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13 - ‘Studies in hysteria’: actress and courtesan, Sarah Bernhardt and Mrs Patrick Campbell

from Part III - Genre, form and tradition

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 November 2008

John Stokes
Affiliation:
King's College London
Maggie B. Gale
Affiliation:
University of Manchester
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Summary

In the second half of the nineteenth century, new spectacles of feminine suffering began to appear on the fashionable French and English stages as audiences were mesmerised by the figure of the fallen woman and the actresses who played her. The French actress who took the role of courtesan, or the English actress who played a disgraced wife or prostitute, risked the stigma of their own profession and that of the fallen woman. 'For a large section of society,' writes Tracy C. Davis on the employment of actresses in the nineteenth century, 'the similarities between the actress's life and the prostitute's or demi-mondaine's were unforgettable and overruled all other evidence about respectability. She was “no better than she should be”.' Juxtaposed with the risk to the actress of being seen as 'no better than she should be' was the 'redemption' of star actress through her celebrity status. It is a condition of celebrity-making that a star's aura, her charisma, can overcome these kinds of tensions and conflicts. This goes some way to explaining why, for example, Ellen Terry was fête 'an icon of Victorian femininity' despite being a mother of two illegitimate children. The two actresses focused on in this chapter, Sarah Bernhardt and Mrs Patrick Campbell, both had illegitimate children, numerous affairs and failed marriages, but both achieved international stardom, and in Bernhardt's case especially, cult status.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2007

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