Improving Hannah Cowley
2011, in London at least, has turned out to be a good year for – of all things – eighteenth-century drama.
Mind you, it only takes three productions to make it a good year for eighteenth-century drama: The Beggar’s Opera at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, The Rivals at the Barbican and now, in a more courageous move, The Belle’s Stratagem by Hannah Cowley at the Southwark Playhouse (smartly tucked away under a railway near London Bridge).
Cowley’s comedy of 1780 is a lively variation on Goldsmith’s She Stoops To Conquer, in which the English heroine, Letitia Hardy, is promised in marriage to a young man called Doricourt, who comes back from the Continent in love with Continental sophistication and convinced that no Englishwoman could possibly match it. Letitia’s “stratagem” is intended to prove him wrong, hilarity ensues, etc.
The Southwark production has been well received. The theatre critics have praised its considerable charms, and called it well conceived, or even unmissable. And if the “perfunctory” sub-plot is disappointing, there is some consolation in a fine supporting turn by Christopher Logan, the Kenneth Williams de nos jours. There are equally fine turns from Gina Beck (as Letitia), Robin Soans (as the belle’s father), Maggie Steed and Jackie Clune (these last two forming a mischievous and witty double act), among others – as well as some exuberant musical moments, good, clear direction by Jessica Swale and high production values.
It’s a pity that a couple of critics have repeated the misinformation (from a rogue press release?) that the original production of the play was closed down by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. From memory, I’d say that’s unlikely, as Sheridan was playwright-manager of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane at the time, and The Belle’s Stratagem was first staged at Covent Garden. So this may be one of those convincing myths (with a famous name attached, and hints of jealousy and sexism) that unfortunately gets repeated into truth . . . .
But the other thing the critics seem to have missed was actually on stage. The fourth act of The Belle’s Stratagem is dominated by a masquerade, through which weave most of the play’s characters in disguise, as the occasion demands. Cowley has Letitia’s father rather ineffectually attempting to meddle in her cunning plans for teaching Doricourt a lesson, by disguising himself as “cunning little Isaac” – ie, as Isaac Mendoza, a character in Sheridan’s highly popular comic opera The Duenna. The meta-theatrical in-joke for Cowley’s audience was that Letitia’s father was played by John Quick, the short comic actor who also played Mendoza. When it came to the Belle’s Stratagem masquerade, Quick would therefore be borrowing a (perfectly fitting) costume from himself.
In the current revival, however, Letitia’s father Mr Hardy decides to go to the masquerade as a fine lady. There aren’t really any “hilarious consequences” to this, as Mr Hardy’s role in the scene is fairly small, but cutting “little Isaac” from the masquerade also means cutting lines directed at him by his fellow masqueraders, such as “Why, thou testy little Israelite!” and “Look at this dumpling Jew!”.
Presumably, it was thought, a modern audience would be more comfortable with the cross-dressing. And it’s thematically justified by the play’s forthright commentary on male assumptions about how women should behave. But it means that in one significant respect, this isn’t The Belle’s Stratagem familiar to late eighteenth-century audiences.
I don’t mean to suggest that theatre-makers now should respect play-texts by not altering them at all – on the contrary, The Belle’s Stratagem at Southwark shows how a revival can also be a sensitive adaptation of the original. But why so silent about it? (There is no note about it in the programme.) Would it spoil the production’s claim to be a landmark rediscovery?