Happy Birthday — Female Actors

If you think women in our society have had a tough time gaining equal rights and opportunities, consider this: December 8, 1660 was one of the earliest known times a female actress actually appeared on the English stage.

The performing theater goes back to ancient Greece. Of course there were plenty of female roles even then, considering the number of heroines and goddesses. Yet these parts were played by men, with the acting profession considered too dangerous for the fairer sex.

The situation changed somewhat in the 16th century with the debut of the opera. Still, it was common for female roles to be acted by men; soprano parts were often sung by a type of male performer known as the Castrati. The Church, being quite conservative, was no help either, with women barred from performing in the Papal Choir (Get Thee To a Stage! A Brief History of Women in the Theater, https://womensmuseum.wordpress.com/2017/09/06/get-thee-to-a-stage-a-brief-history-of-women-in-the-theater/).

Then came Shakespeare and some strong female roles. Still, the theater in Elizabethan England was a difficult life (but weren’t all lives then?) and women were thought to be too delicate for such a profession; female roles were filled by men or boys in drag. Attempts to include women were usually met with hostile audiences and thrown projectiles.

But in 1660 the King’s Company decided times had sufficiently changed to try a woman in their production of Othello. Before the performance, the audience was prepared with rhyme — “With bone so large and nerve so incompliant / When you call Desdemona, enter giant.” In other words, men are too hulking for this role, so be forewarned, a woman will be on stage! (The Writer’s Almanac, December 8, 2019, https://www.spreaker.com/user/prairehomeproductions/191208-twa-rb)

I guess it worked.

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