Leading Ladies
The Story of Women's Ascent to the Stage

By the Edwardian era, women were a necessary and accepted part of the theatre community. Actresses were celebrities, and their profession a highly respected and reputable one - even to the point of a number of actresses marrying into the nobility. But that had not always been the case - not in Europe generally, and especially not in conservative Old England. Christian dogma, and in particular puritanism, had kept women from the stage throughout much of the early development of European theatre. This, all too briefly, is the story 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, soon earned the condemnation of the early christian church - probably due to its pagan origins and the fact that in its early days it was commonly frequented by prostitutes plying their trade. In christian England, a succession of church decrees against theatre ensured that for hundreds of years it was virtually unknown in this country. All of that changed in the middle ages when the Church itself, somewhat paradoxically, resurrected theatre for its own end. In an age of mass illiteracy, the church needed other means than the written word to get the message of the Bible across to the general populace. Thus the church introduced the 'Miracle Plays', dramatic reconstructions of bible stories performed by monks and religious brotherhoods in village squares across the country. But the church soon found that it had opened Pandora's box - the popularity of these 'Miracle Plays' inspired the formation of troupes of non-secular players performing other types of plays purely for purposes of entertainment and profit. These troupes inspired immediate condemnation from the church, but the church itself had created the demand for their productions - it had created the environment in which they could survive, and survive they did.

As with the 'Miracle Plays', these early commercial plays were solely a male preserve. Some conventions take longer to overturn, and in Old England for a woman to exhibit herself in public was not only unseemly, it was immoral, indecent. 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 perforce travel with them, but still they could not perform. Even male actors were looked upon in those days with considerable suspicion and contempt, regarded as little better than thieves or vagabonds. So the idea of females taking part in an already disreputable profession 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 bad reputation which clung to those connected with the acting profession in those days was largely the responsibility of the church. If the church could not stop these travelling troupes of players, it could at least see to it thay they were widely reviled, even by those who paid to see them perform. They were tolerated in one place only long enough to give their performance, and then they must move on. When the first fixed theatres were subsequently established in London, they were welcomed by some, but denounced by many, and even found themselves blamed for the Great Plague - after all it was commonly beleived that the cause of the Plague was sin, and what was there more sinful, according to the church, than theatre? Ironically, these early theatres may very well indeed have played a part, since by crowding people together in a confined space they would have provided an opportunity for an unknowing victim to infect others.

But if the church had long 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. It seemed theatre was accepted at last and was here to stay. - (top)

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 would have added to the realism. The church may have 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, these reports 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 that a tender and moving speech from a man to a woman could in fact be delivered by one man to another 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 of her reign the same would become true of France. The Worlds first 'great' celebrated actress was in fact an Italian, Isabella Andreini, 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 long 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. - (top)

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 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 a Frenchwoman 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. A private letter written to the Bishop of London and signed by one Thomas Brande condemned the piece and noted "Glad I am to saye that they were hissed, hooted, and pippin-pelted from the stage, so as I do not think they will soone be ready to trie the same againe." Although there were those who saw no wrong in such an idea, for the majority, like Brande, it was too soon. The puritans position was actually a somewhat hypocritical one. Not only were they vehemently opposed to the appearance of women on the stage, they also regarded the alternative idea of males taking female parts to be an equally abominable practice. The prominent puritan politician and author William Prynne in his "Histriomastix," (1632) referred to the actresses as "French women, or monsters rather" and went on to describe them as "impudent, shamefull, unwomanish, gracelesse".

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 womens clothing, was an abomination against the scriptures. Not only were women to continue to be banned from the stage, now theatrical performance in its entirety was to be banned, 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. - (top)

The Door is Opened by Royal Charter

By the time of the Restoration of King Charles II, certain of the more prominent 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 Kings 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 must 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, 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 womens 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. - (top)

The First Lady

The first English woman to 'legally' appear on the stage in England was one Margaret Hughes, who on 8th December 1660, played 'Desdemona' in 'The Moor of Venice' (a reworking of Shakespeares 'Othello'). The production, at the Vere Street theatre, was 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 off the lady herself 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). The prologue, written by Thomas Jordan especially for the occasion, is reproduced at the foot of this page. - (top)

Some Other Great Early Actresses

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 being of course Nell Gwynne (1650-1687). Although she is better remembered as an orange seller (which is uncertain) and as mistress to the King (which is certain), she was primarily an actress. Nell Gwynne was born in 1650, the appellation of 'orange seller' comes from the belief that she began her association with the theatre selling oranges to the audience at the King's Theatre. Whether or not that be true, she did at some point she attract the attention there 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 acting 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 (in reference to her previous lovers, Nell would often refer to the King as her Charles III).

King 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 center 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 for 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 become their mistresses, did litle to enhance the 'respectability' of their profession. Nell Gwynne herself, when mistaken in her carriage for the despised Catholic Duchess of Portland, Louise de Keroualle, and jostled by the crowd retorted "pray good people be civil, I am the Protestant whore". Moreover, many of these early women players 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 (1658-1713), the daughter of a barrister who had been a Colonel in King Charles I army. When the King lost the war to the Parliamentarians, Barry had 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 Dukes 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 young girl in more than just the arts of theatre, but nevertheless he made an actress of her. Elizabeth already had beauty, Rochester gave her 'presence'. That indefineable quality which 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.

The next great actress, whose career overlapped that of Elizabeth Barry, was Anne Bracegirdle (Circa 1663-1748). Anne Bracegirdle first appeared on stage as a child and would go on to acheive her greatest successes playing in the comedies of William Congreve (whose mistress she was rumoured to have been). Anne was much loved both by the theatregoing public and by her fellow performers. She was also a famous beauty which led to her becoming the innocent cause of the death of her good friend, the actor William Mountford. Captain Richard Hill, a ne'er-do-well whose amorous advances Anne had spurned, determined to carry her off and enlisted the aid of his equally dissolute friend Lord Charles Mohun. Their attempt failed but when Mountford, hearing of it, rushed to Anne's home to assure her safety he ran into the pair and was murdered by them. Throughout her lifetime Anne had a particular reputation for virtue (notwithstanding the rumours with regard to Congreve), even being presented with 800 guineas from a subscription headed by Lord Halifax as a tribute to her virtue. Her reputation was further enhanced by her conspicuous charity to the poor in Clare Market and around Drury Lane.

Her position as Englands leading actress eventually came to be challenged by another Anne, Anne Oldfield (1683-1730). When the two Annes joined company at The Haymarket in 1705 they became instant rivals. A kind of competition was arranged where the two would play in the same role on alternate nights and the audiences would vote on who was better. When Anne Oldfield won the vote, Anne Bracegirdle determined the time had come for her to retire from the stage.

Anne Oldfield, popularly known as 'Nance', was born low on the social scale and used the stage to raise her status until she had earned her final resting place in Westminster Abbey. She was barely started on that path when Anne Bracegirdle stepped aside for her, having first made a stir as 'Lady Betty' in "Careless Husband" for actor/manager Colley Cibber two years earlier. Nance was a great beauty and a woman of talent, wit and determination. She excelled particularly in comedy for which she was best admired and was generally reluctant to undertake tragedy. She is said to have had a most clear and distinctive voice and was said by the French playwright Voltaire to have been the only English player he could follow without effort.

Both Anne's could certainly be said to have been full of grace, which makes their shared name particulary apt. The name Anne is derived from Hebrew and means "full of grace". - (top)

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 fathers 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 (1755-1831) 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 her and her husband to play at the Drury Lane. Playing before a large crowd in a purpose built theatre was very different from what she had been accustomed to however. Sarah could not settle or give of 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. Even in retirement Sarah would sometimes give readings from Shakespeare which invariably drew large 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 at first failed but then through perseverence triumphed, she set a shining example for all who aspired to follow her.

Theatre had not long to wait, however, before her most able successor arrived on the scene. And it was another Sarah - Sarah Bernhardt (1845-1923). 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 eleven films in all. Sarah was also 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 tradegic 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. She carried on her career undaunted however, in spite of having to wear a wooden prosthetic limb. She died in Paris in 1923. Sarah Bernhardt has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. - (top)

Coming of Age

That brings us up to the period to which this website is dedicated, the Edwardian era. A time graced by so many beautiful and talented actresses that it was no longer possible to single out any one as being elevated above the rest.

To reach this condition, 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 essentialy immoral and and of low character. Because of this, many early actresses adopted the apellation 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 womens 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. Where they could make their mark through their acting talents alone. No longer forced to trade upon 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 use the unmarried appelation 'Miss', as in 'Miss Lily Elsie', and it still convey the epitomy of chaste respectability. The day of the actress had come of age, their finest hour had arrived. - (top)

"A Prologue to introduce the first Woman that came to act on the Stage, in the Tragedy called the Moor of Venice:"
Delivered at theatre in Vere Street, on Saturday, December 8th, 1660 - 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?

In other kingdoms husbands safely trust 'em;
The difference lies only in the custom.
And let it be our custom, I advise;
I'm sure this custom's better than th' excise,
And may procure us custom: hearts of flint
"Will melt in passion when a woman's in't.

But, gentlemen, you that as judges sit
In the Star-chambers of the house the pit,
Have modest thoughts of her; pray do not run
To give her visits when the play is done,
With "damn me, your most humble servant, lady;"
She knows these things as well as you, it may be;

Not a bit there, dear gallants, she doth know
Her own deserts and your temptations too.
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.
We shall purge everything that is unclean,
Lascivious, scurrilous, impious, or obscene;
And when we've put all things in this fair way,
Barebones himself may come to see a play.'

Primary Sources: "Ladies First", W. McQueen-Pope, Hutchinson 1952; Oxford Companion to the Theatre, 1st Ed. 1951; Oxford Interactive Encyclopaedia, (CD-ROM) 2002; Plus various other online and literary sources.

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