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  • Casting Clara Fisher:Phrenology, Protean Farce, and the “Astonishing” Career of a Child Actress
Abstract

This essay examines the convergence of phrenology and nineteenth-century British theatre by tracing the “stage life” of a life cast made by Scottish phrenologist George Combe from the head of the child actress Clara Fisher. It argues that by first casting Fisher’s head, and then widely disseminating his report on that cast through publications and lectures, Combe staked a claim to the young actress, casting her, both literally and figuratively, as a legible child, one whose talent arose directly from her physical traits and who was therefore no mystery or monster, but a fascinating specimen. This aspect of Combe’s claim to Fisher became even more apparent when he brought her cast with him onto the lecture stage, where it joined dozens if not hundreds of other phrenological objects in a scientific spectacle designed to prop up Combe’s own performance of phrenological mastery. At the same time, however, audience knowledge of Fisher’s prodigious abilities, not to mention the liveliness of the cast itself, worked against Combe’s narrative of human dominance, calling into question the possibility of ever “plucking out the heart” (or the brain) of human mystery, let alone the mysteries of skillful acting. Thus while one reading of Fisher’s cast would suggest that the object only became animated when a living human came into contact with it, the essay interprets the cast as an animate object in its own right, one capable of acting on and animating the humans who entered its presence.

In May 1820, just two months shy of her ninth birthday, child actress Clara Fisher paid a visit to the Edinburgh Phrenological Society.1 For three years, the girl had delighted audiences in London and the provinces with her convincing portrayals of Richard III, Shylock, and Falstaff, as well as her lightning-fast transitions between multiple characters in The Actress of All Work. Now in Edinburgh for her second season, Fisher caught the eye of the charismatic phrenologist George Combe.2 A longtime admirer of the stage, Combe proposed making a plaster cast of the girl’s head to ascertain first, “[w]hether great mental power is ever found at an early period of life, in concomitance with a small brain,” and second, “[w]hat particular combination of faculties is essential to success in the histrionic art [that is, acting]?”3 In keeping with phrenological practice, Combe sought to answer these questions by measuring the brain’s thirty-three “organs,” each of which corresponded to a distinct “faculty,” ranging from combativeness and destructiveness to benevolence and ideality. Making a cast would allow him to accurately measure Fisher’s head, and more importantly retain a copy of that head to display in subsequent lectures. Such lectures brought together an assemblage of casts, skulls, and other human remains to attest to phrenology’s value as a “science of the mind” and to confirm that Combe, as one of phrenology’s chief evangelists, held the key to unlocking the hitherto indomitable human brain.

In her 1897 autobiography, Fisher describes the discomfort and terror of the cast-making process, to which her father had consented on her behalf. Together, father, [End Page 167] mother, and daughter visited the society’s headquarters, where Combe and the sculptor William Scoular “prepared [her] face.” As Fisher recalls, “the committee of gentlemen first put some wash on my face, then, plastered it all over with the preparation of lime, or whatever it was, and finished by placing some straws in my nostrils.”4 But one of the straws was too long and when Scoular removed it to make the adjustment he accidentally knocked the other one out. “I believe I should have smothered to death,” Fisher matter-of-factly observes, “if my father, who saw me endeavoring to get back the straw, had not jumped forward and replaced it.”5 After this, Fisher sat immobilized while the committee completed the casting process. Although she acknowledges that Combe was “as nice as he could be,” the traumatic experience left a deep imprint in her memory, as her recollection of it seven decades later suggests.6 The cast-making session affected Combe as well, but for entirely different reasons.

This essay argues that by first casting Fisher’s head and then widely disseminating his report on that cast through publications and lectures, Combe staked a claim to the young actress, demonstrating that her body could be read as a kind of text, and more importantly that he possessed the skill to read it. Eager to solidify his status as a scientist, he added Fisher’s cast to the Edinburgh Phrenological Society’s growing collection of casts, skulls, and busts,7 and arranged for a sketch of the cast and a profile portrait of the girl to accompany his publications, through which he invited others to ponder the wonders of phrenological analysis8 (fig. 1). As such, the phrenologist cast Fisher, both literally and figuratively, as a legible child, one whose talent arose directly from her physical traits and who was therefore no mystery or monster but a fascinating specimen. This aspect of Combe’s claim to Fisher became even more apparent when he brought her cast with him onto the lecture stage, where it joined dozens if not hundreds of other phrenological objects in a scientific spectacle designed to prop up Combe’s own performance of phrenological mastery. At the same time, however, audience knowledge of Fisher’s prodigious abilities, not to mention the liveliness of the cast itself, worked against Combe’s narrative, calling into question the possibility of ever “plucking out the heart” of human mystery, let alone the mysteries of skillful acting.

Combe’s desire to create a cast of Fisher’s head and his subsequent use of that cast in public lectures and publications points to the dynamic intersection of theatre and science in the nineteenth century. This intersection has attracted significant scholarly attention in recent years, in line with the “performative turn” in science studies and the corresponding “scientific turn” in theatre and performance studies.9 As Iwan Rhys Morus asserts, reading the history of science through the lens of performance affords new insights into “the political distribution of scientific knowledge and power,” focuses attention on the doing or enactment of science, as well as the aesthetic components of scientific practice, and foregrounds the bodies of scientists and the performative ways that they “construct, maintain, and defend their practices.”10 Reading theatre and [End Page 168] performance history through science studies likewise highlights connections between scientific innovation and theatrical experimentation and productively pushes disciplinary definitions of theatre and performance. Responding to Tiffany Watt Smith’s call for scholars to consider the extent to which the theatre and ideas about performance infused scientific practice, this essay investigates how shifting definitions of “good” acting and theories about the role of emotion in performance informed phrenological thinking.11

Figure 1. Profile portrait of Clara Fisher, age 9, by A. N. Henderson Dell. First published as a plate in the Transactions of the Phrenological Society in 1824, the image was also sold separately as a print and reproduced in Clara Fisher Maeder’s 1897 Autobiography of Clara Fisher Maeder.
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Figure 1.

Profile portrait of Clara Fisher, age 9, by A. N. Henderson Dell. First published as a plate in the Transactions of the Phrenological Society in 1824, the image was also sold separately as a print and reproduced in Clara Fisher Maeder’s 1897 Autobiography of Clara Fisher Maeder.

Given phrenology’s “bad” reputation as a quack science that supported racist hierarchies, it is no surprise that scholars have largely overlooked its ties to theatre.12 Yet, as Joseph Roach advised three decades ago, revisiting the “discarded verities of [End Page 169] the past” can yield important insights into the relationship between scientific thought and acting theory and vice versa.13 Phrenologists like Combe not only used theatrical staging techniques to convince audiences of the accuracy of their claims, they also offered provocative theories to explain why some actors excelled where others failed. By calling attention to phrenology’s engagement with nineteenth-century theatre, this essay offers further evidence of how, in Roach’s words, “conceptions of the human body drawn from physiology and psychology have dominated theories of acting from antiquity to the present.”14 Bringing phrenology into these larger conversations also reveals fascinating connections between casting as a scientific practice dedicated to making an impression of the human body and casting as a theatrical practice dedicated to assigning actors to specific roles. Certainly, Combe’s stated goal of using the cast of Fisher’s head to identify the source of her acting talent illustrates how, in Watt Smith’s words, “historically specific theatrical problems and techniques were part of the performativity of everyday ‘relatively private’ acts of nineteenth-century experimental scientific practice.”15

Through its focus on the material politics of casting, this essay also joins ongoing conversations about performing remains, seen notably in the work of Rebecca Schneider and related studies of human remains in theatrical contexts.16 In particular, the essay aims to extend Aoife Monks’s insightful Stanislavskian analysis of skulls on contemporary stages by asking how pre-Stanislavskian performance practices affected how and what nineteenth-century audiences saw when they encountered casts and skulls on the lecture stage. In this, I recognize that casts differ from skulls both materially and semiotically. As Monks notes, audiences tend to be much less squeamish about seeing a cast replica of a skull onstage than the skull of a once-living human being, presumably because they perceive the cast as safely distanced from the original body, a representation not the “real thing.”17 Such casts might be understood as “second-order,”18 as something other than human remains, since the “stuff” of the cast’s making—its matter—is plaster, not bone.

Yet, closer consideration of the life-casting process complicates this straightforward distinction between human and nonhuman remains. In her study of Madame Tussaud’s wax casts, art historian Uta Kornmeier argues (via Georges Didi-Huberman) that cast-making grants its subjects a unique kind of agency over their self-presentation. “As the artist was not physically involved in the ‘transfer’ of shape from original to image,” she writes, “the latter could be said to be ‘not made by hand.’”19 As such, the [End Page 170] final surface of a cast can “be understood as having been in direct contact, via the inside of the original plaster mask, with the sitter’s body. His or her face has left an actual, physical trace in the material. … The shape of this trace belongs so closely to the sitter that it can be considered a body part in its own right.”20 Through the impress of skin on plaster, the cast becomes an extension of the human subject’s body—a human remain and potent “thing” that transforms its human subject in a delicate act of inter(in)animation.21 Put differently, a life cast becomes a human remain in the act of its creation—in the moment when skin meets wet plaster and presses into it, leaving a mark that will remain long after the plaster has dried.22 At the same time, however, the cast’s ability to temporally fix the living human subject’s presence distinguishes it from human remains that only arise from the deceased body, as with the skull. In this respect, the scientific cast bears a closer resemblance to the photograph and other image-capture technologies. And like the photo, the cast calls for reflection on what Schneider describes as “the tangled inter(in)animation of still with living, with still living, and the inter(in)animation of the theatrical live with the photographic [or sculptural] still.”23 For her, as for many new materialists, still objects are not inert or agentless, but rather enter into a co-constitutive performance with the humans they encounter. Thus, while one reading of Fisher’s cast would suggest that the object only became animated when a living human came into contact with it, I see the cast as an animate object in its own right, one capable of acting on and animating the humans who entered its presence.24

Ironically, scientific casting’s attempt to immobilize, hold fast, or arrest the human subject was at odds with the performance practice that was a hallmark of Fisher’s success—namely, her ability to portray multiple characters of varying ages, genders, and ethnicities in protean farces like The Actress of All Work (ca.1819). Such farces gave nineteenth-century performers, especially women, unique access to roles and behavioral repertoires that traditional casting practices, most notable in the development of specific “lines of business” (as explained below), otherwise kept them from inhabiting. Examining the materiality of the cast-making process, the cast’s borderline status as both human remain and documentary record, and its relationship to the living (or still-living) body thus opens up new ways of understanding the complicated theatrical life of Fisher’s cast and the dynamic encounters between humans and nonhumans on the scientific lecture stage.

The Child with the “Astonishing” Mind

Fisher made her stage debut on 10 December 1817 at age 6 in the Drury Lane production of Lilliput. Appearing in a company of girls between ages 6–13, she played the role of Lord Flimnap, the prime minister. London critics were delighted and astounded.25 [End Page 171] “The affected gravity, and jealous whims of the diminutive Lord, are hit off by this surprising child with astonishing cleverness,” commented one critic,26 while the Morning Chronicle observed that she “manifested an almost miraculous power of conception of character.”27 What impressed London critics even further was Fisher’s uncanny portrayal of Richard III in the last act (fig. 2), when the Lilliputian company performed a masque of the Shakespeare tragedy for the “Lilliputian Majesty.” The Morning Herald proclaimed that “[i]t was really Richard in movement, gesture, language, and we had almost said, in looks, seen in miniature as through an inverted telescope,” and the British Press noted with surprise her “knowledge of the text, and an acquaintance with stage effect.”28

Fisher’s debut came at a pivotal moment in the history of child performers. As the British Press opined, the decision on the part of Drury Lane management to present a children’s company “was a very hazardous one—for, since the period when the good fortune of [M]aster Betty called forth a host of Roscii and Rosciae, the tide of public feeling has run violently against the exhibition of children on the boards of our great theatres.”29 Here, the newspaper refers to the meteoric rise of Master William Henry West Betty, the 12-year-old “Infant Roscius,” who captivated London audiences during 1804–05 with his portrayal of adult roles, ranging from Young Norval in Douglas and Romeo in Romeo and Juliet to Achmet in Barbarossa and the title role in Hamlet. Betty’s overwhelming popularity, not just in London but also throughout England, Ireland, and Scotland, spawned a host of other child performers of varying talents, all hoping to ride the Roscian wave. But the tide turned quickly; critics and caricaturists soon pounced on Betty and the Betty wannabes, accusing them of usurping the rightful place (and roles) of adult performers.30 Adult actors, many of whom found themselves cast aside by the public desire for “infant phenomena,” likewise expressed disgust and concern.31 Gradually audiences tired of watching young children pretend to be grown men and women and “Bettymania” waned. Therefore, while some critics in 1817 questioned whether London was ready to be entertained by yet another child prodigy, the public’s embrace of Fisher confirmed that it was. As Fisher remarked in her autobiography, “the time seemed to be ripe for my appearance, and I had the whole field to myself.”32 [End Page 172]

Figure 2. Clara Fisher as Lord Flimnap in Lilliput, January 1818. Etching by George Cruikshank. (Source: Collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.)
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Figure 2.

Clara Fisher as Lord Flimnap in Lilliput, January 1818. Etching by George Cruikshank. (Source: Collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.)

It is worth considering what made the time so “ripe” for a performer of Fisher’s abilities, beyond her apparent talent. Part of the answer may lie in her distinct performance of childhood as it reflected ongoing philosophical conversations about human progress. As historians of childhood have shown, the early nineteenth century saw a dramatic shift in conceptions of the child, away from the Puritanical belief that all children were born sinful because of the “Fall” of humanity, toward the Romantic view, which held that children were born innocent, carefree, and full of beauty and that childhood was therefore a period when children should be protected and carefully educated.33 Writing in the midst of this conceptual shift, critics marveled at Fisher’s “astonishing cleverness”34 and “miraculous power of conception of character,”35 proclaiming her a “prodigy,”36 a unique child of nature in keeping with the Romantic view of childhood. At the same time, they called attention to her “studied precision”37 in gesture and textual knowledge, implying that her performance was very much the product of [End Page 173] extensive study, not unlike actors of the older neoclassical tradition who emphasized the labor that went into their seemingly effortless performances.38

Was the child’s talent innate or had she just learned to give the appearance of possessing such natural abilities? The critic for the Morning Herald argued for the former in his account of the “extraordinary little creature,” echoing Romantic theories of the malleable child: “[c]hildren, it is well known, are very plastic creatures; but previous discipline, method, and memory, never could produce what this child is without premature endowment of the most extraordinary kind.”39 As “plastic creatures,” most children could learn to impersonate others given the appropriate time, instruction, and memory, yet often such imitation resulted in stilted performances that did not originate naturally from the child herself. Here, the writer’s reference to Fisher’s “premature endowment” hints at her exceptional mental qualities. The British Press likewise praised the unique quality of Fisher’s mind and the sophistication of her characterization:

There is a mind about it [her performance] which proves that it is not the mere offspring of imitation. We have seen children so tutored as to do many things that amazed us. They have danced—they have played on various instruments—they have recited—they have executed fancy works, in an elegant style. But still they were little more than automata. A particular line was marked out for them, and they never strayed beyond it. But the variety which appears in the acting of the little Richard—a variety always in unison with the character—evinces a precocity of genius, a quickness of perception, a maturity of judgement, which we cannot contemplate without astonishment.40

Like the Morning Herald, the British Press identified a critical difference between the imitative abilities of other child automata and Fisher’s variety, genius, and maturity. Whereas the generic child actor displayed a plasticity that lent itself to a particular mold or set of carefully demarcated lines (“lines of business”?) set out by adult tutors, Fisher followed her own lines and defied easy molds. Again, it is the “mind” behind the performance that astonishes, a mind that apparently freed Fisher to imbue Richard with vitality without stepping beyond the bounds of believability.

Accounts such as these suggest that what many critics found so compelling about Fisher, and therefore what also made the time “ripe” for her arrival, was her ability to persuasively embody roles for which she was terribly miscast. Conventional wisdom held then (as it does today) that a 6-year-old child was poorly equipped to play a raging male tyrant, let alone a Lilliputian prime minister. Yet Fisher rendered such casting believable and appropriate, reorienting spectators’ viewing experiences by inviting them to observe her “as through an inverted telescope.”41

We can further appreciate the astonishment that greeted Fisher’s performance when we consider the still-dominant casting practices of the early nineteenth century, whereby most performers specialized in character types, or “lines of business.” The logic of this longstanding practice held that some actors were naturally predisposed toward certain character types and should therefore refrain from playing outside that range. Actors became known professionally through the roles they played, so much so that by the beginning of the nineteenth century, most professional companies included a [End Page 174] male juvenile lead, female juvenile lead (or ingénue), a high tragedian, low comedian, old man, old woman, and various other specialized actors depending on the size and needs of the company.42 This suturing of type to actor posed a significant barrier for up-and-coming performers who were compelled to wait in the wings (often quite literally) until a vacancy opened up in the company. Of course, leading actors and actresses like David Garrick and Sarah Siddons enjoyed greater opportunities for character exploration. Garrick especially was known for his ability to move seamlessly between comic and tragic roles, exhibiting a dizzying array of emotion that famously prompted Denis Diderot to ponder the paradox of the actor.43 For the most part, however, actors stayed within the specific lines of business they had been granted. Within this ecosystem of hyper-specialization, the ease with which Fisher flouted theatrical casting conventions, not to mention boundaries of gender, class, and age, was delightful and astonishing.

Fisher was not alone in rejecting traditional casting conventions. In fact, her 1817 debut in Lilliput coincided with Charles Mathews’s introduction of The Actor of All Work, a protean farce in which he portrayed seven wildly different roles in the span of fifteen to twenty minutes, crossing boundaries of gender, race, nationality, age, and class with each character introduced.44 Not to be outdone, in 1819 the actress Mrs. Edwin introduced The Actress of All Work, playing “a country gawkey, a first rate London actress, a deaf old maid of 80, a literary fop, and a French dramatical lady,” and “herself,” all in a bid (within the metatheatrical frame of the piece) to convince a “country manager,” the “father of her lover,” to hire her for his company.45 In the wake of Mrs. Edwin’s success, other actresses, including Fisher, soon tried their hands at The Actress of All Work. As one critic noted, the piece was ideally suited to the young girl’s impressive range, “quick intelligence,” and “bounding hilarity of voice and manner.”46 Indeed, such farces pushed against the narrow parameters of traditional acting practices, inviting actresses “to extend the range of roles they could play” and experiment with new forms of behavior that defied norms of gender, class, and nationality.47 They also encouraged women to model new ways of acting off stage. As Jane Goodall writes in her study of the genre, “[a]ctresses began to freely display qualities of volatility, exhibitionism and knowing humour that made women dangerous as social adventurers capable of traversing the divisions of the class system.”48 More than provoking laughter, then, protean farces “call[ed] into question the extent to which physical characteristics were really the determining factors in human life,” challenging the work of natural scientists, including phrenologists like Combe who believed that all behavior could be explained through close analysis of the human mind.49 [End Page 175]

Casting the Child

Phrenology enjoyed immense popularity in the nineteenth century thanks in large part to the proselytizing efforts of Combe, whose 1828 book The Constitution of Man became one the most widely read publications of the period. Combe’s ideas derived from the earlier work of Franz Joseph Gall, a Viennese physician, and his student J. G. Spurzheim, who devised a method for “compar[ing] cerebral development with the manifestations of mental power, for the purpose of discovering the functions of the brain, and the organs of the mind.”50 Through extensive study of human remains and living subjects, they discovered what they believed was a direct correlation between the size of the brain and its constitutive organs. Thus, for example, an individual with an enlarged “Ideality” organ, which “inspires with exaggeration and enthusiasm, which prompts to embellishment and splendid conceptions,”51 was likely artistic, just as an individual with an enlarged “Destructiveness” organ would feel a greater desire for revenge.52 Working from this premise, phrenologists grouped each of the brain’s faculties into two Orders and six Genera for a total of thirty-three separate faculties, each tied to a specific organ.53 These ranged from Order 1 feelings of philoprogenitiveness (love of offspring), self-esteem, and benevolence to Order 2 intellectual faculties, which included the senses, perceptive faculties, and faculties related to external objects (such as time, tune, language). By measuring the brain’s faculties and understanding their relation to one another and to specific actions, phrenologists believed that they could develop a fairly accurate reading of an individual’s behavioral tendencies.

Combe first encountered phrenology in 1816 and founded the Edinburgh Phrenological Society in 1820 with his brother Andrew and several other colleagues. Eager to establish itself as a leading center for phrenological research, the society sought donations of skulls and casts, which would allow its members to enhance their interpretative abilities and map their knowledge of individual minds against larger categories of race, gender, and class. “No adequate idea of the foundation of the science can be formed,” wrote Combe, until phrenologists had inspected “a number of heads; and especially by contrasting instances of extreme development with others of extreme deficiency.”54 Early acquisitions from friends and colleagues included the “Skull of Kapitapol, a Canadian Chief, presented by Henry Marshall, Esq. Surgeon to the Forces in Scotland,” the “Cast of the Head of an African; Ditto, of a Deaf, Dumb and Blind Individual,” as well as “Casts of Heads of Three Ladies” and the “Head of a Boy, with a large Cerebellum.”55 In addition to encouraging such donations, Combe and his associates began an active program of creating casts of famous figures and unique individuals. In this they were aided by Scoular, the sculptor, whose mentor John Graham had been “introduced to the academy casts from the most celebrated [End Page 176] antique statues” during his own education.56 Trained in classical sculpting methods, Scoular brought technical skill to the society and was entrusted with making casts of significant human remains, including the skull of the legendary Scottish hero Robert the Bruce, whose skeleton had been unearthed in 1818.57 Unfortunately for Fisher, Scoular’s classical training does not appear to have prepared him for the challenges of casting a living human child.58

Fisher’s account of her traumatic experience at the Phrenological Society foregrounds the eerie aspect of the cast-making process for living human subjects. Such subjects must remain absolutely still while the wet plaster is layered over their face, and must continue to hold their position as the plaster slowly hardens.59 As such, the casting process temporarily immobilizes and silences the living body, quite literally holding it in time as the plaster changes physical states. “Like the photograph,” writes Kornmeier, the cast “freezes its image in that instant, which will already have passed before the first viewer sees it. This is what makes the cast image so trustworthy; it shows what somebody looked like at one particular point in time, nothing less and nothing more.”60 It was the cast’s apparent “trustworthiness” through its temporal fixity that made it such a valuable document for phrenologists like Combe, who believed that the brain and its inner workings could be accessed and interpreted through careful external analysis. But not all casts are trustworthy, especially when children are involved. Indeed, as Combe outlines in his 1824 publication Elements of Phrenology, phrenologists generally refrained from measuring the heads of infants and children because “in infancy the brain and skull are imperfectly developed” and therefore any assessment would be incomplete or inaccurate.61 In other words, the plasticity of children’s brains, their ongoing physiological development, rendered them poor phrenological subjects.

But if phrenologists generally avoided making casts of children because their brains were unformed, why did Combe bother making a cast of Fisher’s head in the first place? He offers a partial explanation at the outset of his “Report Upon the Cast of Miss Clara Fisher,” when he identifies two questions of “considerable importance in Phrenology”: namely, whether “great mental power” could be discerned at an early age despite the brain’s smaller size, and what “particular combination of faculties” afforded individuals success in the acting field.62 By analyzing Fisher’s cast, Combe promised to end nagging debates that dogged both phrenology and the theatre profession. This answer seems plausible, but incomplete. A closer reading of Combe’s [End Page 177] report suggests that the phrenologist may also have been driven by a desire to fix the unfixable, to hold the nearly 9-year-old Fisher in time and thereby assert his own interpretive powers and the legitimacy of phrenology as a science. At the same time, Combe’s turn to dramatic criticism later in his report indicates that he may also have wished to demonstrate his knowledge of the stage and ability to judge talent on the basis of performance alone.

Combe read his “Report Upon the Cast of Miss Clara Fisher” to the Phrenological Society on December 26, 1820, and published it in 1824 as part of the society’s proceedings, along with an illustration of Fisher based on the cast (see figure 1). Combe begins his report by responding to the question about the relationship of brain size to “great mental power,” noting that Fisher possesses an “uncommonly large” head and a unique combination of mental faculties that equip her for excellence in the theatrical arena. “In all her acting,” he observes, “she displays so much comprehensiveness of mind, that, when the full expression of intellectual power and deep feeling is heard from her lips, and her whole manner is perceived to be in unison with that expression, her age and diminutive status are instantly forgotten and she is listened to with that fixed attention which genius alone can command.”63 Rather than take offense at a young child playing a role intended for an adult, audiences “instantly” forget her age and size because they are so overwhelmed by the seamless combination of “intellectual power” and “deep feeling.”

After this initial assessment, Combe details all thirty-three of Fisher’s organs, before isolating the four faculties that explain her prodigious abilities: Secretiveness, Imitation, Concentrativeness, and Ideality. The first two faculties are “essential requisites” to skillful acting, as indicated by his previous observations of “several individuals in private life.”64 (Here Combe alludes to his friendship with theatre professionals like the actress-manager Mrs. Henry Siddons, a relationship discussed below.) Secretiveness, Combe continues, helps the individual to hide her “natural character” and therefore embrace fully, through Imitation, another character. Ideality “adds splendour to the performance” by inspiring “the glow and colouring of fancy” and “the spirit of poetry.” Individuals with above-average Ideality possess dynamic imaginations that breathe life into their performances, as distinguished from “mere mimickry.”65 Finally, Concentrativeness allows actors “to support a variety of faculties in a state of simultaneous and combined activity.” Actors like Fisher, whose Concentrativeness measured “rather large,” appear effortless onstage, showcase a range of emotions through voice and movement, and express their characters’ thoughts through dialogue with “force and expression.”66

Combe’s analysis of Fisher’s mental prowess is important when considered alongside Romantic notions of the child. On the one hand, his conclusion that “great mental power” is identifiable at an early age supports Romantic arguments about the capabilities of the “natural” child born free of sin; on the other, his identification of the specific faculties necessary for success in the “histrionic art” complicates assumptions about childhood innocence and the absence of artifice. Rather than attributing Fisher’s success to her status as a child and a universal set of values, he argues that what sets her [End Page 178] apart from her peers is the distinct combination of her faculties and her application of them.67 Thus, while she appears to be a “child of nature,” a pure, innocent being unadulterated by artifice or the heavy burdens of the world, she is not just an innate talent, but a skilled performer who makes the most of her abilities through study, preparation, and hard work.68

The phrenologist was careful to note, however, that mere possession of faculties like concentrativeness or imitation does not a successful actor make, nor does possession of similar faculties equip all actors to play the same roles. An actor devoid of tune, for example, would likely fail to portray a character required to sing or speak a melodious piece of text regardless of imitation and secretiveness. Combe’s argument here might be read as a defense of casting practices associated with “lines of business,” which (as noted earlier) operated on the assumption that certain actors were better equipped to play certain kinds of roles. But he goes on to note that while an actor may share certain faculties with the character he or she is portraying, “[i]t does not follow … that an actor, in his [or her] personal conduct, must necessarily resemble most closely those characters he represents to the best example.”69 Combe credits Fisher’s success as Richard III to the presence of many of the “elementary qualities” that constitute the character. Her “high and full forehead gives her the [tyrant’s] intellectual energy,” while her “immense love of approbation, firmness and cautiousness” allow her to embody his “ambition,” “determination,” and “coolness.” At the same time, the child actor’s strength in the faculty of ideality, which casts “the colouring of poetry” over her performance, prevents her portrayal of the king from becoming or “too diabolical” and therefore too distasteful to audiences.70 Perhaps most importantly, her strengths in the higher faculties of benevolence, justice, and adhesiveness clearly demarcate “the real character of Miss Fisher” from her representation of the bloody Richard.71 In other words, she is simultaneously not Richard and not not Richard (fig. 3).

In the last section of his report, Combe steps beyond the usual bounds of phrenological analysis into the world of dramatic criticism, comparing Fisher’s Richard with that of the archetypal Romantic actor, Edmund Kean. “Although not strictly phrenological,” he writes, “I may, perhaps, be excused, for adding a few additional remarks on her conception of this character.”72 From this point, Combe proceeds to weigh the merits of Fisher’s Richard against those of Kean. While praising the “intense intellectual energy” of Kean’s Richard, he argues that the actor’s interpretation departs in detrimental ways from Shakespeare’s conception of the role, especially where the king’s passion and intellect are concerned. “In Kean’s acting,” writes Combe, “Richard storms, rages, and vociferates. … The ever-presiding intellect is dethroned, and rage and cruelty, and ambition, constitute the man.”73 Moreover, Kean’s Richard displays [End Page 179] frustrating inconsistencies that prevent audiences from understanding the character’s inner life and motivation. By way of example, Combe points to Kean’s first scene with Lady Anne in which his Richard appears as an honest, repentant man, leading the audience to imagine that he has truly changed; but later in the play, Kean explodes this interpretation, descending into “outrageous bursts of passion” that “dethrone” the king’s “ever-presiding intellect.”74 But in Fisher’s Richard, the tyrant’s “rage … is the storm of a mighty intellect, imbued with hate,” in accordance with Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard as an “intellectual fiend.”75 Where Kean’s portrayal is frustratingly mercurial, Fisher’s performance never waivers from showcasing the king’s hypocrisy

Figure 3. Clara Fisher as Richard III. Print by T. Priscott, January 14, 1818. (Source: Collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.)
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Figure 3.

Clara Fisher as Richard III. Print by T. Priscott, January 14, 1818. (Source: Collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.)

[End Page 180]

and deception; her consistent portrayal of the king’s emotions and desires thus renders her Richard more lifelike, more convincing, and ultimately superior to Kean’s.

Combe’s divergence into theatre criticism at the end of his report is puzzling: What motivated such an attack on Kean? Important clues arise when considering the phrenologist’s own ties to the theatre, his closeness to the Siddons family, and his recognition of Fisher’s promotional potential. Combe wrote his report on Fisher not long after becoming friends with Mrs. Henry Siddons (Harriet Murray), proprietor of the Theatre Royal-Edinburgh and the widow of Sarah Siddons’s son Henry. He met Mrs. Henry Siddons through his brother Andrew, a doctor and fellow member of the phrenological society who would go on to become one of Mrs. Siddons’s most trusted advisors.76 Given Combe’s professed love of the stage, which biographer David Stack describes as “deep, enduring, and multi-layered,”77 it is likely that he hoped to impress the influential businesswoman with his knowledge of acting. Combe was undoubtedly familiar with her late husband’s treatise Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action (1807), a revised translation of Johann Jakob Engel’s Ideen zu Einer Mimik, which applies biological principles to the study of human gesture and includes a lengthy analysis of his mother Sarah’s meticulously crafted death scenes. Certainly, Combe shared Henry’s belief in the importance of collecting and classifying “different physiognomies” in order to understand human behavior.78 Perhaps more tellingly, the phrenologist was a longtime admirer of Sarah, and his writing, both public and private, is peppered with references to the great actress.79 Thus by writing a report that dismissed Kean’s explosive, irrational Richard in favor of Fisher’s more balanced, rational interpretation, Combe not only demonstrated his familiarity with the theatre, but also firmly planted himself in the Siddonian camp.80

Combe’s strategic alignment with an acting style reminiscent of Sarah Siddons’s came at a time when Kean’s popularity in London and elsewhere was rapidly increasing, to the detriment of the older actress. Since his January 1814 debut at Drury Lane, Kean had thrilled London audiences with his passionate performance style, characterized by “intense emotions and marked mood swings,” which stood in marked contrast to the restrained, neoclassical style embodied by Sarah and her brother John Kemble. Where their performances typically featured a series of statuesque poses and carefully modulated outbursts of emotion, Kean’s performances were passionate, spontaneous, ever-shifting.81 William Hazlitt, a major Kean supporter, described his performance of Shylock as “more significant, more pregnant with meaning, more varied and alive in every part, than any we have almost ever witnessed.”82 Combe disagreed and used his “Report Upon the Cast of Miss Clara Fisher” to throw the weight of phrenology behind Sarah Siddons and her family. [End Page 181]

Combe’s lengthy analysis of Fisher’s Richard also furthered his report’s underlying claim: namely, that there was nothing mysterious or undecipherable about the child actress. Her Richard was consistent, balanced, and legible, despite the character’s despicable qualities. It is worth noting that Combe avoids any reference to Fisher’s celebrated performances in The Actress of All Work, even though she performed it several times during her 1820 visit to Edinburgh.83 Perhaps he decided against writing about the farce because it seemed trifling compared to Shakespeare; or perhaps he avoided it because its constantly shifting repertoire of characters of varying ages, genders, and ethnicities challenged notions of an easily diagnosed, decipherable self. It is worth recalling Goodall’s observation that protean farces gained popularity during a period when many “biologists committed themselves to the view that anatomy was destiny.”84 Such farces traded in indeterminacy, demonstrating through the performer’s rapid character transformations that all humans, like all matter, participate in an ongoing process of passing from role to role, womb to grave.85 Combe rejected such uncertainty; instead, with his report he pinpointed the source of the young actress’s talent, rendering her mind and talent legible not just for his own sake, but for the benefit of all his readers (fig. 4).

For decades, Fisher’s cast performed on behalf of phrenology whenever it appeared as an illustration in Combe’s publications or on lecture stages alongside other examples of exceptional human beings. Yet, as the following section suggests, while Combe deployed Fisher’s cast to serve his own ends, the cast (like all casts) asserted an agency of its own on the lecture stage, troubling his performance of scientific certainty.

The Cast Onstage

Throughout the nineteenth century, scientists looking to advance their profiles on the lecture circuit crafted performances that balanced entertainment with the dissemination of knowledge. Such lectures appealed to the sensory and the emotional—for example, by displaying artifacts from the natural world or demonstrating the latest scientific experiments, instilling a sense of wonder and excitement in audiences.86 Yet, the scientific lecturer also had to craft his87 performance in keeping with nineteenth-century models of bourgeois masculinity, which emphasized restraint and self-control.88 “Command over his own body was constitutive of the public man,” writes Morus in his study of physics lecturers, “and was, consequently, a key strategy in demonstrating [End Page 182] mastery over nature through appropriate experimental performances.”89 Put differently, the nineteenth-century lecturer had to perfect a kind of inner stillness (not unlike a statue) in order to maintain dominance over his audience and, in many cases, the objects or other materials that surrounded him on the lecture stage. In effect, the scientific lecturer performed human domination over the natural world in accordance with nineteenth-century notions of the “great chain of being,” with the scientist standing in as a surrogate for all humanity.

Figure 4. Comparison of Clara Fisher’s skull with that of Jacob Jervis, from Elements of Phrenology (1824). (Source: Collection of the New-York Historical Society, New York City.)
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Figure 4.

Comparison of Clara Fisher’s skull with that of Jacob Jervis, from Elements of Phrenology (1824). (Source: Collection of the New-York Historical Society, New York City.)

Combe’s public talks exemplified the performance genre of the scientific lecture. To encourage others to take up the study of phrenology, he developed an entire course of lectures that could be delivered over the period of five to six weeks. On his tour of the United States during 1838–40, for instance, he presented a series of lectures in Boston before moving on to give the same series in New York, Philadelphia, and New York again.90 As Andrew Boardman, recording secretary of the Phrenological Society of New-York, remarked in 1839, “Mr. Combe is not a splendid lecturer, nor a brilliant lecturer, nor a fascinating lecturer,” yet his “language is full and flowing; his style familiar, chaste, earnest, and unambitious.”91 Where other lecturers aimed to dazzle, Combe sought “to enlighten the understanding, elevate and purify the feelings” and [End Page 183] therefore “all clap-trap artifices are elbowed off the stage.”92 From this description, Combe would appear to have been something of a proto-realist, rejecting bombastic vocalizations or overwrought emotional displays for calm, persuasive argumentation. However, if he eschewed cheap tricks, he did not dispense with the theatrical altogether. His physical appearance, notably his shock of prematurely white hair and his tall, thin frame, combined with a stern manner of speaking, made him an imposing figure on the lecture stage.93 And Combe understood the importance of using objects, demonstrating through his onstage interactions with skulls, casts, busts, and other specimens that he held the key to unlocking the mysteries of the human mind.

The less-than-flattering caricature shown in figure 5, created in 1826 and attributed to British painter and engraver Henry Thomas Aiken (1785–1851),94 offers a useful, if biased, view of phrenological performance. The tall, thin, elegantly dressed central figure is probably a representation of Combe, given the similarities in physique, the Scottish scientist’s status as phrenology’s leading representative at this time, and the appearance of Combe’s name on the spine of two books on the shelf directly in line with the phrenologist’s head. This figure has removed his curly wig (a possible wink at Combe’s own mane) to expose a bald head covered in red bumps suggestive of excessive self-analysis. On the table before him rests a placid-faced bust marked with the thirty-three organs of the brain. Other busts and skulls peer down from shelves. Many of these bear the names of important artists, writers, and scholars—Shakespeare, Scott, Gall, Spurzheim, Tremain—while others represent individual (fictional) “faculties” of Pride, Sleepiness, Slyness, Consequence.95 An audience of men and women and at least one child look on in varying states of interest, wonder, bemusement, and doubt. A man in the front row gazes into the eyes of a skull, while a woman in black looks on with an expression of surprise or suspicion. Behind them, a woman in a feather hat and two bald men touch their heads as if trying to apply the lessons of the lecture to their own bodies. Another man seated in the front row glances sternly down at two busts on the floor of the lecture hall, which stare back at him. So also do the other busts, skulls, and casts in the room, mirroring the gazes of the still-living spectators.

Aiken’s keen attention to the details of the room highlights the complex choreography of human remains on the phrenological lecture stage, showing how phrenologists asserted their authoritative status by littering the lecture area with skulls, cast, and busts. Here, the excessiveness of the display—the sheer number of objects on the floor, table, and wall—testifies to the rigor and expansiveness of the phrenologist’s reach. This reading becomes more complicated, however, when we turn our gaze toward the busts, skulls, and other objects in the room, and to their interactions with the phrenologist and other audience members. Staring down from their perches on the wall or on the lecture table, these human remains transform the phrenologist and [End Page 184] his spectators into the objects of their attention, the sources of their inquiry. Although, as noted above, scientific lectures were designed to position the speaker as an all-knowing master of the material world, the animated and animating objects depicted here suggest otherwise. As they gaze on Combe and his audience, the busts, skulls, and casts turn the hierarchy of the lecture stage onto its head, calling into question the possibility of human mastery over seemingly inert objects and the hidden realm of the human mind. The three spectators who touch their heads do so as if responding to directions from one of the busts, while the phrenologist, with his wide stance and outstretched arm, starts to appear less as a commanding figure and more as a peculiar puppet under the control of the heads above him. It is as though the humans are in the process of becoming objects, passing from one state into another in response to the phrenological objects that encircle them.

Figure 5. A satirical caricature depicting a phrenology lecture, “Calves’ Heads and Brains or a Phrenological Lecture,” September 1826. Image attributed to Henry Thomas Aiken. (Source: Collection of the Center for the History of Medicine, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.)
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Figure 5.

A satirical caricature depicting a phrenology lecture, “Calves’ Heads and Brains or a Phrenological Lecture,” September 1826. Image attributed to Henry Thomas Aiken. (Source: Collection of the Center for the History of Medicine, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.)

In Performing Remains, Schneider explores the way in which sculpture and other forms of statuary participate in a process of passing, “both the passing of the artwork (as it attempts to pass as that which it sites/cites), and the passing of the passers-by who encounter the work in the museum.”96 Such acts of passing (or attempts to pass) constitute “a conditional theatrical becoming, based on a precarious performative negotiation [End Page 185] (a social negotiation) between passing and not passing—passing as, passing on, passing through, passing over, and passing by.”97 While the sculpture (like the cast) can never escape its materiality, it can alert its human observers to a more complex relationship between object and subject, human and nonhuman, past, present, and future.98 To return to Aiken’s caricature, then, we can see how the image represents the phrenological lecture room as a site of dynamic passing, of sculptural objects passing as human, of humans passing as objects, of “contradictory” scientific practices passing as incontrovertible truth.99 Rather than confirming the phrenologist’s performance of scientific mastery, such objects question the possibility of humans dominating nonhuman entities and human remains.

Similar acts of passing arise from the frontispiece to Lectures on Phrenology (1839), a published collection of the lectures that Combe delivered during his 1838–40 tour of the United States. In this image (fig. 6), silhouettes of the phrenologist, a skull, and a mounted bust dominate the foreground, while three busts and several other skulls wait on a table in the background. The use of silhouetting blurs the lines between human and human remains, between the black form of the gesturing Combe and the placid faces of the enlightened human busts, whose visible expressions make them appear livelier, if not more alive, than the phrenologist. Again, we catch a glimpse of what Monks describes as “the disruptive powers of human remains,” as seen in their capacity to expose the “ambivalent subject status” of those who perform with or alongside them.100 While Combe’s size, erect posture, and outstretched finger indicate that he is in control of the setting, the busts on the table draw the viewer’s eye—almost, but not quite passing for human beings. Two of the busts represent male subjects, judging by the presence of facial hair and prominent facial features. But the androgynous features of the third bust—short, curly hair, full lips, rounded cheeks, and an open expression—recall the illustration of the 9-year-old Fisher, the image that accompanied Combe’s report on her cast. This figure looks directly at the viewer, inviting her to stare and wonder … or to question the phrenologist’s claims. Who is animating whom, the bust and its companions seem to ask. Just as Yorick (or rather Yorick’s skull) “butts his way into the foreground” when Hamlet clasps it in his hands,101 so also the bust of Fisher forcefully “asserts itself within a field of matter,”102 collapsing binaries between the living and the dead, subjectivity and objectivity.

Ultimately, this frontispiece stages the inter(in)animation of the human scientist and his not not human objects. Each group casts the other through its physical proximity and material distance: plaster, bone, flesh. Sitting on their mounts, the busts disrupt the illusion of human mastery in much the same way that human skulls used in theatrical productions upstage their human counterparts by “continually insisting on their own [End Page 186]

Figure 6. Frontispiece of George Combe’s Lectures on Phrenology (1839), which included most of his lectures delivered on his 1838–40 North American tour. (Source: Collection of the New-York Historical Society, New York City.)
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Figure 6.

Frontispiece of George Combe’s Lectures on Phrenology (1839), which included most of his lectures delivered on his 1838–40 North American tour. (Source: Collection of the New-York Historical Society, New York City.)

distinctive history and autonomy.”103 As Monks writes, “real skulls display a kind of virtuosity, a monstrous ability to exceed human capability and transcend the imagined boundaries of performance. By coming to ‘life’ onstage and asserting its presence as real, the skull is turned into a star actor.”104 Skulls and other human remains burst the bubble of theatrical illusion because they not only index the mortality of all humans looking upon them, whether actor or spectator, but also remind their onlookers that human subjectivity arises with and through an entanglement with nonhuman entities. This kind of star turn becomes even more difficult to ignore, I venture, when the human [End Page 187] remains onstage belong to a known and still-living human being. Here, the spectacle of memento mori is (almost) superseded by the seductive urge to compare the object onstage with the human being living elsewhere. In the case of Fisher’s cast, although the object’s theatrical life extended well beyond the actress’s stage career, its presence on Combe’s stage reminded audiences of the talented girl they had once known.

Fisher’s popularity had waned somewhat by the time Combe toured the United States between 1838 and 1840 (she married James Maeder in 1834 and retired from acting following the birth of their son), but her image and name continued to resonate with US theatregoers. The middle-class audiences who gathered at Combe’s lectures certainly would have recognized Fisher’s face on his stage, for they had been looking at and collecting it themselves for years. But a closer look at how audiences came to know and interact with Fisher suggests that they may have felt more than a spark of recognition when they saw her cast on Combe’s stage.

Fisher first traveled to the United States in 1827 at age 16 (fig. 7) and quickly become one of the country’s most beloved stars. Following her triumphant American debut at the Park Theatre in New York City, her name and image spread rapidly up and down the East Coast and beyond through news reports, imagery, and celebratory objects. By this time, her repertoire had expanded to include young Shakespearean heroines, notably Juliet and Ophelia, as well as other leading female roles, but she continued to delight audiences with her mimetic plasticity, seen most vividly in her portrayal of all four of the Four Mobrays and six roles in The Actress of All Work.105

Fisher’s popularity with US audiences led to the widespread dispersal of her name and image, resulting in a kind of semiotic excess that resembled her own protean performance style. Fans collected portraits of her and purchased sheet music that the actress had sung onstage, presumably in an effort to emulate her or hold on to something of her stage presence.106 Recalling the young actress’s effect on the American theatregoing public during the late 1820s and early ’30s, actor-manager Joe Cowell observed that “[n]othing could exceed the enthusiasm with which this most amicable creature was received everywhere. ‘Clara Fisher’ was the name given to everything it could possibly be applied to: ships, steamboats, racehorses, mint juleps, and negro babies.”107 This broad and peculiar assemblage of animals, vehicles, alcoholic drinks, and infants offers evidence of the scope of Fisher’s celebrity and the commercial, aspirational, and even political deployment of her name and image. In particular, Cowell’s casual reference to the popularity of Fisher’s name among African American families suggests that some audiences saw in her the promise of a brighter future for their children. And indeed, an 1893 Cosmopolitan article reported that African American [End Page 188] families “proudly christened” their daughters Clara Fisher in the same way that they gave their sons “the honored names of George Washington or Benjamin Franklin.”108

Figure 7. Portrait of Clara Fisher shortly after her US debut, ca.1827. Print by C. G. Childs. (Source: Collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.)
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Figure 7.

Portrait of Clara Fisher shortly after her US debut, ca.1827. Print by C. G. Childs. (Source: Collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.)

In their seemingly endless variety and widespread dispersal, these humans, animals, and objects worked collectively to unfix or dismember Fisher’s name from her body, turning her protean virtuosity inside out by dispersing it across a multiplicity of forms. Together, these human and nonhuman entities exploded the notion of ever containing a single human in one form, of freezing, holding, or immobilizing that human through casting practices, scientific or theatrical. Instead, each entity carried a trace (what Schneider refers to as “affective stains”) of the actress, ensuring that she would [End Page 189] continue to “pas[s] between bodies and across time.”109 In other words, a little bit of Fisher existed in all those who had seen and admired her performances or dreamed of escaping the narrow molds of race, class, and gender.

When Combe appeared on lecture stages in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, then, he was not just retracing Fisher’s earlier journeys nor was he merely ghosting the actress by performing with the remains of her 9-year-old self; rather, he performed for an audience that still carried the “affective stain” of Fisher’s earlier performances and felt something of her body passing between them and across time. This collective performance of passing challenged the very premise of Combe’s phrenology by demonstrating the plurality, porousness, and complexity of human subjectivity in a manner surprisingly akin to protean farce. Combe may have believed that he had uncovered the source of Fisher’s talent, but “the actress of all work” defied such easy categorization. [End Page 190]

Marlis Schweitzer

Marlis Schweitzer is an associate professor in the Department of Theatre at York University. She is the author of When Broadway Was the Runway: Theater, Fashion, and American Culture (2009) and Transatlantic Broadway: The Infrastructural Politics of Global Performance (2015), and coeditor (with Joanne Zerdy) of Performing Objects and Theatrical Things (2014).

Footnotes

I would like to thank Roberta Barker, VK Preston, and Laura Levin for helpful feedback on an earlier draft of this essay, and to Julie Matheson for research on phrenology. Thanks as well to Joanne Tompkins and the anonymous readers for providing clear direction at a later stage. The research presented in this essay is part of a larger investigation of nineteenth-century child performers funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

1. The Edinburgh Phrenological Society was established on February 22, 1820.

2. The Library of Congress’s collection includes several playbills from Fisher’s 1820 appearance at the Theatre-Royal Edinburgh, where she performed in The Merchant of Venice, Richard III, The Spoiled Child, and Lilliput. See Thr. A3, box 2, folder 1, and Thr. A4, box 2, folder 1 (hereafter LOC playbills collection).

3. George Combe, “Report Upon the Cast of Miss Clara Fisher” (1820), in Clara Fisher Maeder, Autobiography of Clara Fisher Maeder, ed. Douglas Taylor (New York: Burt Franklin, 1979), 107–13. Originally published 1897.

4. Ibid., 13.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. “List of Donations,” in Transactions of the Phrenological Society, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: John Anderson Jr., 1824), xv–xvi.

8. See the profile portrait of Fisher, age 9, published as a plate in Transactions of the Phrenological Society (1824), and the figure comparing her skull with that of Jacob Jervis featured in George Combe, Elements of Phrenology (Edinburgh: John Anderson Jr., 1824).

9. Iwan Rhys Morus, “Placing Performance,” Isis 101, no. 4 (2010): 775–78, quote on 775.

10. Ibid., 776, 778.

11. Tiffany Watt Smith, On Flinching: Theatricality and Scientific Looking from Darwin to Shell Shock (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 29–30.

12. For example, Joseph R. Roach makes no mention of phrenology in his highly influential book The Player’s Passion: Studies in the Science of Acting (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985). One important exception is biographer David Stack, whose recent biography of Combe highlights the importance of the phrenologist’s relationships with Sarah Siddons, Mrs. Henry Siddons, and Fanny Kemble, among others. See Stack, Queen Victoria’s Skull (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2008).

13. Roach, The Player’s Passion, 15.

14. Ibid., 11.

15. Watt Smith, On Flinching, 30.

16. See Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (New York: Routledge, 2011); Andrew Sofer, The Stage Life of Props (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003); Aoife Monks, “Human Remains: Acting, Objects, and Belief in Performance,” Theatre Journal 64, no. 3 (2012): 355–71; Lezlie C. Cross, “The Linguistic Animation of an American Yorick,” in Performing Objects and Theatrical Things, ed. Marlis Schweitzer and Joanne Zerdy (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 63–75; and Paige A. Reynolds, “‘A Theatre of the Head’: Material Culture, Severed Heads, and the Late Drama of W. B. Yeats,” Modern Drama 58, no. 4 (2015): 437–60.

17. Monks, “Human Remains,” 355–56.

18. Ibid., 356.

19. Uta Kornmeier, “Almost Alive: The Spectacle of Verisimilitude in Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks,” in Ephemeral Bodies: Wax Sculpture and the Human Figure, ed. Roberta Panzanelli (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2008), 67–82, quote on 76.

20. Ibid.

21. Following Fred Moten (following John Donne), Schneider describes “inter(in)animation” as “a constant (re)turn of, to, from, and between states in animation” (Performing Remains, 7).

22. Kornmeier’s discussion of the cast-making process calls to mind Schneider’s recent comments about the Lascaux caves in “Lithic Liveness and Agential Theatricality,” her paper presented at the American Society for Theatre Research conference, Baltimore, November 2014.

23. Schneider, Performing Remains, 167.

24. For another account of animacy, see Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).

25. British Press, December 31, 1817, qtd. in M. Burton, A Sketch of the Life of Miss Clara Fisher, the Lilliputian Actress, of the Theatres-Royal Drury-Lane and Covent Garden (London: W. J. Collier, 1819), 31.

26. “The British Stage,” January 1818, qtd. in Burton, A Sketch of the Life of Miss Clara Fisher, 10.

27. Morning Chronicle, December 11, 1817, qtd. in Burton, A Sketch of the Life of Miss Clara Fisher, 13.

28. Ibid.; British Press, December 11, 1817, qtd. in Burton, A Sketch of the Life of Miss Clara Fisher, 18–19 (emphasis in original).

29. British Press, December 11, 1817 (emphasis in original).

30. For an overview of the attacks on Master Betty, see J. Bisset, Critical Essays on the Dramatic Excellencies of the YOUNG ROSCIUS, By Gentlemen of Distinguished Literary Talents and Theatrical Amateurs Opposed to the Hypercriticisms of Anonymous Writers, Who Assume the Signatures of Justus, Ennius, & Critus (Birmingham: Knott and Lloyd; London: J. Johnson, Cardell and Davies et al, 1804), in the Houghton Library Collections of Harvard University. The Houghton Library also contains numerous satirical caricatures of Master Betty.

31. See Marah Gubar, Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 159–61; and Hazel Waters, “‘That Astonishing Clever Child’: Performers and Prodigies in the Early and Mid-Victorian Theatre,” Theatre Notebook 50, no. 2 (1996): 78–94.

32. Fisher Maeder, Autobiography, 7.

33. On this shift, see Carolyn Steedman, Strange Dislocations: Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority, 1780–1930 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995); Judith Plotz, Romanticism and the Vocation of Childhood (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001); Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (New York: NYU Press, 2011); and William Stroup, “The Romantic Child,” Literature Compass 1, no. 1 (2004): 1–5.

34. “The British Stage,” January 1818.

35. Morning Chronicle, December 11, 1817.

36. Morning Chronicle, December 31, 1817, qtd. in Burton, A Sketch of the Life of Miss Clara Fisher, 14.

37. British Press, December 11, 1817.

38. Gubar has traced how this tension between seeing child performers as “both artful and natural, both inscribed and original” played out throughout the nineteenth century (Artful Dodgers, 158–59).

39. Morning Herald, December 11, 1817, qtd. in Burton, A Sketch of the Life of Miss Clara Fisher, 17.

40. British Press, December 31, 1817 (emphasis in original).

41. Morning Chronicle, December 11, 1817.

42. Michael R. Booth, “Lines of Business,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance, ed. Dennis Kennedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), ebook, and Theatre in the Victorian Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 125–30.

43. Parisian audiences, including Denis Diderot, hailed Garrick as “a natural phenomenon to be studied for clues to the general workings of nature”; see Roach, The Player’s Passion, 127.

44. Jane Goodall, Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin: Out of the Natural Order (London: Routledge, 2002), 124; see also Richard L. Klepac, Mr. Mathews at Home (London: Society for Theatre Research, 1979).

45. “The Olympic Theatre,” The Literary Gazette: A Weekly Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts 102 (January 2, 1819): 142.

46. “The Drama: English Opera House,” The New Monthly Magazine and Historical Register 6, no. 21 (1822): 396.

47. Goodall, Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin, 126.

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid., 124.

50. Combe, Elements of Phrenology, 13–14.

51. Ibid., 68–69.

52. Ibid., 35.

53. For a full discussion of all thirty-three organs, see ibid. On the history of phrenology, see John B. Davies, Phrenology: Fad and Science, A 19th-Century American Crusade (1955; reprint, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1971); Charles Colbert, A Measure of Perfection: Phrenology and the Fine Arts in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997); and John van Wyhe, Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2004).

54. George Combe, A System of Phrenology, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh: John Anderson Jr., 1830), 93 (emphasis in original).

55. “List of Donations,” xv–xvi.

56. “Notices Relating to the Fine Arts in Edinburgh,” in The Scots Magazine and Edinburgh Literary Miscellany, vol. 78, pt. 1 (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable and Company, 1816), 207.

58. Contemporary artists debate the risks of inserting straws up the nose to create an airway during the cast-making process; some warn that the weight of the plaster can force the straws out of the nostrils, resulting in a bleeding nose—or even worse, suffocation. See the comments section for “How to Cast a Face in Plaster by Rachel,” “Instructables,” http://www.instructables.com/id/How-To-Cast-a-Face-in-Plaster/.

59. Contemporary artists like Heather Cassils and Juliana Cerquiera Leite experiment with movement in/through sculptural formation, leaving imprints in the material that explicitly foreground the labor of the artist body. See Amelia Jones, “Material Traces: Performativity, Artistic ‘Work,’ and New Concepts of Agency,” TDR: The Drama Review 59, no. 4 (2015): 18–35.

60. Kornmeier, “Almost Alive,” 76.

61. Combe, Elements of Phrenology, 24.

62. Combe, “Report Upon the Cast of Miss Clara Fisher,” 107.

63. Ibid., 108.

64. Ibid., 109.

65. Ibid.

66. Ibid.

67. Combe observes that Fisher’s rote-learning ability and verbal memory were so strong that before she could read she was capable of learning a hundred lines of text in a hundred minutes; see ibid., 113.

68. This observation supports Marah Gubar’s contention that Victorian audiences delighted in child actors’ “[p]recocious competence” and “theatrical expertise,” which complicates previous assumptions that audiences were mostly interested in consuming, in Jacqueline Rose’s words, “the child as spectacle.” See Gubar, “The Drama of Precocity: Child Performers on the Victorian Stage,” in The Nineteenth-Century Child and Consumer Culture, ed. Dennis Denisoff (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008), 63–78, quote on 76.

69. Combe, “Report Upon the Cast of Miss Clara Fisher,” 110.

70. Ibid., 109 (emphasis in original).

71. Ibid.

72. Ibid., 111.

73. Ibid., 112 (emphasis in original).

74. Ibid.

75. Ibid.

76. Stack, Queen Victoria’s Skull, 104.

77. Ibid., 102.

78. Henry Siddons, Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action: Adapted to the English Drama from a Work on the Subject by M. Engel, 2nd ed. (London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1822 [1807]), 25.

79. Stack, Queen Victoria’s Skull, 109.

80. For more on the similarities between Combe’s phrenological theory and Sarah Siddons’s acting style, see ibid. Through his friendship with Mrs. Henry Siddons, Combe would later meet Fanny Kemble, who became a lifelong friend, and Cecilia Siddons, Sarah’s daughter, who became his wife in 1833.

81. Tracy C. Davis, “‘Reading Shakespeare by Flashes of Lightning’: Challenging the Foundations of Romantic Acting Theory,” ELH 62, no. 4 (1995): 993–54, quote on 993.

82. Hazlitt, qtd. in ibid., 993.

83. For example, for her May 13, 1820, benefit performance, Fisher played The Actress of All Work after Richard III, in LOC playbills collection, Thr. A3, box 2, folder 2, (King) Richard III, 15 March 1819–6 September 1824.

84. Goodall, Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin, 124.

85. In this respect, the statue, the life-cast, and the protean farce resemble theatre history’s most infamous human remain—the skull. As Monks writes in her study of skulls in theatrical performance, such human remains “unsettle the subject by demonstrating the precariously deathly constitution of life itself” (“Human Remains,” 363).

86. Iwan Rhys Morus, “Worlds of Wonder: Sensation and the Victorian Scientific Performance,” Isis 101, no. 4 (2010): 806–16, quote on 814.

87. I use the male pronoun here to emphasize the overall gendering of lecturing as a performance practice during this period.

88. Of course, ideas about masculinity were constantly shifting and ideals varied according to class, ethnicity, education, and family history. See John Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-century Britain: Essays on Gender, Family, and Empire (New York: Pearson Education, 2005).

89. Morus, “Worlds of Wonder,” 815.

90. George Combe, Lectures on Phrenology (New York: Samuel Colman, 1839).

91. Andrew Boardman, “Introduction to Combe,” in ibid., v–xii, quote on v–vi.

92. Ibid., vi.

93. Combe’s taste for the spectacular extended to live dissections as well: at the conclusion of an early lecture series, he offered a step-by-step commentary as his brother Andrew dissected the brain of an ox or sheep, much to the delight and disgust of those assembled. See Stack, Queen Victoria’s Skull, 53.

94. “Calves’ Heads and Brains or a Phrenological Lecture,” Collection of the Center for the History of Medicine, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, http://collections.countway.harvard.edu/onview/items/show/6158.

95. These faculties do not correspond to the thirty-three faculties identified in Combe’s Elements of Phrenology, and it is unclear what the artist intended with such naming. The first two seem to allude to the seven deadly sins (pride and sloth/sleepiness); “slyness” seems to be a rebuke of the phrenologist himself; and “consequence” is perhaps a warning from the artist.

96. Schneider, Performing Remains, 135.

97. Ibid. (emphasis in original).

98. Schneider’s description of passing as a “conditional theatrical becoming” also recalls the contingencies of theatrical casting, whereby actors briefly assume roles though never fully become absorbed into them; of course, the extent of an actor’s absorption into a role depends on the individual’s training and the demands of the dramatic form—for instance, Method versus Brechtian approaches to acting.

99. Schneider, Performing Remains, 135–36 (emphasis in original).

100. Monks, “Human Remains,” 358.

101. Sofer, The Stage Life of Props, 99.

102. Robin Bernstein, “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,” Social Text 101 27, no. 4 (2009): 67–94, quote on 69.

103. Monks, “Human Remains,” 362.

104. Ibid., 365.

105. Eugene H. Jones, “Fisher, Clara,” in Notable Women in the American Theatre: A Biographical Dictionary, ed. Alice M. Robinson, Vera Mowry Roberts, and Milly S. Barranger (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989), 278–79.

106. “Wilt Thou Meet Me There, Love?” and “The Merry Mountain Horn” (M1 62, nos. 19 and 30, respectively) in the New-York Historical Society’s sheet-music collection.

107. Joe Cowell, Thirty Years Passed among the Players in England and America (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1844), 82. Other sources indicate that Fisher’s name was also “given to steamboats, and to brands of cigars, and to bonnets, and to neck-ties”; see Laurence Hutton, Talks in a Library with Laurence Hutton, recorded by Isabel Moore (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1905), 117. An entry in the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine 1 (April 1830): 412, includes a reference to the horse “Clara Fisher.”

108. Joseph P. Reed and William S. Walsh, “Beauties of the American Stage,” The Cosmopolitan 14 (1893): 294–304, esp. 297.

109. Schneider, Performing Remains, 135 (emphasis in original).

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-332X
Print ISSN
0192-2882
Pages
167-190
Launched on MUSE
2016-06-23
Open Access
No
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