Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"The Queen Was Not Shav'd Yet": Edward Kynaston and the Regendering of the Restoration Stage

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"The Queen Was Not Shav'd Yet": Edward Kynaston and the Regendering of the Restoration Stage

Article excerpt

PART ONE. THE THEATRICS OF GENDER

Colley Cibber tells the following anecdote in his notorious theatrical autobiography:

Tho' as I have before observed, Women were not admitted to the Stage, 'till the return of King Charles, yet it could not be so suddenly supply'd with them, but there was still a Necessity, for some time, to put the handsomest young Men into Petticoats; which Kynaston was then said to have worn, with Success; particularly in the Part of Evade, in the Maid's Tragedy, which I have heard him speak of; and which calls to my Mind a ridiculous Distress that arose from these sort of Shifts, which the Stage was then put to - 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 come 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.1

This delightful anecdote treats with a deft comic touch an issue that has recently engaged scholars and filmmakers. Admittedly, nowhere near the amount of attention has been paid to Restoration cross-dressed acting as has been paid to the boy actors of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. That may be in part because Shakespeare's plays, his comedies especially, make gender complexity central to their comic agenda. That is hardly less true in plays of the later seventeenth century, but because everyone knows that at the Restoration of Charles II, women were for the first time invited to take women's parts on the stage, the complications are not immediately seen to be as rich. Cibber 's comments remind us that gender performance was not totally a thing of the past, however, and indeed his anecdote accentuates the "effemination" of a male actor, thereby suggesting a whole range of questions we have not really known how to ask.

I am sure I am not the only scholar in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Studies who was delighted to see a movie made like the recent Stage Beauty (Lions Gates Films, 2004; starring Billy Crudup and Claire Danes) based on the play Compleat Female Stage Beauty by Jeffrey Hatcher. Indeed, I took pleasure in the movie even though its historical inaccuracy nearly ruined its overall effect. My enjoyment of the movie in general, though, was genuine, and if writing this essay seems in part as a critique of the film, I do so only in the deeply felt appreciation of the producers (Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, and Hardy Justice) and director (Richard Eyre), who were willing to try such a bold experiment. The film makes the simple claim that with his female roles, Edward (Ned) Kynaston fell into easy same-sex relations, and that as he learned, after a series of bitter experiments and frustrated misdirections, to play male roles, then he also learned how to perform sexually with women. With his masculine roles, the movie seems to suggest, he learned how to be a real man. This would be truly irritating if the film did not, by means of the care with which it tells its story, raise questions that have often been ignored by theater historians: How did an actor like Kynaston shift from playing female to playing male roles? What kind of male roles did he play? What did this say about the Restoration concept of gender? And so on. In other words, the film encourages us to ask what an actor like Kynaston can tell us about the complexities of gender in Restoration theater.

Elin Diamond some time ago alerted theater scholars to the ideological dynamics of the Restoration stage. In her essay, "Gestus and Signature in Aphra Behn's The Rover," Diamond argues that contemporary ideology is part of what is being performed in the Restoration playhouse. …

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