ABSTRACT

Cowley’s challenge to generic hierarchies, unlike Gay’s, was to an extent gendered, for she wrote tragedy when the genre was considered unsuitable for women and she dealt with serious topical issues in shorter miscellaneous theatre forms or a erpieces, which were performed alongside the mainpiece comedy or tragedy as part of the evening’s entertainment in the patent theatres. ese ephemeral forms have been labelled ‘illegitimate’ by theatre historians because they were o en staged

at the non-licensed theatres where performances of mainpiece comedy and tragedy were forbidden.5 Some of these forms were used more o en by female than male writers because they were commercially attractive but of lower status than ve-act comedy and tragedy. Although farce and pantomime were generally avoided by women writers at the end of the eighteenth century because of their association with satire, Cowley attempted these forms with particular success.6 Yet according to the assessment of her contemporaries and some recent critics, this celebrated and successful mainstream comic playwright appears to have eschewed fame as a dramatist and poet, and to have been conservative and conformist. How is this apparent conventionalism and lack of interest in her profession to be reconciled with her experimentation with genre, her criticism of aspects of the political system, her challenge to prevailing perceptions of women and to con ning boundaries, and her raising issues of social inequities in her plays? And what part do the di culties faced by a woman writing for the theatre in this period play in the contemporary construction and recent assessment of her as conformist and unadventurous?