“All I know is whatever we do – it must be twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily that’s not difficult.”
In 2018 the discussion around the representation of female writers is still ongoing. There have been recent campaigns for equal representations in screenwriting, writing for stage, musical theatre and in the commercial West End. Just this month, Frances McDormand used her victory speech at the Oscars to champion the stories that women tell, and how urgently they need to be told.
In this context, it’s somewhat bittersweet to discover sparkling, feminist comedies like The Belle’s Stratagem from some 240 years ago, which promised a bright future for female playwrights everywhere. Hannah Cowley wrote The Belle’s Stratagem as a rebuke to many of the other Restoration comedies (including The Beaux’ Stratagem, a play that focused on men fooling young and wealthy women). Women are front and centre of The Belle’s Stratagem and in this case, they are the ones fooling the men. Despite being received exceptionally well on its debut in 1780, the play was pulled from regular performance and rarely seen over the next few centuries. This makes it all the more cheering to discover it as part of David Greig’s diverse second season at the Royal Lyceum Theatre.
The Belle’s’ Strategem follows the attempts of Letitia Hardy (Angela Hardie), a young woman of great intelligence and standing in Edinburgh, to attract the attention of her betrothed, a wealthy and handsome man named Doricourt (Angus Miller). Having recently travelled through Europe he declares Scottish women dull and disinteresting much to Letitia’s dismay. Not satisfied with marrying a man who doesn’t love her, Letitia comes up with a plan to trick him into adoration. Meanwhile, the newlywed Lord George Touchwood (an excellent Grant O’Rourke) is trying to protect his young wife from the “fashionable” ways of the other Edinburgh ladies, who are in turn determined to turn her into a more modern woman.
Director Tony Cownie has taken Cowley’s script and transposed the setting from the original London to Edinburgh, as well as modernising the language in many places in order to clarify much of the eighteenth-century humour. The result is a sharp, funny and ever-relevant script that has as much sting in 2018 as it did when it premiered over two centuries ago.
As Letitia, Hardie is compelling and wildly entertaining. Letitia’s desire to be respected and her confidence in her abilities earn the audience’s sympathy, and Hardie relishes in some of the best lines of the production. Rather than functioning as the prize – as was the norm for women in many Restoration comedies – Letitia’s character is that of the heroine of the piece with an overarching aim: a happy marriage with a worthy husband. She is supported in her plans by her father, the Provost (Steven McNicoll, with the best costume change of the night) and the witty, fast-living Lady Racket, played with waspish glee by Pauline Knowles.
Lady Racket also plays a crucial part in the other half of the story, surrounding the newlywed Touchwoods. While Letitia’s story has echoes of other comedies (the tricking scenes bring Benedict and Beatrice to mind), the Touchwoods’ marriage offers a very different dynamic. Lord George is a petty and jealous husband who can’t bear to share his wife’s affections with anyone – or anything – else. To a modern eye, his behaviour borders on emotional manipulation at times and it is fortunate that Lady Frances Touchwood (played by a superb Helen Mackay) is stronger than she initially appears otherwise what is intended as a light comedy could run into some morally dubious areas. Instead, with some judicious direction from Cownie, Lord George’s behaviour is no match for the wit of Lady Racket and her fellow merry widow Lady Ogle (Nicola Roy), and Lady Frances is ushered into the fashionable and cosmopolitan world of 1780s Edinburgh.
In fact, it is the Touchwoods’ marriage which provides thought-provoking material for modern audiences. In a society that is changing fast, Lord George bemoans the lack of pure and unspoiled women (does this sound familiar?) while being reminded that his views on marriage are “positively primeval”. At the time of Cowley’s writing, ideas around marriage were shifting and Cowley was a forerunner of first wave feminists in examining the potential oppression of married women. It is clear, humour aside, that Lady Frances is restricted from education and society by her husband’s insecurities. It is only by her own determination that she is able to experience the many opportunities open to her. The Belle’s Stratagem simultaneously celebrates marriage and at the same time critiques it for its shortcomings – it is not a coincidence that the most satisfied, powerful and entertaining characters are Lady Racket and Lady Ogle, widows who have been freed of their late husbands’ control.
All of this action is set against a simple but thoughtful set which evokes New Town Edinburgh in all of its early glory – there are wry local references to St Andrew’s Square, the (non-existent) charms of Old Town and even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mention of Bonnie Prince Charlie (perhaps cashing in on renewed interest in the cultural wake of Outlander). The costumes, by contrast, are bright and attractive, and greatly assist in establishing the cheerful tone of the story. Despite the modern language and enlightened attitudes, the design of the production places it firmly in the 1780s, eschewing the modern-dress productions favoured by many theatres in recent years. This works to its advantage – the words of the characters ring with enough meaning to move the audience; there is no need to underscore the story’s modern relevance through visual means.
Overall this is a triumphant production of an excellent play. So why has it not been performed more often? The story of Hannah Cowley’s career may sound painfully familiar to some. She was assisted by David Garrick early in her career and wrote many of her plays at his encouragement. Despite the resounding success of The Belle’s Stratagem, when Garrick was replaced as manager of Drury Lane his replacement did not support Cowley and her plays fell out of circulation. She was forced to water down many of her sharper plays to fit later audiences and it took two centuries for them to be rediscovered and displayed to their full potential in a large theatre. Her place as a key part of Restoration Literature has largely been forgotten.
Recently, leading playwright Camilla Whitehill spoke of the uphill struggle she faced to see her plays performed in large theatres despite strong critical and commercial performances. Perhaps Cowley might have been cheered to know that other women are still fighting her battles. Or maybe she would be dispirited to know that over two hundred years later, her battles aren’t won.
Written by Hannah Cowley, adapted by Tony Cownie. The Belle’s Stratagem continues at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh until 10 March. Find out more about the production here.
 BBC Website, “Women TV writers ask, where are all the women TV writers?“, BBC Entertainment and Arts, 28th February 2018.
 Lyn Gardner, “In 10 years nothing has changed for female playwrights – it’s time to act”, The Guardian, 28th April 2015.
 Giverny Masso, “Exclusive: Male writers outnumber women 9:1 in British musicals”, The Stage, 6th July 2017.
 Tonic Theatre, “What We Learned”, Advance 2014, May 2014.
 For further reading on Hannah Cowley, see Mary De La Mahotiere, Hannah Cowley: Tiverton’s Playwright and Pioneer Feminist (1743-1809), Devon Books, 31st August 1997
 Camilla Whitehill, “Female playwrights have a rubbish time – the industry needs a reset”, The Stage, 13th September 2017. https://www.thestage.co.uk/opinion/2017/camilla-whitehill-female-playwrights-rubbish-time-industry-needs-reset/)