This review appeared in The Eighteenth-Century Intelligencer, N.S. 26:2 (October 2012): 25-30.
In this stimulating and provocative study of the acting careers, life-writings, reputations, and acting texts of a select group of star 18th century actresses, Felicity Nussbaum seeks to elevate their celebrity status, the triumphant and combative stories told about them, and their alluring, exciting and admirable clothes and independent lives. She argues these projected a set of exemplary proto-feminist identities which helped other women act to loosen sexual, social and financial boundaries hemming them in (7, 12, 16-17). She starts (Introduction, Chapters One and Two) with outlining as the grounds of her thought a group of Butlerian (Judith) and Lacanian perspectives (e.g., 24-25) that insist what people profess are their motives and feelings are more or less calculated maneuvers mirroring what is thought to be socially admirable or allowable (e.g, 63-65). Ordinary life really is best understood as a series of socially-constructed performances.
With this in mind, she departs from close readings of the literal meanings of documentable contemporary social and sexual mores and texts (3-6), and using semiotic deconstructions of illustrations (266-75) and costumes, she discusses the ways she thinks contemporary audiences gossiped about these. She interprets how audiences reacted to behavior on stage and how the actors understood this behavior and coped with it (71-90, passim). Her discussion of Tate's Rival Queens, its long stage history, many parodies, and who played the roles is almost wholly taken up with what she assumes were unwritten heavily sexualized and transgressive delights felt by its many audiences (Chapter Three). Where others have argued that stage players subjected to the gaze, values, and ill-treatment of audiences were struggling against abjection, mortification, lack of power and status (e.g., Straub 13-18), Nussbaum sees the players as manipulating the conditions of their employment, enjoying an experience of admiration and acknowledged effective power, and taking from this social capital that can be monetized and raise status (Chapter Four).
Nussbaum is able to write a “narrative of progress” by her emphatic rejection of a key element of actresses' existence from the Restoration through the later 18th century as usually understood. Was the identification of women who made their living from the public stage as sexual promiscuous women (“whores”) inexorable? Nussbaum says that if we see that her “exceptional” actresses, her super-successful stars transcended or marginalized the continual familiar slandering (9, 19-22), we will be able to understand their function in their society more adequately. Her book demonstrates that these particular women were developing a more “expansive vision of virtue” than the usual equation of virtue with chastity (93-94). These special actresses were admired for their acting talents, their costumes, for how much money they made, for the comfortable circumstances in which they were enabled to live, for whom they lived with or married, and for who received them socially. Their manners and fashionable clothes made them seem more aristocratic than aristocrats. These actresses compensated for their unconventional lives not centered in family life through acts of courtesy, generosity, and charity (56-57).
Nussbaum's chapters on three individual actresses are persuasive. She examines the two contemporary memoirs of Anne Oldfield's personal life (Chapter Five), what was said by supporters of Catherine Clive's career and Clive's own able brave writing (Chapter Six), and Francis Abingdon's reputation as a self-contained exemplar of luxurious fashion to be consulted by others (Chapter Seven). All three achieved financial security: all had remarkably feminist epilogues written for them in which they moved from beloved comic characters they had become closely associated with to enact versions of liberated women who defied contemporary and even 20th century pious cant. From my own studies of these women's careers, contemporary writing by and about them (including letters), I would say that in comedy (which is what Nussbaum discusses) Anne Oldfield became a virtuoso at self-conscious playing with hostile configurations of female sexuality. She was able to project these roles as forms of masquerade she took pleasure in. Remarkably Catherine Clive published polemics on her own behalf, in the form of letters to the press, once a pamphlet and some burlesques and epilogues attributed to her She showed real originality of thought and action when in terms uncannily like those of cheated and manipulated workers today she candidly told how her managers tried to pressure and manipulate her into taking less money and accepting lesser roles. Francis Abington engaged successful contemporary playwrights (e.g., Arthur Murphy) to write parts with her in mind and to rewrite older plays so as to supply herself with a consistent line of dominant female types.
Though Nussbaum does not adduce this comparison, it is striking that an earlier super-star Elizabeth Davenport Boutell (“Betty”) of Restoration fame is still known in histories as she “whom all the town fucks” (Court Satires 206, Pullen 45-47). Milhous's life of Boutell shows her to have lived a respectable life comparable to these three women: Boutell endured a brief married live like that of Clive and Abingdon (Oldfield never married); she supported relatives; she commanded appropriate roles, she achieved financial security and independence. The obstacle for Boutell was she never extricated herself as a person from an identification with the transgressive sexual roles she enacted on stage. Nussbaum makes use of an anonymous 1888 biography of Francis Abingdon, but does not bring out how the author simply ignores Abingdon's sex life (Abingdon enriched herself by what may be called serial monogamy, including paying one husband to stay away). This anonymous author treats Abingdon as a craftswoman (actress, costume-designer) and (more detachedly than Nussbaum) offers examples of Abingdon's correspondence where Garrick becomes the important man in Abingdon's existence.
I do not find Nussbaum's argument convincing. Among others, Sandra Richards (cited by Nussbaum 11) has made a persuasive case that it was in the mid-19th century that the public began to cease regarding actresses as necessarily promiscuous. It was also half a century later that resentful attitudes towards all players as unjustifiably breaking through their original class boundaries began to subside. What brought this about? 1) women began to be managers for the first time and set the terms in which they were presented on stage; 2) the early Victorian presentation of women as having an elevated nature (seen in the way Siddons was regarded) was kept up; and 3) women began to write respectable, serious life-writing and write about their acting. Less demonstrable but also important was women’s emancipation from exclusively domestic roles which may be seen in the establishment of girls’ public schools between 1840 and 1870 (Richards 90-137). Nussbaum attempts to move the shift to beginning in our earlier period and credit the celebrity culture, theatrical work, and famed lives a few ambitious and lucky women experienced, but the nature of her evidence is too narrow, local, and relies on ephemeral events and subjective theoretical readings.
Her book is a troubling one which at its core relies on an exclusionary complacency content to find progress in the lives and asserted words of a very few. There is a long list of 18th century (and later) star actresses who never extricated themselves from scorn even if they died in a financially secure position or had had a long and hard-working career where they draw large audiences for specific roles, who died young, alone and/or poor, or who avoided this fate by marriage (sometimes rocky) or becoming someone's invisible mistress. I will name a few nearly absent or cursorily treated. Slander or the derisively-told “whore” story, whatever the amused tone in which it's couched, shaped the lives of Eleanor [Nell] Gwyn, who did not spend her life as an actress (Nussbaum, 95-97), Susannah Arne Cibber (brought up briefly, see index 368), George Anne Bellamy, (53-56, 114-18 whose memoir Nussbaum confusedly and without explanation says was “ghost-written”), Dora Jordan (basically ignored). Nussbaum appears to disdain some of these women: in unguarded moments she refers to Sophia Baddeley as a “notorious courtesan” (246), and to other unnamed milliners aspiring to be actresses as “the prey of unsavory men” (228; see also her remarks about Mary Robinson and Ann Catley, 281-83).
It is in her first three chapters and epilogue that Nussbaum reveals one of the origins of her project and her attitudes. Her book is a response to specific books and essays which argue that a new “interiority” for women was developed in the novel and life-writing of the 18th and 19th centuries, mostly in English and French (e.g., Nancy Armstrong's Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel; Carla Hesse's The Other Enlightenment: How French Women Became Modern). By contrast, she means to show her actresses had “real” not “metaphoric” power: novelists she suggests made little money, had little personal power The stories of novelists are most often about how transgression causes grief; the heroines are “victims;” Nussbaum's selected actresses presented characters who “counter abject females”; are “savvy, moneyed, high-spirited women with hearts of gold” (187). She will channel celebrity actresses because they were famous (“influential”), rich and had exercised effective power over their lives (16-19). Although she openly says she is writing about “exceptions,” her selectivity goes beyond this. It is no coincidence she omits fairly successful tragic actresses who did enact suffering, anguished, and distressed victims (Cibber, Bellamy) and presents a hostile view of Sarah Siddons as a “formidable paragon” who simply represented a retreat into virtue and lived a life of unqualified success privately and on the stage (278-84; but see Manvell, 52-65, 205-88). She describes female rivalry as triumphs not simply to show how the women called attention to themselves or one side won. In this book the successful feminist has become a highly competitive individual seeking aggrandizement. At one point Nussbaum concedes a possible loss when she admits that this modern feminism may preclude tight relationships with other women, and “has sometimes faltered as it has encountered critiques of its class alignments” (188), but appears unconcerned about what these words imply.
Equally problematical is Nussbaum's definition of “professional:” she praises her cadre more than once as justifying their “claim to status as tough negotiators on their own terms; in other words, they become legitimate professionals” (60). The basis of one's right to be called a professional has become not art or a craft or knowledge or training in your discipline, but monetary and commodity exchange: Clive was “someone who exchanged herself into a commercial marketable commodity worthy high wages” (152). Bellamy and Abingdon's ability to have a relationship with aristocratic women (presented as a mark of their success as actresses) shows they had an “acute patronage sense” (149). Early on she says she has chosen these “great actresses” because they “established themselves as astute, profit-oriented women as they exploited the economic opportunities the stage offered” (48). She takes the Lacanian perspective to the point that “recognizable personhood” is a “function of the value that other people assess you at” (159). The new identities on offer paradoxically resemble the emotional fluidity under masks of Diderot's actor in Le Paradoxe sur le Comedien, only Diderot did not mean to include people in real life (Wilson 620-28).
Nussbaum's unpersuasive chapter (Seven) on Margaret Woffington reveals the treatment of realistic historical context throughout Nussbaum's book. Margaret Woffington seems to have been chosen because she went beyond the cross-dressing and travesty breeches parts to at the same time perform persuasive masculine presences as the character types were understood at the time (e.g., Sir Harry Wildair in Farquhar's The Constant Couple). In some of these roles and in epilogues intended for Woffington to speak, Woffington allowed herself to be used to shame the men in her audiences to enlist for war. Thus Nussbaum refutes the claim that “in the mid-18th century” woman “had no place in the political imaginary of the nation-state at this crucial moment” (194, 207-213). Nussbaum does not bring into her discussion Woffington's known position as an Anglo-Irish woman appealing to Englishmen, nor that she was hooted off the stage in Ireland after one of these performances (Dunbar, 201-12). Nussbaum does not discuss the civil war's political issues, the economic or social conditions which led to it and to men enlisting, nor does she critique the values Woffington embodied or projected. It seems to be enough to assert that she was influential and “a site where contesting [sexual] discourses converge” (193).
Since Woffington left so little writing, we cannot know what Woffington felt about the transvestite parts that enabled her to have a flourishing career on stage. It is true that she never attempted to hide her semi-permanent liaisons with men (among them Garrick), and within limits exhibited herself on stage in sexually iconoclastic ways (221). It's also true that she converted to Protestantism when it was in the interest of her career to do so (Dunbar 187), and amassed enough money to educate, support and marry off a sister respectably, and to purchase a comfortable house to retire to. But hers was a hard-working life in which we see her go back and forth from company to company: study of her playbills suggests she hardly took a night off. She collapsed on stage while playing Rosalind in As You Like It (Dunbar 22), became invalid and died three years later (Dunbar 219-22). One of the more lurid and defamatory biographies of actresses was written about Woffington during her lifetime (Nussbaum 203-4).
Nussbaum makes sweeping statements about how people responded to actresses; she delivers slanted versions of the lives of the actresses she deals with. She puts together a totalizing view of all sorts of disparate events and perspectives, and at times uses a slack and incoherent definition of what counts for political action. Celebrity and commercial and monetary success guarantee significance. She may well be right that the actresses she speaks favorably of should be counted as contributing to the improvement of womens' lives and fostering womens' arts: in Samuel Johnson's words, “the progress of reformation is gradual and silent, as the extension of evening shadows; we know that they were short at none, and are long at sun-set, but our senses were not able to discern their increase” (Adventurer No 37). Or, in Nussbaum's: “the theater audience, hungry for juicy tidbits and private information about these strong-minded women, interpreted their roles as well as their spoken prologues and epilogues as affording authentic glimpses into actresses' private lives even as they redefined virtue. Exceptional virtue helped mold a new kind of double standard for a commercial age in which the extraordinary talent of star actresses substituted for respectability” (112). But we were not shown that audiences feel this way. What evidence do we have that audiences felt this way, responded so uncritically and adopted new definitions of virtue?