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1 COMPABATIVE i ama Volume 30Summer 1996Number 2 Tragedy, Gender, Performance: Women as Tragic Heroes on the Nineteenth-Century Stage Anne Russell From the late eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century, a remarkably high number of English and American women performed tragic male Shakespearean roles on the professional stage. Although there was a thriving stage tradition of crossdressing in comedy, melodrama, Italian opera, and dance,1 not since the early 1660's, when women replaced the boy actors who had previously played women's roles on the English stage, had the conventions of tragic performance in English professional theater included crossing gender boundaries. The most popular Shakespearean roles for women in the tragic repertoire were Romeo and Hamlet, but women also played Macbeth, Cardinal Wolsey, Shylock, Richard III, and lago as well as heroes of nineteenth -century works such as Thomas Noon Talfourd's tragedy Ion and Edward Bulwer Lytton's melodrama The Lady ofLyons? Women's performances of tragic heroes broke long-established conventions of dramatic representation in the British theater and 135 136Comparative Drama in the process interrogated many assumptions about character, gender, genre, and performance. Although a considerable number of reviewers criticized crossdressed tragic performances as immoral and lacking in taste, enough audiences and reviewers were receptive to crossdressed performances that a significant minority of actresses3 chose or were assigned serious male roles. Actresses have left very few records documenting why and how they performed tragic male roles, but reviews in newspapers and literary magazines often included detailed accounts of performances that describe sets, costumes, acting style, and stage business. Some reviewers outlined how a character had been played in the past, or how the writer thought the character ought to have been played, as a prelude to a description or critique of the performance. Reviews sometimes included the reviewer's impressions of audience reception or a gossipy discussion of the personal or professional circumstances of the starring performers. Nearly all critical accounts of crossdressed performances attempted to establish the degree of "masculinity" or "femininity" of both character and performer, though few reviewers were explicit about how they made these distinctions. Yet discussions of the femininity and masculinity of crossdressed performers tended to be oblique, full of gaps and silences. If women who performed the roles of tragic heroes represented femininity and masculinity as performative roles rather than essential states, critical accounts persistently avoided acknowledging this possibility. Although significant numbers of reviewers disapproved of crossdressing because it mixed or confused masculine and feminine, the many nineteenth-century critics who treated crossdressing sympathetically did not suggest that dramatic crossdressing exposed the contingency of gender. If nineteenth-century women performers of tragic heroes were exploring the boundaries dividing behavior considered masculine and feminine, they were also reinforcing conventional ideas by elevating the figure of the tragic hero. While demonstrating that women could represent the "nobility" of a character such as Hamlet, nineteenth-century actresses of Hamlet also recuperated the character from critical charges of weakness. Crossdressed performances were simultaneously oppositional and conventional as the subversive potential of crossdressing was undercut by conventional staging, cuts, and costuming . As we shall see, nineteenth-century accounts of women's performances of tragic heroes illuminate some of the ways in which an apparently radical practice such as crossdressing could be made reassuringly unthreatening. Anne Russell137 Nineteenth-century audiences may well have been receptive to women's performances of tragic heroes because of the ubiquity of crossdressing in comedy and pantomime,4 genres in which many actresses gained extensive experience playing cross-gender roles, particularly early in their careers. In Shakespeare, not only did women performers play characters such as Ganymede, Cesario, and Fidèle in comedies with disguised heroines, but they also played juveniles (such as young princes in histories) and fairies (Oberon, Ariel, Puck). Women and girls, as a matter of course, played young boys in all genres. (In the popular stage adaptation of Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, for example, Smike was played by a woman.) Some understanding of the assumptions operating when women were chosen to play male parts can be discerned from William Macready's account of his decision to cast Patricia Horton as the Fool in his...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 135-157
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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