The First Female Actresses by Emma Bamford

Women on the stage? What absolute rot!

Back in the day (the 1600s to be more precise) women were not allowed to act on stage. Until the mid-17th century theatres had been closed due to Royal decree but when they started up again, thanks to King Charles II, it was still unheard of for a woman to take to the stage.

Respectable women would not usually consider a career in the theatre. It was deemed as a low occupation, almost akin to being a prostitute. But because the profession demanded the ability to read and memorise lines and to sing and dance, the first actresses came from varied social backgrounds.

Female parts in plays were generally performed by adolescent boys in women’s costume but the Restoration period saw an emergence of the first female playwrights and actresses. Roles such as ‘breeches parts’ saw women disguising themselves as men on the stage and thereby revealed their ankles and legs in men’s clothing; for a woman to display her ankles was still a bit too risqué.

Although some reports differ, the first woman to act on the professional stage in London was Margaret Hughes at the Vere Street Theatre, playing Desdemona in a production of ‘Othello’. Hughes was famous for her charms as an actress. Samuel Pepys, in his famous diaries, considered her to be a ‘mighty pretty woman … a great beauty with dark ringletted hair, a fine figure and particularly good legs.’. Not so much a review of her work as a discourse on her looks.

By the early eighteenth century the theatre was thriving in Britain. However, in 1737 a licensing act was passed making it illegal for companies to perform without a royal charter. This led to the censorship of plays performed in licensed theatres. The effect was to outlaw many groups of ‘strolling players’ but also to enhance the dominance of the official theatres in which women could seek careers as actresses.

By the end of the seventeenth century women players were much in demand, both on the stage and as subjects of painted portraits and prints. These helped to enhance the fame of early actresses such as Nell Gwyn and Moll Davis.

‘Playhouse Creatures’ presents some of this history and the increasing power of women in the theatrical world in a moving and often comic account.
It’s on at Leicester’s Little Theatre, 23rd to 28th October 2017.

For tickets visit www.thelittletheatre.net or call 0116 255 1302.