VICTORIAN VIEWS OF FEMALE ACTORS: BETWEEN FEMINISTS AND WHORES
Updated: Nov 13, 2018
In my novel, We Shall See the Sky Sparkling, Lily is an actress working in London at the end of the 19th century, when women who ventured on the stage were still being perceived as transgressing harlots, alongside being admired for their beauty and their acting skills.
Read further on this paradoxical perception of the emerging female artists that had flooded theatrical stages by the turn of the twentieth century.
Until the mid nineteenth-century, women had been confined into the private sphere, considered dependent and passive, the Angel of the House as Victorians liked to see them—separated from public life and restricted to home, marriage and morality.
By the second half of the nineteenth century, with the rapid economic growth of the industrial revolution and the weakening of the patriarchal power of fathers, women began stepping outside the familial world into the public sphere, and joining the labor force in search of independent living. Alongside housework, handicrafts, teaching and factories, women also filled creative positions such as journalism and fiction writing, and as performers in the theatrical stage.
Actresses reached fame, success and wealth with their valiant appearance on stage, a sphere that could provide higher wages than any other legitimate occupation accessible to a woman. Stage women didn’t stop at performing activities but expanded also to management where they appeared side-to-side with male managers, challenging the traditional notions of woman’s place.
In spite of their acknowledged artistic skills, actresses were still despised by Victorian society, where only two types of females could exist: the idealized domestic spouse and the vilified prostitute. The whore was the antithesis of the wife, a dark woman fraught with evil. Female actors’ defiance of passive middle-class femininity and realization of economic self-sufficiency led to prejudices and denial of social respectability.
Like prostitution, theatrical activity was seen as a profession providing a primary source of income in return for the physical selling of the self. The association of the theater with prostitution was even more firmly established in the United States where the nation’s puritanical origins influenced the perception of performance and its entailing immorality and associated theater with sexual display.
Actresses were symbols of women’s self-sufficiency and independence, but as such they were doubly threatening: they advocated and embodied hard work, education, culture, and family ties, and unlike prostitutes they were regarded as proper vessels of physical and sexual beauty and moved freely in society as attractive and desirable beings.
The female actor became a paradox within Victorian society. From a negative social, religious and cultural view, they were equated with prostitutes, but from the affirmative political and feminist perspective, public performers signified transgression, independence and self-realization.