We first met this play when several of us were in graduate school in Columbia’s School of the Arts. An anthology of women writers of the Restoration had just been published, and our teacher, Priscilla Smith was interested in exploring status using this text.
Anne Bogart, a teacher of ours, always asked a very important question after considering work. That simple question was "so what?" Looking at where we are with the Witlings now, I thought it might be good to answer this question for myself.
Of course the immediate thing that stood out was the fun that Frances Burney had with the language and characters. Quite an influential novelist in her time, it is easy to hear echoes of her works in subsequent and better-known classics such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.
When we began working on the play in class, I noticed how courageous Frances Burney was in taking on the unchallenged assumptions of her own time, boldly putting them in word and deed on stage: or at least on the page, since we later found out that the play was never produced in her own time. One cannot help seeing human nature’s best strivings and worst pitfalls in this piece, written ripe with the ideas and principles of the era when our country shook off the yoke of colonialism and asserted our independence from “the kingdom” in which Burney lived. Perhaps her theme of Beaufort’s choosing to risk independence from Lady Smatter was that which made everyone around her too nervous. Revolution still hung in the air, and her own family was not so independent to avoid the material repercussions that her play criticized.
In principle, the triumph of reason was to liberate us. The language of our nation’s birth is the language of Pope and Swift, of Dryden and Addison. But as Lady Smatter’s actions show, it is possible to rationalize anything. Her own favored author, Jonathan Swift, wrote a satire that is still well known to us: A Modest Proposal: For Preventing The Children Of Poor People In Ireland Being A Burden To Their Parents Or Country, And For Making Them Beneficial To The Public. His clinical and rational tone of the title is a set-up for the unmasking of the power to rationalize anything when we let reason divorce itself of compassion. Swift’s grotesque satire suggests, with chilling utilitarianism, that poor children be sold to the rich to eat. In doing so, he demonstrates that the literate, educated, enlightened are capable of still behaving despicably if it can serve their own interest.
Lady Smatter’s treatment of Cecilia is not as extreme as Swift’s suggestion, but in essence it stems from the same attitude. Today we can look at our own “enlightened” attitudes and yet still see uncountable examples of how we continue to rationalize behavior and policy that feeds on those less fortunate. Burney’s “Witlings” shows the ridiculousness of misspent attention and resources-- a ridiculousness that can still serve as a challenge to us today.