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The Loveliest Lady That Ever I Saw

Ned Kynaston in 1660

The Loveliest Lady That Ever I Saw


On August 18, 1660, Samuel Pepys glimpsed “the loveliest lady that ever I saw in my life” while attending a theater production.  The lovely lady in question was Ned Kynaston, a young man who performed female parts at a time when women were not yet allowed on the British stage.  Pepys made several references to Kynaston in his famous diary, which became an important record of England during the time of the Restoration.  Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, and in 1662 the king lifted the ban on women performing in the theater. 


Jeffrey Hatcher, having read Pepys’ diary, imagined what might have happened to Ned Kynaston, the greatest male actress of his time, after the ban on women was lifted.  Hatcher wrote a play, Compleat Female Stage Beauty, which he later adapted into a film called Stage Beauty (newly released on DVD).  The film portrays Ned (played by Billy Crudup) as a man who spent his life studying and imitating women, wearing women’s clothes not only on the stage but often elsewhere.  When the ban lifts, he refuses to play men’s roles, saying “Men aren’t beautiful, and what they do isn’t beautiful.” 


We first see Ned as Desdemona, the female lead in Shakespeare’s Othello, about to be murdered by her enraged husband Othello, who was manipulated into believing she has been unfaithful.  Ned believes that everything women do is beautiful, and he becomes famous for portraying Desdemona’s death as beautiful and poetic.  The crowd applauds before the actors can finish the scene.  Waiting in the wings is Ned’s dresser Maria Hughes (played by Claire Danes), whom many historians believe was the first woman to perform on the British stage.  As Ned’s dresser, she watches and learns, hanging on every word, every gesture.  All she needs is opportunity.


The film plays with gender on many levels.  Ned tells Maria about his mentor, an old actor who had told Ned, “You are a man in woman’s form.”  Ned pauses, and then adds, “Or was it the other way around?”  Maria responds: “You are as fine a man as any woman.”  Ned then says to Maria, “We are souls entwined.”


Maria takes matters into her own hands and commits an inappropriate act of gender behavior for the times by, ironically, playing a woman in public.  A confused Ned remarks, “A woman playing a woman, what’s the trick in that?”  Male shock and outrage fill a banquet hall attended by Charles II (played by Rupert Everett), who startles everyone by saying “It might be fun to see women on the stage.”  Ned, famous for dying as a woman, begins to envision that he may have to be reborn as a man, if indeed he wants to continue living. 


The irony continues as an outraged Ned criticizes Maria for not being properly trained in how to act like a woman.  Maria respects Ned’s opinion and begins her acting career mimicking Ned mimicking a woman.  When Pepys tries to console Ned by saying that Ned’s portrayal of Roselind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It was especially real and true when Roselind pretends to be a man, Ned says that it was only true because he was pretending he was a woman pretending to be a man. 


The death knell of Ned as a woman is tolled by the appropriately named Nell Gwyn, an aspiring actress and mistress of Charles II.  Nell overhears Ned enraged over having to share the stage with real women and goes immediately to her lover, who responds not only by allowing women on the stage, but forbidding men to play women’s roles.  Ned has become Othello, who brings about his own downfall through his rage and jealousy, killing his Desdemona forever. 


Ned’s rebirth comes about with the help of Maria, who reaches out to him and needs his help as well to become a better actress.  Together, they explore the true nature of gender, shifting their roles and taking turns being man or woman.  In one clever scene, Maria and Ned take turns in bed being the man or the woman in various sexual positions.  Maria, on top of Ned, asks “Am I the man or the woman?”  Ned says, “You are the man.”  Maria changes places with Ned and says “How about now?”  Ned says, “Now you are the woman.”  Later, by rehearsing together, they reinvent theatrical convention by reaching inside themselves.  In the final scene of the film, Ned plays Othello to Maria’s Desdemona, but instead of playing the stage roles as stereotypes, they become two human beings who love each other, but whose passion destroys them.  The new scene is raw and violent, which at first shocks and horrifies the audience, but then moves them in a much deeper way. 


Maria and Ned remind me of my wife and I.  My wife often takes on the masculine role in our marriage, paying bills, driving on long trips, or confronting annoying telemarketers.  As a cross-dresser, I often prefer the feminine role, wearing skirts more often than my wife does.  But there are times when my wife prefers me to take the lead for awhile so that she can be the woman.  While I see myself as more woman than man, I do sometimes enjoy being the man.  For us, crossing gender lines is a normal part of our marriage, and we have learned to accept it as such.


To me, Stage Beauty is ultimately a story about acceptance.  Ned lives in denial, defending his cross-dressing as an art form and livelihood.  He refuses to act male roles on the grounds that it isn’t a challenge, or beneath him because it is a lesser art.  Ned’s transition comes about through a symbolic death and rebirth.  The classic hero often suffers a death of innocence, and is reborn stronger and wiser.  The part of Ned that dies is his black and white, all-or-nothing notion of gender.  The new Ned is comfortable living in the gray areas.  He is both man and woman, and at the same time neither.  In the last lines of the film, Maria asks “Who are you now?”  Ned replies with a smile, “I don’t know.”


Self acceptance is the most important thing one can learn.  I used to live in the shadow of depression and self-hatred.  Acceptance has given me the strength to take control of my own life.  I used to look in the mirror and see a stranger, a loner, an outsider.  Now when I look in the mirror, I see the loveliest lady that ever I saw in my life.

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