Rival Queens: Actresses, Performance, and the Eighteenth-Century British Theater

Rival Queens: Actresses, Performance, and the Eighteenth-Century British Theater

Rival Queens: Actresses, Performance, and the Eighteenth-Century British Theater

Rival Queens: Actresses, Performance, and the Eighteenth-Century British Theater


In eighteenth-century England, actresses were frequently dismissed as mere prostitutes trading on their sexual power rather than their talents. Yet they were, Felicity Nussbaum argues, central to the success of a newly commercial theater. Urban, recently moneyed, and thoroughly engaged with their audiences, celebrated actresses were among the first women to achieve social mobility, cultural authority, and financial independence. In fact, Nussbaum contends, the eighteenth century might well be called the "age of the actress" in the British theater, given women's influence on the dramatic repertory and, through it, on the definition of femininity.

Treating individual star actresses who helped spark a cult of celebrity--especially Anne Oldfield, Susannah Cibber, Catherine Clive, Margaret Woffington, Frances Abington, and George Anne Bellamy-- Rival Queens reveals the way these women animated issues of national identity, property, patronage, and fashion in the context of their dramatic performances. Actresses intentionally heightened their commercial appeal by catapulting the rivalries among themselves to center stage. They also boldly challenged in importance the actor-managers who have long dominated eighteenth-century theater history and criticism. Felicity Nussbaum combines an emphasis on the actresses themselves with close analysis of their diverse roles in works by major playwrights, including George Farquhar, Nicholas Rowe, Colley Cibber, Arthur Murphy, David Garrick, Isaac Bickerstaff, and Richard Sheridan. Hers is a comprehensive and original argument about the importance of actresses as the first modern subjects, actively shaping their public identities to make themselves into celebrated properties.


[Garrick’s] jealousy and envy were unbounded; he hated Mrs Clive
till she quitted the stage, and then cried her up to the skies to de
press Mrs Abingdon. He did not love Mrs Pritchard, and with more
reason, for there was more spirit and originality in her Beatrice than
in his Benedict.
    —Correspondence from Horace Walpole to Lady Ossory, 1
February 1779

Mrs. Pritchard was Garrick’s rival in every scene [of Much Ado About
]; which of them deserved the laurel most was never decided.
    —Arthur Murphy, Life of Garrick (1801)

In the heyday of David Garrick’s management of Drury-Lane Theatre (1747–76), numerically coded charts provided playgoers with comparative ratings of their favorite performers. the arithmetical scale offers a fascinating glimpse into the qualities that eighteenth-century theater audiences valued most highly in the actors of both sexes. A Critical Balance of the Performers at Drury-Lane Theatre (1765), a broadsheet costing a shilling, printed a table quantifying each actor’s figure, grace, spirit and ease, sensibility, taste, dignity, manners, expression, pantomime, low and genteel humor, elocution, voice, dress, and “noise” (Figure 1). No actor is assigned a total score, and the anonymous reviewer, leaving the tables blank in a few categories, apportions the numbers somewhat erratically. the actor Mr. Clough, for example, is granted 16 points for pantomime but allotted no points in any other category. Similarly, a solid 20 points damns Mrs. Bennet, who earns no other grades, for “noise.” Mrs. Palmer, whose role as Statira in Nathaniel Lee’s The Rival Queens is specifically mentioned, is awarded 8 points each for figure and dress. Most . . .

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