At the National Portrait Gallery

Deborah Friedell

The Protectorate was over, the Commonwealth had failed. Charles II entered London on 29 May 1660, his birthday, and began hanging judges and reopening theatres. Tongue firmly in cheek, a royal patent lamented that ‘many plays formerly acted do contain several profane, obscene and scurrilous passages’: the solution was to have women’s parts henceforth played by women, as ‘useful and instructive representations of human life’. During his exile the king had seen women on the stage in France, and he missed them. There was no outcry. And if at first the women weren’t very good (Pepys says they didn’t learn their lines), their appeal was all too obvious. When the first professional English actress (no one knows her name) stepped out as Desdemona on 8 December, the prologue leered:

      I saw the Lady dressed!
The woman plays today! Mistake me not;
No man in gown, or page in petticoat;
A woman to my knowledge, yet I can’t
(If I should die) make affidavit on’t.
Do you not twitter, gentlemen?

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