The Evolution of the Actress:
From the 16th Century to Sarah Bernhardt
Maria Abbe History 102 March 17, 2010
Thesis: Sarah Bernhardt’s fame and notoriety in film and on the French stage during the late 19th and early 20th centuries made being an actress a respectable job for women in European society.
I. Introduction: Sarah Bernhardt strongly influenced the respectability of being an actress.
A. Brief outline of how actresses were perceived in society in each century.
II. Views on female actresses prior to Bernhardt’s time.
A. Women in theatre during the 16th Century
1. Women in Shakespearean theatre
a. Women’s roles were played by young boys.
2. Commedia dell’Arte – Italian improvised drama
a. A type of masked theatre that usually had a family for its cast,
with a husband and wife.
b. Despite opposition, this type of theatre gave women a place on
B. Women in theatre during the 17th Century
1. Women first appeared on the English and Parisian stages.
2. Actresses of this time were considered unwomanly and improper as they had to put themselves on public display in order to work.
C. Women in theatre during the 18th and early 19th Centuries.
1. Women during the 18th and 19th centuries often led boring lives as
they weren’t allowed to do what men took part in.
2. Aristocratic libertinism- the activity in the high society of France of pursuing the pleasures of the flesh.
a. Seduction was a game; when actresses came along, men of
high society preferred them as opposed to high-born women
because they weren’t married and were seen as exotic.
b. Previous to their acting careers, many actresses had been
prostitutes; they were known for their bad morals.
c. Allowed actresses to make a name for themselves in the courts.
3. Actresses in the 19th century started to make a career out of acting, but were still dominated by males in society.
III. Sarah Bernhardt’s rise to fame.
A. Early life of Sarah Bernhardt