Actresses and the Economics of Celebrity, 1700–1800

  • Felicity Nussbaum


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.


Eighteenth Century Theatrical Correspondence Living Wage Woman Writer Autobiographical Narrative 
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    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
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© Felicity Nussbaum 2005

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  • Felicity Nussbaum

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