Despite at least fifty years of serious scholarly engagement and published work on eighteenth-century women writers, we still find newspaper reviewers and television documentary makers expressing self-important surprise when they feature work by a “newly discovered” or “forgotten” woman writer. But Frances Burney has a measure of public recognition for her novels, albeit as Austen’s literary foremother. The manuscripts of her less well-known plays entered the Berg Collection of New York Public Library in 1941, and by 1995, following important studies by Joyce Hemlow, Ellen Moers and others, The Complete Plays of Frances Burney were published. The first performance of any of her plays, apart from a one night’s staging of her history play Edwy and Elgiva at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1795, dates from the 1990’s. Performances of Burney’s plays are usually arranged by specialist theatre companies or university groups, and are still rare productions which reach small audiences. A notable success was in 2008 when The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, Surrey, premiered Burney’s 1796–1801 play The Woman Hater, which The Guardian described as “a lost treat”, and Burney was the “missing link between Sheridan and Wilde”.
While we are all missing live performances, the value of which many of us had not appreciated, theatre companies have been offering online initiatives as a matter of survival. Paradoxically, this has enabled far greater reach and participation, and arguably encouraged some risk-taking with niche texts and creative techniques. One such production has been Red Bull Theater’s performance of The Woman Hater for one night only, watched by 2,000 people in different time zones. Based in New York, the group describes itself as an “Off-Broadway theater company specializing in plays of heightened language, with a unique focus on the Jacobean plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries”. The current programme extends to eighteenth-century plays, with Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem coming up shortly. During a YouTube discussion session following the play, one member of the cast expressed intense misgivings about virtual performances. Predictably, she could not wait to return to treading the boards. The discussion highlighted the individual labour-intensive and complex preparations necessary for an actor in an online play, an isolated experience with at least as many stresses as an old-fashioned theatrical run would entail. The actor is performer and prompt, set arranger, make-up artist and dresser. The professionalism of the cast ensured that any problems were not apparent, and the difficult timing of costume and set changes intrinsic to an untested play draft––which had never been submitted to amendments by the practicalities of performance––were smoothly handled.
Zoom-style separate screens for each actor meant that the focus was always on language rather than movement. Appealing backdrops in the style of tinted prints served as scene changes, and interaction had to be forward-facing for each performer. Attempts to manipulate scripted gestures such as the handing over of a letter or book from one actor to another were strategically if clumsily made, basic actions which had clearly necessitated careful rehearsal. Cuts to a few self-standing comic scenes and characters distilled the play into two and a half hours. The cast was well chosen, acted their doubled-up roles effectively and took advantage of the format to concentrate on facial expression and comic exaggeration in the intimate asides achieved by leaning into close focus with the camera. Some elements of burlesque comic acting style combined with the actors’ American accents added a lively, international dimension to a plot for which Burney had already drawn on the French traditions of Molière’s drama, Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors and The Winter’s Tale, and Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Woman Hater (1607).
For those familiar with Burney’s oeuvre, characters and plot lines from her first play The Witlings and her first novel Evelina can be identified. Lady Smatter, the caricatured bluestocking of The Witlings reappears, still unable to assure us that her bookish learning has any substance and now refusing to nurture a young woman’s education. The wronged, supposedly illegitimate daughter Evelina is reworked in the convoluted plot of The Woman Hater as the character Sophia. Significant action has already taken place before the play opens so attention is required of the audience to make sense of the relationships. Sophia’s mother has already been wrongly judged as adulterous by her husband Wilmot, and Sir Roderick’s abiding misogyny guides his attitude to women. Burney moves her characters between the West Indies and London, between houses and streets in a sentimental plot which moves towards the expected reveal and resolution of all misunderstandings. Burney’s interest in the nature/nurture debate is reflected in her character Joyce, the daughter of her supposed nurse and a cobbler, who had been secretly substituted for Sophia. Burney presents Joyce’s lack of interest in books and her high-spirited frolics as determined by her low birth, and the Red Bull’s production exaggerates her modern, rebellious nature to good effect in Cherie Corinne Rice’s interpretation. Notable performances were also Veanne Cox’s Lady Smatter, a dignified and outraged bluestocking, and Arnie Burton’s masterful character changes and comic timing.
Burney’s perseverance in her dramatic writing is testimony to her versatility as an author and her interest in exploring character development through different genres. Hopefully, there will be more attempts made to perform her work on real stages so that her plays will be given life beyond the page and beyond a literary exercise. The Red Bull company has contributed a worthy version, against the odds, and given us a cause to celebrate in these difficult times for the arts.
Young Waverly: Nick Westrate
Wilmot / Old Waverly: Arnie Burton
Steward: Bill Army
Sir Roderick: Matthew Saldivar
Lady Smatter: Veanne Cox
Nurse / Prim / Phebe: Jenne Vath
Sophia / Joyce: Cherie Corinne Rice
Eleonora: Rebecca S’Manga Frank
Director: Everett Quinton
Michael Billington, ‘Review of The Woman Hater’, The Guardian, 8 January, 2008 https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2008/jan/08/theatre [accessed 30 January 2021].