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ONLINE BENEFIT READING

THE CONVENT OF PLEASURE

by Margaret Cavendish
Recorded LIVE on Monday, March 14, 2022
Stream expired March 18, 2022

Presented in collaboration with

 R/18 COLLECTIVE

Leadership support provided by

ART LAB | MEG FOFONOFF &

THE CENTER FOR THE ARTS IN SOCIETY AT CARNEGIE MELLON UNIVERSITY

A Play by Margaret Cavendish
Directed by Kim Weild
Featuring Heidi Armbruster, Becca Ayers, Talley Gale, Cloteal Horne, Anthony Michael Martinez, Rami Margron, Maria-Christina Oliveras, and Josh Tyson

When Lady Happy and her friends decide to ignore society’s expectations and consciously choose to avoid men and marriage, they seclude themselves inside a free-thinking and joyous community, creating a radical feminist utopia: the Convent of Pleasure. Cavendish’s 17th-century play imagines a space established by and for women to live for pleasure without men. But when a mysterious Princess comes to join the convent, a "princely brave woman truly, of a masculine presence," the paradise of the enclave shakes. 

 

First published in 1668, The Convent of Pleasure was written as a closet drama–a play intended to be read rather than performed. In its 354 year history, there have been very few public presentations and we are delighted to provide this opportunity to hear Cavendish’s play read aloud with the support of R/18 Collective.

VIEW PROGRAM

This event will premiered LIVE on Monday, March 14, 2022.

A VIDEO ON DEMAND of that livestream was available until Friday, March 18, 2022 at 7:00 PM EST only. 

This benefit reading is Pay What You Can. All of our current online-only programs are free. But this is only possible through the support of people like you. Please consider reserving your ticket with a tax-deductible donation.

 
AN INTRODUCTION
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PANEL DISCUSSION  
THE CLOSET OR THE STAGE?

A Conversation about Margaret Cavendish’s
The Convent of Pleasure

LIVESTREAM RECORDING
Recorded March 7, 2022

Four experts on early modern British literature, theater and culture talk about Margaret Cavendish, a 17th-century polymath and aristocrat who wrote, among many other things, the closet drama, The Convent of Pleasure. GET DETAILS

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BULL SESSION | THE CONVENT OF PLEASURE

LIVESTREAM  RECORDING
Recorded March 17, 2022

An interactive discussion of the play and its themes with director Kim Weild, noted scholars, and members of the company. 

THE CAST
 

CAST OF CHARACTERS

MADAME MEDIATOR | Heidi Armbruster

SERVANT TO LADY HAPPY/M. FACIL | Becca Ayers

LADY VIRTUE/M. ADVISOR | Talley Gale

LADY HAPPY | Cloteal Horne

TAKE PLEASURE/AMBASSADOR | Anthony Michael Martinez

PRINCESS/PRINCE | Rami Margron

LADY AMOROUS | M. COURTLY | Maria-Christina Oliveras

DICK/MIMIC | Josh Tyson

PRODUCTION TEAM

Director | Nathan Winkelstein

Zoom Coordinator | Victoria Gelling

OBS Manager | Jessica Fornear

Producing Director | Nathan Winkelstein

General Manager | Sherri Kotimsky

ABOUT THE PLAY

Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure is a play that envisions a female utopia. When the play begins we learn that the main character Lady Happy has just inherited a large sum of money from her father’s death, and immediately four male suitors, Monsieurs Take-Pleasure, Advisor, Facile, and Courtly, plot marriage for control over this vast fortune. Lady Happy, however, decides that rather than give up her money and power, she will found a Convent of Pleasure, a women-only retreat that, despite calling itself a “Convent”, will be devoted not to religious observance but to broadening the realm of female experience: women will act out plays, talk about philosophy, and form female friendships apart from the world of romantic and sexual coupling. The Convent is not just a social or political experiment, however. We learn in Lady Happy’s long justification in Act 1 that it is grounded in a philosophy of nature that aligns the pleasures of a personified Nature with religious belief. In this philosophy, anything that causes our bodies pleasure cannot be unnatural.

 

Of course, the plot itself will immediately press on and complicate this “naturalness” of bodily and mental pleasures. The suitors, assisted by the go-between Madam Mediator, scheme about how to break into the Convent, and stress how unnatural it is to separate the sexes. The Convent will be visited by a foreign Princess who presents as masculine and who often dresses up in male apparel to “pretend” to court the Lady Happy; the same-sex attraction that Lady Happy feels for the Princess causes her to question the boundaries between the natural and the unnatural. The play seems to end in a very different place from which it started; does this departure show the ideals described in Act 1 to be unworkable in reality? Or are we meant to see in the dissolution of this secular convent a warning about the specific kinds of pressures that will be brought to destroy such utopian feminist ideals? There is some difficulty in answering even the fairly straightforward question: does The Convent of Pleasure have a happy ending?


Formally the play is also very complicated. Though it is divided into acts and scenes, it is very different than many other early modern plays, especially those of Shakespeare, written for the public stage. Cavendish herself notes her very different approach to dramatic form in the numerous prefatory essays to her first collection of plays published in 1662. Convent of Pleasure, like all of Cavendish’s plays, is a closet drama, meaning it was written with no real intention for it to be staged publicly (though many closet dramas were acted out in households and private spaces). She seemed to find it both frustrating and liberating to not write for the public stage: frustrating in her lack of an audience, liberating in her ability to do things with dramatic form that went well beyond the norms of typical staged drama. And those dramatic norms are thoroughly violated in The Convent of Pleasure, the vast majority of which is made up of things that are not dramatic action: interpolated songs, long philosophical speeches on the nature of pleasure, and numerous plays within plays. The middle of the play gives us an explosion of small micro-scenes (acted out by the members of the Convent) depicting the unhappinesses of childbirth, families, and marriage. The play’s disruptive form, alongside this explosion of micro-scenes depicting the miseries of marriage, both work to make the ending of the play (which shows a marriage) all the more unstable—the play’s disruptive form invites us to reconsider its content.

ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT

Margaret Cavendish (née Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle (1623–1673) was an early modern poet, playwright, philosopher, and polymath whose interests were as numerous as the genres in which she wrote. She served as a lady-in-waiting for Queen Henrietta Maria and spent much of her adult life in exile on the Continent during the English Civil Wars. Across the genres in which she wrote, her works take up questions of nature and what is natural—including speculation on whether women are “naturally” subordinate to men, or whether their subordination is a social and historical accident. Her plays often feature women protagonists and center on questions of women’s rights and abilities. Though her drama was never performed on the public stages of London during her lifetime, she was deeply engaged with theatricality and theatrical traditions: she attended theatrical performances in both London and Antwerp, as well as being involved (and possibly acting) in the masques of Henrietta Maria’s court. She also wrote the first critical essay on Shakespeare’s plays, satirized the public stage in her most famous novel The Blazing World, and wrote self-reflective essays comparing her dramatic techniques to those of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. 

Liza Blake (she/her/hers)

Associate Professor of English, University of Toronto

Associate Professor of English and Drama, University of Toronto Mississauga