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Role of Women in Theatre Throughout History

Women play a significant role in the contemporary European theatre. However, the history of the women’s involvement into the world of theatre can be discussed as rather controversial while focusing on the role of women in the British theatre in comparison with the women’s involvement in the theatrical life in France and Spain. In spite of the fact that the theatre in the European countries developed according to the set of cultural tendencies associated with the changes of the cultural eras, the role of women in the British theatre during the 16th century differed significantly from the role of women in the Spanish and French theatres; thus, the situation changed in the 17th century, and men began to share their positions in the European theatrical world with women.

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The Women’s Role in the British Theatre in the 16th-19th Centuries

During a long period of time, men were not only the pioneers of the theatre industry but also the main contributors to its development. The Elizabethan era (1558-1603) characterized by the active development of the British acting companies, but their number and activities were limited according to the Queen’s law. One of the main particular features of that time was the fact that the women’s roles were played by young handsome men (Wilson and Goldfarb 271).

Men did not avoid playing the women’s roles on stage because there was no any alternative. According to the acting companies’ sharing plans, only men could become the shareholders of the mobile and local theatres, and women were restricted from joining the theatre industry until the period of the Restoration in the 17th century (Gale and Gardner 101-112). However, the period of changes only started, and the male impact on the theatre industry could be noticed with references to the idea that female actresses were often dressed as males, and the trend of cross-dressing was accentuated in many plays of that period (Wilson and Goldfarb 291).

The changes in the political life affected the cultural life of the society, and women realized the need to change the situation in relation to the theatre industry. The 17th century can be discussed as the period of the feminist canon’s development. Women were not only allowed to play on stage during the period, but they also became famous dramatists (Aston and Reinelt 21-44). The British women began movements to fight deep-rooted gender stereotypes that could prevent them from succeeding. Aphra Behn (1640-1689) became the canonic figure of that time because she had to deal with many cultural and social stereotypes that discussed women as unsuitable to participate in the theatre industry. Aphra Behn was the first English woman who developed the successful career as a dramatist and as a writer (Aston and Reinelt 21-44).

Behn was highly regarded in the theatre industry for her efforts to provide women with a chance to express themselves on stage and in plays as well as be acknowledged for their abilities to influence the social development. One of Behn’s most famous works that promoted her career as a dramatist was The Rover (1677) (Wilson and Goldfarb 289). Behn contributed significantly to promoting the feminist ideas on the British theatrical stage.

The progress of the Romantic theatre in Britain was characterized by the focus on the work of such famous actresses as Harriet Murray Siddons and Fanny Kemble who belonged to the theatrical families. Harriet Murray Siddons (1783–1844) can be discussed among the first female theatrical managers who managed the affairs of the whole theatrical troupes (Burroughs 36-38). The career of Fanny Kemble (1809-1893) was highly influenced by the family members who were already involved in the theatre industry. Fanny’s activities and performance are often discussed by the critics as encouraging the women in the British society to believe that it is possible for them to succeed in the British society dominated by men (Gale and Gardner 98).

Fanny Kemble discussed acting as the serious activity and spent much time while developing her talents of an actress (Burroughs 36-38). The examples of Harriet Murray Siddons and Fanny Kemble inspired many women to join the theatre industry as actresses and theatrical managers, and the names of Laura Keene, Ellen Terry, and Susan Glaspell are the most famous ones among the others.

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The Women in the Spanish and French Theatres during the 16th-19th Centuries

The theatre industry developed in many European countries, including Spain and France. If the British women were prevented from joining the theatre industry during the Elizabethan era because of the roles distribution characteristic for the British society, the Spanish and French women played on stage depending on their social and marital status. The changes in the Spanish theatre of the 16th century were associated with the female impact because the married women were allowed to perform on stage, and the main restriction was in forbidding the use of the male costumes. Theatres in Spain were also designed in such a way that people took their sits according to their social class and gender (Sanchez and Saint-Saens 112). One of the common areas in the Spanish theatres was known as Cazuela, which represented a section for women of the lower social class or for those ones who were not accompanied by men (Wilson and Goldfarb 280-285). This female part of the audience is the characteristic feature of the Spanish theatre in the 17th century because many males came to the theatre not only to enjoy the performance but also to develop the social interactions with the female part of the audience.

Such actresses as Maria de Riquelme were also interesting for the public because of the aspects of their personal life (Sanchez and Saint-Saens 112-115). From this point, the theatre industry was rather complex, and it developed as the active healthy organism based on the interactions between the actors, actresses, and the audience. Thus, the Spanish actresses remain to be the active members of the theatrical troupes also in the 19th century. Thus, the Spanish theatre was actively connected with the theatre of Latin America, and such actresses and theatrical managers as Margarita Xirgu (1888-1969) created their own troupes and traveled in Latina America to demonstrate the popular performances (Sanchez and Saint-Saens 120-121). The Spanish theatre can be discussed as the unique phenomenon in the European theatre industry because of the great influence of the national features on the industry’s development. The process of the Spanish theatre’s development differs significantly from the theatrical evolution in the United Kingdom.

While referring to the progress of the theatre industry in France, it is important to note that the women in the French theatre shared all the rights to participate in theatrical performances even during the 16th century. There were no restrictions for the French females regarding the theatrical activities. During the first part of the 16th century, there were no special theatrical facilities in the country, and the main focus was on performing in temporary theatres. Performances took place twice a week, and they were referred to numerous genres among which the comedy was the most popular one. Like in Spain, the audience often took sits depending on the social status and gender (Finch 62-65). France was among the first countries to construct the permanent theatre buildings in order to place more viewers and construct the effective platform stage.

The French actresses were the active part of the theatrical process during the 17th-18th centuries, and they were discussed as the shareholders regarding the typical sharing plans (Wilson and Goldfarb 280-284). The most famous names of the French actresses are associated with the late part of the 18th century and the early part of the 20th century, and these names are Mlle Mars, Marie Dorval, and Sarah Bernhardt (Finch 62). In spite of the fact that many French female dramatists were also working during the 18th-19th centuries, their names were not as well-known as the names of the French actresses. Thus, the French theatre of the 18th-19th centuries had the ‘female face’ because the outstanding acting of Mlle Mars, Marie Dorval, and Sarah Bernhardt attracted a lot of audience to the French theatres.

The Contemporary Role of Women in the European Theatre

During the late part of the 19th century, the female European actresses understood that it was not enough for them to have the right to act, dance, sing, and read on stage. The theatre developed, and more attention was paid to the progressive methods. Women had the ability and desire to express their thoughts and feelings with the help of platforms and devices that could attract the large audiences. The European women enjoyed the opportunities that allowed them to change not only the theatrical world but also the society. Many female dramatists started their careers in the 20th century because the theatre industry provided women with the opportunity to declare their rights, to promote the social and gender equality, and to contribute to creating the developed society (Gale and Gardner 114). In Britain, women became the most influential and highly regarded stakeholders in the theatre industry in the 20th century, when the focus on the female theatrical directors became the cultural tendency.

Thus, the female British director Deborah Warner became famous in the 20th century because of her unique approach to directing and theatrical performance. Warner can be discussed as the most feminist director in the history of the British theatre because of her focus on the female characters and actresses as the main players in the theatrical process. The work of Warner as the representative of the alternative British theatre is closely associated with the work of the Irish actress Fiona Shaw (Wilson and Goldfarb 383). These women changed the audience’s vision of the traditional theatre while stating that not only men can perform all the roles on stage but also women can perform as all the main characters in famous plays, including the works of Shakespeare.

While discussing the situation in the modern French and Spanish theatres, it is important to note that the focus on the female theatrical managers, leaders, directors, dramatists, and actresses is observed in all the European countries. The researchers state that the women can add to the modern European theatre even more than men because the traditional theatre is usually associated with the men’s activities and male vision of the social processes and cultural tendencies (Wilson and Goldfarb 383-385). From this point, such female theatrical leaders as Deborah Warner can influence the development of the modern theatre significantly because of changing the traditional perspective of discussing performances and theatrical shows.

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While referring to the progress of the theatre industry in the 16th-17th centuries, it is important to note that women played a crucial role in the growth of the European theatre, but their role was often hidden and not obvious, as it is in Spain where the female audience was more appreciated than the actresses on stage. The most problematic situation was observed in Britain where women were forbidden to participate in the theatrical life during the 16th century.

It is important to pay attention to the fact that many European women who were the pioneers in the theatre industry demonstrated the strength of working in the field dominated by men despite being often discriminated. While focusing on the contemporary development of the European theatre, it is necessary to state that women helped in popularizing theatres and encouraging people to become interested in the theatrical shows because of many female movements. Women in the United Kingdom shared few opportunities in comparison with the female theatrical leaders in Spain and France, but the British women made a significant contribution to the development of theatre in the 20thcentury and during the early part of the 21st century.

Works Cited

Aston, Elaine, and Janelle, Reinelt. The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.

Burroughs, Catherine. Women in British Romantic Theatre: Drama, Performance, and Society, 1790-1840. USA: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.

Finch, Alison. Women’s Writing in Nineteenth-Century France. USA: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.

Gale, Maggie, and Vivien Gardner. Women, Theatre and Performance: New Histories,

New Historiographies. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000. Print.

Sanchez, Magdalena, and Alain Saint-Saens. Spanish Women in the Golden Age: Images and Realities. UK: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996. Print.

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Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. Theatre: The Lively Arts. USA: McGraw Hill, 2011. Print.

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