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The Myth of the All-Male Theater

Thursday, July 4, 2024 - 10:00

Now that I've read and written up all the articles in this collection, I'm ready to roll them out in the blog, one per day. Not all of them are directly relevant even to my interests in the history of women in theater, but I've taken at least a few notes on all the articles. Despite being focused on England, these articles provide a lot of background on women in theater elsewhere in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. I suspect that my "women on stage" trope podcast is going to be rather longer than the usual for the trope shows. I might even decide to break it into two parts, depending on how long it gets, which would be a bit of a help around my month-long vacation in August. (This is for the value of "vacation" that means "traveling constantly and with no time for Getting Things Done.) Another thing that will help on that point is that one of the fiction episodes is now ready to go (after missing the 5th Monday in June), so I can schedule that for the regular July show, then a 2-part trope episode could not only take care of August but get me set up for September as well. A nice breathing space, given how much intense work I'm putting into the theater episode!

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Full citation: 

Brown, Pamela Allen & Peter Parolin. 2005. “Introduction” 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

Publication summary: 

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.


During the 16th and earlier 17th century, women were not members of professional acting troupes, but did participate in class-appropriate performances at all levels: masques and plays at court, pageants and parish plays in towns, and traveling performers at the poorest level. In addition, women were patrons and spectators. All of these undermine the idea of the “all-male stage”. At the same time, women players were often heaped with scorn. This could be hazardous to the critic when the attacks were on court ladies participating in masques and plays.

Identifying when women “first” acted on the English stage depends on how one defines “act” and “stage”. Restricting the question to paid performers is necessary to exclude court ladies. The question must be restricted to the secular stage to exclude women performing in religious drama.

The claim that women actors first appeared on the Restoration stage erases a vast array of dramatic contexts and players. This collection takes a broader definition and looks at “women players” in a wide variety of contexts, up to the point when the professional, secular, stage actress emerges.

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