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  • Daughters of Eve: A Cultural History of French Theatre Women from the Old Regime to the Fin-de-Siècle
  • MJ Thompson (bio)
Daughters of Eve: A Cultural History of French Theatre Women from the Old Regime to the Fin-de-Siècle. By Lenard R. Berlanstein. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2001; 300 pp.; illustrations. $45.00 cloth.

The American poet Muriel Rukeyser once asked: "What would happen if one women told the truth about herself ? / The world would split open" (1968:103). Her words were with me as I read Lenard R. Berlanstein's Daughters of Eve: A Cultural History of French Theatre Women from the Old Regime to the Fin-de-Siècle. The anarchistic power of women to rewrite the world with the real stories of their lives is precisely what's at stake in considering women onstage: already a spectacle by the circumstance of gender, caught perennially in an act that is scripted by social and cultural patterns, a woman's life remains inherently bound by the theatrical. With implications of this order so close at hand, how is it that this study remains vexingly disengaged?

In part, it's that Berlanstein just doesn't go there. Instead, he tracks French theatre women through various printed matter, primarily produced by men: popular journalism, novels and plays, theatrical publications and dictionaries, letters and memoirs, and assorted official documents. We followthe adventures of female performers from 1715 to 1915; from Dumas's Coecilia to Zola's Nana; from Mademoiselle Clairon in the 18th century to Sarah Bernhardt in the 20th; from the Parisian police, who kept record of performers and their official lovers in a bid to monitor vice, to the cultural journalists of the day, as excited by female bodies as by the mise-en-scène.

Berlanstein's account is fascinating and meticulously footnoted. Yet the pageantry of anecdote is at times a burden—one wants more argument—and at [End Page 182] times voyeuristic, a curious mirroring of the experience of women onstage. He writes aptly that, "This study is much more about the loves and lusts of French men for female players than about the quotidian practices of theatrical life" (1). What makes women "exceptional," for the purposes of Daughters as within an historical context, is less their industry and invention than their eroticization by an external eye, whether viewed sympathetically or vilified. The author discovers ultimately that the fluctuating response to female performers in France had little to do with "actual conduct." But it is women's conduct, and perspective, that remains so elusive in this work.

Berlanstein begins by painting commerce, fame, and mass culture as the backdrop against which female performers gained access to an "elite libertine sociability" in place in France by the 18th century. The first half of the book refutes scholarship that has associated fear of "exceptional" women with the concept of privilege as a means of social organization that emerged after the Revolution. He finds that fear of women dissipates after 1789, in part because of a restored confidence in male authority.

The second half of the book examines the Second Empire (1852-1870) and a portion of the Third Republic (1870-1914). In the former, Berlanstein finds renewed fear of "immoral" women. In the latter, he sees greater acceptance of women as the fame associated with the stage expanded, in part due to international touring, and the combined forces of consumer taste and celebrity fore-grounded female performers within the public sphere. The shift in mood came in relation to the "political myths about the adequacies or inadequacies of men to exercise reason" (241).

The penultimate chapter, entitled "Performing a Self," is the first to work with women's memoirs and letters directly, yet it comes late and glosses a performance studies approach. Berlanstein finds that, "As the public came to regard actresses as courtesans who had little professional commitment, some stage women started to adopt a persona—to 'perform a self '—centered exclusively on achieving artistic distinction" (190). But, surely, all female actors on the French stage were consciously crafting new identities for themselves. Done well, these performances could and did...