Defying Victorian Girlhoods through “Oriental Fantasies:”
Tensions and Possibilities for Girls in Nineteenth Century Drawing Room Theatre
“There are no innocent readings – only guilty ones.” – Louis Althusser
“…a close investigation…gives us clues…about women’s relationship to an empire in which they were both imprisoned and enthroned.” –Megan A. Norcia
In Florence Bell’s 1898 “at-home theatrical” version of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” Morgiana, the slave girl, is beautiful, brave, and brilliant. Rapidly discovering the plot when the forty thieves enter the house in large earthenware jars, she takes action without alerting the robbers – and saves the whole family. After pouring boiling oil into the jars she stabs the Robber Chief while she sensually dances for him. Then she declares, “There is no need for anyone here to be murdered – I have been beforehand with the robbers. They are murdered themselves. I have killed them all, every one!” Morgiana’s heroism and passionate behaviour challenged the boundaries of conventional role models for English girls,  but she and “exotic” characters like her, were popular on drawing room stages. How could Victorian girls  use the transgressive possibilities embedded in “Oriental” plays to expand conceptions of their own possible futures and identities?
For thespian girls “Oriental” plays brought numerous imaginative possibilities within reach. First, girls had more acting subject roles available to them because they could be easily cast as male characters (Oriental male costumes were modest enough for girls) . Second, through “Oriental” characters, they could defy home behavioural expectations and experiment with actively participating in a male-dominated violent world. Whether performing as men or as women, nineteenth-century thinking racialized and stereotyped “others” in complicated ways that could be freeing to an English girl’s imagination, while simultaneously exempting girls from the risk of “descending” into those behaviours. Nancy Lesko demonstrates that, as the idea of the “Great Chain of Being” gained traction  in England, “race” became a fundamental part of the way Victorians understood humanity (the discourse soon encompassed biological age and gender as well) (Lesko 2001). Edward Ziter explains that “race was both external marker and internal proclivities” and the discourse maintained “Orientals” were passionate, sensual, and indolent. Similarly, gypsy women’s unconventional and uninhibited feminity was “located in blood and bone” (Nord 190). The idea that a person’s behavioural destiny was inscribed in the body meant that girls could experiment with transgressive identities, but since parents believed their daughters were inherently English, they would not (and perhaps even could not) adopt those “Oriental” behavioural attributes in quotidian life. Unlike popular geography primers describing the “real” East and consistently repeating the message that girls could not be explorers and that it was normal to deny girls experience of the wide world, the artifice of theatricals meant imagined differences between Oriental and English realities could be dynamically explored at home. As a result, through Oriental theatricals, girls could imagine having as much power and agency as boys.
I believe that performance activities can be powerful thinking tools for individuals. When Jill Dolan describes the impact of “utopian performatives” she explains they can produce “feelings” that may gradually encourage change (Dolan 2006). Drama education researchers such as Kathleen Gallagher and Christine Hatton also demonstrate that thoughtful drama activities inspire girls to think deeply about girlhood, identity, and future possibilities (Gallagher 2001; Hatton 2013). In her memoir, actress Elizabeth Robins, who premiered most of Ibsen’s plays in English, wrote about “the difficulty of the modern woman of education doing powerful emotional or tragic acting. That requires capacity for abandon – of letting yourself go, which comes to be impossible to the well-bred” (Robins in Corbett 111). Robins’ comment corroborates my suspicion that for girls expected to exhibit self-control in all aspects of their lives, indulging in highly performative emotional displays could have been both challenging and liberating. Relating the power of performance experiences to at-home theatricals means that it is plausible to imagine that passionate, sensual roles might gradually help girls become aware of their own power, agency, and potential beyond the conventional expectations of the drawing room.
Girls may have required parental sanction to perform these scripts, and adults may have encouraged at-home performances because they facilitated adult voyeurism, both of which could reinstate male-female, adult-child power dynamics. Marah Gubar argues that cultural productions from the so-called Golden Age of children’s literature, including playscripts, point to tensions between the nineteenth-century “cult of the child” that revelled in childhood innocence and “otherness” from adults, and a “vision of the child as a competent collaborator, capable of working and playing alongside adults” (Gubar 9). Victorians maintained conflicting images of children as naïve angels and as socially saturated, agentic and independent individuals, leading writers to use young characters to question “how much agency one can have as an acculturated subject” (Gubar 181). Since Golden Age writers grappled with influences on child agency, it is probable that many girls of the era also negotiated those tensions, and the power dynamic inherent in “permission” might not impact the imaginary potential of performing transgressive characters.
However, Victorians also held uncertain views regarding childhood precociousness and sexuality, and the perspective of individual families may, indeed, have influenced the performance experiences possible for girls. Some Victorians believed protecting childhood innocence was necessary, while others thought children’s innate innocence protected them from sexually charged thoughts, and still others believed young girls were sexually available . If, in some families, sensuality was not controlled or repressed until late girlhood, or if adults were socioculturally permitted to imagine adult sexual fantasies through children’s bodies , then a girl’s experience of performing a character like Morgiana, who revels in feminine sensuality, could lose its potency because it differed little from the way she related to her community in her daily life. The power dynamics inherent in an erotically charged relationship between audience and young thespian cannot be ignored when considering girlhood agency and identity. However, like the possibilities in Jill Dolan’s “utopian performatives,” in a repressive sociocultural environment like the Victorian middle-class domestic space, “letting go” in Elizabeth Robins’ sense, and subversively experimenting with sensuality and other ways of being, has an empowering quality, and may have offered girls a space to imagine other possibilities for their lives in spite of adult voyeurism.
Finally, in these playtexts the “Orient” functions as a fantasy world, only marginally different from fairyland. Yet the realness of the East, as evidenced by “real” accounts by explorers and missionaries in children’s geography primers, might make embodying Eastern action-oriented, emotional and sensual characters more powerful. Edward Ziter observes that Victorians were enamoured with Oriental realism on the stage, emphasising historical accuracy and aesthetic details in order to establish “authenticity.” Believing that the East was a real referent meant exploring a character like Morgiana was more significant than performing the fairy Malvolia in Bell’s “Sleeping Beauty.” Even though both are powerful (and beautiful), Morgiana is more subversive because her fairy tale exists in a “real” world. If imaginary real girls behaved like Morgiana in the East, girls might ask themselves why they live differently in England.
While the imaginary reality of “the East” is a significant factor in my analysis, Victorian habits of racializing and exotification, linked to belief in the moral correctness of Empire, means at-home theatricals enhanced power and agency for English middle-class girls at the expense of people in the East. Bat-Ani Bar On observes that socially marginalized groups (such as Victorian female playwrights and middle class girls), often align themselves with those in power, and similarly marginalize others (1998). Through gypsies, harem girls, geisha girls, and other imaginary “real” people living elsewhere, girls could use what they supposedly “knew” about Oriental people to experiment with behaviours typically forbidden by English society, imagining alternative, powerful identities and futures for themselves, even as their performances augmented cultural interactions that negatively influenced the way English people thought about people of the East, and the way Eastern people could be heard. The messy, complex relationship between the people of the East and English girls who were simultaneously “imprisoned and enthroned” (Norcia 200) in the British Empire, overshadows every reading of these scripts. In spite of contentious ideas regarding childhood and girl behaviours, middle class girls clearly could use “Oriental” theatricals to defy expectations of girl behaviour, but their subversive journey towards increased power and possibility came at the expense of the others the girls purported to represent.
 By the end of the nineteenth-century, when Florence Bell published her collection, Fairy Tale Plays and How to Act Them, role models for English girls were regularly challenged through fiction, especially by writers like L.T. Meade, and by essayists known as “the Revolting Daughters.” However, books like Sketches of Little Girls by Julia Corner (featuring such characters as “The Good Natured Little Girl” and “The Forward Little Girl”), and Phillis Brown’s What Girls Can Do: A Book for Mothers and Daughters still circulated widely, and behaviours that were radically different from “the English girl” (modest, selfless, marriage-bound and domestically-inclined) continued to shock middle class families.
 Middle class “girls” in the Victorian Era were loosely defined by contemporaries as unmarried females between the ages of about five and twenty-five. The broad biological age range complicates my inquiry.
 I have two scripts, Alfred Gatty’s “The Hunchback” (1869c) and Marion Adams “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” 1909c that specifically suggest that male characters could be successfully performed by girls because of the costumes. Male characters in these plays include a doctor, a judge, a male tailor, a robber chief, robbers, a sultan, a vizier and Ali Baba himself.
 Nancy Lesko’s chapter “Up and Down the Great Chain of Being: Progress and Degeneration in Children, Race and Nation” explains the system of racial hierarchy developed in the nineteenth century, explained the apparent “morality” of empire, and the way it expanded to include “recapitulation theory” which normalized white males, and equated biological age categories with historical periods such as “primitive” or “medieval.”
 In 1885 the age of consent for girls was raised from 13 to 16.
 All-child companies performing plays which would normally feature adult actors (such as Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth or HMS Pinafore) were extremely popular with adult and child audience members. Victorians seemed to take great pleasure in a child’s precocious performance of the adult world. Similarly, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll’s) sensual, and even erotically charged photographs of young girls, taken with their parents’ approval, suggest an ambivalent attitude towards child theatrical performances of adult material, even if parents maintained control over what they perceived as their children’s real actions and decisions.
Adams, Marion. “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” Books for the Bairns. Ed. W.T. Stead. 1909c.
Bar On, Bat-Ami. “Marginality and Epistemic Privilege.” Feminist Epistemologies. Ed. Linda Alcoff and Elisabetth Potter. New York: Routeldge, 1993. 83 – 100.
Bell, Florence Eveleen (Mrs Hugh Bell). “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” “Sleeping Beauty.” Fairy Tale Plays and How to Act Them. Longmans Green and Co., London, 1896.
Dolan, Jill. “Utopia in Performance.” Theatre Research International. 31.2. 2006. 163 – 173.
Corbett, Mary Jean. “Performing identities: actresses and autobiography.” The Cambridge Companion to Victorian and Edwardian Theatre. Ed. Kerry Powell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 109 – 127.
Gallagher, Kathleen. Drama Education in the Lives of Girls: Imagining Possibilties. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.
Gatty, Alfred. “The Hunchback.” Aunt Judy’s Magazine, 1869c.
Gubar, Marah. Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Hatton, Christine. “Educating Rita and her sisters: using drama to reimagine feminities in school.” RiDE. 18 (2). 2013. 155 – 167.
Lesko, Nancy. Act Your Age! A Cultural Construction of Adolescence. 2nd edition. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Norcia, Megan A. X Marks the Spot: Women Writers Map the Empire for British Children, 1790 – 1895. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2010.
Nord, Deborah Epstein. “Marks of race”: Gypsy figures and eccentric feminity in nineteenth-century women’s writing. Victorian Studies, Winter. 41.2. 1998. 189 – 210.
Ziter, Edward. The Orient on the Victorian Stage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.