“ Nell Gwyn and Restoration Culture”
I am proposing a course entitled “Nell Gwyn and Restoration Culture” to be run in the Queens College undergraduate program as English 322: Literature of the Restoration in Fall 2004. The course could also be run as English 341: Drama of the Restoration and Eighteenth Century. Why teach Restoration culture through the figure of Nell Gwyn? Gwyn lived within both high and low culture of the period, including the stage and Charles II’s court. Students coping with Restoration literature are sometimes daunted by the sheer volume of historical and biographical references in the literature of the period. How do you encourage undergraduate students to appreciate the people and events behind the references? How do you capture the flavor of a literature that is often topical, and explain what prompted such topicality? Grounding a course in Gwyn will allow the students to get to know one figure in depth and then radiate outwards into the wider literary, theatrical and royal culture—from Pepys to Evelyn to Rochester to Behn. A study of Gwyn leads naturally to the key literary genres of drama, panegyric and satire. When we read and analyze plays in which she starred, thinking about them in terms of her performance will allow us to reflect on the performance history of Restoration drama and to discuss a number of issues in the drama, including “breeches” parts, typecasting, the management of the theater and royal patronage.
Ideally, students will conceive of themselves as detectives trying to piece together Gwyn’s life and seeking to position her in reference to her social and political context. The course allows for a broad-based cultural studies approach, where we will be combining the literary texts (like satire or drama) with research into some of the material and cultural artifacts of the period. Along with written materials, we will look at depictions of the house in Pall Mall that Nell Gwyn was given by Charles II, accounts of Gwyn’s elaborate silver bedpost, and visual depictions of royal mistresses by artists such as Peter Lely.
The course would be split between a study of Restoration drama (comedy and tragedy) and a focus on Gwyn. In order to theorize our in-depth work on Gwyn, I would like the students to examine the idea that a person from a given time-period might in some way be “representative.” In groups and as a class, students would be asked to think through the benefits and limitations of focusing on an individual in order to explore a historical period. They might even do an in-class assignment where they chose a figure from the twentieth or twenty-first century who had ties to high and low culture and whose life could be an entry point to contemporary culture just as I am proposing Gwyn as an entry point into Restoration British culture. Likely figures include Princess Diana or Madonna, since their lives straddle different cultural sectors, including business, government (monarchy), film, dance, and popular music.
While students will be introduced to Gwyn’s biography and context throughout the course, the first five weeks will set the foundations for work on her biography and context. In the first five weeks, the course will cover four Restoration plays, and will introduce students to both comedy and tragedy. As we move from the fifth week into the sixth week, we will read excerpts from Derek Pearson and Graham Hopkin’s recent biographies (both published in the year 2000) and explore accounts of Gwyn recorded by her contemporaries. As we explore Gwyn’s biography, we will look at pictures of Gwyn by various artists, contrasting them to portrayals of figures such as Catherine of Braganza or Barbara Palmer. Interpreting such visual images will allow us to discuss topics like iconography, ideas of beauty, and the role of politics in aesthetic portrayals of this nature. Finally, students will get an introduction to genres such as satire and panegyric, using poems that disparage or praise Nell Gwyn or Charles II. They will be given some material to try and understand the culture of Restoration satire (excerpts from studies like Vincent Carretta’s The Snarling Muse: Verbal and Visual Political Satire from Pope to Churchill, Felicity Nussbaum’s The Brink of All We Hate: English Satires on Women, 1660-1750, and Dustin Griffin’s Satire: A Critical Reintroduction). There will certainly be attention to the nature of the Restoration court, including the interaction between the aristocracy and the emergent middle class (which Deborah C. Payne talks about in her article about Restoration actresses). Norbert Elias’s The Civilizing Process might provide some general context for the idea of “courtliness,” and excerpts from Habermas might allow us to think about issues of the emergent public sphere.
Four weeks will be devoted to some of the plays in which Nell performed. We will look at the plays as a whole and study her roles within them. In this unit, we will study performance practice of the period, including Thomas Betterton’s History of the Restoration Stage. We will certainly make reference to our earlier reading about Nell’s performances that we covered in the first unit. We will deepen our consideration of the first English actresses and the way in which the “breeches” part functioned dramatically, comparing Nell’s career to that of other actresses of the period.
I will be particularly interested in hearing the student’s remarks about
the differences between well-known Restoration plays (the ones that are printed
in John Wilson’s book, for example) and lesser-known plays like An Evening’s
Love, or The Mock Astrologer (1668). If time permits, we will go to the library
and look at The London Stage, 1660-1800 to try and determine how often these
plays were performed, and by whom. This investigation will continue our commitment
to performance history.
In order to come to a fuller understanding of dramatic technique, each student will complete a dramatic study of two of the plays in which Gwyn starred. Their work will be placed on the class web or Blackboard site, so that all of the plays and questions are covered collectively, and students can share their work with one another. The study will be divided into two sections: one responding to the play as a whole, and the other asking students to respond specifically to Gwyn as an actress in the play. How did her presence affect the viewing of the play?
The final unit will take place in the eleventh to thirteenth weeks of the course. This unit will be devoted to student presentations comparing two biographies of Gwyn, or reporting on fictional portrayals of this actress. As a figure who has been well-sketched in biographical accounts, Nell Gwyn’s life has been a flashpoint for speculative and imaginative engagement as well as continued scholarship. Through an exploration of this varied material, students will consider how post-Restoration audiences have constructed the Restoration period and Nell herself. How have different historical moments viewed her? Finally, since Gwyn is a continued source of cultural production and speculation, students will produce their own creative response. They might write their own “panegyrics to Nelly” or fill in some “missing dialogue” from her plays. They might pretend to be one of her many rivals, and write her a poison pen letter; they might write some notes from the point of view of a twenty-first century comic actress admiring her great predecessor. Such imaginative engagement will be a useful means of reviewing the work we have done all term. We will discuss the way in which our knowledge of Gwyn’s life is necessarily limited by the paucity of the historical record and the biased nature of the sources. The life of Aphra Behn might prove a useful comparison here.
In its current form, one third of the course is largely devoted to the most general context and plays of the Restoration, and the majority of the course is devoted to Nell Gwyn (although I would cover some of this material in the earlier units as well). It would be equally possible to modify the course to serve as a four-week unit in a Restoration drama course. One week of such a unit would be devoted to the biographical and pictorial materials, and then an instructor could cover two or three of the plays in which Nell Gwyn starred, using the kind of detailed dramatic study outlined below.
II. Draft Syllabus
Nell Gwyn and British Restoration Culture
Course description: This course will introduce you to the major genres of Restoration literature (especially drama and satire) through an investigation of one of the Restoration period’s most famous figures: Nell Gwyn, actress and mistress to Charles II. Topics will include:
• First English actresses
We will research Gwyn’s life and look at some of the plays in which she acted. Finally, we will look at the ways in which Gwyn is portrayed in biographical and creative works.
If you don’t want to buy this book or the course package, they will be available on reserve, either in book form or scanned in as electronic reserves. All of the images and audiofiles presented in class will be available on the Blackboard or class web site.
Restoration Comedy: Read William Wycherley, The Country Wife
Visual depictions of Nell Gwyn [by Peter Lely, Simon Verelst, Peter
Cross, Richard Earlton, Henri Gascar]
[In-class; some may be available on our Blackboard site]
Satirical and laudatory responses; conventions of Restoration satire
Unit Two: Nell Gwyn the Actress
Student presentations on biographical portrayals of Nell Gwyn; presentation of creative responses
All Class Work Due, including Creative Response
A. Example of a Dramatic Study:
Using the starting points listed on the enclosed sheet, the students will engage imaginatively with Nell Gwyn and her work as an actress.
There will also be a small paper assigned, likely based on topics raised by class discussions.
Answer two questions from each section. Each of your answers should be a page or two in length.
Section One: Responding to the Play as a Whole
1. The play is set in Spain and makes several references to the status
of women in Spain as opposed to England. Find some of these references
and discuss how they function in the scene; why does Dryden compare the
plight of women in Spain unfavorably to those in England? If you become
particularly interested in this topic, you might want to look at The
Spanish Wives (1696) by Mary Pix.
Section Two: Nell Gwyn as Donna Jacinta
1. Why do you think Nell Gwyn was well-suited to play the role of Donna
Jacinta? Are there other roles in the play that she could have played
3. Apply one of Betterton's remarks on performance to one scene where Donna Jacinta appears.
4. In Act IV, Scene I, ln. 154 ff. Jacinta notes that a gentleman will be the "lowest step in my stair-case, for a knight to mount upon him, and a Lord upon him, and a Marquess upon him, and a Duke upon him, till I get as high as I can climb" How do Donna Jacinta's aspirations relate to Nell Gwyn's own class ascendency through sexual relationships with men? Would audiences have seen this link?
5. What would be important elements of Donna Jacinta's costuming? Can you find any records of the actual costumes from the period?
6.Wildblood and Jacinta sing a duet in the personae of Damon and Celimena. Find out something of the pastoral tradition that Dryden is engaging with here. What does it mean that they sing badly?
7. Donna Jacinta in Act III, Scene I, disguises herself as a "Musullman" and in Act IV, Scene I, she appears "in the habit of a Mulletta." Evaluate how twenty-first century audience might react to the portrayal of race in these scenes; how would you stage them as a director?
In groups of two, you will present on one of the books from this list. The presentation will be about 20 minutes in length.
The form of the presentation is for you to determine, and will change in response to the type of material with which you are working. Here are some possible starting points:
1. How does this compare with Graham Hopkins's Nell Gwynne (2000) and
Derek Parker's Nell Gwyn (2000)? What might account for the differences?
For some of these, you may need to go to the New York Public Library or use Interlibrary Loan. The earlier you start your reading and get your presentation notes established, the less stress and difficulty you will experience.
Biographical or Non-Fictional Books about Nell Gwyn
Anonymous, The Life, Amours and Exploits of Nell Gwyn, The Fortunate Orange Girl. London: Fairburn, 1820.
Anonymous, Memoirs of the Life of Eleanor Gwyn, 1752.
Bax, Clifford. Pretty Witty Nell: The Story of Nell Gwyn and Her Times. New York: W. Morrow & Company, 1933.
Bevan, Bryan. Nell Gwyn, Vivacious Mistress of Charles II. New York: Roy Publishers, 1969.
Chesterton, Cecil. The Story of Nell Gwyn. London: Foulis, 1911.
Cunningham, Peter. The Story of Nell Gwyn, and the Sayings of Charles II. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1888.
Dasent, Arthur Irwin. Nell Gwynne, 1650-1687: Her Life Story from St. Giles to St. James With Some Account of Whitehall and Windsor in the Reign of Charles the Second. London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1924.
Fea, Allan. Some Beauties of the Seventeenth Century. London: Methuen, 1906.
Kenyon, Frank Wilson. Mistress Nell; Mrs. Nelly. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1961.
MacGregor-Hastie, Roy. Nell Gwyn. London: R. Hale, 1987.
Melville, Lewis. Nell Gwyn: The Story of Her Life. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1924.
Scott, George Ryley. Ten Ladies of Joy. London: Touchstream Books, 1950.
Sumner, Richard. Mistress of the Boards. New York: Random House, 1976.
---. Mistress of the Streets: The Early Adventures of Nell Gwynne. Aylebury, Eng.: Milton House Books, 1974.
Wilson, John Harold. Nell Gwyn, Royal Mistress. London: Muller, 1952.
Bowen, Marjorie, pseud. Mistress Nell Gwyn: A Novel. New York: New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1926.
Downing, Hall. Nell Gwynne of Old Drury: Our Lady of Laughter: A Romance of King Charles II and His Court. New York: Rand, McNally & Company, 1901.
Harrington, Claire. Queen of Oranges, A Comic Grand Opera in Two Acts. New York: C. Harrington, 1941.
Hazleton, George C. Mistress Nell: A Merry Tale of a Merry Time (‘twixt fact and fancy). New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1901.
Jerningham, Edward. The Peckham Frolic: or, Nell Gwyn. A Comedy, in three acts. London: J. Hatchard, 1799.
Kester, Paul. Sweet Nell of Old Drury, A Comedy in Four Acts. London: Samuel French, Ltd., 1928.
Moore, F. Frankfort. Nell Gwyn—comedian; a novel. New York: Brentano’s, 1901.
Leapor, Adrian. Music Sound recording: Nell Gwyn [etc.]. Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava): Marco Polo, 1992.
Radcliffe, Claude. Check to the King: A Romantic Comedy of Charles II and Nell Gwyn, In Three Acts. London: Samuel French, 1936.
The following ideas for creative responses are meant as starting points for your imaginative engagement with Nell Gwyn and Restoration Culture. The sky is the limit; feel free to come up with your own topic.
Pretend you are one of Gwyn’s rivals—either one of her dramatic rivals or a fellow royal mistress—and write her a poison pen letter. What sort of insults would you send her?
Write about three pages of Nell Gwyn’s secret diary—either from her time as an actress or as Charles II’s mistress.
Summarize the plot of a play Nell Gwyn might have written herself and write a page explaining how it compares to some of the plays you read this term.
Pretend that you are John Dryden and write a letter of recommendation for Gwyn for a new theater company. What are some of the qualities you appreciate in her acting?
Pretend that you are a contemporary actress who admires Nell Gwyn, and write two pages into a diary or notebook about what you admire in her.
Suppose that you were an admirer of Gwyn’s during her time as Charles II’s mistress who would like to see her return to the stage; what sort of arguments will you use to persuade her?
Write a scene where two of the characters Nell played get together and discuss her as an actress—or discuss any topic under the sun.
Choose any of the courting couples from the plays in which Nell starred and write an extra scene of dialogue for them.