Hannah Cowley is one of the foremost playwrights of the late eighteenth century. Often underrecognized, possibly because of her gender, her skill for writing fluid dialogue and developing spirited, unforgettable comic characters places her in a category with her better-known, male contemporaries.
Cowley was born Hannah Parkhouse in 1743 in Tiverton, Devonshire, England. Her father Philip Parkhouse, a bookseller with extensive schooling, provided Cowley with an impressive and rare education for a young eighteenth-century woman. As a result, Cowley was well versed in many subjects.
In 1772, Hannah married Thomas Cowley, son of another bookseller, who worked in several jobs, including as a theatre critic. In 1776, she decided to try her hand at writing for the stage to supplement the couple’s income. She submitted her first finished play, which she penned in only a few weeks’ time, to David Garrick, a theatre manager and actor. Surprising to everyone, including Cowley herself, her debut work The Runaway was produced on February 15, 1776, at Drury Lane, and was well received by critics and the public alike.
After Garrick’s retirement later in 1776, Cowley initially had difficultly getting new plays staged. In a bizarre twist, another woman playwright, Hannah More, staged several plays that bore an uncanny resemblance to one of Cowley’s as-yet-unproduced plays, leading some, including Cowley herself, to accuse More of plagiarism; the dispute, however, was never resolved.
In 1780, Cowley’s luck began to turn. Her play The Belle’s Stratagem premiered on February 22, 1780, and was a great success. The School of Eloquence (April 3, 1780) was equally successful, but The World As It Goes (February 24, 1781) essentially bombed. This failure led to another, and, thus, in search of steadier income for the family, Thomas Cowley departed for India in 1783 to work for the East India Company, leaving behind Cowley and the couple’s children.
Thomas Cowley never returned to England; he died in India in...
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