- Mediating Boys:Two Angry Women and the Boy Actor’s Shaping of 1590s Theatrical Culture
The title alone of henry porter’s The Pleasant Historie of the two angrie Women of Abington points its late sixteenth-century audience to the play’s primary selling point—comic interactions between boy actors.1 The phrase “two angrie women” indicates that the story centers on a pair of humorous antagonists portrayed by boy actors. Nearly every character in Two Angry Women is mirrored by another character, a feature that allows the play to insert variety into familiar roles. The plot follows two families, the Gourseys and the Barneses, who fall out of friendship when Mistress Barnes begins to suspect that her husband is having an affair with Mistress Goursey. The play’s action centers on the inability of the husbands—the only characters in the families played by adult actors—to resolve the conflict, as opposed to the reconciliation deftly brought about by characters portrayed by boy actors—the families’ adolescent sons, Franke Goursey and Phillip Barnes, and the Barneses’ daughter, Mall. Two Angry Women thus positions boy actors as source of and solution to the conflicts onstage. By exploring these issues in the represented action and at the presentational level in the boy actors’ bodies, Two Angry Women showcases the increasing power that boys wielded in adult companies during the 1590s.2 [End Page 180]
Two Angry Women, a product of the adult professional theater scene establishing itself on the outskirts of London at the end of the sixteenth century, is insistently metatheatrical, asking its audience to be impressed by the complex parts the boy actor can perform. The play begins with a stage full of boy actors. The first stage direction reads, “Enter Maister Goursey and his wife, and Maister Barnes and his wife, with their two sonnes, and their two seruants” (sig. B1r). (The Barnes’s daughter, Mall, and the Goursey’s page, referred to as “Boy,” do not appear in this scene, but they are the final set of doubles completing this mirrored character structure.) Of these ten principal roles, six require boy actors. Two Angry Women does not merely employ a number of boy actors, but calls for several kinds of boys. Franke Goursey and Phillip Barnes would likely be portrayed by adolescent boys. The parts of Mistress Goursey and Mistress Barnes would call for slightly younger boys whose higher voices would mark them as female. Finally, Mall and the Boy would be performed by even younger boys whose smaller size would make them legible as younger characters and (in Mall’s case) female. Putting all of these characters together onstage asks the audience to consider the fine distinctions in performance and physiology that make possible such portrayals of variously gendered and aged bodies possible.
The play’s casting demands a particular kind of adult company, one that has access to a number of well-trained boy actors at different developmental stages. Two Angry Women debuts just when a number of boy actors would have been available, during the suppression of the boys’ companies after the 1589–90 season. Furthermore, the scrutiny the play places on boy actors responds directly to a significant—and significantly understudied—shift that destabilized the boy actor’s position in the theater. The play’s engagement with this shift is clearest in its use of characters and plots imported from boys’ company repertories, especially from the work of one of the most popular playmakers working with boys’ companies, John Lyly, who was partly responsible for the political provocations that led to the suppression. Lyly’s cross-dressed heroines and waggish pages occupy a central position in Two Angry Women, reworked in the characters of Mall and the Boy. In transposing these figures to the adult stage, Two Angry Women is one of a number of plays from the 1590s to capitalize on the disappearance of the boys’ companies. In their absence, adult companies made use of the resources the boys’ companies had accrued; by calling attention to how they were employing boy company actors and theatrical conventions, the adult companies produced many highly metatheatrical dramas. Two Angry Women portrays...