The Wicked Stage

Theater, or any occupation where you performed on stage, was long held to be a disreputable profession in modern Europe. Acting was a transient occupation, and any profession that required travel was regarded with suspicion as its members did not have roots in the community. In history, many crimes were typically imputed to actors, including vagrancy, theft and prostitution.

Actors also basically lie for a living; if they're that good at pretending on stage to be someone they aren't, they must be good at lying offstage too. 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. Indeed, in Shakespeare's time, actresses were so rare that female parts were typically played by young men in drag. The plots of many plays did not help the matter. (Also, actresses painted.)

Other professions that involved "going on stage" could also carry the taint, such as singer or dancer.

Unsurprisingly, the notion 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.

Compare Horrible Hollywood.

Examples

Film
  • Shakespeare in Love shows our actor friends a-whoring and a-wasting in houses of ill repute.
  • Mentioned in 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.
  • In 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 devilish 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."

Literature
  • 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's works:
    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' 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.
  • Mentioned in a Judge Dee story, where an actress tells the judge he probably thinks actresses are all prostitutes.
  • 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 or the inn-cum-theatre where they regularly perform, if not both.
  • Huck and Jim meet a two-man Shakespearean troupe in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The guys are in town with "The Royal Nonesuch," and they turn out to be conmen. Their performance...didn't exactly meet with rave reviews.
  • In one of G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories, Father Brown realizes that an alleged High Church Anglican is a fake when his poses are inconsistent; for instance, he's severe about acting, which is rather more Low Church.
  • In Josephine Leslie's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Mrs. Muir's son insists that his sister change her name to go on stage — as a dancer — so he, as an Anglican priest won't be associated with her. His later mellowing is shown by his being merely somewhat embarrassed — and proud — when his grandson becomes an actor.
  • In Gene Stratton Porter's Freckles, in the Back Story, a wife had had go on stage — to sing — when a family was desperate.
    It was slow business, because he never had been taught to do a useful thing, and he didn't even know how to hunt work, least of all to do it when he found it; so pretty soon things were going wrong. But if he couldn't find work, she could always sing, so she sang at night, and made little things in the daytime. He didn't like her to sing in public, and he wouldn't allow her when he could HELP himself; but winter came, it was very cold, and fire was expensive.

Live-Action TV
  • It's revealed on Downton Abbey that the Comically Serious head butler, Carson, was a vaudeville performer in his youth. Carson is deeply ashamed of this. The rest of the characters look on this revelation as amusing at worst, and Lord Grantham is actually quite impressed by it.

Theatre
  • Show Boat discusses this in the number "Life on the Wicked Stage." Ellie disillusions her female admirers that she's only had scandalous affairs on stage.
  • In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the 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.
  • Invoked in "Peron's Latest Flame" in Evita: "And she's an actress/The last straw!"