History of Early Actresses

Professional theatre had to be recreated after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, for during the Interregnum period most forms of theatre had ceased, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan government had closed theatres in 1642.

The first actress appeared on the London stage in 1660.  Subsequently, Charles II issued a royal warrant in 1662 stating that henceforth ‘women rather than boy actors were to play all female roles.’  This radical decree gave women a voice on the public stage for the first time.  However, early actresses were exploited on stage and off and they were mostly controlled at the whim of a male, whether it was exploitation by her manager or the playwright.   Actresses were stereotypically perceived as sex objects and were regularly required to represent victims of sex attacks and to act in explicit love scenes.  

The most famous of all Restoration actresses was Nell Gwynn.  She began her life in a London slum selling oranges.  Derek Wilson states in All The King’s Women, that a young Nell Gwynn was a ‘starry-eyed young whore’ who would sell fruit in the pit for the patrons to eat or use as ammunition if they did not like the play and would occasionally nip around the back of the theatre with the odd patron or two.  Nell Gwynn left the stage in 1671 when she became the mistress of the king.  Another Restoration actress was Elizabeth Currer, who came to prominence in the late 1670s. 

Prostitutes and mistresses were common themes in Restoration comedy and Elizabeth Currer appeared to specialise in those roles.  Elizabeth Currer’s name appeared in the playlist of Durfey’s Squire Oldsapp, in which she played Madam Tricklove, before the virginal heroines which was usually the norm; this demonstrates that despite her explicitly sexualised roles, she still received the public’s acclaim.  In the last two decades of the century Elizabeth Barry also specialised in playing whores and mistresses. Historian Elizabeth Howe states that Barry’s ‘success in this sphere gave the whore and society’s double standard a dramatic prominence that neither had received previously on the English stage.’  

In the late seventeenth century, gossip about actresses’ sexual exploits was received by word of mouth and by watching satires, demonstrating the double-standards that surrounded the question of female sexuality, their male counterparts were not exposed to this.  In the gender divided society of the seventeenth century, women did not usually establish occupations in the public arena and it led to female playwrights and actresses, who had emerging careers, ‘being attacked as libertines and husseys.’

Early actresses had a lower status than the actor, for example, they received a smaller salary regardless of popularity.  The actress arrived on the stage after the turmoil of the civil war and the Restoration of the monarchy.  The social change engendered by the actresses appearing on stage was minimal.  Women were still governed by patriarchy and actresses were objectified and ridiculed for defying convention.  During the eighteenth century the cult of celebrity would catapult many actresses to fame and either due to the roles that they played or the scandalous nature of their personal lives, would find themselves accused of prostituting themselves because of their appearance on stage.

Actress in public life

In the celebrity and media driven eighteenth century, the actress was in the dual position of displaying herself onstage of an evening and finding herself in the newspaper over the breakfast table the following morning.  For some, the actress was a derisible creature who offended common themes of femininity and she was often ridiculed in print for the overt sexuality that she exuded.  The satirical author or cartoonist would sometimes viciously lambast actresses.  In 1710, Anne Oldfield was victimised in one such piece, A Justification of the Letter to John Stanley.  In it, she was charged with sexual incontinence and a suggestion that she could easily ‘fill an audience with men who had been intimate with her.’ 

Another example of an eighteenth century actress being attacked in print was the ‘lurid’ cartoon which depicted Dorothy Jordan.  The cartoonist James Gillray portrayed Dorothy as a large chamber-pot with the Duke of Clarence’s head stuck inside a large vaginal shaped crack entitled Lubber’s Hole, Alias The Cracked Jordan.  Another name for the chamber-pot was a Jordan and so the chamber-pot became a visual symbol of Dorothy Jordan.  Gillray used Dorothy Jordan and the Duke of Clarence, the future William IV, in several of his pieces, one again depicting a chamber-pot, this time under a bed, with the words printed around it pronouncing ‘Public Jordan Open to all Parties.’ 

Dora npg_lubber

Claire Tomalin suggests that the ‘ferocity of the satirists attacks could be morally justified as the royal princes should set an example to the nation,’ but also that the satirist’s were gleeful at the whole affair. 

The savagery of the attacks on Dorothy Jordan whilst she was the Duke of Clarence’s mistress demonstrate that even in the latter decade of the eighteenth century, actresses were still being victimised by the male satirical writers and cartoonists, for their profession, private lives and indiscretions.


If you’d like to read more about Dorothy Jordan click here.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Suggested Reading:

All the King’s Women, Derek Wilson

The First English Actresses: Women and Drama 1660 – 1700, Elizabeth Howe

Spectacular Flirtations, Gill Perry

Mrs Jordan’s Profession, Claire Tomalin

6 thoughts on “History of Early Actresses

  1. great piece, you can see a resemblance with the pay gap between the men and women actors back then, and it hasn’t changed yet. Women were always secondary to men in those days. Until the womens vote came in, that was when women started to be recognised


  2. this was an interesting read! unfortunately, things have not changed all that much since then. I’m just wondering how did u come across this information. Are u a historian by profession?
    Anyway, it was cool to read your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s