Today in Theatre History: THE FIRST DUTCH ACTRESS TAKES THE STAGE… OR MAYBE NOT–June 13, 1655.

Today in Theatre History–June 13, 1655–is when the earliest known professional actress first performed on stage in the Netherlands.  Or perhaps not.  Ariana Nozeman is credited with being the first woman to trod the professional Dutch stage and, according to some sources, this day in 1655 is when she first did that.  The trouble with this date is that it is likely incorrect.   Here’s why.

The Dutch theatre in the mid-seventeenth century was very much like the English theatre of the Elizabethan era–a handful of professional acting troupes dominated the commercial theatre scene in the country’s main city, Amsterdam.  Like the English, the severely Calvinistic Dutch banned women from acting on stage.  Female roles were thus performed by young men and boys.  But all this changed in February of 1655 when a number of leading actors, protesting poor treatment by theatre management and civic leaders, walked out and refused to perform.  This left Dutch theatre–what there was of it–in a serious mess.  Most historians of Dutch theatre (and, honestly, how many of those can there be?) agree that when faced with financial ruin, the only option was to replace the striking actors with… women.  But this, of course, is mere speculation since there is no concrete evidence that points to the actors’ strike as the actual reason.  Nonetheless, it is presumed that because of the extraordinary need to entertain the Dutch public, someone made the bold decision to replace at least one of the missing actors with Ariana Nozeman.

How did those hordes of Dutch theatre historians come up with today as the date this occurred?  Well, simple.  They found a document, dated June 30, 1655, in the financial records of Amsterdam’s main professional theatre (Schouwburg) indicating a payment of some 7650 florins to Ariana Nozeman for having acted in seventeen performances.  By simply subtracting 17 from 30 (June 30), they determined that she must have begun her career on June 13.  Simple.  What’s the problem with this?  It’s just a bit too simple.  Just like English theatre, Dutch theatre didn’t perform everyday.  On Sundays, for instance, theatre was forbidden.  The Schouwburg was open irregularly, sometimes only three days a week.  Since records are unclear as to how many days it was open in June of 1655, we have no way of knowing how many performances were given that month.  Furthermore, professional Dutch troupes were sometimes hired to give private performances when the Schouwburg was not in use.  So pinning a specific date to the first performance of a Dutch actress is historically difficult to say the least.  Suffice it to say, that it most probably occurred in early to mid-June of 1655.  Furthermore, it’s possible that Ariana was not the first actress anyway.  While it’s likely she was the first professional actress to perform in the country’s premiere professional theatre, there were women on the Dutch stages long before this.

Rembrandt's "Joseph Accused by Potipher's Wife (1655).  The woman in this painting may well be Ariana Nozeman (Rembrandt was one of her biggest fans).  The men are likely an early collection of Dutch theatre historians trying to get it right.

Rembrandt’s “Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s Wife” (1655). The woman who posed for this painting may well have been Ariana Nozeman (Rembrandt was a huge fan). The men were likely a pair of Dutch theatre historians trying to figure out when exactly she first performed on stage by merely counting the days backward from June 30th, while she tries politely to explain how silly that methodology is.

In fact, Ariana herself may have been a member of several well-known itinerant Dutch troupes (where the accepted standards of decency were more flexible, it seems).  Her father, after all, was one of Holland’s best known actors and playwrights, so she had the appropriate pedigree as well as the right connections.  And it seems that women were already a commonly accepted sight at these “lesser” venues.  Putting Ms. Nozeman on the stage, then, seemed to be a relatively small and natural step (from a traveling troupe to a major theatre company)–unless, of course, you were a clergyman in the Dutch Reformed Church, in which case all hell was about to break loose and Amsterdam was now doomed to be swallowed up into the bottomless fire pit of eternal damnation.  Despite the predictable opposition of leading church members, Ms. Nozeman was a hit.  And she would have a very successful career on the stage, until her untimely death in 1661 at the age of 34, just three months after the death of her seven year-old son.  Some say she died of grief.  Whether June 13 was the actual date of her first performance, we may never know.  But I suppose it’s as good a date as any and well worth noting, even if those multitudes of Dutch theatre historians may have gotten it wrong.

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