Sarah Bernhardt strides across the pages of Susan Glenns book like a colossus.
In her nine tours of the United States between 1880 and 1918 the French-born actress and master of self-promotion made an indelible impression on the American landscape that transcended the stage. Bernhardt and other turn-of-the-20th-century female performers became leaders of and metaphors for changing gender relations, says UW historian Susan Glenn in her new book Female Spectacle: The Theatrical Roots of Modern Feminism published by Harvard University Press.
Bernhardt and her sisters in theater, vaudeville, musical reviews and musical comedy exercised a strong influence on public consciousness in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and in changing societal concepts of womanhood, Glenn believes.
Bernhardt was the touchstone, the spectacle of spectacles. She gave women the power to define their own public image. She legitimized a strong personality for women and gave them permission to say I, which previously would have been seen as controversial, says Glenn.
This was a woman who made a spectacle of herself. She was larger than life, and there was never anyone like her. Even Mae West, later on, didnt have the same impact.
Spectacle, according to Glenn was a popular term widely used at the end of the 19th century by Americans to describe all sorts of changes that were beginning to transform society. One of the biggest changes was the larger public presence of women in the workplace, streets and in the theaters. On and off the stage women were increasingly drawing attention to themselves as they began voicing their rights to education, employment, participation in politics and sexual expressiveness.
Bernhardt wasnt alone in creating theatric spectacle. She was joined by scores of other leading female entertainers of the era – new women – including Marie Dressler, Trixie Friganza, Eva Tanguay, Fanny Brice and Gertrude Hoffmann. These well-paid and independent women helped shape wider social and cultural developments because they exercised a degree of freedom that was rarely available to women in public, according to Glenn.
By the 1890s you had the first of the star system. The player became more important than the play, she says. Celebrities had to develop strong personalities to remain in the spotlight. Theater and newspapers had a symbiotic relationship. They encouraged women to have individual personas to attract attention. To grab attention, women had to be outrageous – a spectacle – because it paid off. This was the P.T. Barnum syndrome of promotion.
Only one figure challenges Bernhardt for the spotlight in Glenns book, and its a composite fashioned from hundreds, if not thousands, of young women – the Broadway chorus girl. Glenn calls the chorus girl a generic emblem of the new woman.
The chorus girl made a spectacle of herself both on and off the stage. While performing, she was a visual spectacle as part of a line of precision dancers that was stage-managed by men in a very controlled way, according to Glenn. Off stage, she had a mind of her own and made a spectacle of her independence. The chorus girl was widely pictured to be an urban adventurer who was young, attractive and dangerous. She was depicted in a very pervasive stereotype as a gold-digger, and the term dangerous chorus girl was a way of talking about a younger generation of urban women who would stand up to men. Historians in general have ignored the theater as a place where new ideas were generated, says Glenn. I hope this book permits people to see it as a place that helped move the world into the 20th century. And, she writes, Theater licensed women to say not only look at me because I am bizarre, funny, critical, graceful, melodic, or beautiful, but listen to me because I have something to say about what it means to be a woman.
Shotgun Productions, founded in 1989, is a theatrical production company dedicated to expanding the role, and serving the needs of emerging women artists. Our mission is to:
1.Provide a nurturing and supportive outlet for emerging women writers, directors, actors, choreographers, video artists, designers and technicians to hone their craft.
2.Offer our community an opportunity to experience the female voice in original works that are both innovative and challenging.
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