12 June 2011

The Entertainers: Women in Restoration Theater

Anna C. Bowling

Come with me on a trip to London, 1660. With the return of Charles II to the throne, England has undergone amazing changes, and one of the most notable is the reopening of theaters per the king’s edict in August of this year. The late Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, clamped down on frivolous forms of entertainment, so it’s been a while since actors could perform in the open. Certainly, some small companies of traveling entertainers risked the stiff penalties to perform secretly in private homes before small audiences, but a real stage with professional actors? That hasn’t been possible for quite some time.

Now it’s back. Charles II, dubbed the merry monarch, loves a good time and his fondness for theater has rejuvenated the art form in England. The air buzzes with excitement as we enter the theater. Pretty girls mill about with baskets of oranges, selling the exotic fruit and possibly other wares in some cases.
Some older patrons reminisce about the theaters of their youth. Oh, those were glorious days, when richly costumed players trod the boards and fantastical sets showed off the true genius of theatrical art. Another patron grumbles; they’ve been dragged here by others and aren’t at all sure that reopening the theaters isn’t flinging open wide the doors of depravity. Others express curiosity. Will this English audience be able to understand a play with all the European influences the king is reputed to have a taste for after his time abroad?

With the show about to begin, we take our seats on the long wooden benches. Two young men take the stage, in the rich dress of the cavaliers. Long, curling hair spills over the shoulders of both their coats, their heads topped with wide-brimmed hats decorated with brightly colored plumes. Arm in arm, the amble across the boards, looking furtively about as though searching for pursuers. A hush falls over the crowd as the magic of the story takes hold. The slighter of the two sweeps off his hat, expounds on the warmth of the noonday sun and then doffs his…what…no, her coat. She stretches and speaks in her natural voice and there is no doubt that this actor is in fact a woman.

A woman? On the stage? One of the older audience members complains that in his day, female parts were played by pretty boys and that’s the way decent theater should be. The grumbler points this out as certainty that this is a plot to crumble the moral fire of England; no decent woman would take to the stage. This is nothing more, they insist, than a platform for a strumpet to parade her wares. Others shush the objectors, more interested in the story than any damages to the country’s moral future. Some of the male audience members do seem especially fixated on the assets of the woman on stage, and it is possible one or more of them may seek her company after the show closes.

We watch the performance to its conclusion, and leave discussing when we might see such a spectacle again. What we’ve seen is nothing like we have experienced before, and we speculate over what may come next. We return for more performances as we can over the years, paying for the cheapest seats we can get. We see more women perform and laugh over the popularity of casting young women in breeches roles. It took this long to get women on the stage, and now they are expected to play men? Ah, but that does show their legs off to excellent advantage, and if it worked well enough for Nell Gwynne to catch the eye of the king himself, who are we to argue? Only ten years after the opening of the theaters, the first female playwright, Aphra Behn, stages her play, The Forced Marriage, ushering in yet another new day for the world of entertainment. On with the show.

Writing historical romances allows Anna C. Bowling to travel through time on a daily basis and make the voices in her head pay rent. Her current release, ORPHANS IN THE STORM, is available from Awe-Struck E-books.