FIRST 100 YEARS: The Professional Female Playwright
Hannah Cowley (ca. 1743 – 1809)
Hannah Cowley, who would become the most successful female playwright in Britain during the late eighteenth century, was born in 1743 in Tiverton. Her father, Philip Parkhouse, a local bookseller, afforded his daughter a limited classical education and later lent his support to her literary endeavors. Hannah remained single until 1772, when she married Thomas Cowley, a worker in the stamp office who was ten years her junior. The pair moved to London, and Thomas found work as a newspaper editor and occasional theatre critic. An oft–repeated story holds that after spending a particularly dreadful night at the theatre, Hannah boasted to her husband that she could write a better play herself, and within the space of a fortnight dashed off the first draft of what would become The Runaway. In addition to her artistic aspirations, however, the unimpressive earnings of her husband probably supplied Cowley with an economic incentive to enter the theatre business. Playwriting happened to be the most lucrative form of writing open to women of the time: a successful play generated revenue first from production (to the largest indoor theatre audiences in England’s history) and later from publication (by a press eager to capitalize on the theatre’s massive popularity).
Cowley sent her early draft of The Runaway to David Garrick, the actor–manager at Drury Lane, and he accepted the work for production. Over his three–decade tenure at the theatre, Garrick had earned a reputation as an enthusiastic supporter of both classic and contemporary women playwrights, producing over six times as many performances of women’s plays as rival theatre Covent Garden. Garrick edited his protégé’s works with an eye for performability, helping many of the women (including Cowley, who lacked professional stage experience) to hone their craft. The dark side of this patronage, however, was Garrick’s tendency to indulge in a petulant sort of paternalism. He expected affection from his playwright “daughters” and unwittingly caused rivalries to spring up between them. In the aftermath of Garrick’s retirement shortly after he produced The Runaway in 1776, Cowley struggled for three years to get her next play, the tragedy Albina, produced. It received a weak premiere in the summer of 1779, and shortly thereafter Cowley became embroiled in an embarrassing newspaper battle with fellow Garrick protégé Hannah More, author of The Fatal Falsehood. Each accused the other (on extremely flimsy pretexts) of having plagiarized plot elements, and the brief and fruitless exchange turned into an excuse for other parties to demean women playwrights in general. Cowley fared slightly better with her short farce Who’s the Dupe (also 1779), and she achieved her greatest success with The Belle’s Stratagem in 1780. The play quickly became one of the most revived pieces of the period, and the ensuing profits solidified Hannah Cowley’s unorthodox role as the family’s breadwinner. A few years later, a family patron arranged for better–paying work for her husband as a captain in the East India Company. Thomas Cowley departed for India in 1783, leaving Hannah to take care of their children, and he remained abroad until his death in 1797.
Over the course of her career, Cowley authored thirteen plays, including two tragedies; eleven were published. She drew heavily from Restoration comedy and adapted plays by Aphra Behn, Susanna Centlivre, and Molière. Cowley’s female characters often prove particularly active in the machinations of the plot, granting the playwright space to explore women’s agency, the structures and strictures of marriage, and the role of women’s education. Cowley also proved a sharp satirist of society and pedantry. She struck a particular chord with audiences by imbuing many of her plays with a strong sense of nationalism, a highly successful technique during an age when the weary English, saddled with a burgeoning national debt, were stumbling through wars with both France and the American colonies. Nevertheless, Cowley’s works frequently attracted controversy, often ignited less by the writing itself than by the gender of the author. Her 1786 play A School for Greybeards was derided as indecent on account of a relatively mild sexual innuendo in the last scene; critics slammed A Day in Turkey (1791) as “tainted with politics” because Cowley included a French valet who jokes about the French Revolution. In her later plays, Cowley turned from Restoration models toward more a sentimental mode of playwriting. She ceased writing for the stage in 1794 and retired to Tiverton in 1801, where she continued to compose poetry. During the years before her death in 1809, she revised her plays for publication in a collected works. These extensive edits were literary rather than theatrical in nature; Cowley, who despite her unorthodox life had always nursed a conservative streak, sought to tame some of her earlier writing and to invest her scripts with a more serious moral tone. The plays in various versions continued to receive productions throughout the 19th century, and they were known to prominent women writers both of Cowley’s time and after, including Elizabeth Inchbald (who performed in and wrote criticism on Cowley’s works) and Jane Austen.
Cowley Bibliographical Sources
- Anderson, Misty G. Female Playwrights and Eighteenth–Century Comedy: Negotiating Marriage on the London Stage. New York: Palgrave, 2002.
- Bolton, Betsy. Women, Nationalism, and the Romantic Stage: Theatre and Politics in Britain, 1780–1800.Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
- Choudhury, Mita. “Gazing at His Seraglio: Late Eighteenth–Century Women Playwrights as Orientalists.” Theatre Journal 47 (1995): 481–502.
- Cowley, Hannah. The Works of Mrs. Cowley: Dramas and Poems. 3 vols. London, 1813.
- Cowley, Hannah. The Works of Mrs. Cowley, 1813: Women Writers Project First Electronic Edition. 1999. Brown University. 15 August 2002. <http://www.wwp.brown.edu/texts/cowley.dramas.html>.
- Donkin, Ellen. Getting into the Act: Women Playwrights in London, 1776–1829. New York: Routledge, 1995.
- Escott, Angela. “Critical Introduction to Hannah Cowley’s The Runaway.” British Women Playwrights around 1800. Ed. Thomas Crochunis and Michael Eberle–Sinatra. 15 July 2000. Stanford University. 9 September 2002. <http://www–sul.stanford.edu/mirrors/romnet/wp1800/essays/runaway_intro.html>.
- Gagen, Jean. “The Weaker Sex: Hannah Cowley’s Treatment of Men in Her Comedies of Courtship and Marriage.” The University of Mississippi Studies in English 8 (1990): 107–116.
- Isikoff, Erin. “Masquerade, Modesty, and Comedy in Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem.” Look Who’s Laughing: Gender and Comedy. Ed. Gail Finney. Langhorne, PA: Gordon and Breach, 1994.
- Lock, F. P. “The Belle’s Stratagem, 1780–1903.” Book Collector 23 (1974): 537–546.
- Norton, J. E. “Some Uncollected Authors XVI: Hannah Cowley, 1743–1809.” Book Collector 7 (1958): 68–78.
- Rubik, Margarete. Early Women Dramatists, 1550–1800. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
- Stanton, Judith Phillips. “’ÄòThis New–Found Path Attempting’: Women Dramatists in England, 1660–1800.” Curtain Calls: British and American Women and the Theater, 1660–1820. Ed. Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1991.
Hannah Cowley Bibliography
- Cowley, Hannah. The Works of Mrs. Cowley: Dramas and Poems. 3 vols. London, 1813.
- Cowley, Hannah. The Plays of Hannah Cowley.Frederick M. Link ed. New York: Garland Publisher, 1979.
- Choudhury, Mita. “Gazing at His Seraglio: Late Eighteenth-Century Women Playwrights as Orientalists.” Theatre Journal 47 (1995): 481-502.
- Escott, Angela. “Critical Introduction to Hannah Cowley’s The Runaway.” British Women Playwrights around 1800. Ed. Thomas Crochunis and Michael Eberle-Sinatra. 15 July 2000. Stanford University. 9 September 2002.
- Gagen, Jean. “The Weaker Sex: Hannah Cowley’s Treatment of Men in Her Comedies of Courtship and Marriage.” The University of Mississippi Studies in English 8 (1990): 107-116.
- Lock, F. P. “The Belle’s Stratagem, 1780-1903.” Book Collector 23 (1974): 537-546.
- Norton, J. E. “Some Uncollected Authors XVI: Hannah Cowley, 1743-1809.” Book Collector 7 (1958): 68-78.
- Stanton, Judith Phillips. “‘This New-Found Path Attempting’: Women Dramatists in England, 1660-1800.” Curtain Calls: British and American Women and the Theater, 1660-1820. Eds. Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 19