Women in the Restoration Theatre

Student guest page by Melody Anderson and Ian Drinkwater, University of Massachusetts Boston

With the reopening of the theatres after the Restoration, women were for the first time allowed to act on the stage. Previously, female roles had been performed by young boys. The advent of women actors opened up a world of titillation and scandal, appreciated by audiences from all levels of society; from merchants to nobles and even King Charles II himself. It also brought about a variety of changes to the theatre.

The most immediate impact was an increased interest by the public in the London playhouses. Actresses aroused curiosity while adding a new dimension of sensuality to performances.  This objectification of women encouraged the writing of plays that allowed female actors to be sexual props on the stage, rather than equals of their male peers. The scripts of the older plays were also changed to seize opportunities that female performers created. In the past, writers of plays would refrain from describing the appearance of female characters. The presence of actual women on stage brought with it the inclusion of erotic descriptions of these female characters and older plays were rewritten to include such language. Even female writer Aphra Behn altered prior plays to include erotic language depicting the undressing of women.

Another prevalent trope that arose from the introduction of women onto the stage was that of the “couch scene, ” in which an attractive actress was placed at center stage on asleep on a bed or couch in a state of partial undress.  An even more scandalous development was the proliferation of rape scenes, which became a prominent feature of English tragedies during the late seventeenth century.  These scenes were designed to sexualize even the purest of female characters, allowing them to retain their virtue while still appeasing the audience’s desire for sexuality. As rape scenes became more anticipated they also became more and more explicit.

Theatre goers also enjoyed seeing women in “breeches roles” in which a female character disguised herself as a man by  wearing tight pants that exposed their legs. This was very erotic to male spectators, who were excited to see the shape of women’s legs.  The prevalence of rape and other compromising situations further objectified women performers as sexual objects.  And yet, even amidst this exploitive sexuality, certain actresses garnered acclaim for their talents.  The most famous of these actresses was Nell Gwyn.

Eleanor ‘Nell’ Gwyn was born in February of 1650. Her father, Thomas Gwyn, died in a debtor’s jail, prompting her mother to move her and her sister Rose to London. With the theatres closed, there were no outlets for Mrs. Gwyn’s talents and so she fell back on the oldest of professions, prostitution. Madam Gwyn, as Nell’s mother came to be known, eventually opened her own bawdy house, employing her daughters to serve drinks to the gentlemen patrons. Nell and Rose also worked as street venders, which is where Nell learned to project and use her voice.

Nell got her break from a lover by the name of Duncan or Dungan. After spending two years together, Duncan grew sick of her. However, in one last parting gesture, Duncan provided her with an in to the stage, most likely as an Orange Girl. An Orange Girl or Orange Wench, stood in the pit with her back to the stage and sold oranges in between acts. Orange Girls also acted as liaisons between audience members and actresses, running back stage to deliver messages for later rendezvous.

Nell began acting at around 13 or 14 years of age. While her exact start date is unknown, there is evidence to support that she was an established actress by the year 1665, when the theatres closed briefly due to plague. She performed a variety of roles including servants, courtesans and madcaps, witty, mischievous young girls. She often played breeches roles, dressing up in boys clothes and prancing around stage, showing off her legs.

Nell acted for the King’s Theatre Company, a theatre rivaled by the Duke of York’s Playhouse, which subsequently also featured a young, attractive actress known as Moll Davis. Moll and Nell would have been roughly the same age and played similar parts on stage. In his March 7th, 1666/67 entry, Samuel Pepys compared the two actresses, indicating that Moll was the better dancer and had more attractive legs. In his December 8th, 1666 entry he did comment that Nell was better than he expected.

While Nell is known to be one of the first female actresses, she is perhaps more famous for her affair with King Charles II. Charles was a frequent patron of the theatre and, like the Restoration audience, was intrigued by Nell’s wit and beauty. And old story has it that Charles first met Nell at Madam Ross’s bawdy house and that Nell took Duncan as her lover only after the King married Catherine of Braganza. In reality the affair seems to have started around 1670, when Nell would have been roughly 20 years old.

While Nell and Moll may have been perceived as sex objects more than respectable actresses, their accomplishments on stage marked the beginning of the role of actresses as both sexual symbols and talented performers, a precedent that continues today.





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