My favourite lines spoken by Dol Common are in Act 2 Scene 4 of The Alchemist:

'O let me alone!
I'll not forget my part I warrant you,
I'll keep my distance, laugh and talk aloud;
Have all the tricks of a proud scurvy lady, 
And be as rude as her woman.' 

She is describing how, as a prostitute and as therefore as an actress, she will play two parts. She will be the meek, proper, giggly 'lady' in order to entice Sir Epicure Mammon (a witless, lustful Lord), and then once she's got him into bed she will use all the best sexual tricks and filth of a lowly ladies' maid. One of the joys of Dol Common for an audience and for the actor playing her is in this virgin/whore switch. Siobhan McSweeny plays her with wonderful versatility, humour and hutzpah. It's great to watch her and learn and steal things to use for my version of Dol in the public understudy run. 

I've always been interested in the link between actresses and prostitutes. I wrote my dissertation on 17th century actresses like Nell Gwynn who were often 'kept' women or worked as prostitutes alongside working on the stage. I was fascinated by the lengths they had to go to in order to act. 

Katherine Corey was the first recorded actress to play Dol on 16 December 1661. She made her mark on the role, was known for her comic genius and worked for three decades as a leading actress in the Restoration era. I wasn't able to find out via Google whether Corey had ever also worked as a prostitute, however the comic duality of the role and the general rule that no 'respectable' woman would have been an actress in the 1660s suggests she may well have. Actresses at the time often didn't have a choice.

A rack full of costumes, with a pink, heavily strapped dress in front
The costumes for Dol Common
Eleanor Wyld © The Artist – Image Licensing

Researching the early actresses again, a few things have struck me in relation to Dol. Mainly what a great leap she must have been in terms of the parts women got to play. Desdemona was the first character ever played by a woman on stage in 1660. Although Desdemona by no means needs to be a passive role for an actress, the early fear surrounding having women on stage meant that female characters would, according to academic Elizabeth Howe, usually lie on stage 'on a bed or grassy bank where attractively defenceless and probably enticingly deshabille'.  

Dol is not defenceless. She's no wilting flower. She's in control, threatening to cut men's throats, arousing, manipulating and conning those around her. In his play, Jonson hasn't ignored either the power she has as a skilled sex worker, or the fact that as a woman and as a 'wench' in 1610, she really is at the bottom of the pile and has very little status. 

I wonder if Katherine Corey got a personal kick out of saying those lines in Act 2 Scene 4? Telling the men in the audience who may have seen her as public property that she was more in control than they thought. That she was, through her versatile skill as an actress (and perhaps as a prostitute) playing multiple parts and running rings around men on (and off?!) the stage. Either way she was paving the way for actresses after her. Ben Jonson, Katherine Corey and now Siobhan McSweeney, Polly Findlay and her amazing creative team (hard at work here during preview week) have made sure that there is a real kick to be had out of playing this funny, multifaceted, clever and tough woman 400 years after she was written. I'm looking forward to having a go. 

Eleanor Wyld

Eleanor Wyld

Eleanor Wyld is an actor who grew up in Hackney, London. She writes and has four part time jobs when she's resting. She is an associate at the Big House Theatre Company based in Dalston, a theatre charity helping to empower young people in care.
www.thebighouse.uk.com Follow Eleanor on Twitter @EleanorWyld

You may also like