The eighteenth-century actress : gender and agency

Droney, Lorraine Michelle

September 2014

Thesis or dissertation

© 2014 Lorraine Michelle Droney. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Actresses epitomized the pluralism of the female gender, exposing the variable images of women in their performances, painted images and in literature narrating the histories of performing women. The classification of actresses as either virtuous or immoral was not unique to professional actors and was suffered by women of all classes. And yet, with the theatrical stage as a platform to either conform or challenge conventional gender constructions, actresses possessed exclusive access to the public where they could establish alternative images of femininity.

This thesis examines the methods used by actresses in exerting their influence, but also identifies the abuses actresses endured that were distinctive to their profession. Their ability to mimic the manners and fashions of the upper classes and the acceptance of actresses into elite company, demonstrated the changeable nature of what individuals viewed as class identity. The transience of successful actresses in elevating their social status, posed a threat to social hierarchy that was founded on patriarchal authority. However, in appearing to conform to prescribed gender roles that placed women as the subordinates of men, actresses manipulated their identities to complement the public’s attitude.

The changeable nature of class identity juxtaposed the capriciousness of female representations, with descriptions of actresses varying from admirable women who were admitted into upper class society, to images of unworthy and immoral seductresses from the lower classes. Virtue once lost was not irreversible and the exploitation of this knowledge by actresses is discussed in relation to the increased visibility of businesswomen who utilised their ambiguous sexuality for career progression. Actresses throughout the eighteenth century were influential public figures, but the agency of the more successful performers aided in the construction of femininity that related to a broader spectrum of women.

Department of History, The University of Hull
Capern, Amanda L.; Pearson, Robin, 1955-
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