Sunday, 8 December 2013

Particularly good legs

Margaret Hughes (c. 1645 – 1 October 1719), also Peg Hughes or Margaret Hewes, is often credited as the first professional actress on the English stage. Hughes was also famous as the mistress of the English Civil War general and later Restoration admiral, Prince Rupert of the Rhine.

Hughes became an actress during a period of great change in English drama. English drama had suffered greatly during the English Civil War and the Interregnum, being banned by a Puritan Parliament in 1642. This ban was finally lifted upon the Restoration of King Charles. Charles was a keen theatre-goer, and promptly gave two royal patents to Sir Thomas Killigrew and Sir William Davenant. During the Renaissance women had been almost exclusively banned from appearing as actresses on the stage, and there was a history of embarrassing incidents occurring for male actors in female roles. One famous incident occurred when a play which King Charles II was watching suddenly stopped. When he sent servants to see what the problem was it was found that the male that was supposed to play one of the female parts was still shaving. There were also concerns over this practice encouraging 'unnatural vice', which added to Charles' decision to issue a royal warrant in 1662 declaring that all female roles should be played only by female actresses. Killigrew and Davenant were casting women almost immediately following the Restoration, and once women began appearing professionally on the stage in the early 1660s, they won quick acceptance. Killigrew staged an all-female-cast production of his own play The Parson's Wedding in 1664, and again in 1672.

Hughes may have been the first professional actress in England. The occasion of her first performance was on 8 December 1660, in a production of Shakespeare's play Othello, when she played the role of Desdemona in a production by Thomas Killigrew's new King's Company at their Vere Street theatre. There remains some uncertainty over this, however. Some other historians place Anne Marshall as the first such actress, and there has been much analysis of the early recollections of John Downes, whose memories of the 1660s form a key part of Hughes' claim in this regard.

Hughes was famous for her charms as an actress; diarist Samuel Pepys considered her 'a mighty pretty woman', and she was said to be a 'a great beauty, with dark ringletted hair, a fine figure, and particularly good legs'.

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