The Fergusonia File

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Frances Burney, The Witlings (1778-80)

Frances Burney's The Witlings (1778-1780) opens in a milliner's shop (see photo), a fact which is notable in itself. The other plays we've looked at generally open in someone's dressing or drawing room, which is a cue to the upper or middle class milieu of the ensuing drama. I thought that opening The Witlings in Mrs. Wheedle's shop would indicate a different perspective for the play, but the action soon shifted away from the actual working class people (though they do resurface periodically).

The play, like others we've seen, centres on a young woman who is independently wealthy (see Cavendish's The Convent of Pleasure for an analogue). Unlike Lady Happy, however, Cecilia loses her fortune, which unsurprisingly impedes her marriage to Beaufort (yes, another Beaufort).

The play is fairly conventional in terms of plot (except for the "poetic justice" that precipitates the resolution), and the scenes sometimes drag. The lengthy repartee between characters with little plot advancement sometimes had me flipping ahead to see just how many pages were left.

That said, the characterization is good--I especially like Mrs. Sapient, whose tautologies often made me laugh out loud--and there is generally some good wit evidenced on Burney's part. Even the best of running jokes, however, can't carry a scene as far as Burney sometimes pushes it.

In terms of themes that we've looked at together, I'd like to dig into Codger's relationship with Jack--we've seen other patriarchs who wish to be listened to, but I think Codger's repeated emphasis on be listened to (in the literal sense) has special significance, given this play's preoccupation with verbal communication. I think an interesting paper could be written on the verbal economy in this comedy, with its fluctuations and upsets.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Joanna Baillie's The Tryal (1798)

Appearing in the same red-letter year as Coleridge and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, Joanna Baillie's decidedly less influential collection of plays, Plays on the Passions, was nonetheless popular in its day. The Tryal is one of three plays in the volume, and it is the only comedy.

I enjoyed The Tryal for its clarity of plot, for its distinct characters, and its humour. There's something to be said for good character "ticks," that is, repetitive behavioural and/or speech patterns. Of course, other playwrights we've read have accomplished this, but I found that the characters in this comedy would be recognizable even if we read their lines in the absence of stage directions.

Miss Eston, Mr. Royston and Sir Loftus are good examples of this. Even if the stage directions in one scene were somehow lost, we would still know who was talking.

Generally, I found the play fun and humorous. Maybe I was just in the mood for silliness, but the tomfoolery of Agnes and Mariane made me laugh out loud at points. Though I was somewhat troubled by the lack of respect Withrington sometimes received, I couldn't help but think that his blustering at his nieces' impudence was only half-hearted. The young women do really love him, and they involve him in their fun, even when he's the butt of their jokes. I'm trying to think of an alternative for "heartwarming" to describe how they share their vitality with the old uncle, but no easy equivalents come to mind. I hope that when I'm old and grey that my young relations will keep me in the loop as Baillie's young heroines do.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Hannah Cowley, The Belle's Stratagem, 1780

Interestingly, stratagem backwards reads megatarts. A tart is a promiscuous woman, like Kitty Willis. Neato.

O.K., time to get serious. I enjoyed Hannah Cowley's comedy, The Belle's Stratagem. I found it a little long toward the end when all the characters were conspiring to trick Doricourt into marrying Letitia Hardy. It seemed like they kept yakking about the plan scene after scene, instead of actually getting to it. That said, I did enjoy the trickery scene: there's something delightfully perverse in how the characters kept twisting the knife, especially given that Doricourt's offence was relatively minor (relative to other plays we've read, that is). It's generally true that there is a lot of lead up in this play, of talk about what a character(s) is going to do, instead of actual portrayal of the action.

One thing I found unsettling was how our Megatart (Kitty) is baldly portrayed as at the bottom of the social barrel. That is, she can't sink any lower on the social ladder (or slide), so she's useful as a pawn in the intrigues of the other characters. When she is unmasked before the dumbstruck Courtall, the first Mask mocks her, adressing her as "Your Ladyship" (4.2.57). It's as though she's not even a real person; she's a tool unworthy of civil treatment. She does seem to enjoy duping Courtall, but the fact that she's likely trying to recover a sense of self-worth by rubbing it in renders her action somewhat pitiful.

I would say that Cowley leaves most English women in a pretty good spot by the end of the play--Doricourt realizes that he shouldn't constrain Letitia's personality, and Lady Frances reaches a favourable understanding with her husband--but women who lie beyond the pale of chaste, marriagable women fare less favourably. I'm looking forward to a discussion of the intersection of nationalism and gender in this play.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

'Bout Time for Elizabeth Griffith's The Times, 1779

Elizabeth Griffith’s The Times (1779) doesn’t employ many of the stock-comedy conventions that we’ve come to expect. There are no cross-dressing scenes, no misplaced letters (unless you count Forward’s reading of the business document in 1.1), and the plot complications don’t largely result from the bumbling of a clown/fool figure.

In our class discussion (last time?) we got into an interesting debate about the possibilities inherent in restrictive literary forms. We all seemed to be in agreement that the conventions of 18th century comedy manage to please despite their predictability.

In spite of this hard-to-explain appeal, I’m surprised at my own reaction to the different plot devices in The Times. The play was quick and easy to follow, with few complications and twists; even the misunderstandings between the characters didn’t bear on the plot much (like Sir William’s confusion about who Louisa would wed). I liked the fact that a simpler plot with fewer characters allowed us to really “know” the characters in a way that most other playwrights we’ve read don’t seem to value.

Yet, in spite of this clarity and character development, I was slightly bored by the play. The pitiable situation of the prodigal Mr. Woodley is perhaps too realistic (my empathy might be tied to my own student-loan woes); the greater measure of realism and the exploration of his psychology demand more of the reader than most plays we’ve read. This play is maybe more like reality TV than the sit-com-like plays we’ve studied in the course. The same events may happen in both, but the tone differs.

All this is to say, I was paradoxically bored by the absence of stock devices that should bore by their ubiquity. Strange. Stranger still is that I liked the play; I just liked it for different reasons.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Wikipedia Article Now Live: Get It While It's Hot!

My Wikipedia entry for Catharine Trotter is now live: see it here.

Trotter Term Paper Proposal

Salutations, Comrades!
Here is my proposal for the term paper. I was a little unclear as to the level of research we were to include, so I stuck mostly to hammering out an interesting argument. I made a cursory perusal of LION to see if anyone had written extensively on this topic, and I concluded that my paper would be at least somewhat fresh. It took me a long time to arrive at a new angle; thinking this week has been like pulling teeth.

Catharine Trotter’s Love at a Loss; or, Most Votes Carry It (1700) is a play very much concerned with ideas of justice and correction, yet comparatively little critical attention has been paid to these concepts. While it is true that the majority of literary works employ some type of transgressive behaviour to propel the plot, Trotter’s famed engagement with issues of morality and agency in her philosophical writings justifies a closer look at the mechanics of justice in her sole comedy. Anne Kelley contends that the keynote of Trotter’s moral argumentation is the privileging of principled rationality in the government of human affairs. Kelley notes with specific reference to Love at a Loss, that in cases of contention between personal volition and public good, Trotter invariably privileges the latter. Kelley reads Love at a Loss as a qualified “endorsement of the existing social order,” and especially the individual’s “social obligation to honour contractual agreement” (92).

The concepts of revenge, retribution and justice in general are thus linked to social codes of behaviour in the text, but not in a way that neatly conforms to Trotter’s stated philosophical views. Of the two general modes of justice portrayed in the play—the personal and the communal—the personal is superior, if we take the definition of effective justice to be the matching of crime to punishment with correction as the desired end. By drawing on Trotter’s own philosophical writings (especially her Defence of the Essay of Human Understanding) and Hobbes’s Leviathan, with which Trotter contended, I will challenge the reading of Love at a Loss that claims its complete endorsement of communal justice. In terms of the correction and prevention of crime (or sin), the personal model, largely embodied in Lucilia, emerges as more effective than the communal. This fact undermines the model of communal morality proffered by Trotter, and aligns the play more with Hobbesian philosophy, in which the individual first considers his or her own judgment. The final vote scene forces the reader to re-examine the basis of communal justice, to see that communal justice is only as just as the members of the collective tribunal.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

A Wife to Be Lett

Eliza Haywood’s 1724 comedy, A Wife to be Lett [sic], follows three interrelated romance plots: both Marilla and Celemena are young women betrothed to undesirable men, and Susanna Graspall, though married to an old miser (Mr. Graspall), is wooed by Sir Harry Beaumont, a charming gentleman. The unusual twist in the plot (indeed, the author mentions just how original in her epilogue) is that Mr. Graspall pimps his wife for a large sum of money, letting Beaumont have free run of his home (and wife, presumably). This recalls the film Indecent Proposal, yet in Haywood’s play the husband is all too willing to barter his wife’s honour and the wife never becomes physically tainted.

One scene particularly interested me: in I.i., Beaumont’s past lover, Amadea, (who is disguised as a man) accosts Mrs. Graspall about her visits with and general encouragement of Beaumont’s wooing. Amadea, we learn later, has good reason to be prying into the Beaumont-Graspall affair—she wants her man back—so she harangues Mrs. Graspall heatedly. Amadea draws the line, however, at squealing to the larger community. She is not so malicious as to defame her rival for Beaumont, a fact that contributes to the overall mood of female sisterhood in the play.

What is interesting, from a gender-politics point of view, is that Amadea claims that she is the mouthpiece of Susanna’s conscience: “think, ‘tis your good Genius warns through my lips.” The fact that Susanna accepts this reprimand from what she thinks are male lips is significant. As we’ve discussed in class, one of the ways that patriarchy has/does keep control is by defining the terms of morality. Such texts as conduct books are a good example of how men have imposed the “patriarchal conscience” upon female subjects (Freud, I think had a theory about this—“the father’s NO”?).

The fact that Amadea is in drag makes the situation more complicated. Would Susanna have heeded the warnings if the censurer appeared in her “true” gender? Does the fact that no male is actually present suggest that there is room for exclusive female community even within patriarchy?

This is a hard crux to crack, and it’s only one of many interesting questions raised by this play. I’m also anxious to discuss the way that the play questions the limits of patriarchal authority in marriage. Are the limits of a husband’s power (i.e. commanding a wife to immoral/illegal behaviour) completely at his discretion? The tyranny of husbands is clearly devalued in the play, but where are we left at the end?