When one thinks of theatre, the names that come to mind are often Shakespeare, Fred Astair or Laurence Olivier. These men impacted theatre but were not alone; yet, their posthumous celebrities far outreached women. Scholars, but the public has often forgotten all these girls who helped shape modern theatre. Today we are celebrating World Theatre Day and using this opportunity to acknowledge girls’ impact on theatre and their accomplishments on and out the stage.
Until recently, it was commonly believed that male actors portrayed all speaking roles in Ancient Rome, like in Ancient Greece. Yet, some women performed speaking roles; among the famous actresses of the time were Bassilla and Fabia Arete. Successful girls stage performers in comic mime shows enjoyed widespread fame and even a guild exclusively for female stage performers. After being controlled by the Church over the Middle Ages, profane theatre rekindled interest from the Renaissance until becoming central to early modern societies, thanks to its actresses who were amongst the most celebrated and most gossiped-about girls of their time. They embodied a new form of freedom for girls in a patriarchal society. Girls were actresses, playwrights, writers and theatre owners.
Despite patriarchy, girls have shown that they could thrive and inspire their peers through theatre. Another historical contribution from theatre girls is their activism. Nowadays, the list of actresses who are also activists keeps growing, but it is not new. Long before they had rights, theatre girls – at least some of them – defended rights. In the French eighteenth century, Olympe de Gouges (a former theatre owner and playwright) wrote the first feminist pamphlet in history Déclaration des droits de la femme (1790); before her, Mademoiselle Clairon fought for actors to have rights, up to giving an ultimatum to the King. Theatre girls participated – and still are – in changing the world, let’s not forget it.
To learn more about Olympe de Gouges, click here.
For an interesting piece on the limits actors’ activism, click here.