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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 355-357
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Wearing the Breeches:
Gender on the Antebellum Stage
Wearing the Breeches: Gender on the Antebellum Stage.By Elizabeth Reitz Mullenix. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000; pp. viii + 373. $45.00.
In Wearing the Breeches: Gender on the Antebellum Stage, Elizabeth Reitz Mullenix contributes to the ongoing work on the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century practice of breeches performance in several significant ways. Most notably, she provides [End Page 355] accounts of the earliest practitioners--women who appeared as male characters on the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century American stage--and she places the nineteenth-century stage convention of breeches performance on the "high-brow" "legitimate" stage in context with the practice of male impersonation by female performers in melodramas and in burlesque. Focusing on ways that "wearing the breeches" onstage may have been seen as emblematic of a threat to male privilege, Mullenix discusses critical responses to women who performed as male characters as, what she terms, "discourses of containment." Mullenix suggests that within these discourses breeches actresses were depicted variously as infantilized women performing as boys, sexual objects performing their "transparent" femininity, "androgynous" women, and "proto feminists."
After opening with an informative chapter cataloguing the early traditions of American breeches performance, Mullenix explores the possibility of connections between what she identifies as "protofeminist" motivations for women wearing breeches on stage and bloomers offstage. Some of the strongest new work in this volume is in the second chapter, in which Mullenix posits connections between women's involvement in early nineteenth-century women's movement activism in the United States, and the appearance and popularity of breeches performers in the antebellum theatre. Mullenix directs readers to consider the nineteenth-century movement for women's dress reform--particularly the social response to the "Bloomer dress"--as an offstage phenomena that existed alongside perceptions of breeches actresses onstage. At times, however, the wide net that Mullenix casts proves to be problematic as categories such as "breeches performance," "crossdressing," and "transvestitism" on- and offstage are repeatedly conflated. Similarly, when terms such as "male roles" and "masculine roles" are used interchangeably to refer to the portrayal of male characters (ignoring the possibility of masculine female characters), performances of gender are undifferentiated from those of biological sex, and this occasionally makes her claims confusing to follow.
In chapter three, "Mapping the Bo[d]y Female," Mullenix explores associations between depictions of femininity and immaturity in nineteenth-century critical reactions to women's portrayal of "boy" characters. Mullenix provides helpful plot synopses for a number of little-known antebellum melodramas that support her observations. The appearance of stock (and frequently mute) "boy" characters enacted by women is an interesting phenomenon, as is Mullenix's claim that "the male theatrical hegemony" "feminized" these characterizations. Ascribing a conscious intent to originating agents of the discursive formulation casting "the actress-as-boy," Mullenix speculates, "Perhaps the male theatrical hegemony hoped that by casting women as boys and by critically praising their exemplary ability to perform boyishness onstage, they would be able to mitigate mounting anxiety about female usurpation" (141). Given the potential for the eroticization of both adolescent male and female characters, it would be fruitful for Mullenix to further explore the conflation between images of sexualized "boyish" women and "feminized" boys as potential objects of erotic desire for both male and female spectators.
In chapters four and five Mullenix does a good job of synthesizing the extensive material that has been published about Charlotte Cushman and Adah Isaacs Mencken. In "Acting between the Spheres" (chapter four), Mullenix offers her reading of Cushman as an "androgyne," or a "double image" capable of being seen as both "male" and "female," or, in Mullenix's terms, as "ideologically hermaphroditical" (205). Most noteworthy in this chapter is the interpretation of "androgyny" that Mullenix reads in Cushman's portrayal of Rosalind/Ganymed [sic] in As You Like It. Given the wide range of current critical work on spectatorship and homoeroticism in the texts of theorists Mullenix cites, however, it is curious that Mullenix does not...