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the basset table

1 march 2016

For about a page early on in Susanna Centlivre's 1705 play The Basset Table, a conversation among women characters bids fair to pass the Bechdel Test. Lady Reveller and her maid Alpiew are fresh from a night's gambling at the title table (basset is a kind of card game). The upright, uptight Lady Lucy accuses them of wasting their lives ("I think the Play-house, the much more innocent and commendable Diversion," says Lucy [Act 1, p. 54]). Well, it's not exactly the higher philosophy, but at least they put off talking about guys for a half a scene.

Though the higher philosophy comes back later in the play, in spades. Lady Reveller's young cousin Valeria is a beautiful heiress, and courted by the pleasant young Ensign Lovely. But Valeria has no time for men unless she can dissect them: she is a natural philosopher who lives for her microscope and the parasitic worms she disentangles from her specimens.

Valeria does too little in the play, and has really only one good scene at her laboratory table (much of which is taken up with hiding her young lover Lovely in a tub). But she constitutes much of what interests 21st-century readers in The Basset Table, as shown by the choice of a photograph of a woman at her microscope for the cover illustration of Jane Milling's 2009 edition of the play. Valeria's scientific interests are not really taken seriously. They are a topical foible, a character note; what a playwright a hundred years earlier might have called a "humour." The bluff Captain Hearty won't marry her because she's too into experimentation, and Valeria loves Lovely because his "Dear Enquiring Soul is more to me—than all these useless Lumps of Animated Clay" (meaning other possible suitors: Act 4, p. 95). Lovely eventually has to disguise himself as a sea-captain to get Valeria's father's blessing, and she submits with stoicism till he reveals himself by hinting that "she us'd to be more Kind when we have fish'd for Eels in Vinegar" (Act 5, p. 115). Whether her interests are a hobby-horse or serious research, Valeria gets what she wants: a sympathetic husband and a scientific future.

Most of the rest of the play is standard-issue Restoration comedy. The uptight Lord Worthy is unaccountably in love with Lady Reveller, and the uptight Lady Lucy is unaccountably in love with the rakish Sir James Courtly. Meanwhile Sir James has seduced the foolish gambling addict Mrs. Sago, wife of a well-off pharmacist. Everybody gets who they ought to get, though Sir James has to go on probation till he can assure Lady Lucy that he's mended his ways.

I swung into a few weeks of reading Restoration and 18th-century drama because I'd been on a Shakespeare binge and didn't want to stop reading plays. I think I've read enough, and will return to a huge stack of books on miscellaneous topics that I've been hankering after. English drama 1660-1800 is vast and diverse, but oddly enough seems very narrow in its concerns and effects compared to English drama 1580-1620. Some eras really are classicist in that they keep refining and perfecting the same thing. It isn't really that when you've read one Restoration comedy, you've read them all; it's just that your sense of distinctions has to narrow down fractally in order to tell the periods and concerns of this century-and-a-half of drama apart.

Centlivre, Susanna. The Basset Table. 1705. Edited by Jane Milling. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2009. PR 3339 .C6B38