Elizabeth Barry (1658-1713): one of the leading actresses in Dryden's plays


The use of actresses was one of the many shifts in Restoration staging from the productions in Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. As early as 1629, women were introduced on a London stage by a French company at the theatre in Salisbury Court; but they were hissed off. However, by 1660, the king granted leave to Thomas Killegrew and Sir William Davenant to erect two new theatres, in Drury Lane and in Salisbury Court. Davenant's Patent stated: Whereas the women's parts in plays have hitherto been acted by men, at which some have taken offence, we do permit and give leave for the time to come that all women's parts be acted by women."

Desdemona was the first English part taken by an actress, at the Bed Bull in December, 1660, for which Thomas Jordan wrote a Prologue to introduce the first woman on the London stage, to act in " The Moor of Venice." This first actress of the English stage may have been Margaret Hughes, who had this role in the company later. She became the mistress of Prince Rupert, the famous Royalist general. The "Memoirs" of Count Grammont mentions Prince Rupert's passion for the actress. She is stated to have "brought down and greatly subdued his natural fierceness." Pepys, in his diary, says: " 1661, January 3. To the theatre, where was acted ' Beggar's Bush,' it being well done ; and here the first time that over I saw women come upon the stage."

Dutton Cook's "Book of the Play" (1881) gives some account of the Othello mentioned above with the first actress:

From Mr. Jordan's prologue may be gathered some notion of the situation of the spectators on the night, or rather the afternoon, of December 8th, 1660. The theatre was probably but a poor-looking structure, hastily put together in the Tennis-court to serve the purpose of the manager for a time merely. The prologue begins:

I come, unknown to any of the rest,
To tell the news: I saw the lady drest
The woman plays to-day; mistake me not,
No man in gown or page in petticoat. . . . .
'Tis possible a virtuous woman may
Abhor all sorts of looseness and yet play;
Play on the stage--where all eyes are upon her:
Shall we count that a crime France counts an honour?
In other kingdoms husbands safely trust 'em.
The difference lies only in the custom.

The gentlemen sitting in that "Star Chamber of the house, the pit," were then besought to think respectfully and modestly of the actress, and not to run "to give her visits when the play is done." We have, then, a picture of the male performers of female characters:

But to the point: in this reforming age
We have intent to civilise 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.

In the epilogue the spectators were asked: "How do you like her?"- especial appeal being made to those among the audience of the gentler sex:

But, ladies, what think you? For if you tax
Her freedom with dishonour to your sex,
She means to act no more, and this shall be
No other play but her own tragedy.
She will submit to none but your commands,
And take commission only from your hands.

It is worthy of note that the leading actors who took part in the representation of "Othello" at the Vere Street Theatre had all in early life been apprentices to older players, and accustomed to personate the heroines of the stage. Thus Burt, the Othello of the cast, had served as a boy under the actors Shanke and Beeston at the Blackfriars and Cockpit Theatres respectively. Mohun, the Iago, had been his playfellow at this time; so that when Burt appeared as Clariana in Shirley's tragedy of "Love's Cruelty," Mohun represented Bellamonte in the same work.

Related Play: 

Related Period: 

Related Topics: 

Please offer comments and suggestions on any aspects the site to: Director Hugh Richmond at richmondh77@gmail.com. See samples at the site Blog.

Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond.