FRANCES BURNEY'S
THE WOMAN HATER

Monday, April 18, 7:30 pm

Lucille Lortel Theatre

121 Christopher Street

 

Directed by Everett Quinton

 

Featuring Bill Army, Arnie Burton, Veanne Cox, Clifton Duncan, Laura Esterman, Susannah Flood, Emily Gardner Hall, Susan Heyward, Matthew Saldivar, Auden Thornton, Sam Tsoutsouvas, Jenne Vath, Nick Westrate, and more

A co-presentation with  NYU Department of English

The missing link between Sheridan and Wilde, Fanny Burney’s rarely seen proto-feminist satire is a hilarious story of broken engagements, excessive romanticism - and one massively misguided misogynist.

 

Sir Roderick, has turned frantic misogynist for two reasons: he was jilted 17 years previously and his sister had the gall to marry his ex-fiancee's brother. From there Fanny Burney's outrageously witty comedy of manners bursts into life with the introduction of the former fiancee, Lady Smatter, who has turned into a voracious and brain-addled bookworm. With its unforgettable characters and delicious absurdity, The Woman Hater is a lost comic treat.

 

The OBIE Award-Winning Revelation Readings series provides a unique opportunity to hear rarely-produced classic plays performed by many of the finest actors in New York.

 

The Cast:
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT

 

Frances Burney (1752-1840) was an English novelist, diarist and playwright. She was the third of six children of the musicologist Dr Charles Burney. Although she did not learn her alphabet until she was eight years old, she made up for this late start by reading voraciously and by the age of ten had begun writing in a variety of fictional genres. 


Published anonymously in 1778, Burney’s first novel Evelina was an instant success. After her identity as the author was revealed, Burney was embraced by London’s literary elite and won the admiration of many, including Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Samuel Johnson and David Garrick. Although her novel brought her fame and critical approval, Burney, an ardent lover of theatre and opera, yearned to write for the stage. Her first attempt, a satirical comedy about pseudo-intellectual women called The Witlings, was read to a private audience in 1779. Despite being appreciated by those in attendance, both her father and a close family friend, Samuel Crisp, were astonished by the sharpness of the satire. Also anxious that writing for the stage could ruin her reputation, the two men resolved that the play would not find a public audience. 
 

After this disappointment, Burney suspended her playwriting ambitions and focussed on writing novels and detailed journals—genres that were at the time more conventionally female. Her novels were social satires, headlined by strong female protagonists. They influenced many early nineteenth-century authors, including Jane Austen. Despite the genre, these works exhibit Burney’s theatrical inclinations; the scenes are highly dramatic and the dialogue, which often reads like a script, reveals a talent for capturing dialect and the nuances of individual speakers. 

 

Burney tried her hand at drama again later in life, but of the eight plays she wrote only one, a blank verse tragedy called Edwy and Elgiva, was performed during her lifetime. Put on at Drury Lane in March of 1795, the play closed after a single night. Although Burney’s fame continues to rest on her significant achievements as a novelist, several scholars maintain that, if not for the interference of her father and his friend, Burney could have also found great success as a writer for the stage.

 

ABOUT THE PLAY

 

Frances Burney wrote the The Woman Hater between 1796 and 1801. Although the play was never performed in public, Burney drew a cast list of prominent actors from Drury Lane, including Sarah Siddons, the best known tragedienne of the day, as Eleonora. The play shares its title with the 1607 play by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, which also lampoons misogyny. Burney’s play first came to light in 1945 when the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library acquired a collection of her writing. Her plays were published for the first time in 1995. 

 

The Woman Hater is best characterized as a sentimental comedy, but it contains elements of several other genres including gothic drama, farce and comedy of manners. The play shares many stylistic similarities with Burney’s earliest attempt at drama, the satirical comedy The Witlings, as well as plot similarities with her acclaimed novel Evelina. Lady Smatter, the pretentious woman whose constant misquoting of famous authors is the source of much of the play’s humor, is a caricature of the intellectual women of the day, and is most likely a veiled portrait of famous bluestocking Elizabeth Montagu.  However, while The Witlings was almost entirely a stinging satire of the pretensions of literary ladies, The Woman Hater shifts focus and castigates misogyny. In addition to being more sentimental, the later play is also arguably more nuanced. Characters that initially appear despicable or preposterous are, on closer inspection, often also victims of some kind. 
 

Much has happened before the curtains open on The Woman Hater. Seventeen years earlier, Sir Roderick and his sister Eleonora were set to marry another pair of siblings, Wilmot and his sister. Just before their wedding, Miss Wilmot abandons Sir Roderick and marries Lord Smatter, a man who won her heart by courting her in verse. This betrayal by his beloved fiancée transforms Sir Roderick into the woman hater of the title. Despite Sir Roderick’s vows to disinherit her, faithful Eleonora marries Wilmot and the couple flee to the West Indies. However, soon after they arrive, a jealous Wilmot accuses his new wife of succumbing to the advances of a sea captain. Eleonora, distressed, leaves her husband, taking their only daughter with her. Wilmot is kept in the dark about his child’s absence by the nurse who replaces Sophia with her own child. The action of the play begins with a contrite Wilmot’s return to England where he is hoping to leave the girl he knows as his daughter (Miss Wilmot) with his sister (Lady Smatter) so that he can search for his wife and seek forgiveness now that he believes her innocent. Also on the scene is young Jack Waverley (and his father) whom Sir Roderick, in his woman-hating rage, has made promise to remain a bachelor at the risk of being disinherited.

 

TARA MENON

PhD Candidate, NYU Department of English

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