Sunday, September 28, 2008

wherefore art thou, women on stage?

I often come across women speakers of all ages who don't know that the history of women and public speaking is a short one because of the long history of forbidding women to speak in public. And last night, I got to see that history in action at a performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC--because the play was staged as it would have been in Shakespeare's day, with an all-male cast. This article on the practice explains: Shakespeare’s day, no women appeared on stage. All of his great female roles, from Juliet to Viola to Cleopatra, were originally played by young men. Female actors were denounced as “monsters,” and a visiting French company that included women was booed off the stage in 1629.
The practice didn't end until the 1660s, so that none of Shakespeare's original productions featured women--despite the fact that Juliet, as the theatre's program notes "is often cited as one of the greatest parts ever written for a woman." (Today, of course, an all-male cast raises eyebrows for different reasons and in a different context.) In fact, this production notes that Shakespeare's eloquent poetry about the love between Romeo and Juliet had to carry even more power to be convincing with the audience when two men play the roles--and contrasts with the masculine-dominated world portrayed in the play.

Why does a modern woman concerned with public speaking care? It's just another historical example of the hurdles women have faced in attempting to express themselves in public, taboos that still resonate at some level with some people. Understanding and remembering these historical situations can help you understand negative feedback you may get--and help you turn current speaking situations to your advantage. (Photo of James Davis as Juliet from the Shakespeare Theatre. Go here to read an interview with Director David Muse.)