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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.
Getting into the Act, then, seeks to explain this upsurge in women writing drama as the product of changes in cultural assumptions rather than economic conditions, since in spite of the odds "there was a cumulative pile-up by the mid-1790s that enormously increased the probability of any female spectator seeing a play by a female dramatist" (104). In addition, the book rather impressively captures the many ways in which changing cultural and economic forces surrounding the late-eighteenth-century stage come into conflict with one another. The most substantial portion of Getting into the Act, consequently, is its first chapter, entitled "Occupational Hazards: Women Playwrights in London, 1660-1800." Comprising almost one-fifth of the book's text, it performs the dual function of explaining to non-specialists how the eighteenth-century theater functioned in London, and of focusing upon the specific mechanisms that increased or decreased women's access to the stage. While Donkin's analysis of women's lack of formal education and its effect on women's writing seems unnecessary and peripheral given the frequency with which this narrative has occurred in feminist scholarship, her focus on the autocratic powers of late-eighteenth-century theater managers strikes me as particularly smart. She argues, most fundamentally, that the relation of the male manager and the female dramatist underwent a paradigm shift during the decades that David Garrick managed the Drury Lane Theatre. Donkin makes this shift the point of departure for her study, and the basis of her global argument:
The underlying reasons for this shift in the way women playwrights were positioned are at the core of this study. There was a new element of protectiveness in the air that had not been in place sixty or seventy years before. My hypothesis is that the relationship between the woman playwright and her theatre manager had undergone an important transformation that was a peculiar compromise between the ideology of womanhood, as it is evidenced in the conduct books, and a growing pressure from competent, literate women of a growing middle class that they be allowed into this profession. It is no accident, surely, that this cultural compromise was struck in the midst of a groundswell of women publishing in other genres. One wonders if there was some anxiety in the theatre community that either one had to follow suit or risk being labelled resistant and illiberal.20-21
Donkin's chapters, consequently, may be named after specific female dramatists, but they are equally about the careers and professional practices of the managers who helped and hindered their careers: the elder and the younger George Colmans, David Garrick, Thomas Harris, John Philip Kemble, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. That all but one of the subsequent chapters open with portraits—the chapter's playwright and the manager with whom she worked placed on opposing pages—testifies to the centrality of playwright-manager conflict to Donkin's study.
With the exception of the chapter that divides its attention between Hannah More and Hannah Cowley by focusing on the largely media-constructed "rivalry" between them, each of Donkin's chapters begins by focusing upon a formative moment in the career of an individual playwright, beginning with Frances Brooke and then moving through More and Cowley, Sophia Lee, Elizabeth Inchbald, Frances Burney, and Joanna Baillie. Focusing on individual playwrights allows Donkin to focus on their relations with theater managers; in addition, however, it accentuates a point that she make repeatedly: that female dramatists nearly always worked in isolation, coming into contact with other women writers only when forced to compete with them.
Pitting women writers against one another, Donkin argues, was at times a deliberate strategy of theater managers. Chapter Two, while entitled "Frances Brooke: The Female Dramatist as Critic," explores primarily the managerial practices of David Garrick—both as a patron and as a periodic saboteur of female playwrights. This chapter strikes me as the most impressive of the book, tracking the ups and downs of Frances Brooke's literary career alongside of Garrick's correspondence with the successful French novelist Madame Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni, whose Les Lettres de Juliette Brooke had translated in 1760 to much acclaim. Riccoboni wrote to Garrick a year later mentioning that she was considering having Brooke translate a new novel; Garrick, still holding a grudge from criticism he had received in Brooke's periodical The Old Maid, responded by extracting a promise from Riccoboni never to employ Brooke as a translator again. Donkin's method is simply to unfold the narrative of the Garrick-Riccoboni correspondence and to place it in the context of Garrick's hostile relationship to Brooke, thereby bringing out the inconsistencies, silences, and misrepresentations that accompanied Garrick's acts of patronizing female writers:
Garrick's letter [to Riccoboni] is a masterpiece of diplomatic vengeance. He describes having rejected Frances Brooke's play (Virginia) because he didn't like it, which flatly contradicts the information provided by her preface and by his own letter to the unnamed correspondent above, both of which indicate that quality had very little to do with his decision. He also constructs the Old Maid editorials...as a form of vengeance, and sets up Mrs. Brooke up as a woman scorned.... These maneuvers put Madame Riccoboni in the unenviable position of having to choose between his advice and protection on the one hand (whether she wanted them or not), and Frances Brooke on the other...[and] he also made it implicitly clear that spurning his offer might have certain consequences.47-48
Such an intervention as Donkin performs here does much to revise the traditional account of Garrick's generosity toward women as being disinterested and almost unbounded. Her point here is not so much to present Garrick as a villain—in the book, in fact, he stands head and shoulders above other theater managers for the care he took with novice and women playwrights—but rather to make manifest the complex power dynamics inherent in his patronage of women writers. Nowhere do we have with Garrick anything approaching Edmund Kean's intentional sabotaging of plays or Thomas Harris's attempted rape of Elizabeth Inchbald. Rather, Donkin's aim is to complicate our understanding of Garrick by demonstrating that he assumed there to be an implicit contract in his patronage of women writers, and that his assumptions were typical of the profession.
The subsequent chapters do similarly compelling work. Chapter Three, "The Paper War of Hannah Cowley and Hannah More," explores the extent to which both Cowley and More, after debuting under Garrick, had their careers sabotaged after his retirement in 1776. Donkin's tracking of the endless delays and broken promises of Covent Garden manager Harris and Drury Lane manager Sheridan demonstrates the extent to which Garrick's retirement signalled the end of managers acting as protective patrons of the women playwrights they chose to sponsor. In addition, it functions as a wonderful piece of contextual work for her argument about the 1779 plagiarism controversy between Cowley and More in which Cowley asserted that More's Fatal Falsehood had borrowed significantly from her Albina, which had been circulating among the various London managers for three years:
Ultimately, we must understand the preface to Albina, and the paper war as a whole, as having had less to do with plagiarism than with a deep-seated anxiety about authorship itself; that Cowley's and More's dependance upon Garrick's editorial production assistance had raised unconscious questions after his departure about who the real author of their successes was. Had they written their plays, or had Garrick? This anxiety about authorship took the form of a very public debate which sought to persuade London that in both cases, More's and Cowley's, one playwright had generated original work, and the other playwright had borrowed or stolen her ideas. Unable to name Garrick, they named one another. It was a form of burial.75-76
Her chapter on Frances Burney's almost non-career performs a similar dual function. In tracking Sheridan's contradictory behavior toward Burney's dramatic work—his constant solicitations for manuscripts and his unprecedentedly unprofessional productions of them—she simultaneously notes that every single drama written by a woman and produced at Drury Lane in the 1780s and 1790s failed in a single night. The point, she argues ultimately, is not "to distinguish between [Sheridan's and others'] sloppy mismanagement and covert sabotage," but rather to recognize that the effect of such behavior is the same whether intentional or unintentional: "in the end, these repeated failures probably undermined the idea of the woman playwright as professional" (145). In addition to such managerial indifference, Donkin's last two chapters argue that the hesitance of dramatists like Burney and Baillie to attend rehearsals (the backstage of a theater an anathema to female respectability) seriously undermined their ability to insure professional productions of their work. By the failed 1800 production of Baillie's De Montfort at Drury Lane, it seems, Garrick's model of extending patronage and protection to women playwrights had broken down entirely.
If there is any problem with Donkin's global thesis, it is with the notion that Garrick's manner of cultivating specific women writers for the stage ever established itself as a norm. Simply put, in Getting into the Act Garrick's managerial model is always in the process of breaking down—to such an extent, in fact, that one doubts it ever existed as a model outside of Garrick. One need only consider the paucity of theaters and managers, however, to realize that, to a degree, a single manager's practice does constitute a model of behavior when a total of only three managers exist—particularly in a figure like Garrick who was at once so imposing and so central to the London stage. Still, the ways in which even Garrick's own practices often go against Donkin's model, and the immediacy with which the model disappears with Garrick's retirement, lead me to question whether Garrick's practices toward women playwrights greatly influenced his fellow managers, let alone constituting any kind of norm of behavior.
The book's only other shortcomings lie in the fact that it barely explores the first three decades of the nineteenth century, in spite of the period of coverage (1776-1829) claimed by its title. I think, however, that this smaller breadth of coverage is to its advantage, since Donkin has written in this monograph a really fine and thorough survey of the careers of women playwrights in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. If anything significant is absent from this study, it is detailed considerations of the plays of these writers. While it is true that Donkin is primarily interested in the cultural status of the female playwright, the absence of claims for the writings of these playwrights seems a shame, particularly when such undervalued and radical texts as Hannah Cowley's A Bold Stroke for a Wife exist in the body of work that Getting into the Act covers. Other than this, Donkin makes a few glaring factual errors, such as her statement that the Licensing Act of 1737 "prohibited by law any reference to contemporary politics in drama" (93; when in fact the Licenser often allowed patriotic material that supported the actions of the existing government), or her claim that Hannah Cowley published in no other genre than drama (111; when in fact she wrote a considerable amount of poetry, including her famous poems for the The World that she signed "Anna Matilda" to Robert Merry's "Della Crusca"). These glitches, however, mar neither this book's interest nor its achievement significantly. In such uncharted waters, it is refreshing to see a study capable of providing essential primary information on unstudied writers like Frances Brooke and Sophia Lee, of framing such information so as to make compelling chapter-level arguments about individual careers, and of encasing these argument within an overarching argument about women playwrights and the institutional and economic conditions within which they worked.
- See Paula Backscheider, Spectacular Politics (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); Catherine Burroughs, "The English Romantic Closet: Women Theatre Artists, Joanna Baillie, and Basil," in Nineteenth-Century Contexts 19:2 (1995): 125-49; Julie A. Carlson, In the Theatre of Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Jeffrey Cox, In the Shadows of Romance, (Ohio University Press, 1987); Terrence Hoagwood, ed., The Wordsworth Circle 23:2 (Spring 1992; special issue on Romantic Drama); and Alan Richardson, A Mental Theatre (Penn St. University Press, 1988).
- Backscheider's Spectacular Politics devotes much of its third section to Siddons. Reviewing the MLA Bibliography On-line, furthermore, shows twelve articles on Siddons, compared with only seven on Inchbald's plays and theater criticism, three on Cowley, two on Brooke, one on More's drama (by Donkin), zero on Burney's dramas (though three dissertations exist), and zero on Sophia Lee's dramas.