LGBT History Month – Sarah Siddons

Alongside our ongoing HLF heritage project, we have been investigating Bristol Old Vic’s dramas, both on and off stage, by seeking out archival evidence of individuals with diverse identities and bodies. LGBT History month felt like the ideal time to draw back the curtain and showcase some of our Theatre’s lesser known history…


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Figure 1. Engraving, University of Bristol Theatre Collection

Sarah Siddons has long been heralded as an icon of 18th-century theatre: a regular player on the London stage, part of a theatrical dynasty, and a celebrated tragic actress. Renowned for her ability to depict complex emotions, she frequently performed Shakespearean roles; her famous depiction of Lady Macbeth was described as ‘perfection’ (Figure 2). er. However, her experimentation with gender and accolade as the first influential woman to play Hamlet is less well known.

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Figure 2. Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth. Mander & Mitchenson Collection, University of Bristol Theatre Collection.

In the 17th century the first professional actresses began appearing onstage, with breeches roles becoming a popular source of comedic entertainment. Some critics have argued that this cross-dressing enabled women to subvert gender roles, and to engage in the swaggering, rakish behaviour displayed by male performers. Yet others note that breeches roles actually increased the sexualisation of women, by allowing heterosexual male audiences a better view of actresses’ legs. Moreover, breeches roles involve an actress adopting male garments as part of the narrative, and their comedic value lies in the imperfect impersonation of a male part – for example, Viola in Twelfth Night. Misconceptions often occur: other female characters often mistake the gender of a breeches character and fall in love with them, but everyone returns to their original gender and is usually romantically involved with a partner of the opposite sex by the end of the play.

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Figure 3. Engraving, University of Bristol Theatre Collection

In contrast, cross-dressing roles are sustained throughout a performance and are the choice of the actor, not the character. Siddons’ decision to play Hamlet is a deliberate choice that enabled her to explore the constructed nature of gender onstage and off it. Celestine Woo’s work describes Siddons’ performances as Hamlet in detail. She notes that Siddons ‘performed the role of Hamlet nine times over thirty years’, meaning it was not an anomaly. Though Siddons never played Hamlet on a London stage, she depicted the role at major venues in the provinces including Dublin, Manchester and – of course – at the Bristol Old Vic, then the Theatre Royal, Bristol.

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Figure 4. Costume worn by Siddons as Hamlet, Mander & Mitchenson Collection, University of Bristol Theatre Collection. Original at the British Library

So how did Siddons expose the way gender is performed and constructed? Woo describes how Siddons’ costume choice helped destabilise traditional gender roles. Her argument is based on a fan’s watercolour drawing of Siddons’ Hamlet from her Dublin performances in 1802 and 1805 (see Figure 4).

By eschewing breeches, Siddons ignores the usual marker of onstage masculinity. Instead, the flash of leg from underneath the black toga which otherwise hides her female contours adds a risqué element to an otherwise androgynous outfit. Combining details socially-recognised as feminine – the white lace, feathered plume, floral brooch and soft fringe – with a phallic sword, Siddons simultaneously denies the fetishization normally endorsed by a breeches role and highlights the reliance on gendered props to help convey gender to an onlooker or audience.

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Figure 5. Playbill from the Theatre Royal, Manchester, advertising Siddons as Hamlet. Mander & Mitchenson Collection, University of Bristol Theatre Collection.

Though her performance received mixed reactions, Siddons cross-dressing in this way enabled a woman to play Hamlet seriously. Performing such an iconic role expanded the possibilities for female actors in the 18th century, and drew attention to the instability of gender by mixing male and female symbols through costume. Whilst Siddons is rightly remembered for her nuanced performances of women, her experimentation with gender paved the way for further female Hamlets and for women to depict male characters outside of comedy. That she played Hamlet on the Bristol Old Vic’s stage is a fact that should be shared just as much as her appearances in traditionally female roles.


One thought on “LGBT History Month – Sarah Siddons

  1. markanthonyhowell says:

    Re: Bristol’s Merchant Venturer Professional Actors in the eighteenth century.
    Merchant Venturers Roger Watts and John Vaughan were the two of the most significant 18th-century professional actors who were born & remained working in Bristol their whole lives. They acted professionally for as long as 20 to 30 years in Bristol & Bath. Watts made one appearance in a small part at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden at the same time a large number of Covent Garden actors were performing at the theatre in Bristol’s Jacob’s Well.

    Roger Watts Wiki-like biography:
    1. 1750-1767 – built 4 theatres in Bristol & Bath:
    a) 1748 – extended the Theatre in Jacob’s Well;
    b) 1750 – the first Regulated Theatre in Orchard Street, Bath;
    c) 1766 – the New Theatre in King Street, Bristol;
    d) 1767 – extended Bath’s Orchard Street Theatre to Theatre Royal capacity.
    2. Elected by Bristol’s 50 x Theatre Proprietors to deliver their first bid for a Royal Patent to Parliament & the Lord Chamberlain Censor & Controller of Theatres.
    3. 1744 – started professional acting at Jacob’s Well, quickly becoming more popular here than West End celebrity actors who acted alongside him.
    4. 1748 – Some evidence hints that Roger Watts might have become interim Actor-Manager at Jacob’s Well and Bath Theatres, following Hippisley’s early death.
    5. 1749 – The Landlord of The Cock Tavern, in Corn Street, Bristol (same street as The Bristol Exchange, workplace of Bristol’s Merchant Venturers).
    6. 1750 – Opened New Theatre in Bath’s Orchard Street (its plan dimensions of 40ft wide and 60ft long roughly match Watts’ Jacob’s Well Theatre in Bristol.
    7. 1750 – Signed the Orchard Street Bath’s theatre deed along with Samuel Purlewent.
    8. 1753 – Listed as a Church Warden in St Stephens Church, which still stands just around the corner from King Street, Bristol.
    9. 1764 – Vaughan (gold merchant) Watts (wine merchant), Wiliam Jones (bread merchant) & Alexander Edgar (Brewer) signed a contract to build “a new theatre or room for amusements” in Rackhay Yard, a site exactly like the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, being surrounded on four sides by other buildings. In 1764 Alexander Edgar’s Beer replaced (as it did in most 18th-century cities & towns) Bristol’s disease-ridden contaminated water. So, it’s not unreasonable to suggest (or infer) the trades of these four Proprietors demonstrated their commitment to leading Christian lives.
    10. 1766 – opens the New Theatre in King Street (today called Bristol Old Vic).
    11. 1767 – Signed deeds to extend the Orchard Street Theatre southwards in 1767 (BL) giving it dimensions comparable with the larger Theatres Royal across the UK (especially the New Theatre (from 1778 Theatre Royal) he built in Bristol.
    12. 1768 – The Lord Chamberlain & Parliament issued a Royal Patent, making it a Theatre Royal.
    13. 1772 – Bristol Proprietors elect him to deliver to Parliament & the Lord Chamberlain Censor their first bid for a Royal Patent for their theatre. Denied.
    14. 1775 – Shipped to Quebec large numbers of casks containing Spanish wine & Cider; crates of stone bottles & stone pots & earthenware; casks of vinegar, cordage; paving stones; grindstones; 1 parcel; household furniture; bacon; 3 boxes of felt hats; 6 boxes of tin plates; a harpsichord; 2 boxes of bound books; a saddle & bridle, cheese; pickles; blankets, woolen stuff, worsted stockings, and a large amount of salt. Sounds like Watts might have been building a new Church in Quebec (or, maybe, the first Quebec Theatre?)
    15. 1777 – Signs his will, leaving property to Giffith Maskelyn who is sometimes regarded as his “adopted son” but who might also have been Watts’ lifetime partner & lover.
    16. 1778 – Death. Buried outside Bristol.
    17. Actor Thomas Mozeen writes an obituary poem for Roger Watts, which describes him as ‘honest,” very friendly & well known & the owner of a popular dog called “Sharper.”
    18. Sarah Watts (possibly related), a woman who works at Bristol Old Vic as I write, might be a descendent from Roger, the man who built it.

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