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FIRST 100 YEARS: The Professional Female Playwright

Judith Bailey

Judith Bailey

Joanna Baillie (1762 – 1851)

“A play certainly is more perfect for being fitted for the stage as well as the closet, and why should not I aim with all my strength to make things as perfect as possible, however short I may fall of the mark? … Don’t you therefore find fault with me, or encrease the number of those who are for quietly setting me aside as a closet writer. I will still go on, having my drums & my trumpets, & my striking situations, & my side scenes & my back scenes, & all the rest of it in my mind, whilst I write, notwithstanding all that you can say to the contrary.” 12 December 1804, from a letter to her friend, William Sotheby

Readings (in August – October 2003):
Guest Curator & Dramaturg: Maxine Kern

THE ELECTION Directed by Mallory Catlett
At The McNally Auditorium, Fordham University, Lincoln Center Campus
(Columbus Ave at the corner of 60th St) on Friday, August 1, 8:15 p.m.
FREE but reservations a MUST!
RSVP Email:duchessofnewcastle@yahoo.

THE TRYAL Directed by Meghan Beals Presented byPearl Theatre Co.
At Theatre 80, 80 St. Mark’s Place, (Btwn 1st and 2nd Aves.)
Directions: Nearest subways: N/R to 8th St., 6 to Astor Place, L to First Avenue, F to 2nd Ave.
RSVP 212-505-3401 x21 on Saturday, August 2, 2003 at 2 p.m.

COUNT BASIL Directed by Leslie Jacobson, Horizons Theatre, Washington,DC At The Fordham Theater Fordham University, Lincoln Center Campus
(Columbus Avenue at the corner of 60th Street)
In conjunction with the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR) Conference
on Sunday, August 3, 2003 at 3:30 to 6 p.m.
FOR Special First 100 Years Discount Tickets $15 // $12 Students and Seniors (cash only!) Please reserve by emailing us at:
Afterwards , there will be a formal panel discussion, “Producing Baillie” moderated by scholar Catherine Burroughs from 6:15-7:30 p.m.



THE FAMILY LEGEND Directed by Gwynn MacDonald of Juggernaut Theatre Co. on Monday, October 27th, 2003 at 6:30 p.m. at The Drama Book Shop (250 West 40th Street, betw. 7th & 8th Aves) RSVP 212 944 0595 x417. Join us afterwards for a First 100 Years Series reception upstairs at 8 p.m. to celebrate an amazing year of accomplishment!

“Scotland, or North Britain, struggles with many natural disadvantages,” wrote Sir John Sinclair in 1784: “The climate is cold, the sky seldom serene, the weather variable, the soil unfruitful, the mountains bleak, barren, rocky, often covered with snows, and the appearance of the country in many places very forbidding to strangers” . Into this physical landscape was born Scottish poet, playwright, and critical theorist Joanna Baillie. Fortunately, the mental landscape, while also variable, was not so barren.

Joanna Baillie was born on 11 September 1762, the twin of a sister who did not survive, to the Rev. James Baillie (1722-1778) and Dorothea Hunter Baillie (1721-1806) in Bothwell, Scotland. The Baillies had just moved there with their other two children, Agnes (1760-1823), who would be Joanna’s lifelong companion, and Matthew (1761-1823), who would become a celebrated London physician; and the children grew up in rural Scotland with their father, a Church of Scotland minister, and their mother, the sister of famous physicians John and William Hunter. Joanna Baillie played outdoors with parish children and nurtured a fertile imagination. Early on, she was a performer and hated the confinement of school and reading. Even as a child she preferred the world of action to the world of the page, and quickly understood that the key to drama lay in performance. Her early associations guaranteed that she would not be pretentious in relationships or about literature, and she would later manifest her populist ideals in her personal life. Her religious education made her charitable, but her critical mind made her later approach to religion tolerant and unconventional.

All her life Baillie was surrounded by intelligent and powerful men, but she did not see herself as subordinate to them. For whatever reason, she rejected marriage and often used her female dramatic characters to speak about its confinement; many of her closest female friends also remained unmarried. She loved her brother Matthew dearly, and she loved Walter Scott in much the same way. Though she was a popular poet and playwright during her lifetime, she was never satisfied with her success, for she knew that successful drama resulted in performance. Baillie had the same ambition as did the famous men around her, but as a woman she had to accept that when it came to publishing her poems or producing her plays she would be both significantly underpaid and underproduced relative to her male counterparts. Baillie was also far ahead of her time in critical understanding and ambition, and her intimacy with the scientific community instilled in her a penchant for experiment��in her case directed at new ways of writing poems and plays.

After her move to London and before her overnight success in 1798 with volume one of A Series of Plays: in which it is attempted to delineate the stronger passions of the mind, each passion being the subject of a tragedy and a comedy,Joanna Baillie published a small volume in 1790 entitledPOEMS; wherein it is attempted to describe CERTAIN VIEWS OF NATURE and of RUSTIC MANNERS; and also, to point out, in some instances, the different influence which the same circumstances produce on different character *. By her account, Poems was composed after at least two failed attempts at drama and after she had finished her tragedy Rayner . This first publication apparently did not meet with much critical success, but it was clearly an antecedent to the more famous Lyrical Ballads. The poems from her early volume later came to be included in her larger and more successful 1840 publication,Fugitive Verses. After the success of her first two volumes of A Series of Plays in 1798 and 1802, followed byMiscellaneous Plays in 1804, Baillie began work on a second edition of Miscellaneous Plays to appear in 1805. At the same time, she was working on her Scottish Highland drama The Family Legend. After Legend‘s successful Edinburgh production in 1810, managed largely by her friend Sir Walter Scott, the playwright commenced volume three of A Series of Plays and her new Metrical Legends of Exalted Characters. The collaboration on performing The Family cemented the friendship between Baillie and Scott. In a letter dated February 1816, she wrote to him to praise his recently published Paul’s Letters to his Kinsfolk but concluded that “it would have been better to have given them not as the letters of a fictitious person” . Scott had asked earlier to see her draft of Metrical Legends of Exalted Characters, so he, in turn, suggested that certain alterations be made to her Columbus. In one of two autobiographical documents, Baillie later explained that Scott had been instrumental in her decision to try her hand at such historical verses. It is difficult, however, to know how much or in what way he may have remade these poems, but Baillie alluded to his revisions to Columbus in a letter from June 1819. He would also ask to see her Legend of Lady Griseld Baillie a few months later. Longman published two editions of the volume in 1821.

Never at rest, Baillie, having finished her Metrical Legends project, was immediately in the midst of a fresh one, this time an edited collection of new poetry. A Collection of Poems, Chiefly Manuscript, and from Living Authors appeared from Longman in 1823, the excitement of its publication dampened by the death of Dr. Matthew Baillie on September 23 of that year. During the difficult period of her brother’s illness the year before, Baillie had been soliciting manuscript poems for a proposed anthology to be sold by subscription. In 1822, requesting unpublished works from most of her author friends, she intended to edit a volume of poetry for the benefit of a needy friend, Mrs. James Stirling, and to call it A Collection of Poems, Chiefly Manuscript, and from Living Authors . Most of her letters from 1822-23 refer to this edition, which contained poems by Walter Scott, Thomas Campbell, the late Anne Home Hunter, Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, George Crabbe, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Samuel Rogers, Felicia Hemans, Anna Maria Porter, Anne Grant of Laggan, Baillie, and many others; and it earned well over ��2,000 with its subscription. Baillie’s letters throughout this task reveal her good business sense, tenacity, critical perception, and tactful editing��she showed no reluctance in returning inferior poetry for revision. Baillie handled the circulation of the completed volume herself and even sent instructions to Longman for its physical distribution to subscribers. The opportunity to engage herself in a work which required only minor creative effort on her part probably gave Baillie the diversion she needed for dealing with Matthew Baillie’s death and with the succeeding gloom that invaded the family. At the same time, it both aided her friend and provided the reading public with a sample of some admirable late Romantic poetry, uniting famous poets with unfamiliar ones. Baillie’s next grief, however, would come with the death of Sir Walter Scott in 1832.

In 1831 and the years that followed Joanna Baillie produced a religious and philosophical work entitled A View of the General Tenour of the New Testament Regarding the Nature and Dignity of Jesus Christ (1831 and 1838), a second edition of A Collection of Poems, Chiefly Manuscript(1832), a three-volume work entitled simply Dramas(1836), and Fugitive Verses (1840). She followed Ahalya Baee: A Poem (1849) with a final collection of her complete works, The Dramatic and Poetical Works of Joanna Baillie, published in 1851 shortly before her death. This “monster book,” as she called it, was edited mostly for her heirs, but it was also one final move to leave her mark as a woman writer. In her final contract with Longman, dated 13 April 1850, the publisher agreed that “Messrs. Longman and Co. shall publish at their own expense and risk The works of Joanna Baillie in one volume,” which indicates that they were hardly afraid of failure at this point in their long years of dealing with the author . After the 1851 first edition, The Dramatic and Poetical Works appeared in two subsequent editions from Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, one later in 1851 and another in 1853.

Joanna Baillie’s life spanned the second half of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth; and she participated in a time of social, political, and intellectual change, prompted by two major revolutions and by major shifts in literary style and focus. A vibrant, intelligent woman confined to a patriarchal world, her legacy lies in her twenty-seven plays, eight metrical legends, dozens of poems, and in hundreds of eloquent letters from which we can formulate a sense of the intellectual society emerging with early Romanticism. Baillie commented on the issues of her time. To assume, as early writers have done, that she was unaware of the world outside Hampstead, or that her life was uneventful and her later years futile is uninformed and critically naive, for Baillie’s later publications and letters reveal a tenacious and ambitious woman who was receiving visits from famous people, publishing Ahalya Baee in 1849, and editing her complete works nearly to the time of her death in 1851 at the age of eighty-eight. However incongruous it may seem, Baillie prevailed as a student of human nature, as a nationalist, as a creative feminist, and as a conservative and religious theorist.

by Judith Bailey Slagle
East Tennessee State University

Slagle, Judith Bailey, ed.
The Collected Letters of Joanna Baillie. 2 vols.
Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1999.

Slagle, Judith Bailey.
Joanna Baillie: A Literary Life.
Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2002.


Play List:
A Series of Plays: on the Stronger Passions, 1798:
DeMonfort, Count Basil, The Tryal
A Series of Plays: on the Stronger Passions, 1802:
The Election, Ethwald, in Two Parts, The Second Marriage
Miscellaneous Plays, 1804 :
Constantine Paleologous; or, The Last of the Caesars, Rayner, The Country Inn, A Family Legend,
A Series of Plays: on the Stronger Passions, 1812:
Orra, The Dream, The Siege, The Beacon
Martyr, 1826
The Bride, 1828

Dramas, 1836:
Vol 1: Romiero, The Alienated Manor, , Henriquez, , The Martyr,
Vol 2: Enthusiasm, The Separation, The Stripling, The Phantom,
Vol. 3: Witchcraft, The Match The Homicide, The Bride


Mallory Catlett / Gwynn MacDonald, Co-Directors,  THE FIRST 100 YEARS

Organized by The Juggernaut Theatre Company


Judith Bailey Bibliography

Judith Bailey

Judith Bailey



  • Slagle, Judith Bailey.
    Joanna Baillie: A Literary Life.
    Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 2002.


  • Baillie, Joanna.
    Plays on the Passions. Peter Duthie ed.
    Canada: Broadview Literary Texts, 2001
  • Cox, Jeffrey ed.
    Seven Gothic Dramas 1789-1825.
    Ohio: Ohio Univ Press, 1994


  • Burroughs, Catherine, ed. Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers. Pennsylvania: Univ of Pennsylvania Press,1997
  • Crochunis, Thomas ed. Joanna Baillie, Romantic Dramatist: Critical Essays. London, New York: Routledge, 2003.
  • Davis, Tracy C. and Ellen Donkin, ed. Women and Playwrighting in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Cambridge UP, 1999.
  • Purinton, Marjean D. Romantic Ideology Unmasked: The Mentally Constructed Tyrannies in Dramas of William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Joanna Baillie. University of Delaware Press, 1994.
  • Slagle, Judith ed. The Collected Letters of Joanna Baillie. 2 volumes. Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1999.

Also, see these lists of books about our featured playwrights: