An Evening’s Entertainment

Nellie Melba as Ophelie in Thomas' Hamlet

I love dance and theater history, and it’s hard for me to resist references to plays, operas and ballets when I write.  The British public embraced theatrical entertainment well before Shakespeare blazed his way into history during the Elizabethan Era.  After the Restoration, London society, high and low, attended plays and concerts.  Even uber-sourpuss Oliver Cromwell enjoyed music and singing so much that he permitted opera performances during the otherwise theatrically-barren Protectorate.

My first book, To be Seduced, is placed just at the beginning of Charles II‘s reign, when English theater was about to burst into flame again, in no small part because of the introduction of a major innovation from France: the actress.  Women had been on the boards in Paris for decades, but the idea of female performers did not catch on in England until Charles II claimed his father’s throne.

While actresses or ‘opera dancers’ were regarded as fair game for a wealthy man in search of a night’s erotic amusement, attending performances was a respectable past time for their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters.  In the nineteenth century, even Queen Victoria attended the theater regularly.

In To be Seduced, Richard and Bethany attend a performance that begins in the afternoon, allowing patrons to return home during the relatively safe daytime hours (no streetlamps in 1661 London!) and permitting the use of natural light coming in through windows in the theater to help illuminate the performance.  By the time Kieran and Diantha in Her Scottish Groom attend a performance at the Opera Gautier in Paris over 200 years later, the streets and stages alike used gas lighting, enabling evening performances.

Afternoon or evening, audience members dressed to attend the theater.  It was, after all, an opportunity to display yourself to the world, especially when seated in a box above the main floor!  Even when Restoration playwrights had to to convert tennis courts into theaters, individual audience members knew their place: backless benches on the floor for the lowest classes, open gallery seating for the middle classes and private boxes for the aristocracy.  By the Gilded Age , the most luxurious theaters attached sitting rooms to their most expensive boxes.

The sumptuous appointments reserved for the wealthiest patrons contrasted sharply with backstage conditions for actors, dancers and singers.  Especially in their early careers, chorus girls and beginning actresses had a hard time making ends meet.  (Hence their rececptivity to the above-mentioned propositions.)  Rehearsal attendance was required, but not paid for.  Neither were costumes, wigs or accessories.  Many used the stage as a stepping-stone to a life of upscale prostitution for a few years, but many other women dedicated themselves to becoming skilled artists.  In the theater in particular, many women married fellow actors for their own Happy Ever Afters.

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Filed under Actresses, Ballet, Music, Opera, Theater history

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