Sex, Song and Self-Fashioning: Women on the Parisian Popular Stage

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Music


The project uses Joséphine Delorme and the Théâtre des Variétés as both inspiration and case study for a broader excavation of the careers of women female actors on the Parisian popular stage, c.1820-50: their self-fashioning and their representation in the public sphere through reviews, gossip columns, theatrical plates, portraits etc; their skill-set and agency in performance, their performance practices and repertoire; their institutional status and career trajectories. What was the social status and mobility typical of women in popular theatre? How far were the historic associations between the role of female actor and prostitute still central to perceptions of the role by the first half of the nineteenth century? What sort of training - in music, dance, drama or otherwise - did they have? How much artistic agency did they have in their performances? How far did such women contribute to the shaping of their public profile? And what role did they play in shaping public taste in fashion and in art?
These are questions deserving of more attention. As well as complementing more general accounts of 'Theater Women' such as Lenard Berlanstein's Daughters of Eve: A Cultural History of French Theater Women from the Old Regime to the Fin de Siècle (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), the project contributes to understanding of Parisian popular theatre in the 1820-50s, taking in female actors and practices at the Théâtre de la Gaité, the Théâtre du Vaudeville, the Théâtre de l'Ambigu-Comique was well as the Variétés. Pursuing performers' practices, for example, is a productive way to address the relative lack of knowledge about the aesthetic values and textual practices of genres such as vaudeville and mélodrame (where printed libretti leave provide fewer clues to performance than elsewhere), as well as aspects of embodied performance such as movement and gesture. The work thus fills a wider scholarly need, as well as the objectives of the Bowes Museum in addressing the lack of knowledge about Joséphine's background and career, and about some of the theatrical holdings in the archives. In other words: the research from this project will be useful to the outward face of the Bowes Museum, given the importance of Joséphine to the story they tell.
The research to be carried out in the course of the PhD project includes the examination of: the critical press and theatrical journal reviews and almanacs; institutional records; private accounts of female actors (their own, and others'); published memoirs and acting manuals; examination of manuscript libretti and orchestral/vocal scores for popular theatrical repertoire; portraiture and costume designs. The central outcome of this project will of course be the student's PhD, later published either as a book or a series of articles. This would be accompanied by more public-facing publications; academic performance workshops on popular genres such as vaudeville; outward-facing performance workshops reconstructing some of Mlle Delorme's repertoire (museum volunteers have already begun translating libretti for this possible end); display materials both for individual items in the Bowes Museum collection and in the narrative presented about John and Joséphine Bowes.


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