigms," presided over by Michael Eberle-Sinatra, short position papers were presented by Nora Nachumi, Tom Crochunis, Catherine Burroughs, and Tracy Davis. These papers, which are reprinted in this issue, point toward aspects of literary and theatrical history that women's playwriting forces us to reconsider. Nachumi reexamines theories of the novel, questioning whether those theories have missed something important by not taking into account the sensitivity to gendered performance that is revealed in many women's plays and theatrical activity. My own essay examines the ongoing use of "closet drama" as a historiographic and pedagogical category. Burroughs discusses teaching women's playwriting from the period around 1800 in the context of contemporary critical theory and provides a working syllabus for just such a course. Davis asks us to rethink the public/private dichotomy and the notion of women writers as a "counter public sphere," suggesting instead that these writers negotiate complex relationships with the "structures and settings of sociability" in varied ways. Margaret Ezell, who served as a respondent at the session, similarly plays that role here.
This issue also includes three other pieces of work, each one framing differently the issues raised by the work of women playwrights in this period. Marjean Purinton provides an overview of recent scholarship on Romantic drama and theatre, giving particular attention to the role that scholarship on women's playwriting is already playing in our reevaluation of many contiguous aspects of Romantic period studies. David Chandler looks closely at the career of Norwich dramatist Hannah Brand, noting a subtle kind of authorial performance in her navigation of tricky political subjects and a professional relationship with politically conservative theatre manager John Brunton. Ken Bugajski provides us with an extensive bibliographic resource on Joanna Baillie that invites any number of inquiries into Baillie's works, into her contemporaries' reception of those works, and into the structures behind literary history's studious obliviousness to Baillie. The very different structures of these three pieces suggests that recovering and rethinking the roles of women playwrights can proceed through a variety of scholarly methodologies and historiographic rhetorics.
The hope behind this issue of Romanticism on the Net is not primarily that you will read the essays here and learn more about the women playwrights its contributions discuss. Rather, we hope that what you read here will change your frames of reference and will make it less possible for you to teach and write about this period without considering and perhaps engaging with the works of this period's women playwrights.
Ellen Donkin, in Getting into the Act: Women Playwrights in London 1776-1829, provides a clear motive for seeking to change the way we think:
[H]istory has erased not only [these women playwrights'] presence as individuals but also their collective impact on the profession. I try to imagine what it might mean for contemporary women playwrights to have a sense of community that extends not only outward to colleagues, but also back through history to the women who shaped the profession two hundred and three hundred years ago.190
We still live in the history from which these women writers have been erased; to find the language to write them back in, we must rewrite and recover ourselves.