Heroines of the Old-Time Stage

March 1, 2021
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth,
by John Singer Sargent

From ancient Greek and Roman times all the way up to Shakespeare’s day, women weren’t permitted to act on the legitimate stage. Female roles were usually played by boys. (The plot of the film Shakespeare in Love turns on this practice.) The development of opera in the 17th Century began to open up possibilities for female performers, but they didn’t become fully accepted in England until after Charles II retook the throne in 1660. Charles enjoyed theater and saw no reason to bar women from the stage. Indeed, his longtime mistress, Nell Gwyn, was a star of Restoration comedy.

Female performers reached new heights of celebrity in the 19th Century. With travel becoming safer, faster, and more comfortable, great actresses could command adoring audiences all around the world. On Sarah Bernhardt‘s first American tour in 1880, she performed Adrienne Lecouvreur in French to a New York audience willing to pay up to $40 a ticket – over $1,000 in today’s money. The spectators were so enraptured, even though many didn’t understand French, that she was compelled to make 27 curtain calls.

The volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders have contributed to Project Gutenberg a number of fascinating accounts of the great actresses of those bygone years. For example, Heroines of the Modern Stage, published in 1915, gives thumbnail sketches of the careers of Bernhardt, Ellen Terry, Eleanora Duse, and other legendary female performers of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Bernhardt and Duse also feature in Jules Huret’s 1901 slice of theatrical life, Loges et Coulisses (in French), which includes contemporary interviews with both of them as well as with Gabrielle Réjane.

Memoirs and recollections of these stars abound. English actress Ellen Terry was best known for her spectacular success in the Shakespeare productions of her professional and romantic partner, the great actor-manager Henry Irving. Her memoir, The Story of My Life: Recollections and Reflections, published in 1908 when she was in her sixties, recounts her long career on the stage from the age of nine. Terry came from a theatrical family; her parents, both of them actors, had 11 children, of whom five became actors (Kate Terry was John Gielgud’s grandmother). Ellen Terry and Her Sisters, by theatrical historian T. Edgar Pemberton, gives an account of the siblings’ careers.

Sarah Bernhardt was the daughter of a courtesan whose clientele included some of Paris’s richest and most influential men. Though Jewish by birth, she was educated in an exclusive Catholic convent. In her 1907 memoir, My Double Life, she recalls that she wanted to become a nun, but, after a “family council,” she was prevailed upon to study acting at the Paris Conservatoire. She was initially not a success. But her career skyrocketed after she appeared as the female lead in Alexandre Dumas’s play Kean in 1868. She continued acting well into the 20th Century, even after having a leg amputated in 1915 due to an earlier stage injury, and she even appeared in several silent films. Distributed Proofreaders volunteers contributed several works relating to Bernhardt to Project Gutenberg, such as her 1921 novel The Idol of Paris, as well as reminiscences by people who knew her (Sarah Bernhardt as I Knew Her, by Mme. Pierre Berton, Sarah Bernhardt, by Jules Huret, and a chapter of The Puppet Show of Memory, by Maurice Baring).

Fanny Kemble was another well-known English actress of the 19th Century. Born, like Ellen Terry, into a noted theatrical family, Kemble rose to stardom immediately after her 1829 debut, at the age of 20, as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Her tour of the United States with her father in 1832 is recounted in her Journal of a Residence in America. In 1834, she retired from the stage to marry Pierce Butler, a wealthy American who inherited vast plantations – and hundreds of slaves – in Georgia. Kemble lived on one of the plantations in the winter of 1838-1839, and she was appalled at the treatment of the slaves. She kept a meticulous journal of the horrors she witnessed, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation. But it remained unpublished until 1863, years after she had left her husband, when friends urged her to publish it in an effort to stop England from recognizing the Confederacy during the American Civil War. After retiring from the stage, she also published two memoirs, Records of a Girlhood and Records of Later Life.

The stories of these great ladies of the stage are just a small part of the theatrical gems glittering in Project Gutenberg’s collection – and admission is free.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer, in celebration of Women’s History Month.


Celebrating Women’s History Month

March 23, 2014

March is Women’s History Month and whilst most of the attention tends to be centred on 8 March, International Women’s Day, here at Distributed Proofreaders we like to spend the whole month inviting volunteers to focus their attention on books by women or about them and their achievements.

One of those books is one we posted in August last year, A Book of Bryn Mawr Stories by Harriet Jean Crawford et al. I wanted to talk about it because I feel that it fits well with this year’s theme—Celebrating Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment—as well as with the theme for International Women’s Day—Equality for Women is Progress for All.

Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia was founded in 1885 and was one of the first higher education institutions to offer graduate degrees to women. 129 years later it is still going strong, and it still has a strong focus on promoting educational access, equality and opportunity for women. Initially affiliated with the Quakers, by the time this collection of stories was published in 1901 it had become non-denominational.Book cover - Bryn Mawr Stories

The book is a collection of stories written by students of the college.  In the opening story, Ellen, the central character, has been asked to give a speech on The Educational Value of College Life. Struggling to come up with inspiration, she visits fellow graduates of Bryn Mawr for ideas. When she parts from one of them, the other woman says, by way of advice:

“I should certainly deal with the practical value of college life, taking up some line of thought that will show its power to make women effective citizens in the broad sense of the word.”

And this is a recurrent theme in the book: how educating women, far from making them unfit for the place society has designated for them, actually makes them more fit.

I remember when they passed equal opportunities employment legislation here in the U.K. It seemed like the world opened up. I could do anything. It made you dizzy with the new possibilities. All right, I was fourteen and naive and unaware that legislation is one thing and changing the mindset of a whole country is another. It didn’t stop me visualising all sorts of possible futures that I would never have even considered before.

Those early women scholars must have felt a bit like that. At a time when it was still seriously believed by men of science that if a woman had to think about “man things” (like politics, economics, science, etc.) then her brain would literally overheat dangerously, the introduction of degree courses for women was revolutionary.

There were many critics of teaching women to this level. They said that it wasn’t necessary, after all a woman’s place was in the home as a wife and mother. They said it was dangerous, making women dissatisfied with their lot and leading them to disagree with men. It seems very strange, here in the U.K. slightly more than a century later, but it was the way things were back then.

Many of the characters in the stories sound slightly stilted and preachy to the modern ear. This is understandable when you remember that they were written in 1901, a time of great change, and at the height of the struggle for women’s suffrage and improved rights for women. They argue the point that educating women does not make them unwomanly, unfit for matrimony or other feminine pursuits. That it is good for women to be able to think and to be aware of the issues of the day. I am one of the many beneficiaries of the fight for women’s rights and I appreciate it every day. Although I live somewhere that has come a long way from where the students writing these stories were living, there are still places where women do not have the same rights as men, where they do not have the same access to education, property ownership, work and money. There are still societies where the fight fought by Bryn Mawr and other groundbreaking institutions like it is ongoing.

This book was inspirational and, more importantly, aspirational, and I, for one, hope that some day all women (and men) will be seen as equal, with the same rights and responsibilities, the same economic and political power.

Maybe, a century from now, we won’t need a special day or month to celebrate women and their contribution to the societies in which they live.

Here’s hoping.


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