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Charlotte Charke, in a detail from William Hogarth's "Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn" (1738)
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 unlicensed presentation.

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 now,
By Gin, I swear ne'er to receive thee more,
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 a whore?
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 more weeks.


Sources Cited:

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.


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