“Strolling Actresses Rehearsing in a Barn” William Hogarth
Part I -A Brief History
In the heyday of the Georgian theatre a great number of actresses commanded the stage but only a century earlier, the very thought of women displaying themselves to the public had scandalized society. Prior to the restoration, female parts were most often performed by effeminate youths as recorded by Samuel Pepys in his diary of the year 1660 who remarks of one Kynaston as making “the loveliest lady that I ever saw in my life.”
This was a radical departure from his own father’s reign in which actresses occasionally imported from France were frequently hissed and “pippin-pelted” off the English stage. But times had changed as well as the government. In Pepys entry of October 5, 1667, he states:
“By coach to the theatre and there saw the Scornful Lady, now done by a woman, which makes the play much better than ever it did to me.”
By the end of the century, men such as theatre critic, non-juror bishop and theologian, Jeremy Collier, cried out for reform of the lewd English stage. Although some small checks were made to govern the performers, however by the reign of George II, the king himself commanded the restoration of scenes in the earlier plays that had been censored for their indecency. The earlier Georgians, like their king, were well renowned for their low and bawdy taste in entertainment.
Dramatic pieces featuring butchery and blood made the ideal tragedies while John Gay’s, The Beggar’s Opera still remains the quintessential example of early Georgian comedy. Upon its premier in 1727, the comic opera enjoyed an unprecedented sixty-three straight nights. When revived in 1759, with Beard as Macheath and Miss Brent as Polly, it was no less popular, running for another fifty-two nights. Colman produced the work once more in 1781 but with a novel twist — all the women’s parts played by men and the men by women! It was once more a highly popular production. For more on this see my prior post: https://georgianjunkie.wordpress.com/2010/08/01/of-poets-and-playwrights-john-gayes-the-beggars-opera/ By 1735 Sir John Bernard petitioned the House of Commons stating that the six London theatres were nothing better than seats of corruption and vice. Still, the shows went on!
Satire of the most biting kind was favored by dramatists during this bawdy and biosterous epoch. After Gay’s Beggar’s Opera linked First Lord of the Treasury Robert Walpole with the notorious mobster Jonathan Wild, Walpole used his influence to have the sequel Polly banned. In Henry Fielding‘s Tom Thumb (1730), Covent Garden Tragedy (1732), and Pasquin (1736) the playwright once more aimed his poisonous pen at the Walpole, but in attempting to use the stage as a vehicle to lampoon corrupt politicians, an act was hastily passed to censor and control the English stage. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Licensing_Act_1737 . Fielding’s own Haymarket Theatre closed soon thereafter from which time he applied himself to novel writing.
The composition of the theaters as well as the physical stage also embodied the riotous Georgian era. Whist unfamiliar in our modern age, during the 18th century, the stage itself offered preferential seating for the nobility. Frequently the actors and actresses had to elbow their way through dukes and lords to perform their parts! (See image above – Hogarth’s depiction of The Beggar’s Opera with the lords and ladies seated right on the stage!)
At the Haymarket in 1721 while in the midst of a production of Macbeth, a tipsy earl crossed the stage to speak to one of his boon companions. When confronted for his insolent disregard of the players, the nobleman rewarded theater manager John Rich with a slap in the face— and act brazenly returned by Rich! When the earl’s companions took offense at such a sacrilegious act as retribution by a commoner, a near-riot ensued, only quelled when the entire theatre company took up various and sundry theatrical weapons that were conveniently on hand! The incident resulted in the King commanding the presence of a guard of soldiers at each performance in the Patent playhouses.
Another notable incident occurred in 1740 with the non-appearance of a certain French dancer when a notable Marquess (who had threatened to set fire to the house) smashed the musical instruments, pulled down the set and generally laid waste to the theater. The Georgian audience also had no qualms about voicing dissatisfaction with any performance, frequently spitting or tossing refuse onto the stage.
In February 1772, the following advertisement appears:
In a colorful further example of how the stage mirrored the morality of the time, actor and theatre manager Tate Wilkinson records in his memoirs the advice given to a particular actress named Kitty by her mother who disapproved of her daughter’s recent marriage:
No doubt this doting mother had desired her daughter to hold out for a noble husband, but barring this event now strongly encourages her to become a nobel mistress instead. (See Elizabeth Ferrern and the Earl of Derby). In my just released Georgian era romance, A WILD NIGHT’S BRIDE, struggling actress Phoebe Scott likewise seeks a noble protector to help advance her stage career:
Covent Garden Theatre, Westminster 1783
Although the normal flurry of activity persisted, with bodies coming and going and articles of clothing flying hither and yon, the communal dressing room of Covent Garden Theatre was a somber twin to its normally gleeful self, the chatter and bonhomie of the players subdued and even forced. What the company all knew but refused to voice aloud was that most of those performers not already taken on by Mr. Sheridan would be unemployed once tonight’s curtain dropped. It was the last performance of the season and the one which would officially close the venue for renovations needed to keep up with its chief competitor, the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane.
It was Phoebe Scott’s third season. She had joined the troupe with dreams of gracing the stage as Ophelia or Lady MacBeth, but to her growing frustration, she’d yet to advance beyond ladies’ maids and other bit comedic parts. The rest of the time, when she had no speaking parts, she earned her keep by the generosity of deputy stage manager, Mr. Hull, who paid her five shillings per night to act as a tire woman to the lead actresses. Such was the case tonight, but with the doors closing tomorrow, even this meager income would soon be lost.
Although she eked out the most parsimonious existence, Phoebe wondered how long her savings would keep her, and more dismally, if she would even have a chance of rejoining the theatre troupe next season when it re-opened its doors in all of its shining new glory. With so little true acting credit to her name, her chances were slim. Tonight, however, she refused to allow the uncertainty of her future to dim her enjoyment of the show. It was her favorite play, Mrs. Cowley’s Belle’s Stratagem. In her three years at Covent Garden, Phoebe had never missed a performance of it and had even committed every bit of dialogue to heart.
Donning her chambermaid’s costume, she forced a cheerful smile upon her painted lips and took herself off briskly to the leading actress’s private dressing room where she would help to outfit the not so young Miss Younge for her starring role as Leticia. Knowing any number of surprises might lurk behind closed dressing room doors, Phoebe rapped thrice before entering, only to find the room devoid of the star player.
“She ain’t ‘ere, luv,” remarked Mrs. Andrews, an aged bit part actress, now full time wardrobe mistress.
“Miss Younge? Not here?” Phoebe repeated blankly.
“Aye. Whilst you know I hate to be the tale bearer, some says she wasn’t happy with her new contract and now claims to be bedridden with the ague.” The plump woman gave a conspiratorial wink. “And word is Mrs. Mattocks has a sprained ankle, though I hear she was seen driving in Hyde Park earlier today.”
Before she could elaborate, Mr. Thomas Hull burst through the door with a rubicund face and jowls aquiver, shaking a sheet of parchment and looking apoplectic. “The devil you say! “Miss Younge and Mrs. Mattocks, both? No one is permitted the ague or ankle sprains on a command performance night! The bloody ungrateful wretches! We’ve now thirty minutes to curtain, and I’ve no Leticia and no Mrs. Racket!”
“No Leticia? No Mrs. Racket? You don’t mean to say—”
Hull cut Phoebe off. “Cancel the performance? Let Hell and a thousand furies seize me before I let pampered actresses run roughshod over me. I’ll show them no one in this company is indispensable. The show bloody well will go on!”
Phoebe’s heart slammed against her breastbone, her gaze flying with uncertainty from Mrs. Andrews to Mr. Hull. Yet desperate to grasp this once-in-a-lifetime chance, she stepped forward. “I—I know the parts, Mr. Hull—Leticia, Lady Touchwood, Miss Ogle, Kitty Willis. I can play any of them. I swear I won’t disappoint you. Please, will you give me a chance?”
“Hmph.” Hull regarded her with narrow-eyed scrutiny while Phoebe held her breath, feeling much like a horse at auction. Before Hull could say anything more, Phoebe spun around, grabbed an ornate fan from the dressing table, and transformed into the character of Leticia. She sashayed across the room, pert nose raised above her fluttering fan. “Men are all dissemblers, flatterers, deceivers! Have I not heard a thousand times of my air, my eyes, my shape—all made for victory!” She lowered the fan and struck a pose. “And today, when I bent my whole heart on one poor conquest, I have proved that all those imputed charms amount to nothing.” She snapped her fan shut with a toss of her ringlets.
Turning eagerly to Mr. Hull, her teeth bit into her lip as she studied the aging actor’s face with desperate hope and apprehension. He regarded her for a long moment, his expression unreadable. “While there is an air of freshness about you that is sorely lacking in our other performers of late, and I daresay such a fair face and figure as yours would cover a multitude of sins with our male audience…” Her pulse sped with rising hopes only to be dashed back to earth. “However, I fear I can’t risk the disfavor I would incur by allowing you a starring role.”
“Disfavor? What do you mean?” Phoebe asked in bewilderment.
“The disfavor of our chief patrons, my dear. Surely, you can’t have lived amongst us for so long without understanding how it is.”
“How what is?”
“Patronage, my dear. The theatre is but an imitation of that world around us and as such, thrives on patronage. Anyone who aspires to be anyone must have a benefactor. The more powerful the benefactor, the better one’s roles and the more profitable for us all.” He chucked her under the chin. “Surely you understand that by now? I’m sorry, my dear. While you do show some potential, and with work, I could very well picture you as the delectable ingénue, Leticia, I fear I must move Miss Stewart into the role.”
Phoebe’s heart contracted with a painful mix of disappointment and disillusionment. The lines she had just spoken echoed her thoughts —she had once more engaged her whole heart for nothing. Naively, she had believed hard work and perseverance would prevail, but now she wondered if she would ever have another chance. Yet she refused to give up completely. “But surely, Mr. Hull, if you must switch the parts of the leading players, there is some small role I can play? Please,” she begged. “I won’t disappoint you.”
“But what are you willing to sacrifice?” His gaze narrowed as it swept her top to toe. “If I grant your wish and put you on stage tonight, I wonder if you are prepared to make the best use of it?”
Phoebe knew what he was asking, and it was the last thing she wanted— to barter what little she had preserved of her self-respect. Having already experienced the faithlessness of one man’s heart, her greatest fear was to base her entire future on another’s fickle affections. Experience had taught her the folly of trusting pretty words and the emptiness of murmured promises. She had once given freely, and it had cost her dearly. Yet, she now found herself at an unavoidable, unenviable, and ultimately inevitable cross-road. At least this time, she stood to reap a tangible reward for her favors. What more did she really have to lose? “Yes, I will,” she whispered her life-changing decision. “I will make the most of any chance you give me.”
“Very well then.” Hull nodded to the wardrobe mistress who tossed her an elaborate silk gown with a feathered and bejeweled domino. Phoebe caught them with a racing heart. “Kitty’s masquerade costume? I have the part of Kitty? But it is a meager six lines,” Phoebe stared dismally after his departing back.
Mrs. Andrews clucked. “‘Tis not the lines but the delivery what counts. Every great actress knows when a part is well played, the audience believes the player for the real person. Kitty is a shameless little baggage. If your six little lines are well-played, you will have gents queued at your dressing room door—that is if you have the pluck for the part. That, dearie, is the decision you must needs make.”
Accepting the role of the disreputable Kitty would certainly determine her path. With this truth staring her otherwise bleak-looking future right in the face, Phoebe lifted her chin, squared her shoulders, and jutted her bosom with a hand placed saucily on her hip. “If that is so, Mrs. Andrews, I promise to be a Kitty they won’t soon forget.”
To be continued in Part II- Ladies of the Georgian Stage…
- Georgian Playwright Hannah Cowley (georgianjunkie.wordpress.com)
- A Wild Night’s Bride &the Naughty, Bawdy Georgians (georgianjunkie.wordpress.com)
- When Art Inspires Art by Emery Lee (georgianjunkie.wordpress.com)
Primary reference: Comedy Queens of the Georgian Era, John Fyvie, Archibald Constable and Company, London, 1906