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Women's Lives Surrounding Late 18th Century Theatre

English 3621 Writing by Women


 If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through "the eternal feminine," and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question: what is a woman? - Simone de Beauvoir

About Actresses

Actresses in the 1700's were generally not regarded with the respect that men were. The stage was not a woman's world as it was said to be better suited for men. On one hand women were looked down upon if they acted, as it was un-ladylike; On the other hand, women were viewed as celebrities if they were actresses, as they kept the aristocracy and royalty entertained as well as ocasionally socialized with them. It is competely different when we think of modern day actresses, who are among the highest paid, influential and idolized women in the world.
          Alot was expected from actors during this time, as well with the actresses that were working right along with them. Women were expected to keep the pace and work just as hard as men. Rehearsals were held every morning for several hours and performed every afternoon at the theatre. Usually, any performance that took place during the evening was held for the court, simply  for mere formality. Acting was at the forefront of these women's lives, as it was a very demanding job. "A successful leading lady might have to learn about 30 different parts in one season."
          It was quite a competitive job, for male parts were in much higer abundance that were those for women."There were fewer parts forwomen than for men which led to well documented arguments between actresses over casting and costimes."


Unlike today, females were expected to have many different talents, they needed to be well rounded and not just be able to act. The leading lady especially needed to be quite skilled in different areas. She was required to read, sing, to dance and to speak loud and strong- (to avoid being drowned out by men.) These were all considered upper class skills. Many people did not have these skills so most actresses originated from good families who had come "down in the world." From the time of the Restoration, acting and performing were connected with prostitution and the like. This was another reason why women were not particularly respected, as skeptics viewed them immoral characters. Certainly, some actresses were brought onto stage from their connections with the audience and general public.


Theatre Design

The stages of the theatres during this period were decorated with painted perspective settings as well with props and furniture. The stage was separated from the auditorium by the familiar proscenium, which translates directly to "picture frame". Many of these have moldings and artistic carvings to accentuate the frame. The lighting was bright, as most attention was focused on the actors and what they were doing. By this time the inside of theatres were decorated beautifully and seating was comfortable as well as attractive.


Females On Stage?

All professional actors were male for the first part of history. It was not until the Restoration period in 1660 that women came onto the stage. When Charles II, was on the throne, he did not want young men to play women’s parts anymore, he demanded that only women play their own parts. Charles was noted with having relations with several actresses himself. Many of the women’s parts were called ‘breeches parts’, this was where women played the part of a male. Audiences during this time of course found this intriguing, daring and quite appealing. Women of course were aware of the advantage they had by showing their legs on stage. At the end of one play it was noted that a woman by the name of Elizabeth Boutell added to lines: “Tis worth such money that such legs appear. These are not to be seen so cheap elsewhere.” ( Around the same time, female playwrights started to have their plays and skits actually performed on stage. This indeed was liberating for women as well as women being able to portray the characters they were interested in playing. Not only was it a way for women to begin to earn their own money, it proved that the attendance of the plays did not diminish, but grow due to women being on stage.

Hester Booth
(18th Century Dancer and Actress)


Women's History Page (Dresses)

Renaissance and Baroque Theatres

Women in World History


The Costumer's Manifesto

Theatre History On The Web

PeoplePlay UK

The Toby Press


German Theatre


Sara Siddens
Most famous tragedienne of the 18th century

"I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman." — Virginia Woolf

Theatre History Link

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