Was it during the Restoration that the first English actresses were allowed to perform?

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Answered by: Gillian, An Expert in the Theater - General Category

1660 was one of the most eventful years in the history of England, and also proved to be one of the most important in the development of English theatre, including the advent of the first English actresses.

One of Charles II's first actions upon his restoration to the throne in May 1660 was to reopen the playhouses, which had been outlawed under the repressive regime of Oliver Cromwell. By June, the acting companies were performing openly, and apparently without sanction, though they did not yet have official authorization. Performance conditions in these early days after the Restoration were unchanged from what they had been in 1642 when Cromwell closed the theatres, and even from fifty years before that. The theatres were the old Elizabethan and Jacobean playhouses. The plays were the old favorites, with the works of Ben Jonson, John Fletcher, Philip Massinger, Thomas Middleton, William Rowley, and Sir Robert Howard being especially popular. And all of the roles were performed by men and boys, the professional actors from the old days, now middle-aged, and a handful of new apprentices who performed the women's parts.

Bonfire Night, November 5, marked an important step for theatre, as on that date the King’s Company gave their first officially sanctioned performance, giving Wit Without Money by Beaumont & Fletcher at the old Red Bull, one of the remaining Jacobean theatres, the stage in an inn yard, surrounded by galleries on three sides, and open to the wintry air.The run at the Red Bull continued with James Shirley’s The Traitor on Tuesday, November 6 and The Beggar’s Bush by John Fletcher on Wednesday. On Thursday, November 8, the King’s Company opened their new home in Vere Street, just off the southwest corner of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, with Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One. Literally overnight, the players had left behind Elizabethan performance conditions and moved into a new era in English theatre.

On November 20, the diarist Samuel Pepys wrote, “I to the new Playhouse near Lincolnes Inn fields (which was formerly Gibbons’s tennis-court), where the play of Beggars’ bush was newly begun…. It was well acted (and here I saw for the first time one Moone [Mohun], who is said to be the best actor in the world, lately come over with the King); and endeed it is the finest playhouse, I believe, that ever was in England.”

By December, the King’s Company was drawing crowds at their new theatre, playing The Alchemist, Claricilla, A King and No King, Rollo Duke of Normandy, and repeats of The Silent Woman. On December 8, a momentous event in theatre history took place when an actress with the King’s Company, likely Anne Marshall, played Desdemona in Othello (The Moore of Venice). It was the first time that a woman had appeared on an English stage, and the occasion was marked by a special prologue.

Thanks to Pepys, we know of several shows that were presented in January 1661, and have a front row seat for the first few weeks in which the first English actresses women were performing in London. On January 3, he went “to the Theatre, where was acted ‘Beggars’ Bush,’ it being very well done; and here the first time that ever I saw women come upon the stage.” On January 4, he wrote “After dinner Mr. Moore and I to the Theatre, where was ‘The Scornful Lady,’ acted very well, it being the first play that ever he saw.”

Pepys was observing a very interesting period of transition. Along with the brand-new actresses, the men who had been playing the women’s roles were still appearing. On January 7, Pepys attended “‘The Silent Woman,’ the first time that ever I did see it, and it is an excellent play. Among other things here, Kinaston, the boy; had the good turn to appear in three shapes: first, as a poor woman in ordinary clothes, to please Morose; then in fine clothes, as a gallant, and in them was clearly the prettiest woman in the whole house, and lastly, as a man; and then likewise did appear the handsomest man in the house.”

This was a gender-bending role, involving a young man pretending to be a woman. But on January 29, Pepys went to the Duke’s playhouse, where “after great patience and little expectation, from so poor beginning, I saw three acts of ‘The Mayd in ye Mill’ acted to my great content” – and it was a man, James Noakes, who was playing the title female role of the Mayd.

On January 8, Pepys “took my Lord Hinchinbroke and Mr. Sidney to the Theatre, and shewed them ‘The Widdow,’ an indifferent good play, but wronged by the women being to seek in their parts. “To seek” meant the actresses were lost, or didn’t know what they were doing. Perhaps inevitable, as they were young and inexperienced, and no doubt knew they were a curiosity, and the subject of prurient interest.

On January 31, Pepys went to the theatre again, “and there sat in the pit among the company of fine ladys, &c.; and the house was exceeding full, to see ‘Argalus and Parthenia,’ the first time that it hath been acted: and indeed it is good, though wronged by my over great expectations, as all things else are.” He saw it again a few days later but lamented “though pleasant for the dancing and singing, I do not find good for any wit or design therein.”

On February 12 he went back to see The Scornful Lady, “now done by a woman, which makes the play appear much better than ever it did to me.” The king apparently thought so too, as in 1662 he decreed that from then on all women’s parts would be played by women. The days of the boy actor were over.

The years immediately following the restoration continued with the most explosive period of development theatre in England had ever seen or would ever see again, much of it spurred by the one-upsmanship between the rival companies. On June 28, 1661, some months after the King’s Company began performing in Vere Street, the Duke’s Company opened their playhouse nearby with The Siege of Rhodes in two parts, featuring the first proscenium arch and the first moveable or changeable scenery used in a public theatre in England. The production was a sensation, and it left the King’s Company struggling to draw an audience.

In response to the threat presented by the Duke’s Company and its new playhouse, the King’s Company took a lease on some land between Bridges Street and Drury Lane and began building the first purpose-built theatre that London had seen in decades, which could accommodate the new scenery and machinery for special effects. The Theatre Royal opened on May 7, 1663, with Fletcher’s The Humorous Lieutenant (and the 13-year-old Nell Gwynn selling oranges in the pit). The present Theatre Royal is the third on the same site.

Now that it was clear that the theatres were really back in business, playwrights were busy writing new works. And now that they knew that women would be playing the women’s roles – and even knew which women they were writing for – women’s parts took on new importance. Both companies were scrambling to train and introduce some actresses, and the novelty and sex appeal provided by the first English actresses spurred further growth of the booming theatre business, which continued to develop over the next decade.

The Duke’s Company built a grand new theatre on the river, the Dorset Gardens, which opened on November 9, 1671 and was almost twice the size of the company’s former home. On March 26, 1674, the King’s Company opened the second Theatre Royal, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, with the old favorite The Beggar’s Bush. In

In the brief period of time since 1660, performance conditions had evolved from what they had been in the days of Queen Elizabeth to what would remain essentially unchanged until the end of the nineteenth century, with the exception of the introduction of gas and then electrical lighting.



The Diary of Samuel Pepys - http://www.pepysdiary.com


Boswell, Eleanore 1932. The Restoration Court Stage. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

de la Bédoyère, Guy, ed. 1995. The Diary of John Evelyn. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press.

Hotson, Leslie 1928. The Commonwealth and Restoration Stage. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Latham, Robert, ed. 1996. Pepys’s Diary, Volume I. London: The Folio Society.

Morrah, Patrick 1960. 1660: The Year of Restoration. Boston: Beacon Press.

Van Lennep, William, et al., ed. 1963. The London Stage, 1660-1800, A Calendar of Plays, Entertainments, and Afterpieces Together with Casts, Box-Receipts, and Contemporary Comment, Part I, 1660-1700. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press

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