Women and the Stage
May 17, 1893 — Washington Hall, World’s Congress of Representative Women, Chicago World’s Fair, Chicago IL
There is a general impression that the connection of woman with the stage of of recent occurrence and does not date farther back than the seventeenth, and in a few countries, the sixteenth, century. This impression is erroneous, as probably a great many of you are aware. Woman is not a new arrival in the history of the drama. Her influence on its development, and may say more truly on its very origin, has been traced far back into the remotest period of the middle ages, to the second half of the tenth century.
It would be out of place here, and I do not feel competent, to enter into elaborate historical researches and discussions. We al know that the ancient theater had a theocratic origin; it is, therefore, not strange that the Christian theater also had its trade in religion. but nowhere did woman appear on the ancient stage, if we except her participation in the Greek mysteries and occasional exhibitions of physical display; it is only due to the higher level upon which Christianity has placed woman that she has obtained the opportunity to figure as an important and beneficent factor in the development of dramatic art.
It would be out of place here, and I do not feel competent, to enter into elaborate historical resaerches and discussions. We all know that the ancient theater had a theocratic origin; it is, therefore, not strange that the Christian theater also had its cradle in religion. But nowhere did woman appear on the ancient stage, if we except her participation in the Greek mysteries and occasional exhibitions of physical display ; it is only due to the higher level upon which Christianity has placed woman that she has obtained the opportunity to figure as an important and beneficent factor in the development of dramatic art.
There is a theory, almost generally accepted, that there is no direct connection between the new Christian theater and the old one, and that the former one was born long after the death of the latter. This theory is not exact. The vitality of the dramatic spirit was never entirely extinct. One can trace its continuity through ages, but unquestionably the most important link of the chain is the so-called comedy of the tenth century, the work of a Christian woman.
The very name of comedy in the tenth century seems an anachronism. It was a time of concentration of religious thought and of political upheaval and anarchy caused by the disintegration of the work of Charles the Great. By far the greater part of the Christian community expected the end of the world would come with the approaching millennium of the Christian era. Certainly it does not appear a favorable epoch for an artistic or literary revival. One would would think it scarce possible to find then for the drama a poet, a stage, or a public. And yet it was then that from the recess of a monastery hidden in the dark forests of Germany, on the banks of the river Ganda, resounded the first note of dramatic renaissance.
The note was uttered by a woman’s voice.
The convent of Gandersheim was founded by Lutolf, Duke of Saxony, grandson of a celebrated Saxon chief, Wittikind, who was conquered and converted by Charlemagne. During the first years of its foundation most of its abbesses were members of the ducal family. One of these abbesses is supposed by some historians to have been a Greek princess, daughter of the Emperor of the Orient, and to have brought from Constantinople elements of higher culture to this remote corner of Germany.
Whatever may be the case, it is certain that the convent of Gandersheim became an intellectual oasis among the deserts of barbarism . It was there that lived and died a modest nun, Hrosvitha, known even to-day more generally as the “Nun of Gandersheim”; it was there that she wrote in Latin in Latin her legends, her historical poems, and ,what interests us most, her six or seven comedies. About her life we know almost nothing, except the very few personal allusions contained in her works. Thus she informs us that it is to the Princess Gerberg, an imperial niece and abbess of the convent, and to Riccardi that she owes most of her classical knowledge and her literary attainments.
Hrosvitha wrote in Latin. Her legends are in either hexameters or elegiac verse ; her plays, the so-called comedies, are in prose. Her Latinis correct, far above the so-called “ Kitchen ” Latin of the middle ages. She was evidently well versed in the knowledge of the old classic authors, and equally well acquainted with the rich lore of Christian legends and with the theological philosophy of the fathers of the church. Of the dramatic writers of Greece and Rome she seems to have known only Terence. It was her admiration for Terentius’ genius and style, combined with abhorrence for his lack of morality, that seems to have inspired Hrosvitha to write her dramas. She states her object in the following words: “I intend to substitute for the picture of the dissipation of pagan women edifying stories of pure virgins. I have endeavored, so far as the means of m y poor little talent allowed, to celebrate the victories of chastity, especially those where woman’s weakness triumphs over man’s brutality.”
The value of Hrosvitha’s dramas is mostly in the dialogue, in the richness and subtlety of thoughts, in a spirit of genuine poetry,as well as in an aspect of life andof woman hood to which we have not been treated in the ancient literature.
It is the most important work of transition between the two eras, because, though modeled upon and inspired by the classics, it is the first to bring forth new elements and new forms, on which developed later the drama of the Christian era.
To-day the name of the modest nun of Gandersheim is very little known, though students of the drama and a few learned archæologists and professors in Germany and France have done their best to extol the significance and merits of that strange figure standing solitary between the ancient and the modern world. The publication of her manuscripts by Celtes, in 1501, created a sensation among the German and Italian humanists of the time, and it would not be strange to suppose that they were known, though probably in a transfigured shape, to some of the dramatists of the sixteenth century, and inspired their genius; and thus the influence of Hrosvitha upon the later drama may have been much greater than we can realize to-day.
It seemed to me that in the connection of woman with the stage, or let me say rather with dramatic art and literature, no name deserved a higher rank than the very name of Hrosvitha. I think it one more laurel in the crown of womanhood that it was a woman who was the originator of the modern drama, and we can claim with pride that the first female dramatist ever known in history was inspired in her work by the highest and most ideal motives, and that her tendence has been to elevate the moral standards of the drama.
Another point almost as important as the authorship of the first modern plays is their performance. There have been long discussions upon this point, but at present it can be accepted as a fact, based on the authority of the German and French savants, that all of the plays of Hrosvitha were performed in the convent of Gandersheim by young nuns, in the presence of the Bishop of Hisdesheim and several high officials of the empire, probably even before the members of the imperial family. How strange, how hardly conceivable is the fact of such an origin for the modern theater in the presence of the unreasonable antagonism between church and stage which has been fostered by narrow-minded people on both sides. Yet it is only natural when we remember the whole history of ancient and modern drama, and if we keep in mind that for long centuries after Hrosvitha the only manifestations of the dramatic spirit were confined to the so-called mysteries, “miracles: and “moralities,” performances where religion and scenic display were combined in a curious fashion, much less legitimately than in Hrosvitha’s plays.
I do not intend to dwell upon them except to mention that generally women were excluded from such performances. There is known only one instance of woman’s participation in a so-called mystery. In the beginning of the sixteenth century, in the city of Metz, three women personated in public the three Marys in the representation of our Lord’s passion. In the female convents, however, the custom of private theatricals seems to have persisted from the time of Hrosvitha during the middle ages. They were often forbidden by the bishops, but we know that as late as the sixteenth century, in some of the Spanish convents, they were customary, as Friar Juan Mariana testifies.
In the first half of the sixteenth century, under the reign of Charles V., woman appears on the professional stage in Spain. Her appearance, however, does not seem to have been generally welcome, because Charles, the son of Philip II., prohibits it by a special edict. Soon, however,the prohibition fell into disuse, and the actress ceased to be an exception. A Spanish writer, Augustin de Rojas,says that in the times of Lope de Vega there were a great many organizations of strolling players through the country. He enumerates as many as six different kinds of such organizations In the lower organizations women’s parts were played by men, in the middle ones by women or boys, but in “The Farandula” and “Compania” all the female parts were personated by women . Cervantes, in his “ Don Quixote,”speaks of a company of actors that included one woman , who was the wife of the author and played the part of a queen.
Another interesting detail in the history of the beginning of the theater in Spain is an attempt made in 1586 to give separate performances formen and for women. The time selected for the latter was immediately after noon a regular matinée. It seems that the ladies of Madrid in those times were very fond of matinées, because 760 tickets were disposed of at one real apiece to so many ladies. For some reason or other, however, the performance was forbidden by the authorities, the money was refunded, and the custom of almost exclusive matinées for ladies was not renewed until the present days in America. Italy was the next country after Spain where woman appeared on the stage, about the middle of the sixteenth century, but, following in the footsteps of Philip II., the Pope, Innocent IX., forbade their appearance. But, notwithstanding the pope’s decree, the substitution of woman for man in female parts became a feature of the Italian theater, as it did of the Spanish, and the Spanish and Italian companies appeared even abroad with women actors.
In September, 1548, the Cardinal of Ferrara, Archbishop of Lyons, was entertaining the king of France, Henry II., and his wife, Catherine de’ Medici. The entertainment was exceedingly sumptuous, and its principal feature was a tragic comedy performed by Italian actors and actresses. This was the first time woman was seen on the stage in France, but it was only fifty years later that a French woman appeared before the public. Her name was Marie Vernier, and her appearance is a very important event in the annals of the French stage, because it was followed immediately by the establishment of a regular theater, the first one in France, managed by her husband and herself.
The formal entrance of women on the stage in England is usually credited to the epoch of the Restoration. It seems, however, that already under Cromwell, when the fervor of the Puritans against the stage had somewhat abated, and Davenant was allowed to give performances at the Rutland House, there was produced the “Siege of Rhodes,” a play with music, wherein the part of Ianthe was personated by a woman, Mrs. Coleman.
Under the reign of Charles II, the custom of women’s performing on the regular stage was regulated by royal rescript, and a memorable date is the 8th of December, 1680, when the play of “Othello “was given with a special prologue written by one S. Jordan, in order, a she says, to introduce the first woman that ever acted on the stage. Jordan, evidently, could not have been aware of the earlier performance of the “Siege of Rhodes” with Mrs. Coleman, or must have intentionally omitted to refer to it. The woman he alludes to in his prologue was Mrs. Ann Marshall. He curiously insists on the fact that she was a married woman.
In Poland, at the end of the sixteenth century, the Italian troupes of actors and actresses appeared on the private royal stage or in the public squares. A Polish woman is already seen at the beginning of the seventeenth century, when she appears occasionally in translated and original drama.
The country in which woman appears latest on the stage. but where she has contributed to its development more than anywhere else, is Germany. About 1678 there was formed a company of actors from the students of Leipsic University, under the leadership of Magister Johann Vel then. This company received permission for a permanent organization from the Duke of Saxony, and established the first German court theater.
Mrs. Velthen, the wife of the manager, was the first German actress. After the death of Johann Velthen the management of the company passed into the hands of his widow, and so the first German actress is also the first woman who was a theatrical manager.
Frederica Caroline Neuber, or, as she has usually been called, the Neuberin, was the founder of the Leipsic school of acting She did more than anyone else to build up a higher dramatic repertoire, as well as to promote a loftier standard of dramatic art, in Germany. As a German historian says, she closed the gap existing between the German stage and poetry. The life of the Neuberin was a continual struggle against the low prevailing forms of burlesque and harlequinades, and she died poor and solitary, with a broken heart, in a little hamlet near Dresden. The epitaph on her tombstone, erected long afterward, calls her the creator of artistic taste on the German stage, a title which she certainly deserves.
The woman who had the most pronounced influence upon the German stage was Sophie Schroeder.
At the beginning of the present century there were two tendencies in the dramatic art of Germany opposed to each other. The Hamburg school, under the influence of the great actor Louis Schroeder, was tending toward realism; the school of Weimar, created by the great poets Goethe and Schiller, tended toward idealism.
The object of the first was to preserve strong characteristics, and to avoid pathos; the object of the latter was to keep up the standard of the ideal of poetry, which might be lowered, they feared, in the narrow limits of every-day surroundings and commonplace treatment. Both were right to some extent, and the solution of the struggle lay in the union of the two tendencies. This work of unification was done by a woman.
Antoinette Sophie Schroeder was an eminently poetic nature. She could not resist the influence of Goethe and Schiller, andbecame a genuine idealist in the conception of her parts; but, on the other side, brought up under the influence of her cousin in the Hamburg theater, she remained a realist in execution.
The influence of women may not have acted in such a direct way upon the development of the theater in other countries, but whoever is familiar with the history of the theater will acknowledge with me that at every new phase of development ,at every new step of progress, actresses have marked their way as prominently as actors.
If the influence of our sex upon the theater is beneficent, can we say the same of the influence of the theater upon the woman herself? In other words, does the life of an actress tend to develop her better qualities, or does it do the contrary? I should not like to give a decisive reply to the question. I may, however, say that, while the life that we lead exposes us to many temptations, stimulates our vanity too much ,and takes us sometimes too far from our family duties, it has some advantages which may compensate for the losses. It certainly must develop in us a sense of independence, and therefore of responsibility. On the other side, it brings us into contact with the highest creations of the masterminds, and is bound to open both our hearts and our minds to the generous impulses and higher problems which they lay before humanity. As for morals, I can only state that there are as many good women on the dramatic stage as in any other walk of life.
The good that woman can do on the stage for humanity can be summed up in the good that the stage itself can do. We can not expect that only the work of great masters shall be produced in the numerous theaters. Very often the stage is used only for amusement, but even in that case it should not be detrimental to the better instincts of man. Lessing said: “ t is of the utmost importance that the amusements of the stage shall not be coarse and idiotic.” But he adds, and we all, I hope, believe withhim: “A good theater is more than an amusement, and can produce an effect second only to that of the pulpit. It helps to build up and to keep the purity of our language; it impresses our morals and customs; it ennobles both the performer and the public.”
In the present days there has appeared in a new form the old struggle between idealism and realism, similar to the one I alluded to in mentioning Sophie Schroeder. Thoré, the great French critic, says: “Art is the expression of the beautiful.” Nowadays, art is more often called the expression of the true, of nature. But, whether it is the beautiful that brings to our hearts the love of truth and justice,or whether it is truth that teaches us how to find the beautiful in nature and how to love it, in either case art does a noble work. It drags out the soul from its every day shell, and brings it under the spell of its own mysterious and wonderful power, so that a memory of this experience stays with the people, sustains them in their daily labors, and refines their minds.
Dramatic art has a more limited field than some of her sisters. While a painter or a sculptor can choose his own subjects, and only deal with nature as it appears to his tempperament,the actor has to follow the dramatic author. But the interpretation of the author’s work depends upon the performer. By transfusing his own soul into the character performed, the actor can either degrade or elevate the impersonation. There is no question that almost any part of the higher drama can be interpreted, without detriment to the author’s object, so as to appeal to the lower instincts of the public or to its higher intellect or sentiment.
It is in this direction that I think woman’s mission on the stage can be of great significance to her art, to her public, and to herself.
I have hitherto alluded only to the actress, although the connection of the female dramatist with the theater is of similar, if not stronger, importance. I referred to the subject in speaking of Hrosvitha, but the general treatment of the question belongs to the congress devoted to literature. There is, however, yet a third way in which stage and women react upon each other. It is the woman who goes to the theater. All of us have at heart the future of the American stage, and by this we mean the progress of dramatic art and dramatic literature. This future may, in some way, be made brighter by the combined efforts of the playwright and the performer, but in the present condition of affairs the improvement of the stage depends first of all upon the public.
In these last years of the nineteenth century, when materialism,or at least a practical spirit,rules over everything, the theater has become principally a commercial enterprise. We mayconsider this a drawback, we may seek remedies for it,but in the meantime we have to look at facts as they are.
Now we know that in all the economic questions the law of supply and demand is the supreme master; therefore the theater will produce what the public requires. The manager, the author, and the actor obey the public’s dictation.
Who can influence the public? I can think only woman. She forms the larger half of it, and can to a great extent rule the other half. The American woman especially has always been an important factor in all the civilizing influences. Her position in this country is superior to that occupied by her sisters elsewhere, and is due to her intellectual qualities and to the high general level of her instruction.
I am happy to say that there has always been a tendency on her part to protect and encourage true art. Hrosvitha’s spirit of refinement and poetry is still living in women’s hearts, and therefore I look with serenity and hope to the future, convinced, as I am, that the almighty power of American women will create a new era in the history of the American stage.
Source: The World’s Congress of Representative Women, ed. May Wright Sewall (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Company) 1894, pp. 164-175.