Hannah Cowley’s play of 1780 tells the story of two couples. On one hand, we have Letitia Hardy and Doricourt, whose marriage was arranged by their parents when both were children, and who now meet each other as adults after Doricourt has spent the last few years travelling through Europe. The meeting does not go well: Doricourt finds Letitia shy, and she finds him indifferent. Letitia’s solution, the titular stratagem, is first to make Doricourt hate her and then to woo him in disguise, taking him on such an emotional rollercoaster that he will forget his foreign tastes and instead recognize the merits of his future wife. Our second couple is Sir George and Lady Frances Touchwood. Sir George once loved the high life, but now that he has married Lady Frances, he lives in terror that she, raised in the country, should be exposed to that ‘latitudinary vortex’ of London life that her husband knew far too well. Sir George’s fears are ridiculed by Mrs Ogle and Mrs Racket, a pair of widows who show the nobleman’s wife what she’s been missing, but also confirmed when she becomes the target of a plot by the rake Courtall. Thankfully, Courtall’s machinations are foiled by Saville, who loved Lady Frances but was too poor to propose marriage. Saville substitutes Lady Frances with the prostitute Kitty Willis, which Courtall fails to notice, and the discovery of his error humiliates him into leaving the country.
Cowley’s play has two themes. The first concerns the capacity of women to make their own choices within male-dominated society: Letitia’s stratagem, the widows’ defence of their newfound liberty, and Lady Frances’s perilous introduction to London life (made all the more perilous by the overprotectiveness of her husband) all testify to this. The second theme is a patriotic defence of the merits of Englishness: Doricourt gives up his foreign tastes, and Courtall flees a country where his sexual predation has no place.
In Tony Cownie’s adaptation of Cowley’s play, the plot and the themes of the eighteenth-century play undergo some changes. While the play remains interested in female choice, Cownie has, for example, added a number of passages both to clarify the complexities of Letitia’s strategizing and to underline the extent to which the women of this play control the twists and turns of the plot. A more striking departure concerns the play’s patriotism: Cownie’s version takes place in eighteenth-century Edinburgh (specifically, the Edinburgh of 1788) and not in London. Lady Frances comes to the Scottish capital after years of innocent seclusion in Ayrshire, and Doricourt rediscovers the merits of Scottish women and abandons his taste for French, Italian and English things. On top of this, Saville and Doricourt drink a toast to the ‘King across the Water’, disparaging reference is made to the madness of King George, Courtall quits Scotland hoping for a better time in France, and Deacon Brodie’s thievery is a common topic of conversation.
All such references to eighteenth-century Scotland were met with laughing recognition by the theatre audience at the Edinburgh Lyceum. To this southern academic, they testified to a particular version of the eighteenth century that is still available to a cultured, non-specialist audience in the twenty-first. You can visit Deacon Brodie’s Tavern on Lawnmarket, and both the madness of King George and the French Revolution remain in popular culture. As for the Jacobite toast to the ‘King across the Water’, one thinks of Walter Scott’s novel Waverley, with its influential vision of eighteenth-century Britain (specifically the country in 1745), and this vision seemed present in other aspects of the production too. Letitia’s wooing of Doricourt took the form of a Jacobite song and highland jig, and her appearance for the former – framed in a doorway, dressed in tartan and holding a harp – seemed to allude to Edward Waverley’s encounter with Flora MacIvor at the waterfall.
The Scottishness of this adaptation, whether directly indebted to Scott or not, greatly pleased the public, and recaptured some of what the original eighteenth-century London audiences may well have felt when they came to the production of the play at Drury Lane during the American Revolutionary War. In particular, allusions to Scottish culture allowed actors to interact with those seated before them: Angela Hardie’s Letitia worried that she might have overdone things after putting on her highland show for Doricourt, while Steven McNicoll, playing Letitia’s father, had a number of well-delivered asides to the audience. Not all of these, however, related to eighteenth-century Scotland: a number were comic comments added by Cownie, which – while not always fully blended into the rest of the play’s language – provoked hilarity with their incongruity. McNicoll was not alone in this. Nicola Roy’s Mrs Ogle attributing the failure of her marriage to the fact that she was a Sagittarius (and her husband an arse) was just one of many other such comically discordant lines.
Indeed, although one listened to orderly Mozartian music between scenes and the characters danced with elegant precision at the ball, this entire production retained a rough, discordant edge. This is by no means a bad thing. On one hand, the bawdy jokes and local asides kept the audience entertained; on the other, a different kind of tonal shift helped blacken Courtall’s character. In an addition to Cowley’s scene between Courtall and Saville, Cownie has the former insult Kitty Willis repeatedly, ignoring her poverty to focus on her loose morals and physical appearance in a brutal bit of slut-shaming. Saville (ever the good guy) gives Kitty some money, but the value of the scene lay in the contrast between Courtall’s behaviour and the rest of the play: this moment of darkness offers an important chill that could otherwise have been easily lost had this production gone – as other twenty-first century versions of eighteenth-century drama are wont to do – towards more polished, and less discordant, pantomime.
Perhaps because of its roughness, where the asides and tonal shifts tended to favour the less central characters, this production’s first half is slightly weaker than its second. Angela Hardie’s Letitia, for example, is far more impressive as a mysterious, masked, tartan seductress than when trying to make herself abhorrent during the first stage of her stratagem. In a similar vein, Doricourt (played by Angus Miller) has little to do before the interval, but manages an impressive mix of infatuation and misguided despair from the masked ball onwards. This ball is the point in the play where both plotlines merge. It is here that a disguised Letitia begins to woo Doricourt and it is here that Courtall, wearing the same costume as Sir George, abducts not Lady Frances but Kitty, who has been dressed by Saville to resemble his beloved. The lengthy scene, involving almost every character and a series of complicated events, is a challenge to anyone who would stage this play. It is a testament to Cownie’s writing and direction, as well as to the talents of his cast and crew, that this Scottish Belle’s Stratagem sailed through it to laughter and applause while losing sight of none of the play’s deeper and more difficult currents.
The Belle’s Stratagem is on at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until March 10th 2018. Tickets are available from the theatre website.