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  • Transatlantic Stage Stars in Vaudeville and Variety: Celebrity Turns
  • Meredith Conti
Transatlantic Stage Stars in Vaudeville and Variety: Celebrity Turns. By Leigh Woods. Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006; pp. ix + 307. $69.95 cloth.

Given the sheer number of vibrant, bizarre, and at times subversive characters who paraded in front of the footlights of vaudeville and variety, it is unsurprising that the engagements of (comparatively) tame stage stars during the entertainment's halcyon days have been relegated to supporting roles in recent scholarship. In Transatlantic Stage Stars in [End Page 326] Vaudeville and Variety: Celebrity Turns, Leigh Woods restores these fêted actors to their former places of prominence, examining both the stars' motivations for entering vaudeville/variety and "the actions they took while there" (3). For Woods, unifying several decades of celebrity turns are the "acts of suffering" performed by stage stars, either through tragic repertoires or displays of exertive virtuosity, and featured in characteristically lighthearted bills. Delving gleefully into a hitherto marginalized subtopic of vaudeville/variety, Woods offers an engaging and consummately researched history of celebrity turns with only minor structural complications to cloud its success.

As fin-de-siècle British music-hall producers be grudgingly (and perhaps only superficially) yielded to escalating demands for wholesome entertainment in respectable settings, variety producers endeavored to keep their establishments out of the line of fire by hiring theatre actors to legitimate their bills. In "Patronizing, 1890–1901," Woods tracks the intermittent appearances of three British stage actors paradoxically indignant at and beholden to variety (and, in the case of Maurice Barrymore, American vaudeville) for resuscitating their sluggish careers and attenuated bank accounts. Responding to heightened imperialist sentiments, Amy Roselle and Mrs. Maud Tree utilized stirring patriotic recitations and one-acts to express jingoistic solidarity with British audiences. Across the pond, the senescent Maurice Barrymore's distinctly British "turns" were consumed by Americans banking on "a new kind of empire, conceived in commerce and dedicated to the proposition that all markets are created equal" (31). Despite American audiences' increasing egalitarianism, Barrymore's Englishness was nevertheless revered as a mark of sociocultural superiority.

The trickle of British actors into American vaudeville swelled into a transatlantic stream during the early twentieth century, and Woods devotes his second chapter to the variously motivated and implemented vaudeville engagements of British stars Jessie Millward, Charles Hawtrey, Lillie Langtry, and Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Partly attributable to what Woods labels "Americans' sense of cultural deficiency" (3), US producers wooed foreign performers with promises of exorbitant salaries, abbreviated workdays, and audiences of eager Anglophiles. The actors' onstage métiers proved to be far more diverse than their collective nationality: Millward preferred roles of the melodramatic ilk; Hawtrey excelled in sentiment-steeped comedies; Langtry's aloof portrayals of "soiled doves" failed to supersede her deliciously scandalous private life (58); and Campbell ignited "emotional pyrotechnics" with unstable heroines (71). Despite the sensationalism unmistakably at play in their acts of suffering, these imported stars were safeguarded by their Britishness from accusations of immorality or vulgarity. The variety/vaudeville "sufferings" of French paragon Sarah Bernhardt supply much of the substance of Woods's third chapter, an investigation into the lucrative turns given by the most illustrious stage stars. Such actors, through their displays of exceptional misery, captivated diverse audiences and "showed how deeply sacrifice was inscribed in the two leading English-speaking, heavily Christian, evermore distinct imperial powers" (3). Even the French-speaking Bernhardt got into the act, aligning England with her native France in turns taken from La Dame aux camélias and Le Procès de Jeanne d'Arc and positioning the two against their common enemy, "the German juggernaut" (87).

In the book's most cogent and satisfying chapters, "Suffer the Women, 1910–1914" and "War and Peace, 1914–1918," Woods isolates the activist tendencies of transplanted stage stars who, secure in the relative freedom of the variety format, endorsed women's suffrage, the war, or, in rare cases, peace, through carefully selected turns. As several members of the newly formed Actresses' Franchise League (AFL) exploited their minor-league influence within overlapping commercial and political spheres, other famous Brits crossed...


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pp. 326-328
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