Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 November 2008
Historically, the figure of the actress has often been marked by absence and by exclusion. The theatre of the English Renaissance, like that of the Greeks, was famously without women, although it is true that in both cases scholars continue to debate why this might have been and how absolute the prohibition actually was. In Catholic Europe performers, both male and female, while sometimes much admired, were denied full religious burial rites. There was clearly an entrenched unease about their power. By the eighteenth century many European actresses were celebrated not only for their physical presence but for their special capacity for feeling, their unique insights into human behaviour. At the same time their public 'femininity' - culturally created and projected - may even have exceeded that of the female roles they played. Even so, their success depended upon the art of dramatists who were frequently, if not exclusively, male. Despite the more recent rise of feminist historiography, the ways in which modern actresses have confronted these situations, and their dealings with playwrights, image-makers, managers and entrepreneurs, are only now beginning to be being fully explored. The first 'actresses', in anything like the modern sense of the word, were Italian and, according to the most recent scholarship, they were, at least until the fifteenth century, mainly courtesans. The most celebrated, however, was a learned and respectable woman, wife of an actor, who lived in both Italy and France: Isabella Andreini. The early French actresses aspired to her example: Molière's partner and the driving force behind much of his work, Madeleine Béart, is perhaps the most famous example of this independent spirit. In England, with its transvestite theatre, the situation was very different.