Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

An "Unmanly and Insidious Attack": Child Actress Jean Davenport and the Performance of Masculinity in 1840s Jamaica and Newfoundland

Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

An "Unmanly and Insidious Attack": Child Actress Jean Davenport and the Performance of Masculinity in 1840s Jamaica and Newfoundland

Article excerpt

On July 30, 1841, readers of the Newfoundland Ledger learned that Miss Jean Margaret Davenport, the "First Juvenile Actress of the Day," would be making a brief visit to St. John's before returning home to England. The announcement, likely written by Davenport's manager/father Thomas, took pains to remind readers of the actress's many international successes:

Miss Davenport is so well known as to almost render it unnecessary to state that she was presented with the late Mr. Kean's Hat, after her performance of Richard III, in London--with a splendid Gold Watch and Chain by the citizens of New York--and that lately when on a rapid tour to the West Indies her receipts clear of expenditure's mounted to the unusual sum of One Thousand Dollars per night!!! ("Under the Patronage of His Honour")

The subtext was clear: the forthcoming arrival of the "juvenile actress" would transform Newfoundland from a lonely island colony into a privileged member of an imagined community bound by imperial and affective ties. Through an explicit reference to the recently deceased Romantic actor Edmund Kean and an implicit promise that Davenport's presence would unite the people of St. John's with audiences in London, New York, and the West Indies, the announcement appealed to colonial desires for cultural achievement and cosmopolitan affiliation.

This essay examines how and in what way the movement of child performers along global theatrical circuits in the mid-nineteenth century served British imperial interests and aroused debate about colonial identity. In recent years literary and cultural historians have examined how British children were trained to behave and view themselves as imperial subjects during the Victorian era (Norica; Goodwin; Robb; Morrison). Yet while there has been a surge of scholarship on child performers in the last decade (Bernstein; J. Davis; Gubar; Varty), few studies have examined the extent to which the lengthy world tours undertaken by the most celebrated "Infant Phenomena" affirmed British cultural values and supported colonial hierarchies. (2) Following the lead of International Relations scholar Alison M.S. Watson, I argue that looking at children as "a site of knowledge" and instruments of culture may offer new insights into the workings of empire (239). As advances in steamship travel and the expansion of intercontinental railways made it economically feasible for British performers to undertake extensive tours of the colonies, cute, talented, and emotionally-engaging children like Jean Davenport became ambassadors of British culture, affective laborers who encouraged colonial audiences to see themselves as part of the Empire's "imagined community" (Anderson). (3)

For the most part, Jean Davenport benefited from her role in the performance and promotion of British hegemony; audiences in North America and the Caribbean were eager to see the child prodigy take on challenging roles from a theatrical repertoire increasingly marked as "English" (Klett 23). Critics praised her convincing portrayals of comic and tragic roles ranging from Juliet to Richard III and frequently drew comparisons to the celebrated Edmund Kean. But not all colonial subjects were receptive to the instrumentalization of small children for imperial objectives. Some outright refused to be coerced by the loudly proclaimed charms of "astonishing" children and accused their promoters of trying to dupe colonial audiences with clever words and other forms of puffery.

To explore these tensions, I look at two politically charged controversies that erupted in response to Jean Davenport: the first in the island colony of Jamaica in September 1840, the second in the island colony of Newfoundland in August 1841. In both locations, colonial theatres and newspapers became the staging ground for heated debates about the actress's proclaimed virtuosity, notably her portrayal of male characters and her supposed resemblance to Edmund Kean. …

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