Kate Flaherty: ‘Moving Women: How the Touring Actress Changed Shakespeare’

Moving Women: How the Touring Actress Changed Shakespeare

Thursday 21 September, 1pm Milgate Room, AD Hope Bldg, SLL

Gail Marshall contends that the Victorian-era actress was chiefly valued for her statuesque qualities – her stately stillness and blank beauty that linked her to classical culture, and exonerated her from the charge of artful self-fashioning. Helena Faucit was lauded for her embodiment of this Galatea aesthetic. The artless, sculpted-marble quality of her beauty was lauded as purity and, peculiarly for an actress, she was seen as a paragon of female virtue. In contrast, her American counterpart, Charlotte Cushman was known for her movement: she was an athletic physical performer, especially in male roles such as Hamlet and Romeo, and she travelled back and forth across the Atlantic and Pacific on tour. My paper uses these very different actresses to investigate the concepts of movement and mobility within public discourses of gender in the 19th century. Both actresses were widely acclaimed for their Shakespeare roles and both were described as moving audiences. However, the qualities attributed to their performances indicate contrary understandings of what constituted force, skill and truth in performance. I suggest that this reveals a micro-shift towards recognition of the expressive range and creative autonomy of the female performer which, in turn, transformed how Shakespeare’s plays could make meaning for the modern world.

Dr Kate Flaherty is Lecturer in English and Drama, SLLL. Her research focuses on how Shakespeare’s works play on the stage of public culture. Her monograph Ours as we play it: Australia plays Shakespeare (UWAP, 2011) examined three plays in performance in contemporary Australia. More recent work investigates Shakespeare on the colonial stage and the public interplay of the dramas with education and the politics of gender and empire.

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