Womanizing King Charles II bans boys from playing female parts, deciding it is much more pleasant to watch beautiful women like Margaret Hughes.
Portrait of Margaret Hughes (c.1670) by Sir Peter Lely
The white male’s total domination of public theatre did not begin to come under threat in England until the mid-seventeenth century, when the once-excluded and marginalized began to gain access to the stage, with women blazing the trail. This would prove to be a long, drawn-out process, with battles still being fought in the twenty-first century. One useful definition for who comes under this elusive label of ‘marginalized’ is offered by Gayatri Spivak in her seminal A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present:
The marginal in the narrow sense are the victims of the best-known history of centralization: the emergence of the straight white Christian male of property as the ethical subject.
Seventeenth-century male actors do not neatly fall into this dominant category; their livelihood depended rather on the grace and favour of this variety of man. Actors’ reputation for licentiousness and low living had an inbuilt marginality. But the placing of them as representers of the whole spectrum of humanity – males and females of every ethnic identity – can be read as an extension of the power of these straight white Christian men of property; even while these actors wear women’s clothes, black up their faces, their white masculinity beneath these disguises asserts the apparently natural order.
Men playing women’s roles came to an abrupt end with the re-opening of the theatres after the English Civil War. The first female actor appeared on a commercial stage on 8 December 1660 as part of Thomas Killigrew’s King’s company, and was recorded in Samuel Pepys’ diary entry of 3 January 1661, although her name is not given. In typical Pepys' enthusiasm for all areas of his life, this remarkable event is given as much space as he gives to what he had for dinner:
Thence to Will's, where Spicer and I eat our dinner of a roasted leg of pork which Will did give us, and after that to the Theatre, where was acted 'Beggars' Bush', it being very well done; and here the first time that I ever saw women come upon the stage. From thence to my father's.
From this point there was no going back. In 1662 Charles II issued a royal decree that all female roles should no longer be played by boys but by women, thus instantly creating an unemployment black hole for pretty young boys. The cross-dressing party was over, at least for the time being.
Charles, who was famously fond of women, had also become used to seeing them act during his exile on the continent, as the practice was already widespread in France, Italy and Spain. As an indication of how such a custom had been viewed by the earlier Jacobeans, Thomas Nashe published a pamphlet in 1592, Pierce Penniless, his Supplication to the Devil, in which, possibly tongue in cheek, he boasts that English players were: ‘not as the players beyond sea, a sort of squirting bawdie comedians that have whores and common curtizans to play women’s parts’. But in an increasingly Puritan England, the idea of boys performing as women had come to be considered equally scandalous. William Prynne’s post-Jacobean 1633 pamphlet Histriomastix is an attack on the English stage in general and on this use of boys in particular:
Those players wherein any men act women’s parts in woman’s apparel must needs be sinful, yea, abominable unto Christians’. But, even-handed to the last, he also regards French women performing on the stage as ‘monsters’.
While the identity of the first female actor is uncertain, Margaret Hughes is seen as a likely contender (pictured above). Certainly it was her who performed as Desdemona for the King’s Company in 1663. The company had a prologue and epilogue especially written by a Thomas Jordan to explain, and highlight, her presence. In the prologue, Jordan exploits the titillating possibilities of the situation by stating that he can confirm Desdemona is a woman as he has seen her ‘drest’, in the sense of being in a state of undress and having her costume put on:
I come, unknown to any of the rest / To tell the news, I saw the lady drest.
This rather undermines the high moral tone of his epilogue where he defends Hughes’ right to perform on the stage without being seen as a mere prostitute, insisting she is ‘as far from being what you call a whore, / As Desdemona injured by the Moor’. Jordan then directly appeals to the female members of the audience, saying:
But ladies, what think you? for if you tax / Her freedom with dishonour to your sex, / She means to act no more, and this shall be / No other play, but her own tragedy.
The tragedy, then, perceptively recognized by Jordan, is to be made invisible, which is tragic both for the individual – here Hughes – and for her whole gender, if it is excluded or self-excludes itself from the stage, from being able to act. Just as Othello smothers and silences his Desdemona, so that she is erased from the metaphorical stage of life, so these early female actors dread being erased once more from the physical stage of London theatres.
However, they need not have worried: it may have been a rocky ride for them, where they faced much prejudice and sexual abuse en route, but women were never again to be banished into theatrical obscurity. So, Charles II's rampant lust actually did women a great service.