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Title:"Fair Montague" or "Ill-beseeming beast": Breeches performance on the American stage, 1800-1869
Author(s):Mullenix, Elizabeth Reitz
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Davis, Peter A.
Department / Program:Theatre
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):History, United States
Women's Studies
Abstract:Vigorous scholarly interest in gender studies, women's history and feminist theory in the 1980s and 1990s has generated a vast amount of recent material on cross-dressing. Yet, despite cross-dressing's present favor within academia, a paucity of historical analysis exists regarding perhaps the most celebrated of all theatrical transvestites: the nineteenth-century American breeches actress. Established as a popular convention during the English Restoration, the practice of breeches performance reached its peak in America during the first half of the nineteenth century as actresses donned doublets and hose, tunics and tights on a regular basis in theatres throughout the country. Regardless of the American breeches performer's ubiquitous appeal, however, many basic histories of the American theatre ignore this convention; the history that has been written about the cross-dressed actress consists largely of a discussion of her as a sexual object.
This gendered historical analysis of the convention from 1800-1869 demonstrates that breeches performance was much more than a cleverly disguised leg show. Certainly, the breeches performer was occasionally objectified by the press, yet she seldom invited such perceptions; nor were these critical observations rendered innocently. Rather, discourses of containment (of which sexual objectification was one) were instituted in order to mitigate fears of female usurpation and "petticoat government." In an effort to reinforce dominant gender ideology, critics repeatedly feminized, infantilized and sexualized the cross-dressed actress in a deliberate attempt to show that her disguise was translucent. Such recuperative critical strategies became necessary as more and more actresses began to assume male lines of business and threats of female revolution became increasingly palpable for the male critic. By self-consciously dissolving gender boundaries through their attempt to pass as men both on and off stage, actresses contributed to these critical anxieties. Indeed, the breeches performer, who generally thought of herself as a serious artist, often betrayed a protofeminist politic behind her male mask, and select performers were able to use their male personas to liberate themselves from the domestic sphere and to brave new territory for American women.
Issue Date:1995
Rights Information:Copyright 1995 Mullenix, Elizabeth Reitz
Date Available in IDEALS:2011-05-07
Identifier in Online Catalog:AAI9624444
OCLC Identifier:(UMI)AAI9624444

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