“The woman plays to-day”: The First English Actresses

When William Shakespeare penned, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players,” could he have imagined both sexes acting on the stage.[1]  In his day, all actors on the English stage were men; all roles—despite being male or female—were played by men and young boys.  During the reign of Elizabeth I, no woman is known to have graced the public stage.  It was not until the restoration of the Stuart family to the throne, the crowning of King Charles II, did the first actresses of Britain make their debut.  This is the tale of the first women to take the public stage in England.


King Charles II of Great Britain

The British were late to the trend of female actors sweeping the Continent more than one hundred years before the rule of Charles II in 1660.  The notion of female actors may stem from the Renaissance, as new ideas flowed from Italy, beginning in the fourteenth century.  The first performance that would influence European stages took place in September of 1568, as the Cardinal of Ferrara entertained Henry II, the king of France, and his wife, Catherine de Medici.  Lasting several days, “its principal feature was a tragic comedy performed by Italian actors and actresses,” marking the first time a woman took the stage in France.[2]  It was not long before a French woman became an actress.  Marie Vernier appeared in the early seventeenth century, which resulted in “the establishment of a regular theater, the first one in France, managed by her husband and herself.”[3]  French actresses would later bring mixed responses when they performed in England.

It should be noted that two factors prevent the pinpointing of a singular woman who paved the way to the English stage.  The first is the fact that news and information did not travel as far and wide as it does now, the knowledge of events was limited by space, time, and—possibly—secrecy.  The other factor that muddles the case results when defining the exact moment women became actresses.  Did the first woman to perform on a stage, private or public, become the first English actress?  Do the entertainments at the royal court, known to feature women—often ladies of noble standing—count as acting or performing?  To resolve both of these complex factors, the few women mentioned below all helped to legitimize the profession of the actress.

Actress George Anne Bellamy wrote in her autobiography, “Theatrical revolutions are as frequent, and owe their rise to the same principles, as those in the political world. —Pique, resentment, ambition, or interest, which ever motive happens to preponderate, brings them about.”[4]  The revolution of female actors legally allowed on London stages fulfills her description.  History has offered two reasons for King Charles II’s granting of  the charter that ended the tradition of young men dressing in women’s clothing to play female roles on the stage.  Robert Cohen explains, “Charles’s reasoning was remarkably curious: it was to prevent the ‘immorality’ of men playing ‘scurrilous’ roles in women’s costume.”[5]  The official reason given was the charter would quell the remaining Puritan unrest by appealing to their objection of male actors dressing up in women’s clothes.  As Rosamond Gilder observed, the more rational motivation is “he took steps to provide for his own and incidentally for [his subjects] amusement by the ordering and regulation of the stage.”[6]  Despite the reasons, the charter ushered in a new era of the English theatre, the Restoration.

The appearance of female actors “made possible the use of female sexuality not simply as discourse but as genuine spectacle, and playwrights and theater managers were quick to take advantage of this new opportunity,” explains Jean I. Marsden.[7]  As with any novelty, interest of the public was piqued, and veteran, as well as novice audiences, queued up to see this new “spectacle” of the London stage.  Playwrights wrote works that exploited the new actresses or catered to the curious audiences.  Men now had a physical reason to see a play, as they gazed at real women in roles both new and old.  Cibber Colley—actor, theater manager, and playwright—commented in his autobiography, “the additional Objects then of real, beautiful Women, could not but draw a proportion of new Admirers to the Theatre.”[8]  Not only men benefited; women also gained a fresh connection to the stage as they watched women like themselves triumph, suffer, or outwit—such could inspire the female audience.  Some plays were also used as cautionary tales aimed directly at the female viewers, both blatant and subtle.

However, old reputations continued to cling to both the stage and the career of acting.  As McPherson points out, “[P]layhouses throughout the eighteenth century retained their stigma as protean, morally suspect locales, associated with prostitution, sexual license, and public disorder.”[9]  It was not uncommon for men about town to visit the dressing rooms after the stage current fell.  Actors were placed at the bottom of the social ladder, in the same category as vagabonds, beggars, and streetwalkers. Frances M. Kavenik provides some insight as to why actors would endure this: “Though they were virtually indentured servants, liable to fines for nonperformance … actors could make good money compared with that payable at comparable ‘trades.’”[10]

For female actors, acting was tantamount to prostitution in the eyes of reformers.  Until the Victorian era, British women often conformed to the social norm of commitment to their feminine duties, such as cooking, raising the children, and caring for her husband.  Her presence in society was usually chaperoned by a respectable male, while her knowledge of and expose to the world remained in check.  This was the general idea of a woman’s place and vocation, but many women rightfully needed more and rebelled, to the horror of ruling class men and women.  By stepping on the stage, women became part of society, out in the open for every eye to see.  The art of acting extended this sensation as she bared herself in a drama or invited the audience to laugh in a comedy.  By acting, a woman sold her emotions, not just a view of her (clothed) body to the paying spectators.

In lieu of the backlash from some of the British public, notably men of the Church, perhaps the introduction of actresses was overdue.  Many countries on the Continent had already established mixed male and female troupes a century before the British Restoration.  To quote the legendary Dr. Samuel Johnson, “The stage but echoes back the public voice. / The drama’s laws the drama’s patrons give, / For we, who live to please, must please to live.”[11]  If the “public voice” had been only negative, the trend would have faded out.  Clearly the majority of London enjoyed the new phenomena of real women on stage.

The tools of acting—the voice and the body—have always been present, “but in the relatively small, thrust stage theaters of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, [the actor] could use facial expressions or even the eyes more advantageously than in later, larger theaters.”[12]  This intimate space meant the audience could see the actors in detail, the thrust form of the stage placing the action closer to the seating than other types of stage.  The acting of the Restoration would have been more detailed than before but likely far from the form of natural acting of recent eras.  The Restoration stage seems to have favored beauty above talent.  “Female actors were often chosen as much for their physical attributes, such as good legs to titillate the audience in ‘breeches parts,’ as for their acting.  They also had to be multitalented in ways that male actors did not,” such as singing and dancing.[13]

Historically, the first British woman to perform for a private, paying audience took place at a performance conducted in secret, during the closure of all playhouses in the Commonwealth period.  “By edict of Parliament, the theaters were closed in 1642, such entertainments being anathema to the Puritan government”[14] but this did not stop plays and performances from taking place.  During the Commonwealth, “well-to-do patrons of the theatrical profession hosted secretive performances in their own homes to which only trusted friends were invited.”[15]  Such shows were illegal, so other legal restrictions were happily ignored as well, including “the law that forbade women from acting.”[16]

The most significant performance presented in such private establishments was the 1656 “spectacle” designed by Sir William Davenant, The Siege of Rhodes.[17]  Taking place at Rutland House, this production was the debut of Mrs. Edward Coleman, one of the first native English actress.  She was known as “a highly respectable married woman” who played the leading female role, Ianthe, “on a small stage in [Davenant’s] stately home in front of paying guests.”[18]

Mrs. Edward Coleman’s debut occurred four years before the homecoming of King Charles II, who had spent his exiled years in France.  Charles II was, like many monarchs before him, a fan of the theatre.  Combining these two elements, Martha Fletcher Bellinger remarks, “[I]t was natural, upon the return of the court, that French influence should be felt, particularly in the theater.”[19]  Soon after his homecoming in 1660, “one of Charles II’s first public acts … was to issue two royal patents meant to give their owners exclusive rights to put on theatrical performances in London.”[20] These two troupes were the King’s Company managed by dramatist Thomas Killigrew and the Duke’s Company under the charge of Sir William Davenant, the same man who staged The Siege of Rhodes, with Mrs. Coleman.  The playhouses of London were once again in business.

The same year as the Restoration of King Charles II, a reworked revival of Shakespeare’s Othello played at Vere Street in London, along with a new prologue written by Thomas Jordan.  On December 8, 1660, Jordan’s addition, entitled “A Prologue, to introduce the first Woman that came to act on the Stage, in the Tragedy called the Moor of Venice” began:

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;[21]

A woman—not a man dressed as a woman—acted the role of Desdemona.  Historians suggest that the actress in question was likely Margaret Hughes.  Either Jordan was unaware of Mrs. Coleman’s earlier performance or he simply avoided the topic.

There is strong evidence that Margaret Hughes was England’s first public actress.  Her career as an actress was short but vital, her backstage life as notorious as any modern performer.  Part of the company of actors managed by Thomas Killigrew, Dr. John Doran ranks her first among the list of important actresses of the Restoration.[22]  Having originated the female version of the role of Desdemona in Othello, she was said to “own” the role.  Samuel Pepys considered Hughes, “A mighty pretty woman and seems, but is not, modest.”[23]  She was thought more for her beauty than her talent as an actress.

After only thirteen years on the boards, Hughes retired in 1673, and quit the City for “a magnificent country house in Hammersmith,” a mistress of Prince Rupert, cousin of King Charles II.[24]  She soon gave birth to a daughter, Ruperta, beloved by her royal father.  Margaret Hughes was revived over three hundred years after her death as a role in the stage play by Jeffrey Hatcher, Stage Beauty, later a film of the same name in 2004, which tells the story of her groundbreaking performance in 1660. [25]

Female actors “came to the profession by various means, usually from fairly respectable families who had fallen on hard times, though Nell Gwyn was a barmaid turned orange girl, operating a concession in the theater.”[26]  Like Margaret Hughes, Ellen “Nell” Gwyn was a member of Killigrew’s troupe, the King’s Company.  “Nell was the crown of them all, winning hearts throughout her jubilant career, beginning in her early girlhood … and ending in her womanhood with that of the king.”[27]  Nell first appeared on stage in 1664 in Sir Robert Howard’s play Indian Emperor; she was only fifteen or seventeen years old.  Though she is remembered in history as King Charles II’s “Protestant whore,” many theatergoers celebrated Nell Gwyn for her roles in comedies.  Samuel Pepys praised her witty comic ability and when she was absent from the stage for the 1667 theatre season, he pitied “the loss of her at the King’s” theatre company.[28]

By 1670, Gwyn’s name no longer appeared in any playbills.  The same year she gave birth to her first son, Charles Beauclere, who was later given the title of Duke of St. Albans by his father, the King.[29]  The descendents of Nell Gwyn carried on the title of Duke into at least the late 1880s.  The orange girl-turned-actress, King’s mistress, and comic jewel of London died in November 1687 of “a fit of apoplexy.”[30]  With her sense of humor and public love, Nell Gwyn was Britain’s first comedic actress.

At least one female actor is known to have avoided the stigma of the acting profession; in fact, her dignity and chastity was hailed throughout London.  Known as the “Romantick Virgin,” Anne Bracegirdle debuted in 1688.[31]  Like other actresses, she was praised for qualities other than her acting.  As Cibber Colley phrased it, “Tho’ she might be said to have been the Universal Passion, and under the highest Temptations, her Constancy in resisting them served but to increase the number of her Admirers.”[32]  Women also admired her virtue, for example, poet Sarah Fyge Egerton celebrated the actress in an ode.  Egerton also saw Bracegirdle’s “virginity as a sign of independence” as she survived and thrived outside the institutions of marriage that had always restricted the mobility of women.  [33]In a time when everyone gossiped about the sexual relations of actors, Bracegirdle became the premiere example of a virtuous actress, a role model for the women of England.

Though attention usually went to Anne Bracegirdle’s chaste nature, she was a dedicated and hard-working actor.  In a career of only nineteen years, she “played some eighty roles” as well as possessed an “impressive soprano voice” that she utilized in “the occasional musical part.”[34]  Her reputation and ability helped give credence to the rise of the female actor.

As male actors could no longer play women, many women, either for their talent or their beauty, quickly filled a vacuum of available roles.  Both Mrs. Coleman and Margaret Hughes laid the groundwork for women to enter into acting, while others rounded out the new field.  Soon other women were listed in playbills, the most notable being Elizabeth Barry, sisters Rebecca and Anne Marshall, and Mrs. Knipp, of the King’s Company; the Duke’s Company featuring Mrs. Davenport, Mrs. Davies, Mrs. Saunderson, and Mrs. Long.

By the eighteenth century, women had a foot in the theatre door.  “The late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were blessed with a long line of male and female actors who became famous, became powerful, became rich,” and eventually respectable professionals.[35]  In the nineteenth century, actresses like Sarah Bernhardt was an international celebrity, known as “the Divine Sarah,” she even made early films when the technology first emerged.  If not for the pioneering of Coleman, Hughes, Gwyn, and Bracegirdle, Sarah Bernhardt may never have reached such celebrity status, if she would have been allowed to act at all.


Sarah Bernhardt

Author Rosamond Gilder suggests that theatre was the perfect venue to display the genius of women.  “Women have risen to greater heights of achievement as actresses than in any other art.”[36]  Writing her book Enter the Actress in 1931, she examined the role of women in the theatre throughout history but also prophesized the future for women of both the stage and screen.  The rise of women in society actually lags their rise in the theatre; Sarah Bernhardt may have been called “Divine,” but she still could not vote like her male colleagues.


Meryl Streep

Female achievement in theatre lagged behind their progress in society as a whole.  Women’s suffrage came after a long battle of words and science, all to convince the population that women were not defective males.  Actresses today have all the freedoms of their male counterparts.  Shakespeare’s world stage now has both men and women players internationally taking part in the art of the theatre and society.  If not for Margaret Hughes or Nell Gwyn, no one would know about Meryl Streep or Angelina Jolie.


Work Cited

[1]William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7.  www.enotes.com/shakespeare-quotes

[2] Helena Modjeska. “Women and the Stage.” The World’s Congress of Representative Women, Ed. May Wright Sewall, (New York: Rand, McNally & Co., 1894), 164-173.

[3] Ibid., 168

[4] Felicity Nussbaum. “‘Real, Beautiful Women’: Actresses and The Rival Queens.” (Duke University Press, 2008.), 138-158. Qtd. George Anne Bellamy, An Apology for the Life (1786).

[5] Robert Cohen. Theatre. 7th ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2006.), 205.

[6] Rosamond Gilder. Enter the Actress: The First Woman in the Theatre. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.), 144.

[7] Jean I. Marsden, Fatal Desire: Women, Sexuality, and the English Stage, 1660-1720 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.), 3.

[8] Felicity Nussbaum. “‘Real, Beautiful Women.’” 138.  Qtd. Colley’s Apology.

[9] Heather McPherson. “Theatrical Riots and Cultural Politics in Eighteenth-Century London.” Eighteenth Century: Theory & Interpretation (Texas Tech University Press) 43, no. 3, 236-252

[10] Frances M. Kavenik, British Drama, 1660-1779: A Critical History (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.), 18.

[11] Ibid., 1

[12] Ibid., 18

[13] Ibid., 18-9

[14] Ibid., 4

[15] Don Gillan. “Leading Ladies.” http://www.stagebeauty.net.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Martha Fletcher Bellinger, A Short History of the Theatre (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1927), 249-59.

[18] Don Gillan. “Leading Ladies.”

[19] Martha Fletcher Bellinger, A Short History of the Theatre.

[20] Frances M. Kavenik, British Drama, 1660-1779, 4.

[21] James Henry Leigh Hunt. The Town: Its Memorable Characters and Events. St Paul’s to St James’s. (London: Unit Library Ltd, 1903.)

[22] John Doran. “Their Majesties’ servants”: or Annals of the English stage, from Thomas Betterton to Edmund Kean. (New York: W. J. Widdleton, Publishers, 1865.), 58.

[23] Ibid., 58.

[24] Rosamond Gilder. Enter the Actress. 168.

[25] Jeffery Hatcher, Stage Beauty, 2004. *His Hellfire Club adaptation is currently in production. Watch with a bottle of Jameson Irish whiskey…

[26] Frances M. Kavenik, British Drama, 1660-1779, 17.

[27] John Doran. “Their Majesties’ servants.” 61.

[28] Ibid., 63

[29] Ibid., 64

[30] Ibid., 65

[31] James Peck. “‘Albion’s ‘Chaste Lucrece’: Chastity, Resistance, and the Glorious Revolution in the Career of Anne Bracegirdle.” Theatre Survey 45, no. 1 (May 2004): 89-113.

[32] Ibid., 90.  Qtd. Colley’s Apology.

[33] Ibid., 90.

[34] Ibid., 89.

[35] Frances M. Kavenik, British Drama, 1660-1779, 17.

[36] Rosamond Gilder. Enter the Actress. xv.


3 thoughts on ““The woman plays to-day”: The First English Actresses

  1. Howdy! I know this is kinda off topic however , I’d figured I’d ask. Would you be interested in exchanging links or maybe guest writing a blog article or vice-versa? My website addresses a lot of the same subjects as yours and I believe we could greatly benefit from each other. If you might be interested feel free to shoot me an e-mail. I look forward to hearing from you! Wonderful blog by the way!

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