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92Victorian Review difficult to ignore the complex contradictions that make those texts fascinating reading. Mary Rimmer University ofNew Brunswick Tracy Davis. Actresses as Working Women: Their Social Identity in Victorian Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1991. xvi + 200. $62.50 CDN (cloth); $21.50 CDN (paper). Tracy Davis's Actresses as Working Women: Their Social Identity in Victorian Culture coUects and organizes a great deal of scattered information about British actresses as a professional group in the late nineteenth century, with a particular focus on women who performed in the choruses of pantomime, burlesque, extravaganza and other forms of the "iUegitimate" drama. The book is particularly useful for its organization and presentation of extensive archival research which helps to iUuminate the social and economic contexts in which many now-forgotten actresses spent their working Uves. Davis uses statistical records to undercut Michael Baker's thesis that the "rise" of the Victorian actor indicated the rise of the acting profession to middle-class status. Davis suggests that because Baker deals with male stars, his argument does not accurately consider the position of the actress, which she sees as always more precarious than that of the actor. Noting that it was more than twenty-six years after Henry Irving received his knighthood that the first actress (Geneviève Ward) was honored with a DBE, and that Irving's theatrical partner Ellen Terry received a DBE thirty years after Irving, Davis suggests that the delay in bestowing such awards on actresses indicates the problematic relationship of the actress to society and the contradictory readings of the actress as semiotic figure. For actresses who were not stars a social "rise" was especially unlikely; a multiplicity of sources demonstrate that the professional lives of many actresses were professionally, financially, and socially uncertain. Considering the persistent association of actresses with prostitution, Davis argues that the reputations of actresses were "tarnished by the conditions of their work." The book is divided into two sections with very different methodologies. Part I, "The Profession," discusses the "Socioeconomic Organization of Theatre," "Sex, Gender and Social Demography," and "The Social Dynamic Reviews93 and 'Responsibility.'" Drawing from census records, wage tables, Parliamentary reports, London County CouncU inspectors' reports and other sources, Davis shows that the proportion of actresses to actors rose dramaticaUy over the century, so that by 1901 there were more than 106 actresses for every 100 actors (compared to 27 actresses for every 100 actors in 1841). Women on the stage were concentrated in genres such as pantomime, burlesque, music hall and other forms of theatrical performance with large choruses of singers and dancers. Most of these actresses worked for low wages, had insecure employment, and were particularly susceptible to social ostracism and/or sexual pursuit because, Davis argues, of the semiotic and geographic connection ofactresses and theatres with prostitution. Part 2, "Conditions of Work, " addresses the public personae of actresses and the ways in which both theatrical and social conventions affected the social and material conditions of their Uves. An example of this section's mode of analysis is the chapter entitled "The Actress and the Mise en Scène, " in which Davis discusses costume, gesture, and "figurai composition" in relation to nineteenth-century pornography. Davis argues that when baUet dresses with knee-length diaphanous skirts first developed in the 1830s, they focused attention on the body of the dancer so that "what could previously be displayed only tiirough crossdressing could now be revealed" (109). Ballet costume and pink tights became the "sign of the actress" after "its universal adoption by the corps de bauet of the music halls and the choruses of pantomime, burlesque, extravaganza after the 1850s" (110). In her wideranging discussion, Davis notes the fetishization of legs (divided into foot, ankle, calf, knee, thigh) and of garments such as knickers and tights (including changing fashions in padding); she discusses these issues in connection with increasingly physical forms of performance such as the cancan , gymnastics, and tableaux vivants. She argues that in aU these genres the focus of attention is on the body under its costume, what she calls "clothed nudity" and "absent costume. " Noting that "many of the most enduring conventions of performance flagrantly violated...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 92-94
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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