Female Singers and the Maladie Morale in Parisian Lyric Theaters, 1830-1850

By White, Kimberly | Women & Music, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

Female Singers and the Maladie Morale in Parisian Lyric Theaters, 1830-1850


White, Kimberly, Women & Music


In 1835 music critic Henri Blanchard wrote a provocative article titled "Les actrices mariees," published in the theater journal Le monde dramatique. The article opened with a mock conversation conveying the critic's concern with morality in Parisian theaters. Was he about to launch into a tirade on performers' libertine lifestyles and their detrimental effects on public morality? Not at all. Instead, Blanchard voiced concern over bourgeois morality, which infiltrated the theaters and led women artists to adopt a virtuous lifestyle. He linked what he perceived as a wilting of the dramatic arts to an increased number of married actresses:

"Do you know why dramatic art is disappearing? Why the beautiful flower of our civilization wilts on its stem in our brilliant capital of France?"

"My word, no."

"Because actresses are getting married."

"What a paradox! Then you are not in favor of this laudable, respectable, sacred bond? ... But what about morality?"

"Ha! It is very much a question of morality of these pretty women! Of women artists, exceptional in our social order! What, do you not see that these seductive fairies, these fascinating sylphs, with their enchanting [vocal] organs, naive grace, and voluptuous glances, who bring chaos to your mind and trouble in your heart, are depoetizing themselves at will? [...] I condemn this monomania for marriage, this scandalous neglect of the rights of the public, this maladie morale that takes away all of our pretty actresses and that saps, destroys all of our illusions." (1)

While perhaps tongue-in-cheek, Blanchard's comments underlined an issue that preoccupied a number of critics during the nineteenth century, that is, how theater women's difference from other women could be necessary to theater culture.

The prima donna has long been considered essentially distinct from other women, her ambiguous position in society uneasily tolerated. With hectic performing schedules, difficult working conditions, and various other exigencies of professional theater life, singers often had trouble conforming to dominant social norms. (2) Louis Gentil, Opera employee and author of the infamous Journal d'une habilleuse, claimed that all women wanting to make a career of singing must renounce the sweetness of private life: burdened by the necessity of making a lifetime's wages in a decade or so, female singers had no time for sickness, marriage--even friends. (3) Their existence on the fringes of acceptable feminine behavior--whether by choice or by necessity--has often led to discursive strategies in various media (novels, serial fiction, critical reviews, theatrical works) that represented professional theater women as incapable of fulfilling stereotypical feminine roles. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's vitriolic diatribes against actresses in his Lettre a d'Alembert (1758) made it clear that a woman who performed for others publicly--and, even worse, for money--could not possibly possess any of those qualities so essential to her sex. (4) As Rebecca Pope and Susan Leonardi put it, "What the diva can't be [...] is wife, good woman, true woman. Divahood kills womanhood." (5)

Bad wife, bad mother, bad woman. With the rise of bourgeois morality in postrevolutionary France, women of all classes were increasingly defined by their roles as wives and mothers. Throughout the nineteenth century, women artists faced many challenges in negotiating a space for their creative efforts in gendered public and private spheres. Nancy Reich has suggested that the increased emphasis on the home as the proper sphere of the woman must have caused considerable conflict for the professional woman musician who had to leave and earn a salary. (6) Certainly, female performers were increasingly subjected to the dictates of bourgeois morality and castigated for their failure to conform. And yet there remained an appreciation of their different role in the public sphere. …

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