A Lost Play Recovered?
Charlotte Charke's Tit for Tat; or, Comedy and Tragedy at
By Joel Schechter
The eighteenth-century English actress
Charlotte Charke (1713-1760) continues to attract attention as
an author and as the rebellious, cross-dressing daughter of England's
poet laureate, Colley Cibber. Her 1755 autobiography, one of the
first published by a woman, recounts some of Charke's adventures
as a puppeteer, single mother, playwright and strolling player
arrested for vagrancy. Although she suffered a few scandals and
spent time in prison, some of Charke's offenses are now viewed
more favorably. Her rejection of patriarchy, and her impersonation
of men onstage and off, anticipated the refusal of conventional
gender roles that continues in our own day.
Charke also anticipated what we now call
performance art. She turned her own daily life into an imitation
of art; when in prison, she sang songs of the popular stage outlaw,
Macheath, as if she was the highwayman herself. Charke also played
The Beggar's Opera roles of Macheath and Polly Peachum
onstage, although not both on the same night. Besides performing
in Henry Fielding's version of Moliere's play, The Mock Doctor,
Charke became a quack doctor offstage, and compared the two situations
in her autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte
Charke, Youngest Daughter of Colley Cibber, Esq., Written by Herself.
The autobiography was written in installments
when Charke needed cash. While she did not hesitate to publish
personal stories about herself, and also published her first play
as soon as she wrote it, there is a curious absence in the documents
that survive. Two of her plays are missing -- or so it has seemed.
Charlotte Charke wrote and published her first play, The Art
of Management, in 1735; but two other plays attributed to
her receive no mention in her memoir, and their texts have eluded
scholars until now.
One of those lost plays may be more accessible
than theatre historians thought. During a period when she was
desperate for money to pay debts, Charke performed in the play
titled Tit for Tat; or, Comedy and Tragedy at War. Presented
at London's James Street Theatre on March 16, 1743, the evening
was advertised as a benefit for 'the author, Mrs. Charke," and
the cross-dressing author took the lead role of the rake Lovegirlo,
according to Kathryn Shevelow's brief account of the event in
her Charke biography. [Shevelow, 304] No copy of the play text
has been found for the past three centuries.
But its absence constitutes an important
clue to the history of the play. It could be that Charke chose
not to publish Tit for Tat because it was originally
Henry Fielding's play, not hers. A close reading of documents
from the period suggests that Charke may have adapted Fielding's
satire, The Convent-Garden Tragedy, or simply gave it
a new title. If she advertised herself as "the author, Mrs. Charke"
for the 1743 production of the play, that was not completely misleading;
she had been an author earlier in her life when she wrote The
Art of Management. The actress known for impersonating men
in a variety of "breeches" and "travesty" roles assumed the mantle
of a male author (Fielding) this time, if she turned his play
She was no stranger to Henry Fielding's
work, having performed several plays with his Great Mogul's Company
of Comedians seven years earlier in London. Charke also staged
The Covent-Garden Tragedy with puppets at her own venue,
Punch's Theatre, in 1738. Fielding's farce, first performed by
actors at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on June 1, 1732, featured
in its list of characters a rake named Lovegirlo, just as Charke's
Tit for Tat did according to an advertisement for her
production. Charke also would have known the Fielding play because
her brother, Theophilius Cibber, originated the role of Lovegirlo
in the 1732 Drury Lane premiere.
In his preface to a reprint of the play,
Simon Trussler notes that after 1732, The Covent-Garden Tragedy
had no other professional productions in the eighteenth century;
unfavorable response to its depiction of brothel life left it
neglected. Trussler makes no reference to Charke's use of the
play for her puppet theatre.
Until the original manuscript of her play
is found, one can only speculate exactly what Charke borrowed
or wrote in Tit for Tat. But if she borrowed Fieldings's
play, that could explain why the script was never published under
her name. It was published under Henry Fielding's name in 1732,
and sold to the public for one shilling a copy. Charke's debt
to Fielding's text might have been noticed by spectators attending
the James Street show in 1743; but no objections or reviews survived
in print. The James Street Theatre was "illegitimate" in any case
-- not a patent theatre like Covent Garden or the Theatre Royal
at Drury Lane -- and its productions in that respect were illicit.
Spectators who entered the house were complicit in an unlicensed
One other connection between Fielding and
Charke might be traced. It is unlikely but not impossible that
Fielding derived some inspiration for The Covent-Garden Tragedy
from Charlotte Charke, who knew about rakes, since her husband
Richard was a Lovegirlo of the first order -- a debauchee without
shame -- before he left Charlotte for life in the West Indies
in 1733. The marriage was a disaster; but as a result of it, Charlotte
knew at least one rake -- Richard Charke -- well enough that she
could portray such a character with confidence on stage.
The subtitle of Charke's play, The
War Between Comedy and Tragedy, summed up a kind of combat
that is rampant in Fielding's play, too, as his dialogue mocks
the tragic drama of his era, and wages war against its conventions
through parody. The plot of The Covent-Garden Tragedy
rarely becomes serious or tragic: two whores employed by Mother
Punch Bowl argue over which of them deserves payments from Lovegirlo.
Jealousy drives one of the women, Stormandra, to seek the death
of the rake loved by her rival, Kissinda. Stormandra informs her
friend, Captain Bilkum:
'Tis War not Love must try your Manhood
By Gin, I swear ne'er to receive thee
Till curs'd Lovegirlo's Blood has
dy'd thy Sword.
After the call for war in Fielding's play,
Lovegirlo's death by Bilkum's sword is reported by Leathersides,
who claims to have witnessed the fight. In fact the rake lives
on and returns to the arms of Kissinda.
The duel between the two men constitutes
a kind of "tit for tat." A second series of blows takes the form
of Fielding's parodic blank verse that mocks the tragic and heroic
tenor of the brothel conflicts. Here too comedy wars against tragedy.
Overwrought references to lowlife transactions mimic and undermine
statements of jealousy and revenge. Simon Trussler observed in
his introduction to the play: "the setting of his Covent-Garden
Tragedy in a brothel allowed Fielding to satirize false heroics
by attributing them to ignoble characters and causes; to expose
the moral falsity of poetic justice by extending its improbable
mercy to pimps and whores; and, incidentally, to mock the newly-emergent
form of domestic tragedy, that distant ancestor of nineteenth-century
melodrama and the problem play."
The result is no ordinary tragedy, as the
play's prologue warns:
Our Poet from unknown, untasted Springs,
A curious Draught of Tragic Nectar brings.
From Covent-Garden, culls delicious Stores,
Of Bullies, Bawds, and Sots, and Rakes, and Whores.
Ultimately, the playwright offers a happy
ending for the rakes and whores, as they survive their rivalry
and embrace one another; it is hardly the upright moral resolution
a sentimental eighteenth-century audience would expect. Charke,
who spent many days and nights on the margins of society, may
have regarded the tragicomic lower depths of the play as her own
world, in a play she could call her own.
While Trussler adeptly analyzed the innovations
in Fielding's play, The Convent-Garden Tragedy merits
more attention as a vehicle for Charlotte Charke. The actress
whose husband frequented brothels years earlier knew what the
rake was talking about in Fielding's play. It could have been
her former husband speaking when Lovegirlo said:
Who but a Fool wou'd marry that can keep
What is this Virtue that Mankind adore?
After her own failed marriage with Richard
Charke, the actress probably no longer regarded married life as
a "virtue" any more than Lovegirlo did. Charke became a "Lovegirlo"
in another sense. She chose to live with a woman, one Mrs. Brown,
for a number of years. Portraying a lover of woman on stage was
appropriate for Charke in this regard, too.
To make Fielding's play more her own in
1743, Charke could well have changed not only the title, but also
some lines, including the closing couplet. After reuniting the
rake with his beloved mistress, the original text had Lovegirlo
conclude his victory with an inconsequential announcement:
From such Examples as of this and that,
We are taught to know I know not what.
Given the play's mockery of poetic justice
and revenge tragedy, Charke could have revised Fielding's last
lines to announce:
From such Examples as of this and that
We see no need to return tit for tat.
The change would have insured that the
text included Charke's play title, and concluded with a final
rejection of revenge. Spectators seeking more conventional British
justice or praise of virtue could eschew the theatre and go to
a courtroom, as Henry Fielding did by entering the legal profession
after censorship drove him from the stage through the Licensing
Act of 1737. If Charke took over Fielding's play, she also continued
his tradition of stage satire, mocked highflown language and the
tragic conventions of her father's generation. In the role of
the rake Lovegirlo, the actress would have been able to speak
derisively of marriage arrangements and patriarchal roles she
rejected in her own life; and the author's benefit night production
of Tit for Tat; or, Comedy and Tragedy at War might have
provided enough money to keep her out of debtor's prison a few
Charlotte Charke. A Narrative of the
Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke, Youngest Daughter of Colley Cibber,
Esq., Written by Herself. London: 1755.
Kathryn Shevelow. Charlotte. New
York: Picador, 2005.
Simon Trussler. Burlesque Plays of
the Eighteenth Century (including The Covent- Garden
Tragedy) London: Oxford University Press, 1969.