Unruly Women Playing Cards

Saturday, to celebrate Julia’s birthday, we went to see The Gaming Table (originally The Bassett Table) at the Folger Theater in Washington.  This 1705 Susanna Centlivre comedy about unruly women seemed the right thing to be watching when, only a couple of blocks away, Congressional Republicans were tying themselves into knots over their perceived right to control women’s bodies.

The issue, as you know if you’ve been watching the news, is whether the federal government can require health insurance plans to provide free birth control to women.  When the Catholic Church and Catholic hospitals objected based on the Church’s objection to birth control (despite the fact that 98% of Catholic women use it), the Obama administration offered a compromise that grants exceptions to Catholic institutions, requiring instead that, in those instances, health insurance companies pick up the cost.  Which should have taken the issue off the table.

Only it didn’t. Now Republicans and Catholic bishops want to exempt any employers who object to birth control, even if (as is often the case) their employees are non-Catholic. Or, for that matter, if the employees are Catholics desiring birth control.

A hearing was held by the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and the optics were terrible. All those who testified on behalf of the Republican position were men, and the woman that Democrats wanted to invite was barred. Some Democratic members on the panel walked out, and when Minority Leader of the House Nancy Pelosi tried to set up a special panel where the woman could speak, committee chairman Darrell Issa refused to allow it to be televised. Of course that didn’t stop the Democrats from holding their own special hearing, which got a far bigger audience and a C-SPAN telecast because of the interdiction.

All of which makes the same point as Centlivre’s play: try to control women and they’ll find a way around it. And they’ll make the men look foolish in the bargain.

The play is about women-run card games at a time when cards were serious business.  Apparently fortunes were made and lost, so much so that the French put strict limits on how much could be wagered and the British tried to ban the games altogether. One of the reasons was less to protect players than to keep lower class individuals from suddenly becoming rich and stepping beyond their class status.

One realizes, in the course of the play, that cards function as a metaphor for unruly women also desiring to step beyond their proper roles. One widow, who runs the table, refuses to give in to a suitor who is madly in love with her.  Why does she need him when she has cards? Another woman twists her gullible husband around her finger so that he will finance her card playing. (Another indication of her unruliness is the fact that she has a lover.)

Although the play is a comedy, there is a disturbing scene where a rake, to assist the lover, threatens the widow with rape, at which point (as the men have arranged) her lover runs in and “rescues” her. Realizing that her licentious playing of cards has made her vulnerable to predatory men, she accepts his declaration of marriage and gives up the table.  This is the second woman-written comedy I know from the period that has a rape scene—the other is Aphra Behn’s The Rover (which I’ve written about here and here)—and such scenes reveal women’s concerns. When men can’t get their way through reason, they can resort to force, and if women are to be safe, they must censor their desires and accept patriarchy’s rules. The comedy cloaks the author’s anger but it’s there.

In fact, all the women are successfully corralled by the end of the play, which has prompted the modern dramaturge to add a couple of lines to Centlivre’s original epilogue. After delivering the 1705 lines and allowing the audience to begin its applause, one of the actresses interrupted us with a few extra couplets.  I can’t quote them exactly but essentially she said, “You didn’t think we’d let the men win so easily, did you? They may think they won, but don’t forget that women are very good at cheating.”

The added lines were effective and entirely within the spirit of the play. It’s clear in The Gaming Table—and certainly in the way it was staged at the Folger—that women have ways of circumventing male power.

As Nancy Pelosi proved in her special Congressional hearing last week, which has Republicans all over the country on the defensive. And as women in Virginia  also proved last week when, through silent protest, they faced down Republican lawmakers prepared to pass an intrusive and medically unnecessary sonogram test for women getting early term abortions.

While we must applaud Centlivre for figuring out subtle ways to circumvent repressive patriarchy, however, it’s depressing that women are having to resort to such tactics once again in the 21st century.


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