Nell Gwynn (1650–1687) may be unknown to contemporary playgoers, but her grit, wit and feisty talents deserve kudos even three and a half centuries past her initial turn on stage. Hats off to playwright Jessica Swale for seeing to it that she gets them.
Gwynn was among the first women to perform in the English theater. She went from hawking oranges to peddling verse. As any good comedienne will tell you (and Nell preferred comedy to tragedy, hands down): timing is everything. Her foray into performance occurred precisely when an illiterate but exuberant citrus seller could sway a theatrical genre and a king’s heart tout de suite.
When Charles II was restored to the English throne in 1660, professional theater was restored to England. The King issued two patents to playing companies: the first to Thomas Killigrew, manager of The King’s Men (or Company); and the second to William Davenant, who managed The Duke’s Company. (Folger patrons will recognize Davenant as the adaptor of the Macbeth that opened the current season). For reasons about which we may speculate, the King encouraged the two companies to “henceforth permit women to play women’s parts.”
Formal acting training was made available to women, but Gwynn was fast-tracked to the boards, thanks to the attention of theater artists Charles Hart and John Lacey, and likely that of Killigrew himself. Gwynn took to it. Her quick wit and earthy banter distinguished her from other female performers of the time, such as Moll Davies, Margaret Hughes, and Ann Marshall. Though to the discerning eye of diarist Samuel Pepys, Davies’s dancing was superior to Gwynn’s, Gwynn nevertheless delivered “so great performance of a comical part [a]s never, I believe, in the world before.”
The use of “actoresses” affected activity on theatrical stages and pages alike. In the words of Swale’s Killigrew, the use of real women means female characters “won’t need to be so feminine anymore.” Rather than rehash portraits of idealized ladies defined by extraordinary chastity or patience, playwrights crafted roles with an eye toward the actresses who would play them.
In the 17th century, a woman’s choice to embrace the stage would instantly distance her from traditional notions of temperance and virtue. The very nature of performance put an actress’s body on display, and feminine speech—an accepted sign of female wantonness—was the actress’s primary tool. These early women of theater were no shrinking violets. Scholars attending to Restoration Comedy consistently note a shift among female characters in their more pronounced demonstrations of wit, autonomy, and desire.
Gwynn offered up to audiences a clever mind, playful charm, skillful mimicry, and a frankness of appetite for which she was wholly unashamed. She took her mentor Charles Hart as a lover, and later Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst. When she captured the heart of Charles II, King of England, she insisted that to her he was Charles the third.
Gwynn became the King’s mistress toward the end of the 1660s. Biographers write that he was taken by her “madcap wit, at once so innocent and penetrating” (Beauclerk). Plus, she taught Charles how to fish. Unlike his other mistresses (and this sovereign had more than a few), Gwynn did not press him for a title for herself, though she did so for their firstborn son. He became Charles, Duke of St. Albans, the only one of the couple’s two sons to survive to adulthood.
Gwynn’s career did not end with her move from a theatrical house to a royal one. She returned to the stage after Charles’s birth, three years into her relationship with the King. The choice to continue with a career, however briefly, suggests her attachment to the art. Audiences flocked to Gwynn, impressed by her craft, her bedfellow, or both.
Swale’s play indicates similarities between the theater and court, actor and politician, and the dangers and delights of a live audience. Gwynn coaches her hesitant King on the value of action, and on the benefits of collaboration and trust, essential to players of all kinds. Her unexpected relationship with Charles II lasted over eighteen years until his death in 1685. On his deathbed, Charles spoke of his “poor Nelly,” urging her remembrance and, we might imagine, the conclusion of a quite remarkable run.
Top right: Orange seller Nell Gwynn (Alison Luff, center) addresses the King’s Acting Company backstage in Folger Theatre’s Nell Gwynn. (Pictured left to right: Nigel Gore, Catherine Flye, Kevin Collins, Christopher Dinolfo, Alex Michell, Michael Glenn.)
Bottom left: Nell Gwynn (Alison Luff) rehearses with her scene partner Charles Hart (Quinn Franzen).
Bottom right: Nell Gwynn (Alison Luff) entertains a new fan—King Charles II (R.J. Foster)—backstage.
Photos by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet.
Produced by Folger Theatre, Nell Gwynn was written by Jessica Swale with original music by Kim Sherman and Directed by Robert Richmond. Scenic design by Tony Cisek, costume design by Mariah Anzaldo Hale, lighting design by Andrew F. Griffin, and sound design by Matt Otto.