Saturday, December 15, 2007

Taking a Shot at a Loaded Canon

I took a long walk with a good friend, and the subject came up of the ways in which canons are constructed. Is there such a thing as transendence in art -- some aesthetic representation that are universally moving?

TS Eliot certainly thought so. As it happens, so did my very famous and well-respected friend.

But is the rest of art more than a wasteland?

The Back Story

I wrote my dissertation on four playwrights that I had found in a volume published by Virago entirely by chance when I arrived early for a lunch appointment.

The playwrights are Susanna Centlivre, Mary Pix, Catherine Trotter, Mary Delariviere Manley, and Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.

I had a feeling that if I hadn't heard of them, very few other people had either. So I decided to see what there was to know.

True But Not Clever

The short version is this:
Male critics had taken these women out of the cannon because of disdain for their sex, their plays, or both.

There was much more information from feminist critics. The problem is that they had also taken the playwrights out of context to lionize them. It was a mixed bag -- 19th C critics who had run out of road projected 19th C theories backward on the 18th and 17th centuries. Their history was bad, and the conclusions were just wrong. 20th C feminist critics projected contemporary literary theory on drama and drama history.

The whole thing was a mess. I decided to simply put these plays back in context to see what happened. Seemed so obvious, really.

Who Knew?

This work was full of surprises. One of the playwrights, Susanna Centlivre, had been performed in regular repertory in England until the end of the 19th C. David Garrick had done his farewell performance in one of her plays. She was a woman of letters yakking it up with the likes of Jonathan Swift.

Why hadn't anyone ever heard of her?

More in the next post.

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