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A Deep Dive into Local Theater Records

Sunday, July 7, 2024 - 14:00

The source material project that this article draws from--Records of Early English Drama--is far more complete now than it was 20 years ago when this was written. It was being produced on a county-by-county basis and I suspect that some priority was given to locations of significant importance in early drama, such as York. Similar information to what is presented here, but for other English counties, would probably yield much of interest regarding women's performance history.

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Full citation: 

Williams, Gweno, Alison Findlay, and Stephanie Hodgson-Wright. 2005. “Payments, Permits and Punishments: Women Performers and the Politics of Place” in Women Players in England, 1500-1660: Beyond the All-Male Stage, edited by Pamela Allen Brown & Peter Parolin. Ashgate, Burlington. ISBN 978-0-7546-0953-7

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Although this collection does have one paper addressing female homoeroticism on stage, I have covered it primarily as background reading for exploring role-playing and stage theatrics as a context for romance tropes involving female couples.

Williams, Findlay & Hodgson-Wright - Payments, Permits and Punishments: Women Performers and the Politics of Place

This article moves away from the traditional focus on professional urban theater companies (in which women had no role prior to the Restoration) to look at regional performance traditions that were more varied. The differences between and among these regional traditions are as important for a closer picture as the quest for continuity and similarity. Local practices were shaped by differences in proximity to London and the court, to prevailing religious attitudes, and to the degree of participation of the local noble families.

The documentary evidence for regional performance traditions often revolves around authorities (of various types) acting to control, limit, or support specific practices, though other records also exist. These official concerns raised questions about “what is theater?” when applied to performance spaces in context. The article focuses on several specific regions, drawing heavily on the extensive documentary project Records of Early English Drama.


York functioned as something of a “second capitol” after London for cultural, political, and ecclesiastical concerns. The annual cycle of “mystery plays” collaboratively staged by the craft guilds were performed from the 14th through 16th centuries. Similar play cycles were performed elsewhere, but the York records are the most extensive. Historians have sometimes made unsubstantiated claims that women did not participate in the York cycle (despite the presence of female characters) but a closer look finds women participants in a variety of functions.

One (theoretical) argument for women’s participation involves the sheer scope of the work required year-round in preparing for and producing the pageants, as well as the female membership in the craft guilds that organized specific components. Women’s participation in funding the pageants is clearly documented in the records. Women were responsible for providing props and infrastructure. Plays focusing on the Virgin Mary were typically sponsored by female-dominated guilds. (Note also the importance of women as spectators, including providing viewing stands.) Women participated equally in processions and feasts that were associated with the pageant performances.

But a key question remains under dispute: whether or to what extent women performed on stage in the mystery cycles. With little or no direct evidence (such as cast lists), secondary evidence must be brought to bear. One study notes a proportional relationship between female guild membership and the number of female roles in the pageants produced by the guild. There are some specific records of women playing the role of the Virgin Mary. Another argument focuses on the detailed and personal awareness of childbirth and pregnancy found in the scripts, suggesting female involvement.

The article discusses gendered divisions in the conflict between protestants and Catholics, with women more likely to support Catholicism. It is suggested that certain performative aspects of women’s religious resistance drew on themes and scripts from the cycle plays, especially Christ’s passion, suggesting that this supports women’s direct participation in acting in those pageants.


Records contain no direct reference to payments for women’s performance, although there is one intriguing reference to a woman who was “Mr. Atherton’s fool”. But when looking outside commercial performance, women were regularly (and sometimes primarily) involved in ceremonial performances with religious associations that had come to be treated as seasonal festivals under Protestantism. These activities could involve dancing, singing, disguising, “playing at parts”, and the gathering of fruits or other harvest (e.g., “rush gathering”) to present in the church or to ceremonial figures.

These festivals were considered by religious authorities to have “Papist” associations, and were discouraged or repressed on that basis, especially because churches and churchyards were the usual location for the activities. Not all such festival activities were officially discouraged. In 1617 James I granted official permission for Maypoles, rush-presentation, Whitsun ales, and Morris dancing.

The noble Stanley household in Lancashire were patrons of two troupes of professional players (presumably not including women) and regularly held masques in which women performed, including performance by female aristocrats. These masques were, for all intents and purposes, plays, often on seasonal, symbolic, or classical themes, involving rhymed speeches and dancing. These masques often echo themes seen in communal festivals. There is occasional evidence that the women performing also participated in shaping the script.


A combination of significant forces of religious reform and a dearth of noble patronage shaped both the nature of dramatic activity in Gloucestershire and the less-documented participation of women. This wasn’t the case in the 15th and early 16th century. There we find aristocratic women patronizing players and minstrels, and a record of a Christmas entertainment involving men and women on stage as well as a female tumbler. But by the mid-16th century patronage of players was reduced, and there are no records of women in either role.

While direct evidence is scanty, records of plays and performances in Gloucestershire, interpolated with evidence of women’s participation in neighboring counties, suggest that female players may be considered probable. Legal complaints about dancing and music in church include female participants (where the complaints focus on the activity in general, and not on the specific performers).

In the later 16th century, there are records of traveling professional dramatic troupes visiting Gloucestershire every year, some of whom he had female patrons (though not local ones). Such traveling players would need a license from the local authorities to perform.

Royal progresses which often included entertainment offered by the local hosts also seem to have been sparse in Gloucestershire. There is a lone record of a dramatic sketch presented to Elizabeth the first in 1602 on the theme of Daphne and Apollo, in which Daphne may well have been played by a member of the hosting family.