Volume VI, Number 2, Fall 2010


"The New England Coquette: Significant Revisions in an Early American Dramatic Adaptation" by Emily E. VanDette

Emily E. VanDette, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor at the Department of English, SUNY Fredonia, N.Y. USA. Email:

An 1802 play by J. Horatio Nichols reenacts a familiar seduction plot: a frivolous, unmarried woman accepts the attention of two suitors, one a rake and the other a gentleman, only to betray the wiser choice and fall to the seduction of the other. The play concludes tragically, with the death of the fallen woman and her illegitimate baby and the suicide of her seducer. What sets this particular example apart from the multitude of precautionary seduction dramas that were written during the new nation era, is that this particular play offers an invaluable clue to the much-contested political implications and consequences of Hannah Webster Foster’s popular novel, The Coquette (1797). Given the rich critical debates over the past couple of decades about The Coquette’s politics, the dearth of critical attention to Nichols’s contemporaneous adaptation of that novel is curious. The ways in which an early American playwright adapted, revised, and re-imagined Foster’s version of a woman’s fall offer insight into the novel’s controversial relationship to republican-era gender codes, and, more broadly into public debates over female authorship and agency in the new republic.

Since the recovery of Foster’s The Coquette over two decades ago, its critics have debated whether the novel re-inscribes or subverts conservative ideologies of the new nation, particularly those ideologies that delimit personal and political freedom. Seeking to overthrow the former critical assumption that the tragic death of the fallen heroine, Eliza Wharton, served as a moral lesson to early Americans, more recent readings have tended to argue that the novel celebrates Eliza’s resistance to gendered social constraints (at the forefront of that recovery were critiques by Barnes, Brown, Hamilton, Harris, Pettengill, Smith-Rosenberg, Stern, and Waldstreicher). In a timely intervention, Laura H. Korobkin insists that Eliza’s “sense of entitlement” and excessive materialism – “her desire to live as a wealthy aristocrat, served and admired by inferiors, her preference for round after round of social ‘hilarity,’ and her hostility toward anything that interrupts her fun” – confirm the novel’s critique of behavior thought to undermine American ideals, particularly “unregulated self-absorption” and “the inability to prevent a delightful impulse toward sociability from becoming a tyrannical craving for aristocratic luxury” (79, 98). Indeed, given Foster’s attention to Eliza’s vices, it would seem impossible to read the character as the celebrated, feminist heroine championed in most of the recent critical contributions. Such a corrective, though, while refreshing, nevertheless perpetuates the dichotomous treatment of the novel. Certainly, the cultural work of The Coquette is more nuanced than the novel’s characterization of its heroine. In fact, even while Foster surely criticized Eliza’s inability to make mature, responsible decisions, she also criticized the social expectations that circumscribed her options. In perhaps her most provocative intervention, and one which is virtually undeniable, Foster carved out plenty of space for female voice and representation in her depiction of a seduction tragedy. The provoking implications of that gesture are especially compelling when the novel is compared to its contemporaneous dramatic adaptation, which enacts revisions that serve not only as a critique of Foster’s novel, but also as a response to the contemporary tradition of female-centered dramatic representations.

In his play, The New England Coquette: From the History of the Celebrated Eliza Wharton, Nichols dramatizes Foster’s fictional character, rather than Eliza’s equally famous, real-life prototype, Elizabeth Whitman, whose seduction and death was a popular, precautionary news story in the new nation, a reality that Davidson’s study of the novel extensively showcases (141). That Nichols adapts Eliza – and not Elizabeth – confirms the reading of his play as a critical response to Foster’s novel and, as I will suggest shortly, to female centered dramatic writings of his day. The most glaring change from novel to drama is especially revealing: Nichols shifts the spotlight from female to male character dynamics. As the novel’s most uncontestable cultural work, in particular its critique of the gender bias in republican-era marriage codes, unfolds via the interactions and bonds between female characters, their removal erases Foster’s more controversial messages. Whether read optimistically, as in Claire C. Pettengill’s suggestion of a nurturing “sisterhood” which “supports, encourages, protects, and provides for Eliza” (186), or whether read suspiciously, as in Julia K. Stern’s “female chorus” (a feminized, coercive majority that represents the patriarchy), the predominance of women’s voices in The Coquette positions the female perspective in the center and relegates the voices of male characters to the margins. Nichols’s drastic reduction of the female-centeredness that predominates in The Coquette confirms Foster’s provoking transgression of gender codes and hierarchies. Moreover, a close analysis of the particular revisions the adaptation performs situates Nichols in conversation with contemporaneous playwrights whose feminist politics were often more overt and publicly discussed than Foster’s. In turn, that Nichols’s play should respond at the same time to Foster’s privileging of female voice and to female-centered dramatic representations suggests Foster’s place within a cohort of early American literary women who sought to raise the status of their gender in the new republic.

 

Understanding Nichols’s play as a politicized response to Foster’s representations makes sense given the playwright’s other dramatic writings, which are overtly political. Besides his adaptation of The Coquette, two other extant plays are attributed to Nichols, Jefferson and Liberty; or, Celebration of the Fourth of March (1801) and The Essex Junto (1802); while apparently never having been publicly staged, Nichols’s dramatic writings nevertheless directly engage the exigent cultural, political, and literary moment of their production. In their staging of Revolutionary events and figures, both plays contribute to a popular tradition. As Vaughn’s study of early American theatre reveals, “patriotism was perhaps the single dominant theme in early American drama, and the patriotic history play seldom failed to draw an appreciative audience” (54). Jefferson and Liberty especially represents the politically charged climate of its day. Adopting Thomas Jefferson’s 1800 presidential campaign song as its title and featuring Jefferson’s complete inaugural address, Nichols’s dramatic tribute to the newly elected Republican president passionately denounces John Adams, who is caricaturized in the role of the Duke of Braintree, a character that reappears in the politicized drama The Essex Junto the following year. In a rare instance of critical attention to Nichols, Nathans highlights the political satire of the two plays, both of which, as she explains, “embrace the tenets of Jeffersonian democracy, and offer a sharp critique of the repressive Adams administration” (165). Meserve’s treatment of Nichols is also limited to Jefferson and Liberty and The Essex Junto as prototypes of the patriotic plays that proliferated during Jefferson’s first presidential term. Meserve notes that Jefferson and Liberty may be “more appropriated styled propaganda than drama” (187), so exaggeratedly transparent are its politics. While Nichols’s adaptation of The Coquette was published around the same time as his other two extant plays, Meserve treats that play separately (and cursorily), as an example of the sentimental tradition; the only link he makes between the adaptation and Nichols’s obvious investment in early American political dialogues is that “because Aaron Burr had been identified as the villain of the novel, it was not strange that such a strong anti-Federalist as J. Horatio Nichols…would be its adaptor” (196). Perhaps not surprisingly, given that his 1977 study predates the recovery of Foster’s novel, the scope of Meserve’s consideration excludes any significant comparisons between the novel and its adaptation, suggesting simply that the play “prove(s) that excessive sentiment is no better and no worse in drama than it is in fiction, but in this instance the novel was for more popular than the play” (197).

Actually, Nichols’s adaptation presents a particularly politicized response to Foster’s novel and, more broadly, to republican-era feminism that was increasingly turning to dramatic writing and performance to enact its discursive interventions. The feminist playwrights of Nichols’s day intervened in many different public sites of resistance, which included, as Cima has pointed out, literary societies, public and private academies, and religious institutions (156-165) and, as Kelley revealed, “female academies,” literary societies, reading circles, and mutual improvement groups (66-112), but none of their activity provoked as much public attention as when their dramatic writing. Most prominently, Mercy Otis Warren, Judith Sargent Murray, and Susanna Haswell Rowson adopted the genre of the play for their most public and controversial interventions in the double standard that was solidified with the exclusion of women from the citizenry. The proliferation of contemporaneous responses, whether attacking or defending the female writers’ rights to engage in public debate, would reveal that, performed or not, a female-authored play intervening in political discourse attracted a great deal of attention in the early republic.

The early American cohort of feminist literati was politically nuanced, but political differences did not seem to lead to divisiveness within the movement to promote gender equality. As Gay Gibson Cima has recently argued, “By the 1790s, European American women critics began to sense that they could turn to each other for access to the public sphere” (164). In her description of a tightly-knit group of republican-era literary women who sought in the stage a venue for political influence, Cima emphasizes the collaborative spirit of that network: “They met in benevolent and literary associations together, led prayer services with each other, and wrote for one another in the theatre” (165). Despite the tendency among historians to try to situate early American feminism within the broader American political dichotomy,1 the feminist writers’ partisan sympathies appeared to be secondary to their agenda to write and educate narratives of women’s history and to imagine women’s political agency. In reality, feminist projects came from sympathizers of both the Federalist and Republican parties, as did attempts to squelch such activism.

Much early American dramatic writing by women reveals a subversive movement to spotlight the demand for gender equality, expose the oppressive conditions of women’s lives, and create opportunities for woman-centered political agency and activity.2 That Warren’s plays were not performed does not appear to have diminished their impact. As Cima points out, “Warren was more interested in political drama than the theatre; her scripts were ready-made for reading aloud in semi-private political gatherings but were not suited for staging in public venues, nor was that her intent” (109). Indeed, Mercy Otis Warren’s overtly political satires have long been acknowledged for their influence on American drama, credited with having “opened the way for the marked sequence of political and partisan plays to follow” (Rourke, 112). While Warren’s political agenda has been the subject of some critical debate, one need not dig deep to discover Warren’s obviously radical feminist politics,3 which she boldly staged over and over again in her plays — subtly in The Group (1775) and more overtly in The Sack of Rome (1785), and The Ladies of Castile (1785). To varying degrees, the political dramas written by Warren (and, later, by Rowson and others) either criticize tyranny against women or provide active female agency. For Warren, the feminist themes that surface as mere hints in The Group4 develop into full-blown attacks against the patriarchy in her 1790 works, The Sack of Rome, which exposes the brutality of rape, and The Ladies of Castile, which features a woman-led looting of a church in order to fund a revolt against tyranny. The focus on rape in The Sack of Rome serves to “encode [Warren’s] demand for consensual relationships between men and women,” according to Katharina Erhard (521). Balancing out her example of the victimization of women in The Sack of Rome, Warren would place women characters at the center of political rebellion in The Ladies of Castile. As Burke points out, The Ladies of Castile “dramatizes for the first time the constructed nature of womanhood,” when the key female rebel asserts: “Men rail at weaknesses themselves create,/And boldly stigmatize the female mind,/ As though kind nature’s just impartial hand/ Had form’d its features in a baser mold” (12).

Like Warren, Rowson capitalized on the rhetorical appeal of the political drama, and the opportunity it presents for feminist politics. With her more celebrated presence in the world of early American theatre, and given the debates following the public staging of her politically charged Slaves of Algiers, Rowson’s dramatic writing and its contemporaneous impact suggest that Nichols’s revisionist adaptation performs a critical response, not just to Foster’s woman-centered version of a seduction tragedy, but to the broader culture of the female literary voice. Susanna Rowson contributed impressively to the late eighteenth-century emergence of literary circles and “female academies” that enhanced women’s education and provided contexts and resources for the appreciation of women’s history, and her popular “Sketches of Female Biography” added the study of female historical figures to the education of early American school girls. Her most famous political interventions, though, surfaced in her dramatic writing and performance, where she staged her demand for women’s political agency in the theatres of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Following the tradition established by Warren, Rowson’s only extant play, Slaves in Algiers; or, A Struggle for Freedom: A Play Interspersed with Songs (1794), adapts exigent political events of the day with an emphatically woman-centered focus. Staging the political conflict between the United States and Algerians (or “Barbary pirates”), Rowson dramatizes not only the experiences of the American captives, but also the fight for gender equality. Female representation predominates in The Slaves of Algiers, whose heroine, Olivia, proclaims that “a woman can face danger with as much/ spirit, and as little fear, as the bravest man amongst/ you” and that “woman was never formed to be the abject slave of man,” and whose famous epilogue, performed by Rowson herself, makes the especially radical declaration that “Women were born for universal sway,/ Men to adore, be silent, and obey” (80, 60, 94).

The contemporary response to Slaves centered on the play’s implications for women’s participation in political activity. Indeed, confirming the old adage that “no press is bad press,” famous Federalist William Cobbett’s attacks on the feminist politics of the play likely helped the play become more popular than it might have been without such heated attention, according to Rust (123). Cobbett objected not only to Rowson’s (and any female author’s) encroachment on the male-dominated literary sphere, but, more specifically, to the implication that such an appropriation of male privilege has for women’s political involvement. Marion Rust’s reconstruction of the political debate surrounding the publication and performances of Rowson’s Slaves points out that Cobbett’s criticism of the play sought “to diminish, not Rowson alone, but also the American public that tolerated such shameful authorial display on the part of its women” (123). Cobbett’s famous attack of the play and its reception among American audiences (which is just one of a series of his attacks on feminist activists, including, most notably, Mary Wollstonecraft) did not go unanswered by contemporary progressives. Prominent progressives known for their activism towards equal education for women (most famously, Republican Senator and poet John Swanwick) publicly defended the gender politics of Rowson’s play,5 making even more visible the interventions Rowson enacted in her literary representations.

With their exposure of patriarchal tyranny, their critiques of socially constructed gender hierarchies, and their staging of rebellious women, Warren and Rowson established an early American feminist response to the political rhetoric of independence and equality. The tradition of feminist representation in dramatic literature was thriving during the birth of Nichols’s literary productions. Published in 1802, the same year as Nichols’s The Essex Junto and The New England Coquette, female-centered statements in the play Americana; or, A New Tale of Genii further situates Nichols, and, by extension, Foster, in dialogue with the early American feminist movement. Anonymously published (but assumed to be female-authored), Americana, like Nichols’s Jefferson and Liberty, was dedicated to the newly elected president. In an important analysis of the play’s feminist politics, Erhard proves that Americana, in its allegorical staging of the American Revolution by a cast of mountain nymphs, protests the predominant images and memories of women’s passive role in the Revolution, imagining and encouraging, instead, women’s active political involvement. In her reading of Americana, Rowson’s The Slaves of Algiers, and Warren’s The Sack of Rome as reenactments of the Revolution, Erhard argues that “female playwrights … rewrite constructions of the national memory of the American Revolution” (523), and they enact their revisions by endowing their female characters with assertive voices that claim active roles in historic moments. In their privileging of female agency and their resistance to the circumscribed roles and expectations for republican women, the revisionist memories offered by early American female playwrights have much in common with the interventions made by the first American female novelist. Taken together, the novelist and her contemporary feminist playwrights represent a provokingly female-centered movement that Nichols reacted against in his revisionist adaptation of The Coquette.

Foster’s own participation in the literary interventions in early American gender codes spotlighted the restrictive implications of marriage ideology, particularly for women. In its shift from female to male representation, Nichols’s play drastically reduces the multi-layered critique of republican-era marriage options that Foster offers her readers in The Coquette. The marriage ideology that dominated in the republican era discouraged women from marrying outside of their social class. While republican ideology encouraged citizens to strive for equality and economic development, it required non-citizens to settle for stagnant class status in order to protect the hegemonic values that repressed them (Davidson, 142-143). It is that ideological contradiction that caused what Nancy Cott coined as “the marriage trauma” for middling level and elite white women. Foster exposes that anxiety by privileging the voices and dynamics between female characters in her novel. With its special focus on Eliza’s point of view, The Coquette reveals that while the profession and lifestyle of her husband would determine the condition of her entire adult life, Eliza would have limited choice of appropriate suitors if she obeyed her society’s codes. Foster demonstrates that, for Eliza and other women, adherence to the republican restriction against a woman’s class mobility required them to sacrifice the pursuit of a compatible partnership. Voicing an anxiety that she communicates to virtually every other woman character of the novel, Eliza avows, “I am at present, and know not but I ever shall be, too volatile for confinement to domestic avocations, and sedentary pleasures” (140). Furthermore, exposed to an urban world, where excesses and luxuries flooded her existence – a circumstance Hamilton describes as the conflict between “republican virtue and the appeal of materialism in an urban context” (140) – Eliza could not resist the desire to be more than merely a clergyman’s wife. As a middle-class white woman, exposed to the (male) republican prospect for class mobility in their participation in mixed social classes and inundated with opportunities to satisfy her inclination for an active social life, Eliza sought an alternative to her socially proscribed vocation as a clergyman’s wife.

Eliza’s crisis, then, is largely attributable to class restrictions, which are partly presented via the character of Eliza’s closest friend, Lucy, who reminds her of the expectation that she marry within the clergy class. In her attempt to persuade Eliza to marry Boyer, Lucy insists that “His situation in life is, perhaps, as elevated as you have a right to claim” (124). Carrying out what she claims to be the “task of friendship,” Lucy goes on to argue that, even though Eliza’s “ambition is to make a distinguished figure in the first class of polished society,” she must settle for a marriage to a clergyman (125). That Foster included such a clear reference to the cultural necessity for Eliza to marry into a particular class in Lucy’s “friendly” reprimand underscores the novelist’s attempt to highlight class confinement as one of the sources of anxiety surrounding a white, middle-class republican woman’s decision to marry. Nichols omits that significant exchange, thus removing a crucial tenet of Foster’s critique of republican ideology. Whether we read Lucy’s concern as supportive and indicative of a woman-centered community, or as a hypercritical representation of the patriarchy, undoubtedly that exchange, and the similar exchanges between women characters that predominate throughout the novel, function as the main site of political activity in Foster’s The Coquette. By removing them, Nichols suggests their potentially threatening and subversive implications.

Contemporary critical readings have paid careful attention to Foster’s exposure of impermeable class boundaries in the new nation (an exposure that is enacted by the novel’s privileging of female agency). Lucy’s reprimand to Eliza exemplifies the pressure from Eliza’s circle of female friends, which, some would say, serves to perpetuate the hegemony of the early American class system. As Stern has argued, “dedicated to its own social reproduction, the feminized chorus is invested in supervising and disciplining marriageable women like Eliza Wharton in its own patterns of association” (89). Eliza must willingly sacrifice her happiness in order to be accepted and loved in her society. Instead, she tries to delay her marriage to Mr. Boyer and, in the meantime, attends extravagant parties with the rake, Major Sanford, a supposed member of a higher class who refuses to marry a woman without an inheritance. As Stern points out, “That such a republican daughter should seek to ‘change company’ suggests a willingness to make unsanctioned forays into alien territory where the unlucky succumb to seduction and the more fortuitous, who marry above or below themselves, commit a form of class betrayal” (89). The critical significance confirmed by such a reading – namely, Foster’s willingness to expose and critique the predominant marital and economic expectations for middling-level and elite women in the new republic – is erased in Nichols’s play, where there is no sisterhood or female chorus to support or punish the rebellious Eliza. While some of the key figures of that sisterhood appear in the play, their presence is drastically reduced, especially where they would have provided support or sympathy with Eliza. In a significant revision, Nichols’s adaptation removes the class confinement that Foster represented, thereby reducing the complexity of and sympathy for a woman’s fall.

The theatricality of Eliza’s rebellion made Foster’s novel appropriate in many ways for dramatic adaptation, but Nichols’s puzzling removal of the most theatrical elements of the novel – namely, the female chorus – affirms the reactionary gesture of the play’s resistance to female agency, voice, and community. In his assertion of the novel’s subversive politics, C. Leiren Mower points out that the novel “creates a narrative pause, a reflective opening from which to read its strong critique of the social positioning of women in the late-eighteenth-century United States as the docile enablers of (white, male) virtue in the republic” (321). The notion that Eliza’s battle with social confinement enacts a dramatic performance – that Foster portrayed her heroine’s rebellion as a performance of self-ownership that failed to conform to the mandates of the “theatrical social marketplace” – makes Nichols’s revisionist adaptation all the more significant. More important, though, than Mower’s suggestion that the novel responds to eighteenth-century American expectations for (particular kinds of) theatrical display, is the vital role played by the female characters who function as both the stage and audience for Eliza’s display. Albeit representative of patriarchal hegemony (Mower corroborates Stern’s “female chorus” reading, which also recognizes the dramatic mode of the Foster’s novel), the female voices are nevertheless essential to understanding Foster’s political and cultural interventions.

Diminishing the class-related interactions between Eliza and Lucy is not the only significant reduction of the female chorus in the dramatic adaptation. Nichols almost completely removes the character of Mrs. Richman, a central character to Eliza’s circle of friends in the novel and Foster’s nuanced example of, on the one hand, “domestic bliss,” and on the other hand, the mourning mother. Through her depictions of Mrs. Richman, Foster offers a more complicated depiction of the possibilities and pitfalls to domestic confinement for women. Early in the novel, Eliza recognizes Mrs. Richman as “the picture of conjugal felicity” (108), but even that example of domestic harmony would be ruptured with the death of Mrs. Richman’s baby, and at a time when it serves to exacerbate Eliza’s depression over her own limited domestic options. The death of a child has especially traumatic implications for Mrs. Richman, who, as the novel’s exemplary republican mother, selflessly devoted herself to her family and especially to the rearing of her children to be good citizens, a role which was disrupted by the death of her child.

Mrs. Richman’s explanation of the “greater good” she serves by abiding by the boundaries of the domestic sphere does the novel’s important work of spelling out the dominant-culture expectations for republican women. In response to Eliza’s complaint that for married people, “benevolence itself moves in a very limited sphere,” Mrs. Richman defends and articulates her devotion to her family: “True, we cannot always pay that attention to former associates, which we may wish; but the little community which we superintend is quite as important on object; and certainly renders us more beneficial to the public” (123). Mrs. Richman’s reply to Eliza’s concern about domestic and familial confinement echoes republican ideologies that relegated (or, to adopt the rhetorical tone of the ideology, “elevated”) women to the domestic sphere for the sake of regulating morality and preserving the virtue of the new nation. Foster’s careful delineation of Mrs. Richman as a dutiful republican woman, who, for the good of society, devotes her life to her family, makes the crisis of her burying her child a poignant reminder of the devastation that was possible (and, in those days, probable) in that circumscribed role. With the removal of the mourning republican mother, the dramatic adaptation of The Coquette further reduces Eliza’s marriage anxiety.

Furthermore, Mrs. Richman’s patriotic defense of a domestic confinement that prevents her from interacting with “former associates” confirms Eliza’s suspicion that “Marriage is the tomb of friendship.” Eliza’s fear of losing her friends, key to Foster’s delineation of marriage anxiety, climaxes in Lucy’s wedding, a scene which is entirely omitted from the dramatic adaptation. With its complete erasure of Mrs. Richman’s character and the removal of Lucy’s wedding (and Eliza’s melancholy attendance at it), Nichols’s adaptation erases Eliza’s fear that confinement to domesticity will mean social isolation and the sacrifice of her female friends.

In addition to removing or reducing the roles of Eliza’s friends, the play also drastically scales down the role of Eliza’s mother. In the novel, Mrs. Wharton, the widow of a clergyman, serves as Eliza’s example of the specific domestic expectations for a clergyman’s wife (a cultural context explicated in Norton, 20-25). Confessing to her mother that her “disposition is not calculated for that sphere” of Boyer’s “situation in life,” Eliza acknowledges that the “duties arising from the station” demand “cares and restraints to which [she] could not submit.” By giving voice to Eliza’s special concerns about Boyer’s profession, and the domestic commitment it would require of his wife, Foster adds nuance to the coquette’s hesitation to marry: “This man is not disagreeable to me; but if I must enter the connubial state, are there not others, who may be equally pleasing in their persons, and whose profession may be more comfortable to my taste?” Perhaps expecting her mother to sympathize with her sense of anxiety and indignation over the expectations that she marry a clergyman and adopt a conservative, domestic lifestyle, Eliza applauds her mother’s ability to experience “pass through this scene of trial, with honor and applause” (135).

Mrs. Wharton’s advice to her daughter reveals and reinforces the cultural pressure Foster’s Eliza was trying to resist:

I am, therefore, sorry, since there can be no other, that his profession should be an objection in your mind. You say, that I have experienced the scenes of trial, connected with that station. I have indeed; and I will tell you the result of that experience. It is, that I have found it replete with happiness. No class of society has domestic enjoyment more at command, than clergymen. Their circumstances are generally a decent competency. They are removed alike from the perplexing cares of want, and from the distracting parade of wealth. (136)

Contrary to Eliza’s assumptions about her mother’s awesome “resolution,” her mother claims to have been perfectly happy as a clergyman’s wife, especially with the contentment she felt with what Eliza earlier referred to as a confinement to “sedentary pleasures.” Indeed, the causes of Mrs. Wharton’s marital bliss seem to be euphemisms for Eliza’s own trauma. Even as Mrs. Wharton tries to persuade Eliza to accept the supposedly happy life of a clergyman’s wife, her claims of happiness echo Eliza’s fears.

By erasing the exchanges between Eliza and her mother, Nichols’s play not only removes the coquette’s marriage anxiety, but it also neglects Foster’s compelling response to nation-building discourse. In aligning Mrs. Wharton with the conservative values of republican womanhood, Foster engages the republican virtue of selflessness, which was especially valued for women of the new republic. Foster’s Mrs. Wharton asks her daughter, “With regards to its being a dependent situation, what one is not? Are we not all links in the great chain of society, some more, some less important; but each upheld by other, throughout the confederate whole?” Mrs. Wharton’s rhetorical questioning points to the republican expectation for women to sacrifice individual pursuits for the good of the nation. With Mrs. Wharton’s stilted, impersonal advice to her daughter, Foster exposes the insidiousness of conservative nation-building politics. Even Eliza’s own mother cannot move beyond the presumed needs of the new nation to sympathize with her daughter. Instead, Mrs. Wharton reminds Eliza of the expectation for a republican woman’s full devotion to domestic vigilance, which, in turn, would serve to preserve and protect republican virtue (most famously articulated by Cott, 63-100). Furthermore, Eliza’s mother reminds her that as a wife of a clergyman, she would be measured by especially stringent domestic standards according to the codes of the new nation. The removal of those significant mother-daughter exchanges reduces the presence of a pervasive social pressure that Foster depicted in her explanation of Eliza’s fall.

The absence of Mrs. Richmond results in the further diminishing of the novel’s insistence upon the role that women can play in nation building. The play expunges a scene of special significance in the novel, which represents a significant staging of some of the virtuous republican characters, General and Mrs. Richman and Eliza (pre-fall), in contrast to the seducer, Sanford, and a few of his female admirers. Foster thus sets up an opportunity to articulate the republican woman’s civic duty, and she does so by splitting the party into two significantly separate conversations: the good republicans discuss national politics, and the inadequate republicans discuss (interestingly) a play.6 When the ladies of Sanford’s party decline to join the political conversation, demurring that politics “did not belong to the ladies,” Mrs. Richman offers a meaningful reply:

Miss Wharton and I…think ourselves interested in the welfare and prosperity of our country; and, consequently, claim the right of inquiring into those affairs, which may conduce to, or interfere with the common weal. We shall not be called to the senate or the field to assert its privileges, and defend its rights, but we shall feel free for the honor and safety of our friends and connections, who are thus employed. If the community flourish and enjoy health and freedom, shall we not share in the happy effects? if it be oppressed and disturbed, shall we not endure our proportion of the evil? Why then should the love of our country be a masculine passion only? Why should government, which involves the peace and order of the society, of which we are a part, be wholly excluded from our observation? (139)

Such a pointed political statement helps situate the novel’s revisionist story of the coquette’s fall around the circumscribed roles of republican womanhood, a point which the dramatic adaptation silences in its shrinking of female roles. Mrs. Richman’s political sentiments are especially meaningful when they are validated by the narrator of that scene, Boyer’s friend Selby, who applauds her statement as “truly Roman; and what was more…truly republican” (139). Nichols’s adaptation removes woman-centered political activity by removing Mrs. Richman’s character. In keeping with the adaptation’s replacement of male voices for the female agency represented in the novel, the characters of Mrs. Richman and her husband are conflated into just General Richman, who offers all of the culturally-mandated warnings and condemnation of Eliza’s behavior, with none of the sympathy and support to counter-balance his criticisms, and certainly none of the statements in favor of women’s political activity. The adaptation’s striking omission of female political agency resonates with William Cobbett’s famous attacks on Rowson’s promotion of female political activity in Slaves in Algiers: “Who knows,” he suggests, “but our present house of Representatives, for instance, may be succeeded by members of the other sex, [who] should even lie in, during the sessions” (24). Indeed, Nichols’s erasure of female political participation engages a tradition of critical discourse surrounding women’s emergence into the public sphere, and women’s participation in the dramatic literary realm in particular – discourse that revealed exigent anxieties about the perceived deterioration of a social and political order that demanded strict adherence to proscribed gender roles.

With its drastic reduction of female representation, the dramatic adaptation effects the removal of a woman’s marriage anxiety – what Mower refers to as the “narrative pause,” in which Foster offers an explanation of a republican-era (middle-class, white) woman’s efforts to resist a confining marriage. Key to the play’s erasure of marriage anxiety is a significant revision of the heroine’s character, and, by extension, to Foster’s definition of “the coquette.” In contract to the Eliza who anxiously deliberates about and resists the confinement of marriage, Nichols’s Eliza simply takes a shallow-minded pleasure in the conquering of lovers. The play introduces this meaningful character revision early, when Eliza appears on stage just following her break-up with Boyer, singing a playful song about her escapades and conquests: “Must I if jealous lovers frown,/ And in distraction fly the town,/ Be sad and cry?/ Be sick and die?/ No, no, not I./ Die for a lover? Not for four,/ If one goes, I’ll conquer/ more,/ Still still be gay/ Whip time away,/ Dance, sing and play” (2.2.1-10).

Nichols’s portrayal of a conquering, dancing, thoughtless Eliza performs a meaningful refutation of Foster’s revisionist definition of a coquette, which bears some attention in order to appreciate the significance of Nichols’s revisions. In her depiction of Eliza, Foster rejects popular representations of the coquette figure in general, as well as popular assumptions about the real-life coquette of infamy, Elizabeth Whitman. Early American advice books for young women and men typically feature definitions and warnings about coquetry. The writers of early American advice literature define the coquette with a virtually universal list of criteria: she is vain, she seeks marriage proposals as “conquests,” and she has no intention of marrying any of the men from whom she “wins” proposals. In his “Legacy to his Daughters,” for instance, John Gregory explains that “the deepest and most artful coquetry is employed by women of superior taste and sense, to engage and fix the heart of a man whom the world and whom they themselves esteem, although they are firmly determined never to marry him. But his conversation amuses them, and his attachment is the highest gratification to their vanity” (108-109). Interpreted through republican ideology, such behavior threatened the institution of marriage, and, by extension, to the health of the republic, which was thought to depend upon monogamous marriage and procreation. According to the going definitions of the day, the coquette mocks courting and marriage traditions and transgresses social codes for family formation considered crucial for the building of the new nation. The coquette’s biggest offense is that she never intends to marry.

In its revision of Eliza, Nichols’s adaptation of The Coquette reverts to the stereotypes that were reinforced in the newspaper accounts of the real-life “Eliza,” Elizabeth Whitman. As Davidson points out, “none of the early accounts of Whitman’s death… credit her with a rational weighing of a prospective husband’s qualifications” (Revolution, 143). Indeed, the newspaper reports of Whitman’s death reinforce traditional stereotypes about coquettes and fallen women, and draw conclusions with apparently very little evidence and no reference to interviews with Whitman’s friends and family. The writers exhibit virtually no sympathy for Whitman or her grieving friends and family; rather, they express the urgent need to seize upon the opportunity of Whitman’s tragic death to warn young women against coquetry, (or, in other words, against transgressing courting and marriage codes). A letter that appeared in The Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser, for example, seeks to expose Whitman’s identity because he “think[s] the story may serve as a good moral lecture to young ladies.” That writer goes on to reveal that Whitman was the daughter of a deceased clergyman, who had “refused two as good offers of marriage as she deserved, because she had aspired higher than to be a clergyman’s wife,” and “coquetted until past her prime.”

In a letter published in The Massachusetts Centinel, the writer took it upon himself to “collect…the following account of [Whitman] for the information and improvement of readers.” After a brief account of how Whitman was brought to Bell-Tavern, where she gave birth to a stillborn baby and died two weeks later, the writer offers a highly subjective and unsympathetic explanation for her tragedy: “She was a great reader of romances, and having formed her notions of happiness from that corrupt source, became vain and coquetish, and rejected some very advantageous offers of marriage in hope of realizing something more splendid; until disappointed and past her bloom, she gave way to criminal indulgence…and terminated her career.” The writer, in his agenda of contributing to “the improvement” of female readers, thus removes Whitman from the contexts of personal relationships as well as psychological and emotional experiences, reducing Whitman’s life to a “career” of searching for a rich spouse. Over and over again, the newspaper accounts of Whitman’s demise highlight the class betrayal implicit in her behavior. Condemning Whitman’s refusal of “two as good offers of marriage as she deserved” and her hope “for something more splendid,” the writers specifically attack Whitman’s presumed aspirations for marrying above her own class status – an assumption that, via the privileging of female agency, Foster carefully undermined, and via the removal of female agency, Nichols just as carefully restored.

One of the most popular statements about Whitman’s death (that is, before the publication of The Coquette) appeared in William Hill Brown’s popular didactic novel, The Power of Sympathy (1789). Using Whitman’s story as a lesson about the dangers of novel reading and coquetry, Brown refers to Whitman without pseudonym and attaches a lengthy note interpreting her fall for his readers. His version of Whitman’s story is notably consistent with the newspaper reports of Whitman’s death, emphasizing her inflated “fancy” (attributable to novel reading) and her advanced age:

She was a great reader of novels and romances, and having imbibed her ideas of the character of men, from those fallacious sources, became vain and coquettish, and rejected several offers of marriage, in expectation of receiving one more agreeable to her fanciful idea. Disappointed in her Fairy hope, and finding her train of admirers less solicitous for the honour of her hand, in proportion as the roses of her youth decayed, she was the more easily persuaded to relinquish that stability which is the honour and happiness of the sex. (23)

Brown’s version of Whitman’s fall represents a rather traditional set of assumptions about a woman’s fall, and it is much more closely aligned with Nichols’s Eliza than Foster’s. Like Brown, Nichols highlights the danger of novel-reading. In the play, Eliza’s friend, Julia, the model of womanly virtue in both the novel and the play, is staged “reading Millot’s history,” and commenting upon the superiority of history to romance: “Novelty, so far inferior in usefulness, not to mention its mischevous faculty of irritating the sensibilities, and formenting the storms of a disordered fancy; stores not the mind with effective knowledge” (2.4.6-10). Nichols further employs the virtuous Julia character to the service of conservative cultural work when he uses her voice to reinforce the didactic potential of Elizabeth Whitman’s/Eliza Wharton’s story. In response to the revelation that Eliza is pregnant with her seducer’s baby, Nichols’s Julia prophesies, “…listening children/ [will] lisp their tender sympathies, while/ tears of pity glisten in their eyes, for many/ ages hence; parents shall tell their offspring/ ‘The lamentable fall of’ you/ ‘And send the hearers weeping to their beds’” (1.5.29-34).

While the fall and death of Elizabeth Whitman maintained public relevance via the continuously reprinted editions of Foster’s novel, a more immediate, and perhaps more sensational, news story surely provides further exigency for Nichols’s adaptation and its particular revisions to Foster’s novel. The story of Jason Fairbanks’ conviction for the murder of his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth Fales, dominated public interest in the year preceding Nichols’s publication of The New England Coquette. Fairbanks’ testimony admits his intention of persuading Fales into consummating their affair and claims that in a moment of despair the couple formed a suicide pact, which, although he was physically incapable of carrying out, resulted in Fales inflicting fatal wounds upon her body. While the prosecutors would maintain, successfully, that Fales was murdered and that her resistance to Fairbanks’ sexual advances provoked his homicidal violence, Fairbanks’ attorney painted a picture of Elizabeth Fales as a passionate, impressionable young woman prone to melodrama, which, though failing to acquit Fairbanks in court, managed to make a strong public impression.

Not surprisingly, the Fales/Fairbanks controversy, particularly the defense of Jason Fairbanks, capitalized on and reignited suspicions surrounding romantic novels and their potential to disrupt social order and control, especially as it was exerted upon women. In his analysis of the closing arguments in the Fairbanks trial, Daniel A. Cohen points out that the defense attorney, Harrison Gray Otis, portrayed Elizabeth Fales as “very much like those misguided and impressionable young female readers described by contemporary critics of sentimental fiction” (173), and that her alleged suicide was the result of her melodramatic despair over the obstacles to her courtship with Fairbanks (which included her parents’ objection to the match and Fairbanks inability to financially support her). In his reading of Otis’ sensational closing argument, Cohen illuminates the paradox of a rhetorical construction that simultaneously borrows from the conventions of romantic fiction while reasserting suspicions of the genre: “Like many authors of early sentimental tales and novels, Otis shrewdly hedged his bets by implicitly condemning the fictive modes even as he employed them” (174).

Public debate following Fairbanks’ conviction would expand the condemnation of the novel as the key corrupting influence to account for the tragedy. Most famously, the convicted murderer’s own written testimony, “The Solemn Declaration of the Late, Unfortunate Jason Fairbanks,” featured an appended biography widely attributed to the famous “American sappho” and hostess to Boston literati, Sarah Wentworth Morton. The sympathetic account of Fairbanks reasserted the contemporary suspicions of romantic novel reading and of women’s sexual and emotional vulnerability, contrasting Fairbanks’ sensible reading of philosophy and history to Fales’ preoccupation with, in the words of the biography, “works of fiction and moral amusement, in which the passion of love was generally transcendant.” The biography went on to explain that, “Hence her sensible heart became more tenderly attached, while her fond imagination was continually tracing through each romantic description, some semblance of the fancied perfections of her own lover” (excerpted in Hanson, 176-189). The renewed cultural suspicion of the pernicious influence of romantic novels certainly sheds light on Nichols’s own rhetorical reliance on that assumption. Even more revealing, though, is the intertextual link between Fairbanks’ famous testimony about his failed suicide and Nichols’s writing of seducer Sanford’s successful suicide, which is the most pronounced revision the adaptation enacts. In thus altering the conclusion of Sanford’s role, the adaptation restores to masculine power the burden of moral responsibility and consequence, and responds both to the infamous weakness associated with the real-life seducer, Fairbanks, and the passivity that characterized Foster’s fictional rake.

Nichols’s reassertion of the implications and consequences of a woman’s sexual transgression is especially significant when he contributes a representation that was significantly absent from Foster’s novel: the figure of Eliza’s baby. Perhaps sympathetically, Foster’s The Coquette makes only indirect references to the baby that resulted from Eliza’s sexual fall; in a letter sharing the news of Eliza’s death with their mutual friend Lucy, Julia refers fleetingly first to “the delivery of a child” and later to “the death of her babe” (236). Reasserting the implications of a woman’s fall, the third act of Nichols’s play opens with Eliza “walking with an infant in her arms,” singing of her remorse over her baby’s fate. Mourning her own imminent death and the baby’s consequentially imminent orphan status, the song asks, “Then who will nurse thee, little stranger,/ Whose note will lull thee to repose? Or Who secure the bud from danger,/ Ere killing frosts destroy the rose?” (3.1.17-20). Staged with Eliza’s self-condemning song, the baby’s presence in the play provides a particularly stern reminder about the consequences of coquetry and sexual misconduct. Incapable of meeting the basic expectations of republican motherhood – i.e., the protection and nurturing of her child – Nichols’s Eliza leaves her out-of-wedlock baby, a “little stranger,” alone in the world. In response to the delicate absence of the baby in Foster’s novel, Nichols dramatizes Eliza’s illegitimate motherhood as especially antithetical to the principles of republican virtue.

Given the adaptation’s revisionist privileging of male over female character representations, it makes sense that Nichols performs his most direct revision of Foster’s definition of a coquette via the characters of Eliza’s jilted lover, Boyer, and his friend, Selby. In a dialogue that posits a harsher and more direct attack on Eliza’s character than appears anywhere in the novel, and that repeatedly uses the title epithet that Foster called into question, Boyer reveals to Selby that he left Eliza because she “was unworthy of love, a finished coquette,” and that he was able to “see her faults, detect her artifice” (2.2.95-97). Selby’s reply further articulates the coquette stereotype, when he classes Eliza as a woman who, “to indulge her coquettish temper,/ had quite a mind to jilt, to smile upon,/ and jilt again” (105-107). In her focus on the socially-constructed causes rather than the consequences of a woman’s fall, Foster asks her readers to consider the assumptions surrounding the seemingly simple and straightforward stereotype adopted as her novel’s title. Nichols responds to such provoking social criticism by presenting a revised Eliza, whose characterization corresponds with the advice books of the day in its insistence on the coquette’s carelessness and her agenda of “conquering” suitors. By reclaiming those stereotypes, Nichols reveals the underlying threat Foster posed in her attempt to add complexity to the coquette figure by exposing the republican woman’s marriage anxiety.

It is not surprising that Nichols articulates a critical revision of Foster’s definition of the coquette/fallen woman via a dialogue between male characters. A closer look at Boyer’s character revisions in the play reveals the playwright’s careful attention to the male perspective. As I have argued, the most compelling and consequential shift in the adaptation of the novel is the play’s shift towards a male-centered character perspective. Foster’s novel predominantly features letters back and forth between female characters, while offering very few interactive, two-way exchanges between the men of the novel. In a revealing revision, Nichols’s play shifts the focus away from the women’s interactions and squarely with the agendas and interactions between male characters. Dialogues between male characters in the play outweigh, both in number and in substance, dialogues between women. Nichols replaces Eliza’s angst about her marriage choice with scenes that reveal Sanford’s schemes to seduce her and, most interestingly, with Reverend Boyer’s relief over finding out that she is a coquette in time to dump her and marry another woman.

Given the adaptation’s erasure of female voice, we should expect to see significant revisions made to the male characters. Boyer’s character in particular is remarkably different in the play. To begin with, the erasure of Eliza’s marriage anxiety automatically diminishes the repressive, patriarchal implications of Boyer’s character. Both Waldstreicher (205) and Stern (82) read Boyer as a representation of Eliza’s patriarchal past; indeed, as a replacement for Eliza’s father (who was also a minister and Eliza’s protector), Foster’s Boyer enacts an incestuous perpetuation of the authority that restricted Eliza’s life, and the subversive implication of that authority is obscured with the reduction of Eliza’s anxiety. More explicitly, Eliza’s jilted lover appears in the play as a stronger and more active character, a revision which Nichols accomplishes by altering the timeline of Foster’s story significantly. Foster’s Boyer endures Eliza’s conditional acceptance of his marriage proposal for about half the novel (i.e., several months), assenting to her indefinite postponement of their wedding. In the novel, Boyer complains passively to Selby that despite knowing that she was receiving attention from Sanford, he “cannot refuse to believe her! [and] cannot cease to love her!” and that “she has a command of [his] passions!” (165). In contrast, Nichols has Boyer renounce Eliza early in the play (Act I, Scene II), after the first instance of discovering her meeting in the garden with Sanford. Delaying Boyer’s abandonment of Eliza allows Foster to carve out plenty of space for explaining “the coquette’s” marriage anxiety, which results in the characterization of Boyer as weak, passive, and indecisive throughout most of the novel (that is, until his inevitable break from Eliza). By opening his play with Eliza’s fall, Nichols simultaneously silences Eliza’s anxieties and deliberations and endows Boyer with the power, agency, and passion that he lacked in the novel. Nichols literally removes Eliza’s voice (and strengthens Boyer’s), when, in the scene following her rendezvous with Sanford, Boyer forbids her from explaining her meeting: “No palliation, no extenuation! You have/ever strove to make me the dupe of your/coquettish artifices and intrigue, unworthy/ of regard, incapable of love [and] gratitude/ or honor, tho it tear my breast asunder,/ I forever, forever leave you” (1.2.72-77). Completely turning the tables on the power dynamics Foster maintained throughout most of her narrative leading up to Eliza’s fall, Nichols’s Eliza is restricted from communicating her own defense (the stage direction has Boyer “rush[ing] away” before Eliza has a chance to explain herself, thus disarming the freedom of communication offered by the epistolary form of Foster’s novel). Nichols allows Eliza only a passive response to Boyer’s decisive departure: that is, to faint, after exclaiming “distractedly,” “He’s gone, O he is forever gone! And/ left me to my heart’s anguish” (89-90).

In place of the female character dynamics central to the novel, Nichols’s adaptation carves out new space for Boyer’s friendship to Selby. In the novel, Boyer’s role ends after he has forsaken Eliza, with the exception of a fleeting mention of his engagement to the virtuous sister of his friend, Selby. The play adaptation, on the other hand, extends this part of the story, devoting an entire scene to a dialogue between Boyer and Selby on the subject of Boyer’s new engagement. Much unlike Foster’s rather marginal Selby, who functions mostly as an audience for Boyer’s letters about Eliza, Nichols’s Selby is spotlighted in a more significant dynamic with Boyer. The revised Boyer-Selby pair enjoys a brotherhood legitimized by Boyer’s betrothal to Selby’s sister.

The highlighted dynamic between Boyer and Selby replaces not only the female bonds of Foster’s novel, but also the heterosexual love bond typically featured in a sentimental plot. Even while Nichols elaborates upon Boyer’s new engagement, he does not give the character of Boyer’s bride/Selby’s sister a role of her own; rather, she exists only diegetically, via the dialogue between the men. After admitting to Selby his discovery that Eliza “was unworthy of love, a finished/ coquette,” Nichols’s Boyer expounds upon his sudden love for his best friend’s sister. Boyer’s romantic language in this dialogue serves to highlight the significance of his bond to Selby: “Then am I/ doubly happy: brother, it is your lovely,/ your virtuous sister, in whom the tenderest/ affections of my heart concentre.” Significantly, Boyer’s bliss about his new engagement seems to stem not from his pending marital union, but from the formalizing of a brotherhood via that marriage — “That after a course of faithful friendship, we are/ no less faithful brothers.” Adopting the symbolic joining of hands and hearts typically reserved for romantic unions, Boyer tells Selby, “Give me your hand, our hearts have long been one,” effecting a complete replacement of male-centered bonding for either a heterosexual or female-centered dynamic (2.2.135-141). Nichols’s reordering of gendered dynamics not only resists the female-centered activity of feminist plays and of the novel he adapted, but it also reveals an effort to resituate social responsibility and active agency as a masculine privilege.

With its reduction of female character dynamics, its removal of the coquette’s marriage anxiety, and its privileging of male agency, Nichols’s dramatic adaptation of Foster’s The Coquette offers a revealing contemporaneous critical response to the novel as well as to the exigency of dramatic literature as a popular genre for early American feminism. Whether we read Foster’s The Coquette as condemning Eliza’s conduct via the criticism of her female cohort, or as championing Eliza’s attempt to self-determine, or, probably most sensibly, as a nuanced and complicated representation of the social codes that explained, perhaps sympathetically, while also cautioning against, sexual transgression, the key to the novel’s woman-centered potential lies in the status it gives to female agency. With its specific erasure of female agency, its replacement of male for female characters and of male for female character relationships, and its resurrection of misogynous stereotypes, Nichols’s dramatic adaptation sheds light on the potential of Foster’s novel to provoke her contemporary Americans. Given the overtly political theme of the male playwright’s only other extant plays, we can hardly ignore the politicized dialogue enacted by his revisionist adaptation, especially in light of the radical feminist politics staged repeatedly by early American women. Appreciating Nichols’s adaptation as a critical response to The Coquette serves, then, not only to affirm the controversy of Foster’s representations, but also to restore to the novelist’s legacy her role within a cohort of early American literary women who called into question the gender hierarchies of the new republic.

 

Notes

1 There is little consensus about whether or not either political party favored women’s political participation. While the traditional assumption suggests that the elitist meritocracy of the Federalist party precluded women’s political activism (and, given his staunch Federalism, Cobbett’s attacks on Rowson’s political statements in Slaves lends much support to this position), more recently scholars have pointed out that the Republican party’s successful broadening of enfranchisement rights for men took voting rights away from some women who once had them. Rosemarie Zagarri argues convincingly that the Federalist party was more tolerant of women’s public speech and participation than the Republicans. (“Gender and the First Party System,” in Ben-Atar, Doron, and Barbara B. Oberg, eds, Federalists Reconsidered. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P. 1998 (118-134). The most realistic approaches to historicizing early American feminism recognize that feminist activity, and resistance to it, emerged in both major political parties of the day.

2 Because early American literary efforts to promote gender equality tended to deploy or re-encode constructed gender differences to enact their cultural interventions, the legitimacy of their feminism has been debated. Linda K. Kerber and Scott E. Casper have both called into question the extent to which the deployment of sentiment in works of early American history and literature, actually promoted women’s agency. Mary Kelley, on the other hand, makes a strong and compelling case that early American feminists seized upon the politicizing potential of sentiment to promote female agency and power. Angela Vietto’s Women and Authorship in Revolutionary America further exposes that such female-centered appropriation of early American gender codes predominated across multiple literary and historical genres. In applying the labels “feminist” to Warren, Rowson, and Foster, and in recognizing the “female agency” provided in their gendered representations, my argument is aligned with the positions of Kelley, Vietto, and others who credit the empowering potential of woman-centered literary projects. Other major studies on the cultural work of sentiment in early American women’s writing include those by Tompkins, Barnes, Stern, and Ellison.

3 Most feminist critics agree that Warren’s plays do not overtly apply republican concepts of liberty to women (see especially Nina Baym, “Mercy Otis Warren’s Gendered Melodrama of Revolution”); there is much support, however, for the notion that, as the Revolutionary era’s most liberated woman, Warren’s public voice and woman-centered literary representations made crucial feminist interventions. Burke, for instance, insists that “those who deny Warren recognition as a feminist are guilty of judging a woman of the past by contemporary standards” (6). For earlier, groundbreaking studies on Warren’s relationship to gender politics, see Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America; Norton, Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Woman, 1750-1800; and Joan Hoff Wilson and Sharon L. Billinger, "Mercy Otis Warren: Playwright, Poet, and Historian of the American Revolution.”

4 Burke suggests that the feminism of The Group lies in its vilifying Loyalists via their abusive and tyrannical treatment of women: “No longer content to limn the Loyalists’ evil solely through their lust for power and riches, which she focused on earlier, [Warren] delineates it primarily through their attitudes toward and treatment of women” (8).

5 For more on the compelling public debate over Slaves and gender codes, see Rust (123-149) and Branson (112-117).

6 Nathans examines extensively the history of anti-theatre sentiment in early American history, which, she explains, shifted from religious grounds pre-Revolution to financial and patriotic grounds during and following the Revolution. Reflecting the urgent patriotic desire “to sever cultural connections to Great Britain,” the first national theatre ban also reveals, according to Nathan, that “the Revolutionary War and the actions of the Continental Congress fundamentally changed the nature of anti-theatricalism in America, transforming it from a simple matter of religious preference to one of patriotic duty” (37).

 

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