The Diary of an Actress: An Introduction1

Article excerpt

This introduction discusses the context and historiographic issues raised by the nineteenth century autobiographical text, The Diary of an Actress: or the Realities of Stage Life. It sets out to locate the publication in the context of the Victorian British provincial stage, autobiographical discourse and histories of gender.

Key words: nineteenth century autobiographical text, Diary of an Actress, nineteenth-century British provincial stage, Victorian theatre, autobiographical discourse, histories of gender

In a section of her book New Readings in Theatre History entitled 'Theatrical autobiography: Whose story?', Jacky Bratton writes that we should, 'read . . . auto/biographical material as far as it is possible in its own terms, accepting the picture it paints as the intended activity of its authors . . . They are intent on projecting an image of the world in which they are actors, those who do, not objects.'2 This introduction hopes to facilitate that process for 'Alma Ellerslie' and The Diary of an Actress.

The Diary of an Actress: or the Realities of Stage Life was published in 1885.3 Its author was anonymous; its editor, the Reverend H. C. Shuttleworth of St. Nicholas Cole-Abbey Rectory, Lambeth Hill in London, had previously been a minor canon at St Paul's Cathedral. The British Library catalogue attributes the diary to Alma Ellerslie,4 as does the University of Glasgow Library5 - and I shall use this name throughout this introduction - but to date I have uncovered nothing to 'flesh out' this identity or even corroborate it. The only theatrical Ellerslie I have been able to uncover in my researches so far is a 'Miss Ellerslie' who was advertised as appearing at William Fisher's Royal Olympic Theatre in A Pair of Boots in October 1873.6 The Reverend Henry Cary Shuttleworth ( 1850-1900) is less elusive. Far from being the predicted enemy of the theatre, he was a staunch advocate and an active supporter of the stage particularly through the Church and Stage Guild7 that met in the crypt of St. Paul's. On his death Ben Greet wrote of him that 'as a playgoer [he] was in his happiest moments' and in a public debate with 'an anti-Dramatic Nonconformist' Shuttleworth averred that he knew '[n]o class of people known to me [who] have realized the spirit of brotherhood among each other as have the fraternity of the Stage'. He argued not only for the moral function of the stage, but also for 'the chief function of the Stage' to be 'unquestionably that of amusement, which in its proper place is as true a necessity of life as food or medicine' as a counter to 'Degradation and Despair'.8

The Diary as evidence

The Diary of an Actress warns against, '[t]hose who only see the stage through the glamour of the footlights, who picture the inner life of an actress through the medium of sensational novels or newspaper paragraphs. . .' and 'have very little idea of the real difficulties' that women - and men - in mid-Victorian theatre encountered.9 This might serve as a warning to the present writer and reader. The volume of biographical and autobiographical material published about or by mid to late nineteenth and early twentieth century performers, whether in newspapers, journals or books, attests to the contemporary public's appetite for 'knowledge' of the private stories of actors' lives. These publications had burgeoned in the eighteenth century, and as Thomas Postlewait has argued, 'most significantly, the popular 'memoir' (either an autobiography or a biography) was soon not only a commonplace but a necessary adjunct to the role of theatre in society.'10 As theatre historians reading this material we are mindful of the need - 'though understandably fascinated by a good story, [to] question this evidence most carefully.'11 Ephemeral as the theatre is, our 'need to know', to verify, can make disproportionate demands on the records that exist, of which autobiographical writings, and in particular the diary, are especially suggestive ones. …