London in the Time of the Stuarts

By Walter Besant | Go to book overview

CHAPTER V
THEATRE AND ART

ON December 8, 1660, a great change was effected at the theatre. For the, first time to the exasperation of the Puritans, a woman's part was taken by a woman. The place was the theatre of Vere Street. The part first performed was that of Desdemona. The prologue written "to introduce the first woman that came to act on the stage was as follows ( Leigh Hunt, The Town):--

"I came unknown to any of the rest
To tell the news; I saw the lady drest:
The woman plays to-day; mistake me not,
No man in gown, or page in petticoat:
A woman to my knowledge, yet I can't,
If I should die, make affidavit on't.
Do you not twitter, gentlemen? I know
You will be censuring: do it fairly, though;
'Tis possible a virtuous woman may
Abhor all sorts of looseness, and yet play:
Play on the stage--where all eyes are upon her:
Shall we count that a crime France counts as an honour?
In other kingdoms husbands safely trust 'em;
The difference lies only in the custom.
And let it be our custom, I advise:
I'm sure this custom's better than th' excise,
And may procure us custom: hearts of flint
Will melt in passion, when a woman's in't.
But, gentlemen, you that as judges sit
In the Star chamber of the house--the pit,
Have modest thoughts of her: pray, do not run
To give her visits when the play is done,
With I damn me, your most humble servant, lady:'
She knows these things as well as you, it may be:
Not a bit there, dear gallants, she doth know
Her own deserts,--and your temptations too.
But to the point--in this reforming age
We have intents to civilize the stage.
Our Women are defective, and so sized,
You'd think they were some of the guard disguised:
For, to speak truth, men act that are between
Forty and fifty, wenches of fifteen,
With bone so large and nerve so incompliant,
When you call Desdemona, enter giant.

-318-

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