Thursday, August 07, 2008

Question from Liz - Women on the stage

I've heard that actresses where not allowed on the Elizabethan stage and that female roles were done by males. Why were females barred from the stage and when where they finally allowed to act? What changed that allowed them to do so?

4 comments:

PhD Historian said...

It is VERY rare that I recommend a movie for learning purposes, but you might be interested in the film "Stage Beauty." It deals specifically with the issue of women taking to the stage. It is well done, at least as far as Hollywood versions of history go. Not totally accurate, but also not a complete mess. The basic issue of why women were barred from the stage is discussed with relative ... but not total ... accuracy.

The change occurred in the 1660s in the reign of Charles II. Women were barred from the stage prior to that because it was thought that "selling themselves" on the stage would corrupt them and lead them into "lives of sin," specifically prostitution.

kb said...

I'm out of my period here but, didn't Charles II have a mistress who was an actress? And wouldn't that have been a contributing factor?

PhD Historian said...

Yes, KB, Charles II had SEVERAL mistresses who were actresses, most famously Nell Gwynne. And that did indeed have an influence on the government's willingness to condone female actors.

Anonymous said...

Stage Beauty is quite a good film, but plays fast and loose with the history of Charles II and Nell Gwynne. Gwynne was only about eight at the time depicted in the film; Charles met her after she was a successful actress in her own right. Charles II allowed women on the public stage at his restoration in 1660; he spent his exile on the continent, where female actors had been allowed on stage as early as the first decades of the sixteenth centuries (esp. in Italy).

Women were barred from the stage in England for the reasons that phd historian stated. There was an ideology that equated "loose-lipped" (i.e., speaking in public) women as having loose morals. The absence of women on the public stage did not, however, mean that there was nothing for the moralists to complain about. The theatres for them were dens of iniquity where prostitutes and thieves congregated, men and women could intermix more freely, and the audience could experience "unnatural" thrills from watching young men and boys dress and act as women. Once a majority of puritans gained governmental control during the civil wars and the interregnum, the theatres were closed until reopened by Charles' government.

That info refers to the public stage, however. Aristocrats and gentry played by their own rules (as always). Many court masques (playlets that involved allegorical themes and elaborate costumes and settings) were performed in England and included noblewomen. Anne and Mary Boleyn were characters in a masque that had Henry and his "knights" storming the Castle of Something-Like-Aloofness. I read that Anne played "Constancy" but that might be apocryphal. James I's wife Anne of Denmark caused a bit of a scandal by appearing in a masque when she was pregnant.

Coronation processions featured important citizens and their families playing in tableaux and recitations meant to please the monarch and which often, as in the case of Elizabeth I, incorporated the monarch reciting a speech or accepting a gift.

There is also the chance that women participated in their town's mystery or miracle plays in the middle ages. Often members of trade guilds in their own right, they would have contributed in various ways to putting on these plays during feast days and religious observances.

Court jesters, fools, and dwarves could be female.

Touring companies from the continent often brought their female actors with them.

Women were heavily involved in the "backstage" part of the biz, altering and sewing costumes, providing or fixing props, even offering financial backing (when Elizabeth I commissioned a performance, you got recognition and pay, esp. good when the theatres were closed or the weather uncooperative).

There is a great book edited by Pamela Allen Brown that has chapters which explore many facets of females participating in the theatre.

--kate