General English


  • A female who acts in a dramatic performance. Respectable womendid not act in the classical drama of Greece and Rome, although prostitutesand slaves sometimes appeared in mime. On the English stagefemale parts were always taken by boys until the Restoration. Actresseshad been introduced to the French and Italian theaters somewhat earlier.In 1611 the traveller Thomas Coryate noted of his stay in Venice:"When I went to a theater I observed certain things that I neversaw before; for I saw women act". Outstanding early actressesinclude Italy's Isabella Andreini (Isabella Canali; 1562 - 1604),who developed the role of the inamorata (young girl in love),France's Madeleine Béjart (1618 - 72), cofounder with Molièreof the Illustre-Théâtre, and Germany's Caroline Neuber(1697 - 1760), or Die Neuberin, who also managed.

    England's first professional actress was Margaret Hughes (1643 - 1719),Prince Rupert's mistress, who made her public debut on 3 December1660 at the Vere Street theater in Killigrew's The Moor of Venice.The audience gave an enthusiastic ovation when informed by the prologuethat a woman would appear. Actresses were officially licensed to appearin English theaters in 1662:

    Whereas, women's parts in plays have hitherto been actedby man in the habits of women...we do permit and give leave forthe time to come that all women's parts be acted by women.
    Charles II: royal licence of 1662

    Other early actresses to take London by storm were Nell Gwynn(1650 - 87), the mistress of Charles II, and two names extolledin Pepys's diary, Mrs Knepp (d. 1677) and Mrs Betterton (MarySaunderson; d. 1712). Edward Kynaston (d. 1706) seems to have beenthe last male actor to take female parts in serious drama.

    One of Britain's greatest tragic actresses was Sarah Siddons(1755 - 1831). During her last performance - Macbethin 1812 - the audience were so moved that they stood on benchesand demanded (successfully) that the play end with her last scene.America's first native-born actress was Charlotte Cushman.The first legitimate actress to appear totally nude on the Britishstage was Maggie Wright, when she played Helen of Troy in the RoyalShakespeare Company's 1968 production of Dr Faustus. Many actressesnow prefer the sex-neutral term 'actor':

    I'm an actor. An actress is someone who wearsboa feathers.
    Sigourney Weaver