A female Romeo

Posted on 19th August 2021 by simonbeattie

One of the items in my recent Theatre list is this playbill, which advertises an important performance of Romeo and Juliet in 1832. If you look closely, you will see that the role of Romeo, ‘for this night only’, was taken by Ellen Tree (1805–1880; Kean as she subsequently became, on her marriage to the actor Charles Kean in 1842), an actor who had performed a variety of leading roles at Drury Lane in the late 1820s, before her move to Covent Garden. 

‘The turning point of her career came in 1829 at Covent Garden, where she began an engagement as Lady Townly in The Provoked Husband.  Other successes followed, and for her benefit she played Romeo to Fanny Kemble’s Juliet.  It was a stunning success, but she declined to play it thereafter.  Fanny Kemble deemed her the only Romeo with whom she acted who really looked the part’ (Oxford DNB). Tree was the first English actress to play tragic male roles regularly, initiating ‘a nineteenth-century Anglo-American convention in which many women performers played a limited number of tragic male roles, primarily Romeo and Hamlet’ (Anne Russell, ‘”Playing the men”: Ellen Tree, Fanny Kemble, and theatrical constructions of gender’, openjournals.galib.uga.edu, 2013).

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