Posts Tagged ‘actresses’

Carrie Fisher (1956-Dec 27th, 2016) and Debbie Reynolds (1932-Dec 28th, 2016)

I write about those days at a great distance – not only in terms of time. I cannot feel close to the young woman who went about with my name long ago … she is often strange to me, sometimes antipathetic, now and then, but for the self-conviction that stares at me from the printed page. There too I am at odds with her — Elizabeth Robins, suffragette-actress, who left an autobiography

I am the custodian of Princess Leia — Carrie Fisher off-the-cuff at a signing event

Friends and readers,

Not everyone coming here will recall that for a while I was writing a series of blogs on actresses, most of them 18th century, but my idea was to focus fairly on the profession of the actress, its history, and individuals. If Debbie Reynolds, and Carrie Fisher were not actresses, where are actresses to be found? I wrote about them on my Sylvia blog a few days after Carrie Fisher died of a massive heart attack, and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, the next day of deleterious heart event given the non-technical name, “broken-heart syndrome,” and stroke, in other words, intense grief at the loss of her daughter.

My daughters seemed to feel about Carrie Fisher’s death the way I felt about Jenny Diski’s death from cancer this year. As a mother to daughters, I felt so touched over how the mother died, her grief too strong for her strained heart to sustain. Since then my (temporary) identification, interest in actresses, and curiosity has led to me to read about them, and feel empathy and much respect for both.

I didn’t realize the photo I found (and now prefaces this blog) came from Reynolds’s last appearance to pick up a much-merited reward for a life-time of performance from the Screen Actors Guild in January of 2015. Both American sweethearts at age 19 (that was Reynolds’s age when she famously starred in Singin’ in the Rain): there is something about their particular permutation of the white gene pool — the round face, wide-apart eyes, uplifted nose, blue eye, blonde hair — and the way they presented themselves that lent themselves to this. It was easy to find out this kind of thing and much about both their careers and Carrie Fisher’s writing over the next few days. No less than 5 articles in the Washington Post appeared the day after her death, one of them on the front page and continuing in the front section. There was an obituary in the New York Times.

But the way my younger daughter talked of her, I began to realize she was famous for her writing and what I’ll call her “solo performances” on select stages beyond her roles in the original two Star Wars films (1970s), it sequel (1983) and (very recently, much older) its prequel (2015). These made her, like her mother, before her an icon for a version of America’s sweetheart. After this she became a screenplay writer, wrote fictional versions of her life and relationship with her mother, most notably Postcards from the Edge, made into a film (which won awards that year) with Meryl Streep as Carrie, and Shirley MacLaine as Debbie: how’s that for four icons all at once? But important as these were, partly because she was so candid about her private life (sex and marriage), her depression and drug problems, perhaps the solo performances were the most striking reason for her following.

In the several histories of actresses and the rise of respectability of actresses (see my blog review of Sandra Richards’ The Rise of the English Actress), I concluded that central to the growth of respectability for actresses was the actress-autobiography (a sub-genre of autobiography one might say). The writing legitimized her, she was seen as a serious person; the earliest ones were in the 19th century, but some of these were also by women who also got up on the stage alone and did monologue, solo performances. Why is this important: in these they regularly broke out of the conventional roles they were pushed into in films and stage plays. We are familiar with this under cover of the stand-up comic: Joan Rivers did it with pizzazz, and electrified audiences by breaking tabooes in her talk about sex.

What Carrie (using just her first name as so many do) did was to tie these monologues openly to her life, and include in the monologue people she worked in the industry with (say George Lukacs, the first director of Star Wars). She’d do it unexpectedly and at awards ceremony where the person named and at moments bitterly satirized would be sitting. I noticed she’d quickly turn the talk into more compliment, and by the end seem to buy back into the values of the crowd, but everyone had heard the mordant take on the realities of the movie industry and women’s lives. Married briefly to the thoughtful song-writer and good musician, Paul Simon, with other disappointed love affairs (known) with a daughter too, Billie Lourd (a minor actress), Carrie evolved a character in public, much of it frankly her which girls in the later 20th century could identify with and find solace. She capped it off (so to speak) by dying relatively young.

Carrie at American Film Institute

I’m writing because I don’t see her “act” talked about in this way: we are told her quips (good one-liners) and ceaselessly it’s repeated how she openly talked of her “drug problem” and “bi-polar” (a cant word nowadays) state. It is still daring to present your sex life as she did openly (see my blog-review of Kristin Pullen’s Actresses and Whores.) She is presented as a Dorothy Parker manque: but Parker never acted, did monologues on stage, and her writing was much much stronger, far more consistent, genuinely reaching tragedy (the story, “Big Blonde”), and she was brilliant in verse. This is not to knock Carrie Fisher but say she broke out of stereotypes and was able to talk about what it is to be woman as an “actress” in front of audiences. As far as I can her other two novels were much weaker and her autobiographical books (3 of them) weaker yet: they are put-together anecdotes meant to make money and promote herself to get more opportunities for stage solos and participation in movies. She had a TV show, was in dozens of movies, three worth mentioning as serious (where real acting was called for).

Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher — many years ago, when Carrie was still singing as part of her mother’s nightclub act

Carrie also from a very young age, worked with her mother, Debbie Reynolds, on stage. The mother was grooming her to become a singer and nightclub entertainer. In the film, Bright Lights (see right below), we hear Carrie sing twice and she’s very good — a hard yet mellow resonant register like Judy Garland’s. In the film too, one of Reynolds’s rare remarks about herself and her daughter is repeated twice: she is deeply disappointed Carrie did not go in for a career as a singer; Reynolds attributes this to the source (as Reynolds sees this) of her talent, her relationship with her father, Eddie Fisher.

Which brings me to the crucial background out of which Carrie’s career, character, personal fulfilment and crises came: Debbie is not so much Princess Leia’s mother as Carrie is the daughter of the woman Eddie Fisher deserted for that vamp, Elizabeth Taylor. Anyone alive in the later 1950s and 60s who doesn’t remember the extraordinary publicity Reynolds manipulated on her own behalf to make herself the ultimate victim probably never read a newspaper or watched the news or went to a movie. I admit there too I had a lot to learn over the past couple of days. As I thought the extent of Carrie Fisher’s significance was as this skewed icon — America’s sweetheart no longer the girl next door, but first some bizarre fantastic innocent girl who is made the victim of a sadist — remember the metallic outfit and a chain around her neck, and then a general. (To this in our fascist militarized culture are actresses reduced who want to be seen as strong miscalled feminism sometimes: they need to be as violent as American macho heroes at vital moments. Princess Leia strangles the fat [naturally] monster who is imprisoning her with the very chain holding her down.)

So I thought Debbie Reynolds had made a career out of enacting unexamined American ideals: the unsinkable Molly Brown. She was the all-American mother and wife in the honeymoon-like Bundle of Joy. After Fisher left her, she had married twice badly (I had read somewhere), both times seeking glamorous men with money, and both times the relationship ended badly. The second husband, millionaire businessman, Harry Karl, turned out to be an addictive gambler, who lied to and bankrupted Reynolds. The third a very wealthy real estate developer. From what is said in newspapers I had the impression of someone ambitious, determined, and capable: she re-made herself each time through working in nightclubs and more popular movies. Like Ginger Rogers, she was hired for her looks, not her skill as a dancer, and like Rogers, Reynolds made herself superb. For “Good morning” she is said to have endured bleeding feet (recalling Hans Christian Anderson’s poor mermaid). She sang songs one of which became as great a hit as any of Eddie Fisher’s: Tammy from Tammy and the Bachelor.

But as with her daughter, the popular perception of her is inadequate: though not as badly. She had a career on the stage (won a Tony), could really act, especially in comedies (she’d win Emmys for TV shows) and developed her own act and material. She too did solo performances, but here the resemblance ends. She stayed doll-like all her life, at the edges of her monologues making fun lightly here and there of American values, and in her later years referring to her daughter and herself, but never telling much, much less anything untoward. From what I read it seems that part of the conflicts between mother and daughter were precisely the mother pressuring her to be intensely conventional. She was the kind of actress most familiar since actresses were allowed to be respectable, only instead of enacting on-stage female stereotypes, she kept to them off-stage too. Not that I’d knock this: she was ultimately supremely successful from a financial standpoint, and in the film Bright Lights we can see that both Carrie and Todd are comfortable due to her efforts. Her act has become grotesque at moments, especially when with her body she tries to enact the old coquettery, the kind word is gallant.

Bright Lights, which, while I regret to say is a weak film, can end my portrait of these two apparently admired and well-known actresses because more is revealed there than was intended certainly by Reynolds, and perhaps by Fisher.
There is a good recap of the film by John Boone at Entertainment Tonight. I watched the film on HBO at the appointed time (both rare acts for me: I didn’t even know what channel HBO occupied) fully expecting to weep as I had felt emotional over the imagined relationship of a supportive mother-and-daughter. I also thought the new perspective or new context of their shared death would affect me and the material.

I remained dry-eyed throughout. Like Fisher’s solo performances, finally it was not that deeply revealing of Carrie Fisher, though the suggestions that were made by Carrie about her character and history were frank, believable, had an honesty not common: she was throughout presented as when all is said and done, the obedient daughter, taking every care of her mother, good-hearted, well-meaning, forgiving her bastard of a father at the end (“reaching out” it’s called). No hard truths beyond the citing of her “bipolar” problems — we learned how she has had to lose weight for the coming Star Wars roles. Nor was it admitted that Reynolds preferred to live the naive life, and pretend to not examine anything, unless called upon for some explanation of something really bothering her (like her daughter did not take up the career of a singer).

By contrast Joan Rivers’s bio-pic of herself, A Piece of Work, is multi-faceted, novelistic, and Rivers presented many unpleasant, suposedly unadmirable aspects of herself; she asked interesting questions about values underlying celebrity careers, showed us the cost of ambition itself, which was to end up alone, except for her loving daughter, Melissa Rivers, whose career she fostered. Rivers was glad she had re-vamped herself to display ideals of gorgeousness as long as she could. We also saw her kindness to the vulnerable, unlucky in small ways (she collected street people she knew for Thanksgiving), her real philanthropic activities, and good working relationships with those who helped her keep her career up. Nothing like this is in Bright Lights.

I’ve just cited some of what’s revealed. We also see that in the last couple of years Debbie Reynolds had become senile and very frail. It’s often said how they lived next door to one another for years, in semi-bohemian (but very luxurious) compound in Hollywood. We see Carrie taking her mother food; reminding her to eat; immediate memory loss is bad. Reynolds’s last appearances in nightclubs (where everyone in the audience is very old) required the help of many people (and a scooter); and the picking up of that last award was engineered by both Carrie and her son, Todd. For that last they got her dressed, got her to get into the car, up the stairs, onto the stage. Carrie was next to her mother because she needed to be. Carrie talked of how good a time they had had, but they were hardly there at all; upon receiving the award, the Carrie and her brother drove the mother safely home, and then had dinner, drinks, and good talk (and singing) with a couple of close friends.

So one reason Debbie wanted (as she said in her last words as recorded by her son) to “be with Carrie,” is cagey to the last, she knew without her daughter she could have no independence. The two women film-makers had given no sense of this, of what the woman was under the mask. I envied her the day she died because I too have experienced “broken heart syndrome:” about 5 months after Jim died, the faux heart-attack, but I recovered. I am now weak on the right side. I am not as strong in my need and determination as she. There is a real person beneath that mask — we could have seen it daily in her daughter and her relationship.


As Boone says, Eddie Fisher’s is the absent-presence, appearing in clips from his career, one of him interviewed later on TV saying he had not been a father “there” for his children, and one recent film of him near death looking terrible, hardly able to do more than agree with the aging daughter sitting near him and talking and making gestures of love. If both children knew much psychological distress and apparently opted out of full careers (having money enough from their steely finally successful mother), this was not just a function of being the children of an hard-working actress who demanded conformity of herself on stage and probably off. He disappeared, he deserted them and their mother too. It was traumatic. Again we are told Carrie had a voice, could have been a successful, belting out sorrowful songs; Todd sings for couple of minutes, showing he too inherited, in his case the light tenor that underlay Eddie Fisher’s voice. But as if they had been stung by an adder, they turned away — both at times to drugs to get through. His career was not destroyed until after Taylor left him for Richard Burton, another marriage, and his inability to adapt to the somewhat changed mores in the mainstream by the later 1960s. Which Debbie managed, just. He couldn’t act it seems.

The content was mostly the slightest of story-lines: the two women are preparing to go to collect Debbie’s last award; by the end they have achieved this feat, are home again, and Carrie belts out a song, partly to please her mother. Before their death it might have felt celebratory. Now it came across as nostalgia, melancholy. Along this is strung home-movies taken by Todd Fisher or Debbie. Todd, her son by Eddie Fisher, came in about half-way through, and we see his devotion to the mother too, and his candor. He too has had drug problems; he did not have near the career his sister has made; he was frank that the source of his core money is his mother’s legacy. Boone omitted the clips from the movie, Postcards from the Edge, as the relationship of its matter to Carrie and her mother was not gone into. One could see that Carrie Fisher was aware of how she when much younger enacted the worst grotesqueries of the hegemonic male culture as it imprints itself on women and that from around the 1990s she refused to do.

By the time my brief foray into this pair of women was done I was no longer sentimental over them, no more identifying than I did for Joan Rivers. Better than this I saw and see in them the difficulties of being an actress in the 21st century remain similar to those actresses had from the later 17th century. How they survived was similar. Where they suffered — from the relationships with men sexually that on the screen they had to control to draw audiences to them. I would not claim for Carrie Fisher anything like the original work and political vision behind the careers of say Helen Mirren, Harriet Walter, Emma Thompson (to cite familiar names) or the many women from the 19th through 20th century who wrote, worked as soloists, directed. But she belongs to their honorable group.

Carrie Fisher not far from her Princess Leia role: note how Debbie’s smile never changes

There is lurking in my findings an possible essay on the mother-daughter relationships in acting where both mother and daughter are fellow supportive players. I liked this joke in one of the many articles to have appeared: by Ann Hornaday:

If St Peter is waiting, one can’t hep but imagine him a bit intimidated by Fisher — coolly observing the scene and taking notes for mordant future reference — and Reynolds, adjusting her hair and makeup one last time before wowing him with a showstopper of an opening number.



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Hubert Robert (1733-1808), The Louvre

Dear friends and readers,

A final blog on this year’s ASECS meeting in Cleveland. Two plenary lectures, one by Felicity Nussbaum defending 18th century tragedy by way of the salacious mocking epilogues associated with key actresses of the age; the other by Julie Hayes on French women moralists and marriage. Then a miscellany: a session on later 18th to early 19th century drama & novels, one on women’s attitudes towards Rousseau. Sessions on music: I went to one on 18th century opera as performed, now, in the 21st century. Tourism and art. Finally, most delightful, a session where people read aloud their favorite poems and for once revealed why they enjoyed them so much.

Elizabeth Pope Young (1735-9 – 1797), Countess Hortensia in Jephson’s Countess of Narbonne

Saturday, 11:30 to noon, In “Unaccountable Pleasures: the Subject of Tragedy,” Felicity Nussbaum began with the admission many of the plays of the era were poor; if tragedy is central to an era, how explain the aesthetic failure of tragedies when they were so popular. Radical shifts in ways of performing and the new central roles for women make for a different kind of drama: actresses made visible a new kind of bonding whose goal was to flatter and to enable their audiences to escape. She went over the careers of actresses, gave readings of several centrally popular 18th century tragic plays (not all today considered great masterpieces like Arthur Murphy’s The Grecian Daughter), read aloud numerous of the epilogues & and then explicated them and discussed how they were enacted to suggest they were meaningful as performed for their audiences.

One of the sessions, on Thursday, 9:45 am (18, “The 18th century repertoire) can be aligned with Nussbaum’s speech. All three papers were about the radical content of the plays of the 1790s; what unites them with the previous topic is on the face of it these have been seen as poor plays, rewrites of earlier plays or apparently naive recountings of earlier political events. Daniel Gustafson spoke of the rewriting of specific Restoration libertine plays (a revival where they were rewritten and famous Restoration historical figures brought before the public again, i.e, Rochester, Charles II); these manifest a preference for acting out contemporary (early 19th century) politicized ideals. Later plays have characters of lower rank; the earlier time of history is itself de-politicized. Daniell O’Quinn (quoting John Barrell) showed how plays got through the harsh repression and how performances through visuals, noise and a libretto yield comments on what is tyranny. Better plays — as Otway’s whose complexity was little appreciated — can tragically fail. Multiple complex intentions are mostly lost.

From a 2013 production of Sheridan’s Rivals (Emily Bergl and Matt Letscher) at the Vivian Beaumont in NYC

Roz Ballaster explicated the text of Sheridan’s Rivals as a prologue to looking at the interactions (so to speak) of the novel and drama. She went over plays which reworked other plays (Inchbald’s Married Man reworked Destouche’s autobiographical play of the same name); George Colman writes a play that is like an obsessed novel where no conflicts are resolved. We must not read the plays too much as imitations either. She pointed to texts which were read and not staged. The novel heroine is generally more active, more aggressive, more complex, but we get novelistic treatments of heroine in the theater (Southerne’s Isabella).


Madame du Chatelet at her work table by an unknown French artist

Julie Chandler Hayes first looked at the work of many 17th, 18th and 19th century women moralistsm then singled out 4 individual women and their works to treat in detail and then moved back to generalization. A mordant tradition of moralizing which differ from that of males which has little to say about childbirth or marriage, which women moralists discuss, often as a kind of slavery; they were given no or little choice. Women whose works she covered include: Gabrielle Suchon (1631-1703), Madame de Lafayette (1634-93); Anne-Therese de Marguenat de Courcelles, Marquise de Lambert (1647-1733); Madeleine de Puisieux (1720-98); Madame de Verzure (?1766); Marie-Jeanne de Châtillon Bontems (1718-1768) who translated Thomson’s Seasons; Marie-Geneviève-Charlotte d’Arlus (or Darlus), married to Louis-Lazare Thiroux d’Arconville (1720-1805), and wrote scientific works, translated, whose works have been attributed to Diderot; Emilie du Chatelet (1706-49).

While Prof Hayes discussed some themes as they appear in a few individual works or are of interest for one person, I’ve given just her heads of topic and what she discussed both separately and for the women as a group. SO: they discuss celibacy, companionate marriage, adultery (this was expected, people presented as taking a lover out of boredom, but then finding themselves in a morass of jealousy and resentment). The issue of parenthood is treated abstractly: before Rousseau motherhood is not a topic. More abstractly: unequal power relationships, egalitarian feminism; the necessity of submission, a pessimistic view of humanity, marriage as a perverted institution, hardly calculated to add to happiness of either person. Loss of liberty is central to the truth of marriage, especially for women.

Girls are victims raised with care in order that they submit to this life; boys are put into armies. The moralists say there are husbands who love their wives and wives who love their husbands, but it’s the husband who knows independence; for a wife to know liberty she must be a widow first. People shipwreck themselves for desire and ambition. Bleak depictions of social customs; she must obey him and his self-interest; he can make her unhappy with impunity. We see the interior of households, happiness not common among the lower class people either. Marriage not a natural state, an ideal of an unattached life. Some deeply poignant life stories hinted at: one woman lost her child at an early age and does not get over it. Some see a double movement between ambition (so you follow convenances) and personal identity.

There is little or no emotional refuge to be found in French women’s moralist writings. Novel took on further cultural analyses with its quest to understand human motivations and interactions. these are discourses of self-regulation. They have a profound sense the world they are allowed is not enough.

Portrait of Sophie von La Roche (1730-1807), Georg Oswald May (1738-1816)

Again I attended a session that may be aligned with this general lecture: Rousseau’s Emile (Friday, 11:30 am, No. 113). There were four papers. There were no surprises: Mary Trouille showed Rousseau advised educating women to serve men’s needs absolutely; his novel, Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloise shows the tragic results; Kristin Jennings went over how 18th century German women responded to Rousseau as seen in their writing, her specific example the work of Sophie Von La Roche whose famous novel she compared to that of another German woman writer; Karen Pagani explicated an unfinished text by Rousseau, Les Solitaires which seems to be about whether a man should forgive a woman who has transgressed. The question (to me) seemed inadequate as the women in question was probably raped. Questions include whether the person should react with personal feelings (which seemed to lead to forgiveness) or do his or her civic duty and set an example. A fourth paper came from another panel: Avi Lifschitz had to leave early so he gave his paper on Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages in this session. I thought most interesting was Rousseau’s idea that words have a natural link with reality through their signing function; that the visual holds us, that language has lost its ability to persuade as it becomes more abstract, that it’s most effective when people say less. Rousseau was frank enough to show his imagined teacher and pupil acting out some of his theories and failing.

Giulio Cesare
2013: Metropolitan Opera: Handel’s Giulio Cesare

A session I and Jim enjoyed but I probably won’t be able to convey much about was “Eighteenth Century Opera in Production” (Saturday, 9:45 am, No 169). All four presentations used power-point, computers, screens, music, DVDs. Majel A. Connery discussed a recent production of Mozart at Salzburg which appears to have been 3 plays, all intended to reflect his life, his imagination trajectory, his work: she called it “meta-theater Mozart.” The plays were controversial among other things for the way they characterized Mozart’s inner life: wild, nightmarish, when reflective sad. Money (the lack of it) tears the hero apart. Everyone in simple symbolic costumes; the stage a huge box. Annelies Andries discussed what happened when the traditional aria of an opera is replaced by anther aria part of the opera but often left out. This happened in a production of the Marriage of Figaro with Cecilia Bartoli; the audience was apparently disappointed instead of reinvigorated with the apparently new perspective.

Danielle de Niese as Ariel (Enchanted Island)

Laurel E. Zeis’s’s “‘Persistent 18th century in two recent Metropolitan productions” was about elements of staging, kinds of voices, costumes, motifs, attitudes, practices, brought into the 21st century from the 18th century stage. I have a picture of some on this blog: the imitation of an 18th century stage in the recent Giulio Cesare. I wrote a blog about The Enchanted Island which was her central focus — and the use of boats on artificial water in the background appeared again in Giulio Cesare. Supernatural elements and computerized projection are found everywhere — though not Dryden and Davenant substituted for Shakespeare. Her suggestion that the “machine” for the Ring cycle was “very 18th century” because it changed the scenery in front of the audience, caused the players to come up front stage, & even dress in front of us was not all that persuasive, but her clips were fun. She talked of operas I’d not heard of (a Little Women), and pointed to unexpected 18th century elements in recently written operas like Nixon in China (a da capo aria).

Giovanni Piranesi (1720-88), Carceri V

Similarly, the strong tourism element of the four papers given in “Anglo-Italian Cultural Relations in the 18th century” (Thursday, 4:15 pm, No 71) were dependent on slides, and clips and photos, and I took few notes, just looked at lot. Suffice to say I especially enjoyed T. Barton Thurber’s talk on lasting impressions of Giovanni Battista Piranesi and British artists in Italy” and the pictures of Roman Antiquities discussed by Carole Paul. I was not able to stay for Jamie Smith’s Lady Mary Montagu and the Masks of Venice,” and unfortunately David Kennerley did not make it with his “Italian Prima Donnas and British Female Singers, 1770-1840”.

A little more on a poetry reading session and I’ve done.


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anna karenina 2012blog
Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina (2013)

Dear friends and readers,

Although 20th century awarding of recognition for achievement in movie-making may not seem appropriate for a blog intended for matter Austen, 18th century and women writers, artists, and I admit I write just about all my film studies blogs on Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two; nonetheless it is rare that an art that can so exquisitely capture aspects of life’s fantastical array of qualities be treated on TV with the equivalent of “Hail Stupidity!” so that Pope’s Dunciad becomes relevant. Since I went to most of the movies I saw with Izzy, it’s no wonder I agree with her favored list, and her assessment of the prize-receiving fool’s gold and the way the program was handled.

I am just now listening to a recording of a dramatic reading aloud of the whole of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; the reader is Davina Porter, and I see how brilliant and right was Matthew MacFayden as Stiva. And Knightley was as good as ever I’ve seen Emma Thompson, Hattie Morahan. Emmanuelle Riva was nominated for actress in a leading role (Haneke’s Amour). No one dared not vote for Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln. I assume the grave seriousness of the film was embarrassing to the voters. The great genius of film-making, Ang Lee, walked away with 3.

Still for the most part the choices and proceedings merit:

O Muse! relate (for you can tell alone,
Wits have short Memories, and Dunces none) [620]
Relate, who first, who last resign’d to rest;
Whose Heads she partly, whose completely blest;
What Charms could Faction, what Ambition lull,
The Venal quiet, and intrance the Dull;
‘Till drown’d was Sense, and Shame, and Right, and
Wrong— …
In vain, in vain, — the all-composing Hour
Resistless falls: The Muse obeys the Pow’r.
She comes! she comes! the sable Throne behold
Of Night Primæval, and of Chaos old! 148 [630]
Before her, Fancy’s gilded clouds decay,
And all its varying Rain-bows die away.
Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.
As one by one, at dread Medea’s strain, [635]
The sick’ning stars fade off th’ethereal plain …


What new movie in a paying movie-house did I see this year in the movies worth seeing and great? The only ones that remain in my mind are Coriolanus, last February; Alfred Nobbs, last March. I admit since we go to HD operas, I don’t get to see enough new movies.


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Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (John Singer Sergeant) — this is the kind of image many recent studies of actresses want to make dominant

Geraldine Somerville as Daphne DuMaurier (in the film Daphne 2007, written by Margaret Forster, directed Claire Bevan) — the reality captured is a lot more ambivalent and complicated)

Dear friends and readers,

Tonight I watched a great film, She’s Been Away, and put on line my review of Felicity Nussbaum’s Rival Queens: Actresses, Performance, and the Eighteenth-Century British Theater (just click), the culmination of a couple of months (at least of work). The review appeared in the most recent issue of The Eighteenth Century Intelligencer, just before the meeting last weekend of the EC/ASECS in Baltimore.

At one time I would have been simply very proud of it: I know it’s excellent, and admit a high point of said conference for me occurred when a senior male scholar whom I very much respect came over to me and complimented me on it. He never appeared to see me before, but in our conversation, especially when he said to ignore if anyone is “snippy” to you about it, that he knew something of me (had observed me). Silly? I couldn’t help it.

I’m no longer simply proud because I know to tell the truth about books is not something most scholars do, nor reviewers for that matter. They are there to compliment their friends, do what will elicit reciprocal favors; not only do you not make friends this way, you alienate people. (They worry you’ll write about their book or essay that way.) I tried hard to be even-handed, balanced and the first five paragraphs praise and describe much that is of value in the book: I called it “stimulating, provocative,” and hope I conveyed how much information, and insight it conveys. By following it, and reading a sample of what Nussbaum had read I learned much not just about actresses, but the conversation that surrounds them today: one that (I regret) has more than occasionally turned feminism (as Gail Dines has said) into essays that seem to value any any act of any woman gaining whatever power (influence counts), money, glamor she can, and turn away from a genuinely reformist social movement for all women together. Celebrity studies seems often to be similarly amoral.

I regret it because the actresses the writers bring into the canon of remembered culture were often fine, good women working not just for themselves but other people and since the mid-19th century some of them consciously and effectively for all vulnerable exploited people, especially other women as a group. I count Helen Mirren as one of these.

Helen Mirren, a Robert Maxwell photo

They include directors, producers, writers, an array of costumer and production designers, entrepreneurs — all of which roles were instrumental in raising the status of the actress by the later 19th century. I know the screenplay writer of a BBC film is a central force in its realization, and much admire the work of Sandy Welch and Anne Pivcevic:

Sandy Welch

Anne Pivcevic, director, producer, writer for the BBC

So I’d like to do more, read, write, perhaps someday finish that etext edition of George Ann Bellamy I started. Catherine Clive is one of my favorite people; Sandra Richards’ book a favorite.

Tonight I watched a very great TV movie, She’s Been Away (director Peter Hall, written by Stephen Poliakoff), the story of a young woman institutionalized basically for misbehavior 60 years ago, and thus destroyed, and how her presence when brought home by nephew since the alternative for her is the streets prompts this nephew’s wife, a young woman in her 30s finally to act out a rebellion – which endangers her life directly (and her pregnancy) and really gains nothing for her, but the important friendship of the first. She also brings the first out of her carapace insofar as the aged women is capable. Both angry, the older much more justifiably, the play explores their thwarted lives and lack of choices. It’s played by Peggy Ashcroft and Geraldine James, I can’t recommend it too highly: it was they who made it the powerful experience it is. James stole the movie by the second half. It was much harder to convey the broken stilled old woman whose life has simply been ‘taken from her,” as Ashcroft says quietly in her last moments as she watches James’s husband (James Fox) storm up the hall towards them (indignant). James is still acting up, acting out. In order to convey these women’s real sense of themselves, and perspective, and how they are really used by their society, the film moves away from realism into a semi-wild haunting sequence in the London city landscape of cars, supermarkets, a hotel and finally a hospital. That year (1989) they played together in The Jewel in the Crown, very different types, James the good (and strong) young woman heroine, and Ashcroft, the tragic victim older woman.

Geraldine James, Peggy Ashcroft meeting outside their overt costume roles

Ashcroft in her prime as Duchess of Malfi

No one picked up my call for papers on actresses for this conference. I was not entering into this upbeat Nussbaum mindset which sees actresses as acting analogously (and therefore praiseworthily) in was ambitious successful academic career women do. I’ve discovered even prostitutes are written about in this vein (e.g., in some of her chapters Kristen Pullen, Actresses and Whores). In the 18th century and throughout much of the 19th the life of the actress (let alone prostitutes) was very different, not analogous at all with the 20th century teacher-scholar at all.


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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

Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), Mrs Hartley as Jane Shore (1773 — the play itself early 18th century by Rowe)

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

Mrs Young as Distrest Mother (she exemplifies fashion too)

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)

Reynolds’s Sarah Siddons as Tragic Muse

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

Reynolds, Fanny Kemble (1783)

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)

Photo of Ellen Terry in later life

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.

For latter part of book, see comments section

Glenda Jackson as Charlotte Corday in Marat/Sade


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Mae West surrounded by male supporters after she was arrested for making the movie, Sex

Dear friends and readers,

I returned to my project of reading towards and then writing a review of Nussbaum’s Rival Queens (on 18th century actresses), and found myself again facing this vexed question of how to treat prostitution. Nussbaum is determined to distinguish actresses from prostitutes, to insist the “whore” angle has been exaggerated, is even unimportant, especially when it comes to the really successful actress. So many others say the “whore” position is one incessantly attached to any actress until the later 19th century. Sometimes I’m beginning to think it’s still attached — except for the unusual actress, often English, who has made herself an icon of high culture art and/or (quiet) feminism.

So I’m reading both Sandra Richards’s The Rise of the English Actress and Kirsten Pullen’s Actresses and Whores: On Stage and in Society as my last two survey books before writing. I’ll write about Richards when I’ve finished it; this blog is on Pullen’s book which (like Elizabeth Howe’s First English Actresses and Kristina Staub’s Sexual Suspects) is a kind of antidote, contrast, rebutal to Nussbaum. Pullen differs from all these but Staub because Pullen wants to more than acknowledge that later 17th century and many 18th century actresses worked as prostitutes or were promiscuous or went in for serial relationships (very like today). Like Staub she sympathizes with women who become prostitutes, does not sneer at or degrade them through language or implications; Pullen goes further: she wants to legitimize prostitution or women’s sexuality in liberated forms.

The glaring fault or gap in Pullen’s presentation is she leaves out a real aspect of prostitution: violence. I couldn’t find the word in all the first chapter. Yes other professions have problems with injuries, hurts, exploitation of the body, but a miner when a mine falls on him has not been put there to have that happen: violence is part of what costumers want to pay for. Prostitutes are directly answerable by their bodies. Yet Pullen is valuable: she makes all sorts of persuasive counterarguments showing how this stigmatizing of the prostitute is unjust; they are not different from the rest of women, only on a continuum, and the edge of this continuum matters (it spills over into today’s sex trafficking, modern forms of chattel slavery for women).

So Pullen’s is a fresh frank book which can make one question, why the need to separate actresses from prostitutes so intensely as Nussbaum does when at the same time Nussbaum is happy to show her actresses crossing all sorts of sexual taboos? What really bothers Nussbaum to separate prostitution off? I doubt it’s the violence for she remains resolutely at a distance from the body most of the time, but rather that in the 18th century and today a woman needs to de-sexualize her worldly presentation or she cannot rise to power, big money and respectability. It’s the respectability Nussbaum craves for her actresses. (Without it no tenure I suppose and for academic women the guise is dowdy clothes.)

This is a third in a series of blogs I mean to write on 18th century actresses (see Margaret Woffington, Francis Abingdon, with Susannah Cibber and Catherine Clive, foremother actress, writer, poet), another of several about the treatment of prostitutes and women’s sexuality in our society (e.g., On “an argument for not trying to decrease prostitution”).


There is no picture of Elizabeth Davenport Boutell; this is an unusal one found in books and on the Net as Elizabeth Barry (see the common one and wikipedia): it has the merit of genuinely capturing a thoughtful face which is not conventionally pretty; I don’t know its provenance

In Pullen’s prologue she argues that Mae West was the first screen heiress of earlier actresses, a woman who actively sought to break down repressive restrictive notions of sexuality for women; she then moves to two chapters on the long 18th century stage — her best and most persuasive because she show that the sexualized demeaning legends that grew up immediately around the actresses often had little connection with the literal realities of their lives. Betty Boutell provides the first ironic story.

Boutell was a second line actresss (so to speak) in the restoration (Elizabeth Barry was a more central presence) and the ugliest scurrilous assertions were made about Betty Boutell, basically that she went to bed with anything. A famous line from a particularly misogynistic poem refers to her as Betty Boutell “whom all the Town fucks.”

Elizabeth Davenport Boutell was her full name (born 1649, died 1715). Judith Milhous has put together the real details of Boutell’s career and life. Guess what? we cannot connect Boutell to even one man as his mistress or as one stage in a series of serial monogamous relationships on her part regularly at all. When it comes to her private off-stage life what we discover is Betty Boutell married a Mr Boutell, and led a respectable married and prosperous life in the 1670s and 80s. Upon becoming financially successful enough to be independent, she separated herself from him and travelled (to, among other places, Holland several times in the 1690s). She became close with one woman friend, Elizabeth Price who she helped with a lawsuit against an Earl. There is evidence of her living in London and caring for her sister, Francis, when Francis became ill — her sister was not as strong as she and suffered nervous collapses and was towards the end of her life confined in an asylum and then taken care of by Betty (and her money). When nearly 50 Betty was still acting in Breeches roles, and living a cosmopolitan life travelling in Europe. When she retired she was well off enough to buy an annuity for Price, and to inherit money from her sister’s first husband, collect a debt from one Justin Maccarty (3rd son of Earl of Clancarry), rumored to be her lover, but there is no proof of this or even anecdotes of any kind. She died in 1715 leaving bequests worth about 800 pounds.

And yet Betty is best remembered as a whore, so strongly helplessly heterosexual she could not resist any man in town. How or why is this? Pullen shows that the kinds of parts Boutell took would create (if they were real in the world) a woman who was promiscuous. In her first chapter Pullen also goes over attitudes towards sex, women, marriage, actresses. Whore was a term used for any unchaste woman — and in common pop parlance today one finds “ho” used similarly. Older historians used the whore/actress connection to limit the agency and write condescendingly of women. It’s virtually impossible to disentangle much that was rumored with what actually happened to a woman. Much that we do have suggests (Pullen is quite different from Nussbaum continually) a lack of respect for actresses. Pullen does agree with Straub that rowdiness was very bad for actresses, they did not enjoy it, thrive have “robust” responses (as Nussbaum claims). Who could when, for example, one of Middleton’s men threw shit in Rebecca Marshall’s face when she tried to flee him.

Earlier historians of actresses show a lack of respect for their women; simply assume the general truth of the sex rumors and go about to explain (justify) why women did accede to sell their bodies. They never stop to think maybe this or that woman didn’t. No empathy here, no endowing them with real humanity with all its individualities. Or you get the kind of thing Lawrence Stone in his study odes: he will say well she must’ve been frigid, that’s why or how she escaped promiscuity (women naturally are promiscuous you see, they all want heterosexual sex from men). Quaif denies women agency and choice; more recent studies show women did assert their romantic and sexual desires (Lois G. Schwoerer) but cannot get their minds around an idea a women might just see that independence of men was the real way to achieve liberty, peace of mind, personal self-respect and power over the self.

Pullen is very good on the 17th century stage world: she describes (unusually) a rough, hard, mean place, often squalid in experience and risky for actors and actresses; we learn about its crafts (too) as well types of plays, staging: theater stage design, costumes meant to display women and underline sexuality strongly (in men too). Pullen also remembers that men were prostitutes, men had a problem with status, also threatened the class status of aristocrats, the wealthy and respectable. Mohun (a baron) got away with murdering William Mountfort with impunity. Mohun a lout, thug, drone; Mountfort a hard-working intelligent actor. Wjho cared what they were as individuals. Pullen does agree with Nussbaum that both male and female actors did play and same roles and kinds of roles over and over which the public persisted then (and does until today) creating a sort of putative personailty/biography from.


Charlotte Charke (another unusual image); there is no image for Margaret Leeson

In Chapter Three Pullen takes us into two memoirs of women who are openly sexually promiscuous: Margaret Leeson and Charlotte Charke. Pullen wants us to see how the circumstances of these two and how they wrote about it show why we must bring into our perspective how women sold themselves for sex and not reject them for this at all. In effect Pullen wants to increase the number of women we respect.

I knew of Charlotte Charke’s life and autobiography: she is probably known to 18th century scholars because she was the daughter of Colley Cibber (who threw her off) and openly lesbian, a transvestite, but I had never heard of Margaret Leeson. Leeson was able to write her memoirs because in her last years she had become a brothel madam and was thus somewhat protected from the violence and control from others lower status prostitutes had to endure.

Leeson’s book is long: I downloaded 3 full volumes in ECCO. What a hard and in the end sad life she had. In a nutshell, when young she was seduced, impregnated and abandoned by a young man; her family refused to take her in. Abandoned by his man she could not find any job to support herself, had not been trained for any and ended up a prostitute in the streets. Strength of character, luck took her on a journey where she became a successful brothel madam for a couple of decades. But late in life aging (perhaps ill), she became depressed, lonely, and in the end without friends. It could be her business went badly so she wrote to make money, but her memoirs were the final thing that destroyed her. Instead of creating sympathy. (There is no wikipedia article on her.) Pullen thinks Leeson’s memoirs actually destroyed her career as a brothel-madam. Leeson died in extreme poverty, aged sick. In her memoirs, Leeson does assert her right to a life of her own, to respect, to sexual pleasure. Sometimes she revels in her life, sometimes she apologizes. She too downplays the violence.
I felt for her.

Leeson was never an actress but I can see how she belongs to Pullen’s book. At the close her (poignant to me) memoir Leeson makes an argument for valuing other kinds of virtue in women than chastity (or virginity): generosity, charity. Like many other actresses then and since, shows herself charitable (today’s actresses interest themselves in good causes); in one case, Leeson is kind to another brothel-madam left dead and destitute; Leeson praises people for generosity; and presents herself as never debauching an innocent young woman; and asserts that she did find work including prostitution for women ejected by their families. She has several love affairs but also strong friendships with women; her female friends sustain her. These latter details remind me of how Fanny Hill justifies one of the madams who becomes her friend in the novel by Cleland.

I know for some there’s no need for me to rehearse the the outline of Charlotte Charke’s life, but as seen in Pullen’s perspective a rather different set of experiences emerges (also different from Emma Donoghue’s because Donoghue wants to prove she was a lesbian and active sexually). We see a hard-working life. The obviously transgressive Charlotte , Colley Cibber’s unlucky daughter, sister of the vicious Theophilus (no help to anyone but himself) was a late child, not sympathized with (mother exhausted by this time), so had a neglected childhood. She married Richard Charke to get away; he was a violinist, spendthrift, promiscuous, indifferent to her; alas Charke lies to the reader frequently: defensively, to cover up, but it’s lies.

Much of her life she worked in the theater as actress; she worked with her brother in illegal theaters; with Fielding, father’s rival, took male roles repeatedly, for her a breeches role not a woman revealing herself but a male role (acted roles her father took and roles meant to recall him), reputation as rebellious and 1737 act destroys her connections with legitimate theater world; ran puppet theater, 1746 a strolling played, 1753 return to London and begins to write (for money), memoir, novels, and dies 1760 still estranged from family and living with Mrs Brown

Was hers an appeal to lesbians in the audience? Is this why she was so frank? Pullen says this handle was a double-edged sword, for Charke became disliked because she was clearly not subjugated to men; she had a regular audience in women by the 18th century; her power appealing as alternative to conventional women’s roles. A woman of conflicted identities, without resources, in debt. So cross-dresser seen as “whore” because she is “outside the mainstream” fo “femininity” Pullen does not see her as aligned in public mind as a man but a prostitute. She cross-dressed because it was easier to find work as a man, she attracted attention and got jobs on stage, she felt power and privilege; she uses theatrical conventions. Charke exhibits playfulness and she plays a comic hero; denies natural characteristics of women, remains in control of her fate; a world of women working and living together. Yet she yearned for the comforts of family life. She wanted someone to love her.

Pullen ends on an usual summing up: in these memoirs we see the “whore” position offers a woman space from which to speak. In the 18th century it was not even acceptable for the chaste woman to write and publish a book with her name on it.


Lydia Thompson

I was at first puzzled by Chapter 4. Pullen tells the story of Lydia Thompson and Charlotte Cushman, two actresses who defied norms of femininity at the time. This may be seen in their pictures.

Charlotte Cushman

Thompson dresses like a masculine woman who is exposing her usually hidden sexual parts. Cushman really looks mannish, powerful body and although her lower legs are exposed, the flat shoes do not allow them to be taken as sexy.

Their stories: Thompson — together with a troupe of women and her second husband, Henderson — succeeded in making a financial success of a burlesque act which was bawdy and involved cross-dressing and breaking sexual taboos. Then after initial approval. the critics turned against her: what was most loathed was her defiance of male prerogative (she led her troupe) and her exposure of female as well as male aggression in sexuality. The criticism was vitriolic, mostly because she was making money, getting audiences, apparently amused the crowds.

What Pullen shows is Thompson fought to have her own narrative of her life emerge and it never did. Thompson stressed middle class background, respectability (which by contrast Boutell never had a chance to). Thompson even had children to show, but at the same time on stage she flaunted her sexual behavior. Those attacking made her subordinate to Henderson as if she had no agency. She tried and tried to get a discourse dominant which showed she was in charge; she never managed that. Thompson tried to construct a story that would appeal to the public and was really partly true, but she could not control what use was made of her words and photos.

Pullen ends her tale of Thompson on a odd climactic moment: it seems that Thompson literally assaulted her worse critic, Storey, in the face with a horse whip. Pullen says when this event was told in newspapers every attempt made to downplay Thompson’s violence. Since Pullen has had so little violence in her book, this sudden eruption is startling. This violence of Thompson comes from nowhere, like from a vaccuum, Pullen herself treats in almost a trivializing way, as half-joking justified retribution.

Charlotte Cushman was probably a lesbian and did make a successful career out of popular theater — vaudeville. She was more accepted by the critics for she was content to present herself as lower class. She said financial circumstances drove her to the stage. Like Margaret Woffington, Cushman played male roles as males. So in this woman’s life and public history, the element of class ironically emerges as what affected how she was allowed to succeed in life.s consciousness, what class the actress feels she belongs to. Here also the question of fashion comes in: it is not just self-expression, but (as in Francis Abingdon’s success) a visible marker of identity according to controlling conventional norms. Cushman got away with her act because she presented herself as not defying upper class femininity — thought the cross-dressing was still seen as transgressive, and treated as a joke, not discussed seriously, the way 18t century actresses delivering epilogues were treated.

At the same time in normal social life neither woman was ever acceptable, ever invited into respectable women’s homes or society. Pullen cites two treatises (Dr Sanger and Dr Action) who denied good or natural women sexual feeling. The horror felt by these Victorian men as well as what was said of Cushman, Thompson, and at the opening of the 19th century other actresses (say Dora Jordan) reminds me of Trollope’s attitude towards transgressive women. Trollope has them in the “virtuous” place in his plot-designs but treats them as inferior and polluted; Dickens leaves them outside as monsters. Thackeray has them inside but as very bad or as jokes.

So these two women were not socially successful but symbolically important. Pullen’s argument is that to understand what happened to them we need to recognize and to respect the whore component here. We can’t avoid it as they were called whores and worse, so if we marginalize them stigmatized women, we lose their story and its signficance. Pullen is making the point that from the marginalized position Thompson was forced to take, she spoke to her social order and thus it is important to recognize the validity of the job as prostitute.


Julia Roberts (note the long hair is still a characteristic of the whore-actress) and Richard Gere (Pretty Woman).

Pullen’s last chapter is about prostitution. At first she was so dead wrong, that I was tempted to put the book down at last. But then she produced an example of her stance that made me pause.

She begins with a movie, Pretty Woman and from that deduces “the performative nature of prostitution.” This is taking Judith Butler and Lacan very far; first her evidence is a movie, a sentimentalized fiction. More centrally, that the real self of someone is different from their self on the job or in different roles is one thing but to disassociate prostitution from the real body is to mistake it altogether. This is social constructionism misused. What Kirsten wants us to see is prostitution is a form of playacting. She did ethnic research among prostitutes &discovered that’s how they like to see themselves. I like to see blogs as important writing; does that mean they are?

What is the difference between an actress and prostitute then? that actresses are taken seriously and respected because of 150 years or realism on stage, discourses of admiration for their acting and they live so luxuriously and are accorded fame. First not all are, and then throughout the book and here too Pullen is forgetting the central reality of prostitutes lives: they are answerable directly with their bodies; she wants us to ignore the story of the “poor beaten victim” as a simply stereotype; it’s not. Has she not heard of trafficking women? Violence is wreaked on prostitutes; they are outside the loop of respectability and the police care not. Police use and beat them too. People are violent creatures. Whores (let us use the demeaning term) have no status. It’s a free-for-all (and homosexual people face the same terrors).

I was going to shut the book – not because I’m against someone being
sympathetic to prostitutes but then I noticed Pullen turned to “high
class” prostitutes” (those who are hired by agencies for big sums of
money) and she began to make her argument in ways that resemble Nussbaum’s — by looking at exceptions. She also began to make the argument that prostitute stories in movies and fiction are told to make political points about areas of life outside prostitution.

I read on.

Her argument is that the two stereotypes, beaten up street-walking victim, or high class call girl who “succeeds” leave out the myriad of realities and types and experiences that make up the reality and history of prostitutes lives over the century. One is it’s something many women have done for a little while or part time to make ends meet or achieve some goal for which they can make enough money only by selling their bodies. Selling your uterus for someone to impregnate artificially is analogous. Pullen manages to suggest the array of reasons women might go in for prostitution. You do learn of organizations prostitutes make up for themselves and individuals who went public (it’s very rare) like Linda Marchiano who played Linda Lovelace in the notorious Deep throat. And she admits it does seem most women who go public pay harshly for it, and most of the lives told end in misery and are harder to endure than lives lived where men treat women as chaste and thus not subject to physical moves without some previous by-your-leave.

Nevertheless, Pullen’s persistent notion that performance as what prostitution is “really,” that it corresponds to women on the stage does actresses as disservice, trivializes what actress do on stage (people are not actors on a stage, what we do counts in life, the play is over after 2 hours) and on the face of her own evidence does not correspond to the reality based experiences of actresses. She becomes sentimental telling the love experiences these prostitutes had with customers and bosses that they tell her. These tales correspond to the biographies of actresses that Nussbaum (and Laura Engel in her book Fashioning Celebrity) recount – in that they mirror today’s mores more than what happened.

So many of them are ashamed too. The use any word but prostitute for themselvese any word but “whore” — which has come back to mean promiscuous women once again in the 21st centruy. Feminism has not even been able to make the term narrowly precise; it’s slander.


Juliet Stevenson (in Rosalind, a breeches role in As You Like It) and Fiona Shaw (as Celia) in a 20th century production of Shakespeare’s play — two actresses who have escaped the stigmatizing

One thing comes clear: how tabooed this profession is, how stigmatized promiscuity among women. Pullen downplays the violence and her pooh-poohing (for that’s what this is) over the “victim stereotype” and arguing against attempts to stamp out prostitution by getting after the men who frequent them is (I think) allowing this to happen, supporting the establishment’s cruelties towards women. What would she say to traffickers in undeveloped countries who snatch women? of laws and customs which allow families to sell their daughters as submissive wives at ages 12-15. Shall we let them do what they want too?

It would be wonderful if the truth about women’s lives which leads to prostitution, the false tales told of women on the stage could change the way women in general and women who are driven to sell their bodies are seen and treated. Yes women have resorted to this out of desperation on and off during their lives sometimes; they have occasionally lucked in and found a good husband; gotten a job on an interview which included a demand for sex, a promotion. But they have also been raped and engulfed through debt and having no friends or relatives who will help them and died young and sick most of the time. Or gotten out in time and died old and quiet.

Pullen’s is finally a generous minded book which is wrong because she slides over harsh realities with her performative nonsense. It doesn’t work on its own terms.

Still on her behalf and behalf of reading this book and thinking about it, I’d like to confide a brief incident. I’d been reading Annibel Jenkins’s rich, informative, insightful biography of Elizabeth Inchbald, a later 18th century actress and playwright and writing about it on line and when I told of Jenkins’s demonstration that Inchbald has sexual desires and experience outside her husband at least once, I was confronted with a repeatedly urged denial and Inchbald’s behavior if it were so characterized in the derisory absurd term, “sleeping around” (why is a fuck called sleeping around; you need not sleep with anyone to fuck them or be fucked). Jenkins herself will wonder why another actress who did not maintain the chaste reputation Inchbald did, Mary Well, didn’t sleep with a given man. It did not occur to Jenkins in that moment maybe Wells didn’t like him. No she was an actress, ergo probably promiscuous, and ergo could have nothing against sex with anyone.

Pullen wants such seething underlying hatred of women’s sexuality which comes out today as slut-shaming to end and writes her book in this good cause.

Helen Mirren who uses as well as defies the sexual stereotyping (from “Scent of Darkness” in Prime Suspect: in the next instance she spits in this man’s face in retaliation for the way he has tried to destroy her career)


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Catherine Clive’s house late in life, at Twickenham

Dear friends,

Not known as a poet, but (where she’s remembered) as an actress, Catherine Raftor Clive (1711-85) nonetheless did write verse burlesques and some of the mocking epilogues she was once famous for speaking. Like her polemics on her own behalf, and some of the memoirs of other actresses of the 18th century, some of these were said to be by “anonymous” [men], or rewritten by an “anonymous” [male]. Not so, or at least I do not believe this. In “the case of Catherine Clive” I certainly hear her voice, and the stance is unmistakably one only she as the person cheated, stigmatized, snubbed, would write; it’s also uncannily like like teachers today defending themselves against public demands they should take less money and knuckle under to unjust monopolies and bad treatment (for the same kind of envy was manipulated by the stage managers, claiming they had a “deficit” and couldn’t afford to pay these supposed extravagant wages). Among those attributed to her is the burlesque Rehearsal, 1753, performed as a benefit for her (meaning she took the profits after overhead had been accounted for).

For today I’m sharing an epilogue spoken at the end of a 1756 The Apprentice by Arthur Murphy, an after-piece for Southern’s Oroonoko. This one is attributed to a friend (as some of her pieces also were) but is by her. Note how she addresses and identifies with the milliners in the audience and the sharp hard ironies towards women spending their lives in virtuous low paid hard work:

EPILOGUE written by a Friend , spoken by Mrs. CLIVE.

[Enters reading the Play-Bill.]

A very pretty Bill,—as I’m alive!
The Part of—Nobody—by Mrs. Clive !
A paltry, scribling Fool—to leave me out—
He’ll say perhaps—he thought I could not spout .
Malice and Envy to the last Degree!
And why?—I wrote a Farce as well as He.
And fairly ventur’d it,—without the Aid
Of Prologue dress’d in black, and Face in Masquerade;
O Pit—have Pity—see how I’m dismay’d!
Poor Soul!—this canting Stuff will never do,
Unless, like Bay’s, he brings his Hangman too.
But granting that from these same Obsequies,
Some Pickings to our Bard in black arise;
Should your Applause to Joy convert his Fear,
As Pallas turns to feast— Lardella’s Bier ;
Yet ‘twould have been a better Scheme by half
T’have thrown his Weeds aside, and learn’t with me to laugh.
I could have shewn him, had he been inclin’d,
A spouting Junto of the Female Kind.
There dwells a Milliner in yonder Row,
Well-dress’d, full-voic’d, and nobly built for Shew,
Who, when in Rage, she scolds at Sue and Sarah ,
Damn’d, Damn’d Dissembler !—thinks she’s more than Zara
She has a Daughter too that deals in Lace,
And sings—O Ponder well—and Cherry Chase ,
And fain would fill the fair Ophelia’s Place.
And in her cock’t up Hat, and Gown of Camblet,
Presumes on something— touching the Lord Hamlet .
A Cousin too she has, with squinting Eyes,
With wadling Gait, and Voice like London Cries ;
Who, for the Stage too short by half a Story,
Acts Lady Townly—thus—in all her Glory.
And, while she’s traversing her scanty Room,
Cries—“Lord, my Lord, what can I do at home!”
In short, there’s Girls enough for all the Fellows,
The Ranting, Whining, Starting, and the Jealous,
The Hotspurs, Romeos, Hamlets, and Othellos.
Oh! Little do those silly People know,
What dreadful Trials—Actors undergo.
Myself—who most in Hamony delight,
Am scolding here from Morning until Night.
Then take Advice from me, ye giddy Things,
Ye Royal Milliners, ye apron’d Kings;
Young Men beware and shun our slipp’ry Ways,
Study Arithmetic, and burn your Plays;
And you, ye Girls, let not our Tinsel train
Enchant your Eyes, and turn your madd’ning Brain;
Be timely wise, for oh! be sure of this;—
A Shop with Virtue, is the Height of Bliss.

A portrait of Catherine Clive from Strawberry Hill (Horace Walpole’s house), painting by Alexander Van Haecken, engraving Joseph Van Haeken

This is not attributed to Catherine Clive, but prefaced a private performance we apparently know nothing about, only that this prologue survives and was published in one of several miscellanies of prologues and epilogues popularly read from the Restoration to the end of the 18th century. It is now attributed to Garrick, on what authority I know not.

I’ve really been impressed by how even if Clive didn’t write most of the epilogues, she spoke, they all project her personality as understood, and like Anne Oldfield, Clive was a great favorite for writing epilogues for and doing them. Here is just one:

A Prologue, upon Epilogues, Spoken at a Private Benefit:

          Enter in a black coat, closely buttoned.

Behold me in the usual prologue dress,
Though why it should be black, I cannot guess;
Custom, the law of schools — improvement’s foe,
Has long established that it shall be so:
But, say is slavish custom to control,
The active vigor of my free-born soul;
I”ll break the statute — and her laws deface

          [Unbuttoning coat and displaying gold-laced waist-coat]

Behold the glare of deviating lace;
Departing farther from custom’s dream
I bid adieu to prologue’s usual theme;
And while o’er critic rules my rivals doze
A prologue upon epilogues compose.
The epilogue, which always deck’d with smiles
In female accent, tragic care beguiles:
That when excalted thoughts, the mind impress,
A trivial jest must make the pleasure less.
Ludicrous custom, which compels to show,
The cap of folly, in the rear of woe;
Portrays a smile, emerging from a sigh,
And pleasure starting from affliction’s eye;
Makes joy’s bright beam in sorrow’s face appear,
And Quibble dry the sentimental tear.
If when a tragic tale in virtue’s cause,
The soft compassion of the tender draws;
Custom, decrees, our feeling be repressed,
By some vile pun, or some unseemly jest:
By the same rule, when comic swains give birth,
To nature’s dimples, in the cheeks of mirth;
A doleful ditty, should conclude the night,
And rob the audience of their dear delight:
E’er with improvement they can make retreat,
The purpose of the well-wrought piece defeat.
Then sons of genius, be it all your pride,
To throw the codes of prejudice aside:
By custom’s shackles be no more restrained,
Be ev’ry mental faculty unchain’d.
Our bodies freedom, we in birthright find,
Then lets assert the freedom of the mind.

I like the complicated thought and assertion on behalf of liberty; also the insightful critique of how epilogues relate to the two genres of plays and the conventions of epilogues.

The text is not in ECCO; it’s reprinted in “Garrick’s Unpublished Epilogue for Cathering Clive’s The Rehearsal; or, Bayes In Petticoats by Matthew J Kinservik, Études Anglaises, 49:3, (1996):320-26.

There is no modern biography in print. These distort her but they do so in 18th century ways. A dissertation by Patrick J. Crean, “The life and Times of Kitty Clive” (1933, University of London) is said to be accurate and full, and perhaps I’ll buy a copy. In the meantime a slender volume, The Life of Mrs Catherine Clive, by Percy Fitzgerald is touching brief account, very affectionate for the most part, and as far as I can tell (from comparison with the ODNB article which I quote from below) accurate. Percy lists the known works of Clive thus: “light productions, pamphlets, controversial letters, and a few “pieces of occasion. Among these were “Bayes in Petticoats,” “Every women in her petticoats” (already described), “Sketch of a Fine Lady’s returning from a Rout,” “Island of Slaves.” The reader should consult A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660–1800: v. 2, edd. Highfell, Burnim and Langhan. A chapter in Felicity Nussbaum’s Rival Queens: Actresses, Performances, and the Eighteenth-Century British Theatre contains a lot of information, other articles, but is a strong polemic which might be distorting Clive. Anyone reading this blog who would like to cite an article or book I have not, I’d be grateful; I’d read it and improve this blog (no blog is engraved in cement).

Since I really cannot better it and there seem to be so few undistorted sources with which to work, I’m gong to take the unusual step of quoting parts of a published article for the little life that usually accompanies these. A real problem in discussing actresses of the earlier century and are own era is how they are distorted by the media which presents them. The process I’ve learned is called specularization (from speculum, Latin for mirror). A definition I was offered by a friend “specularization refers to the process whereby the nature of an observer’s gaze shapes and defines what he or she looks at, thereby determining the discourse that ensues.” Actresses were seen as prostitutes and degraded and demeaned by the way they were presented, or, in an effort to elude this pornification, they are nowadays presented as somehow powerful and successful in ways they could not be. To avoid this I’ve decided simply to quote from the ODNB article. I’ve omitted all paragraphs and details which from what I’ve read seem to distort Clive.

My view is she was a gallant woman, multi-talented, who managed to survive with great difficulty and to fulfill her talents as an actress. I admire her for (reminding me of Anne Oldfield), not marrying in order to keep her liberty or independence. She also had a real talent for writing; this she never had a place to develop. I’ve not read her letters and long to. So I’ve presented her as writer and poet-playwright too. The list of the plays and events she participated in must be so long and varied

From the ODNB: “According to William Chetwood’s General History of the
Stage(1749), Clive was the daughter of William Raftor, a Kilkenny
lawyer of considerable estate who ruined his fortunes by aligning himself with James II during the latter’s campaign in Ireland in 1690. After a period of exile, he was pardoned and returned to London to marry a Mrs Daniel, ‘Daughter to an eminent Citizen on Fishstreethill with whom he had a handsome Fortune’
(Chetwood, 126). Chetwood further claims that the couple had numerous
children, but the names of these brothers and sisters are unknown, except
for James (*d*. 1790), who joined Kitty in a stage career, and a sister
whose married name was Mrs Mestivyer. There is evidence that Kitty Clive
supported her father once she was working, so whatever handsome fortune was in place when her parents married evidently dwindled over time.”

In 1728, “A friend of Jane Johnson, the first wife of Theophilus Cibber, Kitty was introduced to both Cibber and Chetwood. They, in turn, impressed with her ‘infinite Spirits, with a Voice and Manner in singing Songs of Pleasantry peculiar to herself’ (Chetwood, 127), recommended her to Colley Cibber, who added her to his list of performers at Drury Lane. Chetwood indicates that she had a few minor appearances in the spring of 1728, but once the full 1728–9 season opened she began appearing regularly in increasingly large and important roles. Throughout that season and those that followed she moved from supporting roles in tragedy to singing in afterpieces and playing the first-ranking characters in the farces popular in the period.

The fashion of musical comedy and burlesque suited Kitty’s vocal and comic
talents perfectly, and she shone in parts such as Nell in Charles Coffey’s The
Devil to Pay, in which she portrayed a cobbler’s wife transformed into the
lady of the manor. Henry Fielding wrote several parts for her that
highlighted her skills, including Chloe in The Lottery and Lappet in an
adaptation of Molière’s The Miser. In the summer of 1732 she was given the most sought-after female role in musical comedy, Polly in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, and received a tribute to her portrayal from the Daily Journal, which called her the ‘Darling of the Age’ (25 July 1732).

During the rebellion of the players in 1733, Kitty remained with John Highmore’s company at Drury Lane . . . Henry Fielding, who also remained loyal to Drury Lane, praised her acting talents and the alternative view of her character. In his preface to The Intriguing Chambermaid (1734), in which she played the title role, he compliments her as ‘the best Wife, the best Daughter, the best Sister, and the best Friend’ (Fielding) . . . Her best roles were particular comic types: the silly country miss, the wiser and more fashionable version of the same, and the pert and resourceful servant. These remained her strong suit for much of her career.

Few details are known about Catherine Raftor’s marriage to George Clive
(*d*. 1780), a barrister and second cousin to Robert Clive ‘of India’, but
she appeared as Mrs Clive in the bills for the first time in October 1733.
The name change suggests that the pair had just married or had done so
during the summer, when she would not have been performing regularly.
Evidence about the couple’s married life is also slight, but the two did not
live together for very long, separating some time in 1735. Chetwood,
ostensibly declining to comment on marital affairs, declares, ‘I never could
imagine she deserved ill Usage’ (Chetwood, 128), implying that was just what
she received . . .

Although Clive herself did not contribute to the pamphlet war during the theatrical rebellion of 1733, in 1736 she had reason to believe that the acting manager, Theophilus Cibber, was trying to claim some of her roles for his second wife, Susannah. Clive published her side of the controversy in the press in order to defend her position on the stage.

It is my consolation to think, that as I have always endeavor’d to please them [the town] as an Actress, to the best of my Abilities, whatever has been urged to the contrary by the Malice of my Enemies, will have no weight or Influence upon my Friends. (London Daily Post and General Advertiser, 19 Nov 1736)

When Clive’s appearance as Polly was finally presented, she addressed
herself to the house, apologizing for the disturbance and offering to play
the secondary part of Lucy instead. This apologetic tone and willingness to
appease her audience secured both her popularity and the role of Polly until
she herself was ready to bestow it on a younger actress of her own choosing
in 1745 . . . Although publicly Clive decried and apparently regretted bringing theatrical matters notoriety in the press, the lesson she learned during the Polly war served her well in 1744. After the failure of Charles Macklin and David Garrick to open a third theatre to break the monopoly held by the patentees, Clive found herself unemployed. Rather than relying on others to defend her position and livelihood, that October she printed a pamphlet, The Case of Mrs. Clive Submitted to the Publick, explaining her position and that of other performers. Particularly galling to her was the oss of her annual free benefit, a privilege she had held for nine years, and how she discovered her lack of a job—by finding other actresses listed in her roles in the bills. This ‘unprecedented Act of Injustice’ (The Case of Mrs. Clive, 14) did not allow her the time to find work in Dublin, where she had met with success during the summer of 1741.

Following the publication of her pamphlet, Clive held a benefit concert at the Haymarket on 2 November by command of Frederick, prince of Wales, and Augusta, princess of Wales. The royal couple had commanded Clive’s benefits in the past, and their continued patronage of her expressed their personal dismay at the lord chamberlain’s ruling in favour of the patentees. Theophilus Cibber confirmed that the audience at the benefit had been a notable one, by describing the affair as having ‘many Persons of the first Distinction … in the Pit and Boxes’ (Cibber, 76). The manager, John Rich, no fool, recognized Clive’s drawing power, and rehired her the next month at Drury Lane, although not at the salary level she had previously attained. As in the Polly war, Clive found that humble approaches to the theatre-going public could push theatrical management to some semblance of civility towards players . . .

David Garrick attained the patent for Drury Lane in 1747, Clive’s career settled down considerably. Printed appeals to the public were no longer
necessary, except for a skirmish with the actor Ned Shuter over benefit performances in 1761. She continued to shine in her best venue, the stage. She retained many of the parts that she had made famous, including Nell in The Devil to Pay, but moved out of *ingénue* roles into those more suited to her maturing voice and figure. Flora in Susanna Centlivre’s The Wonder, Mrs Cadwallader in Foote’s The Author, the Fine Lady in Garrick’s Lethe, and Lady Wishfort in William Congreve’s The Way of the World were typical of these later roles. Comedy remained her forte, but she also continued her facility in speaking prologues and epilogues.

A dedicated performer, and one with full appreciation for the transience of
theatrical life, Clive continued to seek new roles for herself and new ways
to supplement her income. She tried her hand at writing farces, which became a feature of her benefits. Her first, The Rehearsal, or, Bays in Petticoats, was first presented at her benefit in 1750. There were scattered additional performances, and it was eventually published in 1753. Clive wrote at least three more farces, Every Woman in her Humour, A Fine Lady’s Return from a Rout, and The Faithful Irishwoman, but none received even the limited fame that her first had done and none was published.

Throughout her long career Clive remained a London actress, and except for
the two seasons at Covent Garden (1743–5) she was loyal to Drury Lane.
However, at some point in the 1740s it is apparent that she moved her
primary residence to Twickenham and lived in lodgings in London during the
theatrical season. In that small community, she and Horace Walpole became
close friends . . . Soon afterwards she had become a visible and cheering
presence in his correspondence, and he gave her a small house on his
property. Reading through the correspondence makes it clear that Walpole and
Clive developed a strong, enduring, and almost certainly platonic
friendship . . .

In 1768 Walpole mentioned to a friend that Clive was preparing to leave the stage, and the bill for her benefit in April 1769 advertised that it would be the ‘last time of her appearing on the Stage’ (Stone, 3.1401). She performed some of her favourite roles: Flora in The Wonder and the Fine Lady in Lethe. After more than forty successful years on the stage, Clive had earned enough to support herself comfortably in her retirement. In her published Case in 1744 she revealed that she had been making £300 annually, plus her benefit, which in her most successful years could almost double that salary—in 1750, for example, her benefit brought her just over £250. In 1765, in a letter to David Garrick, she commented that her salary remained £300 a year. Although much of her income would have gone to support her professional life (she spent considerable sums on singing lessons and appropriate clothes) she had evidently managed her money wisely.

Her own correspondence, along with that of Walpole and David Garrick,
reveals Clive’s retirement to have been carefree, except for bouts of
illness and occasional trouble from footpads and tax collectors. Her brother
James and sister lived with her, and were, according to Jane Pope, supported
by her. She busied herself with ‘Routs either at home or abroad every night
[and] all the nonsense of having my hair done time enough for my parties as
I used to do for my parts with the difference that I am losing money instead of getting some’ (Highfill, Burnim & Langhans, BDA). Her periods ofillness self-described jaundice—eventually grew more frequent, and after catching a chill at the funeral of Lieutenant-General Henry Lister, she died on 6 December 1785. She was buried in Twickenham churchyard on 14 December. Horace Walpole dispersed her personal possessions among her friends and relatives.

K. A. Crouch”


A while back I read an essay I’ve not forgotten. By an 18th century scholar, he argued from a stadist standpoint that taking a set of criteria over several centuries in the last 30 years women have had a bad set-back. One criteria is how available women are sexually to men; the more available they are (whether or not they say they want this), one sees a set of other criteria to show them losing ground (in the area of property and money-ownership, in the area of violence inflicted, in the area of babies had, more is a bad sign).

So I take this outright demand for a return to unrestricted polygamy even if in a fanatic state to be significant.

I’ve fallen behind in my weekly close-readings of Austen’s letters, partly because I’ve been reading and studying about 18th century actresses’ lives. I’m working towards a review of Felicity Nussbaum’s Rival Queens. One of her contentions is that we are over-emphasizing the association of Actress with Prostitute in the 18th century; I don’t think she can prove that case, but it does seem to me the 18th century was an era when women achieved a measure of liberty they had not before, at the same time as their turn to “sensibility” was a way of demanding control over their bodies.

Mrs [Francis] Abington [1737-1815] as Miss Prue in Congreve’s Love for Love by Joshua Reynolds [1723-92]

This is one of the rare paintings of actresses at the time which endows them with a quiet dignity and conveys something of an individual personality — here thoughtfulness — while in costume.

I include a list of articles on Clive in the comments.


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