- London’s West End Actresses and the Origins of Celebrity Charity, 1880–1920 by Catherine Hindson
Catherine Hindson’s London’s West End Actresses and the Origins of Celebrity Charity, 1880–1920 is remarkable in its timeliness and in the breadth and depth of its value for numerous fields of study. Thoughtful and well-researched, Hindson’s work appears at a time of great interest among theatre historians and performance theorists in the late Victorian, Edwardian, and pre–World War I era. In particular, the role and contributions of women in British theatre during this time has garnered much attention. Hindson’s study fills a significant gap by appreciating and analyzing the unpaid labor of theatre women during this period through charity work and its societal and professional implications.
Hindson’s book is part of a broader, longstanding effort by scholars of women’s history and feminist theory to appreciate the significance of women’s unpaid labor throughout the evolution of human history. She focuses in particular on the unpaid labor of actresses in the form of charity work in support of both ongoing social concerns, such as hospitals and orphanages, as well as acute concerns such as national disasters, like the sinking of the Titanic and military actions overseas. All of this unpaid labor, Hindson argues, required actresses to constantly renegotiate their professional identities. For instance, their work within the historically paternalistic organizational structures of established charities raised the question of exactly what professional skills the actress had to offer, beyond the presumed merely decorative and performative. Additionally, audiences began to perceive actresses differently, as their onstage personas were now complicated by new offstage personas. And finally, charity work involved working in close association with society women, requiring the negotiation of class boundaries and age-old prejudices against the morally suspect theatrical profession. Hindson’s exploration of all of these sites of identity negotiation is woven throughout her careful and thorough defining and documentation of various charity activities with which actresses worked.
The book’s seven chapters are grouped together in three parts. In each chapter, the author carefully defines each type of charity activity and provides a discussion of its history leading up to the era covered in the book. At times, these discussions seem to lose sight of actresses, either as a collective group or as individuals; however, this is no doubt due to her reasonable assumption that the work must first provide a thorough historical and categorical grounding in each charity topic that is likely not familiar to most theatre historians. Ultimately, although pages go by without a discussion of actresses per se, her exhaustive background material on so many different types of charity events certainly supports her thematic goal of orienting and evaluating the unpaid charitable work of actresses during this time.
In part 1, “Charity and the West End Theatre Industry,” Hindson discusses the history of intra-theatrical charity engagement within West End theatre culture and practice, paying particular attention to the changing purpose and form of the traditional fundraising matinee. In part 2, “Public Charity Events,” she provides a comparative analysis of the emergence of such extra-theatrical charity activities as costume balls, bazaars, tea parties, and garden parties. Her analysis of these events pays particular attention to an increase in the physical access of spectators to actresses who were no longer confined to the formal stage of a fundraising matinee, but were now, for example, selling goods and pouring tea. Hindson’s research in this area opens up interesting avenues for further inquiry regarding the actresses’ now differently commodified body and audiences’ perception of it. In this part of her work, Hindson documents the emergence of certain celebrity cultural forms with which we are familiar [End Page 575] today, such as the sale of autographed pictures in support of charity.
Part 3, “The Stage and War,” highlights yet two more forms of charity performance: recitations in support of the Second Boer War, and “Concerts at the...