Saturday, November 23, 2019

The First Women in the Theatre - Elizabeth Knepp (By author Deborah Swift)

Elizabeth Knepp (sometimes known as Mary Knepp) was born Elizabeth Carpenter and records show she married Christopher Knepp, whom Pepys calls a 'jockey' but was probably a horse dealer or horse hirer, at Knightsbridge in 1659. I took the liberty of giving her the nickname ‘Bird’ in the novel as she loved to sing, and there are so many other Marys and Elizabeths in Pepys’ diary.

Beggars Opera
There are 108 references to Mrs Knepp in Pepys’ diary. Actresses in those days were always known as ‘Mrs’ whether they were single or married. In the seventeenth century, status was always conferred on a woman by the man. Thus Pepys always refers to his wife Elisabeth as ‘my wife’. Although this seems in our ears to diminish her, in fact this is not an insult; it was designed to confer on her a status not accorded to his servants who were referred to as Dolly, or Deb, or Jane. The theatre was the one place where this did not hold sway – female actors were always called ‘Mrs’ as a mark of respect. 

Pepys first met Elizabeth Knepp on 6th December 1665; and he described her as:
'pretty enough, but the most excellent, mad-humoured thing, and sings the noblest that I ever heard in my life.’

Christopher Knepp, her husband, on the other hand, is described as:
‘an ill, melancholy, jealous-looking fellow’.

So grew the first inkling of a conflict I could use in my novel. Christopher Knepp seemed to me the sort of man who would definitely not approve of his wife taking to the stage!

Pepys had an absolute passion for the theatre, and his diary for 1666-68 is full of references to the theatre and particularly to Mrs Knepp, including mentions of their amorous flirtations, and passages about how much he enjoyed their musical evenings and especially her singing. My impression from the diary is that they genuinely liked each other, and this was one of the things that attracted me to writing about her.

The professional actress was a new phenomenon in the 1660s. Up until the seventeenth century, women had no reflections of themselves in entertainment; all female roles were played by boys. The first female on the English stage was Margaret ‘Peg’ Hughes, who played Desdemona in a production of Othello in 1660. Only two months before, the role had been played by a boy, and the thought of this upheaval in the theatre led me to create the character of Stefan. Being an actress in this era was a way of both gaining and losing power –a woman was able to behave on stage in a powerful way, but also women were still seen as commodities; an attraction or novelty to please those that mattered at the time, i.e men.

London 1660's
In this period the theatre was one of the few ways for women to transcend social boundaries. Through Pepys’ diaries we can witness Nell Gwynne, rising through society from bawd’s daughter to mistress of a king. Evidence shows Nell Gwynne certainly had a mind of her own and used her position on stage to advance herself, and of course now she has achieved some sort of national status. In Pepys' diary, Elizabeth Knepp is invited to musical soirĂ©es with Pepys and his civil-servant friends. Being in the theatre conferred a ‘celebrity’ status not available to other women, and just as today, celebrities were sought out by the upper echelons of society.

Elizabeth Knepp played major and minor roles in a range of productions of the 1660s and 1670s, including the famous role of Lady Fidget in Wycherley's The Country Wife at Drury Lane in 1675. Beyond the scope of my novel, she is thought to have been a mistress of Sir Charles Sedley, who was a notorious rake and libertine, part of the ‘Merry Gang’ gang of courtiers which included the Earl of Rochester and Lord BuckhurstShe probably provided Pepys with backstage gossip and inside insights into a world he was avid to know more about. She supplied him with the theatrical and social gossip of the day, and when the theatres were closed down for the plague, took part in evening entertainments alongside him, as an equal.

 Deborah lives in North Lancashire on the edge of the Lake District, a beautiful area made famous by the Romantic Poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. In the past she used to work as a set and costume designer for theatre and TV, so she enjoys the research aspect of creating historical fiction, something she loved doing as a scenographer. Each book takes about six months of research before she is ready to begin writing. More details of her research and writing process can be found on her website. Deborah likes to write about extraordinary characters set against the background of real historical events.
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Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Sonora Webster Carver - Horse Diving

Sonora Webster Carver
It is said that when you fall from a horse, you get back on right away. This has never been truer when it came to Sonora Webster Carver.

In 1923, 19-year-old Sonora Webster was intrigued by an ad placed in a local newspaper by William Doc Carver, the owner of a carnival act. He was seeking a girl who could swim and dive and was willing to travel. Knowing she was perfect for the job, she applied. For a girl like her, it was her chance to rise out of the trap of poverty.

Pretty and spunky, she got the job and would perform at Steel Pier in New Jersey as a diving girl. She was to mount a running horse as it reached the top of a forty to sixty foot and plunge into a 12-foot deep water tank. On a horse named Red Lips, Al Carver, Doc’s son, taught her how to ride and dive on a horse. She learned how to keep her head tucked down to one side so that when Red Lips raised his head as he jumped up at the bottom of the pool, she would get smacked in the face. In 1924, almost a year later, Sonora and Red Lips made their first dive. They became an instant sensation.

Sonora fell in love with the patient and talented instructor and she married Al in 1928. For nearly three years, everything was fine and her act became more and more popular. But things would soon change.  

In 1931, during a dive, Red Lips Red Lips jumped off the platform unbalanced and went into a steep nosedive. Sonora hit the water with both eyes open. The hard strike displaced her retinas. She was 27 years old and fully blind.

The doctors told her that her career as a diving girl in a carnival act was over. But not even blindness could stop her, from doing what she loved. Why? Because riding was the most fun she could have and she loved it so. She didn't want to give it up. Once she was on the horse, there really wasn't much to do but hold on. The horse was in charge. So With courage, fearlessness, and a great deal of tenacity, Sonora continued to dive horses for 11 more years without the crowd knowing she was blind. She dove until 1942 during World War II when she retired at the age of 73. In all the years of the act, no horse suffered any injury.

She and Al moved to New Orleans where she learned Braille and worked as a Dictaphone typist until her retirement in 1979. Sonora died at the age of 99. To this day, she is a symbol of resilience and the strength of the human spirit.