Acting feminine on the South's antebellum and Civil War stages
Warren, Robin Ogier
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This dissertation analyzes the theatrical repertory and performative daily roles of women who acted on the antebellum and Civil War southern stage. Actresses helped shape gendered identity for the South by entrenching and subverting accepted norms of femininity. Because their stage and everyday performances took many appearances according to class, time, place, and race, they showed that constructions of gendered identity vary according to circumstance. Family connections brought women to the southern stage; these relationships operated as one of the multiple cultural, social, and political forces that Judith Butler says constructs identity. Actresses learned to enact scripted feminine behavior in their personal lives and on stage as young girls. Trained to improvise, however, actresses did not always adhere to their play or social scripts. Instead, abiding by and transgressing against the region’s traditional gender norms, they occupied what Victor Turner calls a liminal status. Actresses constituted part of a small, diverse group of urban women who worked for pay and contributed to the region’s developing economy and cultural life. Since actresses maintained private lives, they moved between what Jürgen Habermas terms the private and public spheres and showed that these supposedly distinct worlds actually overlapped. As members of what Michel Foucault calls “a society of blood” in which sex maintained the family relations of the power structure, actresses had to temper the sexuality of performances to maintain pure reputations. Because some players overturned traditional sexual values while others upheld them, these shifting representations of sexuality confirmed the artificiality of gendered identity and showed masculine and feminine roles are bodily styles outwardly enacted through repeated performative gestures. Actresses’ various portrayals of sexuality revealed that a range of sexual identities exists and refutes a binaric understanding of sexuality. Because white actresses dominated women’s roles, they also enacted a variety of racial identities, including African Americans, Native Americans, and indigenous people from faraway places and times. They raised connotations of exoticism and confirmed for white theatergoers the Otherness of people whose skin was darker than their own. Plays by William Shakespeare dominated repertory, but eighteenth-century Restoration dramas and nineteenth-century melodramas were also popular.