The mirrored stage: Representations of the actress in nineteenth-century France and beyond
Doctor of Philosophy
As the central figures in a booming theater industry, actresses in nineteenth-century France were granted the resources and freedoms to forge a powerful if unsuspectingly subversive voice. Comediennes were adulated as talented and beautiful women bringing fame and fortune to the stages of Paris yet were also legally and socially marginalized because of lingering Rousseauean conceptions of female performers as deceptive prostitutes. From this position outside mainstream society, the power of actresses to challenge norms from both on and off the stage went largely unrecognized. They had a profound effect on other women of the time who were as riveted as the men by the audacious personal lives, unconventional manners, independence, and difference of these new stars. Actresses' ability to convincingly adopt one role and then another and to juxtapose conflicting personas undermined the concept that certain attributes belong exclusively to a specific gender, class, or age. With the growing success of the French theater industry, portrayals of actresses seemed to be everywhere---in the memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt and other celebrated performers, in the journals of the Goncourt brothers, in the photographs of Nadar, and in the literary works of such authors as Ajalbert, Balzac, Baudelaire, Champsaur, Leroux, Maupassant, Merimee, Nerval, Rodenbach, Villiers, and Zola. Attempts to portray their identities accurately, however, whether in fiction or in life, were continually betrayed by the many, often contradictory roles they played. Revealing little about the actresses who were their ostensible subjects, these representations reveal much, on the other hand, about the fears and desires of the writers: if the actress provided for many a convenient blank screen onto which one could project one's fantasies, she also functioned as a mirror (perhaps as a Lacanian mirror) that revealed hidden societal truths and exerted a profound influence over broader conceptions of identity. Whether consciously or not, the nineteenth-century French actress raised critical questions of identity and representation, questions that continue to be explored in the highly conscious work of contemporary feminist filmmakers.