Women on the Stage

While reading a 99¢ thrift store copy of Ann Rice’s “Cry to Heaven,” I noted where she mentions how all women were banned from the stage by the Catholic church of ancient Roman times. This clicked with my knowledge of how women are also excluded from Japanese Kabuki theater. Evidently, the actresses would also moonlight as prostitutes in their off hours, thus prompting a 1629 banning of them by Japanese imperial decree. (This was also followed by a 1652 banning of young men as well.)

Was the possibility of licentious conduct a reason for the Roman ban? Also, is there any connection to the extremely slender physical form of the male ballet dancer? Were ballet dancers also originally restricted to entirely male casts in the beginning? I don’t think there exists any causative link between the Japanese and Roman bans, however similar their reasons for it might be. I’m still quite curious as to whether ballet still reflects this ban and exactly when women thespians finally began to tread the boards.

What served to promote the final breakdown of this ancient gender exclusive tradition? I seem to recall that Shakespeare’s plays featured anatomically correct women in female roles. What other ramifications did this ban have within the different theatrical communities of its time? As with the link between (legally enforced) blonde haired prostitutes of ancient Rome and our current “blondes have more fun” perceptions, is there also a related residual stigma that continues to label the acting profession as one of questionable morals (as is still seen today)?

I seem to recall that Shakespeare’s plays featured anatomically correct women in female roles.

I’m not sure what you mean by this, but if it’s meant to be taken at face value, it’s quite erroneous – all of the female roles in Shakespeare’s plays were played either by boys or perhaps, in some comic older female roles, adult men (in Shakespeare in Love they have Juliet’s nurse being played by a grown man, which makes sense). There’s a lot we’re not sure about when it comes to the boy actors – who they were and how the audience may have responded to them. Well, we know how some members of the public responded, because theatrical cross-dressing is one of the hot-button issues of Puritan critics of the Elizabethan/Jacobean theater (although iirc one of them, confronted with the alternative that women could play female roles, recoils from that as even worse, and William Prynne’s 1633 screed Histriomastix, an 1100-page rant on how the theater is the root of all evil, condemns actresses as well, which got him into trouble because Queen Henrietta Maria was fond of performing in masques).

In any case, Shakespeare’s theater – by which I mean the public theater; in courtly entertainments the case was different – remained unisex. This is why you have so many cross-dressing female characters – it gave the boy actors a chance to appear onstage with pants on, and added another level to the gender confusion. (I’m seeing an all-male Twelfth Night in a couple of months, so I’ll finally get to see how this works in practice. :D) Women didn’t appear on the English stage until the Restoration in 1660 – during the interregnum, the theaters had been closed by the Puritan-leaning government. There had been actresses on the continent since before Shakespeare’s day – in the Italian commedia dell’arte, for instance – but I don’t know as much about continental theater, so I’ll pass it by, except to say that it was frowned on in England even by defenders of the stage; Thomas Nashe has some unkind words for the practice in Pierce Pennilesse, where he contrasts the manly historical plays on the English stage to the sleazy Italian commedia.

In any event, I’m not sure why the change came about – part of it might be simply because after the downtime there weren’t any boy actors, and nobody who really knew anything about training them. One of the articles I recently read for my Restoration drama course points out several other factors in the acceptance of actresses after 1660 – for instance, Charles II and many of his courtiers had been in exile on the continent (mostly in France) during the interregnum and would have seen a lot of them, and then the court had closer ties to the public theater then it had in the Tudor and early Stuart periods. And Charles and his friends were all pretty active ladies’ men (well, not always just ladies, in the cases of some courtiers) and that attitude did influence the theater; cf. the plots of most Restoration comedies.

(A lot of that was condensed and oversimplified from Elizabeth Howe’s The First English Actresses: Women and Drama, 1660-1700, if you’re interested.)

That said, you’re certainly right that women who were involved with the theater were stigmatized, and that that stigma hasn’t wholly gone away even today. It wasn’t just actresses – the poet/playwright Aphra Behn, who was the first Englishwoman to make a living by writing, was called some pretty nasty things by contemporaries (well, and later writers too). A lot of it is the whole stigma of public display – actresses are essentially on display for money (as is a playwright like Behn, though it’s the body of her works rather than her physical body), and that was considered a form of prostitution. As a classmate of mine pointed out, men and women were expected to have different spheres of influence, public and private respectively, so a woman who was a public figure was generally going to be considered a transgressive one as well.

I should point out, though, that the all-male theater was stigmatized in Shakespeare’s day, too, which is why the theaters were located on the South Bank along with the bearbaiting pit and the whorehouses. (Although this was not always the case in England at any rate – the medieval mystery cycles, performed by members of the trade guilds for the feast of Corpus Christi, were an act of religious and civic celebration, but then, too, this had little to do with professional theater as it was known in the Renaissance and later.)

This should be enough for a start – I love talking about early modern theater… :smiley:

Great post, Katisha! That’s a veritable trove of information. What about this same influence in ballet? Were ballet troupes originally composed entirely of danseurs? When did the proscription of actresses finally end and what brought it about? Who was the first truly famous actress and did she have to overcome massive societal disapproval in order to perfrom? What change in social mores accompanied this shift to heterogender theater casts? I really appreciate you taking the time to provide so much perspective.

I know almost nothing about ballet and its history, so I’m not much help there – maybe someone else can chime in?

I’m also not sure when actresses first made their appearance on the Continent – as I’ve said, I mostly know about conditions in England (and even then, my specialization tends more toward Shakespeare’s theater; I’m no expert on the Restoration by any stretch of the imagination). I’ve touched on a few possible causes for the change in my last post; Elizabeth Howe (whom I cited above) speculates that the reason actresses were more accepted post-Restoration is because the audience at the public theater was far more “courtly,” if you will – more aristocrats, and people likely to be in line with the lifestyle of the court, then there had been previously, when court theater was distinctly separate from public. (Though professional companies did perform at court sometimes; Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, certainly did.)

And, since you ask, probably the first famous English actress was Nell Gwyn (also known for being Charles II’s mistress), who actually got her start as an orange seller. We don’t know a lot about the very first actresses on the English stage, or who the first woman to appear onstage in England was; there was, as noted, general disapproval of actresses from some quarters, certainly, but I’m not sure how massive it was, especially given the composition of the audience (and theater has always had its detractors no matter who’s performing). I do know that actresses who were controversial were generally in for nastier attacks than actors (Elizabeth Barry, another well-known early actress, is a prime example).