The new issue of Victorian Network just came out, and it includes an article I wrote on the performance of sexual and social risk on the Victorian stage. As part of my doctoral work I investigated the 1850s production of The Duchess of Malfi in which Isabella Glyn starred, at Sadler’s Wells. There is so much to say about this theatrical moment (and hopefully I’ll say more when I get my book on The Duchess of Malfi written…), but this article focuses on a couple of aspects. It situates the show as part of a project to “improve” both the theatre and the neighbourhood, to reclaim the place morally and spiritually via productions of the works of Shakespeare and other “legitimate” dramatists. And it also reads Glyn’s performance as partly about how women should negotiate sexual and social risks without being compromised.
This article is part of my continuing concern about the work we expect theatrical performances to do. What is it that we think theatre does to the people who watch it? How does it represent them? How does it bring into the theatre cultural anxieties and hidden obsessions which are swirling around outside, and play them out in front of people’s eyes? It also gave me a chance to keep thinking about the way we interpret women’s bodies onstage, and the way in which “performing” can simultaneously make them symbols and commodities – as well as the way they push back against that system and use it to their advantage. And I got to wallow in the endlessly surprising and confounding world of the Victorian theatre. There’s an appearance by Dickens, there are some “fallen women”, there’s a jealous actor with a grudge and over it all hover the spirits of Sarah Siddons and William Shakespeare. I’ve copied the abstract below, and you can read the full article for free here: So Pure and Rational An Attachment: Isabella Glyn’s Performance of Social and Sexual Risk at Sadler’s Wells I’d like to thank Sophie Duncan for first suggesting I write the paper, and Charlotte Mathieson for all the work involved in editing the issue.
So Pure and Rational An Attachment: Isabella Glyn’s Performance of Social and Sexual Risk at Sadler’s Wells
This paper examines Isabella Glyn’s performance as the Duchess of Malfi at Sadler’s Wells during the 1850 season, investigating the way in which she was seen as performing social and sexual risk whilst presenting a model of respectable female behaviour. John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, adapted by R.H. Horne for a Victorian audience, was presented as part of Samuel Phelps’s project to improve the morals and conduct of the Sadler’s Wells audience via legitimate drama, and the Duchess’s second (potentially compromising) marriage provided a focus for anxieties around female sexual agency and the display of desire.
The stage upon which Glyn performed was widely discussed as having been reclaimed from coarse and prurient melodramas to be used as a tool to reform the pleasures of the working class, and contemporary commentary shows particular concern with the presence of ‘bold women’ in the theatre. Horne himself had collaborated with Dickens on a piece for Household Words which stressed these women as the aspect of theatre most in need of reform. Thus the production would have been inevitably haunted by the theatrical ghosts of the “fallen” women who had appeared in the despised melodramas which The Duchess of Malfi was intended to supplant, and who had formed part of the public to whom the theatre had played.
Glyn’s performance took place at the intersection of competing discourses around female sexual propriety, social respectability and the effects of legitimate drama, a fact which was recognised by contemporary reviewers. The terms of their commentary frame the production as Glyn performing the Duchess’s appropriate performance of her own feelings in a compromising situation. The praise awarded to her, which seems to locate her artistry in her ability to perform the potentially problematic material in a haunted setting, demonstrates the way in which her labour as an artistic professional became visible in her negotiation of these discourses.