04 Mar 2016

During Samuel Pepys's life women were first allowed to take to the stage as professional actresses. We speak to playwright Jessica Swale about the actress Nell Gwynn, who is the subject of her Olivier nominated play.

Nell Gwynn

Before becoming an actress what is Nell Gwynn’s story?

Jessica Swale: As a playwright, my work begins with research and then moves into imagination and storytelling, so my ideas about Nell are part historical fact, part dreamed up.
In terms of what we know, records tell that Nell sold 'strong waters' to the punters in her mother's brothel, that she may have been a herring gutter or a street seller and that she sold oranges at the theatre in Drury Lane. The specific details are hard to pin down. As she was working class, no-one recorded the specifics of her life, her date of birth, for example, until she became famous.
Lots of people assume she was a prostitute because she worked at the brothel. It's quite possible, though we will never know for sure. Perhaps she just served the drinks and dreamed of treading the boards...

Do we know how she become an actress?

JS: Not really. I like to imagine she was discovered while she was selling oranges in the pit. She was an infamous wit, and I suspect that, if any of the actors had been watching, they would have seen her comic ability in the way she interacted with the punters. That's what happens in the play. The actors would have recognised that such sparkish confidence would translate well on stage, and appeal to the vocal audience of the time. As most of the plays were comedies, the ability to play to an audience would have been a great asset. 

It’s during this period that we first see women taking to the stage in England. Do we know why this was?

JS: Charles II had seen actresses in Paris, so when he returned to England and reopened the theatres, he made his mark by putting ladies on the stage for the first time. High time, if you asked me.
French fashions were hugely popular, so it's not surprising that London was keen to follow in the Parisian's footsteps. And after the very dour years of the interregnum, in which theatres were closed and entertainment (including Christmas celebrations) were outlawed, putting women on stage was part of a celebration of all things bright and fun which characterised Charles' ascension to the throne. It was the end of what I think of as 'the era of beige', the puritans and the civil war.

Nell was one of the first actresses in England. What would her experiences have been?

JS: The early actresses were mostly prostitutes so they wouldn't have been given the respect that they are (sometimes given) today. Men could pay a penny to watch the actresses change. Many of the roles written for women were breeches parts (girls pretending to be boys), written in order for the actresses' shapely legs to be put on show, the denouement of which would often be the uncovering of this Ganymede type as a woman....through the exposure of her breasts.
So, whilst it could be seen as a liberating moment when women arrived on stage for the first time, in their earliest roles they were often little more than objects to be gazed at. However, as they gained attention, skill and fame, they could make greater demands of writers, and parts began to get better.
Nell played some fantastic roles which were written for her by Dryden and his contemporaries. Aphra Behn, Britain's first female professional playwright, wasn't far behind.
Charles II

Nell became a mistress of King Charles, do we know more about this?

JS: Yes. She was probably his favourite mistress. Certainly their relationship stood the test of time and she was with him until he died. Apparently his final words were 'let not poor Nelly starve.'

I suspect they loved each other. She had none of the political aspirations of his other mistresses. She didn't want to become an aristocrat, she never wanted a title, so I imagine that it was the man himself that she was attracted to, rather than their relationship being political opportunism on her part. Both Charles and Nell lived very public lives, so perhaps they understood the cost of fame and were able to identify with each other. They certainly enjoyed secret nights playing cards together away from prying eyes. Charles had secret passages built so that he could visit her without others knowing.

Was Nell’s celebrity a result of her acting prowess or her relationship with the king?

JS: Nell became a popular actress in her own right before her relationship with Charles. Pepys referred to her as 'pretty, witty Nell' and she enjoyed a good deal of success in comedy (less so in dramatic roles) independently of him. However, it's likely that, once she became involved with him, audience members would have found that fact thrilling, and ticket sales would have increased as a consequence. It's really not that different from today. Look at how relationships with famous figures have often elevated their spouses into the public eye (and often into jobs in the theatre!).