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  • Turning the Madwoman Upside DownAltisidora's Transgressions in The Comical History of Don Quixote
  • Paula Maust (bio)

The soprano-actresses Anne Bracegirdle (1671–1748) and Letitia Cross (ca. 1682–1737) both sang mad songs in Thomas D'Urfey's stage play The Comical History of Don Quixote (hereAfter TCH). A dramatic adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes's celebrated novel telling the adventurous and often absurd tales of the knight-errant Don Quixote, D'Urfey's trilogy premiered in three stand-alone parts in 1694 and 1695 at the Dorset Garden Theatre in London.1 Spectators were absolutely obsessed with Bracegirdle's performance as the madwoman Marcella, who sings John Eccles's mad song "I Burn, My Brain Consumes to Ashes" (hereafter "I Burn") in Part II of TCH. The playwright himself lavished heavy praise on her performance, saying it was "a Song so incomparably well sung, and acted by Mrs Bracegirdle, that the most envious do allow, as well as the most ingenious affirm, that 'tis the best of that kind ever done before."2 Cross, meanwhile, played the role of Altisidora in Part III of TCH, where she sang Henry Purcell's mad song "From Rosie Bow'rs." Part III, however, flopped on opening, a fact D'Urfey attributed in substantial part to the performance of the music: "The Songish part which I used to succeed so well in, by the indifferent performance the first day, and the hurrying it on so soon—(tho extreamly well set to Musick and I'm sure the just Critick will say not ill Writ) yet being imperfectly performed, was consequently not pleasing."3 Although D'Urfey does not direct his critique to a specific singer or song, contemporary scholars who mention this event point to Cross as the intended recipient, [End Page 160] as she had the most substantial musical responsibility in the play.4 In addition to "From Rosie Bow'rs," she also sang Mr. Morgan's "Damon turn your Eyes to me" and Samuel Akeroyde's incestuous dialogue "Ah my Dearest Celide." "From Rosie Bow'rs" is the most virtuosic and lengthy song in the play, suggesting that D'Urfey blamed Cross's performance of the mad song for Part III's failure.

Mad songs depicting a character's descent into lovesick psychological distress were generally quite popular on the Restoration stage, especially when performed by a singer-actress. So why were Bracegirdle and Cross perceived so differently in their mad song performances? While there is little existing scholarship on Cross's career, the plethora of contemporary writing about Bracegirdle's performances mirrors her extraordinary popularity in the 1690s. Analyses of musical portrayals of disorder on the Restoration stage by Rebecca Crow Lister (1997) and Amanda Eubanks Winkler (2006) were the catalysts for a substantial body of scholarship focusing specifically on Bracegirdle.5 This work champions a woman whose tremendous professional successes rendered her the "Darling of the Theatre."6 While Bracegirdle's remarkable accomplishments are certainly worthy of serious study, I aim to open a dialogue about less well known women on the Restoration stage. To do so, I not only build on the methodological approaches of feminist scholarship on women and madness but also further this excellent line of historical inquiry by bringing early modern sound studies, irony studies, and semiotic analysis to bear on the mad song repertoire. Drawing these disciplines together provides fresh insight into our understanding of the ways in which the reception of a performer or musical work is connected to the latent cultural expectations connoted by specific aural cues. My work also showcases ways in which we might reconsider works by a canonical composer from the perspectives of the audience and the women who gave voice to the works' premieres. After considering the practicalities of Cross's performance, I contextualize her reception through the lens of seventeenth-century spectatorship and evaluate the ways aural signifiers of madness in "From Rosie Bow'rs" intersected with Cross's role. As I will demonstrate, this ultimately created a disordered and potentially displeasing experience for the audience. [End Page 161]

Restoration Performance Practicalities and Public Intimacy

Since D'Urfey's musical criticism focused specifically on the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-0612
Print ISSN
1090-7505
Pages
pp. 160-183
Launched on MUSE
2021-10-05
Open Access
No
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