Monday, June 15, 2009

Charlotte Cushman & Fanny Kemble

I am teaching a night class on Women in American Theatre, starting from early American theatre (around the 1750s) to the present. It is a grad-level course and I have about 11 students.

The early years focus on actresses, mostly. Two of the earliest are Charlotte Cushman and Fanny Kemble: in separate ways they are both fascinating examples of how women in particular negotiated the contradictions and confusions of American theatre.

Cushman is considered the first great native-born American actress. She was also an anomaly in that she didn't physically fit the leading lady type: she was tall, broad shouldered, and had a deep voice... for a girl. She was, however, surprisingly popular with audiences from the beginning; she also found roles that foregrounded her abilities. Rather than play Juliet or Ophelia--typical ingenue-heroine roles in mid-nineteenth century America--in favor of Romeo and Lady Macbeth.

Between 1835 and 1874, she worked the entire east coast of the US: Boston, New York, New Orleans, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Albany... and everyone in between. She managed the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia--making her one of the first female managers in American theatre, although few people write or discuss this aspect of her work.

Cushman played at least 16 cross-dressed roles, the most popular of which were Romeo and Hamlet. She was in fact more of a character actress than a leading lady... which never stopped her from playing leading roles, be they male or female.

She succeeded here in America, and then toured to Europe, staying there four years. When she returned, she negotiated a salary equal to any leading male actor: a sign of her popularity and talent.

William Winter, the drama critic for the New York Times, said of her “She was incarnate power: she dominated by intrinsic authority; she was a woman born to command and to such minds as comprehended authentic leadership she achieved immediate, complete and permanent conquest. Cushman herself said of her art “Art is an absolute mistress, she will not be coquetted with or slighted; she requires the most entire self devotion, and she repays with grand triumphs.”

She lived in lesbian relationships, what were known as "Boston marriages," with several different women: the sculptor Emma Stebbins and the actress and writer Matilda Hays among others. She also helped other women pursue their artistic careers, acting as an early feminist mentor within the female arts community.

Cushman died in 1876 of breast cancer.

Fanny Kemble was another early success story: born in Britain, into the leading theatre family, Kemble had little or no training, but was popular on the London stage in the typical ingenue roles--especially Juliet--that Cushman avoided.

Kemble came to the USA in 1832, accompanying her father, Charles, on his acting tour of the new country. In 1834, she married a young man who had swept her off her feet: Pierce Butler, the grandson of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and heir to a tobacco/cotton/rice plantation off the coast of Georgia. On marrying Butler, Kemble gave up the stage to take on the role of wife. She accompanied Butler to Georgia, to his inherited plantation, in 1838... and saw slavery first-hand.

That was the end of her marriage, essentially. She and Butler disagreed about his ownership of slaves: she found herself firmly on the abolition side, while Butler refused to consider such a policy. In 1847 she returned to the stage, travelling to Europe; Butler filed for divorce, accusing her of abandonment, both of him and their two daughters.

After the divorce, Kemble picked up her theatrical career, making a period "lateral" move into reading: instead of performing roles in full productions, Kemble created a career giving public readings. She focused on Shakespeare, "performing" readings of Juliet, Ophelia, Rosalind, Viola, and other women from the playwright's work. Kemble also published her diary from that time in Georgia, documenting her impressions of and reactions to the practices of slavery she witnessed on her ex-husband's plantations.

Kemble struggled in a different manner than Cushman against the stereotypes for women in performance. Kemble gave up theatre for the traditional road: roles of wife, mother, helpmeet, soul mate. Kemble certainly fit the physical types of ingenues and leading ladies, she also had the talent and work ethic (not to mention connections!) to make a career in theatre work, and audiences loved her.

But... Kemble couldn't sink her independent thought for marriage. She couldn't give up her "troublesome" opinions or agree to agree with her husband's p.o.v. Instead, she persevered, fought, nagged, whatever about what she thought was right... right out of her marriage. In the end, her husband went bankrupt (losing over $700,000 and selling all his slaves in the largest single auction of human beings on record). Their daughters split over the politics: one agreed with Kemble, one with Butler.

Both women are strong examples of how actresses negotiated outside traditional social roles--and across border into traditional roles, as well--in order to succeed as public performers and as professional women in the 1830s to 1870s in America.



  1. I am fascinated by both of these women. Shades of the unfinished dissertation!

  2. Thank you for posting this (I hadn't heard of either women, and it's right up my ally)! Do you ever accept auditors into your class? Non-paying, respectful auditors with rapt attention? No? Yes! It would be more edifying than my current entertainment. (

  3. Jen, you can definitely sit in, but I have one more week of the class. Summer classes go FAST!


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