Actresses as Working Women: Their Social Identity in Victorian Culture

Actresses as Working Women: Their Social Identity in Victorian Culture

Actresses as Working Women: Their Social Identity in Victorian Culture

Actresses as Working Women: Their Social Identity in Victorian Culture

Synopsis

Using historical evidence as well as personal accounts, Tracy C. Davis examines the reality of conditions for 'ordinary' actresses, their working environments, employment patterns and the reasons why acting continued to be such a popular, though insecure, profession. Firmly grounded in Marxist and feminist theory she looks at representations of women on stage, and the meanings associated with and generated by them.

Excerpt

This book was initially conceived as a social history of women’s employment in the Victorian theatre. From that over-ambitious beginning, the project grew yet bigger. No single approach proved sufficient to tackle a question relating women’s work on stage to their social existence off stage. Extensive reading in the history of women, social welfare, labour agitation, feminist politics, fine art, theatrical production, popular culture, economics, and Victorian lives strengthened the conviction that the topic is multifaceted and that conventional subject boundaries are meaningless. In order to be faithful to my findings it became clear that the complicated social existence of actresses could only be explained pluralistically, and narrative models of historical explanation were abandoned. The result is a book that poses a central question—why were actresses so equivocal in Victorian society? —five times, bringing to theatre studies five ‘foreign’ methodological approaches and five distinct disciplinary traditions. Only by this stratagem could a meaningful answer be approached.

While this study is concerned with women who (because they were autonomous professionals) were exceptions to their sex, it also considers factors common to all women who were self-supporting or who contributed to a family wage while bearing and raising children within or outside of marriage. I do not see how actresses’ professional and personal lives can be separated; they are integrated components, and must be recognized as such in the writing of history. Only then can women be accurately assessed as artistic producers and social entities.

Employment in the Victorian theatre was ruled by distinct class and gender divisions. Community standards did not operate uniformly on all the groups: neither men and women nor the

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