Book review

“The Palgrave Handbook of the History of Women on Stage”

The Palgrave Handbook of the History of Women on Stage
Edited by Jan Sewell and Clare Smout
(Palgrave Macmillan)
Reviewed by Dana Rufolo

What is special about the 846-page Palgrave Handbook of the History of Women on Stage is that it contributes to the evaluation of identity in theatrical events as a performative art. The originality of the authors’ essays is that collectively they address the fact that “the arrival of women on stage led  to an emphasis on the authenticity of real women embodying women’s roles and an enhanced awareness of the constructedness of all performance”; women affected both “theatre culture” and “dramatic repertoire”(p178).

Although this observation comes from Jane Milling’s report on “Women Performers on English Stages 1660-1740″, the view of performance as constructed identity is applicable to the series of 33 articles, even the three on women performers in ancient Greece and Rome. Women did not bring their bodies and gender onto the stage merely; their stage presence stretched the range of possibilities for performance of self.

Besides essays on women performers in the ancient world, The History of Women on Stage covers the following epochs: Medieval and Early Modern Europe; Restoration and Eighteenth-Century England; Nineteenth-Century America, Europe and Japan; Late Twentieth-Century America and England; The Twenty-First Century — Around the Globe. The index is extensive and useful, as are Jan Sewell’s and Clare Smout’s introductory essays.

Each article in this book is impeccably researched. The final section demonstrates how up-to-date the book is, for issues of women playing men’s roles in Shakespeare’s dramas or seeing trans-gender women on stage or having female troupes perform in prisons are currently international phenomena.

There are no gaps in the history timeline the volume covers. For the remotest, the Greek women who appear to have performed occasionally, it is impossible to interpret the political relevance of them being on stage. Gravestone records were used to establish the identify, range of roles played, and popularity of early female Greek performers, but not much more can be deduced.

Plays International & Europe’s own critic Margaret (‘Maggie’) Rose contributes an article on the first Italian actress, lsabella Andreini and the Commedia dell’arte (p107). She reminds us that those women when integrated into stage culture experienced “difficulties and setbacks caused by male prejudice and the antagonism of Catholic churchmen” certainly, but were also disadvantaged because of “the inexperience of these first professional actresses in negotiating the power games of the patriarchal establishment.”(p109).

Surprising titbits turn up. An approach similar to what came to be known as “The Method” dates back to the mid-eighteenth century (p187). The identity of the actress as both celebrity and skilled performer dates back to that era also. Then and up to the early nineteenth century, actresses’ faces adorned “every available surface”(p179). When remarking on gender parity in Shakespeare and advocacy groups such as the UK’s Act For Change Project and Equal Representation for Actresses, we read that gender parity “arguably” began in 1912 (p734).

It is not possible for me to discuss every article, but one highlight is the discussion by Maria Ignatieva and Rose Whyman of the early to mid-twentieth century “second wave” of Russian actresses. Konstantin Stanislavsky’s system “was endorsed by the state as the ideologically correct way of training performers for socialist realist art.” For actresses “to sustain a career, it was necessary to dedicate themselves, ostensibly as workers in the interest of the Communist cause” (p398).

Maggie Gale points out that the clash between popular and legitimate theatre isn’t a just separation since “all forms of performance are part of the same industry” (p391).

The question of how an actress plays her male Shakespearean role is very contemporary, as PIE’s reports on the Globe Theatre’s performances during Emma Rice’s artistic directorship indicate. It is apt that this book review and an interview with Phyllida Lloyd appear on this website at the same time. And it is interesting to read an essay by Jami Rogers on the “emerging practice of women playing Shakespeare’s men” which references Lloyd’s work (p735).

Women are currently seeking equal representation on stage. Bernadine Evaristo reminds us of the “paltry number of parts that were available to black actresses” as recently as the 1980s (p524). Cheryl Black points out that already in 1926, W.E. B. Dubois — sociologist and civil rights activist —  called for a black theatre “about us, by us, for us, and near us” so as to fight the problem of the staging of “degrading” stereotypes (p426). Anna Furse contributes an article outlining her experience in feminist theatre as a practitioner (p487). Dorothy Chansky’s article on American performance covers the work of gender-conscious Adrian Piper, Karen Finley, and Carolee Schneemann (p455).

There is a shift in methodology in the book’s closing chapters: the editors asked women in theatre and performance who have been active recently or are still practicing to write about themselves and their experiences. The introduction of a confessional or personal style in a book that was previously dominated by research can be disconcerting to the reader. I would have looked forward to articles which might have evaluated the impact of these contemporary female theatre practitioners’ work (which is often therapeutic in aim). Nonetheless, these personal narratives contribute richly to the wealth of knowledge in this volume accessible to the general reader, theatre practitioner, or researcher. They extend the discourse so that it interweaves the subject of women in theatre and performance with human rights.