From Anti-Hero to Soubrette: Actresses in Nineteenth Century America

Opera, drama, comedy, burlesque… Decades before contemporary forms of media entertainment, theater was as essential part of American culture. A collection of nearly sixty actors’ role books (Ms. Coll. 1143) from the 1870s hints at the “backstage” aspects of this world including rehearsals, costumes, negotiations with celebrity performers and the balancing of tight budgets. Role books, which provide the relevant cues, lines and stage directions for one character in a play are interesting in their own right but what makes this collection come alive are the abundant annotations, marginalia, lists and even drawings sprinkled throughout the pages. These notes give mention to a number of nineteenth century actresses who had not only star power but also considerable authority within their industry.

The role book for King Creon in "Medea" includes phonetic pronunciations of some Greek words.

The role book for King Creon in “Medea” includes phonetic pronunciations of some Greek words.

Although women in the United States had limited legal rights throughout the nineteenth century and were expected to remain away from the public sphere, some actresses managed to work around the social constraints of their day and maintain a profile in business, politics and current events. While most of the women who did work (in textile mills, for example) were earning small fractions of the salaries of their male counterparts, successful female performers became enormously rich which allowed them to invest their money or take up philanthropic causes. Moreover, by the mid nineteenth century the profession of acting had lost it’s association with sin and lasciviousness and was rapidly gaining social respectability.

Miss Lotta Crabtree starred as a "mischievous" young girl in this musical comedy.

Miss Lotta Crabtree starred as a “mischievous” young girl in this musical comedy.

Charlotte Crabtree (1847-1924), a starlet who used many of the role books in this collection, charmed audiences over the course of a nearly four-decade career. Although “Miss Lotta” presented herself onstage as the incarnation of girlish naiveté, “as gentle and sweet and innocent as the bounding pink-eyed bunny in the fragrant caress of a clover bed” as one commentator put it, she managed her career, finances and public persona with great acuity. After being abandoned by her father, Miss Lotta began performing at age six in front of audiences of California gold miners to support herself and her mother. Quickly, she sprang to national and international fame, carefully investing in real estate along the way. Partly because of her petite size, Miss Lotta often played young men or boys, and in one instance, a boy dressing as a woman for disguise. But Lotta’s convolution of Victorian gender expectations extended beyond the stage as well. Known for smoking black cigars, she never married but kept herself busy after her retirement at age forty-five through philanthropy and the management of her investments, which had grown to four million dollars by the time of her death in 1924.

This role book was the property of theater manager Laura Keene.

This role book was the property of theater manager Laura Keene.

A role book for the part of John Leigh in Hunted Down was copied by Laura Keene, a British actress who began performing after her husband was convicted of a crime and sent to Australia on a prison ship. Though greatly appreciated for her skill as an actress, Keene was also a successful businesswoman and by the mid 1850s was running her own theater in New York City. Keene was performing with her company at Ford’s Theater on the night of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. After the president was shot, Keene rushed to his box where she attended Lincoln until further help arrived (the blood-stained sleeve of her costume is on display at the National Museum of American History.) Keene’s bravery during this national event served to further propel her reputation and presence in the media. A penciled note on the front page of her role book which reads, “Laura Keene’s own handwriting to be preserved,” alludes to the respect she enjoyed within the theater world as well as the broad scope of her celebrity.

It’s hard to say what exactly it was about a career in theater that allowed these women to shake off the gender-based restrictions of the 19th century United States. Perhaps it was the sheer amount of money available in the industry or the fact that acting is centrally about assuming an identity different from one’s own. This collection of role books doesn’t fully answer that question, but it does show us some of the influence, intelligence and skill of the actresses of the 1870s.

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