The actress in France and Britain in the 19th century

On the 4th November 2014 the Sorbonne’s Theatre Studies research seminar PRITEPS (Programme de recherches interdisciplinaires sur le théâtre et les pratiques scéniques) held its first general seminar of the academic year on the subject of the actress. The two speakers were Florence Filippi, who has worked extensively on the Napoleonic star actor Talma, and Muriel Pécastaing-Boissière, whose research concentrates on Victorian theatre, an interesting comparison given our project’s interests. Leaving Talma to one side to concentrate on his female counterparts, Filippi’s paper was entitled ‘Emergence du vedettariat théâtral sur la scène française (XVIIIe-XIXe siècles)’. She argued that although French actors gained the status of citizen in 1790, were no longer judicially excluded as they had been under the ancien régime, and women gained emancipation, female celebrity was a new means of continuing the pre-existing marginalization. For Filippi, actresses were in an ambiguous position being both adored and hated, since they went against the bourgeois ideal of a good woman and wife. In examining this ambiguity, Filippi delved into the tension between the reality of the actress and the illusion of her performance onstage, and its relationship with the real world, concluding that the illusion can inform reality. Muriel Pécastaing-Boissière highlighted the continued social exclusion of actresses in Victorian Britain in her paper ‘Les Actrices victoriennes : entre marginalité et conformisme’. After Filippi’s paper it was evident that British actresses occupied a very different position in society principally because of the rigorous class system and strong protestant ideas. For example, a British actress once divorced could only be re-hired if she were to remarry, regardless of whether she actually lived with her new husband or not. Whereas the large French theatres were supported by the State, the British theatres were funded by their performance. This relegated the actress into an even more ambivalent position because she had to simultaneously attract an audience but separate herself from them to maintain an acceptable position in society: she was both marginalized but had to conform. According to Pécastaing-Boissière the refusal of star actresses to perform problematic roles such as Lady Macbeth had an active influence on the development of British playwriting, either hindering strong female roles or forcing the creation of ‘melodramatic’ plays where virtue and order reign at the end after subversive female actions. This led to an interesting discussion comparing the female roles of the two tradition’s repertoire. It was suggested that French theatre had a stronger tradition of dominant women such as Phèdre and Roxane, and as such perhaps it was more acceptable for a French audience in the nineteenth century to contemplate the convincing illusion of the challenging woman, which Victorian society could not tolerate.

Clare Siviter


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