General Editors: Thomas C. Crochunis and Michael Eberle-Sinatra  

Mayer, Lauryn and Julia Flanders. 'Real Editions for Real People: Electronic Editing and Women's Theatre Writing.' British Women Playwrights around 1800. 15 April 1999. 17 pars. <>

Copyright © Contributor, 1999-2008. This essay is protected under the copyright laws of the United States and the Universal Copyright Convention. Publication (print or electronic) or commercial use of any of the copyrighted materials without direct authorization from the copyright holder is strictly prohibited.


The title of this essay, with its language of editing and editions, was born out of interests which we bring to the task of conceptualizing the role of electronic texts in humanities research. These interests have primarily to do with providing access to rare materials, in a form that both corresponds to scholarly expectations and also provides real functions that are worth having. However, as we have been thinking more about how dramatic texts function in this context important complications to the concept of access have emerged. It now seems more fruitful to use the dramatic text itself as a way of asking what access to textual materials really means, and particularly what it might mean besides what people in my line of work ordinarily expect and provide for as a matter of course when preparing electronic resources.

2. There are a number of things that people creating electronic texts mean by access: showing people text (large numbers of people, at great distances), letting people search and browse text, making rare texts available. These are all good things in themselves, as part of an effort to satisfy our desire to see for ourselves, to cross space and gather information. They have a certain inert quality, though: they prepare an encounter but they don't participate in it. The self-evident usefulness of something like a corpus of all of English drama derives from the scholar's voracity for information, but anyone who has photocopied articles and filed them away and felt better even without reading them knows how to critique this kind of satisfaction.

What is simplistic about the idea of "access"? For one thing, it proposes a simple model of interaction with the text—getting to the text, getting the text—which is confrontational and acquisitional. It also lacks the inflection of genre; it doesn't take into account different textual modalities and the different kinds of reading which they propose. And finally, it doesn't specify any particular goal—analytical, interpretive, synthetic, even recreational. There's a catholicity about this that isn't all bad: the providers of access remaining agnostic and openminded about the uses to which their texts will be put. But there's also an important sense in which you need to envision functions before you can support them: at the very least, you need to be sure you haven't ruled them out.

4. Dramatic texts put special pressure on the idea of access, precisely because they offer such complex textual relationships: between reader and text, between text and text, between text and performance. In any given instance, did text or performance come first? What different kinds of claims to relative authority do the text and the performance have? What effect does this have on our reading of each? A printed drama may play with the liminality of its position as text and performance script. There may be friction between the idea of having been performed and the potential interiorization (and hence complications to its performability) which the print medium offers. It may also play with ideas of performativity and textuality as part of its formal characteristics.

We must also ask whether the performance text is ontologically "evidence" of an event. Is a play text an epiphenomenon of the event only or a textual thing whose form and contents are independently shaped. In this context we might also need to consider the relationship between textual conventions (printing/typography, readers' expectations of structure and sequence) and performative constraints/conventions.

Finally, drama has established a set of conventions (both as to its form and as to the kind of meaning it creates) which other genres can exploit. Thus what we might call its documentary function——its claim to represent actions and words which have already taken place on the stage—establishes a supposed formal relationship between the text and the (supposedly anterior) action; this relationship may then be exploited (as in the Elizabeth Cellier text discussed below) by texts which use the dramatic form to substantiate their own testamentary function as faithful records of real events.

How can the electronic encoding of a dramatic text accommodate these factors? how can it best invite engagement with them? how can it extend the idea of access to include an exploitation of these kinds of considerations? There are several ways which are worth sketching, briefly because of limited space.

  • First, we can invite engagement with drama's different kinds of textual existence by separating appearance from structure: by decoupling typographical and presentational conventions from structure and content, and giving these as much as possible an independent existence. By considering these components separately, we can open up our awareness of them and of the different kinds of meaning they generate, the different kinds of interaction they invite.
  • We can also extend the concept of access by making the text permeable to other media and other texts, and by minimizing its monolithic textuality. We can allow the medium to remind us of how little (or how complexly) this kind of text is about its own textuality: how much other texts have to say to it and it to them (even imaginary "texts" such as hypothetical performances which only exist suppositiously).
  • We can accomplish this by exploiting the possibilities of the electronic medium. This may have more a practical than a theoretical impact, but this practicality is not intellectually negligible: we can attach other media which extend the text's existence into non-textual dimensions such as motion, sound, three-dimensional space. We can attach video or still images of performances, renderings of possible performance spaces, or sound recordings. We can also exploit the encoding of the play to link these time-based media directly to the transcription—multiple links which realize the play's temporality in different ways.
  • We can also provide mechanisms for encoding and linking variant versions, to provide not only access in the simple sense to their textual contents, but also a more complex access to their interrelationships.
  • We can also develop encoding methods which represent textual complexity, especially where it results from the kind of ontological complexity already sketched out.
  • The Women Writers Project hasn't as yet accomplished much of this kind of conceptual diversification; our mandate is currently the much simpler one of bringing rare materials to light and making their textual forms available. However, our research on text encoding has forced us to come to grips with textual problems which stem from these same fundamental issues.

    8. We next turn to a subject touched upon by other members of the panel: the idea of using historical context to "unwrite aesthetics", and look at two women writers who deliberately challenged aesthetic norm for drama in their time. When we, almost four centuries later, try to make these texts accessible to the scholar and the generalist, we need to think about what we mean by accessibility, because with these texts, that term must address two equally important questions: can you get to it? and do you have enough supporting material to understand its significance?
    9. Here we use two earlier texts of women's dramatic writing to challenge some assumed divisions: those between performance texts and print culture, and between scholarly agendas and general access. Margaret Cavendish's collected plays deliberately employ print culture as an alternative arena for performance. Elizabeth Cellier, a warrior in the seventeenth-century pamphlet battles between Catholics and Protestants, exploits dramatic conventions to both further her truth claims and highlight the "staged" nature of the royal kangaroo courts. In both cases, we must consider the challenges these texts bring to the project of accessibility. First we should look at the print culture/theatrical performance question from another angle: how the culture of print enabled the publication and authorization of works which deliberately refused the current aesthetics informed by a male-dominated theatrical sphere. Moreover, how the conventions of theater (whose prejudices were deplored by Cavendish, Centlivre, Judith Sargent Murray and others) could be deployed in the service of other marginalized and persecuted groups: in Cellier's case, the victims of Newgate.
    10. Second, what does this marriage of print and performance mean to our debate over access? We argue that these texts are "unreadable" outside of their contextual environment, an argument that necessarily implies a commitment to rigorous research and editorial intervention. Without some supporting material on theater history and dramatic conventions, for example, Cavendish's plays may be doomed to "literary" readings informed by the kind of normative aesthetics she herself refused. Likewise, Cellier's coupling of pamphlet, dramatic, and legal conventions cannot be understood without some context for each of these discourses. This raises some troubling questions, given the constrictions we currently face as creators of an electronic resource: the rules set out in the TEI tag set for drama, economic constraints on how much time we can afford to devote to a single text, the needs of the user population. These texts are a problem: they require greater efforts on our part both in encoding decisions and research, they do not conform nicely to existing protocol for drama encoding, and the market for their works is still small. However, they can teach scholars and students perhaps more about contemporaneous ideas of performance, as well as the constraints and opportunites it provided for women writers.
    11. What needs to be better understood is the relationship between access, editorial decisions, and what we have termed "permeability". In a recent talk, David Seaman stressed that an electronic edition can no longer stand alone. It must be able to live in a networked environment, to "play well with others." These two texts—Cavendish's collected plays and Cellier's pamphlet recounting her imprisonment and trial—suggest that this type of interlinked environment is vital to an edition legible by real readers.
    12. The prefatory material to Cavendish's collected plays stresses two points. First, that these plays are not meant to be preformed on the stage. Cavendish cites the length of the works, the deliberate refusal of contemporary dramatic conventions of "ridiculous Jest, wanton Love, or Impossibilities" (prefatory letter) and her choice to eschew masculine notions of wit as reasons why the plays should be printed rather than acted. She concludes: "if they delight or please the Readers, I shall have as much satisfaction as if I had the hands of applause from the Spectators." Printing , and its promise of an alternative audience, is here set up against drama as an equally prestigious avenue for female playwrights. Second, that they constitute a deliberate refusal of traditional dramatic conventions. Cavendish sets herself against Aristotelian unities of time and place, flouts the usual constraints upon drama and openly opposes her works to those of such magisterial figures as Ben Jonson (who, as an antagonist, haunts almost every page of the prefatory material). These two points are interlinked: print allowed Cavendish to bypass the male-dominated theatre scene, and it gave her the freedom to set up a gendered, alternative dramatic form. In Youth's Glory and Death's Banquet, for example, the heroine Mademoiselle Sanspareil is thrice tested before a group of, respectively, moral philosophers, natural scientists, and poets. In each case, she trounces her male audience in a speech of five to seven pages long, leaving them silenced and dazed converts to the spectacle of female wit and eloquence. To a critic of early modern literature, this play irresistibly invites comparison with traditional dramas in general and Jonson's Silent Woman in particular. Without an editorial apparatus to provide these links, however, those unfamiliar with the period, whether undergraduate, generalist, or trained critic of another period, my very well judge this work by normative dramatic conventions, thus missing the entire point of Cavendish's production.

    Cellier's 1680 pamphlet demands another kind of linked environment. As a texts which interweaves dramatic, typographical conventions with those of prose narrative, it creates a special set of challenges, both on the basic encoding level and on the larger issue of textual environments. A look at just a few sections from the pamphlet shows how narrative past and present time, prose narrative and dramatic dialogue permeate each other to the extent that one cannot tell where one begins and another ends. In her presentation of the trial, for example, the text moves from a straight speaker-and-speech dramatic presentation, to a prose sentence in the narrative past, then back to the dramatic format.

    A Lord. Turn up your Hoods Mrs. Cellier,——I obeyed.

    L. Chan. Come Mrs. Cellier have you writ home; since you were sent to Newgate?

    This kind of generic interlacing makes it difficult to know what to do with this next example:

    Cel. Kneeling, said God perserve the King and his Royal Highness and bless this Honourable Court.

    Since all of Cellier's speeches in the text are in italics, it is difficult to determine if this is another speech like the rest, with "kneeling" as a stage direction, a prose sentence in which Cellier the subject is abbreviated, a hybrid form of the two, or a simple error.. The text is full of places like this in which this admixture challenges encoding on a basic level.


    A more complex problem appears as Cellier recounts the events leading up to her arrest:

    Cel. . . .from that time I had no further trouble, til about 10 or twelve days before Dangerfield was taken. He told me my Name was enter'd into Sir William Waller's Black Bill, and he would search my house that Week, and advis'd me to write again to the Earl of Shaftsbury, I told him I durst not presume to do that, but I would go to his Lordship, and thank him for the favour, and pray him for a continuance of it, and desired him to go with me, because being known in the House, as he said, and might the easier bring me to speak with his Lordship.

    Dangerfield: Madam, I cannot at all advantage your cause, but injure it. . .but if you please to drive the Coach close to the Gate, and ask for Mr. Shepherd, and desire him to bring you to the figure of one, he will bring you to his Lordship.

    I did so, and thank'd his Lordship.

    Cellier relates, in the dramatic present, an event occurring the past April. Within this narrative past, however, she again uses the dramatic present to bring Dangerfield's speech to life. Here we have a set of time shifts—a flashback within an extended flashback, as it were—which our current encoding practices for drama cannot adequately capture. Thus we have to envision a more flexible, hybridized encoding practice, a permeability on the intra-textual level.


    Finally we come to the interplay among genres which this text forces upon us. In this example, we can see that Cellier is playing with the well-documented link (studied by Frances Dolan, Catherine Belsey, and others) between female agency, legal discourse, and dramatic conventions:

    A Lord: Your Tryal will come soon enough, you will be put to death.

    Cel. Blessed be God, then I hope the Play is near an end, for Tragedies whether read or fictitious, seldom end before the Women die.

    A Lord. What do you make a Play of it?

    Cle. If there be nore more Truth in the whole Story, than there is in what relates to me, every Play that is Acted has more Truth in it.

    In this passage Cellier, within a dialogue coded as drama, links the staged nature of anti-Papist trials with the equally constricting norms of the dramatic genre; i n both cases, the women die. Moreover, she brings up the double-edged nature of theatre as she uses print typography of drama to promote an illusion of truth (the trial is "really happening" before the reader's eyes) as the same time as the trial itself is unfavourably compared to the fictions of a play. As such, it also is linked to, and participates in, the long-running argument about the truth claims, heuristic power, and spectacular dangers of theater.

    16. In light of these inextricable links between texts, what might it mean in practical terms for a text to "play well with others"? What sort of behavior do we ask of our editions of these texts, to accommodate that of the texts themselves and their documentary evidences? We have already pointed, above, to ways of using the electronic medium to open up the edition to other works and other versions of itself, and this is an approach which is especially a propos for dramatic texts. Where for an edition of a novel or poem, the temporal and visual capabilities of the digital edition may feel peripheral to the formal structures of the work, they respond to and potentiate drama's real modes of textual and performative existence. At a deeper level of the edition's construction, the electronic medium offers opportunities to rethink the informational structures which determine the text's behavior in response to our inquiries and manipulations. An encoding practice which takes seriously the ontological nuances of the dramatic text might, for instance, represent divergent performance histories so as to allow a reader to analyse the language of either version as a discrete unit, rather than being forced to treat the text with all its variants as a single item. Such a practice might also attempt to make the temporality of the drama accessible as an analytical category, including a representation of simultaneity, sequencing, and temporal disjunctures.
    17. Finally, attention to these issues might offer new ways to explore the continuities and discontinuities within the long tradition of women's theatre writing, including categories of analysis which till now have not been easy to conceptualize or pursue in detail. The examples from Cellier and Cavendish given here indicate the self-consciousness with which these earlier authors exploit the signifying power of the dramatic structure, even in texts which are not themselves straightforwardly drama. This self-consciousness—which, as we have seen, is also an awareness of how gender is implicated in dramatic texts and discursive structures generally—may be a crucial point of entry into the intellectual and ideological economy of women's theatre writing, and its development in later centuries.

    Lauryn Mayer and Julia Flanders
    Brown University

    Julia Flanders is the Textbase Editor and Project Manager of the Women Writers Project at Brown University, a research project creating a TEI-encoded textbase of pre-Victorian women's writing. She is also a member of the Executive Council of the Association for Computers and the Humanities, and has spoken and published on text encoding and issues in electronic editing. She holds undergraduate degrees from Harvard and Cambridge Universities, and is currently working on a PhD from Brown University, on editorial theory, electronic textuality, and the relationship between text and data.



    • Cavendish, Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle. "Youth's Glory and Death's Banquet", in Playes written by the thrice noble, illustrious, and excellent princess, the lady Marchioness of Newcastle. London, 1662.
    • Cellier, Elizabeth. Malice defeated: or a brief relation of the accusation and deliverance of Elizabeth Cellier. London, 1680.
    • Seaman, David. "Renaissance Texts and Text Encoding", presented as part of "The Josephine Roberts Session: Electronic Editing and Publication", at the annual conference of the Modern Language Association, 1998.
      Read Kathryn Sutherland's response to this essay