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  • Women & Sex on Stage
  • Ellen Crowell
Sos Eltis. Acts of Desire: Women and Sex on Stage 1800–1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. ix + 268 pp. $99.00

IN THIS WIDE-RANGING and engaging study, Sos Eltis offers an overview of the “sexually errant woman” on the British stage—from the start of the nineteenth century through the start of the twentieth. In chapters that proceed in a loose, sometimes overlapping chronology, she focuses on how playwrights “took their turn” at key variations of female stage errancy, including the seduced maiden, the accidental bigamist, and the repentant Magdalene, at turns “reproducing, challenging, adapting, revising, or reinforcing the conventions surrounding her theatrical depiction.” By offering readers a profusion of examples of the “fallen woman” stage plot from across the nineteenth century, and by drawing her examples from plays both banned and licensed by the Lord Chamberlain, Eltis seeks to recover a web of intertextual “gestures, interconnections, references and meanings” that would have informed contemporary audiences’ understanding of these ideologically driven stage representations. [End Page 266]

Her study fills in two key critical gaps in literary scholarship. First, Eltis rightly observes that although much critical attention has been paid to representations of “Victorian sexual attitudes and gender ideology” in fiction, “the theatre is a barely detectable presence in such studies,” an absence she finds particularly striking given the sheer popularity, “cross-class and cross-gender appeal, and constant influence” of nineteenth-century theatre. As this monograph persuasively demonstrates, “theatrical representations of seduction, adultery, bigamy, and prostitution offer an alternative, particular, and significant perspective on the shifting sexual attitudes of their times.” By carefully recovering subtleties of cultural history, performance history, and intertextual knowledge that would have structured an audience’s apprehension of staged female sexual transgression, Eltis shows that the “binary divisions that have long fascinated critics of Victorian sexual attitudes—between angels and demons, madonnas and magdalens, virtuous and fallen—soon break down when so many dramas focused on women whose sexual experiences place them liminally between the two categories.”

“So many dramas” is a key phrase here: Acts of Desire differs from earlier studies that have approached the Victorian stage as a site on which to trace attitudes toward sex and gender across the long nineteenth century. Faced with an almost insurmountable list of plays presented to the Lord Chamberlain’s office for approval, scholars have for the most part focused upon the excised, the altered and the outright censored rather than what was approved for popular audiences. Yet Eltis offers us an impressive version of such a study. Although she herself is careful to insist that her survey of plays depicting “women’s illicit desires”—both licensed and unlicensed—cannot possibly be considered comprehensive, Acts of Desire nevertheless is a study that feels comprehensive. By introducing readers to such a wide sample that ranges from the utterly canonical (The Second Mrs. Tanqueray; The Importance of Being Earnest; Mrs Warren’s Profession; Fallen Angels) to the all-but forgotten (Henriette the Forsaken; Halevi the Unknown, or, The Bride of Two Husbands; Heartsease; The Bad Girl of the Family), Eltis is able to persuasively demonstrate that even the most ideologically conservative and punitive representations of “fallen women” were presented and received within rich intertextual webs of reference and generic in-jokes that demonstrate the “habitual assumption” on the part of Victorian playwrights—that their audiences would be able to “cross-reference and connect,” often in ways that added moral ambiguity [End Page 267] even to plays that seemed ironclad in their generic valuation of traditional sexual morality.

Using a critical approach Eltis terms “intertheatricality” that reaches across over 130 years of London theatrical and cultural history, Acts of Desire ultimately demonstrates that even those plays approved by the Lord Chamberlain’s office could—through casting, staging, and knowing intertextual reference—suggestively question the very assumptions about female sexual vulnerability that structured the conventions of Victorian melodrama. Thus, this study suggests that the systems of censorship that policed the Victorian stage were “leakier and more porous” than critics have generally assumed. In chapter one, Eltis includes a discussion of J. T. Haines’s The Life of a Woman: or, The Curate...


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pp. 266-270
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