Aging Ungracefully: Transgressive Femininity on the Eighteenth-Century Stage
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This dissertation analyzes how negative conceptions of aging are weaponized against the bodies of female players in the eighteenth century, particularly when players are engaging in behaviour that society deems transgressive or inappropriate. While it considers accounts concerning the oppression of aging female bodies, it is more interested in how aging is negatively projected onto actresses, regardless of the woman’s chronological or physiological age. In the introduction, this dissertation establishes a foundation for this investigation by understanding the intersections of acting and aging in the eighteenth century: how aging affected an actor’s abilities and reception, and how acting was believed to prematurely age an actor’s body. As its evidence, the introduction analyzes newspaper advertisements for anti-aging products, pamphlets that promote anti-aging techniques, acting manuals, and the autopsy of an early eighteenth-century player, Barton Booth. The second chapter investigates the treatment of aging actresses by audiences, critics and managers, through an analysis of the work of prominent theatrical practitioners and critics, chiefly David Garrick, John Hill, W.R. Chetwood, and William Hazlitt. The chapter argues that actresses who remain onstage are depicted as losing their identity alongside their youth. The following two chapters consider comic actress Frances Abington’s successful mediations of her physical body in response to ageist critiques. Chapter three argues that Abington responded to critics by threatening to remove her supposedly “unattractive aging” body from view byway of a feigned retirement, while chapter four contends that her sartorial skill allowed her body to be viewed as consistently novel, if not specifically youthful. While Frances Abington is the primary case study for these chapters, the actress’ experiences are discussed in relation to those of other eighteenth-century actresses as well, namely Charlotte Charke, George Anne Bellamy, Mary Robinson, and Anne Oldfield. The final chapter analyzes the obituaries of Susannah Cibber and Sophia Baddeley as evidence for how theatrical and paratheatrical texts function as a form of social policing against immoral behaviour with punishments enacted on the physical female body. Overall, the dissertation is an examination of the ageist language that has been used in attempts to oppress women, and how actresses respond to these denigrations. This work connects eighteenth-century theatre history with the growing field of age studies by demonstrating how age intersects with narratives of gender performance and identity.
URI for this recordhttp://hdl.handle.net/1974/27913
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