Hi, I’m JL Merrow, and today, 17th May, is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia
I’m delighted to be blogging here at the Macaronis today as part of the Hop For Visibility, Awareness and Equality.
Among the many fascinating exhibits in the British Library’s Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition is the story of lesbian actress Charlotte Cushman from Boston, Massachusetts, who has been described as the first native-born star upon the American stage.
In 1846 she crossed the Atlantic to appear on the London stage in Romeo and Juliet—but not in a female role.
London theatre audiences of the time were notoriously conservative—after all, it was only 40 years since Sarah Siddons, playing Lady Macbeth, had caused a sensation by putting down a candlestick when tradition dictated it should be held throughout a scene. Playwright Richard Sheridan was apparently so horrified by the prospect he actually visited her in her dressing room to try to get her to abandon such a dangerously avant-garde idea, although he changed his mind when he saw the performance.
So how might an accomplished actress, tired of—and in some ways ill-suited to—playing the limited female roles available at the time circumvent all tradition and convention to take on a male role?
How, in particular, might she persuade an audience to accept cross-dressed casting of one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s characters, the eponymous lover, Romeo?
In an inspired move, Miss Cushman—known for her strong features and deep (for a woman) voice, not to mention her independence of spirit—gave out the story that she took on the role of Romeo to protect her Juliet from the unwanted attentions of male actors. The role of Juliet was taken by Charlotte’s younger sister Susan, who had been abandoned by her husband and lately involved in a romantic scandal. How could anyone object to the preservation of female virtue?
And in fact the casting brought a whole new dimension to the role. Charlotte Cushman’s masculine femininity was well suited to playing a young man whose masculinity was perceived as having something effeminate about it. Romeo’s immaturity, and in particular his emotional immaturity, led the role to be seen as one not easily portrayed by a mature male actor of the era—or at least, not without embarrassment. Women, however, were popularly supposed to be naturally over-emotional and impetuous, and so a woman’s portrayal of the young lover was, in some ways, actually more credible to nineteenth-century audiences.
Precedent established, Charlotte Cushman went on to play Romeo to at least two other Juliets—with both of whom she was romantically linked. And she didn’t just stick with the “effeminate” heroes: in her career she played over 30 male roles, including that of Hamlet, often seen as the loftiest endeavour of an actor’s career.
That she was able to do so is a tribute not only to her ability as an actor, but also to her tenacity, business savvy and, not least, her skill and pragmatism at working a system that was stacked against women.
See also: the British Library’s excellent Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition: http://www.bl.uk/events/shakespeare-in-ten-acts (on until 6th September 2016).
PRIZE: I’m offering an ebook of the winner’s choice from my historical backlist to a randomly chosen commenter on this post, and I’ll make the draw after the hop ends on May 24th. There will be lots of other prizes up for grabs on the hop, so make sure you check out the other participating blogs!
JL Merrow is that rare beast, an English person who refuses to drink tea. She read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, where she learned many things, chief amongst which was that she never wanted to see the inside of a lab ever again. Her one regret is that she never mastered the ability of punting one-handed whilst holding a glass of champagne.
JL Merrow is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, International Thriller Writers, Verulam Writers’ Circle and the UK GLBTQ Fiction Meet organising team.