- Women on Southern Stages, 1800–1865: Performance, Gender and Identity in a Golden Age of American Theater by Robin O. Warren
Before the Civil War, the primary form of theater organization was the stock company, which produced multiple plays in repertory and hired a central group of performers, as well as "traveling stars for limited engagements," and performed at different theaters (p. 10). Actors and actresses became well known in specific regions of the country, playing character types that appealed to familiar audiences. Robin O. Warren's WomenonSouthernStages,1800–1865: Performance, Gender and Identity in a Golden Age of American Theater aims to show that pre– Civil War actresses in the South both reflected and challenged the social expectations of their audiences. Warren focuses on actresses whose careers were primarily in the South and asserts that they "occupied influential public roles through which they complicated gendered identity" (p. 7).
Warren's focus on regional actresses is exhaustive, and her work brings together research from several unpublished theses and dissertations as well as her own research on a few actresses. The biographical data on these under-examined actresses—including Frances Denny Drake, Julia Dean Hayne, Mary Ludlow, and Jane Placide, among others—the detailed examination of the period's dramatic repertory, and the appendix of "Popular Colonial and Antebellum Plays," many of which are currently unknown despite their earlier prominence, will be of great interest to theater scholars.
There is little here that is new theoretically. How actresses balanced personal agency with social acceptance and challenged the public's inability to separate a dramatic role from its performer have been well researched by scholars such as Tracy C. Davis, Claudia Durst Johnson, and Elizabeth Reitz Mullenix, all of whom Warren acknowledges. Warren presents examples of multiple southern actresses, revealing a well-known narrative that especially resonated in the antebellum South, where maintaining patriarchal, racial, and gendered hierarchies was essential to the region's economic and psychological existence.
Although the text has been reworked significantly since Warren's dissertation on the same topic, some tendencies of her writing style remain, including her overly detailed explanations for frequently used performance theories, which may become tedious for readers with strong backgrounds in theatrical history and theory. Additionally, the book's structure leads to some repetition since the same subjects are discussed within several contexts. The first three chapters, "The Cast,""The Theatres," and "The Repertory," contain little analysis and instead present basic biographies and descriptions of the actresses, venues, and plays that serve as evidence for the analysis in the rest of the book. Warren's most interesting work takes place in chapters 4 through 7. Chapter 4 examines how the characters that actresses played both complicated and challenged the roles that southern women were expected to play in society. Chapter 5 examines the difficulties and benefits afforded to women who worked in theaters as actresses, managers, and playwrights. Chapters 6 and 7 examine the varied roles antebellum actresses played in light of their challenges to "polar ideas of sexuality" and their conceptions of race, which [End Page 150] Warren asserts "blurred racial boundaries and exposed the social construction of race" (pp. 121, 154). Chapter 8 offers a brief examination of how southern theater changed during the Civil War, mostly through descriptions of popular pro-Confederate plays. In the epilogue Warren acknowledges that the rise of the combination company after the war diminished the influence of regional stars and ended most regional differences in theatrical style and repertory. As a whole, Women on Southern Stages offers a comprehensive historical background on the experiences of southern actresses who have previously received scant scholarly attention. It places their narrative within the context of American actresses as a group and highlights the unique challenges and opportunities they faced as working women in the antebellum South.