Comments on: Review: The First Actresses, National Portrait Gallery, London /2011/12/05/review-the-first-actresses-national-portrait-gallery-london/ A feminist pop culture adventure Tue, 06 Dec 2011 10:26:59 +0000 hourly 1 By: Sophie /2011/12/05/review-the-first-actresses-national-portrait-gallery-london/#comment-1986 Tue, 06 Dec 2011 10:26:59 +0000 In reply to Miranda.

Thank you! Yeah, this is pretty much my specialist subject, can waffle on for ages.

Langtry was amazing & from a feminist POV quite interesting as both “the first professional beauty” (she wasn’t quite that but that’s her significance now) and as one of the actresses who made a success of Rosalind – which is Shakespeare’s longest female role (within a single play) and thus also the largest “breeches role” in the English dramatic canon. There’s some very cool stuff about Shakespearean cross-dressing and the suffragettes, in fact…

By: Miranda /2011/12/05/review-the-first-actresses-national-portrait-gallery-london/#comment-1985 Tue, 06 Dec 2011 09:22:27 +0000 In reply to Sophie.

Oooh, I was kinda hoping you’d comment, love your blog!

Fascinating stuff, quite tempted to read Lillie Langtry’s book now…

By: Sophie /2011/12/05/review-the-first-actresses-national-portrait-gallery-london/#comment-1984 Tue, 06 Dec 2011 01:33:03 +0000 Great post! I’m very sorry not to have made this exhibition, yet. I don’t know what depth of historical commentary it offers, but as you’ve indicated, there are some absolutely fascinating issues surrounding the rise of the actress.

One thing I did want to query — It seems that, after decades of young boys aping womanhood, the first actresses set themselves the challenge of continuing the noble tradition: it was conscious decision, rather than occasional dramatic necessity, for many of them to adopt the travesti.

There’s a rather less kickass element to this. Once professional English actresses appeared on stage after 1660, it was very much a commercial decision to create more cross-dressed roles in addition to those already in the canon (if you think about it, quite a lot of Renaissance plays which limped over into the Restoration – some of which had survived as “drolls” during the Puritan era – include cross-dressed female roles which now became the preserve of female, rather than male performers); simply put, it was a way of displaying female bodies.

Now, obviously, pretty girls in the clothes of pretty boys was as hot then as it is now, and right up until trousers became everyday female wear, cross-dressing onstage offered an amazing kind of physical freedom to the actress. So everybody was still a winner – but as far as I’m aware, there’s very little evidence that this was a subversive/grassroots action orchestrated by comic actresses – or indeed by women full stop. It was largely a way of showing off the real female bodies that constituted the latest stage novelty.

Langtry is amazing, you’re right. Her autobiography is so full of lies and evasions; you have to admire it. She’s constantly going on about just how well she and Princess Alexandra (i.e. her lover’s wife) got on, dwelling at length on an anecdote about how the Princess visited her after she suffered a funny turn at some dinner. The funny turn was because she was carrying a child that might have been the Prince’s (in fact, she probably wasn’t the Prince’s daughter – but this didn’t stop Langtry telling him that she was. Ditto Prince Louis of Battenberg, and ditto Langtry’s Jersey childhood sweetheart. Poor Jeanne grew up thinking Lillie’s estranged husband was her father, and only found out the truth a day before her wedding).

In terms of noble/gentlemen not wanting to marry actresses, the unease about that took centuries to recede, but by the nineteenth century a *lot* of women marry well on and off the stage, sooner or later. Again, this is not unlinked to the Victorian status of prostitutes; even contemporary research acknowledged that MOST Victorian prostitutes were under 26 and hardly any were older (well-known examples such as the Ripper victims obscure this), but assumed that on their 27th birthdays, all urban sex workers chucked themselves into the Thames/perished beneath hedgerows. The fact that the Thames wasn’t flooding and that you could still pee in a bush without finding a dead woman did lead some to acknowledge that most prostitutes were in fact marrying out of their profession and disappearing into society – not unlike some actresses. Meanwhile, though, plenty of actresses were marrying actors (Siddons did) and forming/remaining in theatrical families that offered training, protection, and the beginnings of respectability – and contrary to popular belief, we have always had *some* respectable actresses, from Mrs. Betterton onwards!

In any case, thanks for letting me ramble on. :)