Friday, May 22, 2020

'All Women's Parts to be Acted by Women'

By John Pilkington

So runs a commanding phrase from one of the earliest Acts of Charles II’s reign. Following the demise of Cromwell’s short-lived Republic, 1660 saw the Restoration of the Monarchy: the return from exile of the son of the executed Charles the First. The Restoration ushered in a new, liberal era after the Puritan years - and among many changes the new King brought was the appearance of the first actresses on the English stage. Prior to that, all female roles had been taken by men and boys.
Soon after his arrival Charles gave two of his supporters, Thomas Killigrew and Sir William Davenant, royal patents to run theatres in London, their patrons being, respectively, the King himself and his brother James, Duke of York. Killigrew soon founded the King’s Company, based at first in a converted tennis court. Here, on 8th December 1660, the first actress to perform publicly stepped out: Margaret (‘Peg’) Hughes, taking the role of Desdemona in Othello. Soon afterwards, the great diarist -and keen theatre-goer - Samuel Pepys would write: ‘I to the Theatre, where was acted Beggars Bush… and here the first time that ever I saw women come upon the stage’ (3rd January 1661). In terms of theatre history, it was a revolution. Within a few years Pepys could record: ‘Tomorrow, they told us, should be acted… a new play called The Parsons Dreame, acted all by women’ (4th October 1664).

Margaret Hughes


By then, Killigrew had moved (in 1663) to a new theatre adapted from a former riding school in Brydges Street, off Drury Lane in lively Covent Garden – the burgeoning West End. The courtier Davenant, meanwhile (once rumoured to be an illegitimate son of Shakespeare, though no real evidence exists), had lost no time in founding the Duke’s Company, also in a former tennis court (Lisle’s, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields). He opened in 1661 with one of his own plays, The Siege of Rhodes, featuring the actress Mary Saunderson who the following year would marry leading actor Thomas Betterton. Davenant, who had produced plays and court masques before the Civil War, was the guiding spirit of this first wave of English actresses: eight young women he had tutored and even boarded at his house. Very soon they were an accepted - and expected - sight on the stage.

So began what we now term ‘Restoration Theatre’, often characterised by alluring costumes and witty ‘Comedies of Manners’ in which the pursuit of women was a common theme. Now, however, instead of cross-dressing boys there were real, flesh-and-blood females to take the roles. So, who were they?

To begin with they were not only talented, being expected to sing and dance as well as to act: they were strong-willed and courageous. They had to be, to survive in what was exclusively a men’s domain. Some, it must be said, took to the stage merely to attract well-to-do suitors with marriage as a goal, since many theatre-goers came from the gentry and upper classes, even the aristocracy. Others settled for becoming mistresses, this being a notoriously licentious age with men taking their example from the King himself. The most famous, of course, was Eleanor (‘Nell’) Gwyn. Nell starred alongside the actor Charles Hart in Killigrew’s first Drury Lane production, The Humorous Lieutenant. She was 14; a year earlier she had been a poor orange-seller in the theatre. Within a few years she would catch the eye of the King, go on to bear sons by him and become his most famous mistress with her own servants and a set of rooms in St James’s Park.

Nell Gwyn

The actress Mary (‘Moll’) Davis became another of Charles’ mistresses, and was set up in similar fashion. While Mary Lee, a leading tragedian with the Duke’s Company, married a baronet and became Lady Slingsby.

Moll Davis

Other actresses apart from Mary Saunderson married theatre people, like Anne Gibbs who became Mrs Shadwell, wife of the celebrated playwright Thomas. But most of them had to shift for themselves, in a precarious world with very few opportunities for women outside of marriage. The wage, for the time, was good: up to fifteen shillings a week for a regular female player - well above the wage of the working man – which gave them a degree of independence. Though this was offset by the insecurity of the profession, since the theatres might be closed at any time for a variety of reasons. The fact remains that many of the actresses were obliged, if not prepared, to use their sexuality to advance their careers. The ‘casting couch’ surely dates from this era, for all actresses were considered fair game – not only by leading actors, but also by the men (Pepys among them) who haunted the backstage areas before, during and after performances, many doubtless deserving of the soubriquet ‘Blowflies of the Tiring Room’. At least there were separate changing rooms (known as the ‘Men’s Shift’ and the ‘Women’s Shift’), as there were now seamstresses and ‘tiring-maids’ to look after the costumes, in this age of extravagant fashion.

How the women managed, in a climate of casual sex with virtually no contraception, let alone legal protection, would be a challenge to the staunchest of souls. Yet Mary Betterton forged a successful career on her own merits, and Elizabeth Barry – though given a helping hand by that famous libertine, the Earl of Rochester – gained a well-deserved reputation as a serious tragic actress. While Hester Davenport, often known as ‘Roxalana’ after her celebrated role in The Siege of Rhodes, left the stage to become the mistress of the Earl of Oxford. She was still only 20, and had been tricked into a fake marriage with the Earl. The pace of change was sometimes slow, but it was inevitable. There was even an opportunity for a woman to take a prominent role in theatre management: when Davenant died in 1668, his widow Henrietta Maria, along with two of their nine sons, took over the running of the Duke’s theatre, with the help of the forward-looking Betterton.

We should not forget that this was a vibrant theatrical scene. These new indoor theatres, with their lighting and elaborate scenery, were a far cry from the rough-and-tumble of the great Elizabethan playhouses like the Globe, the Swan and the Rose. Their day was over, and had been since the closure of the theatres on the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642. Davenant, who like the King had been impressed by theatres on the continent, where female actors already performed, introduced moveable scenery at the Duke’s: painted flats sliding into place along grooves in the stage. Killigrew soon followed the practice at the King’s. Equally important was the lighting: great candelabras hoisted above the stage, with side-lighting from candles in reflectors. It was a striking development from the open-air stages, natural daylight and minimal scenery of the pre-Civil War theatres – and it was also considerably more upmarket. In the old theatres you could stand in the yard for a penny; in the Restoration playhouses the cheapest gallery seats (there was no standing room to speak of) cost a shilling. A seat on a bench in the ‘pit’ – today’s stalls – would set you back two shillings and sixpence, a tidy sum at that time.

These theatres were also quite intimate spaces, seating around 500-800 (the old pre-war theatres had accommodated thousands). It was an excellent platform for an actor to shine and to command the stage. Usually a leading player spoke the prologue on the forestage in front of a ‘festoon’ curtain, which was then raised to open the first scene – and many of these speeches were made by actresses.

The companies of the time generally contained around 24 actors, of whom a third were women. No longer were playwrights restricted in the number of female parts they could write as they had been in earlier times, to be played by the boys in the company (never more than four). Nor had the company to rely on the singing abilities of boys whose voices had not yet broken, but could exploit the full range of mature female voices. For dancing, the looser gowns now in vogue (despite the upper-body corsets) allowed greater freedom of movement, as Pepys noted with his customary relish: ‘I was pleased to see [Elizabeth] Knipp dance among the milkmaids, and to hear her sing a song… [in] the comeliest dress that ever I saw’ (17th August 1667). And equally noteworthy was the arrival of the first female playwright, Aphra Behn, an adventurous widow who had briefly been a spy. She wrote successful plays which provided strong roles for women as well as men – with shrewd observations on the predatory behaviour of the latter.

Aphra Behn

Nowadays we are accustomed to seeing female actors feted and honoured on a par with men (even if equal pay remains an issue). The profession is no longer considered a disreputable one, or even particularly dangerous. It is easy to forget how brave those first, pioneering actresses had been back in the 1660s, and how revolutionary was their arrival.

Even if it had come about at the whim of a profligate king, it was a beginning.

Further reading:
Elizabeth Howe, The First English Actresses (1992).
John H. Wilson, All the King’s Ladies: actresses of the Restoration (1958).
Graham Hopkins, Nell Gwyn; a passionate life (2003).
Montague Summers, The Playhouse of Pepys (1964).


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John Pilkington wrote plays for radio and theatre as well as scripts for BBC television before turning to historical fiction, which soon become his lifelong passion. He has since published around twenty books, including seven in the popular series The Thomas the Falconer Mysteries, set in the late Tudor period (now republished by Sharpe Books), four in the early 17th century Marbeck spy series (Severn House) and a children’s series, the Elizabethan Mysteries (Usborne). His Restoration-era mysteries, featuring actress-turned-sleuth Betsy Brand, are now being published in revised editions by Joffe Books.

Website: www.johnpilkington.co.uk
Twitter: @_JohnPilkington



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