- Rival Queens: Actresses, Performance, and the Eighteenth-Century British Theater
In eighteenth-century feminist studies, Felicity Nussbaum's new book Rival Queens, an analysis of the social, economic, historical, and cultural significance of women on the eighteenth-century London stage, is a potential game-changer. In the "usual" historiographical trajectory, the Restoration and early eighteenth century represent a brief period of liberation for eighteenth-century Englishwomen, after which they were increasingly enclosed in a domestic trap, a trap aided and abetted [End Page 423] by the rise of the novel. This view is exemplified by Nancy Armstrong's Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (1987), which argues that the eighteenth-century British woman, epitomized by Samuel Richardson's fictional character Pamela, not only became increasingly domesticated but in her move to embrace her own domestication also came to represent the modern individual.
To this view Nussbaum directly opposes her portrait of eighteenth-century celebrity actresses, who "might be considered powerful competitors—rival queens—to the more decorous version of the modern individual" (63). Such women "animated the stage with regular reminders of women's right to claim a public presence. Attuned to a narrative of progress, they became proponents of the freedoms they embodied as they explored ways to emancipate themselves from the restraints assumed to have been characteristic of the modern female subject" (271). Unlike most eighteenth-century women, these actresses were empowered in many aspects of their lives: they chose their own roles, appeared in public (onstage and off), battled openly and often successfully with male theater managers, and in some cases, even owned considerable property. In Nussbaum's account, celebrity actresses and the theater thus competed with Pamela and the novel to offer a more active, powerful, and hopeful model of female subjectivity—hopeful, that is, until one realizes that such actresses also helped to initiate the cult of celebrity, which has contributed to so many current social ills.
In any case, I greatly enjoyed Nussbaum's book. She uses a seemingly narrow topic, the lives and careers of a very small group of Restoration and eighteenth-century British actresses, to arrive at compelling conclusions about eighteenth-century definitions of identity—gender, class, cultural, and national. And she does so with an impressively diverse array of sources: plays of course (and she draws from a vast list of both familiar and obscure titles), but also poems, paintings, journals and memoirs, legal and statistical documents, and the work of previous literary critics, feminist and performance theorists, and theater historians. Throughout her book she gracefully and gratefully acknowledges her debt to her predecessors in the field of eighteenth-century feminist theater studies such as Laura Brown, Lisa Freeman, and Kristina Straub, even as she clearly explains how and why she deviates from them. In doing so, she challenges the prevailing wisdom that eighteenth-century actresses were degraded and disempowered sex objects. She also reminds us that, especially in theater history, texts don't tell the whole story. For example, in discussing Brown's and Freeman's conclusions about the significance of the eighteenth-century tragic heroine, she states that "both of these prominent critics' arguments regarding the tragic heroine's marginalization omit the fact that actual women . . . with star standing possessed considerable cultural influence on the stage . . . [that generated] real rather than fictional economies of agency and identity" (72). She thus prompts us to contemplate the real women who embodied eighteenth-century theatrical texts and who used those texts (among other methods) to negotiate new definitions of self for themselves and, by extension, for other women of the period.
After a historical and theoretical overview in the first chapters, the book goes on to focus on specific details of the actresses' lives and careers. These middle chapters include an important discussion of the actresses' redefinition and enlargement of female "virtue" (in the narrow Pamela-esque sense of sexual chastity) to "exceptional virtue," "virtue shaped by their own efforts and rewarded in the theater rather than in the marriage market...