Women in Drama in Medieval Times
Hrosvitha of Gandersheim
Around 960 a German aristocratic born canoness called Hrosvitha of Gandersheim (935-1005), wrote six dramas which she based around some of Terence’s comedies. These are often acknowledged as the first known dramas written by a female. She lived in 10th Century Germany in Gandersheim Abbey in Lower Saxony in a community of unmarried daughters of high nobility. Read at least one of the plays of Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim. She wrote in Latin but here is an English translation of her plays.
Because plays based on Terence could have been counted as immoral for reading and performance, Hrosvitha prefaces her collection by stating that the works are moral and parables whose purpose was to save Christians and that her representation of some less than moral deeds and people were meant to act as a moral lesson for Christians. In this sense her plays ultimately put down the immorality, weakness and over emotionality of some women compared to the chastity, strength and intellect of Christian women. Her comedies concentrate on the love stories of Terence’s work and the plays are didactic in their style and are dialogues more than character and story based dramas. The most famous of Hrotsvitha’s comedies include Gallicanus, Dulcitius, Callimachus, Abraham and Paphnutius. We do not know whether Hrotsvitha’s plays were performed, read with accompanied moving or ‘living’ tableaux or simply heard in readings. Woman certainly would have been in the audience of these plays even if they were performed as ‘chamber theatre’ readings or performed in private houses.
Saint Hildegard of Bingen
Around this time the second great female of western drama and one of the first great female composers started to write and compose. Saint Hildegard of Bingen was a German Benedictine abbess who wrote Ordo Virtutum one of the oldest surviving Morality Plays along with incredible early church music. Ordo Virtutum is a musical Morality Drama in Five Parts concerning the struggle for a human soul between the Virtues and the Devil. The drama may have first been performed in 1152 at the opening and dedication of St. Rupertsberg Church. Many parts are written for female voices in Hildegard’s pieces so we know that females would have sung and performed in her performances. One of the most dramatic and moving pieces of Hildegard of Bergen is
Jodelle and Grevin
In the 15th and 16th Centuries, some more liberal attitudes towards the performances of Ancient Greek and Roman plays also saw a decline in religious drama. This also saw a rise in popularity for new secular dramatic forms such as the Commedia del arte and Humanist dramas (some translations of Greek and Roman histories) such as those created in France by Jodelle with Cléopâtre Captive (1553) and Grevin with Jules César (1560). It is likely that females performed in as well as adapted some of the scenes for these new secular drama forms.
Females in Early & Medieval & Renaissance Japanese Drama
Performances of early Japanese storytelling, folk drama, dance and puppetry probably involved female performers but no records really exist of these early forms. References are made during the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) of a female performer Hyakuman who was famous for her kusemai, which is a dance which combines both Buddhist and Shinto themes. The suggestion is that these dances formed a vital part of the stage movements and stylized movements which become Noh Drama and Zeami even praises Hyakuman in his writings which help to form the treatise and basis for Noh Drama.
By the early 1600’s female performers were very much a part of Japanese theatre. The story goes that in 1603, a maiden from Izumo who was called Okuni, performed a dance drama in a dry river bed in the town of Kyoto and this was the birth of female kabuki. In the Kabuki (a style of Japanese Dance Drama) females would play both male and female parts normally in comic scenes about everyday situations and incidents from everyday life. This female form of Kabuki was called onna-kabuki. However, once again, the perception of women performing became linked to concepts of licentiousness and prostitution. By 1629, women’s kabuki was banned throughout japan and young boys started to play female characters in wakashu-kabuki.