The following is an excerpt from Staging Family: Domestic Deceptions of Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Actresses (December 2018) by Nan Mullenneaux. It is a new book in the Expanding Frontiers: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality series, which promotes rigorous and interdisciplinary research that critically expands the field and purview of feminist, women’s, and gender studies.
In Augustin Daly’s mid-nineteenth-century melodramatic hit Under the Gaslight, heroine Laura Courtland finds herself locked in a railroad tool shed while a man called Shorty lies tied to the railroad tracks in the path of an oncoming train. Brave Laura grabs an ax, chops her way out of the shed, and unties Shorty just before the train roars past. Then, before her friend can thank her, our heroine promptly faints against the railroad switch. This scene, noted by theater historians as an obvious gender reversal, reflects the successful mid-nineteenth-century actress’s challenge. The middle-class audiences and critics who cheered Laura Courtland’s heroics demanded she step quickly back into her acceptable gender guise of helpless female. A similar withdrawal was expected of actresses. The theatrical profession allowed a woman to chop her way out of economic dependence and professional inequality. Acting offered the possibility for her to succeed in art and business, achieving fame and fortune, but at the moment when a man might step forward to be hailed an icon of the American dream, a woman must faint. Leading ladies had to pretend their courage and achievements were all a mirage because people were watching—people who could determine a female performer’s popularity onstage as well as her social viability offstage. Actresses’ lives became a tug-of-war between the ax and the faint.
Women who made their careers on the American stage at mid-century juggled two opportunities: to succeed professionally and to rise socially. Because of the strict gender codes developing in the young republic, however, these goals appeared mutually exclusive. The audiences that applauded mid-nineteenth-century stage stars likely brought far more than just a ticket into each performance. Within the mind of each patron whose eyes turned toward the gas-lit stage lay the conflicts, tensions, hopes, and fears of that time and place. Within the arc of time from 1830, when theater began to gain ground in the Unites States, to 1870, when even debutantes considered the stage door, the country fought three North American wars (Mexican, Civil, and Indian), removing blocks to expansion but not to racial equality. Mid-nineteenth-century audiences’ anxieties stemmed from, among other things, political and economic corruption; a complex cultural relationship with Great Britain and Europe that vied with post-1815 nationalism; westward expansion that prompted an escalating sectional conflict; and social trans-formations that provoked a concerted effort by the middle class to entrench and define itself. Theater audiences, disproportionately representing urban rather than rural communities, realized how economic change had disrupted family systems. They held increased immigration responsible for the social problems that newspapers splashed across their front pages. As Richard Bushman argues in The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities, a growing white middle class sought to manage all these elements through refinement and edifying codes of behavior—codes that sought to define ideal men, women, and children.
In Market Sentiments: Middle- Class Market Culture in Nineteenth- Century America Elizabeth White Nelson explains that the dramatic “growth of population, particularly in cities, resulted in changes to the American middle class.” From the late eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, urban populations swelled from 200,000 inhabitants to more than 6 million. As an agrarian-based economy slowly transformed into an industrial one, as income disparity expanded, and as individual achievement and prosperity increasingly defined American identity, class consciousness intensified. Nelson argues that boom-and-bust cycles and the resultant economic insecurity led to “a real investment in social distinction and social advancement . . . The fluctuations of prosperity played an important role in the dependence of these men and women on cultural definitions of class.”
With the growth of urban centers, theatrical employment opportunities for white women of almost any background multiplied. Middle-class audiences were coming to accept “legitimate” theater offerings as worthy of their patronage. Like other enterprises at midcentury, business was booming, and actresses were part of that business. Juxtapose two recollections by mid-nineteenth-century actresses, and the successful female thespian’s predicament becomes clear. Retired star Kate Claxton, in response to a journalist’s query, “Would you have gone on the stage . . . if you knew as much about it as you do now?” replied, “Yes indeed, I know of no other vocation except literature in which a woman stands on a footing of absolute equality with a man.” Yet Anna Cora Mowatt, actress and playwright, admitted, “For an American and a woman to aim as actress and dramatist was . . . a bold experiment.” Mowatt referred not to the professional gamble of theatrical success or failure but to the risk of a woman losing her reputation and social standing, her chance to belong to the nation’s growing middle class. A girl considering a future stage career had to weigh theatrical employment against social acceptance— or did she?
An aspiring actress might not have been the only woman at mid-century contemplating this choice, but as an artist trained in the art of emotional deception, she proved an apt pupil in turning the “faint” into the “feint.” Mid-nineteenth-century actress and memoirist Olive Logan wrote in the 1860s, “Actors are regarded as a peculiar people . . . but man or woman may now follow the stage and still maintain a social standing.” In order to attain or maintain social standing, Logan and other female stars developed rhetorical stratagem, tricks, and maneuvers that employed “family values” and domestic tropes that served as distractions from their labor. These feints allowed them to break every nineteenth-century gendered prescription and still receive accolades as feminine idols and “good women.” Female stars accessorized this domestic “costume” with their individual idioms of sentiment, refinement, and sensibility. The very cocktail that scholars argue would be lapped up readily by the nineteenth-century middle class.
Even if nineteenth-century gender historians had not already established the importance of female domesticity and the private family to middle-class identity at midcentury, the verbal performances of female stage stars in memoirs and interviews would lay out the con-tours of the female gender ideal. The stars always recorded their lives in the context of others. By aligning themselves with some kind of group or community, whether kin, profession, class, race, gender, or nation, the public workingwoman played the role of member, not individual. Within these enclaves, actresses’ memoirs enacted the faint by playing roles acceptable to their middle-class audience and readership: the daughter, the mother, the sister, the lady, the patriot, the true friend, the orphan, the victim, the invalid, and the reformer. Woven in the fabric of each public persona lies the most effective faint of the era: the “true woman,” pious, pure, submissive, and above all domestic.
Biographers of nineteenth-century actresses consistently comment on the “act” their subjects performed to mitigate their public lives and appear “true women,” but few have analyzed the rhetorical costuming used to pull off the deception. Just as the middle-class audience influenced what appeared on American stages, so the middle-class reader influenced what appeared on the pages of a female star’s narrative. Examining the language, themes, and organization of the memoirs, letters, and interviews reveals the thespian authors’ intimate knowledge of the gender rules any nineteenth-century woman must appear to obey. These sources offer up the ingenious methods used to distract the public from an actress’s obvious transgressions.
What an opportunity writing and publishing an autobiography could prove to the woman concerned with her public image and legacy. Reading the memoirs is akin to entering a stage set, so meticulously designed that one occasionally forgets they are painted for effect. The actress ushers the reader into her imagined narrative parlor, and if successful, the story satisfies enough to discourage any questions. Readers watch the melodramatic, pathetic, and idyllic childhoods; hear the patriotic speeches; attend the heartrending illnesses; and applaud the touching family scenes. Every page argues that the profession that drew each woman onto a literal public stage eight times a week was the illusion, and in reality she inhabited the recommended sphere of home and family. In truth each woman was intricately connected to her family but never in ways that reflected ideals prescribed by nineteenth- century advice manuals and Sunday sermons.
Staging Family examines these women’s faints and feints through their public discourse, contrasting those narratives with what is known of their private lives. Some of the actresses included have been well researched by meticulous biographers; others left behind mere scraps of evidence regarding their offstage lives. But gathered together under the lens of the ax and the faint, achievement versus acceptance, certain patterns arise, and certain arguments may be hazarded. Since over a dozen mid-nineteenth-century female stars published memoirs, these texts can be mined for clues to the actresses’ double lives. Historians might gnash their scholarly teeth at the inconsistencies and outright lies woven through theatrical memoirs, but taken in context, these creative autobiographies display still another way successful women took power. I suggest that just as heroic as the ax is the faint.