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Actresses in Female Authored Plays

Female actresses and playwrights of the Restoration Period often forged mutually beneficial relationships. With the addition of actresses, London theater changed dramatically, greatly contributing to the portrayal of female characters on stage. Both Elizabeth Barry and Susanna Verbruggen forged successful working dynamics with Aphra Behn, Mary Pix, and Catharine Trotter.


Elizabeth Barry (c. 1658-1713)

Elizabeth Barry was a London stage star born for Aphra Behn's theater. Famed female playwright of her day, Behn had a long working relationship with Elizabeth Barry. The actress was a force on stage, not for her beauty, but for her presence, heightened by the backstage  gossip of her rumored affair with John Wilmot, the earl of Rochester (ODNB). In fact, nine months after Barry is cast as Hellena in the first performance of Behn’s The Rover, March 1677, Barry gave birth to Rochester’s lovechild in December.

Critics note her improved performance by the time she becomes solidified as Behn's golden girl. After playing Hellena, Barry stars as Cornelia in The Feign'd Curtizans. Both characters were strong-willed female protagonists in popular plays of the 1670s that share similar sensational plots written by Behn (Todd). Barry is cast in both productions as a wealthy, unwed, and independently-minded young woman. Both Behn, as the playwright, and Barry, as the performer, reflect the independence of these women they portrayed in drama.  

Perhaps Barry’s success under Behn’s helm inspired her to the craft of production. She became a successful stage manager and co-creator of the Lincoln's Inn Fields Company, which performed the unknown female playwright Ariadne's She Ventures, and He Wins later in Barry's career, in 1695. Scholars have indicated suspicion that Barry was in fact the writer, which would make sense, given the complimentary prologue towards the late Aphra Behn (Todd).

Barry remained a highly acclaimed actress into the 1690s and even took part in the new productions of 1695-96 season. In the “To the Reader” note of The Royal Mischief, Mary Delarivier Manley compliments Barry’s portrayal of the anti-heroine, Homais: “[She] excell’d and made the part of an ill Woman, not only entertaining, but admirable.” Barry’s ability to breathe complexity and emotion into the villainous role would have encouraged viewers to empathize with the "ill Woman" and appreciate the plot. Furthermore, Barry's reputation may have lent weight and legitimacy to the production itself. 

Epilogue Spoken by Mrs. Verbruggen, in Agnes de Castro
Susanna Verbruggen was frequently chosen to recite epilogues, such as this one from Catharine Trotter's 1695 printed edition of Agnes de Castro

Susanna Verbruggen (c. 1667-1703)

Susanna Verbruggen was a popular actress of Restoration era, known primarily for her comedic talents. Her theatrical debut with the King’s Company at Drury Lane may have been as early as 1681 at the age of 14. Yet as her career progressed, she is noted to have performed at Dorset Garden as well. She often sought out to speak prologues and epilogues. After 1694, Verbruggen was known for playing many characters in new productions like Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse. Not surprisingly, she starred in many of Colley Cibber’s works, including Love’s Last ShiftLove Makes a Man, and She Wou’d and She Wou’d Not.

Notably, Verbruggen performed in several female-authored plays which were being introduced to British theater for the first time towards the turn of the century. In the 1695-96 season, she spoke the Epilogue for Catharine Trotter’s first play, Agnes de Castro, in men’s clothes. Verbruggen's assignment as speaker appears to have been deliberate. Not only was she very famous for her breeches roles. The epilogue [image right, excerpt below] implores the audience to look favorably upon the novice author:

Applaud her then, for Curiosity
She only sculks to be from Censure free;
Admire her Strength of Judgment, praise her Wit,
And croud each Night the Boxes and the Pit:
Pufft up with her Success, she’ll soon appear,
Which Women oft have parted with for you,
But to dear Vanity they’re always true (Trotter).

Trotter calls attention to her gender, clearly referring to the writer as "she." The actress becomes a vehicle to convey Trotter's various sentiments and expecations, including freedom from "censure" and "praise" for her wit. Vergruggen's status and acclaim would have been a positive asset for the female playwright, who has yet to establish rapport with the public. Verbruggen also went on to appear in Mary Pix’s Ibrahim (1696) and The Spanish Wives (1696) as well as Trotter’s rather unpopular comedy, Love at a Loss (1701). Ironically, Verbruggen also performed (almost simultaneously) in the scathing satire of these women playwrights, The Female Wits (1696) by the anonymous W.M. Verbruggen was not casted directly as the satirized versions of Trotter and Pix. However, she was given the most prominent role of the vain Marsillia, the caricatured counterpart of another playwright, Mary Delarivier Manley.  


Mrs. Cross, engraved portrait
Letitia Cross by John Smith, after Thomas Hill. (1700)

Letitia Cross (c. 1677-1737)

Letitia Cross started her career early as a young girl, singing or reading prologues and epilogues. She read the prologue of Ibrahim: Thirteenth Emperor of the Turks by Mary Pix during the play's initial 1695-1696 run, and is duly credited in Ibrahim’s first printing in 1696. Like Susanna Verbruggen does in epilogue of Agnes de Castro, Cross beseeches the audience on behalf of Pix and concedes the viciousness of public censure: "The Pit our Author dreads as too severe, / The ablest Writers scarce find mercy there" (Pix ). Cross's youth (she would have been nineteen-years-old at the time of Ibrahim's premiere) appears to have been a crucial asset and charm (Baldwin and Wilson, ODNB). 

She later became successful enough to have parts written for her, as she was a good singer and had a talent for playing tomboyish characters. Ironically she played a minor character satirizing herself in The Female Wits, which refers to Cross as “a little Cherubim,” and “a little inconsiderable Creature.” Cross played many small roles, including roles in Mary Pix’s Spanish Wives, Oroonoko, adapted from Aphra Behn’s novel of the same name, and The Basset Table by Susanna Centlivre. Cross continued performing until 1732, five years before her death on April 4, 1737 (Highfill).