Cross-Dressing Actresses: Into the Breeches: A Special Guest Blog by Felicity Nussbaum

21 November 2016

Gender and Sexuality | History | Literature

This blog has been written by Professor Felicity Nussbaum. Felicity is Distinguished Research Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Actresses disguised as men on stage evoked different reactions throughout history. Recent productions of Shakespeare have experimented with all-female casts. For example, women played all the parts, male and female, in a recent Central Park production of The Taming of the Shrew. Developing the part of Petruchio, actress Janet McTeer adopted a male swagger and worked from the principle that “women’s center of gravity is their hips; men’s is their chest.”1 But it is entirely possible that Renaissance men and women signaled gendered body language in ways significantly different from the gestures familiar to us now. We cannot recapture exactly how men played women in the past, but we can be relatively sure that the way sexual difference is portrayed depends on how the actor interprets the role and the historical moment that the play is produced.

Many of Shakespeare’s plays involve cross-dressed characters – male actors who, as part of the plot, act as women who masquerade as men. As is well-known, men played all the parts in the English theatre until 1660. The first stage performance by an English actress, most likely Margaret Hughes, was as Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello.  

Margaret Hughes in A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers & Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800. Volume 8: Hough to Keyse Â© Southern Illinois University Press. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

In the century that followed, breeches and travesty roles in eighteenth-century comedies afforded cross-dressed women characters an opportunity to challenge their second sex status. Dressed as a man, they could for the duration of the play enjoy greater mobility in the world, become military officers, engage in duels, avoid undesirable marriages, or make love to another woman. Irish-born actress Peg Woffington drew praise in her cross-dressed roles for avoiding “that stiffnesss and effeminacy which so commonly attend the fair sex in breeches. It was a most nice point to decide…whether she was the finest woman, or the prettiest fellow.”2  Such characters reveled in their sexual ambiguity.

Peg Woffington in The Female Volunteer. Pictured in A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers & Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800. Volume 16: W. West to Zwingmanin. Image © Southern Illinois University Press. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

Many other celebrated eighteenth-century actresses assumed male roles: actress Margaret Doyle played John Gay’s Captain Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera, Anne Spranger Barry played Sir Harry Wildair in George Farquhar’s The Constant Couple, and Maria Macklin acted as Camillo in Sir John Vanbrugh’s The Mistake, to name just a few. Such roles were often regarded as scandalous: some clergymen protested that a woman’s putting on men’s apparel threatened the very fabric of society.  

Maria Macklin as Camillo in A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers & Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800. Volume 10: M'Intosh to Nash. Image © Southern Illinois University Press. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

It was even rumored that breeches roles were responsible for actress Maria Macklin’s death because she allegedly “buckled her garter too tightly and brought on a fatal tumor."3  In short, although audiences found her cross-dressed performances entertaining, they judged the practice to be not only unfeminine, but deadly.

Margaret Doyle (nĂ©e Kennedy) as Macheath in A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers & Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800. Volume 8: Hough to Keyse © Southern Illinois University Press. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

In another example, Margaret Doyle’s performance of the light operatic role of the rakish Macheath added nuance to the social and political satire aimed at the corrupt British government. As soon as contralto Doyle sang her first song, audiences would have recognized that Macheath was played by a woman. With her performance, the whoring highwayman Macheath would have seemed more comic – and perhaps discomfiting – in his lovemaking to Polly and Lucy, but also more sympathetic when condemned to prison and threatened with being hanged. A woman leading Macheath’s gang of thieves, singing drinking songs, whoring, and gambling would have forced the audience, however lightheartedly, to confront the double standard of sexual behavior. 

To act as the opposite sex is to mold the body, speech, and gestures into the culture’s concept of what it means to be a woman or a man at a particular historical moment. On the eighteenth-century stage and in our contemporary moment, cross-dressing brings to our consciousness the ways that we imagine what sexual difference might mean.

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1.  John Lahr, “Walking Tall: The Dynamism of Janet McTeer,” The New Yorker (October 24, 2016), 35.

2. The Life of Mr. James Quin, Comedian (London 1766), 67-68.

3. James Thomas Kirkman, Memoirs of Charles Macklin, Esq. (London: Lacklin, Allen, and Co., 1799), 308.

About the Author

Felicity Nussbaum

Felicity Nussbaum

Felicity Nussbaum is Distinguished Research Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research interests include eighteenth-century theatre, women’s writing, and autobiography. She has published most recently 'Rival Queens: Actresses, Performance, and the Eighteenth-Century British Theatre' (U Penn Press) and, with Saree Makdisi, 'The Arabian Nights in Historical Context' (Oxford UP). Her current work includes a book on abolition and Orientalism, and a series of essays on Hester Thrale Piozzi.

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