Women on Southern Stages, 1800–1865: Performance, Gender and Identity in a Golden Age of American theatre by Robin O. Warren
What principally strikes the reader of Robin Warren’s recent monograph, Women on Southern Stages, 1800–1865, are the sheer distances covered by so many of the actresses she discusses in her work. In an era in which many women might expect to spend most of their lives in the same state (if not the same fifty-mile radius), the artists in Warren’s study trekked substantial distances, often burdened by transporting families, multiple times a year. Whether they made friends and admirers in their temporary communities, or continued to combat the opprobrium often heaped on female performers, they persisted in their determination to create successful careers.
Consisting of eight short chapters, plus a useful appendix of plays popular in the antebellum repertoire, Women on Southern Stages subdivides each chapter into sections that direct the reader to specific topics, such as particular theatres, actresses’ pay, and the performance of different racial stereotypes. The book’s structure will make it most useful to scholars and students new to the history of nineteenth-century American theatre.
While Warren’s goal is to explore the lives of regional actresses on the Southern performance circuit, the study seems somewhat unbalanced. The first chapter introduces the women Warren describes as the “main players” in the [End Page 156] book, but the brief synopsis of each performer’s biography feels perfunctory, and leaves the reader unsure of what roles the figures will play in the arc of the narrative (3). Moreover, while Warren hopes to recuperate the experiences of performers less familiar to scholars of American theatre, she has focused the study on comparatively well-known acting families such as the Placides, the Arnolds, the Ludlows, etc. By separating them into encyclopedia-style entries, she obscures some of the networks that drew these women together, as actresses apprenticed in companies or intermarried among reigning theatre families. The structure of the study also risks overlooking the work of women who never achieved leading-lady status or affiliations with powerful families, but who remained mainstays of troupes for decades.
Chapter 2, on Southern theatres, provides a useful chronicle of the origins of various sites in Virginia, Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, and elsewhere, but the material seems both general and largely factual, rather than a more penetrating analysis of the social, economic, cultural, and political currents that shaped the rise of early national and antebellum playhouses. The following chapter on repertoire may be helpful to scholars unfamiliar with the popular pieces of the antebellum era, and is complemented by the summaries offered in the appendix, but since the overview of plays is separated from a discussion of actresses or local communities, the reader remains unclear about how to apply the material in the chapter. A detailed exploration of theatre origins and development of repertoires may be beyond the scope of Warren’s project, but she misses an opportunity to build on the work of scholars such as Odai Johnson and Jeffrey H. Richards, who have already examined the complex genealogies of the early American repertoire as well as acting companies’ ongoing challenges in building playhouses and establishing themselves as respectable members of the community. Their work, along with that of noted American theatre scholars Lisa Merrill, Gay Gibson Cima, and Amelia Howe Kritzer, might have provided a useful foundation for Warren’s study, allowing her to bypass the task of reiterating these histories.
Additionally, studies by Daphne Brooks and Laura Mielke that focus on performances of African American and Native American identity (respectively) might also have nuanced chapter 7, in which Warren examines how actresses addressed the difficulties of playing African American, Native, or “Oriental” characters. In her discussion of race and performance, Warren has chosen to focus on one or two well-known examples of each type, such as the “tragic mulatto” character of Zoe in The Octoroon. Subdividing the chapter by racial types (“Acting Black,” “Acting Red,” and “Acting Yellow”) means that sections appear in isolation that might have benefitted from a more in-depth analysis if woven together.
Interestingly, Warren includes the category of “Acting White” at the beginning of chapter seven (133). This canny move showcases the fact that whiteness is [End Page 157] also a performative identity – particularly in the antebellum South. In this section Warren focuses primarily on two plays that juxtapose white female characters against black male characters (Othello and Ingomar the Barbarian). It would have been intriguing to see whiteness examined beyond its function as an identity “created” by blackness. Alternately, this section might have been an opportunity for Warren to invoke Toni Morrison’s argument from Playing in the Dark about the ways in which the performance of whiteness demands a contrast with performances of other, “unfree” racialized communities.
Warren’s Women on Southern Stages reminds the reader not to neglect the nineteenth-century Southern theatre circuit in favor of New York and developing audiences in the West. It also prompts scholars to rethink women’s considerable labor of crafting careers and raising families against a backdrop of constant relocation. While they may have earned “enviable” salaries, they struggled with exhaustion and overwork (107). As Warren has argued in this study, they merit both respect for what they achieved as well as further scholarly attention.
Heather Nathans is the Chair of the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies, and the Alice and Nathan Gantcher Professor in Judaic Studies at Tufts University. Publications include: Early American Theatre from the Revolution to Thomas Jefferson (2003); Slavery and Sentiment on the American Stage, 1787–1861 (2009); and Hideous Characters and Beautiful Pagans: Performing Jewish Identity on the Antebellum American Stage (2017). Hideous Characters and Beautiful Pagans received the Barnard Hewitt Award from the American Society for Theatre Research and the American Theatre and Drama Society’s John W. Frick Book Award. Nathans is the editor of the Studies in Theatre History and Culture series from the University of Iowa Press.