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Women on the Stage in Early Modern France, 1540-1750 by Virginia Scott (review)

From: Theatre History Studies
Volume 32, 2012
pp. 208-210 | 10.1353/ths.2012.0009

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This fascinating volume explores both the lives of actresses and some broader historical topics connected with their profession. The main focus is on questioning the disreputable social position of actresses, what constituted stardom, how women came to adopt their profession, what early modern audiences and critics considered good and bad acting, and how the talents of individual performers influenced playwrights. The discussion is limited to actresses in the leading Parisian troupes or in Italian troupes that performed in Paris during the early modern era.

Scott is determined to rehabilitate the leading actresses of the early modern French stage by treating them as serious and talented professionals. This resolution also extends to terms of address: she chooses to avoid the use of the definite article "la" preceding an actress's surname, traditionally a form of denigration. Scott provides a history of this usage, noting that several important critics protested against the practice and that members of the profession insisted on the more respectable "mademoiselle."

Perhaps the most remarkable chapter concerns the reliability of available anecdotal evidence for performers' biographies. Scott is rightfully critical of much previous scholarship for taking such stories at face value rather than questioning the identity and credibility of an author's sources, examining the author's motives, and seeking external confirmation. She examines a sampling of anecdotes from such standard sources as gossip collectors and police archives and shows that much of the material about actresses is dubious, and some of it is blatantly false.

The history of actresses is not limited to a review of the scanty extant documents. Scott speculates about what repertoire women might have played and how their presence in a troupe could have influenced the selection of plays or even the types of roles composed for them. For example, the frequency during the 1630s of plots where women dress as men, and in some cases engage competently in duels or warfare, suggests the presence of svelte and robust actresses. Her study of the lead female roles in three of Pierre Corneille's early comedies leads her to hypothesize that they were tailored to sophisticated actresses capable of rendering complex emotions and delicate nuances of expression.

Scott notes the profession of actresses' parents and spouses, showing that most had respectable middle-class backgrounds. Before 1700 the majority of French actresses, like most of their Italian counterparts, came from theatrical families and/or married actors, although that would change. Financial records suggest that many members of the Parisian troupes lived comfortably, while statements made by or about the actresses concerning their private lives indicate that most were exemplary wives and mothers, with only a minority taking lovers or otherwise involved in scandal. Starting in the 1630s, theorists and playwrights contested the assumption that actresses are immoral in their private lives.

Scott convincingly argues that theatrical stardom developed during the second half of the seventeenth century. Tracing the careers of several actresses who would qualify as stars by modern definitions and of several others who did not quite achieve that rank, she demonstrates that a combination of genuine professional talent and of notoriety in private life (whether or not the accusations of immorality were well founded) was required. In each case, Scott examines (or conjectures on) the roles they performed and in which they were deemed to have excelled, their looks, their versatility or areas of specialization, and their special aptitudes, plus their documented or alleged love affairs. In some cases, an actress's detractors may have simply confused the woman with the roles she played. Scott argues that Racine's coaching of Mlle Champmeslé for the lead roles in his later tragedies was primarily due to his wish to create a new style of tragic acting based on melodious declamation.

The grand merger of Parisian theatrical companies in 1680 led to the creation of a system of typecasting known as emplois. Scott gathers together what information is available about the expectations for each category, in both tragedy and comedy and for both male and female roles, while noting that some performers held contrasting specialties simultaneously or changed specialties over the course of a career. She attempts, relying both on historical dictionaries and on documents...

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