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A Silent Woman – a Farce in One Act by Thomas Hailes Lacy

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 17 December 2015

We have a few plays in our historical books.  Having a deaf or ‘pretend deaf’ or ‘mute’ character was presumably a simple if clichéd dramatic device.

In 1835 the playwright Thomas Hailes Lacy wrote this short one act farce, A Silent WomanThe first page says it was “adaptated from a recollection of Mr. Bayle Bernard’s comedy of “The Dumb Belle”.”  It is only seven pages long.  Here, the clichés involve women and deafness.  The playlet involves a young lady, Marianne Sandford, engaged to Arthur Merton, who  is ‘fond of talking’.  Merton, back from a tour of Europe, writes a letter to her father saying, ‘If I have a predeliction in the world, it is for a Silent Woman, and to find Marianne the ultra reverse of that, is an affliction that I do not know how I shall get over.’   Marianne, of course, discovers the letter and decides to teach him a lesson.  I think you can see where this is going…

a silent womanThe father has to pretend that his daughter has lost her speech after a boating accident.  The fiancé‘s line and stage direction at this point is “Tol, lol, &c., &c., (sings and dances)” (p.7).  The father says he is mad, but Merton, apparently delighted, says he will marry “This day – this hour – this minute.”  He says he will be able to talk to her but not she to him.  At this point the father says that would be of no avail as Marianne is now deaf.

MERTON.  That’s very awkward. Dumb-dumb-dumb! – that’s all very well, but deaf-deaf-deaf! can she not hear at all?
SAND.  Yes, if you speak very loud she can make out a portion of what you say.


MERTON.  I shall be the envy of the world, in having a wife who won’t contradict me.  Ha, ha, ha!  Because she can’t!


MERTON. (brings chairs, they sit*) Now, then, for a desperate effort. (very loud) How do you do, Marianne? (she gets up, goes to table, brings handkerchief with ear trumpet, sits and puts it to her ear very deliberately) Hang it, this is too bad! to make love through that Infernal Machine is utterly impossible!  but as it is the forlorn hope, here goes—how do you do ? (very loud) Do you hear that, Marianne ? (she nods) Ay, now we shall get on. (shouting) My dear Marianne, I am delighted— (coughs)—that is, I am sorry to see you under such a misfortune —(coughs)—but I am sorry—that is, I am glad to have an opportunity of consoling (coughs)—I can’t stand it, it’s impossible.  I’m as hoarse as a raven already.

Modern playwrights we think, need not fret – the Oxford Ditionary of National Biography say of Lacy that “His pieces are unremarkable”.

He seems to have been a bit of a rogue with an eye for making money at the expense of others.  The OED also says,

Lacy specialized in buying up copyrights at knock-down prices from impecunious dramatists; but on occasions he assumed copyright without authority. F. C. Burnand, who as an inexperienced playwright in the early 1860s had reason to mistrust him on both accounts, portrayed him as a rather roguish figure in ‘dirty shirt sleeves’, ‘muddling about with books and papers in a very ill-lighted and grimy shop’ (Burnand, 1.368). For his cavalier attitude to copyright Lacy was successfully brought to court for unauthorized dramatizations of copyright novels in Reade v. Lacy (1862) and Tinsley v. Lacy (1863). At his decease the Dramatic Authors’ Society claimed from his estate in unpaid or misappropriated copyright fees the sum of £700, which after negotiation with the executor was reduced to £250. (OED entry)

Our copy was from an 1885 version, and was owned by one Annie Rowlatt or Rowlett, who highlighted the part of Marianne in blue so presumably took that role.

This type of characterisation or use of deafness as a device is the sort of area that we might expect someone to be doing research on.  If you know of any relevant articles please share them by using the comments box.

John Russell Stephens, ‘Lacy, Thomas Hailes (1809–1873)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/15862, accessed 17 Dec 2015]

Panara, R.F. (1972) Deaf Characters in Fiction and Drama, The Deaf American, 24

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