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Women+s role in theatre discussed in lecture

March 26, 1997


Women's role in theatre discussed in lecture

By Michelle Van Rysselberge

Lariat Staff Writer

In honor of National Women's History Month, Dr. Faye Dudden, professor of history at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., discussed the role of women in the American theatre during the 19th-century in a lecture Monday afternoon.

The women's movement should turn to theatre history to understand how the movement began and how it was stalled, Dudden said.

The early 19th-century theatre and the role of actresses had a positive influence on women.

'Women couldn't speak from a pulpit, courtroom or political rally, but they could at the theatre,' Dudden said. 'The theatre gave women a presence and a voice when other women were silenced and kept in the home. It represented that women could be heroines in a time when there weren't other prominent women in the public eye.'

Selective attention, equality, the emphasis on voice and heroism in the theatre worked together in favor of women.

The playhouse in the early republic differs greatly from the modern theatre. The assertive audience could interrupt performances by speaking out, rioting and throwing fruit at the stage. The entire show would last four to five hours. In between the production, there were short acts such as live music and dancing, animal acts, and stunt and freak shows.

During these acts, people had the choice to watch or turn around in their movable seat and talk to others in the audience. This practice, called selective attention, created the feeling that the theatre realm was partly owned by the audience and gave women a sense of control.

Contrary to society's general rule that men receive much larger salaries than women, actresses and actors were paid about the same. Some women were even theatre managers.

Another plus for actresses was that physical appearance, age and weight were not significant issues. The quality of their voice and enunciation were the key characteristics. The theatre focused more on audio than visual, thus the word 'audience.'

During the 'hero worship age,' males were the only heroes. Actress Fanny Kemble was the first heroine in the theatre. She inspired the early pioneers of the women's movement such as Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Stanton.

In the mid 19th-century, shifts took place in the theatre. The use of melodramas, spectatorship, removing acts in between the production, 'britches parts', structure and burlesque shows were components of the shift.

To cut costs and increase volume, melodramas became popular. This oral to visual shift focused on special effects and costumes, keeping dialogue to a minimum. The audience became more spectator focused. Young women were hired for little pay based on their physical appearance and ability to stay in good rapport with managers through sexual favors.

Theatre managers cut out acts in between the shows which removed the concept of choice women had formerly been granted. The audience was expected to be silently watch and clap at the end of the show.

Actress Charlotte Cushman's 'britches parts' (women playing male parts) raised the question of gender. The main issue revealed was that people are born with their sex but gender is assumed, learned and performed.

Female managers became fewer and fewer because they could not obtain credit now that the theatre was becoming 'big business.' Women with families could no longer act because many productions went on the road.

Burlesque shows featured leg shows in which women's bodies were seen as objects. The women's movement suffered due to this exploitation of women and attributed to stalling the movement.

Dudden graduated cum laude from Cornell University and earned a Ph.D. in American social and cultural history from the University of Rochester in 1981. Before coming to Union College in 1983, Dudden was a visiting professor at Cornell University and University of Miami. Next year Dudden will teach history at Colgate University.

Dudden, the author of numerous books and articles on the role of women in the 19th- and 20th-century America, has received several awards. Her book, 'Women in the American Theatre: Actresses and Audiences, 1790-1870,' received the Theatre Library Association's George Freedley Memorial Award for the best book published on theater in 1994.

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