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9 - Women and the theatre

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 October 2009

Joanne Shattock
Affiliation:
University of Leicester
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Summary

The theatre of the nineteenth century offered women irresistible opportunities for independence, action, agency, fame and money. Yet participation in the theatre also threatened loss of position and reputation, exhaustion, frustration, exploitation and poverty. The theatre as a profession (for middle-class women particularly) challenged the ideals of self-effacement and control of women's ‘natural’ voracious desires which Mary Poovey argues are at the heart of the idea of the ‘proper lady’. However, as Kerry Powell argues in the case of actresses, the theatre also offered women the opportunity to ‘speak compellingly’. In spite of the difficulties of negotiating this tricky territory, women moved into the theatre in large numbers throughout the nineteenth century, and their participation in the theatre industry constitutes one of the more visible instances of women's increasing autonomy and self-definition through work in the period. Women's participation in the theatre was all the more important as the theatre was, in effect, a mass medium of the nineteenth century. But the theatre in the nineteenth century was not simply an entertainment industry: it was an important part of the discursive construction of English (and I use this term deliberately) national culture. If we adopt Benedict Anderson's concept of the nation as an ‘imagined community’, then the theatre was a vital part of that imagining, and women in the theatre were defining and participating in one of the more significant constructions of ‘cultural nationhood’ in the period.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2001

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