Reinventing Sylvia:
Androgynous Womanhood in Farquhar and Wertenbaker

by John D. Tatter
Birmingham-Southern College

The motif of androgyny in literature, particularly in the drama, has fascinated me ever since one day in graduate school when, during a conference at Ohio University on women's literature, I heard Carolyn Heilbrun speak on androgyny in Shakespeare. A few weeks later, after having read Toward a Recognition of Androgyny, I wrote Heilbrun asking whether she could offer me any direction in developing a dissertation topic on Restoration drama with a focus on gender balance in plot and characterization. She wrote me back to say that the drama of the Restoration and eighteenth century was "undiscover'd country" to her, but that she was delighted to have sparked my dissertation research. She encouraged me to see what I could find.

What I found was myself roughly in the position of many of the male characters in Restoration drama, attracted to a perspective that was not natural to me, confused because the traditions I had affirmed and practiced ran counter to that perspective, and frustrated in that, rather than receiving specific directions from a mentor, I was simply being nurtured in a rather nebulous way. Unlike most of my male professors, who at times seemed in a paternal way to impose their critical perspective on the text so that their students might eventually carry on their legacy, Heilbrun encouraged me to be open to the text, to embrace it and be embraced by it, to penetrate it and be penetrated by it.

I went on to write a dissertation on the motif of androgyny in the heroic plays and tragedies of John Dryden. What I discovered in my encounters with those texts was that Dryden's heroines provide a model of behavior for their heroes, a model that complements masculine impulses with feminine ones and that provides the basis for civilized human interaction in a polite society. The hero begins each of the plays as a rough, powerful, warrior whose martial prowess has been his measure of success. What he learns from the heroine, who resists his attempts to take her by force, is to balance his aggression with compassion, his strength with submissiveness, his pride with sensitivity to the needs of others. While the heroic plays end happily for the heroine and transformed hero, and the tragedies end with their demise, in both cases the central couple emerge as models of civilized, androgynous behavior that the playwright encourages his audience to emulate.

Although I chose not to explore Dryden's comedies for the motif of androgyny (dealing with a dozen plays was more than enough at the time), my students and I have since found it in a number of the most frequently anthologized Restoration comedies. Their plot lines are remarkably similar to that of Dryden's heroic plays. The Restoration rake hero's field of battle may be the drawing room rather than the great outdoors, and he may fence with words rather than let his sword speak for him, but he is just as aggressive, proud, and insensitive as the earlier warrior hero. His conquests, up until he meets the heroine, have been easy. She presents a challenge to him not so much because she represents unconquered territory but because she understands his tactics and can match him in verbal wit play. Like her heroic counterpart, she wants eventually to marry the hero not so much by taming him (she values his masculine traits--indeed, she emulates them) as by establishing an equal partnership. In order for their partnership to be equal, however, he must develop his latent feminine traits, and in order to do so he must learn to respect and embrace femininity.

Horner, in Wycherley's The Country Wife (1675), for example, poses as a eunuch in order to gain the confidence of the city husbands and, thereby, gain access to their wives. What happens to him, however, when he sloughs off (at least publicly) the trappings of masculinity, is that he becomes sensitive to the plight of his female partners who are marginalized by a patriarchal society that defines them as property. While the audience may laugh at the chauvinistic husbands whom Horner cuckolds, it also affirms the value of equality and respect between romantic partners. If, as Harold Weber has pointed out in his study of the Restoration rake hero, Horner directs his masculine aggressiveness toward his male rivals, he never turns it on the women. In fact, at the end of the play, rather than destroy the honor of the title character whom he has seduced, he vows to protect it.

More sparks fly between the hero and heroine of Etherege's The Man of Mode (1676) than between Horner and his women, perhaps because, as Weber has also shown, Dorimant directs his aggressiveness at men and women alike. He learns to value femininity not because he has placed himself in the social position of a woman but because Harriet has earned his respect. Unlike his two conquests in the play, Belinda and Mrs. Loveit, who are ruled by their emotions, Harriet displays the balance she has learned to maintain between her love for Dorimant and her determination to be independent. Moreover, she is Dorimant's absolute equal in witty repartee. Although Etherege leaves his transformation at the end of the play ambiguous, Dorimant at least agrees to follow Harriet into the country and to court her there. In doing so, he makes two important commitments: he submits to her will at least temporarily, and he agrees to leave behind his city intrigues. She has revealed her masculine intellectual tenacity and aggressive spirit; if they are to marry, he must develop his feminine capacity for love and fidelity.

George Farquhar, in The Recruiting Officer (1706), follows the lead not of Dryden, Wycherley, and Etherege but of William Congreve, whose Mirabell and Millamant in The Way of the World (1700) are each fully androgynous and committed to equality in marriage from the beginning of the play. Neither Captain Plume, the title character, nor Sylvia Balance, daughter of the local Justice, is particularly dynamic. The movement of Farquhar's play, like Congreve's, emphasizes revelation of character rather than change.

Plume, unlike his rakish counterparts earlier in the Restoration, wants to marry; most important, he wants to marry not to refill his empty purse with his bride's fortune but, rather, to "raise recruits the matrimonial way" (125) as he says at the end of the final act. While it is true that Plume has sown his wild oats earlier in his life, claiming to his friend Worthy that he has "been constant to fifteen [women] at one time, but never melancholy for one" (16), and learning early in the first act that he has fathered a child on one of the local village women, he has reformed. Although he invites Rose, who tries to sell him her chickens, up to his lodgings, he does so not to debauch her but to use her to get to her brother, whom Plume wants to recruit for his regiment. He may have the appearance of a rake, but he has little of the substance. In a conversation during Act IV with Sylvia, who is at the time posing as the young gentleman Jack Wilful in order to test his fidelity, Plume repudiates the reputation of rakishness that she charges him with: "No, faith," he says,

I am not that rake that the world imagines. I have got an air of freedom which people mistake for lewdness in me as they mistake formality in others for religion. The world is all a cheat, only I take mine which is undesigned to be more excusable than theirs, which is hypocritical. I hurt nobody but myself, but they abuse all mankind. (75)
That Plume makes this claim to Sylvia when she is in disguise as a man is important both to her and to the audience. The true Restoration rake, when in conversation with other men, brags of his conquests: he reveals his most masculine tendencies. By contrast, Plume throughout the play reveals masculine aggressiveness and rationality complemented by feminine compassion and selflessness.

If neither the hero nor heroine of The Recruiting Officer is dynamic or in need of reform, the heroine is far more interesting, and her transvestism is both the center of its plot and the embodiment of its theme of androgyny. "Breeches parts" for actresses were common during the period, and Farquhar uses this popular stage technique as his predecessors had to titillate the male members of the audience. He differs from many Restoration playwrights, however, in that the laughter he evokes through Sylvia as Jack Wilful is directed not at her but at the stereotype of the fop she adopts. Unlike Wycherley's Fidelia in The Plain Dealer (1677) or even Shakespeare's Viola or Rosalind, all of whom are to a degree inept at playing a masculine role, Sylvia is successful precisely because she has already revealed her masculine qualities in her own persona. The following exchange between Sylvia and her cousin Melinda in the first act is revealing:

Melinda: Our education, cousin, was the same, but our temperaments had nothing alike. You have the constitution of a horse.
Sylvia: So far as to be troubled with neither spleen, colic, nor vapors. I need no salt for my stomach, no hartshorn for my head, nor wash for my complexion. I can gallop all the morning after the hunting horn and all the evening after a fiddle. In short, I can do everything with my father but drink and shoot flying, and I'm sure I can do everything my mother could, were I put to the trial. (23)
Later in the scene, Sylvia explains to Melinda that not only does she lack the stereotypical shallowness of most fashionable young women of the day but she also values what she terms "manly virtues," both in the man she loves and in herself:
I should not like a man with confined thoughts; it shows a narrowness of soul. Constancy is but a dull, sleepy quality at best; they will hardly admit it among the manly virtues. Nor do I think it deserves a place with bravery, knowledge, policy, justice, and some other qualities that are proper to that noble sex. In short, Melinda, I think a petticoat a mighty simple thing, and I'm heartily tired of my sex. (25)
Melinda jokes that Sylvia is tired not of her sex but of her virginity. Sylvia objects, saying that what she's tired of are the larger restrictions placed on her as a woman: both what she's restricted to and restricted from. Were she a man, she says, she "should endeavor to know the world, which a man can never do thoroughly without half a hundred friendships and as many amours" (24).

Sylvia's emphasis on the importance of both friendship and love as ways of knowing the world is, I think, very important to her character and Farquhar's motif of androgyny. Dryden claimed in "The Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy" (1679) that Shakespeare was a more comprehensive playwright than Fletcher because, while Fletcher wrote fine love scenes, Shakespeare was a master at dramatizing both love and friendship. Dryden defined friendship as masculine and love as "effeminate." Plume suggests much the same thing when, after finding out early in the play that Sylvia has provided for his bastard child, he exclaims,

Is there anything of woman in this? No, 'tis a noble and generous, manly friendship. Show me another woman that would lose an inch of her prerogative that way, without tears, fits, and reproaches. The common jealousy of her sex, which is nothing but their avarice of pleasure, she despises, and can part with the lover though she dies for the man. (21)
It is important not to assume Plume's remark to mean that he finds Sylvia unfeminine. Plume is speaking here specifically of Sylvia's masculine, almost paternal response to his child by another woman. His earlier praise of her androgynous character makes her balance clear: "I love Sylvia," he claims.
I admire her frank, generous disposition. There's something in that girl more than a woman. Her sex is but a foil to her. The ingratitude, dissimulation, envy, pride, avarice, and vanity of her sister females do but set off their contraries in her. In short, were I once a general, I would marry her. (19)
Sylvia, then, is not less feminine for all her masculine qualities but, instead, "more than a woman." Indeed, she defines herself as androgynous at the very end of the play when she explains the purpose of her disguise to Melinda:
Do you think it strange, cousin, that a woman should change? But, I hope, you'll excuse a change that has proceeded from constancy. I altered my outside because I was the same within, and only laid by the woman to make sure of my man. That's my history. (122)

Timberlake Wertenbaker made use of Sylvia's history when, in 1988, she wrote Our Country's Good, a play based on Thomas Keneally's historical novel, The Playmaker. The story takes place in Sydney, Australia, during 1788-89, and it dramatizes the historical events surrounding a production of The Recruiting Officer by transported convicts. Although she works with many of his themes, Wertenbaker goes beyond Farquhar in two important ways. First, following Keneally's novel, she makes central the personal development of the convict who plays the part of Sylvia. Second, Wertenbaker emphasizes the transformation of the cast of Farquhar's play from an unstable collection of antagonistic misfits into an interdependent, tight-knit community. Wertenbaker's play, then, is less an illustration of androgyny than a record of how both an individual and a social group can become androgynous.

Mary Brenham, cast as Sylvia, begins the play as an extremely passive and nearly silent woman. When she and Dabby Bryant, who is eventually cast as Rose, appear at the first audition, Dabby does all the talking. Mary's first words to Lieutenant Ralph Clark, the British officer who directs the play and who plays the part of Captain Plume, are Sylvia's lines he has asked her to read. Mary's extreme passivity and submissiveness are revealed to be the result of her guilt from allowing one of the sailors to use her sexually in return for extra rations during the voyage south. She has lost her self-respect and self-confidence, and has become in her own eyes as worthless as the British soldiers consider all of the convict women. Although Dabby points out to her that "if God didn't want women to be whores he shouldn't have created men who pay for their bodies" (30), Mary takes all the blame on herself. The conversation between the two women at this point is important both because it reveals Mary's damaged self-concept and because it outlines her path toward recovery:

Mary: How can I play Sylvia? She's brave and strong. She couldn't have done what I've done.
Dabby: She didn't spend eight months and one week on a convict ship. Anyway, you can pretend you're her.
Mary: No. I have to be her.
Dabby: Why?
Mary: Because that's acting. (30-31)
Ralph Clark hopes that her part in the play will redeem Mary from what he calls her "corruption" and teach her more ladylike qualities. He defends the play to a number of his less-than-enthusiastic fellow officers with the following:
I asked some of the convict women to read me some lines, these women who behave often no better than animals. And it seemed to me, as one or two--I'm not saying all of them, not at all--but one or two, saying those well-balanced lines of Mr Farquhar, they seemed to acquire a dignity, they seemed--they seemed to lose some of their corruption. There was one, Mary Brenham, she read so well, perhaps this play will keep her from selling herself to the first marine who offers her bread-- (16)
What Ralph does not consider is that the play may teach Mary not to exchange one patriarchal female stereotype for another, not to be transformed from whore to lady, but to take on the balanced characteristics of Sylvia. And that is exactly what happens.

At the beginning of Act II, Mary conducts a rehearsal of the play for the absent Ralph, and by this time, several months after the parts have been cast, she has acquired an air of authority. It is significant, however, that she tells the rest of the cast that she is taking on a role: "The Lieutenant," she says, "has asked me to stand in his place so we don't lose time. We'll start with the first scene between Melinda and Brazen" (56). The convict cast as Captain Brazen asks how he can play the part while wearing chains, and Mary replies, "This is the theatre. We will believe you." All of the convict players by this time have at least begun to realize the hopes that the Governor of the colony expresses to Ralph in the following scene:

In the Meno, one of Plato's great dialogues, have you read it, Lieutenant, Socrates demonstrates that a slave boy can learn the principles of geometry as well as a gentleman.... It is a matter of reminding the slave of what he knows, of his own intelligence. And by intelligence you may read goodness, talent, the innate qualities of human beings.... When he treats the slave boy as a rational human being, the boy becomes one, he loses his fear, and he becomes a competent mathematician. A little more encouragement and he might become an extraordinary mathematician. Who knows? You must see your actors in that light. (57)
Mary eventually takes on the characteristics of Sylvia when Ralph responds to her offstage as Plume responds to Sylvia onstage in Farquhar's play, as an equal partner. Mary is off by herself one evening rehearsing Sylvia's encounter with Plume in Act IV when Plume offers to share his quarters and his bed with the person he thinks is Jack Wilful. Ralph approaches her, and she asks him,
Am I doing it well? It's difficult to play a man. It's not the walk, it's the way you hold your head. A man doesn't bow his head so much and never at an angle. I must face you without lowering my head. Let's try it again. (78)
It is at this point that Mary and Ralph give in to the attraction they have felt for each other during the months of rehearsals, but it is important that for each of them that theirs is the first sexual relationship that has not been structured according to the hierarchical standards and roles for eighteenth-century marriages. The words they exchange demonstrate that each has been transformed:
Ralph: Don't lower your head. Sylvia wouldn't. I've never looked at the body of a woman before.
Mary: Your wife?
Ralph: It wasn't right to look at her. Let me see you.
Mary: Yes. Let me see you.
Ralph: Yes. (78-79)
In a sense, Our Country's Good answers a question that has been debated about Restoration drama since Jeremy Collier raised it in his Short View of the English Stage. Critics have argued over the ability of the drama, particularly comedies that seem to reward rather than punish the shortcomings of their characters, to promote positive social change. It is no surprise that, since she has each cast member in her play take on at least two parts, that of a convict and that of a soldier, Wertenbaker has the actress who plays Mary also play the part of the chaplain who challenges the moral grounds of Farquhar's play. Our Country's Good is about potential, about an individual woman's potential to develop her masculine traits and become fully human, about the potential of a group of convicts steeped in masculine competitiveness and greed to develop compassion and devotion for each other and to become a community, about the potential of an actor to play seemingly opposed parts, about an audience's potential, perhaps only after repeated encounters with the drama, to understand and adopt the values it embodies.

Finally, Wertenbaker goes beyond Farquhar and his contemporaries in that she responds to two complaints feminists have raised about androgyny. First, the character of Mary celebrates the full range of feminine characteristics, not just the ones acceptable to the patriarchal society represented by Ralph Clark early in the play. Second, Mary's growth is central to the plot; instead of placing woman on a pedestal and using her, as Dryden does in his heroic plays, as an ideal that the central (and far more interesting) male hero learns to emulate, Wertenbaker focuses on the difficulties and accomplishments of a woman in the patriarchal world of eighteenth-century British society. It is that woman's transformation that makes possible the transformation of the world. As Carolyn Heilbrun encouraged me to be open to the possibilities of the texts on which I focused my dissertation, Timberlake Wertenbaker encourages her audience to be open to its own transformation, its own potential for androgyny.

This paper was presented at the Southeastern American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Conference,
University of Alabama at Birmingham, March 1993.