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Women in the Theater after the Restoration

After the Restoration in 1660, Charles II brought an innovative addition to the English theater: women were allowed to take the stage as actresses. The novelty of having women on stage created something of a stir, but for the most part the reaction of the public was positive, especially that of the young men who regularly chose their mistresses from the ranks of the new professionals. Many of the new actresses were women who intentionally used their position to achieve liaisons with titled gentlemen and thus increase their meager income. One of the most famous was of course Nell Gwyn, who became the mistress of Charles II. Another, Elizabeth Barry, outlived her noble patron the Earl of Rochester by several decades, and later enjoyed the reputation of being one of the greatest actresses of the age. Not all actresses used the stage as a market, however: Mrs. Betterton helped manage the highly successful Duke's Company with her husband, training the younger actresses, and her pupil Anne Bracegirdle had the reputation of living a strict moral life.

Despite their popularity, women did not enjoy the same status as men in the theater. Their pay did not equal that of their male colleagues, and while many male actors became playwrights, very few women made the transition. One of the few who did, Charlotte Charke, wrote a total of three plays.

Aphra Behn, never an actress, may have possibly made her way into the world of Restoration theater through family connections. Her forte was comedy, often revolving around a plot of "forced marriage" -- which was also the title of her first produced play in 1670. Even working within the constraints of the Restoration's male dominated society, Behn managed to create strong, independent female characters who made their own choices. Over the course of her nineteen year career, Behn probably wrote over twenty plays, as well as several novels and volumes of poetry.

The most well-known female dramatist to follow Behn, Susanna Centlivre, wrote nineteen plays during her career, beginning in 1700. Most of her plays were comedies of intrigue, although she did write two tragicomedies, The Perjur'd Husband (1700) and The Cruel Gift (1716). She was very popular in her time but has since been forgotten more effectively even than Aphra Behn.

In addition to actresses and playwrights, there were several women during this period who managed theaters, for example Charlotte Charke, who followed Henry Fielding as the manager of the Little Theatre in Haymarket. Lady Henrietta Maria Davenant succeeded her husband, the playwright Sir William Davenant, as manager of the Duke's Company, and with the assistance of the Bettertons lead the company until its merger with the King's Company. Under her management, the Dorset Garden Theater, where Aphra Behn produced her plays, was the most successful theatrical company in London. She also acted as a mentor for actresses and actors, even putting young actresses up in her own house when they couldn't find affordable lodgings.

Women also exerted considerable influence as playgoers, not always in support of their own sex. Aphra Behn complained bitterly in her preface to The Lucky Chance (1686), one of her more bawdy plays, how the "Ladies" cried it down. But this defense of her writing did lead to one of her more memorable forewords:

...I am not content to write for a Third Day only. I value Fame as much as if I had been born a Hero; and if you rob me of that, I can retire from the ungrateful World, and scorn its fickle Favours.

For further information see:

Antonia Fraser, The Weaker Vessel. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984).

Jacqueline Pearson, The Prostituted Muse: Images of Women and Women Dramatists 1642-1737. (New York: Harvester, 1988).

David Roberts, The Ladies: Female Patronage of Restoration Drama 1660-1700. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

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© 1995-2011 by Ruth Nestvold

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Villa Diodati Workshop | Clarion West 98 | Cutting Edges: Or, A Web of Women | Joe's Heartbeat in Budapest | ECHO

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