Performing on stage was a disreputable profession in Europe for several centuries. Acting was a transient occupation, and any profession that required extensive travel was regarded with suspicion as its members did not have roots in any specific community. Historically, many crimes, including theft and prostitution, were blamed on actors. Which was ironic considering theatre's origins from ancient Greek religious rites and medieval passion plays performed in churches note .
There was also the argument that if someone was good at pretending on stage to be what they were not, then they could be equally good at offstage deception.
Under some laws, female actors in particular could not sue for slander because being associated with the stage meant that they did not have a reputation to protect. This led to a self-fulfilling situation, in which nearly all women avoided the stage in order to protect themselves. Indeed, in Shakespeare's time, female actors were almost nonexistent and therefore female roles were usually played by either teenaged boys or very young men in drag.
Other professions that involved performing on stage could also carry the same negative image, such as singing or dancing.
This trope was used in early literary works as a shorthand to indicate that a female actor was The Vamp. As the stigma against acting decreased, it became a way to indicate either the desperation of a poor family, where a daughter or a wife would go on stage, or an obstacle to love, where a young man must get his parents to revoke the Parental Marriage Veto inspired by his love interest's occupation as an actor.
The 19th century saw a great amount of conscious effort to purify the stage, while the 20th century saw the rise in popularity of motion pictures and later television, all of which helped to make performing on stage far more respectable. Nowadays, it's more common for the film and music industries to be depicted as hotbeds of corruption and fragile egos. See Horrible Hollywood and Music Is Politics.
Not to be confused with the musical Wicked.
- 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.
- Played remarkably straight in Disney's Pinocchio, in which becoming an actor is equated with all the other naughty things that Pinocchio learns to avoid doing. Granted, he was joining the theater in lieu of going to school. Still, Jiminy gets in a Take That! at actors not needing consciences.
- Shakespeare in Love shows our actor friends a-whoring and a-wasting in houses of ill repute.
- 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."
- Touched on in Mrs. Doubtfire: At a custody hearing, Daniel makes a desperate plea begging the judge not to take his kids away. The judge dismisses it as nothing more than a manipulative speech delivered by an actor adept enough to fool his own ex-wife into thinking he was an old woman for several months, and he awards full custody to Miranda.
- The Shirley Temple film Dimples, set in the era of Antebellum America, features a Grande Dame disowning her nephew for getting involved in that dreadful theater business. She changes her mind when she sees how beautifully Dimples (Temple's character) plays Eva in a production of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
- Given a tongue-in-cheek nod in Paddington 2, when Mrs Bird (played by Julie Walters) goes off on a small diatribe about how actors are inherently evil and untrustworthy - they lie for a living, you see!
- 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.
- Used a couple of times in Jane Austen's works, although Austen herself was known to enjoy staging private plays for family amusement.
My Mother was the natural Daughter of a Scotch Peer by an Italian Opera-girl.
- Love and Freindship, the narrator's grandmother:
- In Mansfield Park, Fanny's disapproval of private theatricals is a mark of her character, even before the others use it as an excuse to flirt inappropriately.
- 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 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.
- Spoofed in Terry Pratchett's novel Wyrd Sisters where the town of Lancre has a law which says all undesirables such as actors must be outside the town boundaries by sunset. However it doesn't say they have to stay there, and everyone is fine with them popping back in after sunset to go down the pub.
- Several Jeeves and Wooster-stories deal with some acquaintance or other falling in love with a chorus girl, and the resulting familial disapproval. note
- Happens in Wodehouse's Blandings Castle stories as well.
- In the Sherlock Holmes story A Scandal in Bohemia, the titular detective is hired by a foreign king to find and steal the evidence of the king's scandalous love affair in case it gets used for blackmail. What makes the affair scandalous is, of course, that it was with an opera singer - a profession only one step at most above actress. Amusingly, in order to retain the scandalous feel of the affair in a more modern setting, the modernised adaptation in Sherlock had to change her from an opera singer to a lesbian dominatrix.
- In the Elemental Masters series, particularly The Serpent's Shadow and Reserved for the Cat, ballet dancing (and to a lesser extent other forms of acting) are seen as essentially vehicles for prostitution or stripping. Ballerinas are paid like crap but have opportunities to acquire male patrons, who pay very well indeed for their services; meanwhile, a can-can dancer lives off of tips from showing her legs. In an aversion, the viewpoint characters don't see this as dishonorable, but society as a whole finds the business rather skeevy (as well as the Back-Alley Doctor helping these women).
- When Marcus Didius Falco joins a troupe of traveling actors, it's mentioned that as well as the above-mentioned stigmas, officials also suspect them of being spies. Falco has to keep secret from Helena's family that she appeared in one production (dressed as a dab-chick). In a later book, Helena's brother reveals that he's fallen in love with an actress, and Falco just groans without waiting for further details, assuming she's some floozy who'll get him involved in scandal.
- Hetty Feather In 'Emerald Star', Hetty is a showgirl and a circus ringmaster, in 'Little Stars' she is a music hall star and then an actress.
- 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 Iolanthe, the Lord Chancellor has this to say.
In other professions in which men engage
Said I to myself, said I
And the stage (dramatic shiver)—
Said I to myself, said I
Professional license if carried too far
Your chance of promotion will certainly mar
And I fancy the same might apply to the bar
Said I to myself, said I
- 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!"
- The Splat book Book of Fiends (published by Green Ronin but written by Wizards of the Coast author Chris Pramas) introduced Ipos, a demon worshipped by a cult made up of actors and performers. Members of this cult are either truly morally destitute, as the stereotype claims, or sees membership as their way of coping, or even opposing the upper class. Ipos himself is a being that represents deceit and lies, very much how this Trope depicts actors.
- This trope is actually Older Than Feudalism. When Solon, one of the Seven Sages of Greece and a prominent politician, saw that the Athenian theatre, which was pure Greek Chorus until then, had an actor added to it, he came to that first actor (who was also the author of the play), and told him "What kind of example are you setting, lying in front of the entire polis?"
- The French Catholic Church actually forbade actors from being buried in churchyards. Even Molière only got a spot among the poor and the suicides, and even then only because Louis XIV himself intervened.
- Actor Eric McCormack, best known as Will Truman on Will & Grace, has said that when he was completing acting school, he was told he could be a stage actor or a screen actor, as apparently the school he attended looked down on television.
- There was a rather extensive treatise on the subject in the 16th Century, by one Johhn Northbrooke. This excerpt (adjusted for modern spelling) should tell one enough:
If you will learn how to be false and deceive your husbands, or husbands their wives, how to play the harlot to obtain one's love, how to ravish, how to beguile, how to betray, to flatter, lie, swear, forswear, how to allure to whoredom, how to murder, how to poison, how to disobey and rebel against princes, to consume treasures prodigally, to move to lusts, to ransack and spoil cities and towns, to be idle, to blaspheme, to sing filthy songs of love, to speak filthily, to be proud, how to mock, scoff, and deride any nation