« AnteriorContinuar »
letters to Atticus, in which he speaks of Antipho, who performed the part of Andromache; and by a passage in Horace, who informs us, that Fusius Phocaeus being to perform the part of Ilione, the wife of Polymnestor, in a tragedy written either by Accius or Pacuvius, and being in the course of the play to be awakened out of sleep by the cries of the shade of Polydorus, got so drunk, that he fell into a real and profound sleep, from which no noise could rouse him. Horace indeed mentions a female performer, called Arbuscula; but as we find from his own authority that men personated women on the Roman stage, she probably was only an emboliaria, who performed in the interludes and dances exhibited between the acts and at the end of the play. Servius calls her mima, but that may mean nothing more than one who acted in the mimes, or danced in the pantomime dances; and this seems the more probable from the manner in which she is mentioned by Cicero, from whom we learn that the part of Andromache was performed by a male actor on that very day when Arbuscula exhibited with the highest applause. The same practice prevailed in the time of the emperors; for in the list of parts which Nero, with a preposterous ambition, acted in the publick theatre, we find that of Canace, who was represented in labour on the stage. In the interludes exhibited between the acts undoubtedly women appeared. The elder Pliny informs us, that a female named Lucceia acted in these interludes for an hundred years; and Galeria Copiola for above ninety years; having been first introduced on the scene in the fourteenth year of her age, in the year of Rome 672, when Caius Marius the younger, and Cneius Carbo were consuls, and having performed in the 104th year of her age, six years before the death of Augustus, in the consulate of C. Poppaeus and Quintus Sulpicius, A. U. C. 762. Eunuchs also sometimes represented women on the Roman stage, as they do at this day in Italy; for we find that Sporus, who made so conspicuous a figure in the time of Nero, being appointed in the year 70, [A. U. C. 823] to personate a nymph, who, in an interlude exhibited before Vitellius, was to be carried off by a ravisher, rather than endure the indignity of wearing a female dress on the stage, put himself to death: a singular end for one, who about ten years before had been publickly espoused to Nero, in the hymeneal veil, and had been carried through one of the streets of Rome by the side of that monster, in the imperial robes of the empresses, ornamented with a profusion of jewels.
Thus ancient was the usage, which, though not adopted in the neighbouring countries of France and Italy, prevailed in England from the infancy of the stage. The prejudice against women appearing on the scene continued so strong, that till near the time of the Restoration, boys constantly performed female characters: and, strange as it may now appear, the old practice was not deserted without many apologies for the indecorum of the novel usage. In 1659, or 1660, in imitation of the foreign theatres, women were first introduced on the scene. In 1656, indeed, Mrs. Coleman, the wife of Mr. Edward Coleman, represented Ianthe in the First Part of D'Avenant's Siege of Rhodes; but the little she had to say was spoken in recitative. The first woman that appeared in any regular drama on a publick stage, performed the part of Desdemona; but who the lady was, I am unable to ascertain. The play of Othello is enumerated by Downes as one of the stock-plays of the king's company on their opening their theatre in Drury Lane in April, 1663; and it appears from a paper found with Sir Henry Herbert's Office-book, and indorsed by him, that it was one of the stock-plays of the same com
ny from the time they began to play without a patent at the
d Bull in St. John Street. Mrs. Hughs performed the part of Desdemona in 1663, when the company removed to Drury Lane, and obtained the title of the king's servants; but whether she performed with them while they played at the Red Bull, or in Were Street, near Clare Market, has not been ascertained. Perhaps Mrs. Saunderson made her first essay there, though she afterwards was enlisted in D'Avenant's company. The received tradition is, that she was the first English actress. The verses which were spoken by way of introducing a female to the audience, were written by Thomas Jordan, and being only found in a very scarce miscellany, I shall here transcribe them:
“A Prologue, to introduce the first woman that came to act on the stage, in the tragedy called The Moor of Venice.
... 44 4.
44 &c. 44. 4-44 44
I come, unknown to any of the rest,
Will ... in passion, when a woman's in’t.
“But gentlemen, you that as judges sit
The Epilogue, which consists of but twelve lines, is in the same strain of apology:
“And how do you like her? Come, what is't ye drive at 2
From a paper in Sir Henry Herbert's hand-writing, I find that Oshello was performed by the Red Bull company, (afterwards his Majesties servants,) at their new theatre in Were Street, near Clare Market, on Saturday, December 8, 1660, for the first time that winter. On that day therefore it is probable an actress first appeared on the English stage. This theatre was opened on Thursday, November 8, with the play of King Henry the Fourth. Most of Jordan's prologues and epilogues appear to have been written for that company. It is certain, however, that for some time after the Restoration men also acted female parts; and Mr. Kynaston, even after women had assumed their proper rank on the stage, was not only endured, but admired; if we may believe a contemporary writer; who assures us, “that being then very young, he made a complete stage beauty, performing his parts so well, (particularly Arthiope and Auglaura,) that it has since been disputable among the judicious, whether any woman that succeeded him, touched the audience so sensibly as he.” In D'Avenant's company, the first actress that appeared was probably Mrs. Saunderson, who performed Ianthe in The Siege of Rhodes, on the opening of his new theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, in April, 1662. It does not appear from Downes's account, that while D'Avenant's company performed at the Cockpit in Drury Lane during the years 1659, 1660, and 1661, they had any female performer among them : or that Othello was acted by them at that period. In the infancy of the English stage it was customary in every piece to introduce a Clown, “by his mimick gestures to breed in the less capable mirth and laughter.” The privileges of the Clown were very extensive; for, between the acts, and sometimes between the scenes, he claimed a right to enter on the stage, and to excite merriment by any species of buffoonery that struck him. Like the Harlequin of the Italian comedy, his wit was often extemporal, and he sometimes entered into a contest of raillery and sarcasm with some of the audience. He generally threw his thoughts into hobbling doggrel verses, which he made shorter or longer as he found convenient; but, however irregular his metre might be, or whatever the length of his verses, he always took care to tag them with words of corresponding sound: like Dryden's DoEG,
“He fagotted his notions as they fell,
Thomas Wilson and Richard Tarleton, both sworn servants to Queen Elizabeth, were the most popular performers of that time in this department of the drama, and are highly praised by the Continuator of Stowe's Annals, for “their wondrous plentiful, pleasant, and extemporal wit.” Tarleton, whose comick powers were so great, that, according to Sir Richard Baker, “he delighted the spectators before he had spoken a word,” is thus described in a very rare old pamphlet : “The next, by his sute of russet, his buttoned cap, his taber, his standing on the toe, and other tricks, I knew to be either the body or resemblance of Tarleton, who living, for his pleasant conceits was of all men liked, and, dying, for mirth left not his like.” In 1611 was published a book entitled his Jeasts, in which some specimens are given of the extempore wit which our ancestors thought so excellent. As he was performing some part “at the Bull in Bishops-gate-street, where the Queenes players oftentimes played,” while he was “kneeling down to aske his father's blessing,” a fellow in the gallery threw an apple at him, which hit him on the cheek. He immediately took up the apple, and advancing to the audience, addressed them in these lines:
“Gentlemen, this fellow, with his face of mapple,
“Instead of a pippin hath throwne me an apple;
“But as for an apple he hath cast a crab,
“So instead of an honest woman God hath sent him a drab,”