Boys will be Girls will be Boys

Our speaker in February 2024 was Janet Tennant, an author and amateur actor who has researched the history of cross-dressing in performance. The theme of her presentation was "before and after Restoration Theatre" - up to the late in the 18th century when our social mores changed again. As an introduction to this talk she said that, as she was taller than her best friend at school, she always took the boys' parts in drama.

There has always been a demand for entertainment and Janet told us that from the 10th to the 16th century wandering players, jugglers and minstrels are often mentioned in historical texts. Little plays were performed in churches. In these the part of the angel might be played by a priest and a boy would play the Virgin Mary.

Later, such entertainment found a new venue in the Market Squares, thereby becoming more town based. The Guilds would act out a particular episode from the bible, their members often expressing their relevant skills; for example the shipwrights would build the Ark. All the actors were male and the language in these plays was often coarser than in the church performances. Women made the costumes and props. Only after the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 were women included as actors.

Shakespeare's plays were initially performed by a cast of male actors. Since the early Greek and Roman times had been been played by pre-pubescent boys before their voices broke. (Euripedes "Medea" was first performed in 431 BCE and was re-discovered in 16th century Europe). Henry VIII had a small visiting company of men and boys, the "Lusores Regis", for private performances.

In 1572 the Act for the punishment of Vagabonds was passed. Travelling companies of actors were caught by this legislation as they were thought to bring the plague with them. Troupes of players therefore now needed noble patronage. In 1572 The Earl of Derby's Men were allowed to travel and later in the 16th century many groups were forced to tour, although the most successful worked in London. Their patronage might also change through time.

In the early 17th century, Shakespeare's The Kings Men acted in the open air at the Globe Theatre in the summer and at Blackfriars Theatre in the winter, whilst The Admiral's Men were based at the Rose Theatre and the Fortune Theatre. However, in Spain and other European countries women actors did exist, despite the Pope's disapproval; but in England this change was well into the future.

Guilds and other legitimate groups had an apprenticeship system. Alexander Cooke, who acted with The Lord Chamberlain's Men and The Kings Men was indentured for seven years with the Grocer's Guild (1577-1609). He later became a shareholder in the Kings Men.

A boy playing Desdomona in Shakespeare's "Othello" was very convincing in the part, inciting pity from the audience. "She" was trained by the actor John Shank, using his own experience to guide the boys. He died in 1636 having been the leading comedian with The Kings Men. Boys were coached to maintain their high voices and were given special diets and exercises to keep their bodies slim.

Edward Kynaston (1640-1706) was the last and most famous of the boy actors. Such was his reputation that he might hold up a performance to continue his shaving! Samuel Pepys mentions a performance at the Cockpit Theatre on 18th August 1660, when Kynaston took the part of the duke's sister in "The Loyal Subject" by John Fletcher. Pepys comments that he was "the loveliest lady that I ever saw". Kynaston's last role, when he was still termed a boy, was in his twenties in "The Maid's Tradgedy", by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher; but he continued acting as an adult for another 30 years.

Janet told us that cross-dressing held a fascination for its transformative qualities: examples include the fairies in "A Mid-Summer Night's Dream", Bankquo's Ghost in "Macbeth" and Ariel in "The Tempest". (The three witches in Macbeth were, however, usually played by men). This deceit was accepted but the actors walked a tight rope, possibly giving offence, as borderline sexuality, with genders interchangeable, often contributed to the plot. Shakespeare does this in "Twelth Night" with Viola impersonating her brother Cesario. In "Two Gentlemen of Verona", Julia, against the advice of her maid Lucetta, decides to dress as a boy in order to travel to Milan and find her lover, Proteus, where she becomes his page. But she also needed a 'codpiece'! At that time, young women were often unconvincing when playing older women.

The Lord Chamberlain's Men were a company of young boys described as "an eyrie of chicken". The emergence of successful troupes of boys threatened the adult companies. They had grown out of choirs of boy singers, such as the St Paul's choir; starting as court performers and later perfoming in public. Despite their youth, they were evidently convincing in actors in comedies, tragedies and serious history plays. However, in 1608, The Children of the Revels company were evicted from Blackfriars Theatre, because of their production of controversial plays, and were replaced by The Kings Men.

The method of recruitment of young actors varied. Nathaniel Giles, choirmaster of The Children of the Chapel was allowed by Royal authority to impress up to twelve boys. He also sent out men to find suitable boys from the street. Their treatment could be abusive and they would be whipped if they did not learn well. Thomas Clifton, a 13 year old, was kidnapped on the way to school for Giles on his way to school. He was eventually restored to his family - but only through the influence of his father's powerful friend, Sir John Fortescue, the Chancellor of the Exchequer! A court action against the kidnappers ensued; as the father objected to his boy possibly being made to "learn a base trade".

There was also a darker side to the performances in seedy, dimly-lit, venues. Some plays encouraged voyeurism and titillation for paedophiles among a mainly male clientele. Thomas Middleton (1580-1627), a very successful playwright and poet, commented on "a nest of boys able to ravish a man". In Christopher Marlowe's (1564-1593) "Dido", played by 'The Children of the Chapel', he depicts Ganymede in the opening scene, who is described as a "female wanton boy", being "dangled off the knee of Jupiter'. They were played by a very young pre-pubescent boy and an older boy and were encouraged to "indulge in sexual play".

In 1642, during the Civil War, Oliver Cromwell closed all the theatres; the end of an era. Twenty years later, 1662 saw the beginning of Restoration Theatre and ushered in women playing women's roles. A new audience was emerging - although there were still some profane plays. The Globe had seating for 3,000 customers. Now there was a more prosperous audience, rather than those who worked for a living, with the performances often starting at 3:00 pm. There could be socialising after the performance.

New plays were demanded and the companies would compete to present them. Playwrights included George Farquhar (1677-1707) and William Congreve (1670-1729). Farquhar wrote "The Recruiting Officer" in 1706 whilst staying in Lichfield and "The Beaux Strategem" the following year. Congreve was known for satire and the comedy of manners genre. His notable plays included "The Way of the World"


There were many others writing Restoration Comedies which were often amoral, featuring gambling, drinking, improper language and the pleasures of sex. Satire too was a new genre that developed at this time. Samuel Pepys visited theatres frequently (73 times in 3 months!), finding the women very attractive. Notable actresses included Moll Davis and Nell Gwyn (mistress of Charles II). Ann Marshall was noted for rape scenes. Peg Hugh was Prince Rupert of the Rhine's mistress. Letters in cleavages often featured, with suggestions of intercourse behind the drapes.

Breeches roles, in which women were disguised as boys, were also popular. Cross-dressing emphasised the femininity of performers with cleverly designed tight-fitting male garments and silk stockings. Between 1670 and 1699 of roughly 400 new plays, 89 featured breeches parts. John 1Dryden (1631-1700) wrote "The Enchanted Island", a new version of "The Tempest". An accomplished satirist, he was also known as "the Father of English Criticism" and he dominated the literary life of Restoration England, becoming the first Poet Laureate in 1688. His masterpiece "All for Love" was based on the story of Anthony and Cleopatra.

While some people considered the movement of women on stage to be like dancing, Samuel Pepys was titillated by women in boys clothes. He recorded that on March 7th 1667, Moll Davis, a courtesan and mistress of Charles II, danced a jig following a performance of "The English Princess" or "The Death of Richard the Third" at The Duke's House. This would have been the version of the play by John Caryl (1648-1709).

Change occurred again when, in the reign of William and Mary's (1689-1702), new bourgeois values began to oppose the riotous Restoration plays. A new morality was developing which appealed to the more socially minded and middle classes. In the 1720s more theatres were built in both London and elsewhere in the country. Changes in acting were introduced by David Garrick (1717-1779). He promoted a realistic acting style, as demonstrated by his role in Shakespeare's "King Richard III" which launched his career. His achievements include production reform, and the promotion of Shakespeare's plays. As Samuel Johnson remarked, "he made the profession respectable".

Other developments in this period included the introduction, by Robert Walpole in 1737, of a Licencing Act which decreed that all plays had to be examined by the Lord Chamberlain before they could be performed in public. Two licenced theatres were Drury Lane and Covent Garden, though these also exploited the legal loopholes. It was not until 1968 that this censorship of the stage was finally abolished.

This was an informative presentation, delivered with an obvious appreciation of this wide ranging subject.

Footnote: More information can be found in Janet Tennant's book: "It's a Drag: Cross Dressing in Performance", Applause Books, 2022.

Lorna Bushell
March 2024