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Mary Frith and the Underground Economy Around Theaters

Monday, July 8, 2024 - 08:00

Some of the articles in this collection are of insufficient relevance to my interests that I probably won't cross-post them on social media. This one comes close, although Moll Cutpurse is always on-brand for the LHMP. Not quite so much on-brand for a collection of articles about theater, in this case, as the occupations being discussed are rather tangential to the topic.

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Korda, Natasha. 2005. “The Case of Moll Frith: Women’s Work and the ‘All-Male Stage’” 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 II Beyond Elites; Korda - The Case of Moll Frith: Women’s Work and the ‘All-Male Stage’

Even scholarship that examines women’s participation in English theater has tended to overlook the role of ordinary women except as audience. One notable exception is studies of Mary (Moll) Frith who, in 1612, is recorded as having appeared on the stage in men’s clothing, playing the lute and singing. This may have been directly connected with performance of the play The Roaring Girl in which she appears as a character, and which advertised her forthcoming appearance on stage in its epilogue. While Moll was certainly exceptional, this article challenges the idea that she was an exception, at least in terms of women’s participation in the supporting activities behind stage performances.

Looking for women’s work only within the formal guild structures overlooks the heterogeneous and ad hoc nature of many women’s livelihoods. In the early 17th century, commercial theater was transitioning from a guild structure to more innovative and unstructured forms to created new, unregulated opportunities. In many trades, women took advantage of loopholes in trade regulations to escape gender-based restrictions, e.g., in secondhand goods, as peddlers, and victualers, and as pawnbrokers and small-scale money lenders.

The article has an extensive exploration of evidence for people involved--directly or peripherally--in theater as pawnbrokers and dealers in secondhand clothing, sometimes overlapping with thievery and fencing of stolen goods. Frith was several times accused of the latter. From this, Frith branched out into thief-taking and something of a protection racket for the return of stolen goods.

Overall, I feel this article strains to create relevant connections to the topic and doesn’t really address “women in theatre” other than Moll herself.

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