Books Magazine

Georgian Playwright Hannah Cowley

By Authoremerylee @authoremerylee

Hannah Cowley Comic Dramatist Giclee Print

Because the Georgian theatre has provided much source material  for our work,  the Georgian Junkies  have decided to do a blog series on the Georgian stage to include prominent actors, actresses, dramatists and their plays.

I chose to begin with Georgian Dramatist Hannah Cowley simply because her biggest hit, The Belle’s Stratagem, has served to inspire two of my own works. In  A BREACH OF PROMISE (written as Victoria Vane), my theme and characters Marcus and Lydia closely mirror that of Cowley’s Doricout and Leticia.  Additionally, my female protagonist, Phoebe Scott,  in A WILD NIGHT’S BRIDE is an actress at Covent Garden who gets her big break by playing the part of the notorious Kitty Willis in this same play when the lead actresses fail to show for a command performance.

Hannah (Parkhouse) Cowley  was the daughter of a Devon bookseller who, having been educated for the church, gave his daughter the benefit a limited classical education. While little else is known about her early life, shortly after marriage, Hannah and her new husband Thomas Cowley moved to London where he held a position with the Stamp Office, as well as working part-time as a journalist and theater critic, eventually becoming an editor for The Gazeteer.

It was after attending a play with her husband that Hannah remarked, “Why I could write as well myself!”  The very next day, she indeed wrote the first act of her comedy, The Runaway, which she sent to David Garrick, actor and manager of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Although Cowley had no professional theater experience—unlike other female dramatists  of her day such as actresses Elizabeth Inchbald and Elizabeth Griffith, and Frances Sheridan, who was married to an actor, Cowley demonstrates familiarity with the performances of various actors in her letter to Garrick:

“The Justice owes his existence in this piece to the comic capabilities of Mr Weston, Bella I drew from Mrs Abington, Harriet from Miss Younge.…” 

She further remarks regarding her initial effort:

‘not as a piece finished for the stage but merely as a thing in which perhaps you may discover some hints which you may have the goodness to encourage me to proceed on.’  She ‘begged’ to be allowed to wait on him in twelve or fourteen days, to hear his opinion of her work. In her dedication to the first edition she acknowledges his contribution: ‘With attention and sollicitude, you embellish’d, and presented it to the world’.

Garrick produced The Runaway  at Drury Lane theatre 15 February 1776 to great success with  17 performances with receipts  above £200 per night for the first 14. The play remained in the theater repertory for seven more seasons and was revived twice more before 1800.  According to records in The London Stage there were 39 performances in this period.

William Hopkins notes in his Diary- “It was received with very great Applause”.  Reviews were positive: “As we have lately been much afflicted with the melancholy fate of theatrical authors, we have a pleasure more than common in the great success of this piece.”  The Critical Review was impressed with Cowley’s “natural untutored genius.” 

Her initial success spurred Cowley to continue writing, with two more plays completed within the year,  Who’s the Dupe? and  Albina,  but her mentor  Garrick had retired. The new theater manager, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, shelved The Runaway for most of the 1777 season but agreed to produce Who’s the Dupe? but delayed its 1779 première until late spring, a disadvantageous time to open a new play. Unhappy with her treatment, Cowley began submitting her work to rival Covent Garden Theatre during which time arose a plagiarism controversy between Cowley and fellow dramatist Hannah More, whose play  Fatal Falsehood’ (1779) produced at Covent Garden,  bore great resemblance to Cowley’s shelved  Albinia.

More wrote a protest to the St. James Chronicle stating  she  “never saw, heard, or read, a single line of Mrs. Cowley’s Tragedy.”  Although More continued to enjoy a brilliant literary career, she never again wrote for the stage and when Cowley’s Albina finally opened on 31 July 1779, at the Haymarket, it was neither a financial nor a critical success.

Cowley continued to write, however, and within the year completed her most popular and enduring comedy, The Belle’s Stratagem, produced at Covent Garden in 1780 and performed 28 nights in its first season, and 118 times before 1800. Although her next effort , The World as It Goes; or, a Party at Montpelier (later titled Second Thoughts Are Best) was a flop, she continued to write seven more plays until 1794, none of which would match her early success. Cowley then turned her hand to poetry under the pseudonym  Anna Matilda but with less success. Her last play, The Town Before You, was produced in 1795. In 1801, Cowley retired to Tiverton, where she spent her remaining  revising her plays out of the public spotlight.

Major plays by Hannah Cowley

The Runaway (1776)

George Hargrave, who is home from college, is overjoyed to learn that Emily, the mysterious runaway whom his godfather, Mr. Drummond, has taken in, is the same young lady he fell in love with at a recent masquerade. Meanwhile, George’s spirited cousin, Bella, helps George’s sister, Harriet, and George’s friend Sir Charles fall in love. George’s designs are threatened when he learns that his father wants George to marry Lady Dinah, a pretentious older lady who is also very rich. When Emily’s father arrives to take Emily back to London, George gives chase and snatches Emily back. Mr. Drummond saves the day by offering the young lovers some of his land so that they can have a fortune of their own.

Who’s the Dupe? (1779)

Granger, a captain, arrives in town to see his lover, Elizabeth. Her uneducated father, Abraham Doiley, has promised her hand to the most educated man he can find, an unappealing but intelligent scholar named Gradus. Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte, who fancies Gradus for herself, persuades Gradus to act more fashionable and less bookish so that he can win Elizabeth’s heart. Doiley is not impressed by the new Gradus; meanwhile, Granger presents himself to Doiley as a scholar so that he can win Elizabeth’s hand. Granger and Gradus square off against each other to see who is the more educated, and Granger wins by using phony Greek that nonetheless impresses Doiley. Gradus is consoled by winning Charlotte.

Albina (1779)

The powerful Duke of Westmorland learns that the gallant young soldier Edward is in love with his daughter, Albina, who is a young widow to Count Raimond. Despite her love for Edward, Albina’s virtue impedes her from agreeing to marry him. Westmorland and Edward persuade her to re-marry because Edward is soon destined to go off to war; she agrees. Editha, who is jealous of Albina, seeks help from Lord Gondibert, Raimond’s brother, who secretly loves Albina. On the eve of the wedding, Gondibert tells Edward that Albina has been unfaithful, and to prove it he disguises himself and allows Edward to spy on him sneaking into Albina’s chamber at night. Edward then calls off the wedding, and the furious Westmorland challenges him to a duel to protect Albina’s honor. Before the duel begins, Gondibert’s elderly servant, Egbert, exposes his master’s lie, and the king banishes Gondibert. Before he leaves, Gondibert vows to kill Albina and then commit suicide. He sneaks into Albina’s chamber and stabs a woman he thinks is Albina, and then he stabs himself. But the woman turns out to be a disguised Editha, who had also stolen into the room. Edward is relieved when the real Albina rushes into the room, and the dying Gondibert asks for and receives her pardon.

The Belle’s Stratagem (1780)

Having returned from his trip to Europe, the handsome Doricourt meets his betrothed, Letitia. He finds her acceptable but by no means as elegant as European women. Determined that she will not marry without love, Letitia enlists the help of her father, Mr. Hardy, and Mrs. Racket, a widow, to turn Doricourt off the wedding by pretending that she, Letitia, is an unmannerly hoyden. Meanwhile, Doricourt’s friend Sir George is being overprotective of his new wife, Lady Frances, who rebels and agrees to accompany Mrs. Racket for a day in the town and a masquerade ball that night. While out at an auction, Lady Frances meets the rake, Courtall, who brags to his friend Saville that he will seduce her. Meanwhile, Letitia’s brazen acting succeeds in dissuading Doricourt from wanting to marry her. All characters converge at that night’s masquerade. The disguised Letitia shows off her charms, bewitches Doricourt and then leaves before he can find out who she is. Courtall, disguised the same way as Sir George, lures the lady he thinks is Lady Frances back to his house. However, Saville has replaced the real Lady Frances with a prostitute who is disguised as Lady Frances is. Shamed, Courtall leaves town. The next day, Doricourt, who has been told that Mr. Hardy is on his deathbed, visits him and reluctantly agrees to marry Letitia after all. Then the disguised Letitia enters and reveals her true identity to the overjoyed Doricourt, who also learns that Hardy was not ill after all.

A Bold Stroke for a Husband (1783)

Set in Madrid, the play tells of Don Carlo, who has fled his wife, Victoria, for the courtesan Laura. Laura breaks off with Don Carlo, but she holds on to the documents that entitle her to his land, a gift he foolishly gave her. We learn that Laura is in love with Florio, who is really Victoria disguised as a young man. Meanwhile, Victoria’s friend Olivia is resisting efforts by her father, Don Caesar, to marry her off to a series of suitors. In desperation, Don Caesar pretends that he will marry and young girl and then send Olivia off to a convent unless she marries right away. Victoria persuades Olivia’s servant to disguise himself as her rich uncle, the original owner of the land that Laura now holds. He convinces Laura that the titles are worthless, so in a rage she rips them up. Victoria reveals herself to Don Carlos, who repents and pledges himself to her again. Meanwhile, Olivia gets married to Julio, the man she wanted all along.

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