A Brief History of the Duel

This week’s Playhouse Perspective Blog comes from The Lady Demands Satisfaction actress and fight choreographer Rebecca Brinkley.

Rebecca Brinkley

Rebecca Brinkley

Gulfshore Playhouse’s upcoming production of The Lady Demands Satisfaction written by Arthur M. Jolly is a delightful farce that takes place during one of history’s most interesting time periods. This play centers around the dueling culture of the mid 1700’s when dueling with swords (as opposed to firearms) was widely popular and an accepted part of everyday life among the wealthier population. However, in this era duels had become so common among the gentry that challenges were frequently sought out over ridiculously menial indiscretions. Suppose you don’t like the shape of a fellow’s mustache? If you were a confident duelist with a well regarded reputation, you might attempt provoking him with insults to get him to challenge you. It was this kind of culture that created an opportunity for men to assert their dominance, protect their honor, and also climb the social ladder.

The Lady Demands Satisfaction is set in 1766 when the culture surrounding the duel had become so normalized it had even worked its way into men’s fashion. The sword was frequently worn by the upper classes almost as if it were jewelry. Men would commission insanely ornate swords covered in expensive gems and even had them fashioned to match their outfits. Dueling was not only a way to preserve and elevate one’s status, it was also a way to be fashionable and attractive.

        By the 1760’s the Rapier (a sharply pointed, two edge blade) was slowly going out of style and the Smallsword (a lightweight, tapered thrusting sword) was beginning to take its place because of the speed and practicality of the weapon. In 1766 the focus of a duel had moved from hacking one’s opponent to bits to a non-lethal contest of beating their time to achieve a fair touch. This was enough to show that you could have killed if you so wished. In the show, this is referred to as “Caitiff Rules”. The Smallsword was so popular at the time that it would have likely been the weapon of choice for our characters. In this particular production though, the swords being used are historically inaccurate. The Single Sword (a tapered thrusting and cutting sword) that you will see the actors wielding in the show was actually invented by Hollywood and never existed historically. We purposefully chose to use this weapon due to the fact that the style and movement of the Single Sword lends itself to farce and allows for more animated and fun choreography.

        Although Jolly’s play is about the dueling culture, which was completely centered around men, many of the combatants in this particular show are female. It was extremely rare at the time for women to ever participate in swordplay. However, the existence of female duelists is not inaccurate. One of the most famous duels to have ever taken place was over an insult to a lady, and the instigator was actually a woman herself. An actress named Julie D’Aubigny, better known as Mademoiselle Maupin, had gone to a costume ball dressed as a man and insulted another woman there. Thinking she was a male, three of the lady’s suitors challenged her to a duel and shockingly enough, she bested all three. Turns out she had been training with one of France’s greatest fencing masters, who also happened to be her lover. Without giving too much away, Gulfshore Playhouse’s production has many parallels to this particular incident and has a quite lot to say about the female duelist. 

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The cast of The Lady Demands Satisfaction during rehearsal

As both an actor combatant and choreographer, I have never before come across a play that has managed to touch upon this time in history in a way that is so accessible and enjoyable. Jolly has written a fabulous script that creates a very different kind of atmosphere surrounding one of the most interesting and short lived eras of socially sanctioned aggressions. Come see The Lady Demands Satisfaction at the Norris Center February 15th through March 15th and experience a laughable and fight-filled adventure!

For tickets and more information on The Lady Demands Satisfaction, visit http://bit.ly/39NrMcc. 

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