I just posted the latest entry in the Fraser Correspondence, a letter from Mélanie to Simon Tanner, Charles’s Oxford friend who is a playwright (Simon is mentioned in “Secrets of a Lady” and plays an important role in “Beneath a Silent Moon”). Mélanie, who at this point has not yet met Simon, is writing to tell him how much enjoyed reading his latest play, “The Convenient Misalliance”.
I’m very fond of Simon, and I like to think that his plays have a brilliant wit that would make them still popular today. But in historical fact not many plays from the late eighteenth century and Regency eras are part of the popular repertoire. Sheridan’s “The School for Scandal” and the “The Rivals” and Oliver Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer” are still performed fairly often, but though the era is rich in literature, it is not known for its plays.
Part of this may have to do with the power wielded by the Examiner of Plays. Censorship was particulary strong which can put a damper on creative innovation (and make writers to turn to other forms of literature to express themselves). The theatre world was also closely controlled in other ways. Only two London theatres (Drury Lane and Covent Garden) were licensed as playhouses. Other theatres (such as the Haymarket and my fictional Tavistock where Simon’s plays are performed) had to include a certain amount of singing and dancing in any performance (perhaps as part of a pantomine following a play).
Fire was a frequent hazard for all these candle-lit theatres. Drury Lane burned down three times before the present, Benjamin Dean Wyatt-designed theatre opened in 1812. In 1817, gaslight began to be used in both Covent Garden and Drury Lane, lessening the risk of fire and adding greatly to the ability to illuminate the stage.
Though plays from the late eighteenth century-Regency may not have survived, many were written (William Lamb’s brother George was a playwright as well as a barrister and politician). Letters from the era are full of references to theatre-going (Jane Austen relished going to plays on visits to London; Harriet Granville and Emily Cowper both frequently refer to visits to the theatre in London and abroad). A number of actors of the era are better known today than the playwirghts–Sarah Siddons, her brother John Philip Kemble, Edmund Kean, Mary Robinson (“Perdita”), Dorothea Jordan (who was the longtime mistress of the Duke of Clarence. (Candice Hern has a wonderful section on Regency theatre personalities in the Regency World section of her website). But the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has recently performed two wonderful plays from the late eighteenth century. “Wild Oats” by John O’Keefe is a brilliantly funny farce which, among other things, provides some great glimpses into the theatrical life of the time. “The Belle’s Stratagem” by Hannah Cowley is a delightfully witty romantic comedy, with a wonderful ending in which the heroine (who has been masquerading for much of the play) tells the hero she can now be whatever he wants her to be. And the hero says words to the effect of “I want you to be be whatever you want to be.” Wonderful expression of true love.
I like to think Mélanie found that sort of human insight in Simon’s fictional play. ‘Secrets of a Lady” includes a sequence at Drury Lane and “Beneath a Silent Moon” has a visit to the fictional Tavistock. I’d love to do book that uses the theatre as a setting even more. Charles and Mélanie both love the theatre as much as I do, so I know they’d enjoy it :-).
By the way, I also recently added a longer verison of my bio under About Tracy with more details about the development of my books and my writing career.