University of Surrey Institute of Advanced Studies

University of Surrey

Her Make is Perfect:
A seminar interrogating women's dramatic writing, text and performance (1600-1830)

5th–6th September 2008

Workshop Report


The quotation, 'her make is perfect,' derives from David Garrick's description of Elizabeth Hartley (1751-1824); she was one of the finest actors of her age and her portrait hangs in the Great Hall at Chawton House. We decided to use the painting of Hartley, which hangs in Chawton House, as the main image for the conference poster (see above). The quotation, 'her make is perfect' and image together served to highlight the seminar's focus on the way in which women engaged with dramatic writing and performance, in other words, the 'make' of plays, both text and performance.

The seminar was planned to combine research papers with practical workshops and plenary discussions. For example, the 'hands-on' workshop session in the library enabled researchers both to develop knowledge of holdings and to focus discussion on key debates; these, in turn, informed the dramatised readings and seminar dialogues. The performances were informed by critical discussion and undertaken primarily by drama students from the Guildford School of Acting. At the end of the first day we included a promenade performance to demonstrate the ways in which women's dramatic texts could be successfully performed today. Overall, the seminar wanted to explore less-well-known material, to engage in discussion about the direction of future research and to develop ways of understanding the plays in performance.

Elizabeth Hartley


'Her Make is Perfect': a seminar interrogating women's dramatic writing, text and performance (1600-1830) was the first event of a new collaboration between the Departments of Dance, Film and Theatre and English at the University of Surrey Chawton House Library and the Guildford School of Acting. The first day of the seminar was held at Chawton House Library, which opened in 2003 and holds a unique collection of women's writing. At the University of Surrey the establishment of new degree programmes in English and Theatre Studies, together with the expertise in drama and women's writing of Professor Marion Wynne-Davies and Professor Rachel Fensham, served to initiate research expansion in this area. Students from the Guildford School of Acting, directed by Kate Napier, contributed to the performance aspect of the programme at Chawton.

The library at Chawton House includes plays written by a number of female dramatists including amongst others: Joanna Baillie, Aphra Behn, Frances Brooke, Margaret Cavendish, Susannah Centlivre, Hannah Cowley, Elizabeth Inchbald, Charlotte Lennox, Delarivier Manley, Hannah More, Katherine Phillips, Mary Pix, Catharine Trotter and an anonymous 'Young Lady.' These works represent a history of the development of women's involvement in drama. Early Modern women writers, such as Margaret Cavendish, were often reluctant, or even unable, to have their plays staged, and before the Restoration no women were allowed to act on the English stage. The introduction of actresses in 1660, however, did not mean that women playwrights became acceptable; on the contrary, they were tolerated as curiosities, even if respected ones like the 'the matchless Orinda,' Katherine Phillips. It was Aphra Behn who – as the first professional woman playwright to make a living from her works – who altered the public's perception of women dramatists, so that subsequent authors, such as, Delarivier Manley, Catherine Trotter and Mary Pix ('the female wits'), were able to attain a more enduring reputation. Behn also experimented with theatrical devices that addressed the role of women as creative artists and as spectators of the public stage. From this point on, it becomes possible to investigate the distinctive nature of women dramatists, including the popular Susanna Centlivre, Hannah Cowley and Elizabeth Inchbald, as well as to interrogate the wider dramatic discourses in which they participated.

While path-breaking critical work has been undertaken on these writers, opportunities to research texts and experience performance across a range of plays from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has been difficult to arrange. Many women were obliged to construct their first plays in domestic spaces, rehearsing and staging family entertainments, as well as imagining suitable retorts to public events. As a family residence, Chawton House contains many places against which domestic dramas could have been played out such as drawing rooms, ante-chambers, library, kitchen, window-ledges, and the walled garden. Reading texts in and through these familial and private spaces made it possible to consider the making of performance conventions that could house women's ambitions to have their public and private lives examined on the stage.

The gallery at Chawton house

The image above was taken during the promenade performance on day one of the seminar; it demonstrates the use of a gallery at Chawton House for a stage space.


Kate Chisholm
Esme Coulbert
Dr Susan Croft
Professor Rachel Fensham
Professor Alison Findlay
Jacqui Grainger
Professor Judith Hawley
Dr Elizabeth Kuti
Dr Georgina Lock
Dr Churnjeet Mahn
Kate Napier
Professor Fiona Ritchie
Professor Gweno Williams
Professor David Worrall
Professor Marion Wynne-Davies


Friday 5th September 2008
Chawton House Library
10.00 Registration and sign in (Hall); tea and coffee (Kitchen)
10.30 - 11.30 Welcome

First keynote lecture

Professor Gweno Williams, 'Only to fill the scene'? Evaluating Margaret Cavendish's reputation as a dramatist and place in theatre history'
11.30 – 13.00 Papers session 1

Dr Elizabeth Kuti, 'Public Acts and Performances: Hannah More and the Theatre of Virtue'

Dr Churnjeet Mahn, 'The Balls to Write Tragedy: Joanna Baillie's Eastern Tale'

Professor David Worrall and Dr Georgina Lock, 'Manual Exercises: Female Creativity at the Theatrical Margins'
13.00 – 14.00 Lunch
14.00 – 15.30 Performance workshop

Dr Kate Napier and Guilford School of Acting Students
15.30 – 16.00 Tea and coffee
16.00 – 17.30 Text workshop

Jacqui Grainger, Librarian, Chawton House Library
17.30 – 17.45 Wine
17.45 – 19.00 Promenade performances

Ariadne, She Ventures and He Wins

Susanna Centlivre, The Wonder! A Woman Keeps a Secret Act 4

Susanna Centlivre, The Busy Body

Elizabeth Inchbald, Lovers' Vows
19.30 – 22.00 Dinner

Saturday 6th September 2008
Nodus Arts Building, University of Surrey

09.00 – 10.00 Second keynote lecture

Professor Fiona Ritchie, 'The dramatic/theatre criticism of Joanna Baillie and Elizabeth Inchbald'
10.00 – 10.15 Tea and coffee available
10.15 - 12.15 Papers session 2

Professor Judith Hawley, 'The Court of Oberon; or, Aristocratic Amateur Dramatics

Dr Susan Croft, 'Comedies in Embryo: Charlotte Smith, Jane Marshall and the Perils of Performance'

Professor Marion Wynne-Davies, 'To make a lawful Choice is no Injustice': legal discourse in Margaret Cavendish's The Sociable Companions'
12.15 – 13.00 Lunch
13.00 – 14.00 Third keynote lecture

Professor Alison Findlay, 'City Settings in post-1660 women's drama'
14.00 – 15.00 Text and performance group workshops

Sign up for workshops based on topics that have emerged during the seminar
15.00 – 15.30 Tea and coffee
15.30 – 16.30 Plenary

'What shall we 'make' next?'

Professor Rachel Fensham and Professor Marion Wynne-Davies
The hall at Chawton house


At the conclusion of the seminar we discussed where we could take the research next after such an exciting and interesting beginning. We came up with three categories: key elements, aims and possible outputs and dissemination.

  1. Key elements
    • Possible themes: love, marriage, rape, gambling, trade
    • Women, war and drama
    • Women and the professions
    • House and garden
    • Discontinutires
    • Private versus public
    • Extending knowledge – continuities and similarities across 16th – 19th century in women's drama not looked at before, breaking down artificial concepts of periods
    • Texts are performable now
    • 1600-1830
  2. Aims and possible outputs
    • Publication of collection of essays; student use of chapters
    • DVD of performances
    • Text and performance = plays, edited, published/ performances recorded – link to theme 'reading/seeing/doing' performance also links to a sense of place – spatial history
    • Exhibition at Chawton combined with a festival – wider public involvement – link to a travelling show to schools?
    • Website
    • Conference
  3. Dissemination
    • Involvement of students in workshops linking music, dance and theatre
    • Publication of texts
    • Exhibition and festival 'Chawton Nights'
    • Play editions of works owned by Chawton – small volumes to be used by literature and drama students as well as in commercial productions

The seminar was successful in bringing together a group of scholars and practitioners who were able to demonstrate that women dramatists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were able to 'make' plays that, while not perfect, deserve further research as well as public performance.

 Chawton house

Marion Wynne-Davies
December 2008