• Susana Aikin

WOMEN ACTORS NOW AND THEN

In my novel, We Shall See the Sky Sparkling, Lily is an actress working in London at the end of the 19th century, who travels to pre-revolutionary Russia during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II.
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Meryl Streep

There is a tremendous love and devotion behind the choice of becoming an actor. Being in the theatre, or in film, or both, requires an enormous amount of work and sacrifice. Actors in ancient Greece, India and other civilizations were priests and shamans, and their role in society was to be mediators with the gods. That dynamic is still present in the spirit of the profession. Theatre is mystical, magical, compelling: it connects people and takes them through an odyssey of emotional experiences. It is that odyssey of experience that draws actors to the profession.


Kathryn Boswell working on Broadway Musical Anastasia

Most people seeking to become actors have rich imaginations that need to be channeled through taking on different characters, something that allows them to experience multiple angles of reality, entire other lifetimes.


Actors live for their trade: they light up when they are onstage, even if their profession renders their personal lives difficult. The lives of women actors are even harder than their male counterparts, because among other things, after quite an early age there is an ever increasing difficulty in finding work.


Kate Winslet and Kenneth Branagh in Hamlet

But for women of a century and a half ago, the decision to become an actress was even tougher and more complicated. It involved going against the grain, breaking the ideological molds of a society that viewed women as dependent and passive, separated from public life and restricted to home, marriage and morality; under the absolute power of men. That required not just passion for acting, but quite a deal of courage.


Three Grebnieff sisters circa 1900s

In the second part of the 19th century, when the world of theater and entertainment flourished in big cities like London, Paris and New York, its rapid growth determined an increasing need for performers. This opened up big employment opportunities for women.


Saturday Night at the Victoria Theatre

Along with retail service, mill work, and small scale artisan trades such as watchmaking, bookbinding, and boot-making, the theatre became viable as a growing trade for women. And not just for working-class women, but also for educated middle-class women. The theatre at least kept marriageable women visible, and paid in the meantime.


Edwardian Theatre actress early 1900s

Of course, female performers had to be worldly-wise, self-sufficient, self-determining, and hard-working, and it was useless to pretend otherwise. But, as a pay-off, in the co-sexual workplace of theater, female performers enjoyed freedoms unknown to women in other socially sanctioned occupations. But these freedoms came with a substantial price. The public nature of acting and the necessity of putting oneself up for general scrutiny soon led to an association between actress and prostitute that no other educated public woman moving in society on a pretense of her accomplishments, marriage, or breeding was saddled with.


Theda Bara as Cleopatra, circa 1890

However, and even if Victorian society never ceased to question their respectability, there is no doubt actresses became symbols of women’s self-sufficiency and independence. It just happened that 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.


Victorian Actress Miss Kate Vaughan circa 1880s

Women actors today still feel on the cutting edge when it comes to performance, putting themselves out there to embody situations and emotions that are difficult to show and to express. In this way they continue to stretch the legacy of those daring ancestresses, who first broke into acting and took theatres by storm.


Sarah Bernhardt in a male impersonating role


We Shall See the Sky Sparkling

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(c) Susana Aikin, 2020