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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 361-363
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Introducing Charlotte Charke:
Actress, Author, Enigma
Voltaire and the Theatre of the Eighteenth Century
Introducing Charlotte Charke: Actress, Author, Enigma.Edited by Philip E. Baruth. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998; pp. viii + 250. $47.50 cloth, $19.95 paper.
Voltaire and the Theatre of the Eighteenth Century.By Marvin Carlson. Contributions in Drama and Theatre Studies, Number 84. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998; pp. xvii + 186.
Both of these biographies are welcome additions to eighteenth-century theatre studies. The volume on Charlotte Charke anthologizes eight articles to become the first book-length critical study of her autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke, Written by Herself. Marvin Carlson's study is not a critical text, but an easily readable introduction to Voltaire and the theatre of his time.
The youngest daughter of Colley Cibber, Charlotte Charke has been treated with "notable unfairness" since the mid-eighteenth century "due to discomfort with her cross-dressing" and as a result of her contemporaries siding with her father in the conflict between them (11). Charke was an early female autobiographer, playwright, and novelist, as well as an historian of rural England. A notorious cross-dresser in life as well as onstage, Charke lived with another woman as "Mr. and Mrs. Brown" for a decade. Struggling continually against legal, social, and gender boundaries, Charke worked at a series of male occupations, including groom, butler, sausage-maker, grocer, and puppeteer.
The volume begins with Baruth's useful introduction to Charke's life. After alienating herself from the managers of the two patent theatres, Charke was effectively exiled from London by the passage of the 1737 Licensing Act. She then alternated practicing male trades with playing roles on provincial stages. In her Narrative Charke gives the impression of strutting her tradesman's roles as though she were on a stage. She also gives a colorful picture of the poorer sort of provincial players who carried their few bits of mud-stained scenery and threadbare but gaudy costumes on their backs from town to town. She writes of "the hazards of the road, being thrown in jail as a vagabond, being robbed by managers, and hissed by illiterate audiences" (18). At the age of forty-two, Charke returned to London and published her misadventures in a series of articles aimed at gaining funds either by reconciling with her father or by selling ever more scandalous episodes. As Cibber snubbed his daughter, Charke's titillating episodes increased, resulting in her autobiography which sold two editions before the end of the first year. Baruth concludes his introduction with an overview of the existing critical writings on Charke, showing that there is considerable disagreement and work is still incomplete.
Most contributors to this volume agree that Charke's autobiography is as much performance art as were any of her stage roles. Like an experienced repertory actress, Charke described the roles she played in real life as one might those on a stage. In fact, Jean March sees Charke's cross-dressing as simply another performative act, rather than evidence of lesbianism. Sidonie Smith, describing Charke's Narrative in the most detail, sees Charke portraying herself in the two roles that would most intrigue an eighteenth-century audience: the sentimental penitent daughter and the defiant cross-dressing rogue. Kristina Straub suggests that the cross-dressing actress's appeal and marketability had as much to do with her ambiguous sexuality as [End Page 361] with her providing a body for the heterosexual male gaze. As actresses took over male roles, however, their cross-dressing became a threat to male dominance and increasingly motivated a homophobic response.
Charke constantly tried to negate her rebellion by representing it as foolishness, but Joseph Chaney shows that this attitude failed to redeem Charke's reputation because her gleeful desire to describe her cross-dressing episodes matched the original pleasure she found in disguising. Thus her Narrative is not so much an apology as a glorying in subversive experiences...