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Daughters of Eve: A Cultural History of French Theater Women from the Old Regime to the Fin de Siecle.

By Lenard R. Berlanstein (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. xiv plus 300 pp.).

This fine study of representations of French theater women between the seventeenth century and the First World War treats actresses and other women performers as "barometers of the acceptance of women in the public sphere" (p. 240). Integrating social, cultural, gender, and political history, Berlanstein's important and stimulating book also challenges familiar arguments made by some historians of women. His impressive array of sources includes novels and plays, periodical literature, memoirs and biographies, and archives of the Opera and Comedie Francaise.

Five political epochs provide an organizational scheme for the treatment of actresses, opera singers, popular performers, and dancers. The Old Regime, discussed first, appears, under close inspection, to include more than one phase in the relationship between theater women and the male public. By the early seventeenth century women performers were on the French stage and later entered Louis XIV's royal troop that became the Comedie Francaise. Like male actors, theater women faced excommunication before the French Revolution, and images of immorality and sinfulness colored their public reputation. Nonetheless, argues Berlanstein, during the age of Aristocratic Libertinism, 1715-1789" (Chapter 2), aristocratic men sometimes preferred liaisons with theater women to the dalliances with women of their own social rank that were more typical during Louis XIV's reign. Such relationships between individuals from different classes he terms indicative of aristocratic "individualism" (p. 45), an assertion in private life of independence from the royal court. Whether the male aristocrat's mistress was a noblewoman or a performer, the affair certainly remained a display of patriarchal power. Yet, Berlanstein also contends, aristocrats' more numerous liaisons with theater women during the eighteenth century had two other noteworthy consequences. In some relationships a real affection developed that foreshadowed the greater emphasis on emotions and the importance of private life characteristic of the later eighteenth-century middle classes and the culture of Romanticism. Moreover, actresses often exercised a certain power over their lovers because they expected and required material support as a precondition for the liaison. Such female power, in turn, generated a backlash exemplified by Jean-Jacques Rousseau's diatribes against women's influence on the stage as well as in salons.

The second political moment highlighted (Chapter 3) is the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era, which Berlanstein, like many other historians, treats as crucial for "defining the modern gender order." Nonetheless, he challenges some arguments central to the work of Joan Landes (Women in the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution, 1988) or Joan Wallach Scott (Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man, 1996), among others. Whereas Landes saw the Revolution's formal exdusion of women from the new privileges of citizenship as a setback for women who had enjoyed social prominence in the eighteenth-century salon culture, Berlanstein emphasizes other aspects of the revolutionary context. Although revolutionaries distinguished sharply between men's public roles as rational citizens and women's private ones as tender wives and mothers, Berlanstein judges such emphasis on a complementarity of roles an advance over earlier assumptions about women's lesser status. More importantly, he contends that the political empowerment of male citizens made women in general, and theater women in particular, seem less threatening to the social order and, therefore, more acceptable in some public roles. This highlighting of the Revolution's positive aspects for theater women thus complements Carla Hesse's findings on the significant increase after 1789 in the number of women writers able to publish (The Other Enlightenment: How French Women Became Modern, 2001). Although Napoleon Bonaparte soon imposed more controls on theaters, actresses were not noticeably disadavantaged.

Berlanstein's treatment of the Revolution's impact on theater women well illustrates his central thesis: "political organization and ideologies determined representations of theater women," and changes in "the nature of the political realm produced nuances in notions of masculinity and femininity" that, in turn, determined whether theater women appeared to be more or less immoral, more or less threatening to the larger society (pp. 4-5). When men enjoyed real political power and the model of the rational male citizen prevailed, the theater woman's image improved.

This theme is then carried into three distinct periods in post-1815 France (the focus of six of the nine chapters). Under the constitutional monarchies of 1815-1848, when leadership, as under Napoleon I, fell to a combination of aristocratic and middle-class "notables," theater women were represented as "magdalenes": sinners who could be redeemed through love and the embracing of domestic virtues. Under Napoleon III's Second Empire (1852-1870), which replaced the brief Second Republic ushered in by the Revolution of 1848, a more authoritarian government lessened individual male citizens' influence. Opinion brokers, in turn, waged a "struggle against pornocracy" (Chapter 6); and the actress, as characterized in plays, novels, and the press, thus again became a dangerous seductress threatening stable families. A cultural climate more favorable to actresses' reputation reappeared only when the democratic Third Republic replaced the Second Empire after France lost the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and republicans dislodged monarchists' control of the government by 1879.

The Third Republic, in Berlanstein's formulation, protected the family with new social policies but also democratized and banalized libertinism. In the press, theater women now appeared as artists whose professional work or more traditionally feminine domestic and charitable activities might provide models for other women. Official respectability in the form of Legion of Honor awards first went to an actress in 1888 (but only for her charitable work) and to another for her actual theatrical efforts in 1904. In 1910 women returned to the important program committee of company members of the Comedie Francaise for the first time in 57 years--the result of a ministerial action prompted by male theater colleagues who advocated this on the grounds of "equity." To account for recognition of theater women's accomplishments, Berlanstein cites the impact of not only democratization but also republican anticlericals, who promoted new secular models for womanhood (p. 175). Indeed, a key parallel, although one not emphasized, is the republican image of the new lay woman teacher, promoted as a replacement for nuns, the more traditional educators of girls. What Berlanstein does argue forcefully is that images of femininity and images of women's achievements were becoming more compatible, and he finds that theater women themselves helped fashion their improved image. The evidence for this perspective in turn buttresses his contention that some scholarly studies of artistic and literary imagery of women have exaggerated late nineteenth-century French misogyny. Berlanstein also doubts that the much discussed contemporary obsession with French depopulation and ways to combat it is evidence of a backlash against new claims for women's rights, for he views natalist concerns as primarily a product of the national anxiety that resulted from losing the Franco-Prussian War.

As provocative and rewarding reading for specialists in various periods of French history and in gender studies, Daughters of Eve is highly recommended.

Linda L. Clark

Millersville University of Pennsylvania
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Author:Clark, Linda L.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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