The Fergusonia File

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Susanna Centlivre's The Busybody, 1709

I can see why Centlivre's The Busybody was such a huge success: it's a fast-paced comedy with a good measure of wit. We've read a number of social comedies this term, but few, if any, made me laugh out loud like this one. In particular, the way that Marplot complicated things was well-handled. It's not that his dialogue was especially humorous, but his bumbling somehow managed to make me laugh (this might have something to do with my being somewhat ill and therefore tired). There's a certain type of situational humour that has you laughing before the key action even takes place; predictability in these cases has a counter-intuitive effect. In this play, I would project ahead to just how Marplot would satisfy his name.

On a more serious note, I was surprised at the number of casual threats of violence, some very explicit (ie. "I had more mind to cut his throat than hear his excuses" III.v.15), in the play. It struck me that casual threats of violence occurred at almost regular intervals throughout; almost none of the longer scenes pass by without someone being threatened or actually beaten (Marplot often falls under each category).

When a writer displays such a "literary tick" I often wonder what underlies it. Finberg foregrounds Marplot's effeminate cowardice, and so we may read the brash violence of the other male characters as establishing a clear divide between the "men and the boys." Women, however, are also threatened with violence (Isabinda does get manhandled in act 5), and twenty-first century readers would normally associate violence toward women as unmanly, or at least ungentlemanly.

If Centlivre were only pandering to her audience's desire for violence, then we might expect there to be more actual duals and fights, but threats outnumber actual skirmishes. I think that it's at least safe to say that the comedy (as many do) privileges the making of one's own fate, the taking of matters into one's own hands. In this light, men who are willing to risk everything in a duel emerge as more useful and therefore more desirable. Yet, the macho big-talk is positioned as even more useful than actual violence.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Editing Trotter's Biographical Entry

The extant Wikipedia article for Catharine Trotter Cockburn, aside from the fact that it is what is called a “stub,” appears to be accurate and objective. If anything, the tone seems too objective, especially in the area of Trotter’s legacy. My task as editor, therefore, is fairly straightforward. I will expand the biography (the details of which seem consistent across the various accounts), and I will add a list of books that Trotter published in her lifetime (or shortly thereafter, her collected works). I will also add a list of books currently in print, available for purchase (a list I compiled by surfing various e-stores like and A good deal of the work I have done consists of synthesizing into the article material that was contained in the external links.

In terms of sensitive/opinionated material that might contravene the NPOV strictures in place in the Wikipedia community, I don’t feel that I had to leave out much. One advantage to writing on a relatively obscure author is that I do not have to juggle as many competing interpretations of her life and work. I suppose that I could be more blunt in writing about her legacy as it relates to feminism if the guidelines were not in place, but the relatively neutral terms in which I couched the information do not impede my project. Finally, I largely avoided commenting on specific plays because a) I’ve only read one (Love at a Loss) and b) I questioned the usefulness of going into depth about each work in what is otherwise a very general biographical article. Personally, when I read the other articles from which I drew my factual information, the brief sketches of individual plays did not stick with me. Details of common themes were welcome, but plot summary was (in my opinion) so much wasted ink.

My work on the entry, then, was hardly impeded by the NPOV policy. I wouldn’t have written any differently otherwise.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Mary Pix, The Innocent Mistress (1697)

Mary Pix's 1697 play, The Innocent Mistress, is unremarkable in terms of plot construction and characterization. As with many contemporary comedies, it employs stock devices: disguise, misplaced billet-doux, the conversion of rakes, etc.

The play is a cut above, however, for its measure of wit and humor. I enjoyed the repartee between various characters, such as Cheatall, Spendall and Wildlove. The play is fast-paced and is at times hard to follow, but it generally pleases. So much of what passes for wit in plays of this period seems perfunctory. Pix, for the most part, seems to have had her heart in it.

What stood out as particularly interesting in terms of themes/images was the recurrence of threats/accusations of dismemberment. The friends of Arabella repeatedly accuse Cheatall of imprisoning, killing and dismembering her. This gory scenario is mentioned more than once, which made me wonder why such horrors we introduced into this genteel setting. Other characters, notably Lady Beauclair, also threaten to dismember their enemies, which reinforces my question.

I think that one reason Pix might have introduced it, aside from the fact that late 17th-century theatre-goers seemed to expect some violence on stage, is to deepen the cut-throat characterization of the marriage market. That is, if the threat of dismemberment is given physicality, then other, more figurative types of dismemberment take on a more frightening aspect. Thus, a woman is dissected into beauty, wit and virtue; a man is dismembered into looks and fortune. The threat is that a prospective spouse will dismember you, taking only what is of value to him or her, leaving you less than a whole. The bloody reference to bodily dismemberment reinforces the ugliness of this system of commodification.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Rover's Return

Having missed Monday's meeting (my apologies to the class), I've been trying to piece together some of the discourse surrounding Aphra Behn's The Rover: or The Banished Cavaliers and The Second Part of The Rover, by reading blog entries and comments.

In so doing, I noticed a trend of discomfort with Behn's treatment of sexual politics, particularly in The Rover (1677), and especially regarding the attempted rapes. In formulating an opinion of my own, I have decided to pick up a comment left by Miriam on someone's blog (can't remember whose right now).

With reference to Behn's seeming refusal to adequately censure the rapacity of her male characters, indeed, her fascination with rape generally, Dr. Jones cautioned not to "shoot the messenger." That is, we must discern between the representation of societal evil in order to expose (and hopefully correct) those ills, and the promotion of those evils by portraying the ease with which the culprits escape justice.

I would like to extend this point to mention the practical question of staging. In my estimation, an audience's reaction to a scene like Willmore's stumbling into the garden and attempted rape of Florinda depends quite a lot on the appearance of Willmore (i.e. his degree of handsomeness), his intonation and body language. It is impossible to make an attempted rape scene appear innocuous, but there is a range of possibility in terms of how horrible it can be.

It has been mentioned by a few of our bloggers that the text itself passes but scanty censure on these acts, but Behn was likely (as Miriam suggests) exposing the vileness of the rape subculture. To this end, staging and casting would matter a lot in terms of whether the audience would be inclined to condemn the men in question or take the "boys will be boys" stance.