HOUSTON -- Although the British writer Frances Burney (1752-1840) is best known for her witty and sophisticated letters and diaries, as well as for such novels as "Evelina" and "Camilla," she also was a rollicking, incisive dramatist. But her comic play The Witlings, satirizing the mores of the high society she frequented, wasn't produced in her day, or any other, perhaps because she was writing too close to real life, and most definitely because at that time raucous trenchancy was unseemly in a woman. Burney's father was included in those who advised that it be suppressed.
Main Street Theater in Houston finally rectifies this snub by presenting the world premiere of this 18th century comedy of manners Feb. 5 through March 8.
In The Witlings, a young man is threatened with being disinherited by his imperious rich aunt (named Lady Smatter) if he doesn't break off an engagement with a young heiress whose fortune appears to be lost.
"I make it a point to look for works by women," said Main Street Theater founder and artistic director Rebecca Greene Udden, who directs the production, "especially those before the 1950s. Women have been writing plays for 300 years, some of which are out of the canon for artistic merit, others of which for more dubious reasons. The Witlings is a case of the latter."
Of late The Witlings has become well-known in academia. But not in the theater. Udden discovered it in a recent anthology of Restoration and 18th century plays by women. "It's a very funny, knowing piece. It has a contemporary feel. Burney employs simultaneous action. She uses frustration as a device in such a way that nothing is achieved until the final moments. But since the comedy isn't vicious or biting by today's standards, our challenge to make it a gentle lampoon reflective of its era." The Witlings runs Feb. 5 through March 8 at Main Street Theater in Houston. For tickets, $12 - $17, call 1 (713) 524-6706.
-- By Peter Szatmary