A Second Act for a 17th c. Woman Playwright

October 19, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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Twenty years ago, when I began thinking about writing Wicked Company focusing on a group of eighteenth century “Petticoat Playwrights” whose works were performed to great success at London’s Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres, even most English majors had never heard of the playwright Aphra Behn, whose dates are thought to be 1640-1689.

Now recognized as “one of the first women to earn her living by her pen,” the woman on your right has finally come into her own with several biographies and monographs describing her life as a spy, and later as a remarkably successful and prolific  playwright in the Restoration era –a time after the monarchy was restored in the person of Charles II who allowed, at long last,  women to play women’s parts on stages throughout Britain.

The daughter of a barber and a nurse, Aphra somehow managed to travel to Venezuela which was the setting for one of her later plays.  Later, through friends and connections, she was recruited by King Charles II himself to pose as a widow in Antwerp and spy for the Crown, prior to the outbreak of a war between Britain and the Netherlands in 1665.

Sadly, the King neglected to pay her for her services to her country, and upon her return, she landed in Debtor’s Prison.  Once released, she had plenty of fodder for her plays, which she proceeded to write starting in 1670 with astonishing speed in order to keep body-and-soul together (the plight of most writers through the ages, I’m sad to report).

Aphra Behn’s best-known works–some still produced today–are The RoverLove-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, and Oroonoko.

Her body of work includes some seventeen plays, four novels, two short stories, and seven collections of poems.  Her writing was often vilified by the male-dominated literary world. Alexander Pope (1688-1744), born the year before she died, continually penned slights in the years following her death.  Conveniently for him, the poor woman was unable to defend herself.  Even in our own  time, American critic and Yale Professor of the Humanities Harold Bloom called her a “fourth-rate playwright” in comparison to Shakespeare, adding rather spitefully that the interest of her in the era of Women’s Studies was an example of the “dumbing down” of the culture.

Tell that to Liz Duffy Adams, winner of the 5th Annual Lillian Hellman Award!  On November 4th, at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre –an organization that specializes in presenting new works–Adams’ play “Or,” opens.  It features Aphra Behn as the central character, and I, for one, cannot wait to see it.

Described as follows on the Magic Theatre’s website, it sounds hilarious, and appears to be a wonderful vehicle for getting back at all those nasty male critics:

Aphra Behn is getting out of the spy game and into showbiz. If she can finish her play by morning, she’ll become the first professional female playwright. All that’s standing in her way are King Charles II, actress Nell Gwynne, and double agent William Scot, who may or may not be trying to murder the king. Double-crossing, cross-dressing, sex, art, and politics all come together in playwright Liz Duffy Adams’ hilarious bodice-ripper that peers into the life and times of the literal first lady of the stage.

I have a friend deeply involved in support of Magic Theatre and if I can twist her arm, I hope I’ll have a chance to meet Ms. Adams, pictured here on the right, and share with her the fact  that I’ve been a booster of “our” heroine  Aphra Behn for a long time. In fact, I dedicate the newly-released Sourcebooks Landmark edition of Wicked Company about the eighteenth century Petticoat Playwrights that followed in Aphra’s footsteps to the noteworthy playwright as a way of expressing my thanks to this incredible woman who did, indeed, earn her living by her pen.

Just as I do with my computer. Not much changes over the centuries, does it…?

Booksellers, Historical Fiction, & “Hand-Selling”

October 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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I remember walking into the (now) 83-year-old independent Tecolote Bookshop in Montecito, California–seen here hosting Thomas Steinbeck at a signing–to show them the galleys for the first edition of A Cottage by the Sea.  My favorite member of the small sales force peered at the title and then suddenly clutched the Advanced Reader’s Copy to her bosom and said with a sigh, “Oooooh, a cottage by the sea…every woman’s fantasy!”

I was extremely gratified to hear this as I was in a fierce battle with the book’s original publisher about the title.  “They” wanted to change it, and I loved it and wanted to keep it.

I immediately sent an emergency fax (that’s how long ago this was) to the editor, recounting exactly what I’ve told you.

I knew this anecdote would have some weight because the scuttlebutt was that Tecolote was one of the up-market independent booksellers out West that the New York Times Sunday Book Review called to measure sales for its bestsellers’ list.  I have no idea if that is true, but it was an accolade from an important store and, bless the hardworking staff there, it carried enough clout with the editors and marketers in New York to retain the book’s title!

Every since that time, I have done my best to support and get to know the booksellers at both independent bookshops, like my local Habitat Books seen here, as well as the chain bookstore staffs in my area.

Historical novels, whether made of paper or downloaded onto  an electronic reading device, are successful in great part due to this “hand-selling,” and I’ve been grateful for the fifteen years that A Cottage by the Sea has been in print in its various editions that booksellers have apparently given it a personal boost and created that “buzz” that can really make a difference in sales.

Just this morning I was walking with a friend down our main thoroughfare where the tourists stroll as soon as they step off the ferry from San Francisco, and lo and behold, there was the beautiful edition (and new cover) of Cottage–out since June of this year from Sourcebooks Landmark–up-front-and-center in the window of the store!  I’ve met the owner, but hadn’t had a chance to go in and try to twist her arm to stock the book, to say nothing of begging her to put it in the window.

I handed my dog-walking pal my iPhone and said, “Quick! Take a snap, will you?  I want to prove to the world how the independents are truly independent!”  The owner chose to feature the book with no prompting from the author or publisher.

Books are sold by hand by these wonderful people who own bookstores…one book at a time. And now that the new edition of  Wicked Company, about a group of women playwrights whose works were produced to great success at London’s Covent Garden and Drury Lane theaters, is about to debut this month, I guess I should get busy, go into Habitat Books to show them the new cover, and introduce myself again….

I’ve done that recently at a local gift shop, It’s Out of Hand, whose owner, Christine Butler, I know well. Since we live in a maritime village facing San Francisco Bay, she put Cottage near the cash register with a sign “Signed by Local Author” and sells several copies a month talking about the similarities between Cornwall, England, where Cottage is set, and the California coasts along Carmel-by-the-Sea and Big Sur.

Another lesson in “books are hand sold, one book at a time.”  Words to live by, I’d say.

Wicked Company Should be a Movie!

September 19, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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On October 1, Wicked Company is about to have a new life as a nice, juicy trade paperback, courtesy of my publishers, Sourcebooks Landmark, but really, truly, I think one day it should be a movie on a large screen, in full color, and powered by THX sound!

I hold this opinion not merely because I’m proud of this historical novel–which I am, of course– but because, when I did the research, the images I found in the depths of the Huntington Library, or in the archives of the Theater Museum in London leapt out at me in a fashion that just begs for someone to make a film.

I mean, just look at the cast of characters:

We have King George III, Drury Lane actor-manager David Garrick and his wife, struggling women playwrights like the two Hannahs (Hannah More and Hannah Cowley who hated each other),along with numerous actress-playwrights like Kitty Clive and my fictional villainess, Mavis Piggott, plus the weedy little censor Edward Capell–not to mention the hero and heroine, based on a composite of theatrical figures of the day whose lives  I encountered when doing the years of research.

Added to this are the amazing locations of this novel:  Edinburgh, Covent Garden, Bath, Stratford, the Welsh countryside, Annapolis, Maryland, even!  Theaters on both sides of the Pond became the places I had to visit when researching and writing this book.

As I look over my own photo collection, such wonderful memories rush back.  The day I discovered this image of David Garrick about to stab his co-star in an eighteenth century play, now long forgotten, was a red-letter moment.

I even let out an audible yelp in the hallowed bowels of an archive not-to-be-mentioned when I stumbled across an example of the very tickets issued to gain entrance to the first Shakespeare Festival held in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1769.

And then there was the day when I uncovered the fact that one of my historical figures, writer James Boswell, had turned up in the pouring rain at the Shakespeare Festival dressed as a Corsican and brandishing a tall, crooked staff in order to promote a book he was writing!  I mean, really!  Does nothing change?

These are the moments when an author is transported back in time and can see a story unfolding as if it were a film!  (From my computer to God’s ears….)

18th c. Actor-Manager David Garrick–A Feminist?

August 15, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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One of the great delights in researching my up-coming October release of Wicked Company from Sourcebooks Landmark was discovering that David Garrick, the fabled actor-manager of the eighteenth century London Theater Royal, Drury Lane, was what we surely would call in our own age, “a feminist.”

For the nearly thirty years of his sterling career, he championed women artists–not only actresses, but dancers, novelists and playwrights as well. Here on the left in a portrait by Hogarth, he is shown  at his desk, no doubt penning one of his own plays which competed with the immortal likes of She Stoops to Conquer and The School for Scandal.

Garrick was also known for another oddity of his age and ours:  an absolute devotion to his wife, Eva-Maria, pictured behind him as a kind of bright yellow “happy muse.”

In the eighteenth century, with no television or motion pictures to steal his audiences–Garrick changed the playbill every few days or so.  He also offered dancing, singing, and other divertissments in a bold attempt to keep his fickle patrons from heading over to his nearby arch rival, Theater Royal, Covent Garden. This constant revolving of “What’s on tonight at Drury Lane?” required, however, a never-ending need for new material.

With great respect for the professional life his wife had enjoyed as a premier dancer of her day, Garrick was only too happy to hire talent, whatever its gender, to keep the public’s interest in the kinds of entertainment offered at Drury Lane, and in fact, he  encouraged women writers by offering them his services as mentor and editor as they toiled on their plays.

Garrick launched a number of women in well-paid careers as “petticoat playwrights,” among them the actress, comedienne Kitty Clive (1711-1785), seen here on the right. He also served as cheerleader to one of the playwriting “Hannahs”–Hannah More .  (The other, Hannah Cowley ,and Hannah More  actually despised each other–but  you will have to read Wicked Company to learn more about that!).

When I was first researching this historical novel at the Huntington Library and Art Galleries in the late 1980’s–as seen here on the left–there was very little published about Garrick’s role in launching these women into professional writing careers.  But soon I was bumping into theater scholars from Ohio, Delaware, and Yale universities and elsewhere, hard at work on such nonfiction efforts as Curtain Call: British and American Women and the Theater 1660-1820, and The Plays of Frances  Sheridan (mother of Richard, of The School for Scandal and The Rivals fame). Garrick produced one of Frances Sheridan’s work, The Dupe, though, sadly, it found little favor with the sometimes riotous, badly-behaved audiences.

David Garrick died in 1779, and much later, a London social club was named in his honor.  When I was in London researching Wicked Company, I was taken there as a guest on the only day a woman could enter those portals because–of course, The Garrick Club was founded by men, and as far as can be determined, remains for men only.

Ah, the ironies of history…