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  • The Dulwich Players

Redefining gender roles: from Compleat Female Stage Beauty to The Rover

Updated: Sep 3, 2019

The Rover may be the colourful tale of the antics of a group of English soldiers and Italian women in Naples, but Aphra Behn’s play itself is set at a turning point in gender politics. Exactly 15 years after Charles II’s proclamation allowing women back on stage, The Rover broke more barriers in pushing the (gender) boundaries, starting with its author being one of the first professional female playwrights in history. With the carnival being in full swing in the streets of Naples, the play sets the scene for another fiery battle of the sexes.

Women on stage? Gender boundaries? Battle of the sexes? If this rings a bell, then you may have seen the Dulwich Players’ production of Compleat Female Stage Beauty in 2017. The play, from first-time director Michael Marsden, told the story of Edward Kynaston, one of the last male actors to play female characters, and his struggle to adapt to a new theatrical world. In such actresses as Margaret Hughes and Elizabeth Barry, Kynaston faced new, unwelcome competition.

In an unintended play-within-the-play twist, several of the actors appearing in the plot of Stage Beauty were actually part of the original cast of The Rover when it was first performed in 1677 at the Dorset Garden Theatre in London. Ahead of a new cast taking on the roles under Philippa Watts’direction, here is a little recap of these bright stars from another “me too” area.

Margaret Hughes

In Compleat Female Stage Beauty, Margaret Hughes is presented as the very first woman stepping on the English stage, owing her success to the novelty effect rather than any real talent. It takes as much effort from Kynaston not to murder her in an Othello-esque moment of jealousy as to teach her a thing or two about the art of acting.

Historically, Margaret Hughes is indeed considered to have been the first actress to appear on an English stage, taking the role of Desdemona in 1660, two years before women were officially allowed to do so. She retired a first time in the late 1660s after becoming the mistress of the Duke of Cumberland, before returning in 1676 for just one season, for the Duke’s Company at the Dorset Garden Theatre. It is within that time that she took on the role of Valeria in The Rover.

Elizabeth Barry

Elizabeth Barry briefly appears in Stage Beauty as she embarks on her professional career at the same time as Margaret Hughes, becoming her direct competitor and eventually “stealing” her parts. In reality however, she was only two in 1660, when Hughes took on her first acting role. Barry herself walked onto the stage for the first time in 1775, at the tender age of 17, more than a decade after her predecessor.

The two women would eventually cross paths at the Duke’s Company, for which Barry worked from 1675 to 1682. They shared the stage in The Rover, with Hughes tellingly playing a kinswoman and cousin to the leading lady, Barry’s Hellena. Indeed, it would be fair to say that if Margaret Hughes paved the way to Elizabeth Barry, it is the latter who enjoyed the more successful and lasting career, with over 35 years of acting before her retirement in 1710.

Thomas Betterton

As a male actor, Betterton might not have been a rival to Kynaston. Yet, Stage Beauty depicts the two men often bickering, with Betterton trying to hammer some sense into the unrelenting male star of his troupe. Here again, Jeffrey Hatcher’s play takes some liberty with facts and chronology… While he started working for the Duke’s Company in 1661, Betterton only became its manager in 1668. And while Kynaston was Betterton’s apprentice as a young boy, they did not belong to the same company: Kynaston was part of the King's Company, a troupe Betterton left very early on to join the Duke’s Company.

In The Rover, Thomas Betterton took the part of Belvile, an English colonel in love with Florinda, played by a certain Mary Betterton. The couple, who had wed in 1662, enjoyed a long marriage and a successful business partnership, gaining a relative respectability in a profession that often lacked it. With more than 120 roles of all kinds under his belt as well as his contributions to scenery and theatre management, Thomas Betterton helped define the Restoration theatre age. Meanwhile, his wife Mary, a granddaughter of Richard Burbage, was the first female actress to portray several of Shakespeare’s female characters on the professional stage, from Juliet to Lady Macbeth. Yet another adversary eating Kynaston’s bread and butter…

Come and enjoy our own take of Aphra Behn's classic, with a whole new cast ready to engage in yet another battle of the sexes. Book your ticket here for some gender-bending action!

by Anne-Lise Vassoille

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