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Mary Pix rediscovered: the playwright who ‘held her own’ against patriarchy

Mary Pix, painted y an unknown artist in 1690. Photo: National Portrait Gallery Mary Pix, painted y an unknown artist in 1690. Photo: National Portrait Gallery
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Inspired by Aphra Behn, Mary Pix was among the most popular playwrights on the 17th-century theatre circuit, but fell out of fashion. With her work set to be staged at the RSC, Nick Smurthwaite finds out more

This week a name is being added to the burgeoning roster of women playwrights. Though what is unusual about Mary Pix’s rise to prominence in 2018 is that she’s been dead for more than three centuries.

Her play The Beau Defeated, written in 1700, has been refashioned as The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich and opens at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, tomorrow (March 23). It is directed by Jo Davies, who revived Thomas Dekker’s lost Jacobean comedy The Roaring Girl for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2014.

Despite changing the title to something more in tune with our times, Davies has resisted the temptation to update Pix’s class-ridden comedy of a wealthy widow trying to insinuate herself socially into court circles.

Like all but the most scholarly of theatregoers, Davies had never heard of Pix when the play came to her notice. “It was a no-brainer,” she says of the opportunity to put it on.

“It is so rare to find a play from that period that’s powered by a funny female protagonist. I was immensely surprised by the brilliance of the writing. It is witty and forthright. Pix was writing plays that not only had more women in the cast than men but women who were managing their destinies.”

Pix was born in 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London, and grew up in the culturally rich time of Charles II. With the prolific Aphra Behn (1640-1689) as her role model, Pix burst on to the London theatre and literary scene in 1696 with two plays – one a tragedy: Ibrahim, the Thirteenth Emperor of the Turks, the other a farce – The Spanish Wives. Pix also wrote a novel – The Inhuman Cardinal.

Director Jo Davies
Director Jo Davies

Her subsequent plays, mostly comedies, became a staple in the repertory of Thomas Betterton’s company Duke’s at Lincoln’s Inn Fields and later at the Queen’s Theatre. She wrote primarily for particular actors, such as Elizabeth Barry and Anne Bracegirdle, who were hugely popular and encouraged a whole generation of women writers.

Pix was writing at the same time as William Congreve whose comedy The Way of the World – written and produced at the same time and by the same company as The Beau Defeated – continues to be part of our classical repertoire.

Literary and theatre historian Gilli Bush-Bailey has been unable to find any critical response to The Beau Defeated, but points out that the premiere of The Way of the World was received with disappointment.

She says: “Interestingly, both plays have older women at their centre. Whereas Congreve’s play is about women being treacherous towards one another, Pix’s play takes a far more positive view of women, suggesting they should determine their own future.”

But if Pix’s play was better received, or more popular, than Congreve’s it doesn’t seem to have soured their friendship. It was Congreve who stood up for Pix when one of her plays, The Deceiver Deceived, was brazenly plagiarised by George Powell’s company at the Drury Lane Theatre. He and other writer friends of Pix’s went to a performance and barracked the actors.

In a patriarchal world dominated by self-important men, making a mark as a woman was an uphill struggle. “There was resistance to all achieving women in the 18th century, a lot of huffing and puffing by overbearing male chauvinists,” says Bush-Bailey.

“Luckily for Pix and the other women playwrights of that time, the leading actresses were powerful and influential. I think it was they who mentored people such as Pix and Congreve.”

The cast of The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich  in rehearsals. Photo: Helen Maybanks
The cast of The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich in rehearsals. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Davies believes the women playwrights of the 1700s – Susanna Centlivre, Catherine Trotter Cockburn, Delarivier Manley and Hannah Cowley – “unquestionably” held their own against the men who would put them down. “What’s difficult is that they were attacked for daring to write plays at all,” she says.

One of the most blatant examples of male hostility came in the form of an anonymously written parody entitled The Female Wits in 1696, in which Mary Pix was caricatured as “Mrs Wellfed, a fat female author, a sociable, well-natur’d companion that will not suffer martyrdom rather than take off three bumpers [alcoholic drinks] in a hand”.

While Pix’s sociability and taste for good food and wine was common knowledge, she was known to be a universally popular member of the London literary and theatrical circuit.

“The Female Wits was probably written, with malice, by George Powell of the Drury Lane Company,” says Bush-Bailey. “It was a cheap, satirical jibe at the successful women playwrights of the time, making out they were all bitching behind each others’ backs. So far as one can tell, it was just spiteful and scurrilous.”

Davies says she is now looking at other Pix plays, with a view to future revivals. “Her writing is so witty, engaging and direct. The neglect of these plays is not always about their worth, it’s more often about the patriarchal system that determined which plays would endure and which would not. It is naive to think they’re not done because they’re not as good as the plays written by men.

“Success is self-perpetuating. If a producer is looking for a play of that period to revive, they are more likely to do the one that’s well known. So the canon shrinks because of the choices that were made centuries ago.”

The Beau Defeated, or The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, is at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until June

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