The first recorded performance of a woman actor playing a female part on the British stage occurred on the afternoon of Saturday, December 8, 1660. Before a performance of Othello, an actor in Tom Killegrew’s King’s Company stepped onto the stage of the Vere Street theatre and delivered the following prologue, written by Thomas Jordan:
“I came unknown to any of the rest,
To tell the news; I saw the lady drest:
The woman plays to-day; mistake me not
No man in gown, or page in petticoat:
A woman to my knowledge, yet I can’t,
If I should die, make affidavit on’t.
Do you not twitter, gentlemen? I know
You will be censuring: do it fairly, though;
’Tis possible a virtuous woman may
Abhor all sorts of looseness, and yet play;
Play on the stage—where all eyes are upon her:
Shall we count that a crime France counts an honour?
. . . . .
But to the point:—in this reforming age
We have intents to civilise the stage.
Our women are defective, and so sized,
You’d think they were some of the guard disguised;
For to speak truth, men act, that are between
Forty and fifty, wenches of fifteen;
With bone so large, and nerve so incompliant,
When you call Desdemona, enter giant."
At the end of the performance, there was a brief epilogue which also celebrated the occasion. Who delivered these speeches? Nobody knows. I like to think it was Tom Killegrew himself. Makes sense, right? In any event, I said that this was the first “recorded” performance of a woman playing a woman because there are earlier instances--in 1656, for example, a woman known only as Mrs Coleman was paid to play the part of Ianthe in William Davenant’s The Siege of Rhodes. (That epithet “Mrs,” by the way, was pronounced “Mistress.”) And the actual directive from Charles II to henceforth have all female roles played by women was part of the August 21, 1660, charter issued to Tom Killegrew’s King’s Company and William Davenant’s Duke’s Company, so there’s a very good chance that as early as, oh, October or November, there were women treading the British boards, in compliance with that warrant’s demand that “plays might be esteemed not only harmless delights but useful and instructive representatives of human life.”
As for the name of the woman who played Desdemona, there are three candidates. Anne Marshall was Killigrew’s leading actress, and it’s known that she played the part later in her career. Margaret Hughes, Killegrew’s second female lead, gets the most scholarly votes, though she was quite probably the one playing Emilia. And Katharine Corey gets her own vote, thanks to a 1689 petition to the Lord Chamberlain in which she styled herself as “the first and the last of all the actresses that were constituted by King Charles II at His Restoration.” If the opinion of modern artists can be entered into this debate, Mrs Hughes wins in a landslide: she’s the female lead in Jeffrey Hatchers’s play Compleat Female Stage Beauty, which you may be familiar with in its filmic incarnation, Stage Beauty, known forever in the tabloids as That Movie Where Claire Danes Seduced Billy Crudup Away From A Pregnant Mary Louise Parker.
Whoever the actress was, when Jordan writes in his prologue the words “I saw the lady drest,” he was speaking the literal truth. In 1660, the Vere Street theatre had its tiring room above and behind the stage proper. There were individual dressing rooms for the stars, an area for the men to change and gather, and what was called the women’s shift for the female actors. And this was not a private room; on the contrary, anybody was allowed to enter. You could actually walk backstage to the women’s shift at any time before or during a performance, and watch Ellen Gwynn bitch about how small the house was in the foulest terms possible while she threw a faux gold gown over her sweat-stained chemise. Off in the corner, you might see Samuel Pepys with Mrs Knepp in his lap, towsing away at the pretty little thing while she reviewed her lines for the next scene, or be brushed aside by the Earl of Oxford as he paid court to his Roxalana, Helen Davenport, while not six inches away Elizabeth Farley was using the chamber pot.
Welcome to the Restoration, ladies and gents: the age when England got sick and tired of its shotgun marriage to Puritanism and started openly taking mistresses; the age when gallants would lie in bed devising impromptus before they rose for their daily ablutions, and women wore dresses and blouses with necklines that exposed everything from nape to navel, but God forbid they ever showed their ankles. It was an age which created plays in which everybody is always hiding in closets, or delivering the wrong documents, or disguising themselves as maids and servants, or loudly revealing secrets to people eavesdropping in closets. These plays created a self-contained theatrical world in which, to quote James Branch Cabell, “monetary competence and happiness and all-important documents, as well as a sudden turn for heroic verse, were regularly accorded to everybody toward eleven o’clock in the evening.” An age in which was born the woeful custom of cutting and rewriting the tragedies of Shakespeare to fit a much more comforting definition of the word “tragic.” Which is why, if you attended that famous December performance of Othello at Vere Street, there’s a better than even chance that you would have seen Desdemona survive the play to marry Cassio.
An odd age, at one and the same time instantly recognizable and totally foreign. Take the word “towsing” which I used above. Towsing is a slang term which is found all over Restoration plays and stage directions, a word whose meaning corresponds to the modern expression “Russian hands and Roman fingers.” To be blunt, it means playing with a woman’s breasts, an enterprise which was totally encouraged by the age’s fashion for upper-body denudation. (Breasts? No problem. Just don’t ever, ever reveal an ankle.) There’s always the question of how much a contemporary play reflects or reveals contemporary life, but the frequency of stage directions like “(Towses her)” or “(Feeling ‘em and sneering)” makes you think that, if public groping wasn’t happening all the time, it sure was something those randy playwrights wanted to see happening. What makes it more probable that it was a reflection and not wish fulfillment? The two plays from which I took those stage directions, The Town-Foppe and The Round Heads, were written by a woman, Aphra Behn. So add to your view of the Restoration the picture of a woman forced by the current fashion to wear the kind of seductive attire that guarantees she will be submitting to or fighting off the groping advances of every man who comes within arm’s length of her. And then multiply those advances by five if she’s an actor.
Who taught these groper-plagued women their theatrical craft? No one knows. Men, probably, at least in the beginning. Did the leading women of the King’s and the Duke’s take on apprentices, the way the leading men did? No one knows. Elizabeth Barry is said to have been tutored by the infamous John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester. If so, at least one of them was a genius, for Mrs Barry was acknowledged during her lifetime to be the Judi Dench of her generation. Personally, I’d give the nod to Barry over Rochester. It may be the hands of Michelangelo which reveal it, but it is the hunk of marble that contains the statue.
And statues, alas, are the one of the many things these women did not leave behind. Even the greatest of theatre lovers would be hard pressed to name six of these pioneers, which is why I am listing below the names of more than two dozen women who performed on a London stage between 1660 and 1690. They are the (mothers? godmothers? stage mothers?) of every English-speaking girl who has ever played or dreamed of playing Desdemona, or Rosalinde, or Beatrice, or Viola. All of them made a living out of acting on the stage. Many of them had a hard time of it. Some of them are only names. But none of them should ever be forgotten.
Mary Saunderson Betterton
Frances Maria Knight
Mary Aldridge Lee, Lady Slingsby
Anne Marshall Quin
Mrs Norris (first name unknown, like so many others)
Susanna Perceval Mountfort Verbruggen
Mrs Twyford (first name unknown)