A Lost Play Recovered?
Charlotte Charke's Tit for Tat; or, Comedy and Tragedy at War
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 into hers.
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
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
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 now,
By Gin, I swear ne'er to receive thee more,
Till curs'd Lovegirlo's Blood has dy'd
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
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
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
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
Who but a Fool wou'd marry that can keep a
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
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
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 more weeks.
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:
Simon Trussler. Burlesque Plays of the Eighteenth
Century (including The Covent- Garden Tragedy) London:
Oxford University Press, 1969.