The First Actresses
Created | Updated Mar 18, 2005
By the Edwardian era, when English Theatre was at its height, women were a necessary and accepted part of the theatre community. Actresses were celebrities, and their profession was a highly respected and reputable one - even to the point of a number of actresses marrying into the nobility. Still, that had not always been the case in Europe generally, and especially not in England. Christian dogma, and in particular puritanism, had kept women from the stage throughout much of the early development of European theatre. This is a brief account of how that came to be, and how it came to be overturned.
Influence of the Church and the Crown
Theatre, which traces its origins back to classical Greek and Roman times or even earlier, had soon earned the condemnation of the early Christian Church - probably due to its pagan origins and the fact that it was commonly frequented by prostitutes plying their trade. In Christian England, a succession of Church decrees against it ensured that for hundreds of years theatre was virtually unknown in this country. This changed in the Middle Ages when the Church, paradoxically, resurrected theatre for its own end. In an age of mass illiteracy, means other than the written word were needed to get the message of the Bible across. As a result, the Church introduced the 'Miracle Plays'. These were dramatic reconstructions of bible stories performed by monks and religious brotherhoods in village squares across the country. But the Church had opened Pandora's box: the popularity of the 'Miracle Plays' inspired the formation of troupes of non-secular players performing plays purely for purposes of entertainment and profit. These troupes inpired immediate condemnation from the Church, but the Church itself had created both the demand for their productions and the environment in which they could survive - and survive they did.
As with the 'Miracle Plays', these early commercial plays were a male preserve. Some conventions take longer to overturn and in conservative Old England, for a woman to exhibit herself in public was not only unseemly, it was immoral - even an abomination. Women's equality was as yet a thing of the far distant future. Women belonged in the home, not flaunting themselves in public. So before the construction of the first fixed theatres, these troupes of male actors would roam the country performing wherever and whenever there were a few coppers to made. Being itinerant, their womenfolk would travel with them, but still they could not perform. Even male actors were looked upon with suspicion and contempt, regarded as little better than thieves or vagabonds - so the idea of female players was unthinkable. Of course plays commonly called for female roles, and so those parts had to be played by men, or more commonly, by boys.
The Church saw to it that these acting troupes were widely reviled, even by those who paid to see them perform. They were tolerated long enough to give their performance, then they had to move on. When the first fixed theatres were established in London, they even found themselves blamed for the Great Plague - after all the cause of the plague was sin, and what was more sinful than theatre? Ironically, these early theatres may very well have played a part, since by crowding people they would have provided the disease with an opportunity to spread.
But if the Church had been theatre's implacable enemy, the Crown had equally been its devoted friend. Richard III (1483 - 1485) was the first English king to keep his own troupe of players; Henry VIII (1509 - 1547) was a devotee who loved appearing in masques and even wrote and performed his own songs. Elizabeth I (1558 - 1603), the Virgin Queen, adored playgoing and under her and her successor James I (1603 - 1625) the theatre would flourish as never before. This era, from the mid-16th Century to the mid-17th, was the time of Shakespeare, Jonson, Marlowe, Ford and Beaumont among others, and theatres were springing up everywhere.
Boys Will Be Girls
But still there were no actresses. When the great plays of William Shakespeare were first performed, all of the parts would still have to be played by males, even that most feminine and romantic of roles, 'Juliet' (in Romeo and Juliet). It is probably no accident that Shakespeare's plots often called for his female characters to be masquerading as boys. Since they had to be played by boys anyway, this added to the realism. The church may been defeated in the matter of theatre in general, but on the point of women it still ruled supreme. The church forbade the appearance of women, and theatre was not yet powerful enough to resist. There is anecdotal evidence, with probably some element of truth, of a few women pretending to be boys in order to play the parts for which they were more naturally endowed. But at a time when few records were kept, and when they could never be properly recognised anyway for fear of prosecution, this cannot now be verified.
It is truly strange to consider then that Shakespeare's great romantic tragedies could have become so popular with all the parts being played by men. A true testament to the power of the theatre is the fact that a tender and moving speech from a man to a woman could be delivered instead to another man and this glaring anomaly be so easily overlooked.
On the continent there was no such problem: things were already changing. During the early years of Elizabeth's reign in England, women would become firmly established in theatre in Italy, and towards the end of her reign the same would become true of France. The first 'great' celebrated actress was in fact an Italian: Isabella Andreini. She was a member of a company called the Gelosi who appeared on stage in Florence from around 1578. Still England lagged behind; even ultra-conservative Spain saw the light before England did. Some travellers to France and Italy saw theatrical productions with the added spectacle of female performers and either approved or disapproved, but this was as yet unknown in Mother England.
Puritanism in England
English Theatre continued to flourish during the reign of Charles I (1625 - 1649), but with the growing Puritan movement the storm clouds were gathering. Charles's reign did however see the first appearance of professional female players on the stage in England - but they were not English. Charles's Queen, Henrietta Maria, was French and it was her influence that brought a French company, complete with actresses, to perform in London at the Blackfriars Theatre. London theatregoers were at once fascinated and horrified at the sight of women performing on stage. The Puritans were outraged at such an affront to their religious sensibilities. The conservatives were aghast at the intrusion of a foreign idea so contrary to established tradition. Although there were those who saw no wrong in such an idea, for the majority it was too soon - contemporary reports tell of their being booed and 'pippin-pelted' from the stage and the whole company hastily retreated back to France.
So the first introduction of women in English theatre had been a failure, and when Oliver Cromwell rose to power following the English Civil War, theatre found itself cast into another dark age. With the Crown temporarily abolished, theatre had lost its greatest ally. To the Puritans, if women performing in public was an offence against morality, then boys masquerading as women, and in particular wearing women's clothing, was an abomination against the scriptures. Not only were women to continue to be banned from the stage, now men were too, and all of the theatres were closed down.
Paradoxically, this ban on theatre in all its forms would lead to the door finally being opened for English women to appear on the stage. Theatre may have been banned, but the tradition of theatre-going in England was too strong to be entirely suppressed. With the theatres closed, well-to-do patrons of the theatrical profession hosted secretive performances in their own homes to which only trusted friends were invited. And since these performances were illegal anyway, there was little need in staging them to observe the other legal niceties, such as the law that forbade women from acting. So it was that in some of these illicit performances the first English women were seen to appear in front of paying audiences. Notable among these was Mrs Coleman, a highly respectable married woman who played the leading lady in a dramatic opera written by Sir William Davenant and performed on a small stage in his stately home in front of paying guests.
The Door is Opened by Royal Charter
By the time of the Restoration of King Charles II, certain elements of English society had seen women acting and had not found it to be so terribly offensive. Moreover, the new king himself was a lover of theatre and during four years of foreign exile had seen many theatrical performances which included women players. He was determined to open the door for women players in England; the problem was how to do it without upsetting his still largely Puritan subjects. Cleverly, he granted a charter to the Drury Lane company, making it the King's Own Company, and to prevent the moral outrage to his subjects caused by boys dressing up as females the charter required that all female parts be played by women. So there it was, in a document which exists to this today, the door to the acting profession was opened to women by no less a hand than that of the king himself.
The reaction of male actors to the introduction of women to their profession was mixed. Some saw it as adding realism and thereby enhancing their profession, whereas others regarded it as 'unnatural'. Some grumbled at the competition from these raw amateurs in a profession where it was already difficult enough to earn a living; others realised the financial opportunities of introducing their wives and daughters to the stage. Regardless of these murmurings, one thing soon became clear: the theatre-going public once exposed to women playing women's roles on the stage would no longer accept anything less. The more progressive male actors and producers soon realised that women attracted fresh patrons to the theatre, creating more demand for performances and thereby more work for all.
Some Great Early Actresses
The first English woman to 'legally' appear on the stage in England was one Margaret Hughes, who on 8 December, 1660 played 'Desdemona' in The Moor of Venice (a reworking of Shakespeare's Othello). The production at the Vere Street theatre as billed as introducing the 'first woman that came to act on the stage'. The reaction of the crowd is unknown, but overall it seems to have been a success. Certainly it did not put the lady off, since she would go on to join the original Theatre Royal (Drury Lane) company and play many more roles in a career which would bring her riches through the romantic attentions of Prince Rupert (to whom she gave a daughter).
Now that women were finally admitted to the acting profession, many other talented actresses would follow that route to fame and fortune. The most famous of all the early English actresses is of course Nell Gwynne, though she is better remembered as an orange-seller (which is uncertain) and mistress to the king (which is definitely certain!). Nell Gwynne was born in 1650 and it's believed that she began her association with the theatre when selling oranges to the audience at the King's Theatre. At some point she attracted the attention of the actor Charles Hart, becoming his mistress and taking up acting. She soon established herself as a talented comic actress, especially skilled in singing and dancing. As her career blossomed, she caught the eye of Lord Buckhurst, Charles Sackville, becoming in turn his mistress also. But the paramour that cemented her fame was Charles II, King of England (Nell would often refer to him as her Charles III).
Charles was a notorious womaniser, who had associations with over a dozen mistresses, but of all these Nell would become his favourite. He set her up in a house in Pall Mall, containing a fabulous bed made of solid silver standing in the centre of a room lined entirely with mirrors. The bed alone had cost a thousand pounds. Nell is known to have given birth to a son by Charles II, who in all probability was conceived in that very bed. Although the King provided for the child, and those he believed to be his by his other mistresses, in spite of Nell's most earnest entreaties he refused to grant her wish to give the boy a title. Nevertheless, Nell would remain close to the King until his death and continue to live in the house he had bought her until her own death in 1687.
The frequency with which these early actresses would entertain members of the nobility in their dressing rooms (and often their bedrooms) did little to enhance the 'respectability' of their profession. Nell Gwynne herself, when mistaken in her carriage for the Catholic Duchess of Portland, Louise de Keroualle, and jostled by the crowd, retorted 'Pray good people be civil, I am the Protestant whore.' Many of these women came from dubious backgrounds and that they became celebrities at all was often due more to their morals (or lack thereof) than to their artistic talents.
Even so, more and more women aspired to become actresses, and the need for them was insatiable. Women of good breeding and/or 'character' were to become drawn to the acting profession and the first truly great actresses would soon appear. Among the first of these was Elizabeth Barry, the daughter of a barrister and Colonel in King Charles I's army. When the king lost the war to the Parliamentarians, Barry lost all he owned and the prospects for the daughter of a broken Cavalier appeared bleak. Accordingly, when she was old enough at the age of 15, she tried for the stage. After a year with the Duke's Theatre company she was dismissed as being untalented and unteachable. She then found a mentor in the Earl of Rochester, a womaniser who no doubt instructed the pretty girl in more than just the art of theatre, but nevertheless he made an actress of her. Elizabeth already had beauty, Rochester gave her 'presence'. That indefineable quality that draws in an audience to believe unflinchingly in the portrayal and take the player to their hearts. In time she became the greatest actress of her era, unrivalled by any other woman on stage.
A Tale of Two Sarahs
In 1755, a daughter was born into a travelling theatrical family headed by actor-manager Roger Kemble and his wife Sarah. The daughter, also named Sarah, was groomed for the stage from birth and was destined to become one of the greatest tragediennes the profession has ever known.
It almost came not to be so, for when her parents forbade her marriage to actor William Siddons, a member of her father's company, Sarah left the company to take up a position as a lady's maid. But her parents relented, and Sarah returned to the company and married her William - and it was as Sarah Siddons that she rose to fame. Beginning to make a name for herself in the provinces, in 1775 Sarah was recommended to the great David Garrick who, after a trial, engaged both her and her husband to play at the Drury Lane. However, she wasn't accustomed to playing before a large crowd in a purpose-built theatre. Sarah could not settle or give her best; she was widely criticised for the quality of her performances and soon retreated back to the provinces.
Seven years later, having greatly added to her poise and experience, and become a great favourite in the provinces, Sarah was ready to try again. Playing the title role in Isabella, Sarah so won over the Drury Lane audience that after Isabella's death scene the play could not be completed because of the tumult in the adoring crowd. Overnight, her fame was assured. All of London went mad about her: her name alone could fill any theatre.
Of the many parts she would play in a distinguished career, it was the role of the tragic heroine that she played best, and none more so than that of 'Lady MacBeth' - a part she would play over many years and, fittingly, in her last stage performance at the Covent Garden in 1812. In retirement, Sarah would sometimes give readings from Shakespeare which invariably drew crowds.
Her death in 1831 was a great loss to the theatrical profession. At a time when acting was only just becoming a respectable profession for a woman, Sarah's character was irreproachable. As an actress she had never had an equal, and having failed and then triumphed through perseverance, she set a shining example for all who aspired to follow her.
However, theatre had not long to wait before her most able successor arrived on the scene. And it was another Sarah - Sarah Bernhardt. This Sarah (her stage name) was born in 1844 in Paris as Henriette Rosine Bernard - the illegitimate daughter of a Dutch Jewish courtesan. She was educated in French Catholic convents and trained for the stage at the Conservatoire de Musique et Déclamation.
Sarah Bernhardt's stage career began in 1862, appearing mainly in comic theatre and burlesque. She quickly rose to fame on the stage across Europe and in the United States. Expanding her repertoire as her experience grew, she developed a reputation as a serious dramatic actress. At the height of her career she was the most famous actress of her day: known to her adoring fans simply as 'the Divine Sarah'. She was probably the first truly international 'superstar'.
Sarah also embraced what was then a very new technology, and made several recordings (on cylinders and discs) of famous dialogue from various productions. She was also one of the first actresses to appear on film when she appeared as 'Hamlet' in Le Duel Hamlet in 1900. She went on to make 11 films in all. Sarah was multi-talented, being an accomplished painter and sculptor as well as finding time to publish a series of books and plays throughout her life.
Her social life echoed that of some of her earlier forebears, having a string of lovers including a Belgian nobleman (the father of her only child), the writer Maurice Bernhardt and several artists and actors. She married once to a Greek-born actor, but it did not last.
On the stage she revelled in tragedic pieces and preferred roles in which her character died at the drama's end. Sarah lost her right leg through amputation in 1915, some years after suffering a serious injury. However, she carried on her career undaunted, in spite of having to wear a wooden prosthetic limb. Sarah Bernhardt died in Paris in 1923, and has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Coming of Age
That brings us up to the beginning of the 20th Century, to the time of the 'Golden Age' of theatre - before the arrival of cinema to tempt the audiences away.
Women had at first for many years been banned from the stage, then they had been tolerated more than accepted - lauded for their theatrical talents maybe, but still looked down upon as essentially immoral and of low repute. Because of this, many early actresses adopted the appellation of 'Mrs' whether they were married or not, simply because the married title implied a greater air of respectability.
Gradually, through the efforts of many of the early proponents of their art, the situation changed. The idea of theatre without women to play women's roles became inconceivable. Accomplished actresses, once unknown, then finding fame only through their off-stage exploits, eventually entered an age where they could be recognised for what they were. They could make their mark through their acting talents alone - no longer being dependent on their beauty, charm, and the influence of their lovers. Although some actresses still preferred to use the married title, it was no longer necessary: an actress could be known as 'Miss', as in 'Miss Lily Elsie', and still appear the epitomy of chaste respectability. The actress' profession had come of age, and their finest hour had arrived.