The first comedy written by a woman is finally being staged professionally 400 years after it was written.
The lady with a massive lute and a slightly mischievous twinkle is a pioneer of comedy. Lady Mary Wroth’s play Love’s Victory has a good claim to be the first comedy written by a woman. And now, 400 years after it was written, it is getting its first professional production.
The reason it’s taken 400 years? It was written by a woman.
Lady Mary was a friend of Ben Johnson, one of the foremost poets and playwrights of the age.
The man she had an affair with, William Herbert, was the King’s Chamberlain and the man to whom Shakespeare dedicated his First Folio of plays.
She was also related to the Master of the Revels, the man in charge of entertaining the Royal Court. However, her play could never be performed in public.
“It hasn’t been performed,” says Professor Alison Findlay of Lancaster University, “because a tradition of male critics thought that women’s drama written in the 17th Century was: unperformed; unperformable; not written for performance.”
All that has now been proved wrong by this production staged in the house where the play is thought to have been written in 1618.
Penshurst Place in Kent is the ancestral home of the Sidney family and Lady Mary would have spent time there after her less than satisfactory marriage came to an end when her drunken husband, Robert Wroth, died of gangrene.
And it is where Love’s Victory would have probably been performed. Women were barred from acting in public and the idea of writing a play for public performance was utterly unacceptable.
However, within the confines of an aristocratic household, Lady Mary could stage her own works and probably appear in them as well. The shepherdesses would probably have been played by her female friends and family.
So, is it funny?
The play begins with Venus vowing revenge on all the mortals who have scorned love. She enlists her son Cupid to hit them all with arrows. And so the fun begins.
For the actors playing the various shepherdesses caught up in the drama there was certainly laughter during rehearsals, not bad for 400 year-old jokes.
Much of the comedy comes from the interaction of women swapping intimate stories of their own love lives and recognising the lies and delusions. It’s a Jacobean Love Island just with more poetry and sheep.
So, we have what appears to be the first comedy written by a woman, that would have been played by women for women.
The story’s drama is driven by a woman and the stories and speeches on stage are all based on the emotional lives of women she knew.
It is a literary landmark and it has now finally made it on to the stage in its full costumed splendour.
The performance takes place on Sunday 16 September.