Gilli Bush-Bailey, Performing Herself: Autobiography and Fanny Kelly's Dramatic Recollections.
As a collector of records of interrupted theatre events, I have long been intrigued by the account of the attempted murder of Fanny Kelly during a performance. The popular actress had been chastised by critics--and attacked by a deranged fan--for sometimes essaying cross-dressed roles. That story was my introduction to a very independent person who would go on to transcend what was often a brief career for women; Kelly also ran her own theatre and made one of the first attempts to establish a school for the dramatic art. She appeared in nearly 130 roles in her career, displaying a notable range of emotions as virtuous women in melodramas while also excelling in classic comedies.
Kelly avoided the fate of many Georgian and Victorian actresses; she was not viewed merely as a commodity, did not leave the stage to marry a baronet or other admirer of rank, nor was she conflated with the prostitutes that frequented the environs of her workplace. Her career, though well-documented and preserved by others across several decades, becomes a perfect subject for a new study in 'microhistory'. Gilli Bush-Bailey employs this concept, adapted from social historical studies, as a method by which to tell Kelly's story and to bring to print for the first time the text of Dramatic Recollections, her one-woman show. Bush-Bailey considers other theoretical approaches to biography and autobiography, addresses questions in the writing of biography that may challenge the contemporary historian, and makes a case for the study of Kelly's life as it relates to current practice and concerns regarding 'the visibility of women in the entertainment industry'. She links her subject's biography with the situation of women in theatre now, informed by her own professional experience as actor and as a feminist scholar.
Part One, 'A Performance Biography', is an overview of Kelly's life and career, which serves in part as a guide to the script of Dramatic Recollections. Bush-Bailey corrects and expands upon previous biographical accounts of Kelly, especially the 1950 Fanny Kelly of Drury Lane by Basil Francis. Francis focused on the more romantic episodes in Kelly's life, including George Barnett's attack on her in 1816; Bush-Bailey, in contrast, whilst noting the incident, asserts that it had no negative long-term effect upon Kelly. Instead she emphasizes the harsh reality of the early nineteenth-century theatre for the child and young performer in particular. Bush-Bailey does speculate about the possible paternity of Kelly's 'adopted' daughter and seems to accept the assertion of Francis that the Oxberry 'memoir' of Kelly includes an error in its mention of a 'Mother-in-law' for the actress. Although Kelly may have had romantic relationships, Bush-Bailey is more concerned with her professional life, including a frequently tense relationship with the management of the Drury Lane Theatre (among others) at a time when the power of the patent houses was in transition. Bush-Bailey notes Kelly's problematic dealings with those who may have been able to help her, acknowledging that she could be difficult, but that she also was unusual as an independent and unmarried woman undertaking control of her own career.
In the principal contrast to Francis, who mentions but does not elaborate upon Kelly's solo performance, Bush-Bailey concentrates on the creation of that work, intended by Kelly to raise funds for a theatre and school of drama at her Dean Street home. The short-lived enterprise required that her aspiring professional students perform for elite audiences; revenue was also generated from well-heeled amateurs using the theatre, as Charles Dickens did with his own company. Bush-Bailey provides valuable details of the design of the theatre, noting the problems of executing scene changes. Kelly wanted to restore the respectability of the Drama (then perceived, as it periodically is, to be on the decline), and Bush-Bailey points out that Kelly actually relied on the older modes of drama in 'improving' the current one. Both her correspondence and the text of her own production indicate that Kelly deplored the straying of theatres from the legitimate drama to spectacle--at nearly fifty, she thought that 'trash' had come to dominate the stage. The last part of Kelly's career was taken up with the struggle to continue the funding for her dramatic school and theatre, during which time she toured in Dramatic Recollections; the end of her life was marked by the heartbreak of genteel impoverishment.
Part Two offers us the text of Dramatic Recollections, Kelly's 'Monodramatic Entertainment', which was developed with other writers in the several years before her official retirement in 1835. Kelly played multiple characters in this solo show, which intersperses her own history of performing with a critique of the state of the theatre. The text is a compelling document of autobiography, and of theatre history, practice and even criticism. Bush-Bailey annotates it with notes from the Huntington Library version that are incorporated into the Lord Chamberlain's copy; the format makes clear what the revisions were from the draft to the final performance text. In a series of sketches, Kelly narrates her life not only through roles that she played but also through fresh characters, imagined others, providing a look at the life of the touring performer. Kelly recalls growing up backstage, looking 'through the hinge crevice of the stage Door' (132), as a child actor at Drury Lane; there she was encouraged by John Philip Kemble, 'the first to praise me' (133). She remembers the influence of Siddons and Jordan; the awkward adolescence common to actresses, in which she was 'suspended between Lady Teazle and Tom Thumb'(135); and the backstage mishaps and comic negotiations with props and costumes.
Kelly impersonated a range of ages and classes, from servants, coachmen and villagers to audience members and others in the profession, changing costumes, dialects and genders quickly. The piece's best-known role was that of Mrs. Parthian, who confuses theatrical stars; but it is the colorful provincial manager, Mr. Macredit, who is particularly striking and amusing. Topical references are to plays, parts, other performers, literature, songs and dances, stage mechanics, and the arrangement of the audience in the playhouse. Kelly acknowledges that as a woman funding her own endeavor she is in a delicate position. One highlight is Kelly's self-conscious voicing of others who question her taking on the one-person show, a specialty of her brother-in-law Charles Mathews. As one character asks: 'How can you talk for two hours together?' The very form of the Mono-drama is criticized for being 'unfeminine' (128). It is evident in this humorous and slightly bittersweet look at her career that Kelly was comfortable with self-deprecation.
Performing Herself is well-annotated and well-illustrated throughout--with letters, manuscript pages, and prints of Kelly in various roles. Bush-Bailey is quite detailed in providing critical context, identification of other players and performers, and cultural references. My quibbles are with perhaps a bit too much quoting of the text of Dramatic Recollections in the autobiography section, as well as a handful of typos in the latter part of the 'Performance Biography'(such as 'Irvine' instead of 'Irving', and 'accepted' instead of 'excepted'). Performing Herself works as an act of reclamation and an evident labour of love, making the case for the celebration of the contributions of a highly regarded performer who was ultimately relegated to the margins. Bush-Bailey brings together biography with a valuable primary performance text, and through that text offers another way to view the life and career of a woman whose innovations anticipated those of Marie Wilton and many others; both Kelly's and Bush-Bailey's undertakings are those of admirable ambition.
Noreen C. Barnes
Virginia Commonwealth University
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|Author:||Barnes, Noreen C.|
|Publication:||Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2013|
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