John Stokes. The French Actress and her English Audience. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. ISBN: 0521843006. Price: $96/£50.35[Notice]

  • Katherine Newey

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  • Katherine Newey
    University of Birmingham

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 …

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