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Women? In Theatre?

Friday, July 5, 2024 - 20:00

The collection kicks off with a detailed look at the wide variety of performance contexts in 16-17th century England and picks apart the notion that women were not performers.

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Stokes, James 2005. “Women and Performance: Evidences of Universal Cultural Suffrage in Medieval and Early Modern Lincolnshire” 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.

Part I Beyond London; Stokes - Women and Performance: Evidences of Universal Cultural Suffrage in Medieval and Early Modern Lincolnshire

Early systematic research into the many types of dramatic performance – civic, religious, and popular — written beginning around 1895 was curiously oblivious to the extensive participation of women, while more recent work has solidly established that presence. This oversight was not so much deliberate as a byproduct of how early research was conducted, in particular, a presumption that civic pageants formed a unified and uniform tradition, with the best known examples focusing on male guild performers.

But civic entertainments formed a rich diversity of performance types and traditions, many of which included women performers, such as performances sponsored by socio-religious guilds, which included women and men equally. Many of these traditions ended with the destruction of religious guilds in the 16th century, though some pageant traditions continued through the 1580s. (There are references in Shakespeare to women participating in these types of pageants.)

To some extent, the official campaign against a wider array of cultural performance traditions perceived as Catholic paralleled an assault on women’s participation in performance culture, both via the church and through secular courts. This campaign provides some of the clearest evidence for the traditions that were being erased, in the records of commissions investigating matters associated with them.

Parish guilds nearly always had both male and female members — evenly balanced among the non-clerical membership, and including both married and single women. As the performers in traditional entertainments were drawn from these guilds, they too were of mixed gender, though specific activities or roles might be for one gender or the other.

Celebrations were often focused around a local patron saint, the namesake of the parish guild. Local dignitaries, and their wives might have prescribed regalia they were required to wear for these ceremonial occasions, constituting a sort of “costume”. These local pageants could also have participation from craft guilds, who provided specific entertainments, usually religious in nature.

Some traditions, such as May Day customs, have evidence as late as 1660 (in the context of prohibiting them). Traditional parish festivals in the 18th to 19th century may be survivals of pre-Reformation traditions or deliberate revivals of abandoned traditions, but some traditions are recorded as surviving into the early 18th century. Many of these later remnants/revivals include women, sometimes in the form of naming a “lord and lady” to preside over the occasion, but sometimes involving female-specific traditions.

Pre-Reformation convents might hold their own entertainments (although sometimes this is documented via prohibitions on them). “Disguisings” were another form of entertainment, and in addition to playing character roles (such as Robin Hood pageants) they could involve cross-gender play and parody. [Note: see also the gender-panic literature of circa 1600, such as Hic Mulier, which describes gender play during festivals.]

Household accounts of the upper class in the 16th century show payments to a wide variety of performers of both sexes. The children of the aristocracy are also recorded as performing in plays. Aristocratic households might have their own formal “company of players” who were traveling performers, as well as performing for their patrons. (These are the sort of “professional” company that would not include women.)

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