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Case 12 - English Women as Professional Playwrights

In London, on December 8, 1660 a woman performed the role of Desdemona in Othello. This was the first record of a professional actress on the English public stage. It followed the restoration of Charles II to the English throne, and was a result of influence from the French court where Charles had spent part of his exile. The new theater audience—ore courtly and sophisticated than in Shakespeare’s time— as open to the innovation of actresses and to women writing for the public stage. Aphra Behn was the first female professional playwright, and she was soon followed by others, including Susanna Centlivre, Delarivière Manley, Mary Pix, and Catherine Trotter.

Aphra Behn. Widow Ranter. London, 1690

William Vincent. The Indian Queen. Mezzotint, not before 1689

Mary de la Rivière. The Lost Lover; or, The Jealous Husband: A Comedy. London, 1696

Catherine Trotter. Agnes de Castro. London, 1696

Mary Pix. The False Friend, or, The Fate of Disobedience. London, 1699

Susanna Centlivre. The Basset-Table. London, 1706

Ann Kingsmill Finch. Miscellany poems with two plays by Ardelia. Manuscript, ca. 1685-1702

The well known Aphra Behn wrote novels, poetry, and nineteen plays that were performed on the stage. On display is The Widow Ranter, which tells the story of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, when Nathaniel Bacon commanded a force of Indians against the English governor of Virginia. It contains strong female roles, namely Semernia, the Indian Princess loved by Bacon, and the Widow Ranter, who dons men’s clothing to fight. Behn herself led an adventurous life, spending time in Surinam and serving as a government spy. In the mezzotint by William Vincent, the actress Anne Bracegirdle is depicted as Semernia in Aphra Behn’s The Widow Rante, a role she played when she was about eighteen.


Like Behn, Delarivière Manley led an interesting life, which reads at times like the plot of a play: well-educated but orphaned at an early age, forced into bigamy with her cousin, companion to Barbara Villiers (former mistress of Charles II), and finally a successful author. The Lost Lover is her first play, and contains two strong female roles, witty Olivia and the villainess Belira. Its poor reception led Manley to write: “I am now convinc’d Writing for the Stage is no way proper for a Woman” but she produced three more plays anyway.


Drawing on a plot from a 1688 novel by Aphra Behn, playwright Catharine Trotter produced Agnes de Castro when she was about sixteen years old. It draws on the story of a Portuguese prince, Don Pedro, who falls in love with a Spanish gentlewoman, Inês de Castro. Trotter published five plays, in each of which she included strong female characters.


Mary Pix arrived on the London literary scene at the same time as Catherine Trotter and Delarivière Manley, with whom she was friends. In the Prologue to The False Friend, Pix positions herself as a woman playwright:
Amongst Reformers of this Vitious Age,
Who think it Duty to refine the Stage:
A Woman, to Contribute, does Intend,
In Hopes a Moral Play your Lives will Mend.


Susanna Centlivre was one of the first Englishwomen to make the theater a true profession. She moved from acting to writing, producing sixteen plays. The Basset-table stars Lady Reveller, a young widow who earns extra money by hosting gambling at her home. Other colorful characters include Valeria, an intellectual who loves science, and Mrs. Sago, who “embezzles her husband’s stock.” The prim Lady Lucy sums up the difference between gambling and play-going: “one ruins my Estate and Character, the other diverts my Temper, and improves my Mind.” Because basset is a little-known card game today, the Folger Theatre retitled its 2012 production The Gaming Table.


Another poet-playwright was Anne Finch, regarded as the most important female British poet of her period. On display is the largest surviving manuscript of her works. It was transcribed by her husband Heneage Finch in a fair hand, but corrections by Anne in her crabbed writing are visible throughout. Finch served at the court of Mary of Modena, wife of James II, and composed fables, political poems, odes, and religious verse as well as plays. Both Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope praised her poetry.


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