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The French Actress and Her English Audience is a product of John Stokes’ wide and varied scholarly interests, coalescing around the exchanges between French and English cultures through the medium of the theatre at the end of the nineteenth century. Since Resistible Theatres (1972), Stokes has offered his readers challenging and insightful analyses of modernity and performance, and made us realise why a consideration of theater and performance history is crucial for our understanding of the fin de siècle. His books are essential reading for scholars of this period, offering knowledgeable and witty accounts of both the theater of high society and of high society in the theater. He’s also good on the bohemian demi-monde, charting the ways that the theater–as profession, place, and dream—is at the centre of a web of connections between artists, writers, performers, aristocrats, and critics in London and Paris at the end of the nineteenth century.
Stokes is a pioneer of a nuanced analysis of the power of the actress as she is situated within culture, as he takes us away from the bosom and britches approach of much earlier theater history about actresses. His past studies of performers, such as Bernhardt, Terry, Duse: the Actress in Her Time (with Michael R. Booth and Susan Bassnett, 1988) avoid the knowing textual winks at actresses’ intimate lives and sexual histories, instead focussing on the power, art, and technique of the female actor. He is a pioneer, too, of non-prurient accounts of the queerness and otherness of the theater of late-nineteenth-century London, and its political and cultural resonances. His work as editor of and contributor to the ever interesting and useful collection of essays, Eleanor Marx: Life, Work, Contacts (2000), and his ongoing work on Oscar Wilde, indicate the extent of his view of London theater and society in the fin de siécle, reaching as it does from the canonical to the marginalised.
All this is to preface my sense that The French Actress and Her English Audience is a book that is a marking point, a summation of work-in-progress, of Stokes’ body of work on acting and performance in the nineteenth century. It is also a subtle teasing out of one of the central, but often overlooked, facts of English national culture: its pushme-pullyou relationship with France, French art, and the very concept of “Frenchness” to the metropolitan English mind. The book resonates with Stokes’ fascination with the allure of performance, but also wrestles with its indescribability and irreproducibility. Threaded through the eight case studies is desire: the desire of London audiences for the beauty and talent of these women, the actresses’ own desires for self-expression and perfection of art, and Stokes’ desire to pin down these elements of the “charismatic influence upon English culture” (5) of each actress. A recognition of the power of theater to release but control the libidinous energy of the audience, and an awareness of the political and cultural work of this exchange, is ever-present in Stokes’ analysis of his chosen subjects.
Citing Henry James (an astute commentator and one of Stokes’ touchstones throughout the book), Stokes argues that we have a good deal of evidence for the impact of French actresses on the English stage “to constitute a myth of a golden age of acting” (6). Beginning with Mademoiselle Mars, who visited London in that theatrically tempestuous period between 1828 and 1832, Stokes examines the London visits of Mlle Mars, Rachel Félix, Madame Arnould Plessy, Virginie Déjazet, Aimée Desclée, Réjane, Sarah Bernhardt, and Edwige Feuillère. The chapter on Feuillère brings us into the living memory of the 1950s, and beyond. “We are not done yet” (179) writes Stokes, as he argues that the theatrical canon of Feuillère--and Claire Bloom, Margaret Rawlings, and Vivien Leigh for that matter--“which had at its heart the emotional and sexual needs of mature women” (178-9), was displaced by the so-called revolution in theater of the 1950s with its focus on the anxieties of masculinity and class. This repudiation of the French influence also left the “championship title” of the best actress in the world vacant. Stokes’ argument here about the persistence of the French influence in London theater into the 1950s is characteristic of his iconoclastic approach throughout the book: his argument appears to be perverse, arguing that the bourgeois themes of Feuillère’s and Leigh’s repertoire were vitally connected with Ibsen’s stark dramaturgical innovations launched on the life of the domestic, bourgeois woman. One is left feeling Stokes’ almost mischievous suggestion that the revolutionary nature of the French repertoire for actresses has yet to be fully realised, and that the wholesale rejection of French bourgeois theater by the “Angries” in the 1950s was a case of mistaking the wrappings of “class, of luxury, of artificial charm” of the French repertoire for the substance of what the French actresses turned into almost two centuries of sexual and social subversion.
Stokes is interested in these possibilities of sexual and ideological subversion, but he does not offer by any means a simplistic model of the connections between the two. Indeed, he is more often than not pushing against the stereotype of the saucy French actress who wooed the stolid London audience, and, in the process, challenging British ideological constructions of gender and nation. Although, as Stokes shrewdly notes, Déjazet and Mars used seductive engagement to their advantage: Mars in her specialization “in social gaiety and erotic nuance” (27) in playing soubrette roles, and Déjazet”s “teasing sexuality” in her cross-dressed roles (89). While it would be tempting for Stokes to represent these apparent transgressions of bourgeois propriety as inevitably politically subversive, Stokes plays this rather differently. Déjazet, for example, was a Bonapartist, a supporter of Louis-Napoleon and the status quo, but, argues Stokes, her cross-dressed playing of the traditional soldier “put a particular frame around that rough masculinity” (94). To London audiences, Déjazet stood for (French) Romantic nostalgia: “Déjazet in drag was history in reverse” (98). Rachel, Desclée, and Bernhardt were rather different: their ideological subversion lay in their manipulation of both French and British notions of modernity and realism. Desclée, Stokes argues, embodied the politics of the 1870 Commune in her performance of abjection, which drew upon “the conditions of female oppression in its very making” (111). While contemporary critics, and historians since, have tended to see the personal in the professional in the careers of Rachel, and Bernhardt particularly, Stokes offers a more subtle reading of the professional self-fashioning of these actresses, demonstrating that this blurring of art and the personal in the French actress was perhaps a perception of the largely male entourage with which these women surrounded themselves, rather than the “natural” tendency of the actress. However, Oscar Wilde, here examined in his relationship with Sarah Bernhardt, as usual delights with his iconoclasm and ability to read culture, as Stokes represents Wilde and Bernhardt together as “two exceptional personalities and makers of the modern world” (138) in a collaboration that was never completed, “the dream-team that never played, the supergroup that never appeared” (149). The exhilaration of this chapter is infectious.
Stokes is only too aware of the difficulties– indeed, the very impossibility—of capturing the life of past performances, yet my lasting impression of The French Actress and her English Audience is of incisive and insightful discussions of performance. These are hugely enjoyable to read, as well as offering much for both theater and cultural historians. Stokes recently commented of theater writing that
A paper residue left over when the high tide of performance has come and gone, our books then lie beached on shelves, dry, seemingly lifeless, even if, now and then, we catch within them a glint of authenticity, a piece of writing that because it tries, however desperately, to keep the moment of performance intact is worth preserving in itself.Times Literary Supplement, Times On-Line, June 13, 2007
If he was thinking of his own writing, then he is too hard on himself: The French Actress and her English Audience works harder than most books on the theater to capture the presentness of performance, its visceral effects, and its cultural work. Each of these things is valuable in itself in critical and historical scholarship; to bring them together is an object lesson in the writing of cultural history of the nineteenth century.
Katherine Newey is Professor of Drama and Theatre Arts at the University of Birmingham, where she teaches theatre history and historiography. She is Co-Editor of Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, and her book, Women’s Theatre Writing in Victorian Britain, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2005.