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.


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pp. 167-190
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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