Why the “all-male stage” wasn’t

Why is “the all-male stage” inadequate as a shorthand for the start of the modern stage? On the one hand, he applies a binary genre that has little to do with the subjects, desires, audiences and practices of the time. Gender was elusive, plural and performative, especially on stage, where handsome androgynous boys played women, or alternated between genders. The prominence of female spectators, craftsmen and supporters belies outright exclusion, as does the growing evidence that women have performed in many spheres adjacent to the professional scene. Queens and aristocrats played and danced in court masks, girls played roles in shows in grand houses; acrobats, goblets and rope walkers drew crowds to the streets of the city; and women performed in church dramas and danced in morrises. Similar performances by women appear on the professional stage, albeit in roles played by boys.

All this female talent did not come from England. Some came from abroad, especially from Italy. In the mid-1570s versatile Italian troupes, some with star actresses, visited England and performed for Elizabeth and for popular audiences. Their impact was immediate: writers began producing plays featuring bold, exotic, and charismatic women. Each is a variant of innamorata access (woman inflamed with passion), the trademark of the foreign diva. Suddenly, boys were playing hot-blooded, Italian-style seductive heroines: Lyly’s transvestite loving virgins. Gallatheathe desperate Queen Dido in Marlowe’s The tragedy of Dido, queen of Carthageand the willful avenger, Bel-Imperia in Kyd’s The Spanish tragedy. From the beginning of his career, Shakespeare portrayed very theatrical Italian women, including Julia de Two gentlemen from Verona, Beatrice of A lot of noise for nothingPortia of The merchant of Veniceand Juliet from Romeo and Juliet.

All bear a distinct resemblance to the stupendous innamorata shaped by divas like Isabella Andreini, Vittoria Piissimi, Angelica Martinelli and Diana Ponti. Like Shakespeare’s little actor, they were highly skilled professionals who started acting at a very young age. All were trained in music and memorization, and some became famous for singing. Actresses and boys offered an androgynous appeal and protean volatility, especially useful in cross-dressing comedies. Women and boys have inspired writers to harness their audience-pleasing talent, training, and beauty, which has led to more plays that center on women’s choices and desires. But there the resemblance ends.

As full members of the company, the actresses had much more autonomy than the apprentice boys. They also took much greater risks, constantly traveling through often hostile territories far from home, and some became leaders of their troops. Successful actresses enjoyed social and geographic mobility. Most came from the courtesan class, where they had been educated; but in the theater they played refined young women. Unlike the boys, some became international stars, with kings and queens as protectors and patrons. A few were literary prodigies, like Isabella Andreini, who wrote and published poetry and a pastoral, and was admitted to an all-male academy. Whether playing the innamorata in comic, pastoral or tragic modes, the diva always expressed herself in literary Tuscan, throwing out witticisms, vanitas or poetic lamentations. She acquired this facility through constant study and memorization of selected passages from novels, novels and poetry.

For the English, the diva was a glamorous prodigy, a novelty with tremendous scenic appeal. Emulate the innamorata she created, they invented a “boy diva” capable of displays of bravery – sung lamentations, sword fights, clever disguises, captivating suicides – in plays of all kinds. To emphasize its foreign character, the English have intensified the metatheatricality of the type. She stands out by often alluding to acting and theater, and jumps at the chance to perform. Audiences are rarely far from her mind, and she connects with them by speaking in asides and soliloquies. She treats her big scenes with suspense, like Portia in court in The merchant of Veniceand revels in her own witty acting, like Rosalind in As you like it. Proud of her greatness, she seeks fame and glory, like Cleopatra. One of the stars’ toughest turns is the full-on mad scene, a specialty of Isabella Andreini, whose fame inspired Shakespeare, Webster, Middleton and others to include mad women in their plays. All of these roles were based on sprezzatura and the ability to improvise, qualities that were not easily imitated. Loading the role of a boy with alien literariness and emotional volatility, and shrewdly guiding him, the playwrights created the illusion of an Italian-style improvisational genius.

Because she is foreign, passionate and theatrical, the diva-type is also outrageous and strange. English stage characterizations vary in tone from fascinated ambivalence to savage and prostitute caricature. Despite this animosity, the boys won applause and admiration by portraying Juliet, Desdemona, Vittoria Corombona and other stellar roles, showing diva-like power in performance. Given the fervent attacks on the theater and on actresses in particular, it is remarkable that two vulnerable groups – female actors and male actors – did so much to increase the complexity and significance of female roles in this era. Going back to my title, this phenomenon shows why the “all-male scene” is so inappropriate. Many of the best women’s plays written for boys, from Viola to the Duchess of Malfi, are indelibly marked by the creative work of women.

Feature picture: Calcografia in Iconografia italiana degli uomini e delle donne celebri: dall’epoca del risorgimento delle scienze e delle arti fino ai nostri giorni, Milano, Antonio Locatelli, 1837. Available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Dedication to Universal Public Domain

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