Sunday, June 11, 2017

Women in Theatre in the Renaissance in Great Britain & Italy

Women in Theatre in the Renaissance in Great Britain & Italy

Women in the Commedia dell arte in Italy

Around the 1550’s an improvised form of mask theatre, which had its origins in the Ancient Roman comedy of about 100BC to 300AD, started to emerge of the flourishing city states of Italy. The Commedia dell’ arte (sometimes called the commedia dell’ arte all’ improvviso) which loosely translates as ‘the comedy of the artisans’ is a improvised masked comedy form which was primarily performed outside and on temporary or movable stages which was often performed during carnivale or local city festivals.

A number of factors made the commedia dell’ arte different to previous drama forms. Firstly, commedia was primarily improvised not use scripts as such but using stock characters, routines and scenarios which were adapted and changed to suit each new town or city state the troupe performed in. Secondly, male and female actors were part of each commedia troupe and in Western theatre, commedia was the first form to fully embrace female performers.

Although females probably only performed female characters and probably performed without masks, female contributions to acting, directing and dramaturgy through devising scenes were probably equal to those of males.

Commedia uses stock characters and social stereotypes and so an audience anywhere in Italy and in other countries such as France and Spain could relate to the characters presented. Some characters females played were:
Isabella (the young naïve lover)
Columbina (the wordly-wise and cunning servant)
La Ruffiana (older female with a shady past)
La Signora (a lady, sometimes the wife of Pantalone, tough and calculating)

The following clip may give some sense of how female actresses performed scenes in the original commedia dell arte plays:

Female Drama Practitioners in Early Modern Italy
Margherita Costa

One of the female figures of Early Modern Italian language drama was
Margherita Costa. Although a courtesan, Costa started her artistic career as a singer but by 1641 she had started to write her first poetry and her first plays. Her first play was probably La Flora feconda (1640). Her poem Li Buffoni was probably turned into the short comedy Li buffoni: Comedia ridicola (1641) at this time and it became popular as a Commedia dell arte play performed by a number of commedia troupes at the time. From the courts of Florence to Turin to Venice she performed as a singer. She also performed in France and Germany and her 1650 play Gli amori della Luna (The Loves of the Moon Goddess) was probably written and performed in Germany. Although she probably wrote half a dozen plays, only three plays have survived.

Women in Elizabethan, Jacobean, Caroline and Restoration Theatre
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw a renaissance in theatre in England. While much attention is often given to William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson and the fact that women could not perform on the public stage, what is less known is that the period also saw a proliferation of female playwrights and play translators.
Jane Lumley

Probably the first female playwright who wrote in the English language was Jane Lumley who translated Ancient Greek speeches and plays into English. During the 1560’s she translated Euripides’s Iphigeneia at Aulis. This translation was probably not performed publically but ‘chamber theatre’ or ‘closet drama’ reading were probably held at either Lumley Castle or Nonsuch Palace.
Jane Lumley’s exploits were soon followed by those of Mary Sidney Herbert who translated Petrarch’s Triumph of Death. Her interest in verse and soliloquy meant that some of her verse is considered to be a great influence on some closet drama of the 1590’s such Samuel Daniel’s Cleopatra and William Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra. In 2010, poetry and possible verse soliloquys written by Mary Sidney Herbert were discovered.

Elizabeth Cary

The first female playwright to write original plays in English seems to have been Elizabeth Cary. Around 1610, she seems to have written her first play around 1610 but this play is lost. Probably her second play, The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry was written in 1613 but was intended as a ‘closet drama’ and so primarily intended to be read. It is possible that it was done as a performed reading in her house. The play is a social commentary which addresses divorce, revenge and advocates female agency.

Mary Wroth

Mary Wroth wrote her most famous play Love’s Victory around 1620. The play is a pastoral comedy which is principally written in rhyming couplets. The play centres around shepherds and shepherdesses in Cyprus and explores a number of different types of love. The pairing up of different couples at the end of the play to suggest different types of love suggest staging elements of the play. This would suggest that it may have been read or performed as a ‘closet drama’ and that female and male friends of Wroth may have taken on reading different parts.

Jane Cavendish & Elizabeth Egerton
The Concealed Fancies is a masque drama written by Jane Cavendish 

and her sister Elizabeth Egerton.

 It probably completed in 1646 after the outbreak of the English Civil War. Being a pastoral masque drama, and due to the ban on public performances, the play if it was ever performed at the time, would have been performed first on one of the Cavendish estates. The play confronts issues of the liberty and freedom of females and notions of freedom of expression.

Margaret Cavendish

Margaret Cavendish was a prolific writer who wrote philosophy, poetry, science fiction, prose and plays. She is the first female playwright who wrote multiple plays in multiple styles. Fourteen of her plays (Love’s Adventures, The Several Wits, Youth’s Glory, and Death’s Banquet, The Lady Contemplation, Wit’s Cabal, The Unnatural Tragedy, The Public Wooing, The Matrimonial Trouble, Nature's Three Daughters, Beauty, Love and Wit, The Religious, The Comical Hash, Bell in Campo, A Comedy of the Apocryphal Ladies and The Female Academy) were published in 1662. Another volume containing another six plays (The Sociable Companions - or the Female Wits, The Presence, Scenes from The Presence, The Bridals, The Convent of Pleasure and A Piece of a Play) was published in 1668. The plays cover a range of issues, themes, plots and styles. The plays are closet dramas and if they were ever performed, they were probably performed as ‘chamber theatre’ moved readings with Cavendish’s female and male friends.  

Katherine Philips

Katherine Philips was an Anglo-Welsh poet, playwright, translator and letter writer authored who sometimes wrote under the name Orinda. She translated at least two plays from Ancient Roman texts. Her translation of Corneille’s La mort de Pompee and Horace may have even been performed during her lifetime. She created a literary circle of males and females around her and fostered discussion and artistic expression of ideas on a range of issues.

Frances Boothby

Frances Boothby only wrote one or two plays and she is often credited as first woman to have her plays performed on the London stages. Her romantic comedy Marcelia, or, The Treacherous Friend was seen by audiences in 1669 at the Theatre Royal and it was performed by the King’s Company.

Elizabeth Polwheele

Elizabeth Polwheele was a female playwright who is attributed as being the second woman who wrote for the professional London stage with her comedy The Frolicks (1671). All three of her plays Elysium (1670), The Faithful Virgins (1670) and The Frolicks, or The Lawyer Cheated (1671) are Restoration comedies with the normal archetypes evident in Restoration Comedies.

Aphra Behn

Perhaps the most famous female playwrights of these periods was Aphra Behn. She wrote eighteen plays from 1670 to 1689 including The Forc’d Marriage (1670), The Amorous Prince (1671), The Dutch Lover (1673), Abdelazer (1676), The Town Fop (1676), The Rover – Part 1 (1677), Sir Patient Fancy (1678), The Feigned Courtesans (1679), The Young King (1679), The Rover – Part 2 (1681), The False Count (1681), The Roundheads (1681), The City Heiress (1682), Like Father, Like Son (1682), Prologue and Epilogue to Romulus and Hersilia or The Sabine War (1682), The Lucky Chance (written with composer John Blow in 1686), The Emperor of the Moon (1687), The Widow Ranter (written 1687 but performed posthumously in 1689) and The Younger Brother (written 1687 but performed posthumously in 1696).
Where Aphra Behn is all the more remarkable is not just that her plays were performed in public in theatres, but she embraces the new liberalism of the Restoration after the English Civil War. Another significant aspect of Aphra Behn and her plays are that she utilizes and uses the new theatrical conventions of her time and the new design of English theatres (with a proscenium arch). One great innovation of the English Restoration theatre is that women were allowed to act on the stage due to a shortage of trained boy and young male actors after the long closure of the stages. Acting on stage was still seen as not respectable and linked to disreputable women, but Behn played with and challenged this perspective in her plays.
Here is link to some of Aphra Behn’s plays:
Here is link to an article on Aphra Behn and Restoration Theatre

Anne Finch

Although primarily a poet, Anne Finch was also a playwright who wrote verse dramas. As the Countess of Winchilsea, she was a very influential woman, who championed the work of other female writers. Her poetic and non-fiction writings include writings on political ideology, religious orientation, aesthetic sensibility and the mental and spiritual equity of females and males. Her first play is lost to posterity but her second play Aristomenes: Or The Royal Shepherd was written around 1710 but published in 1713.

Delarivier Manley

The playwright, political activist and novelist Delarivier Manley was an amazing woman. Her first play was the comedy The Lost Lover, or, The Jealous Husband was written and performed in 1696. During the same year her ‘she-tragedy’ The Royal Mischief was also performed and this play and her person were even satirized and ridiculed in a comedy by a contemporary male playwright. Her adaptation of The Arabian Nights Entertainments (1698) was performed in a lavish production with innovative staging elements. Other notable plays were the tragedy Almyna, or the Arabian Vow (1707), the social satire Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality of Both Sexes, from the New Atlantis, an Island in the Mediterranean (1709) and the tragedy Lucius, The First Christian King of Britain (1717).

Mary Pix

Mary Pix was also a successful female playwright writing for the professional theatre at this time. She was married to a merchant but because during the 1600’s and early 1700’s it was normal for lower and middle class women to work, so she took on writing as a way of earning income. In 1696, she wrote and had produced two plays - Ibrahim, the Thirteenth Emperour of the Turks and The Spanish Wives. In 1697, she had two plays produced The Innocent Mistress (1697) and The Deceiver Deceived. She wrote and had performed nine plays after, even though some were attributed on advertising pamphlets to a male playwright. These plays included Queen Catharine; or, The Ruines of Love (1698), The False Friend; or, the Fate of Disobedience (1699), The Beau Defeated; or, the Lucky Younger Brother (1700), The Double Distress (1701), The Czar of Muscovy (1701), The Different Widows; or, Intrigue All-A-Mode (1703), Zelmane; or, The Corinthian Queen (1705), The Conquest of Spain (1705) and The Adventures in Madrid (1706).

Susannah Centlivre

Susannah Centlivre (born Susanna Freeman and often known by her professional name Susanna Carroll) was an actress, poet and playwright. It is believed that her father died when she was three. Her mother remarried but died shortly after that. Her stepfather was apparently a kind man but his new wife, Susannah’s new stepmother was abusive. After years of abuse at the hands of her stepmother, Susannah left home at the age of fifteen. By the age of sixteen, she was married and performing young male or ‘breeches roles’. Her husband died soon after. She married again to Captain Carroll who died eighteen months later in a duel.

Under the stage name of Susanna Carroll, Centlivre continued to perform on the stage and in 1700, at the age of twenty-one, wrote her first play.  the tragi-comedy The Perjur'd Husband: or, The Adventures of Venice which was first performed at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. This was followed up in 1702 with The Beau’s Duel, The Stolen Heiress in 1702 and Love's Contrivance (1703). Her next play performed in 1705 was a comedy called The Gamester followed by The Basset Table in the same year. In 1706, she wrote and had performed Love at a Venture and The Platonic Lady. She then married again, this time to a yeoman called Joseph Centlivre. By 1709, she was back writing again and in that year wrote Female Tatler. She continued to write for the stage with a steady stream of plays in different styles including A Bickerstaff's Burying (1710), Marplot, or, The Second Part of the Busie-Body (1710), The Perplex'd Lovers (1712), The Wonder (1714), A Gotham Election (a political farce written in 1715 but not performed until 1724), A Wife Well Manag'd (1715), The Cruel Gift (1716), A Bold Stroke for a Wife (1718) and The Artifice (1722).
Although she mostly wrote novels and poetry, the dramatic skills of Scottish writer Charlotte Lennox should not be overlooked. Her major three plays Philander (1758), The Sister (1762) and Old City Manners (1775) are stylistically unique and deserve re-reading or even the breath of fresh air that a new performance can bring.

Women in the Commedia dell arte
MacNeil, A. (2003). Music and Women of the Commedia dell’Arte in the Late-Sixteenth Century. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Margherita Costa
Costa-Zalessow, N. (2005), "Margherita Costa", in Albert N Mancini and Glenn Palen Pierce, Seventeenth-Century Italian Poets and Dramatists, Detroit: Gale Cengage Learning, pp. 113–18

Women in Elizabethan, Jacobean, Caroline and Restoration Theatre
Anderson, H.D. (2010). Female Agency in Restoration and Nineteenth Century Drama. [Graduate Thesis]. Retrieved May 19, 2017 from
Barker, S. & Hinds, H. (eds.), The Routledge Anthology of Renaissance Drama, Routledge, Abingdon (2003).
Buck, C., ed. "Lumley, Joanna Fitzalan (c. 1537-1576/77)." The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. New York: Prentice Hall, 1992. 764.
McIntosh, S. (2018). 8 Facts You didn't know about Women in Theatre. What's On Stage. London. March 8, 2018. Retrieved from

O’Connor, K. & Williams, A. (2016). Aphra Behn and the Restoration Theatre Retrieved May 21, 2017 from

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