The Fergusonia File

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.


Blogger Andrea said...

Your link between the dismemberment imagery and the commodification of women on the marriage market is an interesting one, especially in light of the fact that Lady B goes back to her "first and only husband" at the end of the play - it almost seems as though property is being returned to its rightful owner. Perhaps Bellinda and Sir Charles' references to each other as "my life" and "my soul" mean that their love has transcended the pettiness of those around them ...

12:09 PM  
Blogger Susie said...

I like that reading of dismemberment and disection into qualities that men and women look for in a marriage partner. Freaky. It works with gender roles in general too: women and men being portioned off into various spheres (public vs. private for example) complete with expectations and consequences particular to a specific sex/gender.

2:04 PM  
Blogger Miriam Jones said...

Keep in mind that the comedy could get pretty broad in this period. Which does not negate your reading -- which I like.

8:27 PM  

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