Biography 24.1 (2001) 15-23
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Performing Identities: Actresses and Autobiography
Mary Jean Corbett
Through their theatrical performances and other public acts, the most successful actresses at the turn of the last century established a set of commodified images by which they were "known"; theatrical audiences, like the reading audiences for autobiography that Sidonie Smith describes, were prepared "to expect a certain kind of performativity that conforms relatively comfortably to criteria of intelligibility" from actresses, on and off the stage (110). When, for example, Eva Moore's publishers advertised her memoir, Exits and Entrances (1928), as "a light, witty, merry volume of reminiscence by one of the most fascinating and popular actresses the stage has ever known," the blurb captured precisely both the tone of the book and the signature keynotes of the actress's career. A different repertoire, composed of different parts, would no doubt have resulted in another sort of book.
While her entry into self-writing thus activates the actress's public image--comedian or tragedian, New Woman or femme fatale--autobiography too invokes its own conventions for performance. The playwright J. M. Barrie exhorted Irene Vanbrugh as she drafted her memoirs, To Tell My Story (1948), to take up the writing of her life as if it were a part to play, a role to study: "'If you were to act a woman writing memoirs how superbly you could do it--the pen nib getting so sharp at once. Well, concentrate on this chapter as if you were acting it'" (qtd. in Vanbrugh 27). Beyond the impact of both her theatrical parts and her popular profile on the ways she represents herself, then, the actress's experience of preparing a part has a determining effect on the "I" that autobiography brings into textual being. But Barrie's advice frames the issue still more precisely: the actress's autobiography not only narrates her career, but also requires her to enact a role given in advance, a role she has not herself "created"--that of "a woman writing memoirs." [End Page 15]
Whatever sorts of roles it may recount, an autobiography or memoir is less an originary act of self-expression than another formally constrained or determined mode of performance. This point in and of itself is not that startling: all representation operates by reference to prior signifying acts, so that even as the generic criteria for the intelligible textual performance of subjectivity alter, new criteria will arise in relation to the old. To take up a rhetorical position as "a woman writing memoirs" in 1948, however, also puts the writer in a very different relationship to the life as it was lived--that is, to the "woman" of 1888 or 1898 that the memoir purportedly takes as its subject. And when we consider as well that the 1880s and 1890s witnessed a tremendous flux in arguments about what constituted "woman," with the late Victorian theatre serving as a primary cultural site for debating the parameters of the category, we can begin to investigate how the changing construction of womanhood might alter the very terms by which "a woman writing memoirs" would come to represent late Victorian femininity fifty or more years later.
The acting career of someone as innovative as Elizabeth Robins--who "spanned the paradigm shift from eighties ingenue to Ibsen heroine" and whose "mutability and power to metamorphose" were the hallmark of her style--provides an important site in this respect (Marshall 140, 141). Along with others like Janet Achurch and Marion Lea, Robins is credited by theatre historians with helping to initiate the new dramatic vocabulary for womanhood by figuring the performative conventions of the unconventional woman. I will consider aspects of Robins's self-representations in some detail before I conclude. First, however, I want to look to one effect of Robins's theatrical work, as experienced and reconstructed by Vanbrugh, who paid comic homage to the new actresses in the very first part she ever "created" on stage. In 1891, Vanbrugh successfully parodied "the timid, shrinking manner" of Lea's Thea and Robins's "cynical defiant" Hedda...