Fiction The Highwayman

Teaser Tuesday: An Evening at the Theatre

Apparently it’s Teaser Tuesday (also the first day of meteorological fall here in the northern hemisphere). So here are a few paragraphs from about a third of the way through Daring and Decorum: A Highwayman Novel. Elizabeth (the narrator) and her friend Rebecca are watching a performance of As You Like It at the Theatre Royal in Bath. Dora Jordan, playing Rosalind, was one of the most popular English actresses of the late 18th/early 19th centuries.

portrait of Dora Jordan
Dora Jordan as Rosalind, from the cover of Claire Tomalin’s biography

I was surprised when Mrs. Jordan received an ovation on her first entrance, for I had never before seen a star of the stage; when I turned to Rebecca, she assured me it was quite regular. But when Rosalind entered as Ganymede, “suited all points like a man” and exhibiting “a swashing and a martial outside,” the play nearly came to a halt as the audience murmured and some even gasped. She wore knee breeches that fit her legs like the fingers of a glove, and ankle-high shoes instead of boots, the better to show off the sensuous curves of her calves outlined in the snuggest of silk stockings. Her hair extended just to her collar, making her seem even more like a boy, yet there was also something feminine about her, so that we could never forget that underneath Ganymede’s dress was the woman, Rosalind.

The effect of seeing a woman arrayed in such garb, and strutting about the stage in the wide-legged stance of a man, is such as I can hardly describe. Many others in the audience must have felt the same, for the men leaned forward in their seats, and the fans of the women beat the air all the faster. I too found myself craning my neck for a better look, and felt flushed. Only Rebecca seemed unaffected, leaning back in her seat with just a hint of a smile and an appraising look in her eye. Then she turned to me. “Well? Is she everything you expected?”

“Oh, yes!” I replied, though Mrs. Jordan had yet to utter her first line as Ganymede. When she did, her voice was changed. She had made it lower and huskier, to sound more like a man, yet losing none of the energy and affability that made her performance so appealing. Even in her moments of raillery with Orlando, or chiding Phebe, she had such a good-humoured nature to her that the audience could not take her for a shrew or a scold. More, on Mrs. Jordan’s lips, the words were not like speeches at all, but always had the freshness of a new thought or feeling she had discovered only that moment.

The scene in which Ganymede first encountered Phebe was perhaps the strangest in the play, the director having chosen to play it broadly. When Ganymede asked, “Why do you look on me?”, Phebe practically threw herself at him; when Ganymede said, “I think she means to tangle my eyes too,” Phebe leaned up for a kiss, Ganymede averting his face at the last moment (sending another murmur of nervous laughter through the audience); and when Ganymede ordered Phebe “down on your knees,” Phebe knelt and threw her arms around Ganymede’s waist as if she would never let go (to uproarious jeers). I hazarded a glance at Rebecca to see that she no longer sat back in detachment, but was leaning forward, as engrossed as I. She caught my eye and gave me a wink.

I had to take some historical liberties with this scene, because Jordan didn’t appear in Bath during this period (though she appeared there regularly in later years on tours to support her wastrel lover, William, Duke of Clarence, and their ten children). Likewise, As You Like It wasn’t performed during the time when Elizabeth and Rebecca are visiting Bath. The blocking of the scene is my own (which probably explains why I never had a career as a director). But As You Like It was the play they needed to see, and Mrs. Jordan was famous for portraying Rosalind. Also, I feel she deserves more attention because she was the most famous comic actress of her day, after Eliza Farren retired, but she died penniless and alone in France while William went on to become King of England. She even got a bit of a short shrift in Emma Donoghue’s excellent Life Mask, where I first read about her. For more on Dora Jordan, see Mrs. Jordan’s Profession by Claire Tomalin. (Update: Also, I guess it doesn’t go without saying that this scene owes a lot to another theatre scene, this one in Ellen Kushner’s Privilege of the Swordprobably the main influence on my own novel.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Follow on Feedly