Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Boy actors and sex II

Was a girl who pleased a man to save herself any different than one who did it for coins? Did I play the whore to Nat? So did the 'ingles' I spoke so scornfully of: pretty boy whom men desire.

Chapter VI, The Secret Player

How much would a boy actor be pressured sexually? And by whom? Sander, knowing that in her boy's garb she will be desired by both men and women, determines to be admired from a distance. This she can manage among Lord North's Men, the traveling company she joins who perform at manors and fairs through the countryside. One of the actors, Francis, gives her a few sidewise looks, but she passes half her tankard to him at meals and thus befriends him. Their little troupe is like a family. But she does have to flee North's Men with nothing but the clothes on her back when the actor she replaced returns and claims that she is a girl.

In London, she becomes an apprentice. Historically Alexander Cooke apprenticed to John Heminges, but in this story, when she arrives in London Heminges' wife Rebecca (widow of William Knell, a player who was killed in a brawl not long before) is having a difficult pregnancy. Sander joins the household of Tom Pope, another actor with Lord Strange's Men, Shakespeare's company in 1592, along with her old friend Jack Wilson who arrived earlier. Pope protects his apprentices much as Nicholas Wilson, manager of North's Men, did on the road.

The period between these two official employments, Sander is at risk. She reaches London and finds work with Dick Frith, blacksmith. The smith's apprentice Nat who attempts to seduce her is accountable to Frith his master, but what happens at night in the farrier's shed where the boys sleep is relatively private. At any rate, Sander chooses not to report Nat: she is in the smith's house on sufferance, having yet to make her way onto the stage. It's Sander's vulnerability that landed her in Frith's smithy in the first place, a haven after rowdies tried to attack her.

The extent of sexual danger to any boy actor varied, but he had some choice in the matter. Within the company structure he was as safe as he wished to be.

In the world outside the acting company, as Sander is living at the smithy, one had to look out for himself. She makes a sordid bargain with Nat, hence her reference to 'playing the whore' with him. If she satisfies him by touch, he'll leave her private person alone. At least for a while . . . .

Elizabethan England enacted strict laws against sodomy, and other 'perverted' behaviors were much condemned, as the writings of John Rainoldes illustrate. In his Th' Overthrow of Stage Players quoted by Lisa Jardine, Rainoldes makes allusion not only to sodomy but to 'homosexuality with and without flagellation, dress-swapping, male marriage, and sex between father and son (Still Harping on Daughters, 1983, 15-16). His hysteria, prompted simply by the existence of boy players, rather reminds one of extremist anti-gay rhetoric today and seems to reflect a similar pathology.

However, as Bruce Smith and Alan Bray have pointed out separately, the apparent virulent homophobia of Elizabethan law (death for sodomy, which could be so broadly defined as to include witchcraft, heresy, and treason) is not comprehensive proof of the social attitude towards homoeroticism in that era. Plays and poems are not the only countering examples.

There are also the realities of life, of all-male boarding schools, prentices sleeping several to the bed--and the fact that 'homosexual' as a defining term originated only in the late-nineteenth century. In Shakespeare's day, ideas of sexuality were fluid; one might participate in homosexual acts without being identified by them. Only when for example a marriage was barren because of the husband's inclinations elsewhere or for some offense such as rape were the laws were invoked. Court records recount amazingly few prosecutions.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Boy actors and sex

Boy actors and sex

"My master warned us: a boy who plays ingle will lose his place in the troupe. We can’t have our playhouse a brothel!"
Nat laughed. "Ingle! Brothel! Don't you just have the fancy words." His tone turned wheedling. "Come back to bed, Sander. I'm a lad, not a man. Nothing to do with your actors. Come sleep beside me." He leant on one arm, watching me.
Chapter V, The Secret Player

This is Alexander Cooke, defending his virtue against Nat, the blacksmith's apprentice, which he manages to do, barely--except it is her virtue she is protecting in this story. And whether Sander is accurately stating the case for boy actors is subject for debate. A chief argument of the anti-theatre polemicists in Shakespeare's day was the sexual ambiguity of boys playing women on stage. In her first chapter of Still Harping on Daughters, 'Female Roles and Elizabethan Eroticism' Lisa Jardine outlines the case. The boys' effeminacy and dependence 'create a composite boy/woman romance figure who is provocatively sensual' (Jardine, 1983, 27).

Kate Collins puts herself at risk in becoming Alexander Cooke. Like Rosalind in As You Like It, she regards playing the boy a safer alternative. Rosalind takes the name of Ganymede, Jove's boy beloved, suggesting the new sort of danger she could find herself in. And indeed when she meets her true love Orlando in the forest, they play out that sexual ambiguity. When Shakespeare's female characters take on male disguise, their lovers do not recognize them. So it is with Orlando--and yet he is attracted to this boy Ganymede, who says he'll cure him of his mad love for Rosalind. They go so far as to be 'married' by Rosalind's cousin Celia, and the moment that Orlando leans to kiss Ganymede is a charged one.

More so on the Elizabethan stage, where Ganymede is a boy playing a girl disguised as a boy. And one degree more than that, of course with Sander Cooke, a girl playing a boy who plays a girl that disguises herself as a boy. This delightful complexity was one of the initial inspirations for my novel.

As Orlando wants to kiss Ganymede, so perhaps the men in the audience were similarly attracted. Boy actors could be most provocatively sensual.

Or so went the anti-theatre arguments, citing Deuteronomy 22.5 that men in women's raiment are an abomination to the lord. Jardine cites one such critic, John Rainoldes, who in 1592 declined an invitation to three Latin plays at Oxford because they included stage cross-dressing. According to Rainoldes, such 'wanton female boys' incite every sort of lust and perversion. (Jardine, 14-15).

Why were such boys called ingles? This slang term for boys who were the object of male lust lasted until the eighteenth century, but its origin or allusion are obscure. The similarity to 'angel' is the best guess, angels being of indeterminate sexuality; 'angelina' was a slang term for a catamite.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Moment for Poetry

A slight digression today, in honor of the publication of the summer issue of the Los Angeles-based literary magazine Rattle. It includes a review I wrote of David Starkey's poetry collection, A few things you should know about the weasel. (Bibliosis, 2010). You can check it out:

Starkey, Santa Barbara's Poet Laureate, doesn't write directly about the themes of this blog, but at least one of his poems, 'Hitler's Art,' has an oblique connection.

I've heard it said, if Hitler had been a better artist, we would have been spared Nazism. This is not Starkey's point; his poem focuses more on the nature of art itself. The poem begins, 'I hate to admit it, but he wasn't bad' and goes on to say, 'He learned/the knack of when to lift the brush and when/to let the pigments blend.' Landscapes in watercolor: Hitler mastered technique. 'He couldn't, however,/draw a human face to save his life.'

The poem follows with a meditation about Elgar's Cello Concerto in E Minor, 'written the year after the first war' when Hitler was 'beginning/to sketch swastikas in earnest.' It was Elgar's last composition: after the death of his wife were 'fourteen/barren years till death, while Hitler's craft/increased.'

In conclusion, 'And I feel that I understand/the difference between architecture/and art, between exactitude and, say it, soul.'

Perhaps what keeps us reading and performing and debating Shakespeare's plays for more than four centuries is that ineffable quality: soul.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Boy Actor in England

“Oh, Jack, How do you do it?”
“Actors’ magic, my friend.”
“‘Tis the magic I wish to possess!”
“Poor Kate. Girls may not, you know.”
A sick anger choked me: if ‘t wasn’t ‘must,’ it was ‘may not.’
Jack rattled on. “Acting is too dangerous a life for a woman, traveling about, meeting all sorts, wearing costumes, pretending and lying. You saw us lie, Kate. See? I’m only Jack, no tragic maid.”
Chapter I, 'The Secret Player'

In his book 'Impersonations', (CUP, 1996) Stephen Orgel raises the question of why in Elizabethan England, alone of European countries, only boys were permitted to play women's roles onstage.

It's not as if sexual complications were thereby eliminated: quite the opposite. It was said that women actors in France, Spain and Italy were little better than whores--but even if true, so what? They played onstage, they conducted their private lives as they chose. There was no lack of women of loose morals in London either.

Preachers inveighed against the theatre in Shakespeare's day for its pretense and lying (lowly actors playing noblemen and kings) but chiefly for its sexual immorality. Not only could theatre-goers procure illicit sex with the shady ladies of Bankside near or even in the theatres, they argued, but boy actors playing women's roles caused all sorts of sexual disruption. Boys became objects of lust to both women and men.

During the rule of Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans, the preachers prevailed: London theatres were shuttered from 1648 until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Boy actors were only one reason; the entire theatrical enterprise was regarded as morally corrupt. Even in Shakespeare's day, public theatres were relegated to the suburbs outside London proper: to the north in Shoreditch or south of London Bridge.

Little is known about the reality of the boy players. Nor do we know the answer, beyond Virginia Woolf's speculations about Shakespeare's sister: what if a female had theatrical aspirations? If she were Italian and part of an Italian traveling troupe, perhaps she could play music at country faires: the line between music and theatre isn't clearly drawn. But if she were English-born, among the many doors closed to her was the canvas door of the players wagon.

We don't know what risk a woman actor would have endured, as we don't actually known whether boys on stage were sexual objects. Did they indeed provoke the lusts of women and of men? We merely have the horrified preachers to go by, and our own imaginations. The few theatre-goers who wrote their reactions spoke of Desdemona and other heroines as 'she', no hint that a boy played the role. Lisa Jardine in 'Still Harping on Daughters' argues that boys and women shared a state of dependency which was erotic. But boy actors were 'dependent' only in their status as apprentices (which, in theatre, was rather different from other apprentices): they performed in front of thousands of people as Katerina the Shrew or Juliet or Cleopatra, a profoundly independent and virtuoso action.
We know the names of just a handful of players who began their careers as boys, among them Alexander Cooke. Sander, as he was known, went on to become a sharer in Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, later, under King James, the King's Men, and there is a scattering of references to him. Sander Cooke, thus, was my taking-off point into a fictional exploration of the status of boy actors on Shakespeare's stage.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Welcome to Sex and Gender in Shakespeare's Theatre. I'll be posting here twice a week: news, reviews, and links on Tuesdays and my own little essays on Fridays, at least once that I'm back in town. This summer's schedule will be looser.
I look forward to your responses!

My novel 'The Secret Player' opens in 1591, with William Shakespeare first mentioned in Chapter IV and appearing as a character in Chapter VIII.

There are those who cannot believe the son of a Stratford-upon-Avon glovemaker could have written Shakespeare's plays--the current candidate of choice is Edward de Vere, the sixteenth Earl of Oxford. Robert Emmerich's film 'Anonymous,' now in production, takes this point of view. This is the so-called authorship controversy: 'Contested Will,' as James Shapiro has entitled his book on the topic.

My Shakespeare is not the lace-collared gentleman currently favored: he more resembles the image here, the so-called 'Chandos' portrait. Sharp brown eyes, an ear ring, thinning hair--and not a scrap of lace. His name is William Shakespeare, and he wrote the plays attributed to him. That portrait most likely was not painted from life, but never mind. Our delight is in his plays, not their authorship. You won't find that debate in my novel: its mystery lies elsewhere.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Genesis of Alexander Cooke

"You know wayward women are harshly punished."
"I shall not be wayward! I shall be--Alexander. Johnny says he's the grandest conqueror the world has ever seen."
Chapter II, The Secret Player

As Bill Bryson says in his book Shakespeare, The World as Stage, we know very little about the boys who played women in Shakespeare's plays. They had to have been terrific actors, given the demands of the female roles, from Juliet who takes the initiative with Romeo to those powerful queens Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra, with plenty of spunky gals in between, some of whom disguise themselves as boys.

In The Secret Player, I suggest that one of those boys, listed in the 1623 First Folio as 'one of the principal actors in these plays', was, in truth, a girl. Edmond Malone hypothesized in the 18th century that Cooke originated Shakespeare's principal female roles. I drafted the book long before 'Shakespeare in Love' came out; obviously Norman and Stoppard played with a similar idea in their screenplay.
Cooke's story assumes that the plays of William Shakespeare were written by the man himself, not the Earl of Oxford, Mary Sidney Herbert, a posthumous Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon nor Queen Elizabeth. The mystery lies with the boy players. We have a handful of names and some records as to who went on to become hired men (Alexander Cooke among them, eventually a share-holder in Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men). But we know very little about them; their lives intrigued me, particularly if one was born female.

Two other sorts of questions caught my imagination at the start. How did Shakespeare create such a rare collection of female characters, utterly unlike those in the plays of his contemporaries? He must have had friendships with unusual women other than his wife Anne Hathaway, who was apparently illiterate and, according to the lore, spent their marriage minding the home fires in Stratford Upon Avon, or any random mistress he might have had in London.

Secondly: what were the possibilities for a spirited girl in that era who couldn't bear falling into the expected feminine role? A village girl in particular, neither high-born nor wealthy.
And so Kate Collins was born, the girl who eventually becomes Alexander Cooke, actor. As with every project, this initial idea led me on unexpected paths relating to gender, sex, and the theatre of the times. Many of these became part of the story and of my subsequent writing projects, but also the basis of ongoing reflections and research which I shall offer here from time to time.

For example: what was the extent of literacy and education for girls in Elizabethan England? What women besides the Queen exceeded the limitations placed upon them? How much choice did a girl have in a husband? What were the laws relating to marriage? How common was pre-marital or extra-marital sex and under what circumstances? What was the sexual situation for boy stage players? What connection did women have to the theatre?
And a big one in the case of Alexander Cooke: might a girl who passed as a boy ever find the love of a man she dreams of--as a woman? What sorts of sexual complications will she run into on the way?