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  • Shaw and the Actresses Franchise League: Staging Equality by Ellen Ecker Dolgin
  • Rebecca Cameron (bio)
Ellen Ecker Dolgin. Shaw and the Actresses Franchise League: Staging Equality. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. Pp. x + 243. $55.00.

Ellen Ecker Dolgin's Shaw and the Actresses Franchise League: Staging Equality makes a lively and valuable contribution to feminist theatre studies. The book traces the course from stasis to motion in women's theatrical roles and their everyday lives in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its scope is broader than its title might suggest: while Shaw and the Actresses Franchise League do feature prominently in the book, they serve as two key nodes in an expansive network of associations among playwrights, practitioners, theatre venues, and feminist activists extending from Britain across the Atlantic. Discussions of plays include well-known works by Ibsen, Wilde, Pinero, and Granville Barker, as well as little-known plays by women including Clothilde Graves's The Mother of Three (1896), Edith Lyttleton's Warp and Woof (1904), Cicely Hamilton's Just to Get Married (1910), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's suffrage play Something to Vote For (1911). The network encompasses the pioneering work of actress-managers such as Lena Ashwell; actress-activists such as Ellen Terry and Elizabeth Robins; feminist theatre groups such as Edith Craig's Pioneer Players; and small theatre venues such as the Vendrenne-Barker seasons at the Royal Court in London (1904–7) and the socially conscious theatre at Jane Addams's Hull House in Chicago. It also extends to performances of earlier works that influenced the representation of women on stage in the period, such as Racine's Phèdre and Alexandre Dumas fils's Camille in the nineteenth century or Shakespeare's Ophelia and Euripides's Electra at the turn of the twentieth century.

The opening chapters introduce the main narrative the book seeks to explore: the trajectory from Victorian pictorial drama to the more mobile, expansive, even iconoclastic roles for women characteristic of feminist theatre in the [End Page 104] early twentieth century. The first chapter, "Getting Past the Tableaux," lays the groundwork by noting the proliferation of images of women frozen in "beautiful stasis" (20) in nineteenth-century public and private performances through the popularity of tableaux vivants, "attitudes," melodramatic tableaux, and figures such as Galatea and Hermione. Dolgin finds in the tableaux vivants the seeds of change: though the female figures in these private productions were generally still and silent, the characters they played—heroic, rebellious, historically important—opened up a wide range of empowering possibilities for women. The next chapters chart the evolution from stasis to motion in a variety of forms, on stage and off, from early productions of Ibsen's A Doll's House in which audiences could watch Nora transform from "worshipful doll to disillusioned, empowered individual" (34); to the development of small, non-commercial theatres like the Royal Court that could take risks performing new plays with unconventional female roles; to the creation of suffrage plays and pageants, which constituted a more direct challenge to "static Victorian assumptions about family life, onstage as well as at home" (132). Dolgin sees the Actresses Franchise League as playing a central role in fostering a new direction in theatre in the 1910s that contributed to the rise of women's participation in public culture. The final chapter turns to a grimmer form of disruption of stasis with the experience of the First World War. Though this chapter sits somewhat uncomfortably with the more triumphant narrative that precedes it, it does include an interesting discussion of Edna St. Vincent Millay's Aria da Capo (1919) and Shaw's Heartbreak House (which premiered in New York in 1920) as modern instances of commedia dell'arte and ends with a compelling discussion of Shaw's Saint Joan, whose protagonist's brashness and iconoclasm seem more in keeping with the book's trajectory than the rest of the chapter does. Dolgin, who has also written Modernizing Joan of Arc: Conceptions, Costumes, and Canonization (McFarland, 2008), describes Joan as "one of Shaw's clearest feminist figures" (214) and reads her iconographic final gesture—a prayer and a glance heavenward—as...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 104-107
Launched on MUSE
2017-05-23
Open Access
No
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