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Woman’s Work Upon the Stage

May 17, 1893 — Congress of Representative Women, Chicago World’s Fair, Chicago IL


To show clearly and fully woman’s relation to and influence on dramatic art, it would be necessary to treat comprehensively of the whole history of the drama, which it will be impossible for me to do at this time because of the necessary brevity of this paper.

I hope to show, however, by a few historical examples and a brief discussion of woman’s peculiar adaptability to the needs of the drama, not only her special fitness for dramatic expression, but also her right by accomplishment, to the exalted position in this art which she has won, and won by courage, industry, and perseverance.

The struggle that actors have undergone for recognition, and for a respectable, established position in society, since the the modern drama first appeared in the tableaux and the spectacles of the early Christian church, is now a smatter of history; but it is not generally known how much more fierce has bene the strife in regard to women on the stage, and how much more difficult it has been for them to convince the world at large of the importance of their hard-won position, and their beneficial influence in dramatic art.

Notwithstanding the marked disfavor with which women were first received upon the English stage, about 1660, reasonable and serious-minded persons could not fail to see the propriety of having Juliet and Desdemona acted by a girl rather than a boy. The need for the innovation is well expressed in these lines, taken from the prologue written for the introduction of the first actress:

“Our women are defective, and so sized
You’d think they were some of the guard disguised;
For, to speak truth, men act (that are between
Forty and fifty) wenches of fifteen,
With bone so large, and nerve so incompliant,
When you call Desdemona enter giant.”

The work that properly belonged to women, when given to men, often caused ridiculous incongruities; and the idea in itself is so truly fantastic that I can not refrain from citing the apology that was made to his majesty Charles II when, during a prolonged wait at one of the theatrical performances at which this sovereign was present, the delay was explained and indulgence begged on the plea that the “queen was not shaved.” It would appear that immediately upon the substitution of women for boys, I the advancement of dramatic illusion, the importance of woman’s appearance, and the artistic need for it, must have been generally felt, for we read that actresses were soon in great demand, and it was found not only that they increased the popularity of the theatres in which they performed, but that their cooperation was indispensable to the proper presentation of any play. They made possible a fullness and beauty of interpretation which had not before been dreamed of. Take, as a single example, the women of Shakespeare. They stand as vivid types of youth and beauty, so alive, indeed, with the living warmth of femininity that their expression by other than women is a sacrilege. A play performed by men only can hardly be conceived to-day, and the wonder is that such an absurdity should ever have existed. The feeling of the need of woman’s cooperation with man for dramatic purposes grew rapidly, for men’s minds were at this time too highly susceptible to advancement to remain in ignorance of this necessity, and it was not long before actresses were recognized and highly respected. Mrs. Betterton, for instance, in the year 1674, when “Calista” was performed at court, was chosen as instructress to Lady Mary and Lady Anne, and much of the subsequent graceful elocution and dignity of bearing of these princesses was accredited to this actress. We read that, in company with her distinguished husband, she made her home the abiding-place of “charity, hospitality, and dignity.”

What a vast work has been accomplished in the drama since then, and what a lasting monument of art has woman reared for herself in the annals of the stage!  To those whose souls are filled with sacred reverence for creative genius what a wealth of delight there is in looking back upon the dazzling record of the theater! The achievements of Mrs. Betterton, Nell Gwynne, Woffington, Oldfield, Siddons, and more latterly Rachel, Ristori, Fanny Kemble, Ellen Terry, Charlotte Cushman, Helen Faucit, Adelaide Neilson, and a host of others stand forth as irrefutable proofs of the dignified importance of woman’s work in the line of true artistic, dramatic advancement.

The history of the the theater will show her serious devotion to dramatic art, and that it has absorbed her very being as no other calling has ever done; that it has not been a fancy, nor in the higher expression even a gratification of vanity, but has been and is a life devotion, and art to which woman has given her best intellectual and emotional self.

Innumerable instances may be given of women in the profession who have shown rara administrative ability. The history of the English stage affords many examples of the women who have been successful managers, and the same is true in this country — Mrs. Conway, for instance, and Mrs. John Drew, who, aside from her fine ability as a comedienne, for years conducted the Arch Street Theater, Philadelphia, with dignity and success.

It is often stated that woman is lacking in most walks of life in the faculty of creative genius, and indeed that in this particular, in comparison with man, she is decidedly inferior. This is, perhaps, a reasonable conclusion in view of her history, but not so emphatically in regard to dramatic work.

It is by no means a new thought that man is by nature more intellectual, and woman by nature more emotional. Of course it is not meant by this that man is never emotional and woman never intellectual, yet it is surely fair to assume that to man belongs more properly the power of intellectuality, and to woman the emotional quality. Was it not, therefore, the very possession by nature of this latter quality, which is certainly an absolute necessity in dramatic art, that made her inherently suited for dramatic expression?

Mr. Ruskin, in speaking of the necessary qualities that go to form great artists, says: “First, sensibility and tenderness; second, imagination; and third, industry.” Woman’s nature is peculiarly alive to all these conditions. It is then no wonder that women on the stage have accomplished great things; and they will accomplish greater things in the future while such women as Modjeska, Terry, Duse, and the matchless Bernhardt continue to show their genius to the world.

Woman’s work in literature has, with few exceptions, been denied any claim to greatness. In music and in other arts she is admitted not to have shown any particular creative power, but her place upon the stage is as absolutely unquestioned as man’s. IN having thus secured for herself an eminent position in the drama, the actress has advanced the whole cause of woman, since every individual triumph raises the estimation in which the intellectual achievements of a whole class are held. Woman is better understood because she has been faithfully portrayed; she is more highly regarded because of her ability to make that portrayal; and that faithful portrayal has, I feel, a powerful moral influence in any educational sense. I thoroughly believe it is the duty of mothers to foster in the hearts of their children, while at a tender age, a serious consideration for the better form of dramatic literature and dramatic representation, avoiding the unhappy tendency of the present age, which is to regard acting merely as a form of amusement rather than, as it should be regarded, an amusement combining a means for intellectual control and artistic suggestion, presented in an attractive and suggestive manner.

That woman is capable of arduous effort and untiring devotion has been fully demonstrate upon the stage. She has helped ot elevate the drama to its rightful place among the educational forces of life, and to make true what Morley says: “At the play-house door, we may say to the doubting, “Enter boldy, for here, too, there are gods.”



Source: The World’s Congress of Representative Women, ed. May Wright Sewall (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Company) 1894, pp, 188-192.