Polwhele, Elizabeth (fl. mid-to-late 17th c.)

views updated

Polwhele, Elizabeth (fl. mid-to-late 17th c.)

Dramatist and author of at least three of the first works by a woman specifically designed for the professional theater in England. Name variations: Mistress E.P., Mrs. E.P., E. Polewheele. Pronunciation: Pol-wheel. Flourished in the mid-to-late 1600s; nothing is known of her date of birth, parents, possible marriage(s), children or date of death. The extent of her education and her familiarity with the London theater can only be inferred from the manuscripts of her plays.


The Faithful Virgins , a tragedy (c. 1661–63, or 1667–71), exists in manuscript only in the Bodleian Library (MS. Rawl. Poet. 195 ff. 49–78); Elysium (before 1671), known only by the title (the play, or possibly religious masque, has been lost); The Frolicks, or the Lawyer Cheated (1671), there is no record of its publication during Polwhele's lifetime (first published by Cornell University Press, 1977, with the original manuscript currently in the Rare and Manuscript Collections of the Cornell University Library [MS Bd. Rare P P77]).

The story of Elizabeth Polwhele and her lost plays is an example of one of those serendipitous rewards that occasionally occur in scholarly research. Until recently, nothing was known of this young woman other than her last name, yet the information now unearthed suggests that she may well have been one of the first women to write for the professional stage in England. As such, she indeed plays an important role in the history of English drama.

Throughout most of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, what was known of Elizabeth Polwhele did not suggest that the efforts of scholars to learn more about her would be well rewarded. There was only a manuscript, in the Bodleian Library, of a rather heavy-handed tragedy, somewhat unappealingly titled The Faithful Virgins and concluding with the plea, "Lord Jesus rescue my soule Amen, E.P." Nineteenth-century scholarship, particularly the volume popularly known as Halliwell's Dictionary, associated this play with a female dramatist, "Elizabeth Polwhele," but the authority for that association was unclear. No contemporary references to her, other than her own oblique comment appended to the Bodleian manuscript, had been located, and neither the awkwardness of the play, nor its total lack of identifying documentation, nor the rather pious plea for the rescue of the "soule" would have inspired anyone to search for "E.P."

Then in the early 1970s, the manuscript of a second play by "E. Polewheele," self-described as "an unfortunate young woman … haunted with poetic devils," was discovered in the Rare and Manuscript Collections of the Cornell University Library where it had been patiently waiting in an assortment of manuscripts bequeathed to the university in 1919 by Benno Loewy.

This second play, The Frolicks, or The Lawyer Cheated, is very different from the earlier tragedy. A light-hearted, frolicsome comedy, much as its title implies, it is skillfully written, full of wit, repartée, and intrigue, with a lively young woman as its chief protagonist who cries out to be played by a modern Katharine Hepburn or Claudette Colbert . The play is a deftly wrought Restoration farce, set in a series of quick scenes, taking place in rapidly shifting London locations and narrating the young heroine's manoeuvres away from the arranged marriages her less-than-honest lawyer father has planned for her. None of the ludicrously dull but wealthy suitors her father proposes will please her; instead, she delights in slipping away from his watchful care to late-night escapades where, dressed in male disguise, she participates in the night life of London. The one man of whom her father most disapproves is, of course, an equally witty rake, who matches the heroine in a contest of verbal jousting and then challenges her to a combat of plotted intrigues, "frolicks," as well. Who "wins" is considerably less important than the game itself, as Elizabeth Polwhele's The Frolicks, a kind of 17th-century "Cheers" complete with television's Sam Malone figure, can easily be seen as one of the earliest comedies of manners which, beginning in the 17th century, continue to entertain us in our battles of the sexes.

The 1671 date of The Frolicks, clearly inscribed on the title page, is nearly seven years later than the proposed date for The Faithful Virgins (which was derived from a notation attached to that play implying that it was performed by the theatrical company known as the Duke's Company and signed by the Master of the Revels for those years, Henry Herbert). What had happened to Elizabeth Polwhele in these intervening seven years to change her from the author of a clumsy, old-fashioned tragedy to the playwright who created a flawlessly professional comedy, new in form for its original audience and probably equally appealing if produced today?

One cannot answer by conjecturing two different authors although, were the plays to appear through the anonymity of print, that might appear to be so. There is, in fact, no doubt that the "E.P." of The Faithful Virgins and "E. Polewheele" of The Frolicks are the same person. Not only is the distinctive writing in each manuscript clearly from the same hand, but in the letter of dedication attached to the Cornell manuscript, Polwhele explicitly identifies herself as the author of both The Faithful Virgins and the third play, Elysium.

The answer to this curious disparity between the two plays, as her modern editors suggest, lies less with Elizabeth Polwhele and more with changes on the London stage itself. What was popular in the early 1660s was very different from what received acclaim in 1671. To appreciate the difference, one has to take account of the ways in which dramatic production and 17th-century English political events were deeply intertwined.

The 17th century was a turbulent time for both English drama and the English nation. In the century's early decades, the theater was immensely popular, but as it became increasingly associated with the royalist cause, and as events hastened the country toward civil war, it became increasingly suspect. The private presentation of plays and masques at court permitted women a greater role than did public performances. Not only could the queen and her ladies often commission the scripts, usually with detailed instructions on costuming and staging, they even acted in these performances, while the female parts on the public stage were still being played by boy actors. Puritan misogyny and suspicion of royalist domination of the theater, plus the crown's perception of the unruly nature of the Puritan threat, came together in such events as that in 1633 when the Puritan William Prynne lost his ears to the public hangman as punishment for denouncing "women-actors" as "notorious whores." In 1642, the theaters were closed by a Parliament increasingly hostile to the monarchy, and in 1649, Charles I was beheaded, and England came to be ruled by Oliver Cromwell through its years as a republic.

During those years, it has been noted, women increasingly turned to the written word. Forced by circumstances to provide support for themselves and their families, they occasionally took to the pen for what might be described as creative writing. More frequently, whether royalist or Puritan in their sympathies, they also had to resort to writing before courts of law to document claims to their own land and rights in the war-occasioned absence of their husbands. Thus, in the phrase of Elaine Hobby , women's writing became a "virtue of necessity."

With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the theaters were again opened, but much had changed. At least initially, theatrical audiences were treated to revivals—plays from the earlier decades of the century by Shakespeare, Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher. It would be difficult, however, to isolate one dominant trend, for almost immediately playwrights, like John Dryden, began to produce "heroic" dramas in which artificial declamatory elevation mixed with elaborate spectacle and highly dramatic action. At the same time, under the influence of William Davenant, the English opera arrived on stage, while other playwrights were trying their hands at rhymed tragedies, much like Polwhele's Faithful Virgins. Comedies too were being produced, some romantic, some set in exotic lands. Low London comedy mingled with translations of Molière and Corneille. All these plays generally had a very short run, probably due to the small size of the available audience, and were expensive to attend, but many new plays were produced during these early years, a number of them by unknown authors.

Iam young, no scholar, and what I write I write by nature, not art.

—E. Polwhele

Given this highly fluid situation, few dramatists confined themselves by specializing in either comedy or tragedy; most appear to have tried whatever worked. Polwhele's shift from one genre to the other, then, was hardly atypical. Moreover, the theater apparently offered an opportunity for considerable profit, tempting to women as well as men, for the receipts for the third night's performance traditionally went to the playwright, and this amount could be considerable. While one- or two-day performances of pre-Restoration favorites kept the audience coming, new shows—financially more of a gamble but, if successful, providing a greater return—were more popular. A six-day run, for example, might be quite profitable, particularly for an unknown playwright.

One final difference in the Restoration theater was particularly important for women—female actresses were, for the first time, performing on the English public stage, a fact which must have made the writing of plays by women somewhat less sensational, if not yet fully acceptable.

The attitude of the female playwright herself is, however, somewhat difficult to discern. We know that Polwhele's Faithful Virgins was performed, although exactly when and for how long cannot be precisely determined. By the time she came to write The Frolicks, then, with two earlier plays to her credit, she must have been significantly more experienced. She dedicated this play to Prince Rupert, an aristocrat associated with the King's Company through his friendship with Thomas Killigrew, its principal owner, and his mistress, Margaret Hughes (d. 1719), one of that company's principal actresses. Rupert was a shrewd choice, and that plus the careful preparation of the manuscript with an obvious eye to production implies an author experienced in both dramatic conventions and the importance of cultivating theatrical patrons. Nevertheless, the dedication itself suggests an innocent and inexperienced timidity: "An unfortunate young woman begs she may not be more luckless in the presumption of her dedication of a thing of this nature to your Highness," she begins. And she continues, "Encouraged much by Mistress Fame I have for some minutes thrown my foolish modesty aside, and with a boldness that does not well become a virgin, presume to offer this comedy at your grace's feet."

How literally are we to take this? And where do we place the emphasis—on the candid (perhaps) desire for Fame, or on the humbly self-deprecating tone of "foolish modesty" and "boldness that does not become a virgin?" Some women had already become exasperated by these ritual disclaimers. Indeed, a generation earlier, Elizabeth Carey , author of the closet drama Mariam (published 1613), expressed her aversion to a similar formula: "I will not make use of that worn form of saying I printed it against my will, moved by the importunity of friends."

Whatever Polwhele's attitude—and her ambivalence is symptomatic of the position of early modern women writers—she produced a play that might well have been unexpected from a young woman. By shifting to low London comedy, lively, boisterous and bawdy, Polwhele undoubtedly might have shocked and entertained her audience. Some of the elements in her comedy would have been familiar: the heroine in male disguise, the London setting, the casual attitude toward marital mores. Other aspects of the play, particularly its parodying reversal of the disguise motif (when two of the dull suitors are tricked into putting on women's dresses and then arrested as prostitutes) and its sophisticated skepticism, were more innovative. The use of song and dance anticipates, and might even have initiated, the greater use of these elements in the comedy of the mid-1600s. It is certainly worth speculating that whoever the historical Elizabeth Polwhele might have been, the playwright may well have been calling deliberate attention to her youth and sex to lend one more element of dramatic heightening to what she described in her dedicatory letter as "a play so comical."


Cotton, Nancy. Women Playwrights in England, c. 1363–1750. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1980.

Hobby, Elaine. Virtue of Necessity: English Women's Writing 1649–88. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1988.

Milhous, Judith, and Robert D. Hume, eds. The Frolicks, or The Lawyer Cheated (1671) Elizabeth Polwhele. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.

suggested reading:

Halliwell[-Phillips], James O. A Dictionary of Old English Plays. London: John Russell Smith, 1860.

Harbage, Alfred, rev. S. Schoenbaum Annals of English Drama, 975–1700. London: Methuen, 1964.

Van Lennep, William, Emmett L. Avery, and Arthur H. Scouten, eds. The London Stage 1660–1800, Part 1: 1600–1700. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965.

Ann Hurley , Assistant Professor of English, Wagner College, Staten Island, New York

About this article

Polwhele, Elizabeth (fl. mid-to-late 17th c.)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article