WELCOME to Gorgeous Ladies of Historical Comedy. According to the annual Presidential Proclamation, March is Women’s History Month. To celebrate, over the next five weeks, G.L.O.C. NICOLE DRESPEL will shine spotlight on a few of her favorite funny women from the olden days. This week: America’s first female playwright, MERCY OTIS WARREN.
I’m so excited about this week’s subject that President Obama should issue a proclamation to keep me from writing this entire post in capital letters! I’m going to try to exercise restraint. But first, here are some more exclamation points: Revolutionary! Playwright! Patriot! Friend of Abigail Adams!
Mercy Otis Warren was born in 1728 to a Mayflower descendant and farmer/judge/merchant/political activist. (People had a lot of jobs back then.) Nobody thought to send girls to school, so Mercy got the leftovers from her brothers’ tutors and became a total smartypants on her own. Years later, she’d make epistolary contact with the most important minds of the time: George Washington. Thomas Jefferson. John Adams. Do not get into a Founding Fathers namedropping competition with Mercy Otis Warren. She will kick your ass.
It’s taking all of my restraint not to totally nerd out about Warren’s Badass Revolutionary cred. I’m like, bursting with Sons of Liberty and Committees of Correspondence excitement. (Somebody give me a book deal. Pitch: Light on research. Heavy on enthusiasm. There can be pictures.) And then there’s her loving and supportive marriage to fellow patriot James Warren. Swoon. But I know you’re here for the comedy, so let’s get to it.
Beginning in 1772, Warren wrote several plays and poems about the British government in the colonies. For safety reasons, she published anonymously. Warren had high standards for everyone and low tolerance for bad behavior, eventually gaining her the nickname the “Conscience of the Revolution.” Tories and fickle Patriots were targeted as often as the British. But it wasn’t about judgment. Warren used satire to highlight what was wrong, in the hopes of making things right.
The year we signed the Declaration, Warren published The Blockheads. British soldiers and Loyalists had just evacuated Boston and were en route to Canada. (Even two-hundred years ago, that country was kind of a punchline.) Most of the dialogue is just whining. That’s a clever way of highlighting America’s success and drawing more readers to their cause. Every complaint is a disguised American triumph. The first scene is a round table of soldiers listing their personal trials in excruciating detail.
Shallow: Hard crusts and rustic bones have never till now become my diet. They do not suit my digestion. My teeth are worn to stumps, and my lips are swelled…My jaw bone has been set a dozen times, dislocated by chewing hard pork, as tough as an old swine’s ass.
Following this, Warren took a break for about three years. At the encouragement of her husband she eventually produced another play in 1779. The Motley Assembly focused on the frivolous preoccupations of Tory society. Everyone yearns for the days of British occupation because they threw better parties. While each character is silly, they’re also capable of making cutting remarks about one another. Gossip is something Warren was criticizing but it’s also the device through which her best observations are made. In the scene below, two American officers discuss the Loyalist women they’ve been visiting. Captain Aid has just run into a woman named Tab, who was “brawling like a bedlamite” against Captain Careless. He asks his friend to explain why:
Careless:…It is unnecessary to repeat the conversation. Suffice it to say it was upon the old topic, which they handled with so much rancor, and indecency, sparing none of us; and so very lavish of their encomiums, on the British officers, that, I confess, I felt not a little vexed; and in revenge as well as to divert the conversation, proposed their making each two shirts a week for the continental soldiers.
Aid: Did you by heaven? Well how was it received?
Careless: As I intended. Faith! It operated so violently on Tab that I expected nothing short of an hysteric fit. Her efforts to contain her rage must have been excessive, if one may judge by her horribly distorted countenance.
Aid: Why I dare swear, Careless, it was her natural look, which you took for such a horrible distortion.
After the war, Warren focused less on being funny. She eventually went on to write one of the earliest histories of the Revolution. It was very Pro-Thomas Jefferson and very Not-As-Pro-John Adams which was kind of awkward because they went way back. Adams wrote her a strongly worded letter in 1805 (he wrote a lot of those). In response, a 77 year-old Mercy Otis Warren told him to get over himself. It wasn’t personal, it was about history. No one—not even a friend, mentor, and former President—was invulnerable to the Conscience of the Revolution.
Play transcripts provided by Richard Seltzer, 2002.
Philbrick, Norman, ed. Trumpets Sounding: Propaganda Plays of the American Revolution. Ayer Publishing, 1976.
Join us for a party to celebrate the launch of TheGLOC.net on March 31st from 6-8pm at 92Y Tribeca (200 Hudson Street @ Canal)! Tickets: http://bit.ly/h4IfPF