Posts Tagged ‘actresses’

Early recording of Garland before the studios got hold of her: “Bill” from Jerome Kerns’ Showboat

Easter for me as a child was her voice singing “Easter Parade:” in your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it ….

As Dorothy (Wizard of Oz, never re-done)


I’ve written only a very few blogs about women musicians, singers, composers. I am not myself technically musically educated, and there is so little readily come by of higher calibre, where the art of the woman is taken seriously, centrally. Opera composers yes, the occasional prima donna. Judy Chicago placed at her 39 women dinner table, Ethel Smyth (who became Virginia Woolf’s friend and for a brief time lover).

Ethel Smyth – pianist

I’ve written of Edith Piaf on my Sylvia blog after going to a lecture with clips, and of Kaija Saariagho’s L’amour de lion after seeing the opera on HD screening.

So it’s more than time I wrote about one of the most famous of the 20th century, an extraordinary singer and performer: Judy Garland. On Wednesday night I went to a 2 and 1/2 hour lecture by Robert Wyatt, accompanied by remarkable podcasts, clips, tapes. The auditorium was full, and I was told what a treat and how excellent is Wyatt. I have gone to one of his presentations on Gilbert and Sullivan: his talk is banal and sometimes to me offensive because he causes (to me) inexplicable laughter in the audience. Some of what I write here is from the few notes I took, a good deal from my own response to all the music and clips he played, the rest found on the Net or from memory.

For me an iconic image

The argument of this blog is that women singers have had a sexual story imposed on them, which they have succumbed to — not hard to understand since in life many interviews include a demand for sex. To make their way in a career they must negotiate their way through the male patriarchy and often end up marrying (as protection and as a platform) a male producer or director at some point (in Garland’s case most famously Vincent Minelli). Judy Garland’s life and the kind of presence her most frequently-played songs resemble are those of Edith Piaf.

What these are stories about are women with an extraordinary gift that could make enormous money and be fulfilling to enact out; they felt they had to submit to soul-destroying false archetypes; to keep up the show self-destructed from within. Each needed more self-esteem to start with, more education, and a higher status; then each might have been able to build a stable environment based on their innate self (yes there is such an entity or presence in us), and turning away from worshipping the siren calls of admiration to do what they apparently couldn’t stand. To endure this they had to drink or drug themselves into a stupor. Now this life enabled them to leave the plethora of work we have from them. Given the US environment Garland’s achievement was to do so much good work and leave behind many kinds of records of it.

One contrast I can think of: Joan Rivers managed to fulfill her talent, stay far more than solvent and possess and care for her soul (and her daughter), be true to a decent set of values her satire at least suggested. But she had to buy into (so to speak) capitalist ideals of ambition, competition, and glamor. Which she did. These desires were part of her innate self. So she claims in her bio-pic film.

Frances Ethel Gumm, the third daughter of two Vaudevillians, Garland appeared on the stage at age 2. Like Piaf, her extraordinary gifts of voice in the range and depth of emotional expressiveness, was quickly recognized and by the time she was a young teenager MGM had seen someone whose gifts would attract large audiences, and the process had begun of working her to the limit of her strength and tolerance for artifical commercial popularity.

Wyatt asserted Garland had a domineering mother and never learned to read music — she relied on memorizing.  While he suggested that Garland was abused because from the age of nine she was fed with heavy prescription drugs, he did not say why. As her life went on, the only explanation offered was the implicit,: see how weak she was, how uncontrolled; for several of her husbands and/or lovers he said how the man had “protected” her. Nowhere did he speak of the long hours MGM demanded, the high pressure (he said only that she hated Buzby Berkeley) to perform in a certain way, the demand she lose weight, look and behave a certain way; and that as she got older, the reward was large amounts of money for MGM and a (perhaps) a (thin) pretense of adulation all around her. Breaking down in private of course.

From this early decade of her life and career Wyatt told of a drivingly ambitious mother (he exonerated the father), and showed some clips, played some podcasts of her earlier effective performances on stages across the US. Tapes exist and they are musically pleasing, expressive of genuine and gay feeling. Her body type was (reminding me of Marlene Dietrich in her first years) was considered ugly (read: socially unacceptable) so she was forced into dieting, cosmetics, exercise to make her conform to the fake ideal of Barbie-ness (we see in all the Trump women today).

With Mickey Rooney

Once her appearance and name were changed, and she entered into the world of the filmed musical, she began to make huge sums for MGM. The Wizard of Oz was her earliest signature hit. She paired with Mickey Rooney again and again. One song that became a signature number was “Get Happy:” I’m not sure that any of the mainstream recordings capture what is at the core of this one: black spirituals. Listen to Judy’s words about Judgment day, getting rid of your cares and troubles, the Lord is going to chase all your cares away. It’s all so peaceful on the other side. The overlay is white male slickness, a pretense of flippancy, the male suit and tipped hat feminized.

Her years of contract under MGM showed her to emerge as a feature star whose presence commanded listeners. The wikipedia article absolved MGM of her addiction habit, but the writer does not cite the tremendously challenging (in every way) schedule wrenched out of her, nor the phoniness of the numbers — nor that she was continually berated by Buzby Berkley — nor everything draining surrounding such a career based on wide success, petty vanity and power struggles within the smaller circles. I could see how she promoted Gene Kelly, supported Mickey Rooney: they were all contending with the nonsense de-sexualized myths the public wanted to believe in. When you watch the clips, they mostly seem so pastoral , as in the famous trolleycar song from Meet Me In St Louis: bang bang bang went the trolley (trolleys were destroyed by large corporations in order to make US people dependent on the car).

There were years of great success, widely popular pleasing film after film with the same names performing with her, her husband Minelli the director and then others. She worked with the most famous and best of popular singers, actors, musicians. Wyatt showed a clip of her with Fred Astaire. But she also began to not show up for filming sessions, disrupting a making of a film repeatedly. It was inevitable that the studio would fire her. Wyatt seemed to delight in emphasizing how many husbands and lovers she had until she began to deteriorate in health under her punishing schedule, drug and drinking freely over the course of her day and night performances (on stage, in life). When she left MGM, she went on to other studios, to work on the stage, to recording songs, and at the end on TV. At a high point she owned a beautiful home in Hollywood, during a come-back she lived in London. Wyatt seemed to like to repeat she was living out of suitcase.  Wyatt discussed her times of great misery in a nonchalant way, saying (for example) how she threw something at her children and “so that was the end of her motherhood.”

She had altogether three children, Liza Minelli, something of a look-alike, the only one able to become a similar admired singing actress . Lorna Lufts had but a brief career. Garland couldn’t manage the relationships she was expected to, and would break away through breakdowns, suicide attempts, discarding who she had to, but also forming for life bonds with similarly suffering stars (e.g., Frank Sinatra), musicians, producers.  I remember her when I was young on TV looking dreadful (very heavy, her face over made-up, her teeth glittering sickly) and then very thin; later at Carnegie Hall, having become an icon for gay men — they felt a kindred spirit.

My favorite songs (and the one easiest to find) are those where she reinforces the myths; she is inimitable expressing anguish.

Except for the initial presence of a mother, Garland’s life resembled Piaf’s — and both conform to the stereotype of the woman in need of a man. Judy’s best known songs enforce this, e.g., “You made me love you.”

She lived but 47 years but the enormous amount of songs and recorded dances, movies, stage performances, military shows suggest a life twice as long with work never ceasing (NYTimes obituary).

The wikipedia article has a long description of her singing worth reading:

Garland possessed the vocal range of a contralto.Her singing voice has been described as brassy, powerful, effortless and resonant, often demonstrating a tremulous, powerful vibrato. Although the octave range of her voice was comparatively limited, she was capable of alternating between female and male-sounding timbres at will with little effort. The Richmond Times-Dispatch correspondent Tony Farrell wrote that Garland possessed “a deep, velvety contralto voice that could turn on a dime to belt out the high notes” … From an early age, Garland had been billed as “the little girl with the leather lungs”, a designation the singer later admitted to having felt humiliated by because she would have much preferred to have been known to audiences as a “pretty” or “nice little girl”. Jessel recalled that, even at only 12 years-old, Garland’s singing voice resembled that of “a woman with a heart that had been hurt” … Garland stated that she always felt most safe and at home while performing onstage, regardless of the condition of her voice. Her musical talent has been commended by her peers; opera singer Maria Callas once said that Garland possessed “the most superb voice she had ever heard”, while singer and actor Bing Crosby said that “no other singer could be compared to her” when Garland was rested …

Garland was known for interacting with her audiences during live performances; a New York Times biographer wrote that Garland possessed “a seemingly unquenchable need for her audiences to respond with acclaim and affection … The biographer went on to write that Garland’s performance style resembled that of “a music hall performer in an era when music halls were obsolete”. Close friends of Garland’s have insisted that she never truly wanted to be movie star and would have much rather devoted her career entirely to singing and recording records … Michael Musto, a journalist for W magazine, wrote that in her film roles Garland “could project decency, vulnerability, and spunk like no other star, and she wrapped it up with a tremulously beautiful vocal delivery that could melt even the most hardened troll”

Her TV show provides a cornucopia of greatness and evidence of remarkable stamina; she was on for a couple of years; here she is with Liza as Two Lost Souls:

For quite a long time in the 1970s I had a long-playing album of Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall. Jim loved it too and I would play and replay it at night. Now looking at it and the other citations from Wyatt, I see a major writer was a man blackballed as socialist: Harold Arlen. I did love “I’m gona love you, come rain or come shine.

One last: Her life in pictures in her last performance, Copenhagan, 1969: “Over the rainbow:”

It’s possible there will be a biographical film with Renee Zellweger playing the role. There is a fine American Masters PBS program.

And this shall be for music when no one else is near,
The fine song for singing, the rare song to hear!
That only I remember, that only you admire,
Of the broad road that stretches and the roadside fire
— R.L. Stevenson, “I will make you brooches”


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Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), A drawing of a girl reading her writing


I’ve not written a foremother poet blog since I went to a Sylvia Plath exhibit last fall. For Wom-po Annie Finch and Pratibha Kelapure have revived the corner of the list’s website to begin to post brief essays on earlier women poets. They need not be very far back in time. And the first fine one was about Leonie Adams. I thought if I can contribute one this week perhaps that will stir others to pony up, and that community of poets might supply themselves with a foremother poet posting every week to inspirit and teach them, to enjoy.

Two nights ago in my continuing quest to explore the biographical art of Virginia Woolf as modernist and recently as by a woman, I came across a fine book by Caroline Breashears, Eighteenth Century Women’s Writing and the ‘Scandalous Memoir”, one chapter of which discusses the memoir startling for its candour and honesty of an 18th century women poet whom I was therefore drawn to a number of years ago: Catherine Jemmat.

These past couple of evenings I found Jemmat is more successful in prose than verse and presents herself first as a memoirist and then writer of verse and prose miscellanies. Reading over her poetry, her ardent and strident Memoir, and some of the essays she had printed in Miscellanies, in prose and verse (1765 edition), I see her ever struggling to justify herself, and obsessively retelling a paradigmatic story. Again and again she or her subject is mistreated by a relative. Sometimes the angle is ironic: an aunt writes a niece now fallen and in trouble to berate her. A clergyman’s family loses all their money and their father and when they expect to be supported emotionally and financially by an uncle, they are rejected and humiliated. Most horrifying is a story by a animal treated with great cruelty by a family who continually maim the creature (it opens with the master demanding her ears and tail be removed); she morphs into a smaller and smaller animal (finally a worm) each time treated harshly and without mercy. Jemmat says the purpose of this tale is to teach children to be more humane. She certainly does expose the false sentimentalization of family life as a haven. According to Breashears, this is precisely the myth presented in Eliza Haywood’s work (to cite a contemporary woman writer).

Jemmat’s best poems are short columns of verse, and refer to writing, to print. There are some longer prologues or epistles that read well. Lines here and there come alive. There are epistles to friends.  Two suggest that her brother was lost at sea, or died on board a ship. Numbers are addressed to titled male, someone in a position of power, a known artist or professional in Dublin. She is in a friendless state.  She is seeking patrons. Two exultant epistles are to Peg Woffington; one much quieter to Thomas Sheridan. There are poems on simple objects and stanzaic tales, some ironic. Moralizing verse on behalf of prudence. There is one in praise of science. She offers ironic advice to someone on her very latest marriage. She says because she has been saddened by her own life, she cries over stories in newspapers. One touching Prologue is for a benefit play for a hospital: “With sympathetic warmth to feel the throws,/And racking anguish of another’s woes.” She often personates an imagined character. The prosody and aesthetics of her verse are simply centrally 18th century Popian (there is one Miltonic imitation).

An epigram:

Three times I took, for better and for worse,
A bed-fellow, a fortune, and a nurse.
How bless’d the state, which such good things produce,
How dear that sex, which serves such various use!

This stands out:

Question, on the Art of Writing
Tell me what genius did the art invent,
The lively image of a voice to paint?
Who first the secret how to colour found,
And to give shape to reason, wisely found?
With bodies how to cloathe ideas taught,
And how to draw the pictures of a thought?
Who taught the hand to speak, the eye to hear,
A silent language roving far and near?
Whose softest notes out-strip loud thunder’s sound,
And spread their accents thro’ the world’s vast round?
Yet with kind secrecy securely roll,
Whispers of absent friends from pole to pole.
A speech heard by the deaf, spoke by the dumb,
Whose echo reaches far in time to come;
Which dead men speak as well as those that live:
Tell me what genius did this art contrive?

The story of her life indeed is (as retold and commented on by Breashears too) of someone betrayed by the family and relatives and friends she was was brought up to count upon.

Her father, Admiral John Yeo of Plymouther, is the worst of her family to her (when he should be the kindest she says). Her mother, his first wife, died when she was 5; he remarried a girl of nineteen who of course could not relate to another child.  As this second wife becomes a woman she becomes mean to Catherine. The father was often at sea. She was sent to boarding school. Then deeply disappointed of a love match: a young surgeon was going to marry her and died. She rejected the son of a tradesman. She doesn’t  want to marry for money.

She finally marries a silk mercer named Jemmat by whom she has a daughter, but he turns out to be cruel, accusing her of adultery, bullying her, making her fear him through violent behavior. She has a miscarriage. Her father will not give up the dowry, so the husband beats her, and her family actually refuses to pressure her husband to behave differently. She and her husband’s sister fight over power and space. She does “fall” at one point (sexually), but she does not tell much of that — rather we hear of the sisters-in-law fight over property and who will live where. So the escape from her nuclear family was far worse than the original sentence. Jemmat, abusive, often drunk, goes bankrupt. So Catherine was (according to her memoir) “thrown upon the wide world for support.”

We may imagine what this means, but she did survive and wrote a 2 volume book of Memoirs (1st ed, 1762. She became dependent on aristocratic patrons who had known her father. She must have lived in Ireland for a while and frequented the Dublin theater. She published a Miscellanies in Prose and Verse (1766), which includes an essay called “In Vindication of the Female Sex.”  She protests against the scapegoating meted out to women who may be said to have sexual relationships with anyone outside marriage (no matter when or how this is written or talked about).

Catherine Jemmat is not presenting herself as a fallen woman but someone brought low by cultural and financial circumstances and norms. She finds no forgiveness anywhere for just about anything. She flees to her family for succour and they only make things worse, especially her father. Breashears says her memoir is about a woman seeking a home, unable to find or create one for herself. Lonsdale says there are “mysteries” surrounding her — but there are about so many women writers. In Virginia Woolf’s Memoirs of a Novelist, two of the book’s memoirs demonstrate how little we know of women’s lives because quite deliberately their relatives and friends will say nothing truthful; so she slips from our grasp only glimpsed in a phrase here or there.

In her excellent book, Vita & Virginia: The work and friendship of V. Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, Suzanne Raitt argues that the function of life writing when written by women is to restore to them their mother. Like other writers on biography, she collapses the distinction between biography and autobiography. Autobiographers to be listened to and good must have the capacity to see themselves from the outside, almost as if the writer were another person. Conversely, the biographer often prides him or herself on the autobiographical element in their quest and they use autobiographical documents. Raitt suggests when a woman writes of herself or another woman, she is working at restoring her inward health, to put together a new identity out of the fractured one.

Bell Gale Chevigny in an essay in Feminist Studies: Daughters Writing: Towards a theory of women’s biography that women write the life of another woman — who is usually younger than them, or perhaps now dead, from a daughter’s vantage point. Gaskell writes as a daughter of Charlotte. Woolf writes Orlando as a daughter of Vita Sackville-West. I know Elena Ferrante writes as a lost daughter, child, doll. As a mother rejected by her daughters. Jemmat was then fractured at age 5, then again by a step-mother, then by sister-rivals. Hers is an absent mother she cannot reach.

Here is what Jemmat writes to Peg Woffington “on seeing her in several characters:”

In silent wonder sunk, in rapture bound,
My captivated thoght no utt’rance found;
Each faculty o’ewhelm’d, its vigour lost,
And all my soul from theme to theme was tost.
Whate’er the heart canfeel, the tongue express,
The springs of joy, the floods of deep distress,
The passions utmost pow’r, o’er-rul’d by laws,
Which genius dictates, and which judgment draws,
Subdu’d thsu long my bosom’s grateful fire,
Silent to gaze, and with the crowd admire.
Stand forth confest, unrivall’d, and alone,
And view the human passions all your own,
Reign o’er the heart with unresisted sway,
The heart must beauty, and must power obey;
Each muse hath plac’d her sceptre in your hand,
And ready rapture waits on your command …

A second addressed to Woffington makes her into a goddess adorning the very earth and all the seas. She “moves obedient to the air like “bright Venus in the midst of spring,/Sports with the graces in the verdant ring,/The nymphs, the fawns, the sylvan crowd admire …

Peg Woffington as painted by F. Haytley in her role as Mistress Ford in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor


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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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