Created By: Goldfritha on June 17, 2012 Last Edited By: Goldfritha on September 20, 2012
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Theater Is Disreputable

Actors are disreputable.

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Theater, or any occupation where you appeared on stage, was long held to be a disreputable profession in modern Europe -- under some laws, an actress could not sue for slander because her occupation meant she could not have a reputation to protect. This led to a self-fulfilling situation, in which many women avoided the stage to protect themselves. The plots of many plays did not help the matter. (Also, actresses painted.)

Unsurprisingly, it was reflected in literature, though a Forgotten Trope today. It's mostly a female trope, since A Man Is Not a Virgin.

In early works, it would mostly be used as a shorthand to indicate that an actress was The Vamp. As the stigma of acting decreased, it became a way to indicate the desperation of a poor family, that a daughter or wife would go on stage, or an obstacle to love, where the young man must get his parents to revoke the Parental Marriage Veto inspired by her occupation.


Examples

Literature
  • In Gene Stratton-Porter's Freckles,
  • In the last of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women books Jo's Boys, an actress discusses the purification of the stage with an aspiring actress.
  • In Jane Austen
    my Mother was the natural Daughter of a Scotch Peer by an Italian Opera-girl
    • In Mansfield Park, Fanny's disapproval of private theatricals is a mark of her character.
  • In Dorothy L. Sayers's Strong Poison, a major element of the Back Story is Rosanna Wrayburn, aka "Cremorna Garden", who ran away to go on stage and fully lived up the reputation of actresses.

Community Feedback Replies: 26
  • June 17, 2012
    NimmerStill
    Does this only apply to (female) actresses?
  • June 17, 2012
    Goldfritha
    Mostly. A Man Is Not A Virgin, after all.
  • June 17, 2012
    NimmerStill
    What does virginity have to do with it? My question is, were male actors respected in this time?

    It may have something to do with the fact that earlier, at least in Elizabethan times and maybe later than that, women where prohibited from the theater; men played the female parts. (I'm not sure exactly where and when this was.)
  • June 18, 2012
    foxley
    In The Pirates Of Penzance, Major-General Stanley is initially concerned that the pirates might be thespians.
  • June 18, 2012
    Frank75
    Did they give a reason for this?

    And I wouldn't be surprised if the same applied to male actors as well, especially the crossdressers. It's about the occupation after all.
  • June 18, 2012
    Duncan
    Male actors have always been considered disreputable, if not whorish, mainly because Theater is a very risky money proposition, and so it's likely that managers of a boarding house or inn would be dubious about putting up a group of itinerant performers.

    And yes, the boys-who-played-girls in Elizabethan times were often considered prostitutes as well.

    • Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead is perhaps the Trope Codifier in fiction; the Leading Player is duplicitous and willing to put on erotic adventures if the price is right, which will also include the hapless Alfred, the young crossdresser in the troupe.
  • June 18, 2012
    TheHandle
    Shakespeare In Love shows our actor friends a-whoring and a-wasting in houses of ill repute.
  • June 18, 2012
    animeg3282
    You know in Sakura Gari it was mentioned that the theater boys were often prostitutes. But that is neither here nor there, just saying that it;s for boys too.
  • June 18, 2012
    NimmerStill
    If it did apply to males as well as females, then the description should be revised to reflect that fact.

    Conversely, if it is more of a female thing, then the laconic needs help, and the description should be elaborated.

    Actually, the laconic needs help anyway.
  • June 18, 2012
    randomsurfer
    Another historical reason for actors (male and female) to be considered disreputable is because they basically lie for a living. If they're that good lying onstage (by pretending to be someone they aren't) they must be good lying offstage too.
  • June 18, 2012
    NimmerStill
    ^Shouldn't that apply to fiction authors too then?

    More seriously, if there's historical evidence that that really was part of the reason people thought this way, it should go in the description. Otherwise, probably not.
  • June 18, 2012
    TonyG
    Mentioned on An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.
    Tanya Mousekewitz: Look Mama, a singer... and an actor.
    Mama Mousekewitz: Tanya, stop that! You shouldn't stare at people less fortunate than yourself.

  • June 18, 2012
    foxley
    Another reason was that acting was transient occupation, and any profession that travelled was regarded with suspicion as they did not have roots in the community.
  • June 18, 2012
    randomsurfer
    ^^^I know I've seen it mentioned nonfictionally (as well as fictionally in stories about actors in Shakespeare's time & earlier), but I have no cite.
  • June 19, 2012
    Frank75
    @randomsurfer: I think you're on to something there.

    @foxley: Also fits. After all, people had no press and no internet to do research about the background, and might have been suspicious even of non-actors from another village.

    So or so, not that long ago actors were indeed as disreputable as prostitutes.
  • June 19, 2012
    Chabal2
    • Mentioned in a Judge Dee story, where an actress tells the judge he probably thinks actresses are all prostitutes.
    • In medieval Europe, some churches would refuse to allow performers to be buried in their cemetery (as their very occupation distracted the common folk from their life of misery and suffering, they were obviously in league with the dark powers).
  • June 19, 2012
    Antigone3
    I know part of the reason Kabuki theater uses male actors to play female roles is that the original female actresses were considered prostitutes.
  • June 19, 2012
    CosmicRock
    live action television/historical fiction

    • In the HBO western series "Deadwood", real life frontier thespian Jack Langrishe and his troupe are portrayed as cunning and clever nomads who charm their way into Deadwood's culture. Although in contrast to the rest of the bloodthirsty and greedy cast, they don't seem so bad. Jack Himself is shown to be a man of taste with a vision. Also, yes...some of his actresses are shown sleeping around with some of the men for money and favors.
  • June 20, 2012
    aurora369
    Isn't there a resurgence of the trope which brings the decadence, drug abuse and scandalous sex life of modern Hollywood actors to attention?
  • June 20, 2012
    animeg3282
  • June 20, 2012
    aurora369
    Then Horrible Hollywood should be mentioned in the description as something along the lines of "Compare Horrible Hollywood, which seems to be this trope rising back after ages of oblivion".
  • June 20, 2012
    NimmerStill
    ^Except that it doesn't apply to true theatrical actors, who are generally considered part of high culture nowadays.
  • June 21, 2012
    aurora369
    Well, back in the day theatre was the equivalent to modern Hollywood, and only became refined high culture after something more mass-oriented appeared.
  • September 20, 2012
    MorwenEdhelwen
    • Invoked in "Peron's Latest Flame" in Evita: "And she's an actress/The last straw!"
  • September 20, 2012
    69BookWorM69
    This must be revised for men and women both, since the stigma applied to both. As I understand the history, many crimes were typically imputed to actors, including vagrancy, theft and prostitution. According to TheOtherWiki: "In many parts of Europe, actors could not even receive a Christian burial, and traditional beliefs of the region and time period held that this left any actor forever condemned." I don't suppose it helped that they didn't seem to work (at least, not as obviously as a farmer or a miller or a craftsman) and they dissembled (lied) regularly in their profession. The deception is also related to the old stigma of make up and that of wigs (see Wigs Are Wrong).

    • This stigma is a recurring theme in Edward Marston's Elizabethan Theatre mysteries which feature amateur detective Nicholas Bracewell, the book-holder (stage manager) for Lord Westfield's Men, one of Elizabethan London's leading theatrical companies. There are recurring mentions of the legitimacy the company gets from having a nobleman as a patron (indeed, they would have been regarded as common criminals without it), and some of the plots turn on the possible consequences of losing that patronage and/or the inn-cum-theatre where they regularly perform.

    • In the film The King's Speech, King George V remarks on this when discussing the importance of radio with Bertie after giving his 1934 Christmas address. The king tells Bertie to try reading the speech himself, and when Bertie refuses, he replies:
      This devilsh device will change everything if you don't. In the past, all a king had to do was look respectable in uniform and not fall off his horse. Now we must invade people's homes and ingratiate ourselves with them. This family's been reduced to those lowest, basest of all creatures. We've become actors.
  • September 20, 2012
    CharacterInWhite
    • Slings And Arrows invokes this trope in spades. The story follows one theatre troupe where the original director dies of a stress-induced heart attack, only to be replaced by a highly schizophrenic and unstable actor who melted down in the middle of a Hamlet performance. He now deals with: His melodramatic ex-girlfriend, an ageing prima donna who's insanely jealous of the troupe's new and genuinely talented actress; a milquetoast manager who's being manipulated by a sociopath behind the scenes; and an action movie star who's trying to expand his portfolio.

    All this causes the troupe's investors to slowly pull their support, since the company is more or less falling apart because everyone is crazy.
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