“Commanding Eyes”: Female Spectators and the Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Repertoire

Prof. Jean I. Marsden


This paper will consider the role of the women in the development of the theatrical repertoire during the Restoration and early eighteenth century. Beginning with a consideration of the figure of the masked woman, both the actual women described by Samuel Pepys as well as ladies such as Lady Brute in Vanbrugh’s The Provok’d Wife who masked their response with fans, it will examine instances where the power of female theatregoers can be evaluated by the comments, both negative and positive, of specific playwrights.  One such example occurs in William Wycherley's Plain Dealer, in which Wycherley furiously attacks female criticism of The Country Wife (1675), deriding women and complaining that they simply affect the "mask of modesty."  A more positive example of playwrights shaping their plays specifically to appeal to women can be seen in strategies employed by female playwrights such as Mary Pix, who repeatedly evoke their ties to other women in their prologues and prefaces, proudly claiming to write of “Heroines and other sacred things” (The Double Distress, 1701). Even though records from this period are scanty, examination of the evidence remaining demonstrates that female spectators frequently determined the plays that were to be staged on a particular night, revealing the important role women played in establishing the theatrical repertoire.

Jean I. Marsden is Professor of English at the University of Connecticut.  She is the author of Theatres of Feeling: Affect and Performance on the Eighteenth-Century Stage (Cambridge 2019), Fatal Desire:  Women, Sexuality, and the English Stage (Cornell 2006), The Re-Imagined Text:  Shakespeare, Adaptation, and Eighteenth-Century Literary Theory (Kentucky 1995). Other publications include The Appropriation of Shakespeare: Post-Renaissance of the Works Reconstructions of the Works and the Myth   (ed., Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), an edition of Nicholas Rowe’s The Fair Penitent  (Broadview, 2000), associate editor of The Works of Anne Finch (Cambridge 2020), as well numerous articles on Restoration and eighteenth-century theatre and performance.

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