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Actresses and the Economics of Celebrity, 1700–1800

  • Felicity Nussbaum

Abstract

The theatre stands at the crux of urban life in eighteenth-century England, and women figured at its very centre. Women played crucial roles as actresses, playwrights, dramatic characters, orange girls and pawnbrokers, as well as costume-makers and vendors. Star players such as Elizabeth Barry, the subject of the epigraph above, linked public fame to romantic affection through the magnetic theatrical appeal of a palpable female presence. She and other actresses openly violated the conventional injunction to women of this historical period: ‘Your sex’s glory,’ enjoined Edward Young in Love of Fame (1725–8), ‘’tis, to shine unknown; / Of all applause be fondest of your own’.1 Ranging in reputation from prostitutes to socially respectable ladies, early actresses offer a dynamic cultural site for examining unequivocally public women in a period that ostensibly fostered domesticity as an ideal. In the critical change from a land economy to a mercantile one, from an aristocracy to an increasingly urban landscape dominated by trades people, actors became public commodities whose worth fluctuated depending upon public demand.2 The expansion of print culture in the eighteenth century, along with the rise of mercantilism, the lessening power of the aristocracy, the secularisation of society and the increase in leisure gave rise to a media apparatus that was essential to the construction of celebrity.

Keywords

Eighteenth Century Theatrical Correspondence Living Wage Woman Writer Autobiographical Narrative 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Edward Young, Love ofFame, the Universal Passion in Seven Characteristical Satires, in Poetical Works ofEdward Young (1833; repr. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970), p. 113.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    This contradiction is noted in the entry for ‘actress’ in Encyclopaedia Britannica; or, a Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Miscellaneous Literature, 3rd edn., Vol. I (Edinburgh, 1797), p. 103.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Henry B. Wheatley (London: Bell, 1946), 18 August 1660, quoted in The Restoration Stage, ed. John I. McCollum, Jr. (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1961), p. 127.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Michael Shapiro, ‘The Introduction of Actresses in England: Delay or Defensiveness’, in Enacting Gender on the English Renaissance Stage, ed. Viviana Comensole and Anne Russell (Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999), p. 185.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Cited in Henry Wysham Lanier, The FirstEnglish Actresses from the Initial Appearance of Women on the Stage in 1660 till 1700 (New York: The Players, 1930), p. 28; Jeremy Collier, A Short View of the Immorality, and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698) (London: Routledge/Thoemmes, rptd. 1996), p. 9.Google Scholar
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  24. 32.
    Judith Milhous, ‘United Company Finances, 1682–1692’, Theatre Research International, 7 (Winter 1981/2), 45–50, notes that actors earned more than most trades, and more than actresses. My point is that a few celebrated and influential actresses earned more than most men.Google Scholar
  25. 33.
    A common labourer earned about £25 per year, a curate about £40, while £400 per year allowed a family and household supporting two servants to attain a genteel life in the 1790s. See Edward Copeland, Women Writing about Money: Womens Fiction in England, 1790–1820 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 29.Google Scholar
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    Langhans, ‘Tough Actresses to Follow’, p. 3; Sandra Richards, The Rise ofthe English Actress, pp. 56, 78, and A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses … and Other Stage Personnel in London, 16 vols, ed. Philip H. Highfill Jr., Kalman A. Burnim and Edward A. Langhans (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980), XIV, pp. 22–3.Google Scholar
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    For example, Elizabeth Barry loaned Alexander Davenant £400 in exchange for a share in the United Company, and Anne Oldfield is believed to have settled £50 per year on the poet Richard Savage.Google Scholar
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    Kimberly Crouch, ‘The Public Life of Actresses: Prostitutes or Ladies?’, in Gender in Eighteenth-Century England: Roles, Representations and Responsibilities, ed. Hannah Barker and Elaine Chalus (London and New York: Longman, 1997), pp. 58–78, notes that Woffington bought a home in Teddington for herself and her sister Polly. In addition, Pritchard purchased a place in Twickenham; Oldfield bequeathed her house on Grosvenor Street to her son; and Frances Abington, after leasing a house in Hammersmith near the Thames, later sold it to fellow actress Sophia Baddeley. Horace Walpole gave Kitty Clive a small house dubbed ‘Clive’s-den’ at Strawberry Hill, which she occupied from around 1753.Google Scholar
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    The Diary ofSamuel Pepys, ed. Henry B. Wheatley, 7 May 1667–8, in The Restoration Stage, ed. John I. McCollum, Jr, p. 165.Google Scholar
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    Edward Copeland, Women Writing about Money, cited in Wanko, Roles ofAuthority, pp. 166–7. This amount would be a typical wage for actors performing near the time of the 1737 Licensing Act.Google Scholar
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    Joanne Lafler, The Celebrated Mrs. Oldfleld: The Life and Art of an Augustan Actress (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989), provides the statistics for the Haymarket, p. 51.Google Scholar
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    Mr Neither-Side (pseud.), An Impartial Examen of the Present Contests Between the Town and the Manager of the Theatre with Some Proposals for accommodating the Present Misunderstandings between the Town and the Manager, Offered to the Consideration of Both Parties (London, 1744), p. 9.Google Scholar
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    A Biographical Dictionary ofActors, Actresses … & other stage personnel in London, ed. Philip H. Highfill, Jr., Kalman Burnim and Edward Langhans, III, p. 267.Google Scholar
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    Matthew J. Kinservik, ‘Benefit Play Selection at Drury Lane in 1729–1769: The Cases of Mrs. Cibber, Mrs. Clive, and Mrs. Pritchard’, Theatre Notebook, 50:1 (1996), 17, provides helpful statistics from which I have drawn.Google Scholar
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    For this reason, I think that Straub, Sexual Suspects, pp. 103ff. underestimates the potential agency available to actresses when she stresses their victimisation and ‘rape’, both ocular and literal.Google Scholar
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    Antony Aston, A Brief Supplement to Colley Cibber, Esq. His Lives of the Late Famous Actors and Actresses (London, 1747), p. 10.Google Scholar
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    Henry Fielding, ‘An Epistle to Mrs. Clive’, in The Intriguing Chambermaid. A Comedy of Two Acts (London: J. Watts, 1734), p. 3.Google Scholar
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    See Charles E. Pearce, ‘Polly Peachum’: Being the Story ofLavinia Fenton … and the Beggars Opera (New York: Brentano’s, 1913).Google Scholar
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    See Iain Mackintosh assisted by Geoffrey Ashton, The Georgian Playhouse: Actors, Artists, Audiences, and Architecture, 1730–1830 (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1975), Entry 112.Google Scholar
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    Aileen Ribeiro, ‘Costuming the Part: A Discourse of Fashion and Fiction in the Image of the Actress in England, 1776–1812’, in Notorious Muse: The Actress in British Art and Culture, ed. Robyn Asleson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 122.Google Scholar
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    In turn Clive later fought with Peg Woffington which sparked ‘The Green-Room Scuffle: Or Drury-Lane in an Uproar’, an unpublished play.Google Scholar
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    Henry Fielding, cited in Percy Fitzgerald, The Life of Catherine Clive (1888; repr. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1969), p. 19.Google Scholar
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    Mr Lun, Jr [Henry Woodward], The Beggars Pantomime; Or, the Contending Columbines … Dedicated to Mrs. Clive and Mrs. Cibber, 3rd edition (London: C. Corbett and W. Warner, 1736), Prologue.Google Scholar
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    William Rufus Chetwood, Dramatic Congress. A Short State of the Stage Under the Present Management (London: M. Cooper, 1743), p. 21.Google Scholar
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    Letter to London Daily Post and General Advertiser, 19 November 1736. For Cross, see Judith Milhous and Robert Hume, ‘Theatrical Politics at Drury Lane: New Light on Letitia Cross, Jane Rogers, and Anne Oldfield’, Bulletin of Research in the Humanities, 85:4 (Winter 1982), 412–29.Google Scholar

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© Felicity Nussbaum 2005

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  • Felicity Nussbaum

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