Stage Beauty (2004) 




Director:  Richard Eyre. 

Starring:  Billy Crudup (Ned Kynaston), Claire Danes (Maria), Rupert Everett (King Charles II), Tom Wilkinson (Betterton), Zoe Tapper (Nell Gwynn), Richard Griffiths (Sir Charles Sedley),  Ben Chaplin (George Villiars, Duke of Buckingham), Hugh Bonneville (Samuel Pepys), Edward Fox (Sir Edward Hyde), Derek Hutchinson (Stage Manager), Mark Letheren (Male Emilia/Dickie), Jack Kempton (Call Boy), Alice Eve (Miss Frayne), Fenella Woolgar (Lady Meresvale), David Westhead (Harry).

first woman to play the role of a woman on the stage in England under Charles II


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

"In his diary for 1660, Samuel Pepys wrote that the most beautiful woman on the London stage was named Kynaston. Like every actor licensed by law to portray women, Kynaston was a man."

The theater is running through a performance of Shakespearís Othello. Maria listens intently to the dying scene for Desdemona while mouthing the words said by Kynaston along with him as he says them.

The death scene ends and the audience applauds wildly for Kynaston and keep chanting his name. The other actors have to wait until the applause dies down before the play can continue. When the performance is finished the other actors complain to Kynaston how the applause for him spoils their entrances and performances. Another actor, who acts the part of another woman, tells the manager that he quits and stomps out.

The famous diarist Samuel Pepys tells Kynaston that he was just marvelous. Betterton, the manager of the theater and the man who played the part of Othello, complains to Pepys that King Charles II of the English Restoration of the monarchy came to a performance and told him that it is a wonderful show but before the next time he comes to the performance, he would like Betterton to "make it cheerier" Ė "a little bit more jolly".

The Duke of Buckingham, who is very close to the king, comes in to say that the actors should be more understanding of the king. After all, the theaters were closed for 18 years under the Puritans (and Oliver Cromwell). But now that the king has been rightfully restored to his position, he has opened all the theaters. Despite this hiatus, when the king starts going back to performances, all he sees is more of the same.

Two ladies ask Maria if they could come in and see Kynaston. Maria waits for the conversation to die down to tell everyone that two ladies want to come back stage. They are here to see only Kynaston. Kynaston tells Maria to give him five minutes to put his costume back on so he can give the ladies the "full visage".

Kynastonís contract is up and he tells Betterton that he wants a share in the company. Betterton refuses, but does say he will give him right of approval of any actor who shares the stage with him. Kynaston accepts.

After the actors leave the back stage area, except for Kynaston, Kynaston tells Maria that he was not good on the stage tonight. Maria thought he was marvelous. Maria now brings in Lady Meresvale and Miss Frayne. The women fawn over Kynaston as a woman. They ask him to take a ride with them and he agrees. Before he leaves, Maria asks him for an advance on her salary and Kynaston gives it to her.

After the three have left in a coach, Maria rushes around gathering props up to stick in a large bag. Then she runs over to a tavern where they are also putting on the Othello play. She has to pay some of her salary advance to the manager in order to act.

Meanwhile, in the coach the women say that Kynaston is much too beautiful to be a man. They want to know the truth. He pulls up his skirt and the women put their hands out to touch his "thingy".

Maria acts her part as Desdemona in the tavern play of Othello.

The ladies drop off Kynaston, but Sir Sedley mistakes the three of them for whores and asks how much? Kynaston wants to play a joke on the fellow. He says that one of the ladies charges a shilling and the other a penny, but Kynaston is five pounds a week.

The two women leave. Sedley now pursues Kynaston. He picks up his dress and puts his gloved hand between his legs and then stops. Kynaston asks him: "Found a guardian at the gate, did you?" Sir Sedley says he will never wear his right hand glove again. But then Sedley says he is looking for a mistress and maybe Kynaston as a male would be better than a woman. Kynaston just starts walking away from him. Sedley now says that he will get even with the he-she man. Kynaston throws a coin at the manís feet as a further insult.

Maria was successful in her role. But now she has to run back to the theater, before Kynaston returns. Pepys tells her she was very good tonight, as she runs past him. He invites her to a dinner with the king. Maria is very excited to go with him.

Maria sees Kynaston returning and runs through the theater door. She puts everything back before he arrives. When he comes in, she is out of breath. The pillow Maria borrowed for the death scene has a tear in it and Kynaston notices it. He wonders out loud if he tore it. Maria says he must have.

Kynaston starts taking off his costume, while he mentions to Maria that the two ladies felt his cock for the sake of a wager if he is male or female. Maria is a bit amazed by this, but says nothing. Kynaston asks Maria to be Othello and he will be Desdemona so he can practice his death performance. Kynaston tries to kiss her, but she says thatís not in the script. What she wants to know is if the ladies actually succeeded in feeling his thingy. Kynaston asks Maria what kind of woman does Maria think she is? Maria laughs.

Kynaston talks to Maria about his old acting mentor. He was the one who taught Kynaston how to act like a woman. He would always tell Kynaston: "Always remember a part doesnít belong to an actor. An actor belongs to a part. . . . Or was it the other way around?" Maria tells him that he could play the part of a man just as well as play any womanís role." Kynaston says the two of them are souls entwined. Maria goes in for a kiss, but Kynaston says: "Off you go."

On stage Kynaston practices his female gestures. Maria practices along with him, unnoticed by the male star. Then she goes about her work. Kynaston lays down the stage. He is scared out of his wits, when from the cloth covering a prop on stage turns out to be a rising Duke of Buckingham. He is nude and has been and still is a lover of Kynaston. The two men kiss.

The Duke of Buckingham tells Kynaston that an actress has performed at Cockerellís Tavern. At first Kynaston thinks itís a joke, but the Duke assures him that it was a girl who played a role in the production. Kynaston points out that it is illegal. He says: "Well, a woman playing a woman Ė whatís the trick in that?" Kynaston asks what was the name of the play performed? When he finds out it was Othello, he is aghast. And the name of the actress? Itís Mrs. Margaret Hughes and the word is that she will be at the palace tomorrow night. Kynaston insists that the Duke take him to the palace affair. The Duke agrees to it, but only if Kynaston promises not make a scene. The Duke has Kynaston put on a golden wig and they start making love. Maria is absolutely flabbergasted and starts crying when she sees her hero with another man.

At the palace, Kynaston meets the kingís mistress Nell Gwyn. She tells Kynaston that she is a big fan of his. Mrs. Hughes is announced. She is with Pepys. Maria goes into a bow and holds it, until they introduce her to Mr. Kynaston at which she is so flabbergasted that she falls backward on her buttocks. Kynaston asks her ig she is all right?

Sir Charles Sedley is now announced. It turns out that Sedley was the fellow who propositioned Kynaston in drag. Sedley says he thinks heís met Kynaston before.

Everyone goes in to sit down for dinner. Maria says to Kynaston that she can explain everything. Sedley grabs Maria and asks her to sit with him. The Duke of Buckingham tells Kynaston not to make a scene.

The conversation turns to those playing the role of Desdemona. Perhaps to embarrass or harass Maria, Kynaston says that the Duke recently saw a new person playing Desdemona. He then takes out of his pocket the advertisement for the play. The clergyman at the table grabs the advertisement and reads that Mrs. Margaret Hughes plays Desdemona. He glares at Maria. The clergyman wants the king to close the Cockpit Tavern, while Nell wants to see Maria play the part of Desdemona. The king says that his mother acted in some of the old court masques.

A Mr. Prynne wrought a pamphlet saying that all actresses were lewd women and whores. His mother took this personally and so Prynne was tried, convicted and sentenced to the stock. His feet were burned, his ears lopped off and his tongue cut out. But the man never took back what he had written. Some say the excess of the Puritans was the inspiration of Prynne and so his father had his head cut off and he, the king now, had to spend twenty years in Holland. He adds: "I think it might be fun to see women on the stage." He has drawn up a proclamation that grants women permission to perform. It will apply to all women. Kynaston is not pleased with this turn of events.

Before Kynaston leaves with the Duke, he whispers to Sedley that he shall never wear this glove again. And now Sedley knows that the man in drag is none other than Kynaston. The cocky actor will soon regret his remark.

Sedley tells Mrs. Hughes that she should try out for Mr. Bettertonís theater. Maria doesnít want to do that because of Mr. Kynaston. Sedley tells her to surprise the man.

Kynaston arrives at the theater to hear Sedley tell Betterton that Mrs. Margaret Hughes should play the role of Emilia in Othello. Maria waits in the dressing room. Kynaston comes in and Maria tries to apologize to him, but he wonít let her. He is very bitter. He tells her that he has worked half his life to act the role of a woman. Maria tells him that she had no such classroom or teacher, but then again, she had less of a natural need to be trained in acting female. She tells Kynaston that she didnít come to audition, but to collect her things and give notice of her leaving.

Maria is so mad at Kynaston and his bitter attitude that she agrees to audition for the part of Emilia. She will perform something from Desdemona. Bitterton, Sedley and Kynaston all sit in the front seats to listen to her audition. She has to ask to start again a couple of times. Kynaston becomes very rude to Maria when she finishes her audition. He becomes very insulting and disparaging of her audition performance.

Maria gets angry and starts walking out. She says she would love to have them come for the performance, but the tickets are all sold out. This shocks Betterton who now wants her to have a part in his production. He asks Kynaston if Maria could play the part of Emilia? Kynaston refuses to permit it. He has, after all, the right of approval of all who work with him and he is exercising that right.

Nell, listening to all this from behind a curtain, shouts out to Kynaston: "Bitch!" She marches up on the stage and scolds the men for treating women so contemptuously. She says the women will blame them. Nell grabs Maria and forcefully escorts her out of the theater.

Betterton asks who was that woman? Sedley says she is the kingís mistress. Betterton does not look happy about this. He is very angry at Kynaston. Nell immediately goes in to see the king. She whispers what she wants from him and he says no. So Nell starts grabbing for his "thingy". Charles II soon changes his mind.

Sedley sets in motion his plant to teach Kynaston a lesson. The two theater-going ladies are in on the plot.

Kynaston gets great praise again for playing Desdemona. After the performance the two ladies come in and apologize to Kynaston for their rudeness before and ask him to go with them on another coach ride. The actor agrees.

On the drive they stop at a large gazebo. Kynaston is not sure what is going on. They go into the gazebo and Kynaston sees Sedley waiting for him. Several of Sedleyís men beat the stuffings out of the great actor.

Charles II declares that all womenís parts will now be acted only by women.

Six weeks later. Mrs. Hughes is having a portrait done of her, but the artists and the guys want her to show one of her breasts for the painting. Maria argues against it, but eventually has to give in. The artist asks how else can he prove that she is a real woman? So Maria exposes her left breast.

Maria quickly closes her bodice when Kynaston comes into the room. He says he came to asks Mrs. Hughes if she still has his pillow? Maria asks the other to clear the room. They go. She tells her fellow actor that she does not have his pillow. They clash with each other and trade accusations. Maria asks him what does he know of love? "Or adoration suffered in deepest silence?"

Kynaston goes to see Betterton. Betterton is angry still at Kynaston and tells him he cost the theater the support of the king and his mistress. He also tells Kynaston that all the parts are filled for there are lots of men who used to play women who are now looking for work.

Kynaston goes to talk with the Duke of Buckingham. The Duke is tired of the actor. He says he warned Kynaston about not causing a scene. And the Duke tells him that he is going to marry Jane Bellamy this Saturday. He frankly say that he doesnít want Kynaston as he is now.

Kynaston goes to speak with the king. He had to sneak in with help of a friend. The king is not happy to see him and asks him what he wants. The actor replies: "I want to act as I did before." Maria comes to Kynastonís support saying that she thinks he can act as a man and do a good job at it. She tells the actor to perform a soliloquy as a man and perhaps the king will change his mind.

The king wants to see Kynaston act the part of Othello. Kynaston starts but he has to ask to start again, like Maria had to do in her audition. In the middle of the speech, he starts making a female gesture and catches himself bringing his hands down. The man starts crying. The king tries to console him, but itís no use. Kynaston rushes out. Maria calls out for him, but he wonít stop to talk to her.

Maria tells Pepys about her doubts about being a good actress. Pepys tries to console her. Her old manager from the tavern days comes in and introduces Mrs. Hughes to Mrs. Barry, another actress. Mrs. Barry is very happy to meet the first woman on stage. After a short exchange they leave. Now Maria asks Pepys if he knows where Kynaston is?

Kynaston still in drag sings comedic tunes to a rough crowd. Maria comes in and is shocked when she see Kynaston raising his skirt up to show his groin area to the crazed crowd. She comes on stage to stop the act. The female manager tells her to get off her stage, but Maria silences her by showing her a bag containing five English pounds. The woman takes the money and Maria walks off with Kynaston.

Maria takes Kynaston to an inn. The actor asks her why se is doing this for him? She asks him: "Why wonít you play men?" He replies: "Men arenít beautiful."

Maria puts on her night gown and says she will sleep beside him. She slips into bed. After a few seconds she asks what do men do sexually with other men? He says that it depends on who is playing the man and who the woman. He always played the part of the woman. He shows her a couple of sexual positions men on men use. She switches to being on top of him and she starts kissing him. Kynaston starts kissing her back. He likes to look at her face and touch it.

Kynaston ruins the moment for Maria by asking her how, as Desdemona, does she die? She gets up and giver him an earful:

"Your old tutor did you a great disservice, Mr. Kynaston. He taught you how to speak and swoon and toss your head, but he never taught you to suffer like a woman or love like a woman. He trapped a man in womanís form and left you there to die! I always hated you as Desdemona. You never fought! You just died beautifully. . . . A woman would fight."

Maria leave to go back to the Betterton theater. Bettertonís Desdemona got pregnant and he desperately needs a woman substitute. When Maria arrives, he asks her to do the role. She says sheís not good as Desdemona. Nell comes in to console her. Maria says she never could play the Desdemona role. She says she just canít act.

Nell and Pepys find Kynaston and ask him to coach Maria. At first he says no, but then changes his mind after they tell him that Mrs. Hughes canít act. All she does is do a replication of what Kynaston did as Desdemona.

Maria comes out on the stage with Kynaston. They start to work and the actor turned director is very good at the job. He gives Maria a lot of helpful suggestions. And he gets rid of the gestures that she copied from him. He wants her to be more of herself Ė a woman.

Kynaston tells Betterton that they are read to go, but he will be playing Othello, not Betterton. He looks at Maria and she backs the idea quickly. So now they both prepare to go on stage. Maria returns his pillow to him. They both smile at each other. He tells her he will see her on stage.

Kynaston and Hughes changed the death scene to make it much longer and more dramatic. Frankly, it was a shock to the audience some of who thought that Kynaston was actually killing Hughes. Desdemona is not suffocated to death immediately. Rather she speaks to Emilia and then dies.

The audience loves it and the king shouts: "Brava! Brava!" They really cheer for Mrs. Hughes. The two actors didnít change the ending to be jollier, but certainly made it more intense and a little scary for some in the audience. Mrs. Hughes asks for quiet because they have one more act to perform.

After the show Kynaston and Hughes hug and kiss each other. She asks him who is he now and he says: "I donít know. I donít know."


Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

Historical Background:


See Forever Amber (1947).



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