WELCOME to Gorgeous Ladies of Historical Comedy. According to the annual Presidential Proclamation, March is Women’s History Month. To celebrate, over the next five weeks, G.L.O.C. NICOLE DRESPEL will shine spotlight on a few of her favorite funny women from the olden days. This week: Restoration-era actress Anne Bracegirdle.
If you were a theatergoer in the 1690s, you had a crush on Anne Bracegirdle. Trust me. Everybody did. And not because of her looks. According to the autobiography of actor Colley Cibber, Bracegirdle was kind of pretty…for a brunette (ouch), but she was so charming, vivacious and funny that you simply had to love her. So there’s your historical documentation of funny women accepting that particular compromise for four hundred years. In other news, my heart hurts.
Whatever. Mass approval is mass approval.
Anyway. Bracegirdle appeared in plenty of Shakespeare’s tragedies and he had no complaints (because he was dead), but her true talent was the funny. A number of parts in restoration comedies were written for and originated by her. In John Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife, she played the clever young niece of the lead character. In Thomas Betterton’s The Amorous Widow, she played a clever wife who was always outsmarting her husband. In William Congreve’s The Way of The World, she played the clever, strong-willed love interest of the male lead. You get the idea. It’s maybe a little disheartening to note that “the girlfriend” has been a staple of English-speaking theatre since it’s inception but a girl’s gotta make a living.
In a century when actresses were known for being loose women and mistresses (coughNell Gwyncough), Bracegirdle was renowned for her virtue and decorum. She was frequently seen donating money to poor basket-women. And while rumors circulated about potential love affairs—the most famous being that she was secretly married to Congreve—Bracegirdle was tight-lipped about her private life. In one famous anecdote, a man sent her a gift which she forwarded right on to his wife. This abundance of admirers plus her reputation for discretion earned her the title of “romantic virgin.” I’m impressed, because I tried to convince people that was a thing in high school and nobody bought it. (Also in college.) Unfortunately, Bracegirdle is probably best remembered for that one time an admirer tried to kidnap her and ended up murdering somebody he thought might be her boyfriend.* So that’s a bummer.
Bracegirdle eventually retired in 1707, having been ousted from the public favor by a younger actress because audiences are fickle bitches. So to recap: years of playing second fiddle, plagued by rumors, attacked by crazed admirers, and eventually an early retirement. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
…Is one way to look at it.
The other takeaway is that Bracegirdle was smart, savvy, and self-aware. She filled the ingénue niche better than anyone in her generation and had playwrights creating roles for her, thereby shaping the future of British comedy. Rumors be rumors, but she controlled her public image. And when she began to sense a change in audience favors, she chose to retire gracefully. Bracegirdle for the win.