Sunday, April 13, 2014

Playhouse Creatures: The Playwright and the Play

April De Angelis is a comtemporary British dramatist. Born in London in 1960 to a British mother and Italian father, she joined the Old Vic Youth Theatre as a teenager and later attended an acting school in London.

 While an actor with a feminist theatre called Monstrous Regiment she became interested in writing parts for women. She wrote a play for a local young writers’ contest because she felt it was “now or never.” Her play Breathless was the 1986 joint winner of the Second Wave Women’s Writing Festival.

 Since then she has written award-winning radio dramas and the libretti for three operas as well as plays for British theatres, from small companies to the Royal Court and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her 2011 play Jumpy was a commercial hit in London, and has since become a UK television series.

 In 2012, when the UK was cutting back arts programs in schools, the Guardian newspaper asked “playwrights and leading cultural figures” about “childhood experiences that inspired them.” De Angelis wrote that her life in drama began in primary school when she got the role of Toad in Toad of Toad Hall.

 “Drama at school was the key that unlocked me with its premium on curiosity and inventiveness; the joy of working in groups yet feeling your individual input was integral. Being inside the complex world of a play with its debates, strategies, motivations and allegiances was brilliant for confidence and developing a love of language. I wasn't a kid who was taken to the theatre, so school was the place. In the school mag at the time I said the cast felt like family. Drama creates engaged, articulate beings who are attuned to their connection with others – which is why it's been suppressed – it's a political act.”

 The Play

 De Angelis wrote Playhouse Creatures for a feminist theatre company called Women’s National Theatre (now called The Sphinx.) It opened in 1993, and has since become one of her best-known plays. It is one of several plays she set in the past, usually about women.

Playhouse Creatures is set in "approximately 1670."Until 1660 women characters on the English stage were played by men (most often by boys). This was true in Shakespeare’s time (as dramatized and satirized in the movie Shakespeare in Love.)

Then during the English Civil War, Parliament closed the theatres and banned all plays. Puritan soldiers raided illicit performances. The king, Charles I, was executed in 1649. But when England was once again ruled by a monarch, Charles II reopened the theatres. This inaugurated the period in theatrical history (as well as history in general) called The Restoration.

 But Charles II went further. During his exile in France, he’d seen women actors on the stages of Paris. So he decreed first that women actors could appear in England. After a brief period in which women and boys competed for roles, Charles II decreed further that women characters were to be played only by women. (According to Brian Cook, who directed Playhouse Creatures at the University of Oregon, this ironically got grudging official approval from the Puritans, who believed “unnatural boys” playing women was worse.)
Nell Gwyn

 As events in the play show, this was not entirely an enlightened decision by Charles II. He had an eye for actresses and conducted affairs with his favorites, Nell Gwyn prominently among them.

 For Playhouse Creatures De Angelis used as her main source a book by Elizabeth Howe, The First English Actresses.  All the actresses and other characters in Playhouse Creatures are based on real figures of the time (except for Doll Common, who is telling the story years later.)

 Not everything that happens in the play is historically accurate. (Mrs. Betterson didn’t stop acting in the 1670s because of competition from younger actresses. She continued acting until 1694.)  But De Angelis mined Howe’s book (and presumably other sources) for the historical atmosphere, and the general movement in the status of actresses as well as the lives of individual actresses. Howe writes that “no respectable woman became an actress. Society assumed that a woman who displayed herself on the public stage was probably a whore.”

 Audiences weren’t always approving. Yet as this play shows, women soon became essential to theatre and theatre companies.

 De Angelis does not attempt to mimic the speech of the historical period, but her dialogue is not exactly contemporary either. She gives each character a distinctive voice, from the street argot of Nell Gwyn to the ornate locutions of Mrs. Betterton, who in some ways anticipates older women characters in Oscar Wilde.

 But De Angelis is not trying simply to dramatize history. She is not attempting a naturalistic portrayal. Her comments are filled with words like “playfulness” and ‘fun.” The press notes for the Old Vic production described the play as a “tragicomic burlesque.” It incorporates comedy, drama, tragic fates, and the mixed emotions of actresses who feel exploited and yet feel “a longing, a longing” to be on stage.

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