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Book Review, Current Issue, Vol. 32 No. 1

Staging Family: Domestic Deceptions of Mid-Nineteenth Century American Actresses

Staging Family: Domestic Deceptions of Mid-Nineteenth Century American Actresses. Nan Mullenneaux. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018; Pp. 400.

In Staging Family: Domestic Deceptions of Mid-Nineteenth Century American Actresses, Nan Mullenneaux looks at significant figures of American theatre in a new way. From actresses active on the US stage in the mid-nineteenth century, she has selected those whose words remain in published memoirs, press interviews, or private correspondence. A comparison of their extant writings to the known facts of their lives reveals numerous deceptions, both large and small, by the actress-authors. What were they trying to hide? Mullenneaux organizes her interdisciplinary study around themes that emerge in the writings including motherhood, beginning a career, theatre work, family, moral refinement, marriage, mobility, and patriotism. Although each women’s experience is idiosyncratic, their tales coalesce into a fascinating picture of one cohort’s experience of, and reaction to, being a working woman of the American stage between 1830 and 1870.

Virtually every aspect of these actresses’ lives put them at odds with nineteenth-century ideals, as the book argues. They worked, conducting business and exercising agency, while an “ideal” woman was dependent and docile. They continually traveled when it was generally accepted that a woman’s proper sphere was the home, and they sought acclaim when motherhood was considered a woman’s highest calling. In other words, their careers and life choices “threatened … the prescriptive gender roles” of the day (292). What Mullenneaux exposes in these proto-feminists is an unwillingness to claim their heterodox identities. Instead, in writings that adopt a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do approach, the actress-authors strove to disguise themselves as non-ambitious, patriotic homebodies.

According to their self-reports, as Mullenneaux notes, none of these actresses entered the theatre ambitious for fame. Of course not. Only an urgent calling to rescue destitute fathers (or other kin) forced these dutiful women from the warmth of the hearth to the glow of the footlights. As we read multiple versions of this tale — from Fanny Kemble, Anna Cora Mowatt, Charlotte Cushman, Olive Logan, Mrs. Charles Calvert, Clara Morris, Kitty Blanchard, and others — the constructed nature of the actress persona becomes self-evident. Mullenneaux contrasts this assemblage of female testimony with that of contemporaneous male actors who readily claimed talent and ambition as their motivation. Mullenneaux seals her argument by introducing contradictory facts from the biographies of her female subjects.

A particularly compelling instance is the collision between Laura Keene’s personal life and the nine-year legal battle she waged over intellectual property rights to Our American Cousin. Mullenneaux argues that Keene ultimately withdrew the suit for fear that testimony would “unmask her domestic deception” (290). Never having divorced her first husband, Keene had presented their children as orphaned nieces while covertly cohabitating with her business manager. Mullenneaux’s insightful analysis of the barely-averted scandal illuminates a larger history. While the pre-copyright entertainment industry was being modernized by the long-running single-play format, legal restrictions still prevented a woman, even a savvy business manager, from testifying in court.

In addition to presenting themselves as ideal mothers and wives, this nineteenth-century cohort needed to appear all-American. Hence, they masked their origins and international travels with an aggressive patriotism that fit the age of nation-building and celebrated refined whiteness. Olive Logan supported the “looming genocide against the Native Americans” (158); Fanny Kemble described the black population of New York as “beyond description, grotesques” (156); and in Egypt, Rose Eytinge contrasted the subjugation of women in that “heathen territory” with the American woman “born and reared in freedom,” blithely glossing over millions of enslaved women in the US (156-7). Mullenneaux allows that “conformity to white supremacist views” may have been sincere, but might also have enacted a strategy for social acceptance (156-8). The book briefly discusses the African Grove actresses and some touring singers, highlighting that few non-white women had opportunities for acting careers in this era; Mullenneaux notes that no members of her cohort evidenced concern over this racial exclusion.

By the mid-nineteenth century, actresses were often using photography for publicity and Mullenneaux’s astute analysis of their poses and costuming (and the commonalities among them) enhances the book. Another useful asset is an appendix with short biographies of sixty-five actresses mentioned in the text.

The author’s choices of actresses give her work both focus and limitations. The women discussed do not represent a cross-section in any scientific sense, but rather the availability of documentation. Thus, the more verbose ladies-in-print, notably Clara Morris, Rose Eytinge and Olive Logan, dominate the conversation. We cannot guess how representative they were, but Mullenneaux is resourceful in seeking evidence and expands her cohort when she can. Furthermore, while she notes the difference between a memoir published at career’s launch and one written after decades in the public eye, she doesn’t adequately factor their differences into her analysis. The plays written by these actresses are also missed opportunities for additional insights. A closer focus on the women’s’ chronological relation to one another would be useful, and the book index should include entries for patriotism, photography, slavery, and each actress discussed.

However, the book’s critical strategy is also its major strength. By examining the actresses’ own verbal and visual choices, Mullenneaux restores to them a degree of the agency they sought to obscure. Their biographies attest to their talent and courage; the accumulated evidence of their deceptions convincingly reveals the absolute and unforgiving nature of the gender-based strictures under which they labored. Each woman seems to have independently reached the same conclusion: violating the code would end career and livelihood. How they maneuvered is appropriate reading for an age when working women still face a constellation of questions about when, where, and if to compromise in order to persevere.

Staging Family’s dense, panoramic depiction of the era is a treat for theatre historians and nineteenth-century scholars. The focal actresses are situated within the web of familial and professional interconnections that constituted the period’s theatre industry. Over the course of this book, we repeatedly cross paths with individuals as they might have crossed paths with each other. Ultimately, Mullenneaux paints a latitudinal picture, thoroughly contextualized and packed with detail.

Shauna Vey
New York City College of Technology
City University of New York

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 32, Number 1 (Fall 2019)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2019 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

 

 

 

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