Ian McKellen and Judi Dench as Macbeth and his lady (1979 BBC Macbeth, Philip Casson, Trevor Nunn)
Dear friends and readers,
Before I went away to Asheville, North Caroline for the South Central region’s 18th century conference, I wrote briefly about the importance of this book: Richards locates in the mid-19th century the significant shift of presumed scorn for the actress as necessarily, most of the time desperately promiscuous to the actress as a respected artist whose serious vocation leads to her exemplifying centrally important roles on the stage and film and TV and (modelling revisionary progressive behavior) life. Now I’m ready to tell the whole story, which begins in the 18th century in England.
Why? The book is super-expensive and only available in hardback. It is really hard to understand why. I can think only that for real few people are interested in actresses seriously. I remember how disappointed I was when I tried to find women’s poetry and then any poetry on movies. Most of it was unthinking unexamined star worship and much simply projecting the familiar sex stereotypes. There were exceptions (John Hollander on the Valencia) but by and large not.
In Richards’s preface she wants to chart how the English actress as a role and type and career and person came semi-prostitution, to women who make distinguished contributions to status of women, theatrical profession, society at large. She singles out women whose careers are best documented, and contemporary ones available for interview, whose thinking gave them something worthwhile to say, those who did innovations, started new types. She did go also for middle rank to be well rounded.
Her problems included a dearth of sources on living actresses so had to rely on newspapers, magazines, biographies; the interviews as presented were collaborative; the actress was active and it is to be seen as just her at that point of her career/life.
Chapter 1, Later 17th century
Rachel Weisz as Hypatia (all that 17th century actresses were not allowed to be, 2010 Agora
Richards tells the story of a place and time when & where there was no respect for actresses; they had no right to privacy. She goes over the strong attempts made to keep women off the stage; and how, against that, that there was a growing demand among upper classes for women on the stage. Alas, Richards herself buys into some of the attitudes towards sex: she calls earliest actresses “unsavory types.” She says of Elizabeth Barry Otway’s worship “cannot unfortunately be ascribed to virtue,” and that Barry’s vanity hardened as the reasons she refused to go to bed with Otway. Why cannot a woman refuse to go to bed with a man once she has sold herself for sex to another. Does not she have the same right over her body as any other woman? (p 14). Richards also says the existence of actresses lowered the tone of theaters and plays; yet helped keep old plays alive; and (this is not consistent) we are to congratulate them for influence and leading playwrights to do new types of women and utterances .
The actress is regarded as worst of characters. They left the stage with protectors; some respectability granted when an actresss married an actor (she was less vulnerable to aggression). The playhouse seen as place of assignation with orange girls as go-betweens. The actresses often came from professional people fallen on hard times; were mistresses to nobles. This leads to fierce rivalry with one another. The theater bound up with life of the court;. She goes over individual lives and people; we see how precarious it was. Their talents used as instruments of power in a hostile setting
Mrs Barry overcome an ugly appearance, and lack of immediately recognized talent. Richards also tells the life of Nell Gwyn because she rose from so low to so high, so she popularized idea of regarding actress with respect.
One difference from actors is the actors could and did rise to be management and shareholders; this first happened for women after 1695.
Chapter 2, Earlier 18th century
Early 18th century actresses again came from acting families; from families on hard times — she gets some of this wrong or is too firm in her biographies. She tells of chance discoveries and dubious legends some of them dubious. Hannah Pritchard came from a family which supplied costumes, fans, corsets
Actresses began to specialize in certain kinds of emotion and roles: Susannah Cibber for tragedy (Constance in King John): Clive for comedy (she went for parts not really suitable for her); Hannah Pritchard a great Lady Macbeth. Rivalry implicit in Richards’s mind
Here she discusses unnatural v natural delivery; how rivalry drove where they appeared; Woffington’s humiliation (p. 31); George Anne Bellamy’s relish about how she beat out this or that rival; Jane Rogers recognized she was not rival to Oldfield
Garrick’s role; the letters quoted, how he treated his actresses; it seems he did not take advantage, and was fair; she says he was “henpecked” — showed himself that way perhaps; he tried to use “good-natured banter”. Then the power struggles with managers: brief on how sharers in patents were greedy (she does not use such harsh language when she should); how Catherine Clive driven to present her case to public.
It seems most actresses at close of 18th century not making much more than beginning (p 34). The advent of the benefit; she calls running about soliciting for people “degrading” (it was); stage favorites; actresses’ indispensibilty
She remarks how most actresses who achieved economic independence early on did not marry; alas, she does not go on to say how some who achieved it quickly got rid of their husbands; that Clive was helped by Walpole and lived near ex-colleagues. The victimizing of Susannah Arne Cibber by her husband, Theophilus Cibber – and it was – her husband taking her earnings, sullying her reputation; she tells it as if Slope wholly forced on Cibber and not that eventually Cibber preferred Slope. That she lost 2 children to death because too busy to care for them.
Actress became an index of moral standards by what she was prepared to do on stage — perhaps that is so today too; the sexual harassment form managers; the marriages (few); that a few turned up noses at good offers, yet aristocratic favor used as a badge of pride. Then specifics of careers of Wofington (lived with Garrick), Oldfield (charitable to Savage), Pritchard irritated Johnson
How they did become literary artists themselves — the few who wrote (Catherine Clive); the memoirs, actors apologies it’s suggested were shorter (Tate Wilkinson?); the trying to get others to write good roles for them.
Again when she says an actress could gain a respectable position by doing a number of things she does not distinguish how some of these were signs of success not what gave you success. You had to get success first. They were respected if lived blameless sexual life; delivered demanding roles and epilogues; were eulogized when they left the stage; burial in Westminster
Richards thinks the change in the mid-18th century demanding decorum in plays (overtly) helped the status of actresses. Richards ends on Cibber’s assessment of how Oldfield achieved her success through apt negotiation with those she had directly to deal with.
Faults: Richards does not distinguish signs of success from ways of getting success: as a way of getting success was to create an important original role or rival another actress in one. Anne Oldfield in Lady Townley — and chapter keeps showing her high status among actresses as an actress. The actress had to avoid using roles to invest her own identity in; they did have to distance themselves (as men did not?), then some examples of how particular actresses achieved rapport.
She could make a mark by dressing in men’s clothes — you might get attention that way; she seems to think she is showing the managers bullying the actresses to wear breeches. She mentions Woffington and Wildair and says Peg “become identified with the contempt her character showed for audience” (this made me remember the number of times she was attacked by audiences — not quite literally though Richardson does not make that connection).
This chapter is odd: it descends into a salacious tone sometimes and is nowhere as somehow general in its approach as the previous. Maybe it was originally written for some other place. Perhaps this chapter lacks a thrust forward because Richards does seem to think by mid-century actresses in general had not improved their status: Charke died destitute.
Chapter 3: Later 18th century
It appears that by the end of the century actresses still had not achieved respectability and status and respect they ought to have given their hard work, talent, artistic achievements. This chapter is thus a catalogue of the intense refusal to allow women to be independent and interacting as equals with men. The heart of it is also this insistence on female virginity and that she shall be owned by one man or family. Diehard prejudices and exploitation of women; ideas held about their “natures” (p. 70); they must be kept away from knowledge to be “delicate.”
So, the proliferation of actress’s memoirs and biographies to Richards suggests acute preoccupation with uncertain place in society: more actresses came from acting families in a strolling or provincial background. How did they get into the profession: Stage offspring include Siddons, Jordan, Misses Brunton, Farren and Harriot Mellon; Sophia Snow Baddeley was daughter to a theatrical musician (her husband pushed her); George Anne Bellamy pushed by Mother Jordan put on stage in tranvestite roles at 17. Actresses continue to come from families fallen on hard times. Sheer rural stock: Inchbald, Harriet Mellon (mother nurtured it). From tradespeople: Ann Street Barry Crawford; Mary Yates daughter of ship-captain. You could still be discovered but rather less of this type of story-legend.
Sexual harassment undergone by many and much testimony to get hired to a job (Jordan, Inchbald); you could marry in, Frances Barton married James Abingdon a minor Drury Lane players. Inchbald plagued by sexual harassment early in her career; some men did treat women decently (Tate Wilkinson James Quinn over Bellamy).
Rise of variety of specialist roles: such as sentimental comedy, breeches to some extent less a titillation, moral scolding (political hectoring); Some of these comic characters become household names (Little Pickle for Dora Jordan). The actress was seen as having expertise: Jordan had a natural style for the time
Again we see them struggling with manager for control and power; Garrick’s determination to make stage more respected helped players. She tells the story of Garrick v Mrs Abington in ways that favor Garrick. Inchbald uses her “beauty,” she wanted to refuse certain roles. Aristocracy as patrons could help but if women became someone’s mistress she was at risk; fickle
Still average salary not good: top ranking actress 10 pounds a week. They had no right to their private space in their dressing room and actresses had more audience bullying (p 57). Rivalry encouraged, called attention to them, but did not help
As a group they had great problems with husbands who are jealous, want to fleece them, impregnate them. We see how the unsettled life of George Anne Bellamy did get in her way; women just considered “chattel of men” (p. 63): Harriot’s salary, Sophia Baddeley; Jordan’s position ambiguous; she was sympathized with Richards says (but Richards forgets when king dumped her she remained dumped). Inchbald’s self-sufficiency produced best situation (when backed by monetary success writing).
Repeatedly difficult to stop vile stories in the press; how to counter. One way was actresses turned themselves into writers; they produced memoirs strong in radical and feminist views (Inchbald, Robinson). You could have yourself painted, the portrait become mutually beneficial (Lawrence’s career made with portrait of Farren)” this writing an extension of extroversion and self-projection actresses enjoyed. Abingdon one of those who used the world of fashion to achieve status, expertise
The best way to rise is finally through your craft — won over audience by brand of magnetism (charisma, it), stamina, hard work, enough beauty, and choose roles that enhance your status: buy into the prejudices of the multitude and obey them
Chapter 4: Sarah Siddons (1755-1831)
Like everyone else, Richards sees Siddons as an important stage in gaining respectability for actresses. Unlike Nussbaum and several others, Richards is not resentful of the way Siddons did this: by presenting herself as solemn, serious, conventionally virtuous, a loving mother. Richards’ account is worthwhile for the way she does not elide over the miseries and difficulties of Siddons’ existence – which most of those resentful of her elide. Consequently a more truthful portrait of Siddons emerges; it’s obvious to me that Richards is much influenced by Manvell’s biography.
Some points most others don’t make: Siddons was helped enormously because she was part of a family group and her brother became a manager (they helped one another.) Richards thinks the turning point in Siddons’s career came with her acting of Belvidera in Otway’s Venice Preserved, that she revolutionized the depiction of Lady Macbeth by presenting the character utterly seriously, not as glamorous. Richards provides notes someone (Prof G. J. Bell) took while watching Siddons and these are revealing of what she did that so held people. Siddons’s salary range suggests that actresses were in greater demand than actors — we see this again in the 19th century chapter.
I feel so for Sarah’s marital unhappiness and her loneliness. She had no one like herself to confide in or be congenial with for real (this is the probable cause for the friendship with Hester Thrale Piozzi as well as why later in life she could be taken advantage of. She wrote her Reminiscences at 75; her portrait as tragic muse was a collaboration with Reynolds.
And yet Sarah was not accepted socially for real — why she was so lonely, why she could not meet someone who could be a real friend and companion. Richards insists on the “irony of her social position.” It was part pretense that she was acceptable. Richards suggests that what success she had — for she did raise the status of the actress, no one confused her with prostitutes — came from her having portrayed “an elevated idea of women’s nature.”
(I wonder if one of the reason the women academics who so dislike her dislike her is they dislike this elevated idea of women’s nature. They don’t have it, don’t want it.)
Chapter 9: Early 19th Century & Victorian actresses
I like surprises. I like learning something I had not expected: it was in the mid-19th century that the tide began to turn for actresses and they became socially acceptable outside the stage and achieved respectability for some on it. What brought this about? a combination of events: 1) women began to be managers for the first time and set the terms in which they were presented on stage; 2) the presentation of women as having an elevated nature was kept up; but most of all, 3) women began to write respectably, serious books. Richards thinks less demonstrable but also important was women’s emancipation from exclusively domestic roles began in the middle 19th century in Europe and the establishment of girls’ public schools between 1840 and 1870 (p. 90-91). This is a summary of the chapter as a whole
So a key figure is Fanny Kemble! This pleases me for I loved her powerful anti-slavery Journal on a Residence of a Georgia Plantation: it changed my understanding of women in slavery, made me see I had had a failure in imagination and never thought about the full horror of the lives chattel slaves who are concubines could know.
Richards opens with citing diary entries for an “obscure English actress, Anne Ellerslie:” she is lonely; she wonders if she would have been happy just married and at home, how depressed she is. Yet the number of actress rose by astounding numbers: from 891 in 1861 to 3696 in 1891 (pp. 90-91)
So first how did women get into the profession in the 19th century: Eliza O’Neill and Helen Faucit were daughters of provincial and London managers; Julia Glover came from theatrical family; the Kembles (p. 90-91)
A problem was the lack of a way or place for training (outside family groups).
We then get some individual lives: Madame Vestris who made her name in breeches roles but managed to present herself in ways that were modest; it was careful personating of a male (p. 94). It’s later in the chapter we see Vestris career as manager (pp. 103-109). Actor managers had carried on using the actresses; making them their hand-maidens to their projects (Macready resembles Garrick in trying to raise the profession this time by reviving classical theater). Vestris simply made a great success of a third theater, the Olympic while the two others were dying or struggling (p. 104); she actually got salaries paid in advance. This was terrifically important; actors had professional rights (p. 104); she abolished half-prices and boxkeepers’ fees (less corrupt). Seven seasons of management (p. 105) which included a faithful production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which was a hit. Madame Vestris beats out Macready with her Comus (p. 108-9). Olympic wins.
Still the audience’s persistent idea that the role an actress played must be related to her character continued to cripple women as people outside the stage and deterred them from playing unsympathetic women. So there’s the problem of taking on mature roles. (pp. 94-95)
Shakespeare’s heroines provided one way to get deeper rounded roles and yet be respected and actresses published notes on these characters — Helen Faucit was one. Faucit outshone Siddons in tragic force too; she anticipated feminist actresses; Lady Macbeth was remorseless and self-centered, almost fiendish in Siddons’s portrayal; Faucit takes her another step into humanity: a complex character with her own weaknesses. A lofty Belvidera emerges (pp. 95-98). Helen Faucit also participates in encouraging ensemble acting and theater conceptions (p. 104)
Some jealousy between actresses still publicly seen. At this point their social position is hovering on the brink of respectability; between Madame Vestris who helped break the monopoly of the two theaters, Madge Kendal’s career, and Fanny Kemble’s life it was accomplished. (pp. 99-100)
Another aspect of this comes out again: the actress has to overcome the use of her by managers (p. 105); one way was through acting with her husband, Marie Bancroft used her husband as a barrier and he was an actor-manager himself (p. 105). This helped a rise in salary too (p. 105) between 1880 and later 1890 way up.
Madge Kendal desperately tries to escape type casting in burlesque breeches parts; she transforms vulgar and controversial characters into sympathetic ones (p 102). She developed a new style of acting (p. 106) Again on Madge Kendal developing naturalistic style, bringing out what was noblest and highest in women’s characters.
Kemble masters mature roles early; she shows personal distaste for claptrap and professional integrity (pp 100-101). We are again told of Faucit’s way of presenting her characters as noble, sincere womanliness and “understated expression[s] of powerful passion” (p. 107 — this reminds me of today’s acting). This mute acting Ellen Terry perfected. And now the serious life-writing (p. 110) Faucit, Kendal (some non-actresses wrote too, e.g., Jameson). Armed in literature, Kemble and others wrote respectability into their lives.. How Kemble managed her divorce (p. 110). These actresses and Kemble are re-educating their audiences. Entrenched idealization both a help and hindrance (p. 111)
Serious seminal novels & writing about women having conflicts between lives and careers are signs of change: Geraldine Jewsbury, The Half-Sister, Henry James’s Tragic Muse. Jewsbury tests values of conventionally ideal Victorian woman against professional actress who deepest instincts run counter to need for social acceptance. James exposes Victorian hypocrisies; Englishman demands wife quit. 1885 National Review article launches attack against tendency to make actresses and women scapegoats (p. 111). Same pitfalls (sexual) are found in all professions for women. Actresses simply are of higher social rank than shop-girls and don’t have it in them to be governesses (p. 111)
Queen Victoria and her prestige helped – she began to see she needed to pay the actors to come for special performance or the cost was deadly (p. 114)
Richards jumps to Married Women’s Property Act: how husband and fathers just ruthlessly exploited women who worked; how individual women overcame this, from Kemble to Faucit; how others were ravaged (Julia Glover); Madge Kendal’s marriage shows compromises; these were superior actresses and gaining intense respect as noble-minded women Madge Kendal seeking playwrights who write roles they can use (Pinero); we see actresses in collaboration with playwrights to do this (p. 113-114). You needed to free yourself from the bondage of exploitative fathers and husbands, of temptations from gilded mistresshood of aristocrats (pp. 114-15), must behave with selfrespect
To conclude, Fanny Kemble showed world through her writing actresses capable of thinking intelligently on issues of day; her dramatic readings restored Shakespeare’s original texts.
Faucit gave back Shakespeare’s heroines as analogues of ideal professional life. Vestris transforms the Olympic carves path for independence of manager and accuracy in costume and scene effects (p. 115); she put on London Assurance, comedy of manners, used modern management and ensemble playing: it was understood how important she had been. Shaw praised Kendal as “superior among English actresses in comedy, a standard bearer. Kendal gave a speech: greatest gain of the century was “a recognized position for a play,” their insights increased toleration and charity; they could be educators of their audiences; they should maintain dignity in their private lives (keep them out of the limelight); she berated those who encouraged low tone, arraigned press, wry note that actresses at disadvantage when they age: “you must fill up wrinkles with intelligence.”
Kendal’s pupil was Ellen Terry who clinched the change — “greatest influence on 20th century actresses Sandra Richards claims.
Chapter 6: Ellen Terry (1847-1928)
The career of Ellen Terry helped solidify the gains the middle 19th century actresses had secured. Ellen Terry’s pre-Raphaelite looks helped enable her to this embodiment the Victorian ideal of womanhood. Characters she presented and (importantly) wrote about are not miracles of female perfection or fiends, but full blooded real women with passions and desires, flaws and weaknesses previously only tolerated in actors
She was the child of strolling players, educated by father, began painstaking attention to detail and period accuracy. Her lesson was to be useful. She entered the profession three times. She makes Portia and Ophelia central icons and then they became her parts. It was a healthy change in understanding of Shakespearean actress. Lady Macbeth a role she turned into strength and tenderness. Her notes and lectures show she believed in heroines animated by unswerving devotion to men; this idea informed er acting of contemporary play heroines; so to write for her meant she could take your character and turn her into passionate type that appealed (say Margaret in Goethe’s Faustus).
She liked to keep life on stage separate from life off. She could use contemporary plays just as well, but it was not she she who led to Ibsen heroines, more 2nd and 3rd line un-idealized portrayals like Madge Kendal; she was among first in films; she began the ploy of turning up in cameo roles — to make money later in life. She learned from her managers: Charles Reade; then Henry Irving; she did quarrel with latter sometimes.
Interestingly, her domestic and private life unconventional: early marries on G. F. Watts and then flees him; goes to live with Godwin and has two children; then involved with Charles Wardell called Kelly; allies with painters who profited from mutual relationship; with Shaw. But lurid accounts of the 18th century variety which equated actresses with whores did not emerge.
Her writing significant (like Kemble’s, like Faucit’s) was significant; she had the finest style in her autobiography (Story of My Life); Four lectures on Shakespeare are feminist literary criticism. And like Vestris, she was involved in management of super successful respected productions.
Yet when all is said, she was still not quite respectable; she submitted ot double standard; she was excluded from Westminster
Actresses after Terry recognized as civilizing force; guardians of natiional morale; can be adjudicator between people and push for good causes. Holroyd has good book on Irving and Terry. And like Siddons and other successful celebrity actresses she used the respected genius artist and helped his career and image along too.