The Duchess Takes the Stage:
An Evening of Margaret Cavendish's Plays in Performance.
Margaret Cavendish Performance Project. Produced by Gweno Williams. Margaret Cavendish Society Conference, Chester College, Saturday, July 19, 2003.

Alexandra Bennett
Northern Illinois University

Bennett, Alexandra. "The Duchess Takes the Stage: An Evening of Margaret Cavendish's Plays in Performance.
Margaret Cavendish Performance Project. Produced by Gweno Williams. Margaret Cavendish Society Conference, Chester College, Saturday, July 19, 2003. " Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 14 (May, 2004): 15.1-10<URL:

  1. In the poem "A General Prologue to all my Playes" which prefaces the works in her 1662 collection of drama, Margaret Cavendish writes:

    But my poor Playes, like to a common rout,
    Gathers in throngs, and heedlessly runs out,
    Like witless Fools, or like to Girls and Boyes,
    Goe out to shew new Clothes, or such like toyes:
    This shews my Playes have not such store of wit,
    Nor subtil plots, they were so quickly writ,
    So quickly writ, that I did almost cry
    For want of work, my time for to employ:
    Sometime for want of work, I'm forc'd to play,
    And idely to cast my time away…. (sig. A7)

    Her modest disclaimer here is both typical of her own public assessment of her work and remained a common thread among scholars examining her writing until relatively recently. For the past fifteen years, however, this dim view of Cavendish's literary output has been challenged by a growing number of scholars, in part through the hosting of regular bi-annual conferences and the eventual establishment of the Margaret Cavendish Society. Since the first Cavendish conference in 1993, Gweno Williams of York St John College has upheld the belief that the Duchess of Newcastle's nineteen plays were not written exclusively for silent 'closet' perusal, but remain fundamentally performable texts in their own right. To support and explore this contention, Williams established the Margaret Cavendish Performance Project in 1999, in which theatre students collaborate through workshops and rehearsals to stage these plays and introduce them to modern audiences. On July 19, the attendees of the 2003 Margaret Cavendish Society Conference at Chester College were treated to two contrasting performances of Cavendish's drama: a selection of scenes from the plays enacted live by six members of the Performance Project, followed by a film screening of a full production of The Convent of Pleasure (1668) produced and directed by Williams in June of this year. These excellent productions demonstrated clearly and convincingly that the Duchess did indeed write for performance, for the delight of performers and audience members alike.

  2. Staged with a minimum of sets and props, and enhanced by both costumes and music from the 1920s, the scenes selected by the Performance Project members were organized loosely around the themes of the MCS conference along with Cavendish's expressed purposes in writing plays. The four actors played multiple characters and, in conjunction with their director George Brichieri and stage manager Helen Atkinson, worked closely together to make clear and inventive decisions about how to bring these texts to life. Opening with an adaptation of the 1662 "General Prologue" as a monologue, Catherine Sercombe portrayed Margaret Cavendish herself, bringing out the author's appeal to her audience through both self-deprecation and evident pride in her own inventiveness. Sercombe's delivery of the Duchess' concluding wish that "[her] works in Fame's house might have room" evinced a charming self-confidence. As a sequel, Kate Horlor delivered the Prologue to Love's Adventures (1662) with a sly wink at the audience at the notion that a "want of understanding Braines," rather than any flaw in the writing itself, might be at the root of a play's bad initial reception. The message was clear: what we were about to see would be fun and engaging, and thoroughly unapologetic for itself.

  3. The following pair of scenes from Lady Contemplation (1662) made good on this promise. As Lady Conversation and Sir Experienced Traveller, Liz Warren and James Browne relished the witty exchanges of their characters-their light emphases on puns such as "breed" and "barren" informed the flirtation between them, while Browne's description of a national character as "tempered with moisture" gained added appeal with his offering of a cocktail at precisely the right moment. Browne and Warren clearly delighted in both the rhythms and eroticism of Cavendish's prose, in which English becomes "the butter made from the cream of other languages." The later excerpt from the play found Warren's Lady Conversation outraged over having been slandered, fuming to Sercombe's Grave Matron, "why may not a woman revenge her scandalized honour as well as men?" The Duchess' exploration of gender inequalities came well to the fore here, as Warren strongly made her case for revenge only to be rebuked by Sercombe's pointed observation that vengeance would inevitably lead to further disgrace. Neither the author nor the actors shied away from the political implications of the importance and limitations of a woman's reputation.

  4. Youth's Glory and Death's Banquet (1662) provided the material for the subsequent scene, inventively appropriated as a dialogue between the actors 'backstage' as they prepared for the performances to come. By delivering the play's thoughts on acting as they dressed for the next scene, the actors highlighted Cavendish's metatheatricality and enjoyed the opportunities presented for thespian bandying. Their choice of material was admirably suited as a preface to selections from The Convent of Pleasure (1668), since that play is perhaps Cavendish's most overtly theatrical text in its tale of a prince disguising himself as a princess in order to infiltrate the all-female society established by Lady Happy. As the Princess, Browne initially entered in a dress and fur stole to find Horlor's Lady Happy (in a delightfully appropriate touch) reading A Room of One's Own. Eschewing the undoubted temptation to indulge in high camp as he made his case to be admitted to her society as her (platonically) romantic 'servant,' Browne's subtle portrayal allowed the audience to see both the comedy and the romance in the burgeoning relationship between Lady Happy and her new guest. Their final couplet about the "innocence" of their liaison thus took on a particular charge, as Browne spoke his half of the lines ("Nor never Convent did such pleasures give,/ Where Lovers with their Mistresses may live") with a raised eyebrow at the audience. Later, Horlor delivered Lady Happy's monologue about the possibility of falling in love with a woman with creditable confusion and frustration at not being able to "love a Woman with the same affection [she] could a man;" Browne's re-entry in masculine attire to persuade her of the "harmlessness" of their love enabled the actors to emphasize the sexual complications at the heart of Cavendish's play and to hint at its ultimate heterosexual resolution.

  5. The final selection took up the Epilogue from Youth's Glory and Death's Banquet, in which the actors simultaneously voiced Cavendish's submission to her audience's judgment and invited this audience to participate in a talkback session with the Performance Project members. Not only was the subsequent question-and-answer session rich and informative regarding issues such as the choice of scenes and setting, the particular challenges of working with Cavendish's language, and the varied demands that her plays present to performers, but the Project members also revealed that they had put together the evening's work through only two weeks of rehearsal, having never all worked together before! Their contagious interest and delight in working on these plays, as evinced by Williams' proud observation that her students "keep coming back" for more opportunities to do so, was admirable proof of the performative potential and appeal of the Duchess' plays to actors.

  6. After a brief interval, Williams introduced the filmed full-length production of The Convent of Pleasure that the second-year students of her Renaissance Theatre Module had made on June 3 and 4 of 2003. Noting that the production cut only one song from the text, Williams remarked that the show as filmed by George Brichieri was merely 65 minutes long and thus neatly annulled the common charge (one which the Duchess herself feared) that Cavendish's plays are too long to produce in their entirety. The film was derived from two live performances; thus, although devoid of the kinds of special effects that modern moviegoers have come to expect, it emphasized the energy of the student performers and the simplicity of the staging. The action took place on a bare set, upon which the members of the acting company themselves became the décor as necessary-instead of exiting, for instance, the ladies of the Convent lay on each side of the playing space, appearing almost like a group of pillows in their costumes and immobility. These setting choices were deliberate, echoing as much as possible the resources of the kind of seventeenth-century country house in which Cavendish's plays might originally have been performed.

  7. Intriguingly, the cast of this production was all-female, with the exception of one male student who adamantly refused to play the Princess; consequently, Williams explained, the students had to re-think their initial casting of the play and adapt their work to the actors at hand. The resulting performance thus relied greatly upon effective costume choices (male characters in doublets and hose, female characters in long hoop skirts) to make the gender designations clear to the audience. Masks were also crucially and inventively employed: all of the 'gentlemen' wore black half-masks, while the Princess (Kirstin Mack) wore an elaborate feathered half-mask in her female guise, switching to a plain brown half-mask when her male identity was finally revealed, thereby remaining in line with the masculine attire of the other characters while highlighting the multiple performance levels inherent in the Princess's role. Only Lady Happy (Sarah Fennell) never wore a mask, thereby emphasizing her ingenuous nature. These casting and costume choices were notably potent as a contrast with the choices made by the Performance Project in their live production of selections from this text: seeing the Princess performed by a female actor clarified the ease with which the Convent members were duped into believing that disguise, and brought out Lady Happy's confusion and dismay at falling in love with someone she believes to be a woman.

  8. One particularly striking feature of the filmed production was the extensive use of choreographed movement and dance, specifically to make some of the long speeches of the Princess and Lady Happy physical. As Lady Happy set out her organization of the Convent of Pleasure, her ladies enacted her ideas as she spoke; when the Princess played the role of Neptune in a masque at the Convent, the ensemble's stylized movements became those of the waves and the denizens of the sea. These moments not only enabled the whole company to work together as an ensemble, but underscored the lyrical descriptions within the play's speeches. In a programme note, Williams pointed out that the use of movement and dance "sprang from students' strong desire to articulate and reformulate their research into C17 theatre forms such as masque and pastoral." Pedagogically, then, the performance clearly enabled the students to apply what might otherwise have been purely theoretical work: an excellent example of practical research in action.

  9. The Convent of Pleasure's rapid scenes and numerous instances of play-acting provided ample opportunities for each member of the company to create individualized characters within the play's framework. Fennell's idealistic Lady Happy, enchanted with her own creation, was suitably taken aback and genuinely tormented by falling in love with the Princess, while Mack's Princess was gracious and formal in female guise and surprisingly forceful and demanding (as the text requires) once 'his' cover was blown. As Madame Mediator, Victoria Smith had several scene-stealing moments, particularly in her emphatic deployment of her fan and her willingness near the end of the play to "sacrifice [her] body" to the invading male army in order to protect the Convent's virginal inhabitants. The 'gentlemen' were (appropriately) anything but, appearing instead as seventeenth-century beer-drinking pleasure-seekers, while the ladies of the Convent created funny and poignant vignettes in their portrayal of the play-within-a-play detailing the manifold ills that marriage presents to women. By the end of the film, a final star turn belonged to Jenny Payne who, as the jester Mimick, brilliantly delivered the play's closing lines (debating hotly with her own motley mask as to how best to prepare an epilogue to order) and epilogue with consummate panache.

  10. It is a truism that one realizes a great deal more about a play upon seeing it performed than one can ever understand by reading the text alone. Yet the members of the Margaret Cavendish Performance Project and the Renaissance Theatre Module of York St. John College made this observation fresh and new through their innovative productions of the Duchess of Newcastle's plays. They brought out the energy, the liveliness, the bawdiness and comedy, and the sheer exuberance of Cavendish's writing, showing just how much her work can appeal to an audience even as it addresses topical issues such as gender inequality, same-sex love, and the importance of reputation. In the prefatory material to her 1668 collection of plays, Cavendish wrote:

    Having observ'd, that the most Worthy and most Meritorious Persons have the most envious Detractors, it would be a presumptuous opinion in me to imagine my self in danger to have any: but however, their malice cannot hinder me from Writing, wherein consists my chiefest delight and greatest pastime; nor from printing what I write, since I regard not so much the present as future Ages, for which I intend all my Books. (sig. [A2])

    Judging by the loud and well-deserved ovations given to the performances on July 19, the members of her future audiences greatly appreciate the Duchess' anticipatory drama in action. Scholars and theatre enthusiasts alike should look forward to many more productions hereafter.

New DVD available: Margaret Cavendish: Plays in Performance

Gweno Williams' new educational DVD Margaret Cavendish: Plays in Performance (June 2004) is designed for teaching and individual study at University level. This DVD embodies and is informed by pioneering academic research into the performability of plays by early modern women. It features premiere stage and screen productions and adaptations performed by British students of six of Margaret Cavendish's best-known plays:
The Female Academy (1662)
Youths Glory and Deaths Banquet (1662)
The Religious (1662)
Lady Contemplation (1662)
The Several Wits (1662)
The Convent of Pleasure (1668)
together with selected Prologues and Epilogues.

This 3.5 hour DVD includes a contextual introduction to Cavendish's life and works, an individual introduction to each play, together with commentary on learning and teaching and production issues. Student participants' insights into acting and producing Cavendish's plays are also featured. Screen productions were largely filmed in historic seventeenth century locations in York, England, courtesy of the National Trust, York Diocese and other friends of the Margaret Cavendish Performance Project. Production of this DVD was part-funded by Gweno Williams' National Teaching Fellowship (2002). It is available in both British and North American DVD formats.

Further details and order forms are available from: g.williams@yorksj.ac.uk
and forthcoming from http://www.margaret-cavendish.net.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).