BULL SESSION | THE BELLE'S STRATAGEM
Recorded, February 25, 2021
An interactive discussion of the play and its themes with director Gaye Taylor Upchurch, scholar Dustin D. Stewart, and members of the company. GET DETAILS
Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch
Featuring Cecil Baldwin, Jasmine Batchelor, Mark Bedard, Neal Bledsoe, Lilli Cooper, Peter Jay Fernandez, Santino Fontana, Tony Jenkins, Lauren Karaman, Aaron Krohn, Heather Alicia Simms, and Chauncy Thomas
In this light-hearted comedy of courtship, the knife-sharp Letitia has been betrothed to the foppish Doricourt since childhood, but she fears she is soon to be trapped in a loveless marriage. With the help of the sly Mrs. Racket, the saucy Mrs. Ogle, and country Lady Frances Touchwood – whose sniveling husband is terrified of her discovering city life – Letitia hatches a plan to fascinate her fiancé, ensuring that he knows he is soon to be wed to an equal partner. The women conspire to open the eyes of the men – dancing rings around them at a masquerade ball where mistaken identities ensure joyous resolution. Written in 1780, Hannah Cowley’s rom-com romp is a timeless and triumphant cry for love, decency, and equality.
Download the program book.
Download the character map.
Read the program note.
This event premiered LIVE on Monday, February 22. A recording of the livestream is available until 7:00 PM EDT on Friday, February 26 – then it disappears.
Red Bull Theater wishes to express its gratitude to the Performers’ Unions: ACTORS’ EQUITY ASSOCIATION, AMERICAN GUILD OF MUSICAL ARTISTS, AMERICAN GUILD OF VARIETY ARTISTS, and SAG-AFTRA through Theatre Authority, Inc. for their cooperation in permitting the Artists to appear in this program.
Letitia Hardy | Lilli Cooper
Doricourt | Santino Fontana
Old Hardy | Peter Jay Fernandez
Sir George | Touchwood | Chauncy Thomas
Lady Frances Touchwood | Jasmine Batchelor
Saville | Tony Jenkins
Mrs. Racket | Heather Alicia Simms
Miss Ogle/Kitty Willis | Lauren Karaman
Villers | Neal Bledsoe
Flutter | Aaron Krohn
Courtall | Mark Bedard
Silvertongue, etc. | Cecil Baldwin
Director | Gaye Taylor Upchurch
Original Script Adaptor | Davis McCullum
Producing Director | Nathan Winkelstein
Zoom Coordinator | Betsy Ayer
OBS Coordinator | Jessica Fornear
Drama League Directing Fellow | Emma Rosa Went
Production Intern | Sarah Preston
ABOUT THE PLAY
The Belle’s Stratagem (1780) is a sparkling comedy about the interconnectedness of the country with the city and authenticity with artifice. The playwright’s life illustrates these themes of her art. Born in Tiverton in southwest England, Hannah Parkhouse grew up helping her father manage his bookstore and then married Thomas Cowley, another product of a small-town bookselling family. The couple moved to London and, enjoying the cultural scene, took in some plays. After watching a disappointing comedy the wife boasted to her husband that even she could do better, and he dared her to try. She dashed off a script and sent it to David Garrick, actor, producer, and patriarch of the London stage. He read it and championed it, and The Runaway, which debuted at Drury Lane in February 1776, became a smash hit. But Richard Sheridan, who took over that theater after Garrick’s retirement, was envious of the newcomer’s rapid success and bent on producing his own work rather than cultivating the talent of women writers. He put The Runaway on the shelf and kept undercutting Cowley for years afterward. Although she persisted, writing ten more plays over the next two decades, further controversy dogged her, including accusations of plagiarism and indecency. At every turn, she was reminded that it was painfully difficult for a woman to be recognized as both a serious dramatist and a respectable person. Eventually, Cowley gave up the struggle. She returned to Tiverton in 1801 and set about revising her complete writings and encouraging a new portrait of herself as pious and reserved. In leaving London she appeared to disavow both literary scandal and literary success; she “wore her laurels,” one starchy obituary claimed after she died, “gracefully veiled.”
Yet this strict separation between city and country—one imagined as a space for art and the other a space for morality, one fake and the other genuine—is just the sort of arrangement that The Belle’s Stratagem rejects. In the play’s subplot, it’s because Lady Frances retains her homespun virtue that she needs to remain in town, shining as an example at court. In the main plot, the delightful masquerade scene allows Letitia to put off her traditional English modesty, which her suitor Doricourt has mistaken for blandness, and don a different mask. Her native femininity proves an act, a graceful veil but still a veil, and her true self appears in whatever performance she commits to next. She can, she exults, “be anything—and all!” City values and country values need one another, but both people and nations might become more authentically themselves by deciding to change roles. Given our own nation’s ongoing clash between urban and rural sensibilities, now is a propitious time to bring Hannah Cowley back to the big city after her long retirement in the country. But maybe that’s not the right way to put it. Perhaps she also took the London stage and its masks, truthful because playful, with her as she went back home.
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT
Hannah Cowley (1743–1809), playwright and poet, was born in Tiverton, a town in the southwest of England that owed its prosperity in the eighteenth century to the wool industry. Her father had become a bookseller after being denied a career in the church, and his local connections apparently helped his daughter attain a literary education.
After marrying Thomas Cowley (probably pronounced “Coo-lee”) in 1772, she made her way to London and anonymously sent a script titled The Runaway to David Garrick, the great actor and manager, who was impressed by it and decided to stage the play at Drury Lane. It opened on February 15, 1776, and proved a surprise hit. Later managers were less supportive than Garrick, and the next several years brought Cowley struggles and setbacks, including a public spat with fellow author Hannah More. The Belle’s Stratagem, which opened at Covent Garden in early February 1780, marked a breakthrough and was praised by audiences and performers alike.
Modern critics have noticed that Cowley drew on the precedents of earlier women playwrights such as Aphra Behn (1640–1689). Yet if Cowley admired London’s theatrical past, late in her career she grew leery of its present and future. Annoyed by comedies she saw as increasingly physical and boorish, and perhaps tired of defending herself from ongoing criticism, Cowley returned to her hometown in 1801. Newly widowed, she became active at St George’s Church in Tiverton, outside of which she was buried upon her death in 1809. Her plays, with their dazzling dialogue and delightful characters, remained popular on both sides of the Atlantic for a few more decades, but widespread concern about the respectability of women playwrights—the same obstacle that Behn had faced back in the seventeenth century—gradually caused Cowley’s works to fade from view in the mid-1800s.
–Dustin D. Stewart