Tag Archives: David Garrick

A Breech or a Travesty? When Actresses Wore the Pants

Mrs. Robinson was known to don breeches.  Her compeers Dorothea Jordan, Anne Oldfield, and Charlotte Charke likewise shimmied out of stays prior to treading across the boards, and they did so with considerable aplomb. Increasingly they and others in their select group were part of a tradition that reversed another tradition–men playing women’s roles–that dated back to ancient Greece.

David Garrick in Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife — Johann Zoffany (1763)

Here and there instances of women in pants are recorded, but as much as modern readers might find actresses traipsing around in breeches a liberation of sorts, it didn’t gain favor with the general western populace until the 20th century.

Despite an excess of cross-dressing heroines in literature, women rarely surrendered their skirts, either at home or, as we are presently concerned, on the stage.  In fact, before the Restoration such a thing would’ve been verboten.  All throughout the Middle Ages and the English Renaissance, boy players dolled up their faces, but fashion, as always, was in flux.  By the end of 1661, women were once again permitted on the stage, and, as one may expect wherever the rib of Adam* is involved, the sexualizing of breeches roles commenced.

An Actress At Her Toilet, or Miss Brazen Just Breecht — John Collet (1779)
Playbill states: “and the part of Capt. Macheath by Miss”

Perception and Reception

The sharp outline of buttocks and thighs, not to mention the inherent amusement in perverting society’s established dress code, titillated many, but not all found breeches roles charming.  In 1702, the premiere of Nicolas Boindin’s Bal d’Auteuil was met with outrage.  To her great indignation, the Duchesse d’Orleans (who—let’s be honest—appears no stranger to idle amusements here) had to suffer through a shocking lesbian flirtation wherein two girls in men’s clothes meet, and, each truly believing the other the opposite sex, make unseemly overtures.  However common breeches roles were at this stage, Boindin’s comedic attempt went miserably awry.  At his youngest daughter’s insistence, Louis XIV announced that officials would be appointed to approve every play prior to production and naughty intrigues were forced to darker places.

Mrs. Jordan in the Character of Hypolita (1791)
Mezzotint by John Jones after John Hoppner portrait of Dorothea Jordan

Under the Clouds of an English Sky

Although actresses ‘usurped man’s prerogative’* by endeavoring to play breeches roles, rules existed to distinguish the actresses as female.  Lest anyone remain confused, the beguiling Monsieur Incognito was to expose her honest assets, typically an ankle or a snowy breast, thereby reaffirming the act as merely a fetish* of women in menswear.  Because the actress unmasked herself during the play, the impersonation was harmless.  Her virile performance aroused and regaled, and in most cases, she did not appall her audience.   Travesty roles, on the other hand, took the artifice to a deeper level, chipping away at the rudimentary distinction between men and women that some found distinctly distasteful.

The great travesty actress of the 18th century was Charlotte Charke, née Cibber.  She will be the subject of an upcoming post, so I don’t wish to spoil her larks with anecdotal abundance, but the most pressing fact I will share is this: she was the only actress of her time to assume a masculine identity both  onstage and off.  Unlike breeches roles, which she learned in 1733-34, travesty parts were sly in that they never revealed the true sex of the actor.  There was no exposure, no wink-wink, nod-nod, followed by gay laughter all about.  By necessity the actress was not a classical beauty.  Rather, she was masculine by virtue of vigor, bearing, or, in the best cases, both.

Dictum number one stated that she had to pull off the role without anyone being the wiser during performance, and as luck would have it, Charlotte Charke excelled in this.  She possessed what might be described an Italian boyishness: dark, slanting brows; wide, hooded eyes; and a strong nose set atop smaller lips.  Not an unattractive look by any means, but one that caused young ladies to swoon at the sensitivity inherent in such a gentle mien.  As Charke writes in her memoirs, she was even “the unhappy object of love in a young lady, whose fortune was beyond all earthly power to deprive her of, had it been possible for me to have been what she designed me, nothing less than her husband.”  But there were also punishments for straying too far outside conventionality.  When Charlotte died in 1760, she was penniless, estranged from her late father, Colley Cibber, and merely a footnote in history until a 21st century interest in cross-dressing and homosexuality resurrected her as a cause célèbre.

*Rib of Adam was a justification in the Gentleman’s Magazine The Actress of Usurper of Man’s Prerogativefor why women chose to play male parts.  This seemed sensible to them since, as women were a part of men, women would logically at some point wish to emulate them at one point or another:  “Even in those who are most gently feminine there remains an inkling of the primeval rib, only needing a special environment for complete development. . .  When woman assumed her proper position in the economy of the theatre, a subtle atavism induced her to retaliate.  Having tasted blood in ‘breeches parts’,” like Rosalind, she was not content until she had fastened her teeth in sternly virile roles.”  

*I almost hate to call it a fetish because it seems quite ordinary today, but the sexualization of women in menswear persists.  Starched white businessman’s shirt, naked woman underneath, firstly comes to mind.

The Story of a Diva: Mary Ann Yates, Forgotten Actress

Portrait of Mrs. Yates as Mandane in The Orphan of China – Tilly Kettle (1765)

Mary Ann Yates began her career as an afterthought.  Originally criticized as a feeble-voiced, small-talented nobody–“her figure so much encumbered with corpulence” that she should be paid to stay away from the stage–she would make her critics reconsider their words.

Before Sarah Siddons eclipsed her as the tragedienne of the age, Mary Ann was a leading actress at both Drury Lane and Covent Garden.  By the time she retired at age 55, she and her husband Richard Yates had banked £36,000-40,000 for retirement.  No small sum in those days.

She had spent 31 years on the stage, debuting in Dublin in 1753 and then performing bit parts in Drury Lane’s 1754-55 season.  One can suppose she often sulked around Drury Lane muttering, “Damn that David Garrick!”  The actor-cum-theater manager was underwhelmed by her and merely tolerated her which was why, in 1756, when he refused to offer her a contract for the next season, she did what any rational young creature would do.

She got married.

Her choice was prudent.  Richard Yates was a comic actor in his fifites, a widower whose former spouse (also an actress) had left him a considerable sum.  Incidentally, he was known for his ability to develop promise in his fellow actors–and he polished Mary Ann until she was golden.

Mary Ann returned to Drury Lane the same year she married, but it wasn’t until 1759, when she served as understudy to Mrs. Cibber, that she blindsided Garrick with a sly interpretation of Mandane from Murphy’s Orphan of China.  Mrs. Cibber, whose inability to perform ocassioned the opportunity, would have been displeased to discover that Mary Ann’s coup was the result of a well-laid scheme.

The story goes something like this:  When Mrs. Cibber falls ill, disagreements over the schedule ensue and a postponed premiere makes for an impatient playwright.  The hungry Mary Ann readily agrees when the playwright proposes to teach her in secret how to play the role.  At the first rehearsal, she demurs to Garrick (who highly opposes Mary Ann as a substitue) saying she is unfamiliar with Mandane.  That way, Garrick is absolutely flabbergasted at the second rehearsal when he realizes she is Mandane.

From then on, it was a lot like this for poor Garrick . . .

David Garrick as Richard III – William Hogarth (1745)

During her years at Drury Lane, Mary Ann enchanted the crowds, and for a while, Garrick was pleased.  He went on a continental tour in 1763, and despite his absence, Drury Lane flourished.  When Mrs. Cibber died in 1765, ridding Mary Ann of her only competition, Mary Ann rose to the height she had formerly dreamed of.

She flirted with a generous contract from Covent Garden for both her and her husband, and by 1767 she switched theater houses.  She was a bit of a diva at this point, and although she stayed at Covent Garden until 1771, she fought with her fellow actors and declined roles that inconvenienced or displeased her.

She left London to play two seasons in Edinburgh but had difficulty finding employment upon her return to London.  The famous playwright Oliver Goldsmith championed her work, yet still nothing came her way.  It was only after a friend and admirer of hers wrote a novel exposing what went on behind the curtain of a certain theater and with a certain *wink, wink* manager that she gained a little attention . . . and a lot of avoidance.

Garrick rightly pinpointed Mary Ann as the source of gossip, but nevertheless, by 1774 he offered Mary Ann a generous salary, hoping she might return to Drury Lane.  She replied as follows:

Whatever amounts they settled on concerning the letters of Spring 1774, Mary Ann bedeviled Garrick for the remainder of his life.  She missed premieres and showed up to rehearsals late or not at all.  As a “capital actress”, she refused roles undeserving of her talent, and even when she requested particular roles, she would abandon them upon her whim.

Over the years, her absences only increased and she partied hard, flitting around town from one masquerade to the next.  As Garrick had spent his career making Drury Lane a first-rate theater, he was justifiably incensed.  But this was the way with them.

Mary Ann was a talented tart; we’ve no doubt about that.  Some of her roles were so well played that other actresses refused to attempt them for the remainder of her life.  She had leagues of admirers and likely just as many critics, making her a person of great interest during the Georgian period, but why then didn’t her contemporaries write biographies of her?  Why wasn’t she the subject of national obsessions like many of her fellow actresses?

What makes one person forgotten and not another?

An 1839 edition of Bentley’s Miscellanya literary magazine first edited by Dickens, by no means provides answers to these curiosities, but the following exchange between a pew opener and a group of gentlemen touring a Richmond graveyard is a testament to Mary Ann’s one-time popularity:

“But, surely, sir, you’ll go and see the grave of the great Mary Ann Yates?  Lord bless you, sir, more people go to see that grave more than any other in the church.”

“The great Mary Ann Yates!” said we in some perplexity; for, to our shame be it spoken, we had forgotten the name, and we did not like to expose our ignorance to the pew opener.”

“She was very celebrated,” said she [the pew opener], after a pause; “and, indeed, I’ve heard that Mrs. Siddons wasn’t anything like equal to her.”

More Images of Mary Ann:

Additional Resources:

“her figure so much encumbered with corpulence” was said of Mary Ann by Thomas Sheridan, actor-manager in Dublin