Sapphic Theatre & Lesbian Stage Actresses Throughout History

In the early days of musical halls, clandestine lesbian stage actresses dressed up as boys, then played Lady Macbeth... to huge success. But lesbian plays were forced off Broadway and, later The Hays Code (from 1934 to 1968) censored queer theatre adaptations for film. Check out some courageous lesbian theatre actresses.

Lesbian Stage Actresses   |   Lesbian Film Actresses
 

Sapphic Theatre

In bocca al lupo! Slap my wrist, and v sorry, I am not a culture theatre vulture, but I hugely respect it as an artistic medium.

Musical Hall Male Impersonators

During the 1850s, Victorian music halls became a popular form of entertainment for the British and American working classes. As demand for performers increased, in the 1860s working class women such as Annie Hindle (a lesbian) found freedom in the music halls, and some of these ladies were inspired by the lions comiques - male performers who parodied upper-class toffs made popular by Alfred Vance and G. H. MacDermott. Popular male impersonators and transveti include...

Ella Wesner (a lesbian), Matilda Powles, known by her stage name, Vesta Tilley (not a lesbian) all who performed across the pond and American blues singer Gladys Bentley. Newspaper reviewers treated the male impersonators in the same way as the male performers that they performed with and according to Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity “gave no indication that any portion of their acts or their appearance as any type of character was seen as transgressing standards of decency.”

By the 1930s, however, the golden era of male impersonation was over. In America, a new conservatism took hold as the Great Depression took affect while in Britain music halls gradually disappeared. Only Ella Shields and Hetty King continued successfully into the 1950s. One of last standout performers was Stormé Delaverie, who performed from 1955 until 1969 (as documented in the film Storme: The Lady of the Jewel Box).

Some Lesbian Plays Which Were Forced Off Broadway

Got Fun Nekome / God of Vengeance (1907) - Lesbian Play
Sholom Asch play Got Fun Nekome (Yiddish for God of Vengeance) is thought to represent one of the earliest depictions of lesbians in theatre. The play revolves around the daughter of a brothel owner, who is to be married off to a respectable young man. Unbeknown to her farther, she has been secretly having fun with the prostitutes who live beneath her family's home and, has fallen in love... with one of the prostitutes. God of Vengeance was first produced in Berlin, then in Provincetown in 1922, and, in Broadway in 1923, where it created a such a scandal with the first lesbian passionate kiss between two woman on stage, that the entire company was hauled into court on charges of indecency.

La Prisonnière / The Captive (1926) - Lesbian Play
Frenchman Édouard Bourdet wrote a play called La Prisonnière about a young woman Irène who is in love Madame d’Aiguines, but is engaged to a young man Jacques. The play premiered in Paris in 1926 and toured Vienna, Berlin, where it set records for attendance, Netherlands, Switzerland, and Belgium. When it was adapted and produced on Broadway as The Captive, it caused a ruckus in New York City. Throughout the play Mme. d'Aiguines is not seen, but leaves behind small bouquet of violets for Irène, as a symbol of her love. Perhaps the objection was that the character Irène is depicted as a femme lesbian who is attractive, and seductive and contrary to the stereotype of a "mannish" lesbian? Plain clothes police were ordered to monitor The Captive (160 performances in) and Mae West's play SEX four days later, the casts of both plays were arrested. Attorneys for The Captive secured the release of the cast by agreeing with the office of the District Attorney to withdraw their play from the stage. This prompted the adoption of a state law dealing with obscenity.

Hays Code vs Theatre

Whilst researching this lockdown 2 project I discovered that lesbian plays which were adapted as movies were more open than the movie versions due to the Hays Code era (of 1934 to 1968). For nearly 40 years, The Hays Code censored American film content by restricting for example depictions of homosexuality. Filmmakers still managed to get around the Hays Code, but gay characters were cloaked in innuendo, leading to some necessary decoding.

The Children's Hour (1934) - Play
The Children's Hour was written by American playwright Lillian Hellman and was based on a true scandal in Scotland in 1810 about two women in charge of a boarding school accused of having a lesbian affair, and how this scandal destroyed their lives. The case was detailed in the essay "Closed Doors, or The Great Drumsheugh Case" in Bad Companions (1931) by William Roughead. Although the play dealt explicitly with lesbianism and was a great New York theatre success, due to the Hays Code in the 1936's These Three, movie directed by William Wyler, instead of a rumoured lesbian relationship, one of the women was accused of having an affair with the other’s fiancé. In 1961, there was a second film version of the play The Children's Hour when the Hays Code had loosened up a bit and though their is an innuendo of coming out between the two teachers - the word "gay" or "lesbian" is not explicitly said.

Sapphic Theatre: Charlotte Cushman

Charlotte Cushman

Charlotte Cushman started out as contralto singer in 1834, but as her voiced failed she turned to theatre. She is famous for her roles as Lady Macbeth... more

American Stage Actress: 1816 – 1876

Sapphic Theatre: Annie Hindle

Annie Hindle

Annie Hindle started her career in English music halls in 1864 as a male impersonator. In 1868, she left for America and became... more

English-American Male Impersonator: 1840 - 1897

Sapphic Theatre: Ella Wesner

Ella Wesner

Ella Wesner was the most celebrated male impersonator of the 1870s Vaudeville circuit, performing at impresario Tony Pastor's theatre and touring... more

American Male Impersonator: 1841 – 1917

Sapphic Theatre: Eleonora Duse

Eleonora Duse

Eleonora Duse came to fame in Italian versions of roles made famous by Sarah Bernhardt. She gained her first major success in Europe, then toured South America... more

Italian Stage Actress: 1858 – 1924

Sapphic Theatre: Loie Fuller

Loie Fuller

Claire Mead describes her wonderfully as: Loïe Fuller - Lesbian Electric Fairy of the Belle Epoque. Fuller was an American dancer who was one of the founders of... more

American-French Dancer: 1862 – 1928

Sapphic Theatre: Vesta Tilley (Matilda Alice Powles)

Vesta Tilley

Vesta Tilley was the stage name for Matilda Alice Powles who was one of the most famous male impersonators of the Music Hall era. By the 1890s, Tilley was England's... more

English Male Impersonator : 1864 – 1952

Sapphic Theatre: Edith Craig

Edith "Edy" Craig

Edith Craig was a prolific actress, theatre director, producer, costume designer and early pioneer of the women's suffrage movement in England. Craig performed in plays by... more

English Theatre Director: 1869 – 1947

Sapphic Theatre: Cicely Hamilton

Cicely Hamilton

Cicely Hamilton (née Hammill) was an English actress, writer and journalist. As a suffragist she was a founder of the Women Writers' Suffrage League, a member of the... more

English Stage Actress / Playwright: 1872-1952

Sapphic Theatre: Anna Pavlova

Anna Pavlova

Anna Pavlova is regarded as one of the finest classical prima ballerinas in history and was most noted as a principal dancer of the Imperial Russian Ballet and the... more

Russian Ballerina: 1881 – 1931

Sapphic Theatre: Vera 'Jack' Holme

Vera 'Jack' Holme

Vera 'Jack' Holme was an actress and a suffragette. She was a member of the women's chorus in the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company's Gilbert and Sullivan... more

English Stage Actress: 1881 – 1969

Sapphic Theatre: Lyudmila Erarskaya

Lyudmila Erarskaya

Lyudmila Erarskaya was a notable actress who performed in the Moscow theatre in pre-Revolutionary Russia, staged productions in Crimea during the Russian Civil War and... more

Russian Stage Actress: 1890 – 1964

Sapphic Theatre: Gwen Lucy Ffrangcon-Davies

Dame Gwen Lucy Ffrangcon-Davies

Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies was an actress of the screen and stage whose career spanned almost eight decades. Her career began on the stage in 1911 playing roles such as... more

English Stage Actress: 1891 – 1992

Sapphic Theatre: Katharine Cornell

Katharine Cornell

Katharine Cornell was dubbed "The First Lady of the Theatre" and in 1935, was the first stage performer to receive the Drama League Award, for Romeo and Juliet. Her most... more

American Stage Actress: 1893 – 1974

Sapphic Theatre: Moms Mabley

Moms Mabley

Moms Mabley was the first comedian to incorporate lesbian stand-up routines into her act. In the 1920s, she began her career on the theatre stage and became a... more

Afro-American Actress: 1894 - 1975

Sapphic Theatre: Therese Giehse

Therese Giehse

Therese Giehse was a German Jew actress. After seven years working in the German provinces, in 1926, she landed a position with the Munich Kammerspiele and later... more

Jewish German Actress: 1898 – 1975

Sapphic Theatre: Eva Le Gallienne

Eva Le Gallienne

Eva Le Gallienne was an actress and Broadway star by the age of 21. Backed by the financial support of her lover, Alice DeLamar, who was a wealthy Colorado... more

British-born American Actress: 1899 – 1991

Sapphic Theatre: Dorothy Patten

Dorothy Patten

Dorothy Patten was an actress who appeared in 30 Broadway plays, several movies and in television shows. On Broadway... more

American Theatre Producer & Actress: 1905 – 1975

Sapphic Theatre: Carolyn Gage

Carolyn Gage

Carolyn Gage best known work is The Second Coming of Joan of Arc, a one-woman play about Joan of Arc (who believed that God had chosen her to... more

American Playwright & Theatrical Director: 1952

Sapphic Theatre: Cherry Jones

Cherry Jones

Cherry Jones is considered to be one of the foremost theatre actresses in America. Among her countless award nominations she she has won 2 Tony Awards for... more

American Actress: 1956