Thursday, January 22, 2009

Book Review: When Romeo Was a Woman- Charlotte Cushman and Her Circle of Female Spectators

I know I've been on a little kick lately writing blogs about sex, gender, and gender roles so I hope you can bear with me for another one. Lisa Merrill's biography of Charlotte Cushman, "the most famous actress of the nineteenth-century English-speaking world," nicely illustrates the fluidity of gender roles and gender performance. In addition to being a commentary on gender, When Romeo Was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and Her Circle of Female Spectators is also a rich contribution to the scholarship on lesbian history and community. Charlotte Cushman, in addition to being a famous actress of her time, was also a lesbian. (All citations from When Romeo Was a Woman, unless otherwise stated).

1. Gender Performance

As Lisa Merrill recounts, a 19th-century theatrical career was considered to be "socially and morally suspect," with female actors in particular being regarded as "impure" and "unwomanly" (21). The idea that being an actress was "unwomanly" stemmed from the fact that in the 19th century, Real Women stayed at home and out of the public sphere. Thus, "few occupations of any sort were available to respectable women, and those that required women's visibility in public were most socially suspect" (Ibid.). Female actors "who exhibited their talents in front of the audience, for a fee, were considered by many members of the public as little better than... prostitutes" (31).

You know, I have said often that this whole women-belong-in-the-public-sphere line of thinking was a convenient affirmative action ideology for men. The more I read about different women's lives during this time, the more I remain convinced of that. For, in order to keep women out of the public sphere and foster less competition for men, "true womanhood" was defined in the 19th century as "piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity" (22). In other words, in order to be a "true woman," one had to stay in the home and forego all worldly ambitions. For men, who then had less people to compete against for jobs and promotions, such a scenario would certainly be auspicious.

Anyway, for Charlotte to seek a theatrical career while also appearing "respectable" and "true," it was therefore necessary for her to explain away her ambition in terms of sacrifice. Specifically, "she made it clear in her earliest stories explaining her performance career that she had undertaken such a public occupation to support her family" after her father abandoned them (21). Even though some tried to steer her into the less public career of writing, "acting was potentially the highest paid profession a woman could enter" and so Charlotte refused, citing the fact that her "entire family [was] dependent on her income" (34).

As an actress, Charlotte was unafraid to take risks. Not only was she "one of the first female performers who let herself be seen as unattractive if the role required," she directly took on male roles herself "rather than merely supporting male colleagues in their starring vehicles" (45-47). Even when she portrayed female characters, especially Lady Macbeth, "Charlotte's strength, power, and physicality... were inevitably contrasted not only with other women's portrayals of these roles but also with the performances of her male costars, most of whom were taken aback at such direct challenges to their physical prowess" (91). Charlotte, by most accounts, was a "masculine-looking" woman who was not conventionally attractive. That she became one of the most famous actresses of her time suggests that she relied on her power and skill, rather than "feminine" beauty, to advance her career. Remarkably, audiences were receptive to her gender non-conformity. To women especially, she "dramatized new potentials for those audience members who witnessed or read about [her strong female characters]" (109).

When she took her career abroad to England, she was known as America's "leading breeches actress" due to her strong portrayal of male characters (81). In 1845, Charlotte portrayed Romeo in London for the first time and "accolades poured in from both critics and fans" (115). Critics, in fact, hailed her portrayal as being "far superior" to that of male actors at the time. Like accolades regarding her female roles, critics regarded her male roles as being intense, strong, and powerful. At the same time, "in her very portrayal of male characters Charlotte raised the possibility that if a woman could so convincingly act the man, perhaps being a man was merely an 'act'" (124).

Of her performances, one critic wrote:

"[Charlotte Cushman's] masculine personal appearance entirely unfitted her for many parts.... her true forte is... in characters, roused by passion or incited by some earnest and long cherished determination, the woman, for the time being, assumes all the power of manhood" (80).

Lisa Merrill contends that "Charlotte's performance of Romeo produced multiple 'meanings' and made available to spectators who could decode it, ways of perceiving and articulating female erotic desire that called into question the heterosexual framework of the texts in which she appeared" (126). While these "multiple meanings" were exciting to many spectators, they were a source of negative criticism for others- in particular, her male colleagues. One male colleague protested that a female could not perform Romeo because "Romeo requires a man, to feel his passion... A woman, in attempting it, 'unsexes' herself to no purpose.... There should be a law against such perversions" (Ibid.). In her portrayal as a male lover of women, Charlotte contested notions "about what constitutes the natural and the unnatural, the respectable and the immoral, the American and the British, and the heterosexual and the homosexual" (136). What is clear is that, to many spectators, Charlotte Cushman "played" a better man than many men did and that was very threatening to some people's needs for predictability surrounding gender and proper gender roles.

Many people believe that it is society, rather than huge innate differences between boys and girls, that mostly teaches us how to be "men" and "women." I think perhaps Charlotte Cushman's successful stage portrayals of men are some of the most literal illustrations of this theory.

2. Charlotte's Marriages and Lesbian Community

While appearing respectable, "Charlotte's male characterizations afforded her a space within which she could express her desire for other women, a desire that animated her offstage as well as on" (124). For, throughout her life, Charlotte had no romantic relationships with men. At the same time, she had many female loves and, during different times of her life, had several female romantic partners whom she considered herself married to. Merrill presents evidence that, contrary to the notion that women during this time lived in sexless Boston marriages, "women's erotic desire for each other was legible- to anyone who could read the 'code'" (8). "Passionate romantic friendships' and 'Boston marriages'" were "generally considered acceptable by nineteenth-century mores because women were assumed to be incapable of carnal desire" (7). For instance, it was largely assumed, if you remember, that early social worker Jane Addams lived in a Boston marriage; yet those who read "the code" argue that Addams was a lesbian in a time before lesbianism was named.

The first woman that Charlotte considered herself married to was a woman named Rosalie. In her diary in 1844, Charlotte "noted for the first time that she 'Slept with Rose'.... on the very next day Charlotte's diary entry reads: "'R.' Saturday, July 6th 'married'" (9). As Merrill notes, if Charlotte had been referring to a heterosexual marriage, there would have been no need to use quotation marks around "married." For, "instead, this was "like" a marriage. This commitment, forged by two women after whatever intimacies were shared when they slept together, was noteworthy to Charlotte but had to remain coded, indicated by initial and quotation mark even within the privacy of her own diary." (Ibid.). This need to keep her romantic situation coded, suggests that Boston marriages remained socially acceptable only to the extent that others believed them to be sexless platonic friendships.

However, when Charlotte left for England, Rosalie stayed behind in the United States and died a few years later. As Charlotte became more famous in England, she began living with a new romantic partner, Matilda "whom friends frequently called 'Max' or 'Matthew'" (160). Of Charlotte and Matilda, one friend wrote "I understand that she and [Matilda] have made vows of celibacy and eternal attachment to each other- they live together, dress alike, ... it is a female marriage" (Ibid.). Charlotte, who was relatively wealthy during this time and had no "need" for financial support from a husband, and her like-minded friends who dressed androgynously and called each other by male nicknames "embodied an alternative to heterosexuality for which there was no distinct label, but which today would be considered lesbian" (160).

In 1852, Charlotte and Matilda moved to Rome and lived in a "woman-centered communtiy" of "emancipated" female artists (171). Later on, the two women's relationship deteriorated and Charlotte forged a relationship with another woman, Emma, whom she came to consider herself married to. In one letter during this time, Charlotte had written "Do you not know that I am already married and wear the badge upon the third finger of my left hand?" (211). Marriage, counter to the claims that some make today, has not always universally been thought of as only between men and women. In fact, Charlotte's life and chosen family speaks to the reality that family is what we make it. At the end of her unconventional life, Charlotte was surrounded by her female "wife" of 18 years, her adopted son, and her daughter-in-law.

To end, for all gender-variant and sex-variant women, this biography of Charlotte Cushman gives us yet another important image of ourselves in history. Merrill's biography of Charlotte Cushman illustrates the complexity of assigning our conceptions of sexual orientation onto historical figures. Homosexuality was not in our cultural consciousness until the early 1900s, after Charlotte had died, and even then it arose only in the context of pathology. What remains clear is that even though what we today call the "lesbian identity" was not yet named, Charlotte Cushman's romantic loves in the 19th-century were exclusively other women. She performed gender, on the stage as well as off, and refused to let her biological sex constrain her life, loves, and ambitions.

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