Is it possible that the eighteenth-century stage offered more adventurous female possibilities than our own can imagine? Or is it that we can’t imagine that they imagined them?
These questions run through my mind nearly every time I see an eighteenth-century play on stage—or as the public radio commercial for the recent Folger Theater production of R. B. Sheridan’s School for Scandal would have it, a “Restoration comedy.”
First let me say that there were some very wonderful moments, fine acting, and astute theatrical decisions in this production. The cast nailed the “screen scene,” in which the hypocritical Joseph Surface hides Lady Teazle behind one panel while her elderly husband peeks out from behind another, only to have Joseph’s rakish brother Charles expose the lady (and her would-be seducer) in this compromising situation. Kate Eastwood Norris brought exactly the right balance of ambition, provincialism, and good-heartedness to her Lady Teazle.
Undermining this otherwise successful production was the decision to cast a man in the part of Lady Sneerwell. Apparently, skilled actresses over 35 are in such demand that none were available. Gender-blindness was not the point, for the production opens with a wigless and topless Sneerwell enjoying a massage from Snake. Why does the original Gossip Girl, who controls all the reputations in London, become a transvestite male in the Folger production?
The most obvious possibility is an attempt to get some mileage out of eliding the eighteenth century with the nineteenth century, setting the play in “the time of Oscar Wilde” when “the veneer of respectability covers the hidden depth of scandal” (Director’s Notes). If you are setting a play in the time of Oscar Wilde, why not turn one of the female characters into a gay man? Directors often think that Restoration and eighteenth-century plays aren’t funny enough, and add things to make them more contemporary. Sometimes such ideas work and sometimes they don’t.
But I have a darker theory. With Lady Sneerwell, Sheridan recalls the figure of the powerful, sometimes embittered, and always sexually experienced women who appeared regularly in the period’s earlier, less sentimental comedies that Sheridan admired. They include such memorable characters as Mrs. Loveit from The Man of Mode, the Fidget ladies in The Country Wife, Lady Wishfort in The Way of the World, Betty Frisque in The Countrey Wit, Mrs. Turnup in The Morning Ramble, Mrs. Jilt in Epsom Wells, and Angellica Bianca in The Rover. These women attempt to turn neglect into power and/or pleasure, with varying degrees of success. Unlike these earlier figures, however, Lady Sneerwell embraces an alternative to sexual maneuvering: gossip. While The School for Scandal, like The Rover and The Man of Mode, ultimately expels its dangerous amazon, she offers an intriguing alternative to the virginal, rumor-adverse Mariah. (If a director really wanted to challenge the audience, why not Mariah as a gay transvestite man?) Contemporary readers and directors find these disreputable female characters puzzling because they do not comport with popular images of pre-1900 female gender constructions. Yet it also seems possible that the Restoration- and eighteenth-century theaters imagined possibilities for women that lie beyond the scope of the contemporary scene.