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Playing for All in the City

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article


Journal publication date10/2010
JournalFeminist Review
Number of pages16
Original languageEnglish


English women’s drama was crucially shaped by the city between 1660 and 1705, the period when female actors and playwrights first entered the professional theatre. This article uses selected scenes from the comedies of Elizabeth Polwhele, Aphra Behn and Susanna Centlivre to examine how women coped with the high-risk strategy of participating in commercial theatre and the vast circulation of trade which grew up around the City, a flamboyant sign of high capitalism. On one hand, the city represents movement, a crossroads of possibilities in which to redefine female agency. In plays such as The Rover, The Frolicks and The Gamester, female dramatists script movement across the city in a way that pre-empts De Certeau's model of ‘walking the city’ as a way for female characters and actors to inhabit public spaces of their own. On the other hand, scenes in these plays critically interrogate Raymond Williams’ classic distinction between discursive constructions of the city and the countryside in which the city’s blatant expose of social and economic processes is associated with dirt. The contaminating pollution is feminised in the trope of actress, playwright and whore. Actresses and playwrights were ‘playing for all’ in more than one sense, and gambling exemplifies the risks involved for women attempting to manipulate the urban and theatrical locations that attempted to commodify them.