Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Orange-Women, Female Spectators, and Roaring Girls: Women and Theater in Early Modern England

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Orange-Women, Female Spectators, and Roaring Girls: Women and Theater in Early Modern England

Article excerpt

AT the beginning of Ben Jonson's Epicene (1609) Morose's friends discuss how sensitive he is to noise, in particular, the cries of "fishwives and orange-women." (1) In a play that satirizes women, and particularly vocal ones, the inclusion of these street criers as abhorrent to Morose hardly comes as a surprise. However, they are also significant in that they problematize the way in which we interpret how women engaged with early modern theater. In this introduction to the forum on women and theater, I would like to begin by exploring how and why women went to the theater, what they expected of it, who they were, and how they were represented. Since the 1980s considerable scholarship has been undertaken to uncover plays written by women and to analyze from various feminist perspectives the way women were represented on stage by male authors and by boy actors. This was pathbreaking and essential work, but we also need to consider how plays in performance might not always align neatly with critical readings of dramatic texts, and that the performances themselves were very different in the early modern period than in our own respectful auditoria. Moreover, while theater history often offers tantalizing snapshots of female participation in court masques and drama, as well as accounts of attendance at publically performed plays, little is known of women's vocal and physical activity during performances. The presence in the theater of orange-women primarily interested in selling their wares, of female playgoers intent upon a variety of entertainments, and of idiosyncratic characters like Mary Frith, the Roaring Girl, suggest that a more complex analysis of the way in which women negotiated their roles as mute viewers within a space dominated by men is necessary.

The attendance of orange-women at plays in London theaters is most commonly known from the story of Nell Gwynn, who became the mistress of Charles II, but her career was not commonly replicated by other working women in the theater, particularly before the Restoration. In her essay "Gender at Work in the Cries of London," Natasha Korda excavates the ways in which these lower-class women are portrayed in ballads, printed texts, and plays. Alongside the orange-women, she identifies women selling "tobacco, gingerbread, pippins, nuts and even cheap print," pointing out that, "The visibility and vocality of working women within the walls of the theaters would thus seem to have represented a significant performative aspect of the playgoer's theatrical experience, an aspect that has hitherto been overlooked by theater historians ... what were the attitudes of the all-male playing companies towards this largely female, boisterous 'side-show'?" (2) Korda argues that the denigration of the street criers in early modern drama, such as Jonson's satirical attack, served to legitimize the professional players as they defined themselves against itinerant forms of entertainment, from which they themselves had recently evolved. But, as Korda astutely notes, by inscribing the female vendors as a marginalized and illegitimate presence within the theater, the male professionals simultaneously foregrounded their own commercial and transient origins. The construction of a gendered dialectic in which men are legitimate performers within an authorized commercial space and in which women provide an informal "sideshow" in an unlawful market cannot be sustained precisely because they occupy the same theatrical site. As the orange-women demonstrate, early modern theaters provided public exchange as well as performance. The working women's presence complicates the representation of women on stage through their vocalization of economic independence, which was linked in popular perception with sexual availability. Jonson's city comedy indicates this destabilization of patriarchal discourse by mocking Morose's complaints about the noise made by orange-women, while simultaneously satirizing women through the supposedly ideal silence of Epicene. …

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