Genders OnLine Journal

Issue 50     2009

Striking the Posture of a Whore
The Bawdy House Riots and the “Antitheatrical Prejudice”


[1] In his oft-cited defense of metaphysical poetry T.S. Eliot provocatively comments on what he terms a seventeenth-century “dissociation of sensibility,” an aesthetic sea change “from which we have never recovered” (288).  For Eliot, the English Restoration saw the emergence of a new aesthetic economy that divorced idea from sensation, observation from experience, and thought from feeling. Although concerned with a slightly later Continental context, György Lukács offers us a useful way to contextualize this artistic fall, drawing out the connections between what he similarly labels a “deterioration” of the aesthetic and the rise of reified culture. Lukács observes that humanity’s desire for unity, harmony, connection to the world and to others becomes ever more acute as their existence is increasingly shaped by atomization, alienation, and (self-) division.  “The bleaker and emptier life becomes under capitalism,” he writes, “the more intense is the yearning after beauty” (“Ideal,” 89).  However, in as far as the artistic “harmony” characterizing post-capitalist artistic production involves a flight from the world of the living, modern ideologies of artistic “harmony” tend to be “illusory and superficial” (89).  Structured by escapism, modern aesthetic harmony is too often conditioned by withdrawal into an atomized, solipsistic psyche, “craven retreat” into a nostalgic past, or utopian “departure” in the name of some ethereal futurity.

[2] The period of English history Eliot associates with the decomposition of art was a decisive one, witnessing political, philosophical, and social revolutions that set the stage for the rise to the modern state, the enlightenment, and a new commercial consciousness.  In seventeenth-century England, the violent shift toward modern conditions of production, labor, and exchange—conjoined with massive territorial expansion—disrupted the rhythmic and spiritual pulse of social life. Urban subjects, in particular, confronting more competitive and estranged conditions of social interaction, exhibited new modes of perception and a radically transformed economy of meaning.  In both artistic representations and in everyday life, in high and low culture alike, conventional systems of meaning attached to human beings since antiquity were progressively unmoored by the ongoing progress of the new science, Renaissance humanism, and the Protestant Reformation. Just as humanity’s analogical connection to the universe was being severed by the Copernican revolution, in the early modern anatomy theatre the body was redefined as a machine, disconnected from the cosmos, reified as an object of knowledge, and subjected to an increasingly transcendent rationality. The new science’s sundering of the body from the world had as its analogue Protestantism’s jettisoning of sensual matter from the realization of Spirit. The idea of “art” to which the Restoration gave birth continues to inform our ideologies of the aesthetic.

[3] What neither Eliot or Lukács are particularly interested in are the gendered aspects of the development of modern aesthetics.  What I am specifically interested in here is that period of English history associated with women’s debut as public artistic producers and a new kind of aesthetic object.  Clearly, a radical transformation of gender took place sometime between the outbreak of civil war in 1642 and the Restoration of the monarchy—a reorganization of gender that resulted in both the strict separation of the spheres of the sexes and in an intense fascination with the sexual “nature” of woman.  Specifically, I want to suggest that the increased cultural visibility of women that accompanied this shift—a visibility that is typically equated with progress for women—is in some vital respects, more productively read through the less than enthusiastic narratives of Eliot and Lukács. 

[4] Here, I will look at the remarkable coincidence of a spectacular outburst of popular hostility toward London prostitutes with the radical transformation of the sexual economy of the English theatre in the opening decade of the English Restoration.  In the 1660s the prostitute very quickly became not only a synecdoche for but the privileged emblem of a new economic and aesthetic order of things.  That a pervasive popular animosity towards both whores and the theatre coincides exactly with the rising celebrity of the actress among London elites, I want to suggest, reflects deep worries about the sexual and laboring identity not only of women, but also of young men from across the spectrum of low-status artisanal occupations (see Harris, 90).  Just as privileged mercantilist and aristocratic sectors of the London population were coming to openly embrace the commercialism that both the theatre and the prostitute had historically embodied, the explicit nature of commercial articulations in the opening decades of the Restoration, by exposing the alienated and objectified condition of laborers more generally, sparked violent protest against this ascendant aesthetic and sexual economy.

[5] On 23 March 1668 a crowd of London apprentices, servants, and artisans, dressed in green aprons, attacked bawdy houses in Poplar—kicking off a bout of rioting in five acts that would travel from the east end of town to the west-end brothels of James, Duke of York.  On the second day, the crowd swelled to as many as 40,000, organized itself into regiments under the command of captains, and proceeded to besiege brothels in East Smithfield, Moorfields, and Shoreditch (Harris, 90).  Charles II immediately issued a request to the Lord Mayor and Lieutenancy of the city to put down the riot that resulted in the arrest of a number of participants.  The crowd responded to the arrests on the third and fourth day by besieging the prisons and releasing their comrades.  On the final day, the attacks continued in Holborn before they were finally suppressed (82-83).  Among the rallying cries of the mob were “down with the Red Coats!”  “Reformation and Reducement!”  “We have been servants, but we will be masters now!”  They threatened both “that if the king did not give them liberty of conscience, that May-day must be a bloody day” and that “ere long they would come and pull White-hall down” (83). 

[6] Fears that the brothel attacks had been the pretence for a more revolutionary agenda were exacerbated by the satiric pamphlets that appeared in the aftermath of the riots that both likened them to the popular 1647 uprising led by Thomaso Aniello in Naples and seized upon the growing connection between bawdy houses and the licentious court in the popular imagination.  In The Poor-Whores Petition. To the Most Splendid, Illustrious, Serene and Eminent Lady of Pleasure, the Countess of Castlemayne (25 March 1668), Charles II’s powerful mistress is addressed by common whores.  The famous bawds Damarose Page and Madam Creswell petition the grand whore for protection and in The Gracious Answer of the Most Illustrious Lady of Pleasure (24 April 1668), “Castlemaine” promises redress for the “barbarity of those Rude Apprentices, and the cruel Sufferings that the Sisterhood was exposed unto.”  In an unprecedented legal crackdown, 15 of the suspected ringleaders of the uprising were indicted for high treason. Four of them were convicted, castrated, drawn and quartered—a punishment that is itself highly suggestive of the intimate connection between sex and politics in the cultural imagination (Turner, 181).

[7] Although little is known about the constitution of the earliest audiences in the Restoration theatre, the evidence that does remain provides some tantalizing indications that had the riots continued, the theatres may very well have been the next target.  Records suggest a persistent tension between the theatre and what Dryden called the “rascal rabble” that expressed itself in deep worries about the violent congregation of underprivileged males—especially apprentices (qtd. in Seidel, 430; for a standard account of audience constitution that ignores this evidence see Love).  Beyond the tacit prohibitions against male impersonation that forever changes the gendered economy of the theatre, there is much evidence to suggest a concerted effort to keep the ruder sort of young men away from the theatres.  A slew of ordinances, issued throughout the 1660s, prohibited all unlicensed performance, often in the interest of prohibiting activities “whereby the meaner sort are diverted from their labors” (qtd. in Milhous and Hume, 52).  As early as 1660, a patent was granted to John Rogers who petitioned the King to receive a share of playhouse profits for “undertaking to Supres all Riotts, Tumults, or Molestations” therein (4).  The same year an order was issued against “private” (unemployed) soldiers “that doe forcibly Enter into the Theatres and Playhouses in and about the City of London to the Disturbance of the Gentlemen and others there present” (5). 

[8] In 1661, a warrant was issued for the arrest of any unlicensed person playing drums, fifes and trumpets during performances (it may be surmised that this was a longstanding audience prerogative) (22). This order was repeated incessantly throughout the decade.  In 1663, another long-standing prerogative of allowing free or reduced price entry into the theatre during the final act was abolished as well: “Whereas Wee are informed that divers persons doe rudely press & with evill Language & blows force theire wayes into the two Theatres…wee doe hereby straytly…Command that noe person of what quality soever presume rudely or by force to come into either of the two Theatres till the playes are quite finished without paying the prices Established”  (61).  Renewed Orders for the keeping of order in the theatres were issued in the 1664-1665 Season and again in May of 1668, soon after the Bawdyhouse riots occurred (70; 96).  In the fall of 1671 there was a sustained community protest against the erection of a playhouse in St. Giles.  “The court agrees that having a playhouse ‘soe neare the Bowells of the Citty’ would tend to ‘great evill & inconveniency” (130).  In November, the King responded to the Lord Mayor’s request that the nurseries in the Barbican and Bunhill be pulled down: “Playhouses should be pulled down when the Meeting houses were” (131-2).  The Theatre Royal was burned to the ground two months later along with “all the houses from the Rose Tavern on Russell Street on that side of the way to Drury Lane” (133).  A printed broadside poem published in the aftermath of the fire comments on the Puritans’ jubilation at the conflagration (133).  As Tim Harris notes, the Bawdyhouse rioters similarly possessed deep Puritan and republican sympathies.

[9] As Melissa Mowry has established, the 1660s witnessed not only a concerted effort to re-establish aristocratic authority, but also to “divide the free-men of the city from their apprentice servants” (Bawdy, 59).  This went hand and hand with the rapid erosion of apprenticeship as an institution.  By the mid-1660’s, 

the city became overcrowded with an overworked, underpaid host of raucous apprentices many of whom were Puritan zealots.  These apprentices, intermittently employed and often miserably poor, encouraged sporadic rioting, the opening of prison doors, the razing of brothels, and general civic unrest. As one historian commented, ‘the majority of London disturbances did not, however, come from the laboring population as a whole, but from one particular class—the notorious apprentices’.” (Siedel, 437; on the London apprentices as seventeenth-century adolescents see Smith)

Increasingly, apprenticeship was detached from the decaying guild system and its attendant privileges and finally rendered virtually indistinguishable from servitude (see Scott). 

[10] Mowry marks the looseness with which the term “apprentice” was applied to the bawdy house rioters—there is, she notes, no evidence that any of those involved in the riots were, in fact, apprentices and that the application of this label to the mob by Restoration polemicists and pornographers was a strategy through which the aspiring merchant class shed its republican tendencies. While I am in absolute agreement with Mowry’s read of the apprentices’ place in the print satires penned by royalists and citizens in the aftermath of the insurgency, I depart from her implied assertion that there was no veritable apprentice involvement in the riots themselves—especially given the very real blurring of the working poor and apprentices within the context of an apprentice system in decline. Examining the riots from the perspective of the longstanding anxieties, many of these religiously inflected, surrounding the sale of the performative illusions of the prostitute and the stage, in short, reveals a good deal about the protesters, despite the fact that “the legal records,” diurnal reports, and “6 existent broadsides” surrounding the riots do not “shed much light on the crowd’s motives that Easter week” (Mowry Bawdy, 56).

[11] The fierce antagonism of the Bawdyhouse rioters toward the mercenary sexual performances of London prostitutes and the growing tension between this class of adolescent males and the theatre were each, I think, the product of a failure of traditional patriarchal ideologies of gender to keep pace with the radical acceleration of wage labor.  We can, from this perspective, read the riots as a failed expression of class-consciousness.  The "craft" of the common whore (her impersonations, imposture, and class transvestitism) elicited a hostile response from the rioters because she presented a challenge to traditional ideologies of youthful masculinity.  The sexually objectified female performer exposed, in short, the young men’s own subjection to the marketplace.  The most violent assault on the theatres and the brothels in this period came, most naturally, from those who intuited their own prostituted condition. 

[12] Ironically, the most aggressive assault on women’s engagement in the sexual marketplace emerged from the very motley class of young men from whom the theatre’s primary objects of spectatorial desire had once been drawn.  If the 1660s represented a sea change in the English theatre, as the whorish performativity of the first actresses became a celebrated feature of the drama, the violent attacks on London brothels in the same decade indicates, in short, that not all Londoners embraced an aesthetic governed by the sign of the sexually available female performer.  What might this teach us about the forces that drove the radical transformation of the aesthetic economy in this period?   While critics have had a good deal to say about the gendered implications of the rise of the actress, they have tended to neglect the obvious, obverse question:  why did the Restoration theatre direct sexual attention away from boys?  To invert the question Stephen Orgel poses at the outset of his Impersonations, I want to ask:  “Why did the Restoration stage no longer take boys for women?” (1)

Theatre as Bordello

[13] The London theatre is, perhaps, the public institution that most visually documents the seventeenth-century progress of the market and it was against this institution that the Puritans directed their harshest criticism.  Theatre and prostitution had always been closely aligned in the early modern imagination:  each offered pleasurable performative simulation—eroticized illusion—for cash.  Like a brothel, Stephen Gosson observed in 1579, the Renaissance theatre arranged “comforts of melody, to tickle the ear; costly apparel, to flatter the sight; effeminate gesture, to ravish the sense; and wanton speech, to whet desire to inordinate lust” (qtd. in Lenz, 833).  In the theatre, “Ungodly people...assemble themselves [...] to make their matches for all their lewd and ungodly practices,” or as John Stow, in his Survey of London (1598), had it: “Good citizen’s Children under Age, [are] inveigled and allured to privy and unmeet contracts” (qtd. in Lenz, 836; 833).

[14] The Puritan antitheatricalists had—for all of their tendencies toward exaggeration and bombastic moralism—offered a highly prescient observation about the rise of reified culture when they insisted on the indistinguishable nature of the theatre and the brothel.  For each of these institutions vividly exposed the workings of the sexual and laboring marketplace.  Both theatre and prostitution in the early modern period, as Joseph Lenz remarks, “emblematize[d] all too vividly, the worldliness of trade, the mercenary nature of all commerce” (842-843).  David Hawkes has shown that the Puritan’s hostility to idols was, at least in part, a deeply ethical response to the rampant objectification that accompanied swiftly escalating commercialism (see Idols and Ideology).  He writes,

[T]he people of early modern England were profoundly hostile to the ‘covetousness’ and ‘idolatry’ that, they believed, were inevitable consequences of large-scale exchange for profit.  Early modern England did not discuss this phenomenon in the morally neutral, technical terms of ‘modern economics.’  What we call ‘commodity fetishism,’ they called ‘idolatry,’ and they bestowed upon it all the ethical and theological implications of that word. Neoclassical economics regards market behavior as the authentic expression of human nature, and thus as an unavoidable fact of life, which there is no point in either supporting or opposing. But it certainly did not appear as such four hundred years ago, and to imply that it did is to subordinate the study of history to the ideological and professional imperatives of the present. (“Reply,” n.p. see also “Cost” and Hoxby)

For the Puritans, whores, and the whorish performativity of boys, had epitomized the unbridled idolatry of a world whose commercialism was becoming increasingly pronounced.  In other words, the sexuality of boys, while frequently an object of Puritan attack, was not in itself the primary target of the antitheatricalists.  Crucially, the Renaissance antitheatricalists’ animosity toward boy players was conjoined with an intense iconoclasm that manifested itself in a deep suspicion of the representations and impersonations of the stage, of the performative illusions offered for public consumption.  The antitheatricalists’ deep distrust of idols, spectacles, and signs demonstrates a remarkable prescience when we consider the increased preponderance of representation that would come to inform the eighteenth-century imagination.

[15] The Puritans’ alignment of the theatre with the brothel was less metaphorical than is typically imagined.  That some of the most illustrious owners of the early Renaissance theatres, including Henslow and Alleyn, had extensive financial investments in the nearby bawdy-houses—that they were, in effect, pimps themselves—attests to the fact that the antitheatricalists’ alignment of theatre and brothel was much more than a simple analogy or a product of the geographical proximity of theatre to whore-house.  As Lenz points out,

[O]n 10 January 1586/7 Henslow signed the partnership agreement for his new theater, to which the [brothel] the Little Rose lent its grounds, its name, and, evidently, its reputation.  It was shortly after Henslow’s acquisition of the Little Rose that the Lord Mayor’s office altered its objection to the theaters, emphasizing decadence over disease. About the same time, those within and around the theater community, who had heretofore been silent, begin to note—some with amusement, some with mockery, some with dismay—the coupling of stage and brothel. (833-855)

Alleyn went on to infamously “purchase” John Donne’s daughter with the proceeds of a brothel in a largely unsuccessful attempt to earn respectability through a strategic second marriage.  To sell the performance of a woman on the Renaissance stage—given the economic co-dependence of theatre and prostitution the Puritans so perceptively exploited—would have completely eroded the distinction between the theatre and the bawdyhouse.  However, even the use of boy actors to play in women’s roles was not entirely successful in shielding the theatre from its detractors.  As Orgel has established, boys were themselves “acknowledged objects of sexual attraction for men,” they possessed a mutable sexuality that always threatened the collapse of sexualized acting into sexual acts (70).  As much as the theatres insisted upon the distinction between erotic impersonation and the sale of sex, the boys’ simulation of women, his erotic appeal to both women and men, taken together with the very real engagement of theatre owners in the sex industry, always threatened to render the boy actor a “catamite” or “ingle,” terms that—unlike their counterparts “sodomite,” bugger,” and “Ganymede”—more pointedly connoted boys or men who sold sex.

[16] Historically, brothels and the theatre had been the sites at which the romantic fantasies and fictions surrounding youthful masculinity most visibly collided with the stark realities of young men’s sexual and laboring lives.  The sale of the pleasurable erotic impersonations of boys and the sale of fleshly private “entertainments”—to which the plays so often served as prelude—were kept spatially and conceptually discreet.  Renaissance plays tended to represent the eroticism of boys through the idealized neoclassical discourse of pederasty and patronage—effectively obscuring the more financially motivated sexual exchanges of men and boys.  Economically remunerated male sex is conspicuously absent from early modern sexual discourse.  Commercial relations of sexual contract and exploitation were couched in the classically inflected, though still largely feudal, language of obligation and devotion, mastery and servitude, loyalty and duty, friendship and education.  The representations offered on the Renaissance stage thus downplayed the more explicitly commercial dimensions of the boy actor’s sexual subordination.  Renaissance culture produced, in short, a series of enabling fictions that were never entirely successful at obscuring the workings of the market.

[17] Typically substituting for a sustained elaboration of male prostitution, the coded language the early modern period advanced as a cover for what were clearly relations of sexual and economic contract and coercion, critics have tended to obscure the economic dimensions of male sexuality. Other than the suggestive tidbits offered by Orgel and Alan Bray—who commendably see prostitution for what it is:  the exchange of sex for money—contemporary scholarship on early modern sexuality, taking the Renaissance at its word, has failed to see what were clearly exchanges of male sex for cash.  Scholarship on seventeenth-century prostitution provides long lists of lurid acts of sexual impropriety, the locations and names of some of the more infamous brothels, and the punishments meted out for those convicted of whoring.  Male prostitution is rarely touched despite the many extant records of the purchase of male sex—as in the cases of boys who sold their sexual services to buccaneers in Matelotage or those hired as “servants” for a day or week and released from service with a new wardrobe, pouch of coins, and coach, for example.  Given the sophistication of such upscale brothels as Holland’s Leaguer, which offered fine dining, musical entertainment, and gaming, along with a plethora of sexual “amusements” and which was further a favorite haunt of James I, it is difficult to imagine that no brothels ever peddled male flesh. There is, incredibly, not a single scholarly exploration of male prostitution before 1700—the early modern male hustler, remains a largely invisible figure.

[18] The relaxation of trade restrictions during the English Civil Wars and Interregnum had prompted, in effect, a commercial “free-for-all” that would forever transform England’s economic imagination. As Joyce Oldham Appleby observes,

Men in the seventeenth century found a way of conceiving of economic life as part of the natural order of things.  The global dimensions of seventeenth-century trade and the rapid diffusion of certain commercial arrangements encouraged a long line of observers to conclude that common responses in the marketplace reflected innate human qualities.  Anxious to understand the new sources of wealth, they took the market’s transcendence of political boundaries as evidence of a natural force. (Appleby, 279)

The increasingly conspicuous consumption that attended the rapid expansion of markets in the Restoration was attended by ever more explicit articulations of commercial life.  The proliferation of markets in the 1660s, as the Navigation Acts consolidated the production of sugar in the colonies, made England a major economic player in the world economy and prompted both a flood of luxury imports and a new commercial consciousness.  Such luxury items as tea, indigo, oriental rugs, oranges, coffee, and most importantly, sugar increasingly became regarded as “necessities” (see Hall, 168-190).  Jean-Christophe Agnew notes that, “the market in land, labor and goods had grown so expansive and so elusive that it defied the capacity of a local magistracy to render it accountable, much less comprehensible” (157).  As commodities were suddenly everywhere visible, graphic articulations of commercial concerns became ubiquitous. 

[19] Liberal economics was clearly on the ascendant in the Restoration:  market forces were increasingly represented as both natural and inevitable just as subjectivity was coming to be figured as naturally acquisitive.  In the opening decades of the Restoration, traditional ideologies buttressing the economic and political subordination of women and subaltern men were no longer effectively concealing either the pervasive impact of the market on daily life or the increasing objectification and alienation of human subjects in a culture increasingly oriented around consumption.

[20] New genres of pornographic publications directed against prostitutes flooded the streets of London in the opening decade of the Restoration, a literary outpouring that coincides exactly with the increased prominence of the prostitute player.  As James Grantham Turner has pointed out, the proliferation of porno-political texts in the first decade of the Restoration—reviving pre-civil war memories of the customary Shrove Tuesday festivities, long fallen into abeyance—contributed to an intensified ethos of violence against prostitutes that culminated in the eruption of the spectacular vigilante assaults on bawdy houses by apprentices (175). The sexually explicit nature of these texts—which invite readers to participate in the pleasurable castigation of whores—is without historical precedent: not only do they present readers with the traditional Renaissance neo-classical Aretinian “postures,” they assail them with detailed surveys of the rotting bodies of pox-stricken harlots and flagrantly sadistic accounts of gang assaults on yawning orifices.

[21] Between 1660 and 1663 there appeared such pamphlets as Strange and True News From Jack A’Newberries Six Windmills: or the crafty, impudent, Common-Whore turn’d bawd Anatomized (1660), A Strange and True Conference between Damarose Page and Pris Fotheringham (1660), Strange News from Bartholomew Fair (1661), and the serial publication The Wandering Whore (1660-1661).  In 1665, Richard Head, capitalizing upon this fascination with prostitutes, offered a fictional expose of the criminal underworld in The English Rogue, a novel portraying the adventures of Meriton Latroon, an apprentice who tours some of the more seamy haunts mentioned in these pamphlets, providing lurid accounts of his visits to the most infamous brothels of Restoration London. Virtually all of the porno-political pamphlets printed in the 1660s conjoin theatricality with the horrors of the market.

[22] Each installment of the Wandering Whore series, for example, takes dramatic dialogue form, includes a list of dramatic personae, and highlights mercenary performance.  The first episode, which appeared the year the first actresses took to the stage, opens by portraying a group of prostitutes discussing their business and strategizing about how to increase their revenue.  In response to the “pimping Hector” Gusman’s proposal that they revive the traditional pre-civil war protocols of whoring, the “crafty Bawd” Magdalen responds:

Magdalen. .... Senior Gusman, our beloved friend and valiant Hector, you are so punctual in your observations, that I must, and do believe you, and therefore desire against our next meeting, that such of their orders as are omitted, may be revived and rehearsed among us [...] and what may be deemed profitable amongst us [...] practiced, resolving from the Poulterers wives cryes, No mony no Cony; a Cunny being the dearest piece of flesh in the whole world[.  W]itness Pris Fotheringhams Chuck office, where upon sight thereof, French Dollars, Spanish Pistols, English Half-crowns are as plentifully poured in, as the Rhenish wine was into the Dutch wenches two holes till she roar’d again, as she was showing tricks upon her head with naked buttocks and spread legs in a round ring, like those at wrestling neer the Half-Crown-chuck-office, call’d Jack a Newberries six windmills.
Gussman. I assure you she that had the half Crowns chuckt into her Commodity, had lesser harm than the Rhennish wine Wench, for its of a smarting and searching quality, differing from that sack was poured in on one side by such cullies as Pris Fotheringhams, and suck’t out on the other, which is a new fashioned Cup for roaring boys to drink in. (no. 1, 5-6)

This exchange constitutes an unprecedented unveiling of the gross and dehumanizing effects of an unrestrained commercialism on the bodies of subaltern subjects.  The vivid commercial language of the dialogue, so characteristic of the genre, accentuates the pamphlet’s disturbing juxtaposition of the forces of commerce with the dehumanized objects of the sex trade.  The “Chucking trick” Pris Fotheringham was notorious for is here elevated into an “office” (a brothel specializing in fellatio is termed the “Prick-office” in another pamphlet).  Her “Cunny,” that “dearest piece of flesh in the whole world” is rendered at once her “commodity” and a receptacle serving as a drinking vessel.  The tossing of foreign and domestic currency into her “commodity” transforms her, in effect, into a human slot machine, the prize of which is venereal disease. 

[23] The pamphlet moves on to catalogue the torture, rape, disease, imprisonment, punishment, and death of women whose bodies are “freely” trafficked as commodities.   There is, for example, the lurid account of the drinking of “healths over a dead drunk” whore laid on a table and assaulted by the “sticking [of] a candle in her commodity...'til the merciless Candle fir’d her Fur-bush quite away, the flame whereof was quickly abated by drawing a codpiece engine and giving her two or three coolers”—a story that attests to the violence directed at objects of nascent commercialism by many early modern subjects.  In a narrative with more international resonance, a crab-infested woman is tied “like a monkey” to the foot of a bed as a man sticks a pipe into her vagina and anus, blowing smoke into them that the “vermin” might never again “durst venture to inhabit these continents” (7). 

[24] Appended to the pamphlet is a comprehensive listing of prostitutes, bawds, whorehouses, and pimps which made available to the public the haunts of specific prostitutes—a mock marketing tool that reinforced the pamphlet’s uneasy connection to the world of commerce.  The Wandering Whore’s intensely commercial depiction of Pris Fotheringham’s “chuck office trick” forcibly demonstrates the vast difference between the nascent early modern commodity form and our own, suggesting that reification was not yet entirely successful in obscuring the negative commercial underpinnings of objectification.

[25] That the influence of market forces on daily life was becoming unavoidable had a striking impact on the conduct of the aristocratic and professional elite.  There was an increased emphasis in the period on social performance, “on the symbolic dimension of public life: the calculated gestures of civility and incivility[.....] Less and less did this flamboyant protocol assert unquestioned and immemorial rights and obligations; more and more it was seen to rehearse claims on negotiable prerogatives and perquisites” (156).  Social ritual was, for the aristocracy, voided of the unifying content that informed both the Sprezzatura “that signaled aristocratic legitimacy” and an ethically embodied idea of virtuosity that had always been strictly divorced from mere functionality (King, 25; Houghton, 54).   The performance of prerogative is swiftly supplanted by a mercantilist virtuosity reorganized around the ethically neutral utilitarian gesture, around reified subject-object relations and a naturalized mercenary play (see King).  The intense Restoration and eighteenth-century preoccupation with “manners”—the ethically vacuous system of stylized gesture that appealed to both an aristocracy nostalgic for the cultural forms of a decaying prerogative as well as to the rising mercantilist elite who tended to construe manners as the “civilized” performance of sociability—is the mark of a culture embracing pervasive objectification.

[26] Objectified, unlike servile, labor, of course, involves a greater degree of abstraction from the person—labor is mediated through money, not personal relations.  Culturally pervasive objectification produces, in other words, an increased prominence of second-order social signification.  As Guy Debord depicts it, the logical elaboration of the reified culture of the commodity fetish is the gradual abstraction of the entire field of human relations into spectacular images, into performance, into pure representation.  Debord asserts that the reification endemic to the commodity fetish—“the domination of society by tangible as well as intangible things”—once generalized, “reaches its absolute fulfillment in the spectacle, where the tangible world is replaced by a selection of images which exist above it, and which simultaneously impose themselves as the tangible par excellence” (“Thesis 36”).  Lived conditions are transcribed into a whole visual theatrical scene that elaborates the logic of the commodity.  As objectification comes to dominate culture: “all of life” begins to “present[] itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.  Everything that was directly lived...move[s] away into a representation” (“Thesis 1”).

[27] The imprimatur of Richard Head’s porno-political The English Rogue expresses perfectly the performative imperative of both the commercial and aristocratic elite:  “Man’s life’s a play, the world a Stage, whereon Learn thou to play, or else be play’d upon.”  Yet this process was hardly complete in the 1660s.  Conceptions of the market were not yet entirely evacuated of ethical content, even by those who tended to embrace the acquisitiveness a neoclassical attitude to a burgeoning capitalist market assumes.  In the Restoration, objectification was often simultaneously embraced and disavowed, for early reification possessed a queer transparency.  The process was not yet, in other words, completely naturalized and thus rendered inevitable and it was still subject to ethical interrogation.  In fact, even the most privileged of London’s elite had a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward commodification, experiencing it as a kind of temptation.  They knew that they should resist it, but were generally unable to do so.  The implicit self-loathing that Rochester, for example, depicts in his poetry as springing from erotic fetishization exemplifies a pattern of rapacious consumption and deep remorse we find repeated by writers ranging from Bunyan to Mandeville.  For an entire generation of young men for whom the objects of commodity fetishism were as yet largely unavailable, the rapacious, if guilt-ridden, consumption that shaped the masculinity of their more well-to-do counterparts was, crucially, not something to which they could lay claim.

[28] Given the long-standing association between the theatre, the brothel, and the mercenary commercialism these institutions had historically represented, it should not surprise us that the increased visibility of the workings of commerce in the Restoration should result in a thoroughgoing reorganization of the sexual economy of the theatre.  As I have suggested elsewhere, Restoration attitudes toward the market were premised upon a naturalized conception of masculine acquisitiveness that required the sexual objectification of women (see Romack).  The actress’s whorish performativity, celebrated by the relatively elite audiences that attended the theatre in the 1660s and 1670s, was more troublesome for those who felt the dehumanizing effects of commercialism most immediately.  As Marx famously jotted in the margins of his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, prostitution is it is the “specific expression of the general prostitution of the laborer,” the most unmediated form of alienated labor” (n. 133).  Elsewhere, Marx characterized money as “the universal whore.” 

[29] The stark contrast between the Renaissance characterization of boy actors as neophytes and the open presentation of objectified female performers in the Restoration illuminates this decisive ideological shift. Lukács repeatedly suggested that as commodity fetishism increasingly becomes a governing social mechanism through which consciousness is subjected to “the forms in which...reification finds expression,” we see an unfolding potential for resistance to this process (History, 84).  It therefore makes sense that just as the violence of commercial relations was being refigured as a natural aspect of social life, giving the lie to the traditional fictions of the Renaissance stage, great pains were taken to keep male adolescents as far away from the theatre as possible.

[30] As the naturalized commercial language characteristic of reified culture began to supplant traditional languages of “service,” conventional paternalistic ideologies that had once buttressed the subordination of both women and laboring men were shattered by the open exposure of the exploitative underpinnings of the market.  In this sense, the decline of boys as objects of desire on the stage did not so much mark the decline of a pederastic sexual economy as the revelation that the pederastic ideal had, perhaps, always been deeply implicated in mercenary exchange, that paederastia had always been pornaia, and that the boy actor had always been a whore.

Prostitute Playwrights

[31] The first Englishwoman to earn her living by the pen, Aphra Behn launched her first dramatic production The Forc’d Marriage (1670) with a racy prologue, boldly announcing her active participation in the sexual and theatrical marketplace.  Transforming the conventional alignment of prostitution with female authorship and acting into a positive model for female playwriting and performance, Behn frames her play with a description of the “new Stratagems” women made use of to invade the masculine theatrical domain.  The actor delivering the prologue inveighs against the allegiance between the playwright, the actress, and the masked whores in the audience—who presumably help Behn sell the play by offering the spectators sex to supplement the “wanton compliments” offered by the actress who enters to answer the gentleman’s complaint (“Prologue”). 

[32] Behn’s first foray into the public theatre punctuates a decade that witnessed the rapid advance of the sexually available and socially mobile female performer, the restriction of male impersonation to “travesty” and “burlesque” (as men replaced boys in women’s roles), and an overall transfer of the burden of sexual objectification on the stage from boys to women.  Beth Friedman-Romell, locating the arrival of the actress within the new science’s naturalization of gender, has established that after 1670 male transvestitism was restricted to parody in the drama:  “When actresses took the stage after the Restoration, roles available for transvestite male performers diminished rapidly. Enlightenment science naturalized the notion that sex determined gender behavior and sexual desire; consequently, male actors no longer could be taken seriously in female dramatic roles” (467). 

[33] In the years leading up to the theatre closures of the Interregnum, William Prynne’s infamous diatribe against the participation of women in court masques—that branded the royal and aristocratic women performers “notorious whores”—had resulted in his loss of profession and academic degrees, a pillorying, ear-clipping, and sentence of life imprisonment.  When the theatres re-opened, the whorish performativity of the actress almost immediately became one of the most marketable features of the drama.  Capitalizing on the arrival of the actress and the attendant transformation of the sexual economy of the theatre, Behn grounded her playwriting persona in the metaphor of prostitution.  As Catherine Gallagher succinctly puts it, “conscious of her historical role, she introduced to the world of English letters the professional woman writer as a new-fangled whore” (23-24).

[34] Gallagher demonstrates that Behn, championing the performative power of the prostitute, countered—by embracing—women’s sexual objectification in Restoration culture and in so doing, for many, exposed the most elemental dynamic of labor under nascent capitalism.  As Gallagher sums up Behn’s exploitation of the prostitution metaphor perfectly when she writes,

As a woman, all of her properties were potentially the property of another; she could either reserve them and give herself whole in marriage, or she could barter them piecemeal, accepting self-division to achieve self-ownership and forfeiting the possibility of marriage.  In this sense, Aphra Behn’s implied identity fits into the most advanced seventeenth-century theories about selfhood; it closely resembles the possessive individualism of Hobbes, in which property in ones’ self both entails and is entailed by the parceling out and serial alienation of one’s self.  For property, by definition, in this theory, is that which is alienable. (28-29)

The lionization of Behn’s playwriting persona by the Restoration elite demonstrates just how deeply the “free” engagement in possessive individualism had become embedded in the cultural imagination as an inevitable fact of social life.  Just as market forces were increasingly figured as the product of man’s innate acquisitiveness, gender roles were attached to an inexorable nature. That the polarized taxonomy of gender that would emerge out of the victory of Homo Economicus was only partially secured in the period I am considering is best exemplified by those for whom this rapacious model of masculinity was not yet available.

[35] Exploring the peculiar co-habitation of “professional regard” and “sexual objectification” in Restoration commentaries on actresses, Deborah Payne has asserted that theatre scholars have overstated the promiscuity and sexual victimization of the first generation of English actresses.  Payne notes that objectification and professionalization function “analogically” in the discourse of seventeenth century detractors, observing that critics of the theatre often “intermingled lurid remarks about actresses with professional praise” (15). Countering the critical underestimation of the actress’ agency by underscoring her professionalism, power, and skill, she concludes:  “the actress as whore/object/commodity was not a major discourse during the Restoration” (34-35).  This contention, one that has gained a tremendous currency in the scholarship on Restoration drama in recent years, is informed by a misleading conflation of the exclusive culture of this theatre with its wider public.

[36] Since the publication of this highly influential essay, a number of scholars following Payne’s lead have troubled the scholarly alignment of Behn’s writerly persona with prostitution (see Hughes and Latta).  It is true that there is little evidence to suggest that actresses regularly engaged in veritable prostitution and that few women playwrights, managers, nor actresses for that matter, self-consciously fashioned themselves as whores—typically choosing to present a more respectable public face.  It is also the case that Restoration stage practitioners commonly applied a veneer of respectability to the endeavors of female theatre professionals, stressing not only the professional skill but also the virtuous private life of the actress.  Even when they capitalized on rumors of an actress’ more mercenary sexual transgressions, they tended to speak of prostitution in the affirmative—even aligning it with her performative skill.  However, the fact remains that the association between the public woman and the prostitute remained a decidedly negative one for the majority of Londoners.  The salient point here is that the psychological habit of reification converted actresses into prostitutes regardless of whether they were literally engaging in prostitution or not.  The disparaging attitudes toward the public woman, the theatre, and the sex trade, so deeply embedded in the seventeenth-century cultural imagination, did not simply evaporate with the restoration of the theatre (see Pullen, chapter two; Marsden, chapter one; and Nussbaum).

[37] As Randolph Trumbach has established, it is only with the full elaboration of a new gender system in the eighteenth century that the threat of the prostitute could be mitigated:  “Europe had moved from a system in which sexual subordination between males was enacted by differences in age, to one in which a third gender role (not man, not woman; or part man part woman was the key” (“Review,” 333-334).  Within this reorganized sexual economy the sodomite replaces the whore as the primary object of social derision—the whore in properly desiring men, at least, “could be redeemed back into the general body of respectable women” (“Sex,” 193).  As the whore’s commercial function was naturalized and rendered ethically neutral, she ceased to be as threatening as she had once been.  For the time being, however, the Restoration prostitute continued to blazon forth the evils of “mercantilism’s dark underside” (Mowry Bawdy, 96).


Tilting at Windmills

[38] Critics have proposed a number of explanations for the events of 1668.  Turner, for example, reads the Bawdyhouse Riots as the product of the apprentices longstanding tradition of “carnivalesque insurrection” and “folkloric unrest” which converged with “low libertine” pornography to produce a “massive and destructive charivari against the houses of established whores which threatened to engulf the great bawdy-house at Whitehall” (164-5). Tim Harris, noting that the riots did not take place on the traditional Shrove Tuesday, interprets the Bawdyhouse Riots as a more specific response to Charles II’s reassertion of the Act of Uniformity in the weeks leading up to the riots, arguing that the apprentices’ politicized resurrection of brothel bashing was aimed against religious policy.  He remarks, “the rioters seem to have been telling the court that if they were going to demand the enforcement of laws against nonconformists, they in turn would put into execution the laws against bawdy houses” (87).  In her Subordinate Subjects, Mihoko Suzuki argues that the apprentices, who had begun to re-imagine themselves as political and national subjects through their organized petitioning activity during the Interregnum, lost their primary vehicle for the expression of political solidarity with the Restoration of the monarchy.  Banned from petitioning, their public political activity was “driven underground and expressed itself” in the more indirect “guise of tearing down brothels” (211).  That the attacks were directed against women, Suzuki suggests, reflects the apprentices’ longstanding tendency to “define themselves in antagonism against demonized women” (24).  While each of these interpretations are certainly correct, none of them directly addresses the question of why apprentices found violence against prostitutes a particularly effective strategy for pursuing the reformation of court, the achievement of liberty of conscience, and the creation of political identity grounded in a national fraternal solidarity.

[39] Strange and True News From Jack A’Newberries Six Windmills: or the crafty, impudent, common whore turn’d bawd Anatomized hints at an alternative explanation.  It indicates that as early as 1660, the apprentices were already beginning to comprehend the superannuated nature of the patrimonial narratives that had traditionally ensured their subordination:

Amongst all the Readings, reports and observations of the Lives, Manners and customs of the stately Spanish Dames, French Madams, and Venetian Curtesans, I never heard, read or met with such a piece of iniquity, as this Mrs. Fotheringham living at the sign of the Six Windmills in the upper fields, formerly called Jack-a-Newberry, till the fruits of some abominable practices compelled them to take him down for fear of the multitude, and Hood-wink their Cullies, as if the Alteration of the sign had changed the natures of the Vultures, Harpies and loose livers within, whereby, they grew more crafty everyday[...]and got wealth, and rich gifts out of other mens ruins making themselves, but undoing many Families and Prentices, who daily visit them, for want of being lookt after and being discouraged in such unlawful living, so that it may truly be said of that House, that it hath undone (and continues so doing) more Youngsters than half the Houses in the city of London. (A2r)

The name of Fotheringham’s establishment, Jack-a-Newberry has an important literary antecedent in Thomas Delony’s 1597 proto-bourgeois romance Jack of Newberry—a novel about the rise of a young man from apprentice to master that is often likened to a Horatio Alger rags to riches tale.  Strange and True News reports that Fotheringham had recently replaced the sign advertising her establishment as “Jack-A-Newberry” with one calling it “The Six Windmills” “for fear of the multitude.”  That Fotheringham’s brothel had once operated under the title of Delony’s novel suggests that the patronage of brothels had once been compatible with their fantasies of mastery.  By the early 1660s, however, apprentices had begun to perceive that the prostitution endemic to commerce had pervaded all levels of culture from workshop to court.  The apprentices’ antagonism toward prostitutes, like that of the Puritans, did not stem primarily from a moral objection to sex.  It was, rather, a collective response against their increasing alienation and disenfranchisement in the face of a complete breakdown of the patrimonial fictions that had hitherto secured their subordination.

[40] Exacerbated by the ongoing deterioration of the guild system, the apprentices' hostility towards prostitutes resulted from the failure of those fictions of servitude that had once rendered palatable their status sexually, in the patriarchal family unit, and on-stage. The violence of the authorities’ response to the apprentice riots of ’68, suggests that they had more to fear from the apprentices than a little festive brothel bashing, for it was precisely the disastrous effects of reification against which these youthful subordinate subjects rebelled.  Their cries of “we have been servants but we will be masters now!” as they ravaged the brothels in ’68 mark not only an implicit realization but also a desperate denial of their own prostituted condition.  Tragically, however, the rioters fell victim to a fatal misrecognition: they became so caught up in the visual emblems of commodity fetishism (in its objects and proxies—in whores) that they lashed out at women, who were themselves equally subject to the workings of the market.  The young men failed, in short, to understand that commodity fetishism neither inheres in, nor originates from, its objects. Conflating the object of desire with its cause is also, ironically, the pornographic attitude to sexuality.


[41] Scholars of Restoration theatre, caught up, like the rioters, in the striking visibility of the objects of nascent commercialism, have failed to recognize the fact that the rise of the actress had as much to do with the rampant acquisitiveness of the period as it did with gender.  As feminists attuned to the continued objectification of women are well aware, visibility is not synonymous with empowerment. When we attend to the economic underpinnings of the gendered sea-change in the theatre, what we find is that women’s increased cultural visibility, far from representing an unconditional advancement for women, was, in fact, highly collusive with the development of capitalist patriarchy.

[42] The standard explanations for the decline of the actor and rise of the actress tend to offer us an almost evolutionary narrative of progress.  During the Royalist exile the court had absorbed the dramatic conventions of a more sophisticated and cosmopolitan Continent.  The boy actors had simply grown up during the Interregnum, it is argued, so there were no longer suitable boys to play the roles.  However, women, as much as boys, required training and there had been much opportunity for Continental crossover before the theatre closures.  Further, the first pressures on the companies to incorporate women came not from the court but from the theatre monopolists Davenant and Killigrew.  The dominant players in the two companies that began playing almost immediately upon the Restoration of Charles II—Hart, Betterton, Cartwright, Mohun, for example—had been boy actors themselves.  Before the granting of theatrical monopolies to Davenant and Killigrew and their subsequent incorporation into the Duke’s and King’s companies, these troops had expressed a great deal of trepidation about including women.  As Mohun and others complained in a 1660 petition to the King, Killigrew had not permitted them to perform until “wee had by covenant obleiged our selues to Act with Woemen a new Theatre and Habitts according to our Scaenes”  (qtd. in Fisk, 73).  The boys who assaulted the brothels in ’68 seem to have experienced similar apprehensions about the public woman.

[43] Phyllis Rackin’s association of the emergence of modern patriarchal hegemony with the radically transformed theatre of the English Restoration—where women for the first time authored commercial scripts, served as theatre managers, and trod the boards—is now widely accepted (38).  As Katherine Eisaman Maus established in her 1979 essay on the first English actresses, “the new acceptability of actresses is associated with ideological changes more fundamental or far-reaching than a mere modification of theatrical custom might indicate” (598). Characterized by Maus as the “polarization” and “individuation” of the sexes (112-113), by Elizabeth Howe as a “profound change in contemporary attitudes toward women, female sexuality and theatre among the upper and middle-classes in the late seventeenth century” (21), and by Laura Rosenthal as a “dynamic that takes place in the context of what Pateman has described as the transition from a classical to a modern form of patriarchy, best articulated by the debate between John Locke and Sir Robert Filmer” (203), the arrival of the actress has come to be regarded as the symptomatic manifestation of a much broader re-organization of the economy of gender.

[44] Two decades after the events of ‘68 the uneasy cohabitation of older models of derogated femininity—which figured women as imperfect men—with the “two-sex” model of gender was effectively supplanted by an unmitigated emphasis on sexual difference.  The Marquis of Halifax captures perfectly this consolidation of gender difference in his Ladies New Year Gift (1688):

You must lay it down for a Foundation in general, that there is Inequality in the Sexes, and that for the better Oeconomy of the World; Men who were to be the Lawgivers, had the larger share of Reason bestowed upon them; by which means your sex is the better prepar'd for the Compliance that is necessary for the performance of those duties which seem'd to be most properly assign'd to it. (28)

Halifax’s argument for gender difference—specifically, his insistent conjunction of “performance,” “sexual difference” and the “oeconomy”—indicates that the increased visibility of women on the stage and coincident decline of boy actors was inextricably bound up with a burgeoning commercial consciousness and its attendant naturalization of gender difference.  Although anti-theatricality of a more moral and intellectual species persisted in the 1680s, the type of collectivized and revolutionary assault on the aesthetic suggested by the hostile attitude of the rioters toward the brothel and players toward the actress had been greatly mitigated by this ideological shift. 

[45] In a discussion of the decline of epic literature as it is supplanted by the predominantly “descriptive” art of modernity Lukács writes,

in the genesis of new ideological forms, an interaction always takes place. The predominance of description is not only a result but also and simultaneously a cause, the cause of a further divorce of literature from epic significance. The domination of capitalist prose over the inner poetry of human experience, the continuous dehumanization of social life, the general debasement of humanity—all these are objective facts of the development of capitalism. The descriptive method is the inevitable product of this development.  Once established this method is taken up by leading writers dedicated in their own way, and then it in turn affects the literary representation of reality. The poetic level of life fades away—and literature intensifies this decay. (“Narrate,” 127)

For Lukács the epics dominating the pre-modern world come closer to capturing the struggles of humanity as they are experienced. Epic poetry is a “poetry of life…not…an artificial product of a man’s virtuosity but…something that emerges and grows naturally” (126).  There is a structural similarity between “description,” as Lukács describes it, and the Restored theatre with its increased ocularcentrism, attention to physical verisimilitude, and scientifically “improved” technologies—that include not least the employment and objectification of “veritable” women.  Theatre monopolist Sir William Davenant’s desire for “[I]ngenious Arts, as Motion and transposition of Lights; to make a more naturall resemblance of the great and virtuous actions of such as are eminent in Story” is highly suggestive not only of the role of art in constructing reality but also of the self-conscious way in which these inventions were deployed (and resisted) before they become thoroughly entrenched as ideology (249).  For Davenant, the first Englishman to employ an actress in a commercial venture, the new theatre would deploy all of the latest technologies of spectacle to  “breed in the Spectators courage and animosity against [the enemies of English empire]; diverting the people from Vices and Mischeif; and instructing them (as in a schoole of Morality) to Virtu, and to a quiet and cheerful behavior towards the present Government(249). 

[46] The whore was celebrated on the stage by those, like Davenant, who stood to benefit from the brave new commercial world at the very moment she was figured in the more popular London imagination as the repository of all that is disturbing and dehumanizing about commercialism and damned by those who recognized in the whore their own prostituted condition.  For the rioters who attacked the bawdy houses in ’68, the whore embodied a new economy of sexual identity and desire in as much as she heralded an immanent redirection of masculine sexuality toward heterosexual objects of desire.  Not only did she threaten sexual competition, her successful negotiation of the free market quite probably raised the specter of economic competition as well.  More importantly, she exposed the dehumanizing aspects of objectification that were coming to inform both life and art and taught these young men that their own history had long been bound up with nascent objectification.  She rendered the patrimonial narratives that had once secured their masculinity immaterial, blazoning forth the tawdry, if alluring, aesthetic that continues to entice us today.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Crystal Bartolovich for directing me to descriptions of brothels by Stow and to David Hawkes for his many conversations with me about this topic.  I am also grateful for the feedback I received on an early version of this project from my colleagues in the Stanford Humanities Fellows Program.


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Turner, James Grantham. Libertines and Radicals in Early Modern London:  Sexuality, Politics, and Literary Culture, 1630-1685.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

The Wandering Whore. A dialogue between Magdalena, a crafty bawd, Julietta, an exquisite whore, Francion, a lascivious gallant, and Gusman a pimping hector. Discovering their diabolical practises at the Half-Crown Chuck-Office. With an additional list of the names of the crafty bawds, common whores, wanderers, pick-pockets, night-walkers, decoys, hectors, pimps and trappanners. No. 1-5. (1660).

Ward, A.W. et. al. ed. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. Volume 8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1907–21. Chapter 6.

Contributor’s Note:

KATHERINE ROMACK is an Associate Professor at the University of West Florida.  She is the co-editor, with James Fitzmaurice, of Cavendish and Shakespeare, Interconnections (Aldershot:  Ashgate, 2006). She has also published a number of essays on seventeenth-century women writers and performance. Currently, she is at work on one monograph exploring the poetics of religious dissent in the English Civil Wars and Interregnum and another on gender and the Restoration theatre.

Copyright ©2008
Ann Kibbey.

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