In the Restoration London theatre world, where actresses' sex lives fueled rampant gossip, the ostensibly virginal Anne Bracegirdle was a figure of mystery. Despite the fact that some twenty-five percent of Restoration actresses lived chastely, Bracegirdle was the first and most successful at proving an unverifiable trait to the audience: her virginity. But her reputation was challenged when two fans tried to kidnap and rape her; failing that mission, they murdered the man suspected to be her lover, the actor-playwright William Mountfort. How, then, did Bracegirdle advance beyond such an abhorrent event, such public infamy? Aided during the following two years by playwright and librettist Thomas D'Urfey and composer John Eccles, Bracegirdle shifted the focus away from scandal and redefined her persona, I argue, by performing "mad songs": songs sung to or by characters who have gone insane. Her singing, and particularly her mad songs, advanced her career in the same way as her previous performances of virginity: they provided a pretext for exposing her body to the audience, yet augmented her blameless vulnerability. These songs exploited and endeared her at once. Bracegirdle's sung expressions of madness, where the referent hinted at her own state of mind, led audiences to respond to both character and actress. At their most successful, the songs invited additional outpourings of madness, as if the audience wished to share a lunacy of its own. In the wake of the rape attempt-turned-murder, Bracegirdle refocused public attention from scandal to sympathy by performing these mad songs. By 1695, the "mad singer"—her new nickname—flourished.
I. Virgin Actress
Two elements primary to Bracegirdle's rise to fame may also have threatened it. The first was her portrayal of vulnerable virgins. Initially specializing in [End Page 1] tragedy, Bracegirdle frequently played helpless heroines, establishing a sympathetic yet desirable virgin persona. 1 In so doing, Bracegirdle broke with earlier portrayals of rape, depicting the crime consistently as the male character's fault. Rape is no longer simply a crime of passion; her characters still appear as desirable objects, but the rapists are now portrayed as brutal. In George Powell's Alphonzo King of Naples (1691) and Nicholas Brady'Alphonzo Brady's The Rape (1692), for example, the rapists tie her character to a tree by her hair; such violence, even while it reveals her in dishabillé, abolishes any thought that she is complicit. Jean Marsden describes the Restoration tendency to blame the victim—if she struggles against the rape, then she is actively provoking it—but there is no such insinuation in Bracegirdle's rape roles (190). Rather, the embodied sexual reluctance rapidly advanced her career. By 1692, playwrights such as John Dryden and Thomas Southerne were customizing heroines for her; she had taken over classic roles of female suffering such as Desdemona; she had teamed up with the great actress Elizabeth Barry; and, as evidenced by her increasing number of prologues and epilogues, she had become an audience favorite. Marsden notes that to engage the audience the tragic heroine must come across as both virginal and sexually desirable (188). This was Bracegirdle's forté, but also nearly her downfall.
The second such element was her professional partnership with the handsome and accomplished actor-playwright, William Mountfort. Both her frequent stage appearances with Mountfort and his wife's dwindling visibility by his side fueled speculation of an affair between the two stars. Bracegirdle premiered in Mountfort's play The Injur'd Lovers (1688), in which Mountfort also delivered a prologue saying he is "cursed" because, among other reasons, he is married. 2 (His wife, actress Susannah Mountfort, does not perform in the play perhaps due to pregnancy; during their six-year marriage she bore four children.) During the four years (1688-92) when their careers overlapped, Bracegirdle and Mountfort acted together in eighteen plays and played lovers in nine. In a tenth play, Southerne's Sir Anthony Love (1691), her character also harbored an unrequited love for his. Many of these plays proved popular. One, Shadwell's The Squire of Alsatia (1688), initially ran for thirteen performances, making it one of the...