Criticism of Women Writers
The incoming female playwrights during the Restoration elicited the anxieties and disapproval of their male counterparts as well as the audiences of both genders. Much of the criticism was directed to the content and themes of the plays as they were to the character or motives of the playwrights themselves. Aphra Behn, for one, was also the brunt of many political attacks due to her propaganda plays, such as The Roundheads and The City-Heiress (Todd 5). Meanwhile, Catharine Trotter, an advocate of John Locke, was avidly involved in philosophical exchanges that often butted heads with those who challenged Locke’s ideas (Highfill).
In terms of their careers as playwrights, the women authors seemed to anticipate some censure of their pieces on the basis of their sex. Susanna Centlivre is said to have attempted to publish some works anonymously due to the poor opening success of The Busy Body, which was rumored to have been “a silly thing wrote by a woman.” (Rogers 186). In the prologues and epilogue of Trotter’s Agnes de Castro (1696), the playwright asks for a favorable review from theatergoers. Mary Delarivier Manley, on the other hand, responds to the reaction of her female audience members. In the “To the Reader” preface of The Royal Mischief, Manley notes that there had been public criticism of her piece upon its release, especially among the women viewers, who “find the prejudice against our Sex.” Manley seems only apologetic to the extent that the audience may have misunderstood the play as misogynistic. She writes that “the principal objection made against this Tragedy is the warmth of it” – referring to the somewhat scandalous and controversial themes, including incest and sexuality. Manley answered critics by describing the love portrayed in The Royal Mischief as a distinctly feminine and “gentle love... which comes easiest to our Sex.” (Marsden 121). However, this "gentle love" was mercilessly ridiculed in a later piece, The Female Wits.
The most prominent examples of criticism were embodied by the satirical performances. The Rehearsal (1672) by George Villiers, the Second Duke of Buckingham was originally published anonymously. The play aimed to reproach the heroic tragedy genre by satirizing the works of highly esteemed John Dryden and neophyte Aphra Behn. Her first two plays, The Forc’d Marriage (1671) and The Amorous Prince (1671) were mocked, the latter mostly for pretentiousness (Todd 3). It is perhaps no coincidence that Behn eventually directed her attention more on comedies rather than tragedies.
Aphra Behn was no stranger to pieces lampooning her personal life and reputation, and the up-and-coming female writers of 1696 were not exempt from censure. Manley, Trotter, and Mary Pix were quickly attacked in The Female Wits written by an anonymous athor, W.M. In fact, The Female Wits was performed in the same 1695-96 season as many of the plays by these women were, including Trotter’s Agnes de Castro; Pix’s Ibrahim and The Spanish Wives; and Manley’s The Lost Lover and The Royal Mischief. In a parody reminiscent of Villiers' The Rehearsal, W.M. criticized this “Triumvirate” of poets for their superficiality, vanity, and ineptitude. He even made jabs about Pix’s rotundity, sparing no subtlety and naming her satirized counterpart, “Mrs. Wellfed.” Yet of the three women, Manley and The Royal Mischief were condemned the most. The character Marsilia, who parodies Manley, is the quintessential diva, convinced she is can do everything better than anyone. Marsilia's handmaid, Patience, describes her mistress' narcissism: “Nothing but Flattery brings my Lady into a good humour” (W.M. 2).
Such parodies were by no means flattering in their depictions of women playwrights. Yet they were often quite popular. According to the preface of The Female Wits, the play was rather succesful at the time of its release, “having been Acted six Days running without intermission." However, from a broader perspecitve, criticism brought women to the forefront of public attention and may have sparked people’s interest.