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Quiet Please, There’s a Lady on the Stage

Here’s an interesting one…

Today, 8 December, marks the 354th anniversary of women first appearing professionally on the English stage as actresses. Funny, isn’t it, that the theatre should ever have been so exclusory of women when I’ve always viewed it as a place of refuge, welcoming of practically anyone provided you could remember your lines and hit your mark. The suspended reality, the camaraderie when you and the rest of the cast are nervous and about to appear before an audience, the hiding behind another persona, the acclaim when it all goes well. I haven’t acted for what feels like a million years now, but I remember.

Theatre’s origins lie in ancient Greek religion, and the worship of Dionysus, the god of wine, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, and fertility. Once he also took over being the god of theatre, the men worried it might prove to be too heady a mix for the women, the earthly providers of Dionysus’ indulgences, so popped the girls back in the kitchen where they could be better trusted – which I suspect also meant they were out of the way when the men wanted to engage in toga-clad orgies. Who knew theatre was the original boys’ club, huh?

That it took so long to change seems even sillier given the only reason the ban on women was lifted was due to King Charles’ belief that the men taking on the women’s roles were at greater risk of developing ‘unnatural vices’ ie turning into big gays because wearing dresses and makeup made them that way. It’s laughable in today’s world, when the word ‘theatre’ is basically synonymous with gay culture, but back then the good god fearing people of England weren’t so knowledgeable about queer life (fast forward three hundred and a bit years and I’m not sure my Catholic high school was any better, given how the boys in my drama class would cop a ribbing for being ‘poofs’ and ‘faggots’ because they loved acting).

The men in 1660 can’t have been too happy about women taking away their chance to get their drag on, because there’s no definitive record of the identity of the first woman to take to the stage. Historical documents are contradictory, variously naming Margaret Hughes, Anne Marshall and Katherine Corey as she. It was certainly one of these three ladies, the great actresses of the Restoration era; the first generation of female performers to appear on the public stage. Whichever of them it was, the role she played was that of Desdemona in a King’s Company production of Shakespeare’s Othello. The director, courtesan Thomas Killigrew, would eventually restage and recast his own play, Parson’s Wedding, entirely with women.

Portrait of Margaret Hughes, by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1670. Apparently female stars were having to get their norks out even then…

By the mid 1800s, the presence of women in the theatre was no longer exceptional. In fact it became common for women to appear as men in major roles, proving that what goes around really does come around. So much so that in 1904 a whole other scandal was brewing, with grown women being cast as the ever youthful boy in JM Barrie’s Peter Pan. Poor Maude Adams, who played Peter Pan in the original Broadway production, had to travel to and from the theatre in full costume so as not to spoil the illusion for children coming to see the show. Weirdly, women continued to play male roles throughout the 19th century, particularly those of romantic leads. It’d have our right-wing politicians vomiting in the aisles these days, but back then it was considered far preferable for two women to kiss on stage than for a man and woman to get their pash on. Go figure!

Anyway, I’m not sure why I’m retelling all this, other than that it was of interest to me. Plus it’s pantomime season, so seeing as you’ve read this far here’s some other gender bending theatre moments for you to scroll through…

Irving Berlin’s ‘This is the Army, Mr Jones’

Arthur Finero’s The Amazons, Dickson House Play at Smith University, January 1986

Nina Boucicault as Peter Pan in the original London production of 1904, Duke’s Theatre

Anthony Sher in Torch Song Trilogy, Albery Theatre 1985

Julie Andrews, 1997 special performance of Victor Victoria

Vesta Tilley, male impersonator and highest paid female performer of the early 1900s

Theresa Berganza as Cherubino in a 1963 production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro

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