Victorian rebellion in drag Cushman and Menken act out celebrity /
The latter half of the nineteenth century was a turbulent time for American theatre, and
dubious was the occupation of the professional actress. To be successful, leading ladies needed to be
independent, innovative, and appealing. Few were more so than Charlotte Cushman and Adah
Isaacs Menken. Treading center stage and bathing in the hot footlights, both mesmerized their
rowdy audiences with their compelling breeches or drag performances. The breeches convention
was, of course, not new when Cushman first portrayed Romeo in 1837. As early as the seventeenth
century, women acted male roles, usually boys or romantic leads, in British productions. Breeches
roles were popular because the bodily display of the performer fulfilled heterosexual desire.
However, breeches performances undermined heterosexual ideology by blurring concepts of gender.
Culminating with the 1845 London Haymarket production, Cushman infused the role of
Romeo with a new subversive energy. Not conventionally “feminine,” the tall and commanding
Cushman was a convincing Romeo, for some spectators were not aware of her actual sex. In
contrast, Menken’s breeches depictions were not purposely realistic as the coquettish Menken often
underscored her feminine appeal in the play Mazeppa. Debuting the play in 1861 at the New
Bowery Theatre, Menken played the hardy Ivan Mazeppa, a nobleman betrayed by his lover and
wrongly punished to death by being strapped to a wild horse. While her costume choice of scanty
tunic and flesh-colored tights enticed many spectators to attend this equestrian drama, critics
overlooked Menken’s gender critique implicit in her costume and athleticism. In fact, Cushman and
Menken’s performances were subliminally liberating as they showcased independent, strong women
and allowed female spectators to engage in homosexual feelings without condemnation.
What distinguishes Cushman and Menken is that their challenges occurred onstage and off,
for many of their subversions were more symbolic than literal. They were liberated individuals in
their personal lives and shrewd self-promoters triumphing on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite the
sometime tarnished reputation of the actress, both actresses fashioned their images to appeal to
middle-class society. Fiction like Cushman’s “The Actress” and poetry like Menken’s collection
Infelicia not only kept their names on the readers’ minds but also legitimized their artistic talents.
Analyzing contemporary publications and writings, I am interested in Cushman and Menken as self
made icons and will focus on the role of the popular press and photography as sites of image
construction. Through their literary output and manipulation of public persona, Cushman and
Menken assured the potential of the professional woman. Showing independence and intelligence,
their writing confronts the image of the woman as object, as metaphoric toy. In her journal,
Cushman recounts cracking open dolls’ heads because she “was possessed with the idea that dolls
could and did think.”1 Similarly, in her poem “Autograph on the Soul,” Menken decries the male
audience’s ill treatment of women: “for the best you trample beneath your feet, while the fairest you
pluck as a toy to while an idle hour, then dash aside for another of a fairer cast.”2 Onstage, in the
press, and in their personal lives, Cushman and Menken transcended the discourse of containment
that would confine them strictly to the domestic sphere. By transforming the image of the actress,
Cushman and Menken were rebellious yet respected American celebrities.
Qtd. in Emma Stebbins, Charlotte Cushman: Her Letters and Memories of her Life
(Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1899) 13.
Adah Isaacs Menken, Infelicia and Other Writings ed. Gregory Eiselein (Ontario:
Broadview, 2002) 109.
School:Florida State University
School Location:USA - Florida
Source Type:Master's Thesis
Keywords:cushman charlotte menken adah isaacs actors breeches parts theater great britain united states
Date of Publication: