Even though women weren’t allowed to fight in the Thirty Years War, a handful of them did disguise themselves as men so they could join the fight. However, one woman disguised herself as a man for completely different reasons: In the year 1623, a young village woman named Agnes Langley pretended to be a man so she could do improv with the rest of her male cohorts.
“She just really wanted to join an improv troupe,” says historian Meghan Hanley. “To ensure her identity would never be discovered, Agnes mimicked the habits of her fellow improvisers, doing bits, leaning against walls, drinking beer and talking in an over-the-top Italian accent for no reason.”
Langley’s commitment kept her safe from discovery for years. During the 17th century, women were legally forbidden from joining improv teams as performers loved to throw chairs for emphasis or slam doors so hard the shoddy back wall of the theater broke, and it was considered dangerous, a man’s business only. However, Langley would not give up on her dreams of doing live comedy.
“While other women from her village had cut their hair and taken on male identities so they could fight in The Thirty Years War or shod horses for The Thirty Years War, Agnes put on trousers and joined a traveling improv troupe,” says Hanley. “According to her teammates, she was a model improviser – a good listener, able to make things active and also an absolute vortex of need for attention. They called her ‘a real walk on player.’”
Though Langley risked death if caught, she perfected her male mannerisms well enough to first infiltrate a practice group and then an actual improv team, going on to perform a legendary scene in which she played a choleric donkey refusing to cross the Thames.
“Langley’s dedication was truly remarkable,” says Clara Pritchard, another historian. “Just a month after appearing at the theater, Anges was promoted to a house team, and performed three to four shows a week disguised as her male counterpart, Arnold Chair.”
Langley developed a great reputation as an improviser. However, she was eventually discovered as a woman after being shot in the left shoulder by a drunk audience member.
“Arnold” was then immediately discharged from her house team and forced to return home, where she took up work as a nurse for soldiers who had been wounded in the religious war raging all throughout Europe. Her patients often complained of her trying to boost their spirits with games of “hot spot,” in a time when many of the men only knew fewer than ten songs total.