Women of the Stage – Actresses
It was on the stage that the women of Western Europe first found their full
liberation and equality with men. This was achieved, ironically, only by being able
to step out of their own personality to become a character in a play or to be seen as
an artist, rather than as themselves. Nevertheless, these women had the opportunity
to be seen, at least in one forum, for what they we re and appreciated for what they
could do. Those who became famous and wealthy, no doubt helped bring about a
change in how all wome n were valued. These pioneers we re in every sense
Adrienne Le Couvreur, 1692 -- 1730
Adrienne Le Couvreur was born in Reims, the daughter of a hatter, and first
we nt to Paris in 1702 (at the age of 10!) where she was employed as a laundress. She
was soon attracted to the world of the stage and by age 14 had organized he r own
company of amateur actors who played on private stages. She came to the attention
of the actor Le Grand, who arranged for he r to study acting and also found he r a
place in a drama troupe in Strasbourg. Thus, in the provinces of France, she
learned he r craft and also something of life, as at least two lovers left her pregnant.
Adrienne returned to Paris in 1715 and began to appear there as an actress.
By 1717 she was the leading actress of the Théâtre-Français and had become the
greatest French actress of the 18th century. She was known for the grace of her
carriage, her manners and he r voice. She was one of those actresses who initiated
the concept of naturalis m, acting and appearing as real characters. Through her
appearances in the plays of Corneille, Racine and Voltaire she is considered to have
played a key role in the reestablis hment of the popularity of the French theater.
Her natural tenderness made her the object of love of many Frenchme n,
young and old. One, the Comte d’Argental, fell in love to the degree that his
mother, fearing that her noble son might marry an actress, made plans to send him
off to the colonies. Much late r, when he was 85 years old, going through the pape rs
of his mothe r, he found this letter Le Couvreur had written to he r back at the time
of his infatuation. It was only one of several examples of her selfless generousity.
I will never see him again if you desire it. But do not threaten to send
him to the end of the world. He can be useful to his country; he can be the
delight of his friends; he will crown you with satisfaction and fame; you have
only to guide his talents and let his virtues act.
One of her love rs was Voltaire, whom s he had met in 1715 and had nursed
through an attack of s mallpox. On one me morable occasion she was with Voltaire
at the opera when the Chevalier de Rohan-Chabot approached and asked, “Mr.
Voltaire, what really is your name?” According to one account, Voltaire ans wered,
“My name begins with me, your’s ends with you.” As the nobleman raised his cane
to strike Voltaire, Le Couvreur distracted everyone by pretending to faint.
Another love r was Maurice of Saxony, by whom she had children. When he
desired to raise troops to regain his principality of Courland, she sold much of her
possessions to provide him with the necessary funds. While she awaited his return,
she became active attending the salons of Paris. Through her familiarity with
Voltaire, Racine and Molière she had become unusually educated and her
participation in the salons dre w to he r many influential ne w admire rs.
In 1729 the young Abbé and painter, Siméon Bouret, confided in her that a
rival, the Duchesse de Bouillon, had paid him 6,600 livres to give her poison
lozenges. She informed the police and the Abbé was arrested. Then, in another
demonstration of her character, she wrote the police asking the m to free him.
It is not that I wish what he said to be true; I have a hundred times
more reason to wish he may be crazy. Ah, would to God I had only to solicit
his pardon! But if he is innocent, think, monsieur, what an interest I ought
to take in his fate, and how cruel this uncertainty is to me. Do not consider
my profession or my birth; deign to see my soul, which is sincere and laid
bare in this letter.
There is no way, today, of knowing if his story we re true, but 7 months late r,
in February, 1730, she began to experience ever worsening diarrhea. After anothe r
month s he could no longe r appear on the stage. Within the same month, at age 38,
she died in the arms of Voltaire.
Because the reputation of actresses in general was still considered
questionable, the Church refused to allow he r to buried on consecrated ground --
although it did not hesitate to accept from her a very large gift for charity. She was
secretly buried at night by two friends in the Rue de Bourgogne. Voltaire was so
angry at this injustice that he wrote his critical poe m La Mort de Mademoiselle Le
Couvreur, which resulted in his being forced to leave Paris.
All hearts are moved like mine by mortal grief.
I hear on every side the distracted arts cry out in tears,
“Melpomene is no more!”
What will you say, you of tomorrow,
When you learn the withering injury
Done by heartless men to these desolated arts?
They deprive of burial,
Her who in Greece would have had altars.
I have seen them adoring her, crowding about her;
Hardly is she dead when she becomes a criminal!
She charmed the world, and you punish her!
No! those banks will never henceforth be profane;
They hold your ashes;
And this sad tomb will be for us a ne w te mple,
Honored in our songs,
And consecrated by your shades.
Peggy Woffington, born in 1714
Peggy Woffington was a vivacious and witty actress who, no doubt due to her
mix of Irish and Celtic blood, was also known for her temper. Except for the latte r,
Arthur Murphy, in his Life of Garrick wrote, “she was adorned with every virtue;
honor, truth, benevolence and charity we re her distinguishing qualities.”
Peggy was born in a slum in Dublin, the daughter of a bricklayer who died
when s he was 5 years old. At that age, Peggy began to help s upport the family by
taking a job carrying wate r. At age 10, a touring theater company pe rmitted her
the opportunity to play a part in the Beggars’ Opera and the novelty of her success
began her career.
She began playing small parts on the Dublin stage, while her mother sold
oranges at the entrance of the theater. She studied dancing and in gene ral prepared
herself for higher opportunity, which came in the form of replacing an ill actress in
the role of Ophelia. She was now age 20 and had captured the hearts of the theater-
goers of Dublin.
By 1740 she was in London, appearing in the best productions. She was the
fashion of London and pursued by nume rous men, including the famous Garrick.
In spite of he r great success in London, she had no desire to continue acting unless
she was at her best.
I will never destroy my reputation by clinging to the shadow after the
substance is gone. When I can no longer bound on the boards with elastic
step, and whe n the enthusias m of the public begins to show symptoms of
decay, that night will be the last appearance of Margaret Woffington.
By 1757, she had begun to fail physically due to an inte rnal disorder. He r
final performance was as Rosalind, in As You Like It, on May 3, 1757, Near the end
of the play, she spoke the lines, “If I were among you, I would kiss as many of you as
had beards that pleased me,” following which she uttered “Oh God!,” tottered off
stage and died, while the audience continued to applaud.
Caroline Neuber, 18th century
Frederica Caroline Weissenborn was born in Reichenbach, Germany, the
daughter of a strict Calvinist physician. When the fathe r learned that Caroline had
a lover, he prepared to give her a sound beating, but Caroline, rather than face this
disgrace, leaped out a window. A young actor, Johann Neuber, happened to be
walking by, helped he r up and carried her away to a nearby town whe re they were
The couple made their way to Leipzig whe re they became employed as
actors. It was at this time that they met Johann and Luise Gottsched and they
began working together on the goal of the restoration of Ge rman drama.
The driving force in this work was Caroline Neuber. She organize d a
theatrical troupe on moral principles unknown in the theater at this time. She
forced unmarried actresses to live with he r, in order to control their co nduct.
Unmarried actors had to eat at her table, to eliminate the tavern.
Her desire was to present only classic tragedies, but the public forced her to
include an occasional farce. She wrote,
Our tragedies and comedies are fairly well attended. The trouble we
have taken to improve taste has not been thrown away. I find here various
converted hearts. Persons whom I have least expected to do so have become
lovers of poetry, and there are many who appreciate our orderly, artistic
The famous German poet, Lessing, also mentions her at this time.
One must be very pre judiced not to allow to this famous actress a
thorough knowledge of he r art. She had masculine penetration, and in one
aspect only did she betray her sex. She delighte d in stage trifles . All plays of
her arrange ment are full of disguises and pageants, wondrous and glitte ring.
But, after all, Neuber may have known the hearts of the Leipzig burge rs, and
put these settings in to please them, as flies are caught with honey.
Soon, however, the public longed for its old tradition of buffoonery and
immorality on the stage and in 1733 he r contract to run the theater was not
rene wed. Caroline preferred unemployment to lowe ring her standards.
We could earn a great deal of money if we would play only the
tasteless, the obscene, the cheap blood-curdling or the silly, fashionable plays.
But we have unde rtaken what is good. We will not forsake the path as long
as we have a penny. Good must continue good.
Caroline and he r husband we re growing both older and poorer, now playing
only minor parts wherever they could find the m. After the death of her husband,
Caroline was still living in Leipzig, when in 1760 the city was bombarded and a s hell
crashed through the roof of the room whe re she lay ill. A friend, Dr. Loeber,
carried her to a nearby house, but when the owner found out she was an actress he
forced he r to seek lodging elsewhe re, fearful of having an actress die in his house.
When she died the village pastor would not permit an actress to buried in the
consecrated church burying ground and locked the gates. At night, several of her
friends lifted he r body over the wall and buried her. No praye r was given and no
hymn was sung for Caroline Neuber.
Claire Josephe Leris de La Tude (Mlle Clairon), 1723 -- 1803
Mlle. Clairon was born in Flanders to a mother who was not married. Seeing
no opportunities for education, the young girl announced to her mother that s he was
going to be an actress, whereupon her mother threatened to break her arms and
legs if she persisted in such a sinful idea. Nevertheless, from an early age she was
traveling with itinerant theater troupes.
She also knew how to impress men who could advance he r career.
Thanks to my talent, my good looks, and the ease with which I could
be approached, I saw so many me n at my feet that it would have been
impossible for me, being endowe d with a naturally tende r heart...to be
inaccessible to love.
Her accessibility to the love of the powe rful M. de La Popeliniére, the greatest
supporte r of the arts among the non-aristocrats, was responsible for her gaining
entry to the great stages of Paris. Her debut came when she was invited, in 1738, to
alternate with a famous tragédienne, Mlle. Dumesnil, in a production of Phèdre. A
large audience was expecting her to fare poorly, but “he r finely chiseled features,
her noble brow, her air of command, her clear, deep, impassioned voice” made such
an impression that she was judged as superior to Mlle. Dumesnil.
Perhaps because she was now in the social company of so many distinguished
persons, she began to read extensively and ultimately became very educated. She
even experimented with science and discovered that an empty vessel is the most
She was active in promoting the plays of Marmontel and Voltaire and was
credited with changing the dress of actresses on the stage from plumes and spangles
to dress appropriate to the character. She also changed the style of stage speech,
which had previously been with forced emotion and tre mbling, passionate gestures.
After a pe riod of retire ment in 1752, to be treated for syphilis, when she reappeared
in a production of Racine’s Britannicus, in Bordeaux, it was with a quiet voice with
restrained gestures and e motions. This inspired Diderot, in his The Paradox of the
Actor, to observe that a good actor is inwardly calm and self-possessed even in the
most passionate mome nts of his acting, adding, “What acting was ever more perfect
than Clairon’s?” Perhaps she invented method acting, for she once told he r friends
that when conveying to an audience a pathos that moved it to tears, she was actually
thinking of her monthly bills!
Her career on the stage continued with great success until, at age forty-three,
she refused to appear on stage in a production of Siége de Calais with an actor
accused of dishonesty. For this she was thrown into prison and refused to appear
again on the stage. In any case, by this time she had begun to lose her health and
the quality of her voice.
At about 50 years of age, she became the mistress of the 36 year-old
Christian Friedrich Karl Alexander, Margrave of Ansbach and Bayreuth, with
whom she lived for 13 years. But she missed Paris, even though the margrave took
her the re from time to time. On one of these trips he found a new mistress, and left
Mlle. de Clairon be hind, although richly endowe d.
Now 63 years of age, she began to frequent the better salons. She gave
elocution lessons to the woman who would become Mme. de Staël. She found ne w
lovers, including the husband of M me. de Staël.
During the Revolution her funds were deflated, leaving her in some pove rty,
which was alleviated by Napoleon. In 1801, Citizen Dupoirier desired to be her final
lover, but she wrote him,
It is likely that your me mory still recalls me as brilliant, young, and
surrounded with all my prestige. You must revise your ideas. I can scarcely
see; I am hard of hearing; I have no more teeth; my face is all wrinkled; my
dried-up skin barely covers my weak frame.
She was nearly forgotten in 1803, when she died from falling out of bed.