During the Interregnum period (1649-1660), following the
execution of King Charles I, the theatres of Britain were closed by Oliver
Cromwell. However, upon the restoration of Charles II as king in 1660, they were
re-opened and theatre managers, Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant,
specifically, were issued a royal charter to set up a theatre company.
Subsequently, the King’s Company and the Duke of York’s Company became the
major duopoly of the Restoration theatre scene.
This was also the first time that women were allowed on the
stage. Previously, female parts had been played by young boys or men but the
King had experienced the phenomenon of the actress during his exile on the
Continent and was highly impressed. The King’s Company was one of the first
theatre companies to feature actresses in the plays it staged and they were a sensation.
There is some debate as to who the very first British actress, as we would define
it today, was, although many say that the first female role to be played by a
woman was that of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello on 8th December
1660. Male members of the audience, especially, flocked to see these talented,
charismatic ladies perform in a way that had never been seen before.
Pictured are the Restoration era actresses Nell Gwyn (who
later went on to become the most famous mistress of King Charles II), Mary
Saunderson, Anne Marshall and Margaret “Peg” Hughes. Other female actresses of
the era included Elizabeth Barry, Mary Knepp, Elizabeth Boutell, Katherine
Corey, Rebecca “Beck” Marshall (sister of Anne Marshall: occasionally, the two
performed as a pair), Hester Davenport and Mary “Moll” Davis. These women were
among the first ever celebrities and professional career girls.
It wasn’t all glitter and glamour for these girls, however.
Beck Marshall, especially, on several occasions, had to petition the king to
make sure she was protected against boisterous male audience members.