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The Women of the Stage

May 17, 1893 — World’s Congress of Representative Women, Chicago World’s Fair, Chicago IL


I come before you to-night, as one from the rank and file of the theatrical profession, not to make a set speech on the subject in which I am enrolled, but to talk to you, if I may, simply, earnestly, perhaps a little disjointedly, about the stage and its women.

The veil of illusion has long been torn away from the stage. Why not direct our efforts toward tearing away the cloud of misapprehension that obscures this power in the world’s progress? The drama has its legitimate province, its peculiar function. Primarily the purpose of the stage is relaxation, and herein lies its great usefulness.

The terrible tension of stimulation, the restlessness and lack of rep which has come upon the American people through our rapid growth and formation asa nation, our intensity of interest and concentration of desire for the best of life, amounts to a disease which physicians call “Americanitis,” and which makes essential a form of recreation which shall satisfy in the majority the intellection craving at small expense of mental effort. Such recreation the stage supplies.

It is for us to take the tired men and women, to life them out of the rush and struggle for a brief space, to help them forget the strife and ambition, the disappointment and sadness of their lives, in the world of the stage, where the glamour and romance bring restfulness, where ideal love and worthy deeds and noble sentiments are happily shown, and where griefs are only agreeably pathetic because they are not real agony, and everything comes out all right in the last act. And so we send them back to you, preachers and teachers and reformers, rested and refreshed, to take up the exactions of life. And on these lines the stage becomes a popular educator, in that it presents to men and women who are too worn and weary, perhaps too indifferent and thoughtless, to read for themselves, literature in a form pleasing and easy of comprehension — gives them three volumes before 11 o’clock, tells whether he marries her or not in the last chapter, and sends them home satisfied. 

It is not an ignoble mission to poetize the process of simple things and lend a touch of romance to the practical for the inspiration of the masses too limited in mind, or too much occupied with the world’s work, to grasp the splendor of great thoughts set in classical language. Remembering the drama’s honorable service in the past, when it was the temple of art, the highest exponent of culture, perpetuating and disseminating the thought of the great teachers and philosophers before printing had made literature an inheritance of the common people, I claim for it also a place in the intellectual life of to-day, because it interprets for us in the classical drama the life of the past, which is the literature of the roe-sent, and presents to us with nice exactness in the modern play the life of to-day, which will be the literature of the future.

A valuable contribution, then, to mental growth is the familiarity which the stage gives us with the great masterpieces of literature, and the interpretation of them by men and women who devote their lives to studying special characters and personages which baffle the scholar and confuse the critic. One might pore over Hamlet until one was as mad as the melancholy Dane himself, and never approximate the clear conception of the great master’s meaning which Edwin Booth has given to the world. We search the record and study the archives concerning that ever-fascinating but ill-fated Queen of Scots until we are weary with much reading, and then go some night o the play, and in three hours we meet and know this Mary Stuart as Modjeska has recreated her from Schiller’s story.

But the modern drama has its field of practical usefulness as well. It should be the authority on fine points of etiquette, on the truly artistic in dress, on the conventional and correct in social forms and ceremony. In short, it should be the final court of appeal in all that pertains to the accurate and cultured in manners, morals, and speech according to the standards of the time. There are a few theaters where mothers may bring their young daughters, and teachers may send their young pupils, where men may come with their wives and sweethearts, because the play is sure to present the lesson of life wholesomely, and to set a high ideal of manhood and womanhood that is an inspiration to pure living. 

Moreover, the stage reaches a class of people which the pulpit can not influence. Those most in need of ministration, the bitter, world-worn, pessimistic men and women, the heartbroken and hopeless, the gay and frivolous, as well as the immoral, come to us when they will not go to you. You seek out some of them with your vigilance and zeal; they come to us of their own accord. We speak to them in a language they understand; we appeal to their better natures by presenting pictures of true nobility of character, by making our villains more unfortunate and repulsive than the genuine article, and by always seeing to it that the hero marries a rich heiress, that the wronged wife is recompensed, and the betrayer of innocence is punished. Seriously, the influence of the stage upon the morals of the community is too valuable to be lightly considered. It should be guarded, and protected, and encouraged.

There is much talk of the elevation of the stage among some of those who devoted themselves to it. But the real elevation of the stage must come from the people, not from the profession. It must come from a grander art-view, which shall refuse to narrow the art down to the personality of the artist. It must come from a purification of the public sentiment which shall refuse to accept women whose only qualification for stars in the dramatic firmament is an appeal to morbid curiosity. It must come from a better understanding of the stage and its prerogatives, which shall demand and indorse legitimate drama rather than the sensational, the degrading, the sensual; which shall distinguish between talent and notoriety, and shall honor gifted womanliness rather than brainless beauty.

In particular should women recognize the progressive spirit and influence of the stage, fro the dramatic profession has been the pioneer in granting to women the privileges which ini other intellectual callings they are still striving to compass; the first to rise above the narrowness that makes sex a barrier to success, and to recompense women’s talent and ability with the same measure of fame and fortune commanded by men. The women of the stage, by their convincing genius and determination, have made the breach in the wall of prejudice which wmoen of other professions are widening every day. It has not been to us an easy victor, but we went about it sooner than you, and thus we have the advantage. 

In the rapid growth of this profession, in the increase of theatrical centers, in the multiplication of dramatic companies, and in the demand of the popular drama for women of gentle breeding and boat culture, as well as for those gifted with great histrionic talent, a new problem in sociology presents itself to the thoughtful. The women of the stage — what will you do with them? What is your duty toward them? You cultivate your flowers for the delight they give you — you do not step on them because they yield no useful fruit; you do not criticize them except in tenderness to make them more beautiful. I am not speaking to people of my own profession to-day, but as a woman to women I would make my plea for a better understanding, a more sympathetic appreciation of women of the stage. I would present to you something of what the dramatic profession demands of women — particularly here in America, where conditions prevail which are not to be found in any other country — that, with the wise tolerance that knowledge and understanding always establish, you may learn to regard us not as curious creatures to be looked down upon in Pharisaical pity, or goddesses to be looked up to with sentimental heroine-worship, but simply as women the same family, speaking a different language, governed by different standards, yet in spite of tradition and environment maintaining an integrity of principle which has given to the profession such womanly women as my colleagues of to-day, and many others of humbler gifts but equal worthiness. 

A serious obstacle to the development of the actress, and one which is peculiar to America, is this: the personality of the artists is ever made paramount to her art. For the public is curious, and the press must perforce satisfy their curiosity. In this respect the press reflects the demands of its readers, as the stage reflects the taste of its audiences. Doctor Johnson said truly,

“The drama’s art the drama’s patrons give.
As they, who live to please, must please, to live.”

Perhaps the greats injustice of the pubic toward this woman, to whom it looks for its happiest recreation, is this insatiable curiosity concerning the smallest details of her private life, which results in culpable carelessness in circulating sensational and unfounded rumors, and an equally culpable credence accepting without investigation any extravaganza of the penny-a-liner’s fancy. The player is caused of  seeking notoriety, when it is notoriety that seeks the player. We receive letters of interrogation intended to fill our special newspaper articles — “When, where, and how do you sew?” “Are you afraid of mice?” “What do you want for Christmas?” “What ind of dog do you refer?” etc.— as if private preference in such matters had any bearing on dramatic art. 

Still another demand, and one which affects all actresses more or less seriously, is the desire the public enjoy luxury and magnificence in dress. The price of perpetual daintiness on the stage is eternal vigilance and expense, and the cost of modish gowns, which can be worn but a season and require the skill of the fashionable dressmaker instead of the stage costumer in construction, taxes heavily the resources of small-salaried players. The love of money may be the root of all evil, but the lack of it is the bitter fruit which hangs thick upon the giant tree whose shadow falls across many a noble woman’s life, wrecked in the struggle with poverty before talent is recognized. When I learned that its as at first intended to include the women of the pulpit and the women f the stage in this days’ sessions, i remembered how, in the school for oratory where I studied, the future women ministers and players sat in their classes together and received the same instruction. Indeed no profession requires dramatic instruction so much a that of the clergy, because the magnificent lines of Scripture need all the inspired expression that nature and art can give, that they may be uttered a grandly as written. And this profession of ours, which the idle and frivolous plunge into from vanity, which disgraced women seek in their degradation to the insult of all sincere artists, into which so many tumble without any preparation, and with some degree of success, really demands as its foundation the broadest, most liberal education, and requires not only a knowledge of some of the arts, but an intelligent appreciation of all of them. It is really a life-long study, in which success is never a satisfaction, but always a spur to fresh endeavor, a goad to greater effort, while at the last it leaves nothing but a memory which dies with the last person who has witnessed one’s success.

There is among the actors in Japan a beautiful custom which gives to dramatic talent the value of inheritance, the certainty of perpetuity. Every great actor who has not a so of his own adopts a boy, to whom he gives his name; and this boy becomes to him a son and pupil, who will receive and hand down in time to a son and pupil the name and methods of the master. Thus their stage has an aristocracy of great family names and an inheritance of cumulative genius. with us “the unsubstantial pageant fades and leaves no trace behind,” for our aristocracy of art is limited. 

I should like to make a special plea for the stock actresses, for I believe that the regeneration of the drama is in the hands of the stock company, and that, when the drama reaches its present glory and power among the arts, it will be the stock companies that will present, with a degree of perfection never reached before, the masterpieces of dramatic literature.

By stock company I mean an organization of actors, each in himself an able actor, not supporting and assisting a name of greater magnitude, but each eminent, and capable of doing his part toward giving that harmony and symmetry to a performance which makes the good play seem a real transcript of life. Such a company is the present one of the French theater, every member of which has reached the highest individual distinction in his or her line of work. Such a company is the present one of the French theater, every member of which has reached the highest individual distinction in his or her line of work. Such a company is fitted to perform any play, classic or modern, tragedy or comedy. The dramas of Shakespeare could be re-illumined with such an organization. If one actor achieved distinction one nigh in Shyloc, another of the same company at another time would display his power as Hamlet or Romeo. So with the women. All the parts would be emphasized by the actor’s art according to the dramatist’s aim. And so it is in the drama of to-day, which does not aspire to great efforts, because our deeds have ceased to be heroic, because war and the pomp and circumstance of war have given place to peace and the arts and graces of social and domestic life, to which the modern drama devotes itself. In this the actor of the stock company, while not, like his brothers and sisters of the past, possessing the opportunity of so great personal display, is still enabled at times to illumine with his art the simpler and less complicated conditions of his play. But the vastness of the theater-going public of to-day requires so many repetitions of a popular play that the stock actress must appear over and over in the same rôle. The person who witnesses a performance once can not realize what it means to the actress to ply the same part two, three, or four hundred times with the same degree of feeling, pathos, humor, and naturalness of charm and manner at every performance. Horsemen tell us that a horse never makes his record more than once; and some horses never make a record at all, because they are not brought on when all conditions are most favorable. An actress must make her record every night. She must not only act her best, but look her best at every performance, and under all circumstances, or be accused of retrograding.

The inspiration necessary to keep oneself up to this plane of excellence must come from the public. Applause to the actress is the breath of life to her being; ti is the only recognition, the only approval, and the only indorsement which she can be assured of that maes her feel that her efforts are pleasing; she submits herself with perturbation to the suffrages of that great and inexorable being, the public. Do you wonder, then, that we come before you with fear in our hearts, and its hope that you will be satisfied with our work, and that you will show it with discrimination and wholeheartedness. It is your applause that stimulates us, takes away the mechanical feeling caused by constant repetition of the same part, and wakes up the inspirational sources of our art. The women of the domestic circle now how grateful is the approval of husband, brother, or so; how is it, therefore, with us who appeal nightly to so many whose judgment and approval is none the less pleasing? Art has its triumphs no less renowned than home, and it is from you, the people who sit in front, that we hope to win them. And in this country alone, I am sorry to say, a woman’s art-life on the stage is comparatively short, for old age seldom brings her hoo, because of the public’s constant craving after the new and the pretty at the expense of art; and yet no art can be worthy unless it is matured.

The question of stage morality — that is an incubus which has clung to the drama for many years; but the nineteenth century has luckily dissipated the clouds of mystery and doubt that surrounded the player, and the stage has never before numbered so many worthy women as to-day. The stage itself is purer and nobler, but the publicity of its life is its stumbling block.

It might seem pertinent to explain some of the influences that prevent an actress from being exactly like other women. Does it seem possible for a woman who has to simulate a varied assortment of feelings every night to be like the woman whose every emotion is sincere and natural? A woman of the stage must lay bare her heart and soul before the public in order to present in perfection some type of woman. The artificial is always dangerous to character, whether it is the artificial in society or the artificial on the stage. It is almost menacing to moral perception to bring the most sacred impulses of womanhood down to the level of the commonplace by constant draft upon them. In every other profession a woman may keep inviolate the hold of holies of her individuality. In this alone is the veil rent, and the sacrificial flame upon her altar is lighted for the entertainment of the public. They little realize what it costs her.

There is an old story of a dancer who wore about her neck and precious chain of pearls as she came before the king; in the midst of the dance the chain parted, and the pearls were scattered beneath her flying feet. How was she to step the measure so gayly that the king should never know her are ,nor the handsome courtiers smiling lightly down, nor the gentle ladies looking on in languid grace, and yet never crush a snow-white pearl, while the symbols clashed and the wild, glad music sounded madder and merrier, and the witchery of the dance duller her fear and deafened her caution? The exceptional woman of exceptional breeding may, when the court pageant has passed, count her pearl chain and find it all complete, even as those which home-guarded women wear so proudly. will you remember what it costs? Will you think of the danger — a moment of forgetfulness, a careless step? Will you help us by understanding us — help us with your sympathy, your influence — lest we crush our pearls?



Source: The World’s Congress of Representative Women, ed. May Wright Sewall (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Company) 1894, pp. 179-188.