- Acting Naturally: Bronte, Lewes, and the Problem of Gender Performance
During the summer of 1851, Charlotte Brontë visited London and saw Rachel Felix, the famous French actress, perform in several plays. “Thackeray’s lectures and Rachel’s acting,” she wrote to Elizabeth Gaskell, “are the two things in this great Babylon which have stirred and interested me most — simply because in them I found most of what was genuine whether for good or evil....” 1 Brontë’s adjective, “genuine,” affiliates her assessment of Rachel with a mid-century theatrical discourse that increasingly represented the stage and the most favored acting styles as “natural.” Although it turns up in many texts and contexts, George Henry Lewes, in his role as drama critic, articulated principles of “natural acting” that influentially framed the discourse for both its onstage and offstage versions. 2 When he too saw Rachel on stage in 1851, Lewes, echoing Brontë, accordingly pronounced the actress “exquisitely natural” and set her up as a positive exemplar for what he perceived to be a theater in decline. 3
Brontë’s and Lewes’s assessments register a paradoxical cultural impulse that led them both to specify a controversial actress as the embodiment of naturalness. Recent studies of theatricality have underscored its potential to upset traditional gender categories; in particular, such studies have recognized women’s capacities to elude naturalized sexual and gender roles in the theatre and to construct their own identities on stage. 4 While these studies have influenced my arguments, I also suggest that the structure of mid-Victorian theatricality accommodated an essentialist version of gendered identity. In the context of the 1850s, moreover, a careful assessment of some such conceptions of identity must modify what we usually see as the restrictive tendencies of essentialism. Jonathan Dollimore has recently argued for the transgressive potential of certain appropriations of dominant ideologies, even essentialist ones, at specific [End Page 409] historical moments. 5 My readings of Lewes and Brontë support Dollimore’s point: while they both viewed Rachel as essentially “natural,” they surveyed her from markedly different gendered positions within Victorian culture. Their affiliated constructions of theatricality thus instantiate nature in the service of divergent cultural goals.
The discourse of natural acting exhibits the prominent features of a high culture conception of Victorian theatricality. This conception distinguished “genuine” or “natural” essence from a material and artificial medium of performance, a distinction that speaks to our current theoretical debates about identity. In postmodern critiques of the coherent humanist subject, theatricality often functions to disrupt conceptions of an originary self and essential identity that ostensibly exist apart from the discourses and practices of specific cultures. Delineating this disruptive theatricality is a project integral to many feminist dismantlings of monolithic, ahistorical conceptions of “the Feminine.” These welcome efforts at cultural concreteness, however, cannot fully explain the Victorians’ yoking of theatricality and gender, for their theatricality prefigured but was not a prototype of the postmodern version. Unlike postmodernists, many Victorians believed in a theatricality that sometimes revealed and sometimes obscured a timeless, innate self; in this view, an authentic core identity is separated from an external, performing, artificial self. 6 If the portents of postmodern disintegration lurk in the fissures of this divided self, the binary construction nonetheless permitted the Victorians to privilege the “authentic core” in an effort to maintain what they saw as the integrity of a coherent identity.
As Lewes’s assessment of Rachel suggests, adherents of natural acting aimed to save the stage from what many mid-century observers saw as the excesses of its own artifice, what playgoer Henry Morley called its “flashy stage-effects.” 7 Natural actors avoided such excesses by acknowledging and exploiting the divide between essence and performance. In his 1859 biography of Charles Kean, for example, John William Cole uses the term “natural acting” to describe a joint performance of Charles and his father Edmund Kean. When the spectators responded to the “last pathetic interview” with “prolonged peals of approbation,” the biographer approvingly reports that Edmund whispered to his son, “‘Charley, we are doing the trick.’” Quoting Talma to gloss the anecdote, Cole explains that to turn the “trick” of acting, the player must...