Theatre Database
Home | Ancient Theatre | Medieval Theatre | 16th Century | 17th Century | 18th Century | 19th Century | 20th Century


The following article is reprinted from A Dictionary of the Drama. W. Davenport Adams. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1904.

Actresses first appeared on the English stage in 1629, when a troupe of French players, male and female, relying, no doubt, upon the patronage of their countrywoman, Queen Henrietta Maria, essayed to give performances at Blackfriars. Up to this time the feminine parts in the native drama had been enacted invariably by boys or youths, trained to the profession by the older actors, who were allowed to take them as apprentices, and were paid for the services they rendered. Thus the employment of women was a striking innovation, and it is not surprising that it was resented by the playgoers of the day. According to a letter addressed to Laud, then Bishop of London, by one Thomas Brande, the public were indignant. The French actresses were "hissed, hooted, and pippin-pelted from the stage," so that the writer "did not think they would soon be ready to try the same again." As a matter of fact, they reappeared a few weeks after at the Fortune and Red Bull theatres, but not successfully. They were, indeed, so far from being popular that the Master of the Revels, "in respect of their ill luck," returned them a portion of the fees which they had to pay for their licence. Three years later, in 1632, Lady Strangelove, in Brome's comedy, The Court Beggar, was made to say: "The boy's a pretty actor, and his mother can play her part: women-actors now grow in request." But it is not clear to what actresses the allusion refers. In 1633 Prynne brought out his Histrio-Mastix, in which he stigmatized all "woman-actors" as "monsters," and applied to their performances such adjectives as "impudent," "shameful," and "unwomanish." In 1656 Davenant's Siege of Rhodes was acted, at Rutland House, before a paying audience, with a cast which included Mrs. Coleman as Ianthe, and to that lady, therefore, must be accorded the honour of having been the first English professional actress. On December 8, 1660, Killigrew gave, at the theatre in Vere Street, a representation of Othello, in which the rôle of Desdemona was performed by a woman. The occasion was signalized by a prologue from the pen of Thomas Jordan, in which attention was drawn to the special attraction:

"I come, uknown 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."

Some of the inconveniences of having men-actresses were amusingly glanced at:

"Our women are defective, and so sized
You'd think they were some of the guard disguised;
For, to speak truth, men act, that are between
Forty and fifty, wenches of fifteen:
With bones so large and nerve so incompliant,
When you call Desdemona, enter giant."

The name of the actress who played Desdemona is not known. Killigrew's principal lady at this time was Ann Marshall, and the rôle would naturally fall to her; but there is no record of her having appeared as the heroine of Othello, and it is more likely that the part was taken in this instance by Margaret Hughes, who was the seconda donna of the company. Pepys, it would appear, was not present at the performance, for, writing about The Beggar's Bush which he saw at the same theatre on January 3, 1661, he describes that as "the first time that ever he saw women come upon the stage." In the same month he witnessed Kynaston's impersonation of a female in The Silent Woman--the fact being that women did not at once banish men-actresses from the stage. Then, in June, 1661, came a performance of The Siege of Rhodes at Davenant's theatre, with Mrs. Davenport as Roxalana and Mrs. Saunderson (Betterton) as Ianthe. By this time the prejudice against "women-actors" had abated. Nay, playgoers, it would seem, had begun to take as much objection to "boy-actresses" as they formerly did to "women-actors;" and so it came to pass that when, in 1662, Killigrew and Davenant received a renewal of the letters patent granted to them in 1660, the documents included permission to place female parts in the hands of women. In 1664 Killigrew carried the concession to an extreme, for we read that, in that year, he produced his comedy, The Parson's Wedding, with women in all the parts. This, Pepys was "told," took place "at the King's house." And it is recorded that, in 1672, Philaster and other plays were represented at Lincoln's Inn Fields under the same conditions, Dryden writing prologues for the occasion.

Back to 17th Century Theatre