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If you couldn’t tell from the headline, this post contains a pretty big spoiler.
The Gaming Table—-the largely diverting, sumptuously designed, Restoration-era cards-and-costumes comedy by Susanna Centlivre currently on stage at the Folger Theatre—-has been getting a lot of credit for its gender politics. The Washington Post profiled its all-female production staff led by director Eleanor Holdridge. Critics have praised its depiction of several strong, independently minded female characters, some of whom—-in a twist on what you usually see in this kind of society comedy—-spend the bulk of the play manipulating the actions and emotions of their male suitors. At least two reviews of the play used the term “girl power.”
Throughout The Gaming Table, an early 1700s play originally titled The Basset Table, which was updated for this production by the playwright David Grimm, we see the order of the day undone by women who buck society’s conventions. That’s what I expected to mostly get when I sat down for the play on Sunday. Well, that plus lots of wit and gaiety. “A piquant dish, mounted with considerable aplomb,” proclaimed the paper of record in its Jan. 31 review.
And then, well, The Gaming Table got kind of rapey. Not that you’d know from most of the reviews.
It’s the beginning of Act 5, and the tone has been light and the language playfully insinuating up until this point. The characters Sir James Courtly (Michael Milligan), a foppish rogue, and Worthy (Marcus Kyd), a tongue-tied neurotic, have just agreed to a scheme wherein they’ll finally snag the women they’ve attempted to woo the entire play: the pious Lady Lucy (Katie deBuys) and the frivolous yet Machiavellian cards host Lady Reveller (Julie Jesneck). The scheme is this: Courtly will pretend he’s ready to force himself upon Lady Reveller, who will be saved by a sword-brandishing Worthy. Relieved and chastened, she will then marry Worthy.
No, seriously, that’s what happens:
[He lays hold of her.]
LADY REVELLER Ha, what Insolence is this? What do you mean, Sir James?
SIR JAMES COURTLY Oh ‘tis indecent to Name it, Madam, but I intend to show you.
LADY REVELLER Unhand me, Villain, or I’ll cry out.
SIR JAMES COURTLY Do, and make yourself the Jest of Servants, expose your reputation to their vile Tongues. Which, if you please, shall remain safe in my breast.
LADY REVELLER Is this your Friendship to my Lord Worthy? Can you wrong the Woman he Adores.
SIR JAMES COURTLY Ay, but you do not care a Souse for him. I love you as much, and will possess.
LADY REVELLER Oh! Hold—Kill me rather than destroy my Honor—how has my Carriage drawn this Curse upon me? What have I done to give you cause to think you ever should succeed this hated Way?
SIR JAMES COURTLY Why this Madam. Can a Lady that loves Gaming so passionately as you do, that draws Men in to lose their Money, that divides your time between your Toilette and the Basset-Table; Can you, I say, boast of Innate Virtue?—Fie, fie, I am sure you guessed for what I Played so Deep—we never part with our Money without Design—therefore no more of this Resistance, unless you would have more Money.
LADY REVELLER Oh! Horrid.
SIR JAMES COURTLY There was Fifty Guineas in that Purse, Madam—here’s Fifty more; Money shall be no Dispute. [Offers her Money.]
LADY REVELLER [Strikes it Down.] Perish your Money with yourself—you Villain—there, there; take your boasted Favors! Basest of Men I’ll have your Life for this Affront—what ho, within there.
SIR JAMES COURTLY Hush—Faith, you’ll Raise the House. [Lays hold on her.] And ‘tis in Vain—you are mine; nor will I quit this Room till I’m Possessed. [They struggle.]
LADY REVELLER Raise the House, I’ll raise the World in my Defense, help, Murder, Murder,— a Rape, a Rape—
[Enter Lord Worthy from another Room with his Sword Drawn.]
LORD WORTHY Ha! Villain, unhand the Lady—or this Moment is thy last.
And then Courtly exits. At the end of the play, Worthy and Reveller marry, after which point Courtly presents himself, explains he was honestly just kidding about the whole attempted rape thing, and then Reveller says, with an elbow to his ribs: “No, I forgive you; tho’ had I been aware of it, it should have cost you a little more Pains.” Recommence frivolity!
One critic, writing on the blog The Hill Is Home, describes the moment as “a surprisingly caddish turn which turns out happily for almost everyone.” How droll, this almost-rape! Sophie Gilbert calls a spade a spade in her review for Washingtonian: “There’s not much a modern director can do to resolve the more awkward parts (an elaborate con involving attempted rape, Lady Reveller’s eventual ‘happy’ ending), so Holdridge instead keeps things cheerful, drawing comedy and absurdity out of her excellent cast.”
Most of the other reviews of The Gaming Table—-including Peter Marks‘ in The Washington Post and Chris Klimek‘s in Washington City Paper, which I edited—-ignore the entire sequence while praising the play’s wit, witty design, and in some cases, its edifying attitudes toward gender. “Refreshingly in ‘The Gaming Table,’ it’s the women who, by and large, dictate romantic terms. They’re ladies who know what they want and only reluctantly yield to the entreaties of husbands and suitors,” writes Marks. A paragraph later he adds: “Only the extravagantly bewigged courtier, Sir James Courtly — played by the terrific Michael Milligan with a fey wit so dry it might crack into tiny flakes — possesses the guile required to break down the will of women such as Lady Reveller and his amorous target, the morally rigorous Lady Lucy.”
It’s great that this 300-year-old comedy, penned by a female playwright, includes “ladies who know what they want,” but I can’t help but think Courtly’s faux rape attempt, and Lady Reveller’s settling down as a consequence, undermine the work’s progressiveness, even if they speak to the attitudes of the era in which the play was written. At the very least, the scene severely complicates the play’s largely playful tone.
In her notes in The Gaming Table‘s program, dramaturg Michele Osherow writes:
Of course, no woman making her living by writing for the stage (as Centlivre did for years) could stray too far from convention. Still, the playwright serves and subverts it. The method by which order is restored to Sir Richard’s estate is so problematic that, though it may deliver the illusion of male victory, it invites us to loathe it at the same time. The wines, chocolates, and gilded coins embezzled by the ladies are far less odious than the goods Sir James would seize. [Emphasis mine.] And marriage—a common enough conclusion for a comedy—is hardly presented as a condition of feminine restraint. If the men’s tricks appear to grant them the upper hand, we should remember that each hand in Basset lasts approximately 90 seconds and then asonica changes things entirely. When it comes to gaming, we’ve seen only men walk away from the tables; the women, on the other hand, continually signal “Game on.”
I’m not sure I quite buy Osherow’s argument. While the scene put a sour taste in my mouth at the tail end of a play I otherwise enjoyed, it apparently didn’t leave enough of an impression on the bulk of the D.C. critics who wrote about the show. (DC Theatre Scene has handily collected most of the reviews.)
So: Is The Gaming Table progressive or hopelessly backward? A subversive play or one that’s a prisoner of its time? Or both? Grimm’s update of the play addresses some of its detestable attitudes: In an epilogue, the character Mrs. Sago (Tonya Beckman Ross) delivers the moral of the story—-that women are best staying in their husbands’ good graces—-and quickly tacks on an addendum, which was penned by Grimm: “But hold! One final word within your ear! You thought I’d end like that? O never fear! One has to say these things to end a play; Which might have made some sense back in its day…”
Still, I wish more critics had taken a deep dive on The Gaming Table‘s tricky treatment of women’s empowerment. We still stage plays like The Merchant of Venice despite some of their odious depictions, but most of the time, we struggle with their ideas—-in other words, we treat them as art—-even as we allow ourselves to be entertained.
In contrast, most D.C. critics took The Gaming Table about as seriously as a hand of cards.
The play continues through March 4 at Folger Theatre.