With periodicals folding right and left and media coverage of the arts shrinking every month, it's not surprising that worthy books get passed over for review. Somehow, though, one doesn't expect a broadly engaging volume from a firm as renowned as Oxford University Press to land unheralded on the market and remain unnoticed by reviewers.

Such has been the fate -- at least on this side of the Atlantic -- of Eighteenth-Century Women Dramatists (Oxford University Press, 386 pp., $15.95), a well-annotated anthology that offers a fresh perspective on Restoration and Augustan theater. Edited by an American scholar, Melinda C. Finberg, Eighteenth-Century Women Dramatist is part of Oxford English Drama, which itself is a subset of the paperback series Oxford World's Classics. For almost 20 years, Oxford Press and Michael Cordner of the University of York have been developing World's Classics, a line of books comparable (and, in many instances, superior) to the older Penguin Classics.

For generations of students and playgoers, the canon of English dramatic literature, from its beginnings in the mystery plays to the era of Galsworthy and Shaw, has been as exclusively male as the membership roster of Skull and Bones. Then, near the end of the 20th century, scholars and theater producers discovered Aphra Behn (1640-1689), the English author of the eminently revivable comedy The Rover (1677). Behn is generally acknowledged as the first female professional writer in English, and she was a fascinating personality whose life was as exotic as anything she wrote. During the Anglo-Dutch War, for instance, Behn was a spy for Charles II and, later, she served a term in debtors' prison. Virginia Woolf proclaimed that women everywhere "ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she that earned them the right to speak their minds."

Initially, the reexamination of Aphra Behn's work did little to change perceptions of 17th-century drama because she was mistaken for a lone woman among hordes of men. More recent scholarship, however, makes it clear that the Restoration gave the English stage not only actresses but female dramatists as well. In the years after Behn made her mark, a succession of talented women including Mary Pix, Catherine Trotter, Susanna Centlivre, Delarivière Manley, Sarah Fyge-Egerton, Frances Sheridan, Elizabeth Griffith, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Hannah Cowley contributed to Britain's dramatic literature. Unfortunately, much of what has been written of late about these pioneers is too recherché for the general reader. In Eighteenth-Century Women Dramatists, Finberg builds on recent scholarship to bring the role of women in post-Restoration London to the attention of non-specialists.

For this groundbreaking collection, which covers the period from the final decade of the 17th to the end of the 18th centuries, Finberg has selected four seldom-anthologized women playwrights -- Mary Pix, Susanna Centlivre, Elizabeth Griffith, and Hannah Cowley. All were professional writers who worked in the most visible and prestigious of London's playhouses, including Covent Garden, Lincoln's Inn Fields, and Drury Lane. All were popular with audiences in their own times and for a number of years afterward.

Eighteenth-Century Women Dramatists includes only one script per author, which is unfortunate but probably necessitated by space and budget limitations. As an editor working in a long-overlooked area, Finberg recognizes the peril inherent in the choices she makes. "So little attention has been given to eighteenth-century women playwrights," writes Finberg, "that any single attempt to redress this neglect runs the risk of condemning those works not included to even deeper obscurity." She anticipates the criticism to which her book is likely to be subjected: "In the final analysis, the selections in this volume are, to a certain degree, arbitrary, and while they include some of the greatest comedies by women of the period, and perhaps even two of the era's best comedies by any authors, it must be remembered that other wonderful comedies by women...are also deserving of our attention and still remain inaccessible to today's directors or students of drama."

Melinda C. Finberg
Melinda C. Finberg
The four plays chosen by Finberg chart the evolution of dramatic style and the changing tastes of playgoers over the decades covered by the book. Pix's The Innocent Mistress, performed first in 1697, has the bawdiness and wit, the intricately entwined strands of plot, and the grotesque, cartoonish characters of Restoration comedy. Clearly influenced by Behn and William Congreve (who was Pix's friend and mentor), The Innocent Mistress is nonetheless original in subject and theme, presenting its female characters from a notably sympathetic angle. Centlivre's 1709 comedy The Busybody reflects the increasingly character-driven dramaturgy of the new century. Elizabeth Griffith's The Times, inspired by Carlo Goldoni's Le Bourru bienfaisant and first performed in 1779, is indicative of the way English writers were beginning to be influenced by Continental drama. Hannah Cowley's The Belle's Strategem, which premiered in 1780, is a comedy of manners noteworthy for the sophistication of its dialogue. It enjoyed decades of popularity alongside similar, more familiar plays such as Sheridan's The School for Scandal and Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer.

Finberg's introduction, which is erudite but never tedious, outlines the playwrights' careers and places them in historical context. In addition, Finberg provides a brief essay on the changing architecture of theaters from the Restoration in 1660 to the end of the 18th century, a copious bibliography, and a chronology of important dramatic works written by women during the period. Her textual notes and glossary are clear, concise, and useful.

The bearer of degrees in literature from Yale and Princeton, Finberg was formerly an actress; she has chosen plays that, in addition to being significant literary artifacts, merit fully staged revival. Her book has arrived at a moment when, thanks to recent scholarship, works by 18th-century women playwrights are receiving attention from theater companies in many parts of this country. In New York City, for instance, the Juggernaut Theatre is sponsoring a project titled "The First 100 Years: The Professional Woman Playwright," which last year presented The Belle's Strategem.

New awareness of the female playwrights of early modern times raises the issue of why these writers flamed so brightly in their own day only to vanish for almost 200 years. Finberg, in her introduction and notes, addresses the criticism leveled at these pioneering women by their contemporaries but begs the question of why their legacy was extinguished for so long. The reasons, of course, are legion; still, it would be enlightening to know which ones Finberg might emphasize. Eighteenth-Century Women Dramatists makes a convincing case that, despite the dominance of men such as David Garrick and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, this fertile era of theater history was surprisingly hospitable to women writers. That revelation alone is a provocative, important contribution to the ongoing re-negotiation of the Western literary canon.