“I would take a little pains to make him know how much he errs…”

Tanya Caldwell’s anthology Popular Plays by Women in the Restoration and Eighteenth Century, published in 2011, includes a selection of lively criticism by women dramatists along with four plays by Aphra Behn, Hannah Cowley, Catherine Clive, and Susanna Centlivre. Aphra Behn’s “Epistle to the Reader,” from her play The Dutch Lover, is a humorous but powerful defense of women playwrights. Not incidentally, it contains this hilariously scathing description of a theatregoer who questions women’s abilities as dramatists:

Indeed that day [the play was] acted first, there comes me into the pit a long, lither, phlegmatic, white, ill-favored wretched fop, an officer in masquerade newly transported with a scarf and feather out of France, a sorry animal that has naught else to shield it from the uttermost contempt of all mankind, but that respect which we afford to rats and toads, which though we do not well allow to live, yet when considered as a part of God’s creation, we make honorable mention of them. A thing, reader—but no more of such a smelt.  This thing, I tell ye, opening that which serves it for a mouth, out issued such a noise as this to those that sat about it, that they were to expect a woeful play, God damn him, for it was a woman’s. Now how this came about, I am not sure but I suppose he brought it piping hot from some who had with him the reputation of a villainous wit.  For creatures of his size of sense talk without all imagination, such scraps as they pick up from other folks.  I would not for a world be taken arguing with such a property as this, but if I thought there were a man of any tolerable parts, who could upon mature deliberation distinguish well his right hand from his left, and justly state the difference between the number of sixteen and two, yet had this prejudice upon him, I would take a little pains to make him know how much he errs..

Posted on January 31, 2012