From The Writer’s Almanac for today, 8th December.
It was on this day in 1660 that a female actress appeared on stage in the role of Desdemona in Othello, probably the first appearance by a professional actress in England. For many years, the parts of women were played by boys or men. The British first saw female actresses on stage much earlier, in 1629, when a traveling troupe from France included women as well as men. But they were not received well — according to one audience member, the women were “hissed, hooted, and pippin-pelted off the stage.” In 1632, William Prynne published an 1,100-page document called Histriomastix, condemning the theater, particularly female actresses. In his index, he included the entry: “Women-Actors, notorious whores.”
But by 1660, Thomas Killigrew’s King’s Company felt confident enough to feature a woman as Desdemona in a performance of Othello at the company playhouse at Vere Street. There is no record of who the actress was, but most scholars guess that it was Margaret Hughes, whom Samuel Pepys described as “a mighty pretty woman.”
An actor came out before the opening scene to deliver a prologue that would let the audience know about the big change, and explain why the male actors weren’t working out so well.
“I come, unknown to any of the rest.
To tell the news: I saw the lady drest.
The woman plays today, mistake me not,
No man in gown or page in petticoat.
A woman to my knowledge, yet I cann’t,
If I should dye, make affidavit on’t.
In this reforming age
We have intents to civilize the stage.
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 bone so large and nerve so incompliant,
When you call Desdemona, enter giant.”
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