Sunday, 6 March 2011

The Travesty Players

I recently watched "Stage Beauty"—a wonderful movie about the changing world of 17th century theatre in London, when women were first allowed to play on the stage. I loved it.

There are a number of historical shifts and twists, nips and tucks that will be obvious to anyone familiar with the history, but it's all in the service of excellent drama. (Somehow we forgive this in a movie, but wouldn't in a novel. Why is that?)

Although the movie captures the spirit of the theatre world of the time, to have been perfectly accurate there would have been dandies with paid seats on the stage. This was distracting then, and it would have been distracting in this movie, as well.

I adored the representations of Nell Gwyn (who is incorrectly shown as the King's mistress before she becomes an actress--not the other way around), Charles II (with all his dogs), Peyps. The costuming is terrific.

There are interesting differences between French and English theatre of this period, and the relatively late arrival of women on the English stage is one of them. Women had long been on the stage in France. When men played female roles in France, it was usually for comic effect. In England, men played women "in travesty" very effectively—as does the beautiful main character of this film.

Although actresses played women's roles in France, men danced female parts in stage ballets until late in the 17th century. In one of the Sun King's early dance performances, for example, he danced the part of the goddess Ceres.

In France, plays employed the comic device of a woman pretending to be a man. There was an erotic element, as well. Mlle. Thérèse du Parc was famous for her shapely legs, which were only properly revealed when she was dressed in male tights and a short doublet. Oh la la! 

There is something universally profound about someone who embodies both female and male characteristics. It's a pity that the word "travesty" has historically been used to describe such players.

To see the movie trailer for Stage Beauty: click here. I highly recommend it.

Sandra Gulland


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