The history of acting is full of stories about women who clawed their way into the business through a combination of wits, beauty, talent, and sheer, unmitigated determination. But first, there was “pretty, witty” Nell Gwyn, a poor London girl who leaped from selling oranges to theatergoers to the stage and then to the bed of a king, leaving a permanent mark on the history of theater in the process.
Theater loomed large in Restoration London. Charles I was executed in 1649 outside the Banqueting Hall of Whitehall Palace, the very center of British government; it was a highly public act of staggering symbolic importance, and it permanently shifted the balance of power between monarch and Parliament. (Once you’ve killed a king, there’s no unringing that bell.) For 11 years, Britain was a Puritan Commonwealth run by Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector, and public theater was prohibited. Elaborate masques had been a scandalous, expensive, and controversial feature of court life under the Stuart regimes under James I and Charles I, both, with women—even queens—taking part in court performances; the Puritans weren’t as strict or dour as they’re sometimes portrayed (operas were first staged in Britain under the Puritans), but public theaters went dark.
The return of a monarch meant the return of both the spectacle of monarchy and a version of public theater that incorporated exciting advancements that Charles II had encountered in his time in exile on the continent. The stage was redesigned, away from the thrust stages of Shakespeare’s day, which jutted out into the audience; the sets were more elaborate, with the development of moveable scenery. Most importantly: there were women. When Charles II handed out the first “letters patent” (a permission slip and a monopoly, all in one) for theater companies, he required that women play women’s roles, unlike in Shakespeare’s day.
Enter Nell Gwyn.
It’s not entirely clear who Gwyn’s father was; her mother was an alcoholic who quite possibly died by drowning while drunk. As Linda Porter puts it in Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II, the precise details of her early life are lost to time and “the various colourful stories about her upbringing in the Drury Lane area of London cannot themselves be substantiated. She may have found it useful and entertaining to tell people, as she apparently did Samuel Pepys, that she was ‘brought up in a bawdy-house to fill strong water to the guests.’” She was absolutely a poor Londoner, though, who at 12 or 13 was already hustling as an orange-seller at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, oranges being the popcorn of their day and orange-sellers something like midcentury cigarette girls who roved through the audience hawking citrus. But she climbed quickly, and within a couple of years, she was up on the stage.
She was part of a generation of actresses, women like Moll Davis and Elizabeth Barry, who saw an unparalleled opportunity to earn a decent living and seized upon it. (At the time, too, the playwright Aphra Behn was becoming the first woman in Britain to make a living off her writing; she was in fact friends with Gwyn.) The stage was hard work, and subject to public ridicule even for those who were successful. There was a close association between the stage and sex work; actresses were presumed to be sexually available. But there was agency in it, as well as money and fame.
Gwyn became enormously popular; she specialized in comedy and, with her lover and frequent costar Charles Hart, she pioneered a pair of roles known as the “gay couple,” a staple of Restoration theatre. She was known for playing witty, street-smart, assertive women, which was closely linked to her offstage history and persona.
But she climbed even higher, ultimately leaving the stage for the bed of Charles II which, at the time, promised a better potential retirement package than acting. It wasn’t an easy gig, any more than acting had been. A king’s mistress commanded a certain amount of respect, due to their proximity to power. But Gwyn was never accepted at court, where she was considered too vulgar. Charles II never granted her a title, unlike many of the mothers of his illegitimate children; he dawdled in giving his son by Gwyn a surname, and she had to temporarily return to the stage in a power-play to get a better house on Pall Mall from him. But Gwyn retained her cheerful fuck-you attitude; one account has her responding to some piece of cattiness by another of the king’s mistresses (Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland) by clapping her on the shoulder and announcing “she perceived that persons of one trade loved not one another.”
Porter argues that Nell Gwyn wasn’t one of Charles II’s most important mistresses in terms of actual political power in her time; however, she’s the one whose name still springs to mind for anybody with a passing knowledge of Restoration culture. She’s outstripped both her fellow actresses and her fellow mistresses. (Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland, isn’t popping up in a pub trivia question any time soon.) The flip side is that she’s often been reduced simply to her role as mistress of Charles II, the subject of his deathbed wish to his brother not to let Nell starve, the woman who—perhaps apocryphally—once placated a hostile crowd by dryly informing them that she was the Protestant whore. (As opposed to another rival mistress, Louise de Kéroualle, the French and Catholic Duchess of Portsmouth.)
But her legacy is so much bigger; her influence echoes down in the careers of the women actresses working today, in the work of dozens of witty and assertive women writers and comedians and performers. Today, she stares insolently out from her hard-earned place on the wall of London’s National Portrait Gallery, surrounded by lofty members of Restoration society, one nipple peeking out. She has an air of almost daring the viewer, egging her on, seeming to say: not too bad for an orange-seller, eh?