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  • "Like a Spoiled Actress off the Stage"Anti-Theatricality, Nature, and the Novel
  • Teresa Michals (bio)

Early-modern anti-theatrical pamphleteers claimed that the theatre turns men into women. Eighteenth-century anti-theatrical novelists claim that the theatre turns women into actresses—those in the fashionable boxes as well as those on the stage. That is, while early-modern anti-theatricality often focuses on anxieties about the patriarchal man, the anti-theatricality of eighteenth-century novels more often focuses on anxieties about the domestic woman. Moreover, I will argue that eighteenth-century novelists mobilize this anti-theatrical rhetoric not only to promote the domestic feminine ideal, but also to promote the domestic novel as a genre. This changed rhetoric is made possible by the widespread (although not total) replacement of boys with women in the Restoration theatre onwards. More broadly, it reflects changes in both the nature of political authority and the political authority of Nature.

The anti-theatrical rhetoric of the early-modern period has been central to Renaissance New Historicist criticism since the 1980s. More recently, the anti-theatrical rhetoric of the eighteenth century has received sustained and productive attention from critics of drama such as Susan Staves, while Gillian Russell has placed such rhetoric in the wider context of "fashionable sociability," a concept that links "institutions such as Drury Lane and the theatricality of the fine lady and the fashionable world in [End Page 191] general."1 Margaret Doody and Emily Allen have helped to open up anti-theatricality in the eighteenth-century novel as a subject of critical inquiry. This essay pursues this connection between anti-theatricality and the novel, a connection that seems especially rich because it links characteristically early modern and eighteenth-century genres to historically changing ideas of gender. In particular, anti-theatricality in the novel foregrounds the eighteenth century's increasing association of the private and the authentic: both the domestic novel and the domestic woman scorn the public stage. Written across half a century, three novels persistently explore the relationship of gender to theatricality, and the generic relationship of the novel itself to the theatre: Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1742), Frances Burney's Evelina (1778), and Maria Edgeworth's Belinda (1801). All three works foreground the dubious status of the novel as a genre, and all three try to strengthen the novel's claim to social and critical respectability by distancing themselves and their eponymous heroines from theatricality. In terms of both gender and genre, all three equate the private with the authentic, furthering the popular connection between the domestic woman and the domestic novel.

Although all three of these novels are anti-theatrical, they each have a different relation to theatres, outside of their pages as well as within them. Pamela was adapted for the stage multiple times. I will look closely at Pamela. A Comedy., a theatrical adaptation from 1741. By casting a cross-dressed man as Mrs. Jewkes, Pamela. A Comedy presents the un-domestic woman as a female impersonator, a farcical stage dame. This idea remains important in Evelina, which translates stage conventions to the pages of the novel.2 The outrageously theatrical Madame Duvall is in effect another stage dame: although she is Evelina's biological grandmother, she dresses, speaks, and moves like a male comic actor in drag.3 Like Mrs. Jewkes, she was also played by a man, although in a private domestic setting rather than on a public stage. A letter from Susanna Burney to her sister Frances enthusiastically describes Samuel Crisp "personifying" Madame Duvall: "Monday Night after Supper we were all made very merry by Mr. Crisp's suffering his wig to be turn'd the hind part before, & my Cap put over it—Hetty's Cloak—& Mrs. Gast's Apron & Ruffles—in this ridiculous trim he danced a Minuet wth Hetty, personifying Made Duval … the Maids were call'd in."4

Belinda offers a contrast both to these two novels and to earlier anti-theatrical rhetoric. Like Mrs. Jewkes and Madame Duvall, Lady Delacour is vilified because she is theatrical rather than domestic, a public presence in London rather than a private blessing in the home—but she is no stage...


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