First comedy written by a woman reaches the stage, 400 years late
THE first comedy written by a woman is finally to be staged in public, 400 years after it was completed.
Lady Mary Wroth’s play Love’s Victory, which she wrote between 1617 and 1619, will be performed at Penshurst Place, the house in Kent where she wrote it, tomorrow. The former hunting lodge of Henry VIII is now owned by her descendants, the Sidney family.
In Lady Mary’s day, the idea of women acting in public or producing a play for public performance was strictly forbidden. However, it is likely that Love’s Victory was performed within the grounds of Penshurst Place, where the single complete manuscript of the five-act script resides.
The play starts with Venus vowing revenge on all the mortals who have scorned love, and urging her son, Cupid, to pierce them with arrows. Other scenes show female characters swapping their stories of love and betrayal.
Lady Mary, daughter of Robert Sidney, was the niece of Sir Philip Sidney and Mary Sidney Herbert, both famous
‘It is crucial evidence of women’s engagement with a tradition usually thought of as exclusively male’
writers of the 16th and 17th centuries. She was said to have been friends with Ben Jonson, the poet and playwright, and was rumoured to have had an affair with William Herbert, the king’s chamberlain. Yet despite these connections, and her obvious talent, she could not get her play publicly performed.
That is set to change after a 24-year campaign led by Prof Alison Findlay, of Lancaster University, as part of her “Shakespeare and His Sister” research project which explores the works of Shakespeare and his female contemporary dramatists.
Actors from the Urania Theatre Company will star in the play, which has been directed by Martin Hodgson.
Prof Findlay said: “Love’s Victory is the first extant comedy by an Englishwoman. It is a love story – or a series of intertwined love stories.
Its survival in manuscript form is crucial evidence of women’s engagement with a dramatic tradition that is usually thought of as exclusively male.
“Lady Mary Wroth is one of ‘Shakespeare’s Sisters’, who did not, as Virginia Woolf imagined, perish without leaving a word.”
Two ticketed performances will be held tomorrow, at 2pm and 7.30pm, in the Baron’s Hall at Penshurst, and a film of the play will be put online on the Shakespeare and His Sisters website.