In the early scenes of Richard Eyre's 2004 movie Stage Beauty, a period piece about the mechanics and gender politics of the Restoration stage, the fictionalized characters of Maria Hughes and Edward Kynaston engage in a telling debate. What would happen to male actors such as Kynaston, who were most celebrated for playing female parts, if and when it became legal for women to act women's parts onstage? Could a woman, such as Hughes, act the part of Desdemona with as much charisma, artistry, and beauty as Kynaston had shown in the part? While these questions form the warp and woof of the entire movie, the dinner scene debate is more precise. “No, Kynaston, Desdemona is yours alone!” pronounces an ebullient Rupert Everett as King Charles II, challenging the possibility that any other actor—man or woman—could perform Kynaston's signature role. Maria Hughes begs to disagree: “But, a part doesn't...

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