- The Many Middling Failures of Miss Virginia Calhoun
Performance historiography is premised on success. Watershed dates, events, and figures focus our narratives, coordinate our periodizations, and anchor our claims for significance. Our traditional tales of theatre’s history depend on such moments of invention and intervention, or on occasions of disruption and discovery: Thespis steps from the chorus; Okuni dances in the riverbed; Nora slams the door. Synecdochic evocations of past “success” stand as privileged cues to apprehending what matters, then and now, in performance history.
Those tales of obscurity and failure that we tell are likewise typically rendered in triumphant terms. Theatre historians routinely rediscover and retroactively celebrate the heretofore unacknowledged genius, undervalued technique, or overlooked influence of previously forgotten theatre-makers, events, or movements. Theatre history is thus comparatively bereft of non-triumphant tales. Our most favored failures are those readily rendered as episodes within triumph’s long arc or as epic enough to warrant a place within theatre history lore and legend. Performance history’s triumphal tendency might also be seen in how it does not narrate the undeniably unsuccessful performances of someone like Virginia Calhoun.
Calhoun—a mercurial, eccentric, mysterious woman who labored for nearly a half-century as an actress, writer, and producer as the nineteenth century became the twentieth—believed herself to always be on the verge of success. Having decided to become an actress shortly after her thirtieth birthday, the California-born and -educated Calhoun spent much of the 1890s studying in France and England. She returned to the United States as the century turned and enjoyed a brief stint as a touring trouper (mostly performing Sardou along the Southeastern coast) before resettling in Los Angeles, a newly booming city in her home state. In 1903 Calhoun secured the exclusive dramatic rights to Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (1883), the hugely popular fictional narrative of life in California’s southland during the Spanish colonial era. She then began what she would come to call her “lifetime’s work”: to bring a suitably artistic, authentic, and uplifting version of Jackson’s epic treatment of California’s “mission past” to respectable theatre audiences in California and beyond. As writer, star, producer, and marketer, Calhoun staged not only her own theatrical adaptation of Ramona, but also led two major, independent regional tours of her production throughout the Far West, Southwest, and Midwest in 1905 and 1906. Over the subsequent three decades the unmarried and unmoneyed Calhoun persisted, experimenting with form, style, and venue for her constantly revised script, all while vigilantly defending her Ramona from the creative predations of her usually male and always more successful rivals. Yet, despite her creativity, tenacity, and productivity, Calhoun is only remembered, if remembered at all, as a peripheral figure in accounts of more successful Ramonas (fig. 1).
Calhoun’s most sustained accomplishment is her accumulation of nearly fifty years of near success. Yet, as if to confirm that “near success” registers archivally as failure, Calhoun—a prodigious writer of letters, scripts, and stories; an avid collector of Southern California memorabilia; a prodigious contributor to a broad range of civic performance traditions—left no “Virginia Calhoun Collection” (at least not one that an existing archive or repository considered worthy of keeping). [End Page 75] Still, after more than fifteen years of my own on-again/off-again research tracking brief mentions of her in the printed record and her occasional appearances in other peoples’ papers, I find that the pieces of the Virginia Calhoun story have slowly come together and feel that I can now tell her story.
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But what is the point of telling a story like Calhoun’s? Why would, why should any reader or publisher care about the many middling failures of someone like her? My years of puzzling over the question of “what’s at stake” in telling Calhoun’s story has led me to appreciate that, for all her idiosyncrasy, she...