Presenting Gender: Changing Sex in Early-Modern Culture

By Chris Mounsey | Go to book overview

The Fop, the Canting Queen,
and the Deferral of Gender

THOMAS A. KING

WRITING HIS APOLOGY (1740) FOR AN AUDIENCE ACCUSTOMED TO Elizabeth Barry and Anne Oldfield and never having seen a boy actor himself, playwright, actor-manager, and poet laureate Colley Cibber could not believe that such boys as the Restoration player Edward Kynaston had been credible or sympathetic in female roles.1 And so he introduced Kynaston into his memoir of the late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century theaters with a story calculated to demonstrate the lack of similitude between the boy actor and the role of Queen Gertrude in Hamlet:

The King coming a little before his usual time to a Tragedy, found the Actors
not ready to begin, when his Majesty not chusing to have as much Patience
as his good Subjects, sent to them, to know the Meaning of it; upon which
the Master of the Company came to the Box, and rightly judging, that the
best Excuse for their Default, would be the true one, fairly told his Majesty,
that the Queen was not shav'd yet: The King, whose good Humour lov'd to
laugh at a Jest, as well as to make one, accepted the Excuse, which serv'd
to divert him, till the male Queen cou'd be effeminated.2

Cibber meant his story as an example of "a ridiculous Distress that arose from these sort of Shifts, which the Stage was then put to" due to the use of men too old to play female parts during the transitional period when women actors had not yet been sufficiently trained. For Cibber, as I will suggest shortly, boyish effeminacy might have passed as femininity within an earlier (and immature) political and social economy of subjection. The theater's use of boys, paradigmatic of the hierarchical structure of super- and subordination that I will be calling "residual pederasty," indicated its failure of interest in the difference of women. Thus Cibber described the appearance of women actors in female roles after the Restoration as enabling progress toward greater realism in acting:

And what Grace, or Master-strokes of Action can we conceive such ungain
Hoydens "boy players" to have been capable of? This Defect was so well

-94-

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