Staging A Revolution: British and American Women in Theatre in the Late 18th Century (1765-1815)

“Look through most contemporary plays,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in 1758, “it is always a woman who knows everything, who teaches everything to men.” [1] One of history’s most pressing questions is what causes change to happen and to succeed. How do various actors within historical drama contribute to that change or, reciprocally, how are they changed by historical events? What I am interested in understanding is how can an examination of period drama, particularly plays written by, acted in and observed by Anglophone women, better inform us about people’s attitudes, interests and concerns during the Revolutionary era, better enlighten our understanding of social and political changes taking place at the end of the eighteenth century, and better inform us historically? As one historian comments, the Age of Revolution can be better imagined by looking “through the eyes of those not in positions of power or privilege” and eighteenth-century theatre, that barometer of the least common denominator of society, provides an excellent platform from which to view change. [2]

I am interested in understanding how theatre was influenced by transatlantic exchanges occurring during the Revolutionary era, particularly how the lives, works and performances of Anglophone women in theatre were transformed. Eighteenth-century theatre was very much an international affair with a longstanding tradition of exchanging plays, actors, and even stage scenes. The first French opera, Cadmus and Hermione, performed in Paris in 1673, soon crossed the channel and made its appearance in front of English audiences. English stage managers imported Spanish plays and German morality plays were popularly translated. Plots, characters, themes, music, scenery, social and political commentary traveled from country to country. Likewise, in order to make a living, most eighteenth-century actors were often not based in one location. Actors traveled from town to town and country to country in search of audiences and they brought popular plays with them. Social and political ideologies crept into plays and were shared transatlantically. Soon theatre established an important and almost immediate transatlantic exchange of people, plays, performances and ideas that flourished during the eighteenth century.

Plays performed in London could be seen on Colonial stages within months of opening night. This exchange was fairly one-sided. Theatre in Colonial America was less developed in the period prior to the American Revolution, where the markets were still too small to support a resident company of players, which made touring inevitable. Plays and actors came from Britain to Colonial America and to the British Caribbean in search of audiences and a chance for success, though few plays written in the colonies before 1800 made their way back to England to be performed on stage. Plays of British women playwrights, however, were highly lauded by audiences in America and the Caribbean, and English actresses achieved greater success outside of England than they might have had at home simply because audiences were told they were English.

It is likely, given the larger number of British women writing, acting in and attending plays compared with American or British Caribbean women, that a particular bias will emerge in the archives potentially giving their plays and performances more complex meaning. This is one of the scholar’s dilemmas when relying on archives to inform—what is discovered in archives can be manipulated in the hands of a scholar to tell a particular story. Yet, what is missing from archives, when handled thoughtfully and cautiously, can also speak volumes. Absences are an important part of these women’s stories as well. Their papers were not saved the same way men’s papers were. Their stories were not published, their journals were not preserved simply because they were women. That does not mean that women’s stories were less important or powerful; it simply means that at the time they were not valued. On the other hand, just because British women traditionally were more involved with literary pursuits and British theatre was far more accepted in British society does not mean that women living in America or the Caribbean did not read, observe or participate in theatre in informed, important ways. They staged private performances, participated in street theatre, reflected their thoughts on public performances in diaries and in letters. Ultimately I hope that by exploring the lives of theatrical women as they exist in archives on both sides of the Atlantic that I can come to a more informed understanding of how Anglophone women involved with theatre helped shape and define their world.

Why Revolutionary era theatre? Theatre during the eighteenth century was one of the most important forms of public entertainment available to all classes of people in the Anglophone world. Because it was publicly performed, drama as an art form (unlike poetry or novels) was most immediately dependent on public approval. Most audiences wanted to see performances drawn from life. Before the nineteenth century, theatre was also the most respected popular literary form used as a vehicle for ideas. Plays connected people with ordinary (and sometimes extraordinary) events. Plays served as moral compasses for audiences and were seen to present important truths and standards of morality. Perhaps because drama is the most public of the literary arts, theatre is, after all, performed for large audiences, it is the most apt to reflect contemporary issues. Thus theatre may be seen as a critical barometer for measuring society.

Drama was meant to contribute to improving society and thus plays often ended with a moral lecture. Many people looked to the theatre to educate the public on moral issues. One British critic announced in 1805 that “Plays are mirrors where mankind may see / How bad they are, how good they ought to be.” [3] Rousseau argued that “the moral effect of the theatre can never be good or salutary in itself” and concluded that

as a consequence of its very lack of utility, the theatre, which can do nothing to improve morals [manners], can do much toward changing them. In encouraging all our penchants, it gives a new ascendancy to those which dominate us. The continual emotion which is felt in the theatre excites us, enervates us, enfeebles us, and makes us less able to resist our passions. And the sterile interest taken in virtue serves only to satisfy our vanity without obliging us to practice it. [4]

Rousseau was not the only critic to recognize theatre’s power over the public. In 1811, another critic wrote, “the theatre possesses the greatest influence over the mind and manners of men.” And in 1815, another wrote that the theatre was “the most powerful moral agent in society” whose “benefits would be unequalled by any other institution.” [5] Elizabeth Inchbald, a popular playwright and actress herself, wrote of Susanna Centlivre’s early eighteenth-century play The Wonder! A Woman Keeps a Secret, “In excellence of fable, strength of character, and intricacy of occurrence, [the play] forms one of the most entertaining exhibitions the theatre can boast.” [6]

Because writing for the theatre was such a very public venture (most plays were staged publicly while novels and poems were often read in private), women who chose to write and stage their plays were often publicly challenged in their efforts to achieve success. Women playwrights were charged with plagiarism if their plays were thought too clever for a woman to have written. They were subject to the whims of stage managers who often tried to take advantage of their position as the “weaker sex” in business dealings. Male actors were known to disrupt performances by encouraging audiences to jeer and hiss. Women, both playwrights and actresses, were sexually harassed, and women playwrights were often expected to give over complete control of their plays to men. The gender divide in eighteenth-century theatre, regardless of whether one was attempting to become a playwright, actor or stage manager, was difficult, though not impossible, to cross. Ultimately, women who did succeed and rose to the top of their profession were rewarded well financially, though usually not as well as their male peers. [7] Likewise, actresses who had met with small success in Britain, could look forward to enthusiastic audiences when they were recruited for acting troops and arrived in Charleston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York; success was handed to them simply because they were advertised to be English actresses direct from the London stage.

Clearly some women were affected by political and social qualities of revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, particularly women born in or living in America. Mercy Otis Warren, often called America’s first female playwright, wrote several plays including The Adulateur in 1772, which derided then Governor of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson and foretold of the American Revolution. Her 1773 play, The Defeat, again denigrated Hutchinson and in 1775, Warren published The Group, a satire conjecturing what might happen if the King of England abrogated the Massachusetts charter of rights. Warren’s works were very political and advocated for “American” rights, but did not advocate for the rights of women. On the other hand, in 1794, Susanna Rowson, then living in Philadelphia, wrote Slaves in Algiers, or, A Struggle for Freedom, a play that advocated the importance of freedom and women’s rights in the New Republic. [8] Sarah Pogson’s 1807 five act drama, The Female Enthusiast, offered a sympathetic portrayal of Charlotte Corday, a French woman guillotined for the assassination of Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat, a man partly responsible for the Reign of Terror. Like Rowson’s work, Pogson’s play looked to define a new American nationalism and appropriate roles for women in the New Republic. In London, Hannah Cowley’s plays, including her popular plays The Runaway (1776) and The Belle’s Stratagem (1780) focus on marriage and women’s abilities to overcome injustices imposed upon them by family and society. Elizabeth Inchbald wrote nineteen comedies, sentimental farces and dramas, most were performed in London theatres and eighteen were published. One of Inchbald’s most popular works, Lover’s Vows, deals with sex and pregnancy outside marriage, though several characters moralize about honour, charity and forgiveness; it was an immediate success, running for forty-two nights. While women wrote only a small percentage of the plays produced in England and America during the late eighteenth century, their works represent an emergence toward strong-willed, independently-minded female characters, who knew both how to defend their honor and laugh at themselves.

While plays women wrote, those staged and published, as well as criticisms and comments about these plays that appeared in newspapers and in private correspondences, provide insights into women’s lives, actresses and their performances also say much about society. The most popular actresses at the end of the eighteenth century were an important part of contemporary popular culture. Actresses were memorialized in tiles, their characters appeared in paintings and etchings, they left journals on their experiences in the theatre. Also, acting was one of the very few professions open to married women in which they could potentially make an excellent living. [9]

By delving into archives I hope to track the transatlantic flow of women’s plays staged and those published, as well as actress performances and audience reactions. Women navigated the stage very differently from men during the late eighteenth century and I believe that the archives will provide clues as to how women worked and succeeded in this male-dominated world. Additionally, I hope to understand how performances, actresses, stages, and published plays become transferred and translated in new locations along with exploring how Colonial American issues shaped playwrighting, performances and audience responses within the transatlantic Anglophone world, particularly issues like slavery, revolution and freedom.

First of all we must ask, who are these women? Where did they live? Who were their influences? What prompted them to write or act in plays? Why did women attend plays, particularly in colonial America where theatre-going was frowned upon? Did any of these women cross paths and if so how influential were they to each other? I hope by looking into archives to give these little known women biographies that locate them in space and time –these specific histories are important in helping to plot a trajectory of theatrical women’s lives between 1765-1815. While studies exist examining the role of American, Caribbean or British women involved in theatre in the late eighteenth century individually and nationally, I have found no comparative studies that examine the experiences of Anglophone women involved in theatre during the Revolutionary era in the transatlantic world. I want to connect these women’s lives. How can archive collections add to the telling of this story? What images, letters, manuscripts, plays, newspaper articles or advertisements, or social critiques do archives hold that shed light on who these women were, how they lived, and how they were important historically? How did they imagine themselves and how did others imagine them to be? What can we find in archives that demonstrate how these women collectively effected historical change?

Archives provide both the expected and the unexpected. They contain playbills advertising women’s plays, tickets to these events, newspaper articles on and advertisements for women’s plays. The National Art Library at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, for example, holds a vast theatre and performance collection including the diaries, letters, manuscripts, and etchings of eighteenth-century theatre women, as well as newspaper clippings and ephemera related to their lives and works. One can expect David Garrick’s Letters to provide clues as to his treatment and encouragement of women as playwrights and actresses. Likewise, Elizabeth Inchbald’s journals and manuscripts allow readers to look for clues as to who she really was, not as a public figure, but as a private woman. The plays of Hannah Cowley, Hannah More, Harriet Lee, Frances Brooke, Elizabeth Griffith and Sophia Lee are all there, along with images of these women and letters about them.

Yet when one digs deeper, one finds treasures. At the Blythe House archive, an extension of the V & A’s theatre collection, is a copy of Hannah Cowley’s Bold Stroke for a Husband with original stage manager marks providing actors with stage directions, and deleted scenes. Other plays such as George Colman’s The Jealous Wife have similar markings along with a timed length of the play at two hours and thirty-seven minutes. These working copies emphasize popular contemporary interest and show interaction with a document, both how someone read it and how that person reshaped it for an audience. It is this process of looking beyond the expected sources into the unexpected sources that adds to our understanding of how Anglo women navigated the world of theatre at the end of the eighteenth century.

Images are another important source helpful for understanding women in theater during this period. Just like journals, letters, and manuscripts preserved for the public, images are not impartial. Images are staged and as such they add to the theatricality of these theatrical women. For example, playwright, actress and theatre critic Elizabeth Inchbald had at least half a dozen images made. Few show her true age, most present her as a beautiful, fashionable woman. What motivated her to have so many images made? Was she marketing herself so that she could sell more books or simply vain? In reading these various images of Elizabeth Inchbald one might imagine that she actively staged her career. Regardless of her personal motivation, Elizabeth Inchbald left behind her images as markers of how she wanted to be remembered, her imagined character, not necessarily who she really was. Likewise, Mrs. Inchbald’s papers, including her journals, were written with the knowledge they would likely be published. Therefore a scholar examining her papers (and her images) must be aware that she was creating a character, an idealized image of herself for public consumption.

Elizabeth Inchbald was not the only one to indulge in this practice. Theatrical images of women were everywhere. Publishers included melodramatic scenes of suffering women in plays and popular actresses such as Mrs Barry, Mrs Abbington and Mrs Yates had their images both as themselves and in character popularly displayed on house tiles and in etchings sold to the public. Likewise, archives contain physical descriptions of actresses such as this for the popular actress, Sarah Siddons;

The symmetry of her person is exact and captivating. Her face is peculiarly happy, and feature being finely formed, though strong, and never for an instant seeming overcharged…Her voice is naturally plaintive, and a tender melancholy in her level of speaking denotes a being devoted to tragedy; yet this seemingly settled quality of voice becomes at will sonorous or piercing, overwhelms with rage, or, in its wild shriek, absolutely harrows up the soul. [10]

Everything from an actress’s hair and figure to her voice and acting ability was scrutinized. The simple act of having their images made required women to stage a performance for the artist as audience and to imagine how they wanted to be perceived. These images in the archives suggest that the more images (and ephemera) these women sold, the more popular they were likely to become and the more popular they were, the more likely they would have multiple images made to be sold to the public. The fact that there are still so many images of these women available in archives means that a lot of these images were made and sold to the public.

Historian David Lowenthal reminds us, “Memory, history, and relics of earlier times shed light on the past. But the past they reveal is not simply what happened; it is in large measure a past of our own creation, molded by selective erosion, oblivion, and invention.” [11] Archives allow us to gather up and reshape various pieces of the story. As scholars we look into archives to collect both the known and unknown, the expected and the unexpected. Somehow, in collecting all these pieces together we learn to make sense of an important historical moment. The variety of accounts presented by Anglophone women playwrights, actresses and audience members in published works and in private correspondences between 1765 and 1815 offer an excellent opportunity to understand how memory, history, and literary tradition shape and influence our understanding of important historical moments. [12] Likewise, an examination of transatlantic exchanges between Anglophone women involved with theatre will help further the discussion of how women’s identities were shaped during this period. Women wrote plays and performed to audiences publicly. Their plays were published and read by women, many of whom also participated in performances as audience members. Ultimately, eighteenth-century theatre provided women with a platform in which to share their complex ideas about self and communal identity, politics, gender, societal changes, Revolution, love, freedom and the intricacies of daily life. Using theatre as a public arena for change, Anglophone women wrote, acted in and interpreted events for public performances in which they shared a variety of ways women might act, behave and be treated in this new Anglophone world. Even if they did not physically engage in revolution, theatrical women’s thoughts and actions were revolutionary. They participated in a male-dominated world, they presented themselves publicly, received public acclaim and risked public shame all during the cultural and social upheaval that took place in the Anglophone transatlantic world during the Age of Revolution. Rousseau was correct when he said that in contemporary plays it was a woman “who knows everything, who teaches everything to men.” Women do have much to teach. Although it is sometimes a struggle to recover the voices and faces of eighteenth-century Anglophone women, even those who wrote and were written about, what we can recover from archives of women’s words, images, and impressions will help us better understand how they lived, what they thought and even literally why they acted the way they did, adding an important historical depth and meaning to the lives and works of these theatrical and often revolutionary women.


1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Politics and the Arts: Letter to M. D’Alembert on the Theatre. Introduced and translated by Allan Bloom (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1960), p. 49.

2. Gary B. Nash, The Unknown American Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 2005).

3. From Fly I (November 27, 1805): 14 as quoted in David Grimstead, Melodrama Unveiled: American Theatre and Culture 1800-1850 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p. 39.

4. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Politics and the Arts: Letter to M. D’Alembert on the Theatre. Introduced and translated by Allan Bloom (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1960), p. 57. Rousseau also argues that “theatre is made for the people, and it is only by its effects on the people that one can determine its absolute qualities” and that the “stage is, in general, a painting of the human passions, the original of which is in every heart.” (pp. 17-18). Likewise, Rousseau believes that plays reflect sentiments of the period and that authors of plays did not write to change sentiments or morals of the audience for an “author who would brave the general taste would soon write for himself alone” (p. 19). Ultimately, Rousseau states that “the general effect of the theatre is to strengthen the national character, to augment the natural inclinations, and to give a new energy to all the passions…its effect being limited to intensifying and not changing the established morals [manners]” (p. 20).

5. From Mirror of Taste, I (January, 1815): 51; Kentucky Gazette (May 12, 1812) and Cynick I (September 18, 1811): 19 as quoted in David Grimstead, Melodrama Unveiled: American Theatre and Culture 1800-1850 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p. 34.

6. In Elizabeth Inchbald, Remarks for The British Theatre (1806-1809), (New York: Delmar, 1990), The Wonder! A Woman Keeps A Secret; A Comedy in Five Acts, p. 4. Mrs. Inchbald was a successful theatre critic, a position almost unknown to women during her lifetime. She wrote introductions to numerous eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century plays, including plays she herself wrote, such as Lover’s Vows. Her comments on theatre reflect her sensibility that plays ought to educate and inform audience members as to the moral and virtuous nature of men and women. At times she denounces bawdy plays that made their way to the stage, though her eighteenth-century sense of what was “bawdy” or inappropriate was likely much more accepting than what we imagine as inappropriate.

7. See Edward A. Langhans, “Tough Actresses to Follow,” in Curtain Calls: British and American Women and the Theatre, 1660-1820, Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski, eds., pp. 3-17.

8. Rowson’s play ends with the heroine, Olivia concluding, "Long, long may that prosperity continue–may Freedom spread her benign influence thro’ every nation, till the bright Eagle, united with the dove and the olive branch, waves high, the acknowledged standard of the world." See Susanna Rowson, Slaves in Algiers, or A Struggle for Freedom (1794). While Rowson’s play enthusiastically cheers on women’s rights, it also uncomfortably presents anti-Semitic and xenophobic sentiments.

9. Although women tended to make less money than men as playwrights and actresses, the potential amount of money a successful actress or playwright could make was comparable with men’s pay. Tiles with images of actors and actresses were a popular way to modernize one’s house; examples of these are displayed in the British Museum, London, and in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. In the 18th- century theatres, concert halls and pleasure gardens were the major forms of public entertainment. Actresses could become contemporary stars and engravers regularly produced images of paintings of the most popular performers. Popular actresses were seen as celebrities and some regularly entertained and socialized with aristocracy and royalty.

10. James Boaden, Memoirs of Mrs. Siddons, 2nd ed. (London: Colburn and Bentley, 1831).

11. David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country, i.

12. While plays may not technically be considered oral tradition because they are a written literary form, not all plays were published and many were lost, including all but one of Susanna Rowson’s plays. In order to recover some of these important moments in history, one must examine how plays were talked about, described in newspapers, critiqued, described in personal correspondences, and referred to in other literary forms such as novels. Likewise, public performances, like lost plays, cannot be recovered, but they can be constructively recreated through the observations of others. One may not know precisely what Elizabeth Inchbald or Susanna Rowson’s voices sounded like or even the quality of their skill as actresses, but one can recover the essence of their work. Although I talk about the Revolutionary Era which includes both the American and French Revolution (1776-1799), my focus for this particular study will be to examine how the American Revolution more directly affected the lives of Anglophone women involved in theatre. Certain comparisons between the American and the French Revolutions are obvious and it is possible that a more thorough discussion of the French Revolution and its influences on both American and British theatre during the 1790s will be necessary in order to understand how ideas of revolution, human rights and freedom were presented to and interpreted by women and how women in turn presented their own thoughts on the matter publicly in the theatre.