Thursday, October 7, 2021

Peg Woffington's Lothario

Nicholas Rowe's play The Fair Penitent, based loosely on Philip Massinger and Nathan Field's The Fatal Dowry, contains an excellent role for actors specializing in villains: Lothario!

But what if the actor who played the villain was... an actress! Well, the most recent issue of Theatre Notebook contains an excellent article by Annette Rubery on the 18th-century actress Peg Woffington playing the role.

Woffington had a long and productive artistic partnership with David Garrick, primarily appearing in comic roles, but she also played Lady Randolph in the London premiere of John Home's tragedy Douglas. It was in 1753, however, four years before she excited audiences in Douglas, that Woffington appeared at the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin as Lothario, the villain of Rowe's tragedy.

Though Woffington's performance as Lothario was not considered a success, it was famous enough to be recorded in paint by the artist John Lewis, whose depiction of her in the role is now owned by the National Portrait Gallery in London. She also was not the first woman to play Lothario, as that distinction belongs to Charlotte Clarke, the eccentric daughter of the actor and dramatist Colley Cibber.

Rubery argues that Woffington played Lothario in an effort to seriously show off her talents as a performer. Women who appeared as men in comedies were not expected to act entirely realistically, and part of the fun for the audience was to see a person they knew to be female in a male role. This could actually reinforce gender binaries rather than fight against them, since a woman playing a man was being held up as something inherently comic.

When a woman played a man in a tragedy, however, which was thought of as more realistic, she was expected to make the audience forget her sex and enter more fully into the illusion of the play. This, Rubery argues, made Woffington's appearance as Lothario a bit scandalous. She quotes a rather interesting poem that commemorated the performance:

     All adroit, each taper Thigh enclos'd
     In manly Vestments, with Parisian step;
     Light as the bounding Doe she tripp'd along,
     The gay LOTHARIO, in his Age of Joy.
     Venus surpriz'd, thus whisper'd 'Let me die,
     If dear ADONIS wore a lovelier Form.'
     Then clasp'd the Youth-dres'd Damsel to her Breast,
     And sighing, murmur'd, O that for my Sake
     Thou wert this Instant what thou represents.

Perhaps the realism of Woffington's Lothario was a bit too much for audiences to take. In the play, Lothario is a heartless seducer of women. How much worse it might have been in the minds of some audience members if that heartless seducer of women was another woman!