Suffolk playwright inspired Jane Austen

Elizabeth Inchbald is the forgotten woman of English Theatre. Now Theatre Royal artistic director Colin Blumenau is on a mission to reintroduce this Suffolk playwright to modern audiences.

Andrew Clarke

Elizabeth Inchbald is the forgotten woman of English Theatre. Now Theatre Royal artistic director Colin Blumenau is on a mission to reintroduce this Suffolk playwright to modern audiences. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to him about her work and how she came to inspire Jane Austen.

Jane Austen has a reputation for being a woman ahead of her time. Her creation Lizzie Bennett in her seminal novel Pride and Prejudice is not only an educated, headstrong character but is also believed to have been Austen's alter-ego.

She was a forthright woman at a time when women were supposed to stay at home and be at their husband/father's beck and call. But while Jane Austen has rightly been acclaimed for helping women take a more active role in society, it turns out that she too was inspired by the writings of a Suffolk playwright who has been lost to history… until now.

Elizabeth Inchbald was born in the village of Stanningfield, between Lawshall and Bury St Edmunds, in 1753. She was a political radical, dramatist, novelist, critic and actress with a portfolio of over 24 plays and novels. We know that she had an influence on Jane Austen not only because of the similarities in some of the themes and characters in their respective works but Austen actually mentions Inchbald and her play Lovers' Vows in Mansfield Park.

Having been an important, and, at times, controversial, playwright of Georgian Theatre, it seems only right that her work and her existence should have been uncovered by Colin Blumenau, artistic director of the only working Georgian Theatre in the UK.

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“Elizabeth Inchbald was an incredibly fortuitous discovery. Sadly today Georgian theatre is now pretty much virgin territory, we didn't really know what to expect when we went looking for forgotten works. People know the works of Sheridan because he was The Georgian playwright and then we started digging and found of the other playwrights the comedies were the best - although there were some good other pieces of work - Black Eyed Susan being an example of a good melodrama - but we discovered that the comedies transferred well to modern audiences. They were witty, clever - and they were also very critical of the society and the times in which they were written, which was nice. They were subversive - very satirical and the best comedy is often based on satire.

“And because society at the time was very male dominated, because it was extremely self-satisfied, the best practitioners were often women. Very quickly we discovered that there were two or three women who were very fine exponents of the art of subversive comedy and one of them was Mrs Elizabeth Inchbald, who was made even better in our eyes because she was born in Bury St Edmunds - or rather just outside.”

He said that his research into her life has revealed that she left Suffolk at the age of 19, when she moved to London to start her career as an actress. She turned to writing later in life.

Born to a Roman Catholic, Suffolk farming family, Elizabeth was educated with her sisters at home and her departure for a life on the stage in London would probably have been a source of some scandal at the time. Although, there is evidence in letters and diaries that she kept in contact with her Suffolk family and although never returned to the county to live, kept in touch with her parents and paid some of her mother's bills as she became increasingly infirm.

He said that her career as an actress is subject to some speculation. When she first arrived in London, young and alone, she was apparently the victim of sexual harassment. In 1772 she agreed to marry the elderly actor Joseph Inchbald, possibly at least partially for protection. The marriage was reported to have had difficulties. For four years the couple toured Scotland with West Digges's theatre company. In 1776 they moved to Liverpool and Inchbald met actors Sarah Siddons and her brother John Philip Kemble, both of whom became important friends. The Inchbalds subsequently moved to Canterbury and Yorkshire. After Joseph Inchbald's death in 1779, Inchbald continued to act for several years, in Dublin, London, and elsewhere. Her acting career, while only moderately successful, spanned seventeen years and she appeared in many classical roles, as well as in new plays such as Hannah Cowley's The Belle's Strategem.

There is speculation as to how good an actress she actually was. Colin said: “From my research I have discovered that she apparently had a lisp, a stutter and a limp. So, although she was renowned as a beauty, there is a suggestion that she was never particularly good performer on stage. It was as a writer that she really took the theatrical world by storm.”

Between 1784 and 1805 she had 19 comedies, sentimental dramas, and farces performed at London theatres. Eighteen of her plays were published, though she wrote several more.

Although, she is regarded as a contemporary of Austen, Inchbald was at the height of powers at a time just before Austen put pen to paper. “Inchbald was writing predominantly in the 1770s, 80s and 90s while Jane Austen was writing in the early 1800s. It is interesting to compare their writing styles. Austen is slightly more modern, slightly more progressive simply because of people like Elizabeth Inchbald, there has been progress and Austen can now write for strong women like Lizzie Bennett and Emma Woodhouse and the Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility.”

He said that Inchbald's works are best noted for their strong feminist themes and major female roles as well as her social critique of the decadent Georgian society through acerbic, witty comedy, and exuberantly entertaining dialogue.

“Everyone says that the Georgian era is the dark ages of English writing and you look at Inchbald and Austen, among others, and it palpably isn't. Austen built on the foundations laid by Inchbald and other women writers of the time and it is my ambition to write a play about the two women meeting.”

Colin said that although Elizabeth Inchbald's plays would have been staged at the Theatre Royal, they would have been treated as contemporary classics rather than cutting edge drama as she pre-dated the theatre. “We know her work was performed here because we evidence on playbills and she was acknowledged as being one of the major playwrights of the era.

“Although she doesn't quite have his dexterity with language, I would equate her with someone like Tom Stoppard - she really was that important at the time.

“She delivered such brilliant, observational stuff - and it was very clever as well. It doesn't have the verbal pyrotechnics that Stoppard delivers but she is busily digging away, exposing the areas of society that need exposing and doing it with comedy - which is exactly what Stoppard does today.”

He said that he had resolved to do Elizabeth Inchbald's work before he knew of her local connections. “She really has a way with words. You sit down with one of her scripts and you laugh out loud. They are funny, poignant and absolutely to the point. If you know something about the times in which she was writing, then they are even better.

“They stand up today as wonderfully entertaining plays that don't deserve to be forgotten or side-lined into the backwaters of theatre history.”

He said that now the restoration work on the Theatre Royal was now complete they were in an ideal position to bring Elizabeth Inchbald and her work back before audiences. He said that it was part of their remit not only to embrace 20th and 21st century work but to restore the repertoire of the major dramatic works of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Many of her works have already been performed during rehearsed readings held while building work on the theatre was still being completed.

These readings have proved so popular with audiences that Colin is now planning a week of Georgian Delights running at the Theatre Royal, Bury all next week.

The centrepiece will be a fully staged performance of Elizabeth Inchbald's fast-paced farce Animal Magnetism. A second comedy Wives As They Were, Maids As They Are is due to be performed in the theatre's autumn season at the centre of the two week Georgian Gem festival in Bury St Edmunds.

“We are really very lucky that she was born so near by. It means we can adopt her as our own and re-introduce the modern audience to her fantastic work. The play is set in late 18th-century Paris and Inchbald's pen, dipped in equal amounts of wit and bile, targets medical quackery and complacently outmoded attitudes to women.

“We are taking this production in a different direction to our re-opening piece Black Eyed Susan, which was very visual, looking at the spectacle of Georgian drama and exploring the types of scenery and costume they used.

"This time it will be very much about looking at the use of language and how the immediacy of the Georgian architecture helps its delivery. The works of Inchbald provide us with the perfect opportunity to do so; her writing sparkles and her knowledge of how and where to place a line is unparalleled."

Other attractions during next week's Georgian Delights season include lectures on the theatre as The Georgian Globe, rehearsed readings of other plays and an exploration of the reluctant actor William Charles Macready who not only played at Bury he also gained fame as an innovative West End theatre manager.

The Week of Georgian Delights is being held at the Theatre Royal Bury St. Edmunds from 21 - 16 April, more details are available through the box office on 01284 769505 or online at www.theatreroyal.org

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