Heather Fitzsimmons Frey

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, [1] but she and “exotic” characters like her, were popular on drawing room stages. How could Victorian girls [2] 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) [3].  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 [4] 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 [5].   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 [6], 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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.”

[5] In 1885 the age of consent for girls was raised from 13 to 16.

[6] 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.


Works Cited

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.




  1. Hi Heather, thank you for a wonderfully thought-provoking paper. I see many ways in which our work intersect and our particular standpoints on the material can help trouble and bring out the nuances and complexities of each other’s work. Your paper filled with complexity that, understandably, cannot possibly be fully unpacked in 1500 words and speaks to this being a window into a larger investigation and project. As such, I have a lot of comments, ideas, connections and questions about what your paper begins to open up.

    As I come from a Post-colonial perspective I am particularly interested in the intersections between women/girls’ agency and cultural politics that manifest in your work. Certainly, these “Orientalist” performances suggest a lot about these girls’ material and representational power over real people from the East – Middle East and East Asia – and share an affinity with American women’s racial-crossing performances in Belasco’s Madam Butterfly (and of other works inspired by Japonisme) at the turn of the last century.

    The performances of Victorian girlhood through “Orientalism” explore the nexus of critical discourses and histories surrounding: 1) the context of British Imperialism specifically British/Egypt (Near/middle east) relations (building/completion of the Suez Canal happened in the late 19th Century and the annexation of the Near East, predominantly Arab-Islamic nations, between the British and the French); and, 2) the discourse of “Orientalism” that manifest in the author’s construction of “Orientals” (middle-eastern); 3) audience assumptions; 4) the performer’s identity as a white, English girl; and 5) contemporary understandings of “race” knowledge and the performance as racial-crossing at the time.

    This might be a difficult question to answer because of the nature of these performances and the conditions of their reception. What was the reception of the girls’ performance and what can it tell us about the audience’s “race knowledge” at the time? Are there any records that may illuminate the process of audience reception at all? Although you allude to it briefly in the conclusion, I would like to hear more of how you work through the complexity of how the girls’ white, British identity place them in a position of privilege and power vis-à-vis the “Middle-Eastern” subjects they portrayed and complicate the notion of “enhanced agency for English middle-class girls?” And how does that complicate an agency that occurs as a result of creating oppressive representations of “others?” In short, in doing “agency mathematics” does one group’s added agency at the expense of another group’s agency mean that 1-1=0 in terms of empowerment of marginalized and oppressed people, because the system of oppression perpetuated remains intact?

    What strikes me the most is that the girls’ performance is as much about establishing white, British, Victorian femininity, as it is about enacting an “Oriental” fantasy. These performances are Janus-faced in that they simultaneously open up different possibilities of understanding and subverting Victorian girlhood and reinforce normative understandings of Victorian girlhood. Confusing, yes, but stay with me. These plays are not created in a vacuum, but rather reflect the racial, national and economic power dynamics of British Imperialism. In many ways they function as ideological state apparatus to naturalize and perpetuate the ideologies of “Orientalism,” which Edward Said describes as the Western construction of negative stereotypes and representations of the “Other” as the mirror opposite of European culture and civilization. As such, “Orientals” are constructed as feminized, subordinate and infantile, in opposition to the West as masculine, dominant and culturally advanced; constructions that are imperative to legitimizing British Imperialism and Colonisation. In performing “Orientalist fantasies” the girls are also socially mobilising and (per)forming their own systematic oppression from dominant Victorian British culture (bounded by the ideologies of Imperialism, Paternalism, and Patriarchy), which likewise views girls and women as inferior, subordinate, and requiring male guardianship.

    Looking forward to hearing your views and ideas on the subject!

  2. Hi Jacquey! Thanks for your feedback. You have given me lots to think about, and you’re right, I can’t answer it all now because it is a work in process, and a very big project. But I’d like to give a try at some of your questions and see if you can provoke me even further, or if they are satisfying. So, here goes:

    J: What was the reception of the girls’ performance and what can it tell us about the audience’s “race knowledge” at the time? Are there any records that may illuminate the process of audience reception at all?

    H: So far, I can only answer this question in two ways. In “Recollections of a Spinster” there is a childhood letter in which a little girl talks about performing the role of a male “Turk” and how it felt to stride about and sing, and how everyone laughed a great deal, and how she wished her cousin could have been there. There seems to be two elements here — the permission to be “male”, and the permission to be culturally transgressive. I wish I had more evidence, but I hope this means that girls took some power from being able to act male characters because of the “Oriental” costume. The second comes from Thackeray’s novel “Vanity Fair” in which Becky Sharp plays a few “Oriental” roles (including Clytemnestra, which was clearly perceived as Oriental). She was a success, but people were also very shocked. The aggregate between what the character would do (kill Agamemnon) and what Becky might do — she couldn’t kill someone, could she? — really disturbed them. I’m still working through other fiction to get a sense of imagined / believable audience responses. Does this seem to be on the right track?

    I take my ideas about an audience’s “race knowledge” from Ziter’s assertion that professional theatre tried to be “authentic” but that much of the work was imaginary; from the geography primers written in broadly stereotypical ways by women who were armchair travellers themselves. It seems like the English were fascinated by explorers’ diaries and journals at the time, but that the work was quite fanciful. Edward Kean, I believe, claimed that the real East was no different than the images conjured in 1001 Nights. So “knowledge” is really what the audience thinks they know — which, given the exhibits, magic lantern shows, Crystal Palace exhibitions, and more, was sometimes quite a lot.

    J: Although you allude to it briefly in the conclusion, I would like to hear more of how you work through the complexity of how the girls’ white, British identity place them in a position of privilege and power vis-à-vis the “Middle-Eastern” subjects they portrayed and complicate the notion of “enhanced agency for English middle-class girls?”

    H: I would like to do more with this as well — again, the British Empire project I think forced women to align themselves with the Empire because at least that gave them some power. But it is really interesting that I could not find a single play from this era that took place in India. Perhaps too many real girls and women experienced life in India for the space to be “imaginary enough”?

    J: And how does that complicate an agency that occurs as a result of creating oppressive representations of “others?” In short, in doing “agency mathematics” does one group’s added agency at the expense of another group’s agency mean that 1-1=0 in terms of empowerment of marginalized and oppressed people, because the system of oppression perpetuated remains intact?

    H: I don’t know. I’ve been wondering this myself. I think, uncomfortably, white middle class girls really did “benefit” from these theatrical explorations. I’m quite sure that the “spinster” did not give a thought to how her performance essentialized real Turkish men, and fed into the already-existing system of Orientalism. If the system remains intact, is it possible for some girls to climb up even as they use the (unwilling? unaware?) shoulders of others for support?

    1. Great beginnings of a discussion here! I’m excited to encourage each other further.

      I don’t know if Rachel Rubin and Jeffrey Melnick’s work on “racial masquerade” would be helpful to this project. They are writing from a predominantly American perspective, but it seems that there are a lot of similarities in what is going on in terms of performing Japoinisme, Chinoiserie, and Orientalism in both the U.S. and in England at the same time.

      Finding first-hand accounts seem like a very difficult endeavour. I’m curious, how do you go about finding these primary sources? Have they been fortuitous, in that you’ve stumbled upon them while looking for something else? Or is there a lot of autobiographical material available in the form of letters or diaries? Is there any sense from that material that there is any self-awareness that they are perhaps performing stereotypes, parodies, or imaginative characterizations?

      And, this is where I have difficulty with my own research, how do you measure the agency/power of those who participate? Which is a silly question, I know, but it’s something that I’ve been asked with regards to children participating in Carnival and I’m not sure how to negotiate my way through it. I mean, to what extent are they performing what is going on around them in adult culture and what new perspectives are they, as children, contributing to “Orientalist” performance? Does that make sense – or am I as confused as I think? There is just so much ambivalence in this issue.

      I wonder if “orientalist femininism,” for these girls, is tolerated only because it is exotic and sensual and not assertive, critical or political? Thoughts?

  3. Hi Again!
    I was just about to ask you for some advice about masquerade texts, so I’m going to check out Rubin and Melnick before CATR, so that I can have some answers for you.

    As for first hand information — very little yet. Two letters published in “Recollections of a Spinster” (the girl writing the letters is about 11). I have details on “how to” do a play. I have Megan Norcia’s musings on geography primers and the ways that those interact with Orientalist discourse, and I’m extrapolating. I’m digging in archives this summer, and unfortunately, the plays I anticipate hearing more about are not the orientalist ones. So far, a lot of speculation.

    As for Agency and Power and kids — have you seen David Oswell’s Children’s Agency? It’s exceptionally good as an overview, and quite new (if you haven’t seen it, you might be really interested in some of the ways he says that children exhibit agency, but that they are a part of power networks — and things and other people, including other children, make agency possible.) I also like some parts of Jacqueline Kennelly’s work called Citizen Youth, where she talks about activist habitus. I know you talk about habitus already, but maybe the kids are a part of a kind of “cultural activist habitus”?

    Orientalist “feminism” is so complicated — I’m not sure that’s really possible. I’ve been thinking a lot about how feminists have critiqued Said’s ideas saying that they are inherently male, and indicate male heterosexual fear and desire of the feminized other, which women and girls can’t (normatively) adopt. So it might mean that girls could sometimes experience and interpret something one way, but that their spectators (especially male) might see something else. Is that possible? It means the actions are less political, but in a way, they are more subversive, like playing with a secret vocabulary that only some people understand. The potentially voyeuristic sexualisation of that scenario bothers me though, because it seems unlikely that girls could revel in sexuality and play against that kind of gaze the way that seasoned burlesque performers can.

  4. Thank you for the Oswell and Kennelly sources! I’m interested in seeing what they have to say. With regards to Orientalism and its relationship to Western feminism(s), there are a number of scholars and resources that address this complicated issue. A few key players come to mind: Meyda Yegenoglu (_Colonial Fantasies_ a critique of Said and posits that cultural and sexual differences are constitutive of each other), Lisa Lowe (offers a critique and redefinition of Said’s Orientalism), Gayatri Spivak (recognition that Victorian life and culture are entwined with imperialism), and Reina Lewis (whose work _Gendering Orientalism_ unpacks women’s participation as cultural producers at this time period–late 19th and early 20th centuries–and works through a complex study of white European women’s participation in Orientalist performance not just as “bad racists” or “good revolutionaries” motivated by a proto-feminism). There are also a number of scholars who look at how Orientalist feminism has operated in the United States, with the proliferation of Orientalist dramas like Belasco’s Madame Butterfly (and others), and how American actresses leveraged their performances in these productions to achieve status and wealth. There is an important connection between Orientalism and the “New Woman” or “New Girl” for that matter that Yoshihara explores in her work _Embracing the East_. I have to admit, one of my previous schemes for a potential thesis was to compare Orientalist performances by white American actresses and Asian actresses touring America with similar productions; both sets of actresses were able to assume an agency that most women at the time were unable to realize, amassing wealth, forming careers and becoming stars. I have a bit of a soft-spot for this line of research.

    H: I’ve been thinking a lot about how feminists have critiqued Said’s ideas saying that they are inherently male, and indicate male heterosexual fear and desire of the feminized other, which women and girls can’t (normatively) adopt.

    I’m interested in hearing you unpack this further. While women and girls cannot directly participate through Said’s implicitly male western superiority, their participation contributes to racial representations that are not necessarily counter-hegemonic (that is not overturning patriarchal, imperial and gendered representations of the “other”). The gaze is different, but is it less “degrading” as some may argue? I’m not entirely convinced that a female-oriented form of oppressively representing the “other” is somehow less damaging, it is just differently damaging. Perhaps, due to women’s and girls’ positions in the power structure their absence or omission from participating in imperial power relations (in Said’s work at least) means that their authority and representations of “the other” are less likely to have been institutionalized or systematized in the masculine power regime? I just don’t know.

    H: So it might mean that girls could sometimes experience and interpret something one way, but that their spectators (especially male) might see something else. Is that possible?

    Therein lies the rub. We find ourselves in similar situations in dealing with the male (colonizing) gaze. In Carnival, the fact that women can take over the street and take ownership of their bodies does not foreclose that women also function as objects for the male gaze. Or that the performance of Caribbean identity not only articulates a position of difference within the Canadian landscape, but also serves to bolster the status quo of “white privilege” within the matrix of boutique multiculturalism. Mostly audiences are of Caribbean-Canadian descent and thus are likely to identify with the young Mas players, whereas media reporting on the event for dominant mainstream (white) culture represent the children as “exotic” and “Othered” or co-opt their performance in support of Toronto’s multicultural narrative. All views occupy the same space at the same time, it seems Sisyphean, but worth the struggle to perform alternatives for “your girls” and for the young mas players.

  5. Hi Heather!

    Great paper! I’m really fascinated by this. What types of sources are you looking at? Are they mostly letters, newspaper articles?

    Were all performances performed in the home? Were they also staged in a theatre? I am interested in the ages of these girl performers. Are they mostly young children? The “girls” in my research are adolescent girls and I was just wondering what the boundaries of age were with the girls you write about.

    When you were discussing Oriental theatricals you say that “As a result, through Oriental theatricals, girls could imagine having as much power and agency as boys.” This may be completely off but it made me think of these theatricals as liminal spaces for these girls. Victor Turner defines liminal entities as “neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony” (Liminality and Communitas, 95). This notion allows for the understanding of the spacial and temporal transition that your girls found themselves in. During the performance they were able to transgress British Victorian femininity that was expected from them. From my understanding after these performances they found a kind of liberation or agency when playing the opposite sex. That just came to mind as I was recently doing some reading on it.

  6. Hi Heather

    Thank you for such a wonderful paper, it has given me much to think about as I go forward with researching the historiography of young people on stage. I was thinking about what age the girl performers would be typically. Would they have watched or helped with performances when younger and then got to a certain age before they could perform? This work reminds me of Susan Stewart’s On Longing, and the dialogue she posits between the miniature (in art but also childhood as a miniature of adulthood) and a nostalgic desire for an ideal, if fictive history. I wonder if the adult women watching these performances were also supporting them in order to experience this nostalgia?

    Also, thank you so much for presenting these papers in this way. I am new to theoretical research (my MA was a history of Arts Umbrella’s theatre program rather than have a theoretical approach) and this website is invaluable, I will be preserving it.


  7. greetings heather — such interesting juxtapositions across research frames in the comments / responses to your paper!

    I am curious about how you might articulate your research as specifically TYA, vis a vis the literature which positions theatre broadly as a significant force in shaping ideas and practices of femininity in nineteenth and early twentieth-century Britain and America, for example.

    (Of course, I am reminded of our Marlis Schweitzer’s “when broadway was the runway” which analyzes the ways in which women were positioned “as artistic creators, producers of meaning, and interpreters of their own psyches” and, therefore, “encouraged women to engage in productive acts of imagination” (177)… )

    I am wondering if and how you might use your research with a contemporary young audience?
    you wrote:
    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.
    i am curious, too, about contemporary TYA examples of young women performing transgressive characters… (and its inherent complexities, re gender, race, ethnicity, etc)

    thank you for this thoughtful paper
    and for organizing this session!

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