"... while drawing our attention to women's oppressed position in a marriage,
Inchbald manages to amuse, entertain and provoke thought"
Hugh Homan, The Stage, 11 Sept 2008
First performed in 1797 at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, 'Wives as they Were, and Maids as they Are' is the work of Elizabeth Inchbald – political radical, dramatist, novelist, critic, and actress. Inchbald was a seminal playwright of her age, whose work represents the essence of Georgian drama – a strong sense of social critique in an age of decadence and razor-sharp observational wit. Born near Bury St Edmunds, at the age of nineteen Inchbald moved to London from her native Suffolk, where she began her career as an actress. She turned to writing later in life and her work is cut through with strong feminist themes and exuberant dialogue. Elizabeth Inchbald is one of a handful of female playwrights from this period whose work has been largely overlooked, until the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds started their process of rediscovering the Georgian and Regency repertoire.
Wives as they Were, and Maids as they Are is set in London and follows the life and loves of Miss Maria Dorillion, an intelligent and independent-minded young woman who is continually criticised and repressed by her fusty male guardians. Although virtuous, loyal and caring, she is constantly tempted by the high life of 18th century London and suffers from gambling problems and debt; she is destined for an unavoidable fall from grace. Throughout the play we follow her journey courting disaster through dangerous flirtation and reckless spending in a city full of predatory bachelors and jealous husbands, to find her place in society. As she is whirled around the maelstrom of the London social scene, the old values of loyalty, duty and responsibility tug at her conscience. Try as she might, she can reconcile herself neither to the old ways nor to modern fashion. Should she indeed be a ‘wife of former times’ or a ‘maid of the present day’?
The play is a satire on the role of women in Georgian society and the prevalent male attitudes of the time. It features several brilliantly-observed characters and some very sharp, funny dialogue. Although a comedy, the play also raises serious, pertinent issues by portraying strong female characters rejecting their stereotypical roles in society – in this regard, Inchbald wrote a feminist play long before the term had been invented. Attacked as subversive for its portrayal of women in Georgian society, 'Wives as they Were, and Maids as they Are' is a masterpiece of theatricality which sees its author dip her pen in equal amounts of wit and bile.
Colin Blumenau, the Director of the 2008 production at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds says ... "This play is, I believe, a joyous comedy and depicts some fabulous characters as it weaves its intricate plot. The ironic social commentary is so skilfully interwoven into the text that it does not intrude – unless of course you would like it to!"