A Second Act for a 17th c. Woman Playwright

October 19, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Pin It

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…?

Wicked Company Should be a Movie!

September 19, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Pin It

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….)

Can Readers Love a “Flawed” Hero?

September 12, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Pin It

When I was first conjuring the characters in Wicked Company and mulling over how I would weave both fictional and historical figures into the story of an 18th c.  woman playwright fighting to get her works written and performed at London’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, I thought about some of the men of that era whose lives clearly could be fodder for a novelist’s imagination and well as an historian’s.

Take the 18th c. poet Robert Burns, for example, who figured in my first historical novel, Island of the Swans.  He was an astonishingly good-looking man, from all accounts and surviving pictorial representations.  He also had a reputation for loving the ladies–some of whom were not his wife–and according to the research, there was much gossip surrounding his relationship with my heroine, Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon.

However, my reading of the facts was that the duchess supported his artistic endeavors, helping to get his first book of poems published in Edinburgh, but held him at arm’s length.  Thus, he was not the “hero” in the novel and  so I avoided the issue of whether readers can appreciate a lead character who actually lived on this planet, and yet could not be described as a “man of moral character.”

It is part of the territory when writing historical fiction that there is constant tension between creating a compelling story and balancing the historical facts as best we are able to determine them. Readers of novels tend to want their heroes “heroic”–unless they are lovable “anti-heroes,” which can sometimes work but is very tricky to pull off.  For me, I enjoy working through the flaws as the story’s arc shows the characters growing and changing while the novel unfolds.

However, sometimes a character is fascinating, but simply not “hero” material to my way of thinking.  For instance, in Wicked Company, Richard Sheridan of The School for Scandal and The Rivals fame was a contemporary of my composite heroine, Sophie McGann, a female character drawn from the biographies of several working women playwrights of the day.  However, Sheridan had a character flaw that I couldn’t stomach.  Yes, he was a compelling gent, not too bad looking as you see here, and of course, a prodigious talent , but in my research I concluded that he basically “borrowed”–with no credit–the famous Mrs. Malaprop character in The Rivals from one his own mother had originally created in a play that failed to pass the censor in the Lord Chamberlain’s office!  Interesting, yes.  A hero in my book, NO!

In the end, I created a fictional hero, Hunter Robertson, to go with my fictional heroine, but he, too, is noted for his lapses.  Most notable among them is a fair amount of emotional baggage carried over from his youth that prevents him, early in the novel, from seeing what is obvious to the reader:  that he and Sophie are destined for each other–a state of affairs he ultimately begins to comprehend when they both become involved in the theater in the beautiful spa city of Bath where, believe it or not, in the 18th c. there were co-ed bathing facilities! (Note the lady holding on to her hat in the upper right of the image).

But to a writer, those flaws Hunter possessed were what kept the writing interesting for me, especially when they’re rooted in conflicts and tragedies going back to a period of his childhood he wanted to forget:  a time when his mother chose which of her children to give the meager supply of food during “the starving” in the Highlands of Scotland that came in the wake of the failure of Bonnie Prince Charlie to claim the thrones of England, Scotland and Wales.

I love Hunter Robertson–flaws and all–and I think readers will too, knowing on some level that he will eventually come to terms with his difficult past, recognize Sophie for the valiant, gifted woman she is, and fall madly in love with her.  Until that happens, his role is to save her from herself (and her hot temper), as well as find his own path as a creative talent in the boisterous, turbulent London theater world.

For me, heroes are more interesting if they’re not perfect and totally “heroic,” straight out of the gate.  Perhaps this is what keeps readers interested in the mystery of how in the world Hunter and Sophie are  going to overcome the obstacles facing a “two-career couple” in the eighteenth century!

Truly, nothing much changes, despite our claim to modernity.

Outfoxing “That Little Toad!” Edward Capell, Censor

September 5, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Pin It

There is nothing more delicious for an historical novelist than to run across a generally unknown figure in history who is a person to be thoroughly disliked, as with Edward Capell, an 18th c. play censor in the Crown of England’s Lord Chamberlain’s office.

From all accounts, he had a very high opinion of his own intellect–perhaps deservedly so, as he was considered an expert on the works of Shakespeare and was often asked to authenticate various manuscripts.  However, he held the lowest opinion imaginable of a mere woman attempting to earn her living by her pen.  Thus, any woman playwright trying to get one of her works past this disapproving bureaucrat and granted a license to be performed on a professional stage in London or elsewhere in the Kingdom faced frustration bordering on the urge-to-kill.

Edward Capell could end any writer’s career with a stroke of his pen, but he apparently took special delight in blindsiding “uppity women,” including a number of woman writers who ultimately took refuge in using male pseudonyms to try to get past his overt prejudice against them.

The “cameo” image on the left is highly flattering, for in life, he was an odd little man, with a penchant of eating foods only the color white!  He’d eat mashed potatoes or parsnips, but never orange carrots.  He’d consume white cheese, but never cheddar; white wine, but not claret.  Such was his odd phobia of foods of vibrant hues, that the lack of vitamins in his diet soon produced scrufulous skin disorders, making his appearance behind his desk at the Lord Chamberlain’s office quite a terrifying sight to behold.

Fortunately, there were a number of clever women writers who managed to get their works approved for production by one means or another, including Frances Sheridan, mother of the far more famous playwright, Richard Sheridan of  The Rivals and The School for Scandal fame.  Frances, seen here on your right, had a dreadful time running the gauntlet of the Lord Chamberlain’s office, though she managed to see her The Discovery and The Dupe produced under her own name at Drury Lane by David Garrick, the immortal actor and manager there whose fame continues to this day.

Garrick, as you will discover if you read my forth-coming Wicked Company was the best friend an 18th c. woman playwright would ever find, and chroncling his brilliant handling of the dreaded censor, Edward Capell, was one of the most delightful experiences I ever enjoyed as an historical novelist.

When my heroine, Sophie McGann, comes storming into his office shouting, “Oh, how I despise that little toad!”  having just learned that Capell has refused her latest play a license, Garrick kindly pats her on the arm and replies, “Well, my dear, we must then simply out fox him.  Now, here’s my idea…”

Wicked Companys publication date is October 1 and, hopefully, will be in the books stores a bit before that.  I hope you’ll love to “despise that little toad” Edward Capell as much as I did!

A “Petticoat Playwright” Wannabe

August 29, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Pin It

In the late 1980’s, just about the time I had finished researching and writing my first historical novel, Island of the Swans, I stumbled across a reference to a minor character I’d included in the book , the sister of the heroine, Jane Maxwell, 4th Duchess of Gordon (1749-1812).  I discovered that the duchess’s younger sibling, Eglantine, Lady Wallace, not only enjoyed playing the harp for guests in her home, as you see here, but also penned three plays.

One, The Ton:  or, Follies of Fashion was produced in 1788 to a distinct lack of success at London’s Covent Garden theater; the second, The Whim, was forbidden a license by the official censor in the Lord Chamberlain’s office; and the third, an adaptation from a French play, Diamond Cut Diamond, suffered a fate that has been lost in the mists of time.  Frankly, I was amazed to have learned that women were writing plays for London’s finest theaters during the 18th c.–many under their own names, as was the case with Lady Wallace for The Ton.

I remember walking into the Rare Book room at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where I held a Readership in 18th & 19th c. British-American History, and putting in three call slips, certain these obscure manuscripts were only to be found in a dusty corner of some library in London. (No books circulate outside these types of research libraries, so you can see how many tomes began to pile up on my desk as time went on with this project!)

Much to my shock, the Huntington had all three plays! Not only that, they had scores more dramas and comedies written by eighteenth century women playwrights because more than seventy years before, Henry Huntington’s acquiring agents bought the Larpent Collection of plays from the heirs of a long-dead censor in the Lord Chamberlain’s office, the bureaucracy that, up until the early 1960’s, determined which plays could be presented in Britain.

In fact, in the course of researching and writing Wicked Company, I learned that there were a hundred women playwrights in Britain and America who saw their works produced on professional stages between 1660 and 1820.  While in London, I had the pleasure of back stage tours of the latest “editions” of Covent Garden and Drury Lane theaters (both places have burned to the ground several times due to the candles used to light the proceedings prior to the invention of electricity).

That moment when I held a copy of Eglantine, Lady Wallace’s failed play in my hand marked the start of a three-year odyssey to discover professional women playwrights whose works were produced to great success–unlike poor Eglantine–at the theatres royal, Covent Garden and Drury Lane, an image of the latter you see here.

Finding the failed plays of this “petticoat” playwright wannabe also provided the avenue that eventually led me to Edward Capell, a strange little functionary who  had the absolute power to end the writing careers of these professional women playwrights with the stroke of his pen.  Capell was destined to become one of the most intriguing “villains” I’ve ever had the pleasure to create!

But more about this mean, spiteful little toad next time…and I’ll even post an image of what he looked like…

Wicked Company, by the way, will be in bookstores in October, courtesy of Sourcebooks Landmark, and I can’t wait!

Next Page »