First Actress on British Stage
The reaction to the ending of the Puritan restrictions begun under Cromwell’s Commonwealth included the re-opening of theatres , or the creation of new ones in cases like that of the theatre built within the real tennis court at Vere Street near Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It was in that theatre, fitted out within two months once it had been granted a licence, that the first English stage actress appeared.
Previously of course young men had played the female roles, and we can take it Shakespeare never saw a woman act in his plays. It was in one of the bard’s finest, Othello, that the momentous event took place. The King’s Company, one of two stage companies licensed in the capital, was run by the enterprising Thomas Killigrew. His new theatre opened on November 8th 1660, and perhaps with takings in need of a boost a month later he decided to have an actress play the part of Desdemona – given the sexual and physical nature of the drama, sure to generate plenty of publicity.
Sadly we cannot be sure to which actress goes the honour of that first stage appearance. There are three candidates, Margaret Hughes, Katherine Corey, and Anne Marshall. The beautiful Hughes went on to play a more lucrative part in her real life, becoming the long-term mistress of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, mother to his daughter Ruperta.
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