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  • The Rise of the Diva on the Sixteenth Century Commedia dell’Arte Stage by Rosalind Kerr
  • Julia Schmitt
The Rise of the Diva on the Sixteenth Century Commedia dell’Arte Stage. By Rosalind Kerr. University of Toronto Press, 2015. Cloth $65.00. 216 pages.

In The Rise of the Diva on the Sixteenth Century Commedia dell’Arte Stage, Rosalind Kerr traces the journey of Italian actresses from their earliest inclusions in mountebank-style performances to their achievement as celebrity icons headlining professional Commedia troupes. Through this examination, Kerr aims to illustrate the numerous ways that these actresses were able to make commodification work in their favor. Kerr’s primary argument is that “through their creations of unforgettable female characters and their invention of a new mimetic acting style, the Italian actresses revolutionized the early modern Western stage” (12). Relying largely on primary texts from the period and on theories derived from psychoanalysis and fame studies, Kerr reclaims sixteenth-century Italian actresses as more than just an extension of the already heavily-judged category of “courtesan.” Within this body of work, Kerr re-positions these actresses as empowered women who were able to control their own narratives, either as actresses in an improvised style of performance or as published authors.

Chapter 1, “The Early Female Performer as Marketplace Fetish,” chronicles the ways in which actresses were “marketed” in popular theatre (4). Despite the church’s (and other antitheatricalists’) attempts to have women removed as performers, these actresses remained onstage due to their popularity with fellow company members and an adoring (paying) public (34–35). In chapter 2, “Pornographic Bawds, Courtesans, and Maidservants,” Kerr argues that the improvised nature of Commedia performances allowed actresses greater subjectivity (7), and that certain maidservant roles in Commedia were fleshed out with dialogue and gestures, which in turn offered a complex response to the economic realities of the maid’s position as a circulating sexual object (54). These first two chapters rely heavily on Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory (along with feminist critiques of both), to lay claim to the fact that many Italian actresses were active participants in promoting themselves as objects of fetishization. Chapter 3, entitled “Iconic Prima Donnas,” uses theories of fame and celebrity (primarily espoused by Joseph Roach) to demonstrate the ways in which four actresses achieved “iconic” status. By cultivating their own celebrity, these actresses elevated themselves to even greater heights of popularity among both the masses and elites, thereby transforming the Commedia dell’Arte into a legitimate new art form (81). Chapter 4, “Transvestite Heroines,” looks closely at actresses who appeared on stage dressed as male courtiers and how they were positioned to tease the spectator with sexual ambiguity and phallic power (82). The word transvestite is used by Kerr to describe actresses that impersonated men onstage, and Kerr argues that these transvestite performances helped to frame sexual identity as a non-binary construct (101). A great example of Kerr’s feminist take on the Divas in general may be found in her analysis of [End Page 123] their roles as transvestite performers: “the actresses were empowered to represent females who used their transvestite disguises to challenge male privilege and notions of sexual difference” (149). Famed Commedia performer Isabella Andreini encompasses the focus of chapter 5, “Isabella Andreini: The Making of a Diva.” In this chapter, Kerr argues that Andreini achieved a kind of celebrity worship by maintaining her authentic self onstage (103), and by remaining influential long after her death (127–137).

Kerr neatly and succinctly summarizes several psychoanalytic theories related to fetishization, “lack,” and jokes in general, but the subject matter may still prove to be too difficult for a profound understanding at the undergraduate level. The book feels more suited to a graduate seminar style course, and could also serve as an outstanding academic source for any research project tangential to the topics of Commedia dell’Arte, actresses in general, and/or the act of representation. By far, the book’s greatest strength lies in Kerr’s meticulous reading of primary texts from the period. The arguments of the book are grounded in literary texts, Commedia scenarios, poems, reviews, epigraphs, and personal letters, and Kerr...


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pp. 123-124
Launched on MUSE
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