A group of unmarried women decide to encloister together on an idyllic estate inherited by their ringleader, Lady Happy. No men are allowed on the premises at any time. The women’s chambers are lush and seasonally thematic. There are fresh flowers everywhere and the wine never stops flowing. Only the choicest cuts of meat are served. Every room has the perfect selfie mirror. And again–no men allowed.
What sounds like an amalgamation of a modern-day women’s communal utopia, the campiest and most luxurious you can imagine, was actually the brainchild of Margaret Cavendish, a 17th-century author and philosopher. Which means that for more than three centuries, women have been in pursuit of pleasure unadulterated by men, however “modern” that idea might seem now.
On April 4, Ghostlight Ensemble broadcast The Convent of Pleasure, written by Cavendish and published in 1668, as the first in their new reading series, For Your (Re)Consideration, which explores the works of historically overlooked female playwrights.
Cavendish’s play is the first of what will be weekly Sunday readings broadcast through May 2, and all performances will be available for streaming on-demand through May 9. In addition to being an overlooked, female-written script, The Convent of Pleasure, as Ghostlight emphasizes, is a queer, nonbinary narrative, too; Lady Happy falls in love with a woman, a princess who arrives at the convent and who inexplicably becomes a prince at the end of the play.
“We’re gathering together as a community to tell some really important and impactful stories and celebrate the narratives of the unheard and overlooked throughout history,” says Andrew Coopman, a Seattle-based storytelling interdisciplinary artist, who directed The Convent of Pleasure for Ghostlight. “The sharing of this piece wasn’t about the performance, it was about the sharing and celebration of this narrative that had been overlooked.”
The Convent of Pleasure was never performed during Cavendish’s lifetime (she died in 1673), meaning that–even for the play’s author–the play wasn’t exactly about performance, so much as it was about the opportunity to gather together and discuss the various sexy and heady themes Cavendish explores: marriage, sexuality, power, performance, and more. It was originally written by Cavendish as a closet drama, the formatting of which translated perfectly to the Zoom platform.
“Translating Convent of Pleasure to online performance was really centered in this idea of: how do we make it campy and fun?” Coopman says. “As a closet drama, it was about a group of Margaret Cavendish’s closest friends gathering in the parlor, probably with some sherry, and reading this play together, and having a good time doing it. And so for us it was like, ‘Well, let’s just gather online and get campy and get creative and tell this story.'”
Coopman says the campy approach they took to the script allowed for more heartfelt conversations around the play’s subject matter amongst the cast. Cavendish published this play under her own name–a rarity for the time–but as much as it’s groundbreaking for both its authorship and subject matter, it is not without its problematic aspects, Coopman said.
“This beautiful romance comedy about two women falling in love is suddenly overtaken by Margaret’s husband in the fourth act for no explicit reason,” Coopman explains. Two sections of the play are denoted as “Written by My Lord Duke.”
“Maybe he was embarrassed by this love story that his wife wrote, who knows?” Coopman says. “Maybe Margaret was experiencing real questions about her gender identity. I think that’s where the idea of queer identity not being a revolutionary idea of the 1980s and the rise of the AIDS epidemic comes in. Queer humans have been here throughout history. We’ve always been here, we’ve always been queer, and it’s time for our stories to get told.”
“I’m immensely collaborative in my work,” Coopman says. “I consider myself a very collaborative director that welcomes the creativity of all the artists to the table, and [what resulted] was the manifestation of creativity and conversation about this play from 1668, centered in the goal of having fun.”
Ghostlight Ensemble member Holly Robison curated the (Re)Consideration series after initially having the idea a few years ago, which is when she first came across The Enchantment by Victoria Benedictsson, who was said to be an inspiration for the much-lauded Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, as well as August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. As a performer and burgeoning director, Robison said she was inspired to seek out more female playwrights and scripts by women that would inevitably include varied and dynamic female roles, rather than just one great female character of a man’s creation.
“In my research, I came across this description of Victoria Benedictsson as a contemporary of Ibsen and Strindberg, and [Ibsen and Strindberg] are produced consistently and constantly and over and over again,” Robison says. “I thought, ‘Why have I heard of so many productions of these plays, but I’ve never heard of this woman?'”
Robison is directing Clare Bayley’s adaptation of The Enchantment for Ghostlight on May 2.
As a whole, the (Re)Consideration series is about challenging the idea that anything outside the heteronormative, white male creative realm is in any way “revolutionary” or a product of recent culture.
“It’s not that they weren’t there, but they were either marginalized or they weren’t cultivated the way the mainstream gatekeepers cultivated [male playwrights],” Robison says. “It’s not just, ‘Well those are clearly masterpieces,’ I’m not going to argue that [male-produced] works aren’t masterpieces, but also who [else] didn’t get the cultivation? When you’re a playwright, you’re writing a play that you’re handing off to an ecosystem to create and develop, and if that doesn’t happen, your skill and your talent will not get cultivated.”
Women, people of color, and queer humans have been writing and creating since the dawn of time. And their work has always been revolutionary in its own way, even if the celebration of such is some 300 years delayed. v