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Rival Queens

Actresses, Performance, and the Eighteenth-Century British Theater

By Felicity Nussbaum

Publication Year: 2010

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 rivaled in importance the actor-managers who have long dominated eighteenth-century theater history and criticism. Felicity Nussbaum combines an emphasis on the celebrated 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.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. vii

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Introduction: At Stage's Edge

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pp. 1-30

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), ...

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Chapter 1. The Economics of Celebrity

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pp. 31-60

The London theater stood at the center of urban life in Restoration and eighteenth-century England. Women were vital participants in its success as actresses, playwrights, patrons, orange girls and pawnbrokers, costume makers and vendors. Star players such as Elizabeth Barry, the subject of Otway’s poetic lines, linked public fame to audience affection through the magnetic theatrical ...

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Chapter 2. "Real, Beautiful Women": Rival Queens

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pp. 61-91

The eighteenth-century London stage was haunted by the performance of older plays recycled from earlier periods, many of which centered on pairs of historical or classical female characters. The new phenomenon of actresses—real, beautiful women—catapulted the antiquated roles into an eighteenth-century present. “Before the Restoration,” wrote theater manager, ...

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Chapter 3. Actresses' Memoirs: Exceptional Virtue

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pp. 92-121

In Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740), the Cinderella story of a servant girl’s stubborn resistance and eventual marriage to her seductive master, the heroine’s virtue is largely synonymous with her chastity. In the novel Pamela protests that she would willingly embrace “Rags and Poverty” rather than forfeit her virginity.1 When Mr B ultimately succumbs to her irresistible charms ...

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Chapter 4. Actresses and Patrons: Theatrical Contract

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pp. 122-150

In Sir Richard Steele’s short-lived periodical The Theatre, his depiction of a broad-based audience engaged in the critical assessment of drama adds new dimension to our understanding of audience-actor relations. In the first issue, Sophronia, a sophisticated lady of high quality, attends the theater with a belle assemblée of three female friends who share her passion for drama.1 In a ...

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Chapter 5. The Actress and Performative Property: Catherine Clive

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pp. 151-188

As new forms of patronage developed alongside the increasingly commercial theater in the eighteenth century, the spirited Catherine Raftor Clive (1711–85) took full advantage of the situation to rival her manager as well as other actors and playwrights, and she deserves to be treated as their talented equal. Born to an Irish father and an English mother in 1711, Clive debuted on the stage a ...

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Chapter 6. The Actress, Travesty, and Nation: Margaret Woffington

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pp. 189-225

John Rich reportedly found the actress Margaret Woffington (1720?–60) to be an impossibly beautiful woman. When the young Irish girl arrived in London in 1740 after taking Dublin by storm, she allegedly pestered Rich until he granted her a personal audience. The legendary scene of the dissolute Rich encountering the lovely wisp of a woman has been memorably captured ...

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Chapter 7. The Actress and Material Femininity: Frances Abington

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pp. 226-264

Frances Abington, née Barton (1737–1815), was, according to Horace Walpole, equal to the first of her profession. “I do impartial justice to your merit,” he exuberantly remarks, “and fairly allow it not only equal to that of any actress I have seen, but believe the present age will not be in the wrong, if they hereafter prefer it to those they may live to see.”1 Abington debuted as a ...

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Epilogue: Contracted Virtue

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pp. 265-284

Near century’s end a canon of plays emerged with the publication of the twenty-one- volume Bell’s British Theatre (1776–81) and later the twenty- five- volume edition of The British Theatre (1808) accompanied by Elizabeth Inchbald’s remarkable critical prefaces.1 Each volume in the first edition of Bell’s British Theatre consisted of five comedies or five tragedies, the volumes ...


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pp. 285-338


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pp. 339-364


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pp. 365-380

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pp. 381-383

In the course of writing this book I have recognized anew the extraordinary generosity of the scholarly community, and the debts incurred over the past several years as Rival Queens moved toward completion are indeed profound. For reading various parts of the manuscript, I am most grateful to Joseph Roach and to Lisa Freeman, each of whom generously shared their helpful, ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812206890
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812242331

Page Count: 376
Publication Year: 2010