Women in the American Theatre: Actresses and Audiences, 1790-1870.
Lapses unavoidable in a survey book cannot be wholly forgiven when factuality, comprehensibility, and ideology are as cavalierly deployed as in The Rise of the English Actress. Richards tries to contextualize actresses' role interpretations, social standing, and career arcs with their domestic circumstances, tacitly assuming that the private realm spills into the work and that as sources of scandal pre-twentieth century actresses' private and intimate lives have been equally fair game. It would seem that the higher pre-modern actresses' sexual partners ranked in society, the greater the women's accomplishment in "snagging" them; this makes it difficult to give proper credence to Richards's well-intentioned effort to recognize the importance of private and intimate matters for career development per se - as in the perspective she offers on women's lack of independence in marriage and property law prior to the mid-Victorian period or the correlation between delayed maternity and successful transitions beyond ingenue casting for today's performers.
The Rise of the English Theatre is assembled almost entirely from primary sources, which has the advantage of bringing interviews and unpublished material to light in the latter chapters, but the disadvantage of neglecting the scholarship which brings early sources on pre-modern actresses under scrutiny. I doubt the appropriateness, for example, of Richards's faith in Baron-Wilson's claim that many of the 150 volumes of performers' auto, biographies published up to 1844 were by women, especially since she seems unaware of the controversies over the apocryphal An Apology for the Life of George Anne Bellamy. What does emerge credibly is a historical perspective on managers' power to divide and conquer actresses in an oversupplied market, along with the need to reunite incompatible factors such as family duty and professional survival, a need as compelling for Dorothea Jordan as for Sinead Cusack. For additional parallelism, it would have been interesting to see how twentieth-century actresses experience the pressure to maintain a pretence of affluence - a factor complicating pre-modern women's demonstration of decorous behavior offstage - particularly in today's era of tripartite theatre/film/television careers.
The lack of a theoretical apparatus is particularly disadvantageous whenever Richards attempts to compare the theatre's practices with contemporaneous feminist ideas. If Inchbald's and Robinson's feminist writings are "an extension of the self-projection and extroversion actresses enjoyed" (69) as women who effected public taste and fashion, what else came into play in preventing eighteenth-century female performers from accruing respectability? If it required a Siddons to win the tragic mantle for an actress, what does this elevated idea of woman's nature have to do with women's rights and feminism's demands in the Hanoverian period?
Sometimes Richards gets her facts dreadfully wrong: she claims that the surplus of women noted in the mid-nineteenth-century censuses grew "naturally from the beginning of women's emancipation from exclusively domestic roles in the 1850s and the establishment of ten girls' public schools between 1840 and 1870" (91). Mercifully, she does not cite anyone as having supplied her with the bizarre and preposterous insinuations that by educating a class of women there was suddenly a population surge coinciding with mass emigration among men, or that women (even middle-class women) were or ever have been freed from domestic duties. She would be well advised to look at the most recent decade's research by leading social historians such as Davidoff and Hall for a lead on what to incorporate into theatre studies.
This yearning for a feminist angle leads Richards to try reading actresses as metonymic of women: a tricky postulate when drawing on Dutton Cook and Michael Baker as if exceptions are the norm. Nor does feminism sit well with the Whiggish contention that Tom Robertson prepared audiences "for the much stronger brew of Ibsen's psychological plays" (91); instead, more credit to Olive Schreiner, Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Robins, Janet Achurch, and the rest of female who's whos certainly would be warranted. I admire how Richards argues the connections between Glover's or the Kembles' legal battles and changing attitudes toward women's rights, but when Queen Victoria is credited as the single most influential person responsible both for women's changing social position and the elevation of the theatre from "the quagmire of vulgarity into which it had sank once exclusive patronage by royal licence was withdrawn in the 1840s" (114), Richards's social and theatrical history sinks beyond recovery, leaving any claims for gender history dubious. Even if she had read Rowell, she would still be in deep trouble. She confuses Wilton with Vestris, mistakes the Prince of Wales Theatre for the Olympic, and bemoans the excellent Bancrofts being fined for breach of patent laws in the 1830s.
Arguing by case study, Richards reduces nineteenth-century actresses' real problems to exploitative husbands and fathers and the temptations of a gilded life. The solution - seemingly achieved by Thorndike, Evans, and their followers - is to insist on one's self-respect. Getting playwrights to cooperate also helps, and here (apparently) Shaw is the exemplary bridge to the liberated and humane work of feminists like Coward, Howard Barker, and Beckett. But above all this rabble stands Shakespeare. Relying heavily on favorable critical reviews, Ashcroft, Jackson, Redgrave, Dench, and Suzman lead the charge to reinterpret the female roles - defying stereotypes, seeking the truth behind tired preconceptions, highlighting relationships between women in a given play, and (as with Simon, Stevenson, and Mirren) perhaps even incorporating race or sexuality as an interpretive key. Richards argues more successfully that this latter facet is enhanced by twentieth-century actresses' responsible manipulation of (rather than by) their roles as public figures.
The book ends in the middle of the 1980s, with the Women's Playhouse Trust and Monstrous Regiment as the sole examples of women's forays into management or directing. It is remarkable that so little has changed for actresses despite the second wave of feminism. And it is a tragically missed opportunity that Richards does not ask her contemporaries what they think is wrong in the theatre. Richards's title insinuates that English actresses have and are rising, so where, with their class baggage, are they going? If things are so rosy, what were all those feminists doing after 1968? Richards ignores the women's theatre movement almost entirely.
In contrast, Women in the American Theatre draws heavily on secondary scholarship while making a compelling argument about the realization of actresses' bodies as saleable commodities shaping men's fantasies against women's advantage. Contrary to Richards, Dudden argues an evolutionary arc: instead of rising, actresses' status decreases in the pre-modern period. Post-revolutionary women accrued prestige as elocutors, deploying the theatre as the only realm in which women were tolerated as speakers in an aural culture. Actresses were synechdoches of the public woman, who by participating in the politicized world of post-revolutionary and Jacksonian plays and theatre, participated in civic debate and thereby reshaped the very concept of the public. It is an intriguing thesis, augmented by consideration of women's presence and vociferousness in the audience. In each of the major case studies - Fanny Kemble, Laura Keene, and Charlotte Cushman - Dudden mines new ground by connecting contemporaneous feminist ideas to biography, commodity capitalism, intra- and inter-playhouse dynamics.
Building on recent research by Booth, Meisel, and McConachie, Dudden demonstrates the development of spectacularism as a shift from an aural to a visual culture, placing this in the context of gender. Instead of their elocutionary skills, at mid-nineteenth century actresses' physical appearance was deemed most important. This incubated scopophilia led to the favoring of ingenues rather than actresses skilled at the technical requirements of conveying language and character, and, predictably, subjected female performers to early obsolesence. The active roles provided to characters in many melodramas were counteracted by real women's loss of economic as well as cultural power. Cushman stands out as an exception artistically, reversing the contemporary trend to turn women into sexually essentialized beings - perhaps even drawing attention to the making of gender. As an unusually self-styled commodity, she was made singular by genius.
The mid-nineteenth-century theatre offered a range of seemingly differentiated choices, and Dudden argues that "selecting from a range of socially differentiated theatres, had become the crucial act in theatrical reception" (120). But female spectators (for they had become spectators, not auditors) faced a series of male-directed alternatives when they went from the lending library to the theatre. Attending theatres under male escort or through the earnings of men, middle-class women were in a sense "othered" along with the actress. They did not appear in public or participate in civic society on equal terms, having lost even the "voice" afforded to Jacksonians. The clincher in the argument, a significant development on Allen's Horrible Prettiness, is that some theatres were deemed "safe for women" only because others traded solely in women's bodies as spectacle.
Laura Keene struggled to convey a self-definition against overwhelming odds of cultural habit, a misogynistic press, and scrutiny of her personal life. But her success in establishing a theatre for and about women was undermined by her later resort to spectacle in order to secure profits. Dudden presents Keene as caught by commodity capitalism's favoritism for bad taste and low culture and shows the cost for Keene as well as for women generally. I think she reads too much into Keene's retirement when she ascribes her drawing back from Blondette, appalled by her monstrous creation, but her discussion of the foundational work Keene does to make footings for the next generation's appreciation of Ibsen, is as credible as Richards's acknowledgment of Robertson is tenuous.
Women in the American Theatre concludes with a chapter on the "leg business," arguing that burlesques in the style of The Black Crook brought profit and middle-class tolerance of quasi-erotic spectacle into a harmonious and stable balance. It is an enduring theme in the U.S.A.'s entertainment industry. I would like confirmation that the Friday pictured opposite Thompson's Robinson Crusoe (168) is actually played by a woman, for this seems to undermine the inflected arguments about race, sexuality, and grotesquerie, but this is a minor quibble about an otherwise nuanced and meticulous book where even the endnotes bear lingering contemplation. Dudden disagrees with Allen's view of a transgressively empowering aspect to burlesque for women, for "by their very name the [British] Blondes exemplified the reduction of woman to her physical appearance" (170). She might have added, for irony, that probably none were natural blondes and the constructedness of their appearance in an age before reliable hair dyes did not go unnoticed by proto-Butlerians. What men saw, by and large, was a construction of sexuality. As Dudden astutely reminds us, The Black Crook was a ballet, without dialogue; it thus epitomizes the "silenced" woman while relying on the comparatively fewer opportunities for vulgarity in dumbshow to reconcile women to other aspects of the spectacle. In a similar way, Daly's later spectacles of couturier-clothed women (society daughters who subsidized their stage wardrobes) allowed female spectators to "see" fashion while males "saw" the display of bodies.
By the 1870s, actresses were systematically commodified for profit; women were excluded from the means of production in ways that made it hard for Laura Keenes to arise and impossible for Charlotte Cushmans to survive. Dudden parallels this convincingly with women's general economic, social, and legal difficulties at mid-century. And as women continued to get more access to higher education, politics, and the labor market, paradoxically men diminished them more and more through entertainments. The spectacle, Dudden insinuates in a far-reaching postscript, obscures its connection to power and money. The result is a "mitigated disaster" cloaked under an escapist pretext that is sinisterly connected to the roots of a materialist critic's worst nightmare.
TRACY C. DAVIS Northwestern University
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|Title Annotation:||Gay & Lesbian Queeries|
|Author:||Davis, Tracy C.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||May 1, 1995|
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