16 Mar 2016
Our curator Kristian Martin looks at the first actresses to take to the stage in England. Who were they and what did Samuel Pepys say about it?
On 3 January 1661 Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary, ‘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’. Until that point the theatrical performances Pepys had seen would have been all-male affairs. The few women in the theatre were confined to the audience or could be seen milling about the stalls selling treats, such as citrus fruits and sweetmeats, to the rowdy onlookers. Traditionally female roles were played by boys or youths, sometimes apprenticed to the more experienced actors in the company, who would appear on stage in women’s clothing. Pepys mentioned seeing the boy-actor Edward Kynaston playing ‘the loveliest lady that ever I saw in my life’ in early 1660.
The appearance of professional actresses was one of Restoration theatre’s greatest innovations. Although women had made sporadic appearances on the English stage before this date – touring French actresses had performed in London as early as 1629 (to a rather unappreciative audience) – their regular appearance as part of theatrical companies did not happen until after 1660. Following the virtual banning of professional theatre under the Puritans, one of Charles II’s first acts at the Restoration was to grant theatrical impresarios Sir William Davenant and Thomas Killigrew the right to form companies of players to act in London. The participation of women was encouraged in these founding charters.
Charles had seen women act while in exile in France and their inclusion is likely to have been largely for the King’s own titillation and pleasure. To begin with, they mainly played the roles of boys dressed in breeches to show off their shapely ankles and the curve of their calves. However, within a couple of years women took on more and more female roles. We cannot be certain who the first professional actress to appear on the post-Restoration stage was, but we know that their first performance was as Desdemona in a production of Shakespeare’s Othello at the King’s Playhouse in December 1660. The role is likely to have been performed by either Margaret ‘Peg’ Hughes – according to Pepys ‘a pretty woman’ – or Anne Marshall, who Pepys saw perform on at least three occasions.
Despite some opposition to women on stage – some thought the profession ‘shameful’ and ‘unwomanish’ – the majority reaction appears to have been a positive one. Pepys clearly appreciated seeing these new beautiful and talented actresses, which included Hester Davenport, Mary ‘Moll’ Davis, Mary Saunderson and Elizabeth Knepp (all mentioned in the diary), and seems never to have been that convinced by men playing female roles. In March 1667 he wrote, ‘to the Theatre, and there saw The Scornfull Lady, now done by a woman, which makes the play appear much better than ever it did to me’. His positive reaction was shared by the King, also a keen theatre-goer, who saw the stage as a lucrative source of mistresses too.
Pepys was a fan of Nell Gwyn, today perhaps the most famous Restoration actress, who was also a mistress of the King. Nell began her theatrical life as an orange seller (or ‘orange-girl’) at the King’s Playhouse and graduated to the stage at the age of fourteen around 1664. In March 1667 Pepys raved about ‘pretty witty Nell’, as he called her, and her performance as Florimel in John Dryden’s The Maiden Queen: ‘so great performance of a comical part was never, I believe, in the world before as Nell doth this’. He was less positive about her dramatic performances: ‘to the King’s play[house] and there saw The Surprizall; which did not please me today, the actors not pleasing me, and especially Nell’s acting of a serious part, which she spoils.’ (26 December 1667).
By the end of the 1660s actresses were rooted in theatrical life. Playwrights began to write leading parts for particular women, some actresses were adored and idolized and theatre managers felt confident enough to stage entire plays with all-female casts. Although the profession was accepted and being taken more seriously, however, its association with immorality, promiscuity and prostitution was harder to shake off. Indeed it would take many more years before acting was widely acknowledged as a respectable job for a lady.
To find out more about Samuel Pepys and the first English actresses see Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution