Introducing the Female Writing Community
The reopening of the theaters in the Restoration period following an 18-year Puritan ban allowed for a cohort of independent female writers to proliferate. The introduction of women authors to the London theater scene between 1660 and 1710 brought about a new dynamic as to how plays were produced, performed, and received. Arguably, works by female playwrights were not vastly different from their male counterparts in terms of content, genre, or theme. However, the very presence of female authors elicited a wide range of responses - everything from ardent praise to severe censure - from their contemporaries.
One of the earliest professional woman writers to emerge in England, Aphra Behn (c.1640-1689) gained considerable popularity and notoriety as she established herself as an active playwright. In many respects, her literary legacy, including plays like The Rover and The Feign’d Curtizans, paved the way for another generation of women writers to make themselves known by the turn of the 18th century. The season of 1695-96, in particular, heralded a notable influx of several new female playwrights to the London theater scene, including Mary Pix (c.1666-1709), Susanna Centlivre (c.1669-1723), Mary Delarivier Manley (c.1670-1724), Catharine Trotter (c.1674-1749), and the mysterious Ariadne.
These women share a historical and social context, yet their careers varied in length and reception. Pix was an incredibly prolific dramatist, writing 12 plays within a relatively short period (Kelley, "Mary Pix"). Her most popular plays include Ibrahim and The Spanish Wives, both performed in 1696. Considered one of the most prominent female writers after Behn, Centlivre enjoyed more success than her contemporaries and had a long career of 19 plays (Davenport 268). Her later comedies, A Bold Stroke for a Wife and A Busie Body are featured on the Axson Archive. The other three playwrights did not produce as many plays but were no less significant in their contributions to theater. Manley was noted to have incited offense due to their political and/or seemingly scandalous content. Her tragedy The Royal Mischief garnered enough attention to be parodied in The Female Wits (Cuder-Domínguez 82). Trotter on the other hand was known for her highly moralizing tragedies, like The Unhappy Penitent (Kelley, "Catharine Trotter"). Though she only produced five plays during her lifetime, she was heavily involved in philosophical ventures and is known for her essays and letters. And lastly, the poet Ariadne was remained anonymous in the late seventeenth century, this female playwright would publish one soft comedy titled She Ventures, And He Wins in the shadow of Aphra Behn.
Through their works and public personas, these women playwrights became inducted into the repertoire of the London stage as well as theater culture.