Out in Public Configurations of Women's Bodies in Nineteenth-Century America
By Alison Piepmeier
The University of North Carolina Press Copyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-8078-5569-3
Chapter One The Most Thrilling Sensations
Anna Cora Mowatt and Sensational Womanhood
The actor sways the multitude even as the preacher and the orator, often more powerfully than either. He arouses their slumbering energies; elevates their minds; calls forth their loftiest aspirations; excites their purest emotions; or, if he be false to his trust, a perverted instrument, he may minister to vitiated tastes, and help to corrupt, to enervate, to debase. -Anna Cora Mowatt, Autobiography of an Actress; or, Eight Years on the Stage, 1853
At the midpoint of actress and author Anna Cora Mowatt's (1819-71) Autobiography of an Actress; or, Eight Years on the Stage (1853), Mowatt relates a horrific incident occurring backstage in a London theater:
[A] shriek, wild and ear-piercing, broke upon the startled crowd. A flying figure, enveloped in flames, was seen rushing up the stage. One of the young ballet girls had stood too near the footlights; her ball dress ... had taken fire. Screaming frantically, she darted from side to side, fanning by her flight the devouring element, from which, in mad bewilderment, she thought to escape. She looked like a cloud of fire as she flew. Her white arms, tossed wildly above her head, were all of human form that was visible through the flames.
This is a stunning moment in the text. Mowatt's description is chilling. The girl, dehumanized and victimized-pure physicality on exhibit-is a casualty of this dangerous profession, the theater. The girl's body is on display, and through its violent description it becomes an almost erotic object. The girl is devoured by fire, the verb "devour" suggesting that her body is sexual, edible. She does not die, but her body is utterly destroyed. She is a vividly sensational figure.
The ballet girl is a stock character in nineteenth-century literature about the theater. Representative of the sexuality and immorality thought to be synonymous with theaters, the ballet girls, with their knee-length skirts and exposed legs, seemed to signify a pure, unbridled, uncontained physicality, an image of embodiment unmediated by the moral or spiritual. Their flammable dresses did occasionally brush against the gas stage lights, and what resulted was often a horrible, painful death-an event generally reported in graphic detail in local papers and occasionally becoming the topic of titillating literature. John Elsom explains that techniques were available for preventing these accidents, but that they were rarely utilized; more prominent actresses, for instance, rarely if ever perished by fire. The ballet girls, at the lowest end of the spectrum of theatrical respectability, were the only victims. He explains, "It is hard to resist the conclusion that burning ballet girls were good for trade and that the obvious danger added an extra spice to the entertainment." Tracy Davis notes that ballet girls were common characters in erotica, and Kelly Taylor argues that their death by fire seemed to deliver a sexual thrill to readers. The cover of an 1849 edition of Turner's Comic Almanac features a very buxom ballet girl with her legs spread in a pose which is both suggestive of the classical ballet and overtly sexual. The erotic characteristics are exaggerated; as she balances on one rather large toe, she has her head thrown back to look at her viewers and smile suggestively. Her legs are visible from the knee down, and her low-cut bodice reveals her cleavage. This image required no caption at the time of its publication; readers of the magazine would have recognized this character and her erotic significance. Through her graphic description of a ballet girl's immolation, Mowatt is participating in a sensational discourse that would have been familiar to her readers.
By sacrificing this ballet girl in her text, Mowatt enacts an almost ritual purification of the theater, killing off this element "known" to be bad. Given what follows this description in the text, it seems especially true that the ballet girl's destruction is intended to purify the theater: immediately after and in conjunction with this anecdote, Mowatt makes a sustained argument against the supposition that women in the theater are morally depraved. She argues, "The woman who, on the stage, is in danger of losing the highest attribute of her womanhood-her priceless, native dower of chastity,-would be in peril of that loss in any situation of life where she was in some degree of freedom.... I make this assertion fearlessly, for I believe it firmly. There is nothing in the profession necessarily demoralizing or degrading, not even to the poor ballet girl." She then tells the story of the utterly sentimental Georgina to prove this point, bringing the sensational and the sentimental into conversation.
Georgina is a ballet girl who dances in the theater to support her invalid parents. She is a classic sentimental figure; working every waking hour, she devotes her entire life to her parents' comfort. She is an embodiment of piety, purity, and submissiveness, and she only leaves the domestic realm because she must. Mowatt writes, "Her fragile form spoke of strength overtasked; it was more careworn than her face.... She bore her deep sorrow with that lovely submission which elevates and purifies the spirit." Thus it may seem that Mowatt forecloses the sensational narrative-and the ballet girl's sensational body-with the story of Georgina's sentimentality. However, though she asserts that ballet girls can be pure and gives us the example of Georgina to prove it, she still capitalizes on the image of the eroticized, violated, devoured body of the ballet girl. Rather than deny this image altogether, she sets it into circulation in her text and then provides an image to counteract it; but the counteracting image of Georgina's weary, sentimental body does not convey the rhetorical power of the flaming ballet girl. The flaming ballet girl is the image that lingers; it is the powerful image of the sensational body that Mowatt's text continually deploys and backs away from.
These two dramatic narratives demonstrate a primary technique at work in Mowatt's autobiography: the juxtaposition of sensation and sentiment, genres understood in the nineteenth century to be almost mutually exclusive, in order to contest their division. She does this through her own self-representation; rather than define herself as sentimental or sensational, Mowatt does both. The two ballet girls, surrogates of Mowatt herself, represent the two types of narrative: the nameless girl in flames embodies the sensational narrative, while Georgina enacts the sentimental body. These two figures are interconnected; however, they are not equally weighted. While the sentimental gets a good deal of lip service in Mowatt's text, the text's energy hovers around the sensational images she presents. Mowatt's rhetoric changes, becomes more forceful and less sentimentally formulaic, when she describes sensational events and people. These moments are surprising and vivid. However, they are always accompanied by-framed by-the sentimental. Mowatt suggests that the two bodily models are necessarily interconnected; she presents sensational bodies, especially her own, loosely clothed in the sentimental.
Mowatt, a nineteenth-century actress who is little known today, provides a paradigm for understanding Mary Baker Eddy, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and Sarah Josepha Hale. Although each of these women is better known than Mowatt, she provides a gateway for understanding the others. It is Mowatt who, by framing the sensational female body in the rhetoric of the sentimental, shows the extraordinary public circulation of the embodied American woman and shows the uses of embodiment to decommission easy dichotomies. She provides the model for a revisionist understanding of a cohort of women, each of whose careers discloses the extent to which the female body of the nineteenth century was publicly enactive. Through her deployment of the concepts of travel, athleticism, illness, and transgressive physicality, Mowatt maps out a spectrum of potential bodily models. She defines public female embodiment in continual tension among constraint, empowerment, and the demands of materiality. Further, Mowatt's energy and pleasure, the obvious delight she infuses into her text through her descriptions of her travels and ordeals, give the lie to simplistic and binaric readings of nineteenth-century womanhood. Mowatt cannot be read within the critical categories of victim versus agent or public versus private; her text and her constructed sensational body disrupt these seemingly oppositional categories by existing in both simultaneously, while giving more rhetorical energy and emphasis to the one culturally constructed as least appropriate for nineteenth-century women.
Mowatt's autobiography has been widely understood as a respectable and thus sentimental document. Her contemporaries interpreted it as "charming" and educational, and they did not question its moral message or Mowatt's status as a respectable woman. Critics today repeat this pattern, identifying Mowatt as the woman who made the theater respectable by her presence in it. One recently asserted that Mowatt's autobiography "does not have the violent sensationalism that so typifies melodrama." Thus the overwhelming critical assessment of Mowatt from her own time to today has emphasized her respectability and her status as a true woman. Certainly Mowatt's autobiography promotes this view of herself. She uses sentimental tropes throughout in discussing her life, her decisions, even her body. For instance, she frames her decision to begin a public speaking career and later an acting career in terms of the sentimental-her desire to help her husband who has suffered financial losses. As one critic of women's autobiographical writings argues, "the outspoken woman mutes the autonomy and agency inherent in her decision to engage in [public work] by sustaining the subject position of the true woman-sensitive to suffering, eager to sacrifice herself to others, willing to serve as the vessel for another's will." Mowatt's muting of her autonomy is part of the sentimental agenda of her autobiography, an agenda most readers have recognized.
What is more interesting, however, and much less recognized is the extent to which Mowatt uses sensational tropes in defining herself and her life. While the body of Georgina may be easiest for critics to acknowledge and categorize, the body of the flaming ballet girl demands attention; it is this body, dramatically active in its flight across stage, vivid and deeply physical, vocal-"screaming frantically,"-uncontained and mobile, victimized and inscribed upon by the dangers of the theater, that most resembles, in extreme version, Mowatt's descriptions of herself. The flaming ballet girl provides the template for the sensational body Mowatt's autobiography utilizes. An examination of Mowatt's use of the sensational in describing and constructing her body in her autobiography reveals the alternative rhetorical structure Mowatt provides for women to write their own lives. The sensational body is powerful in its ability to move beyond the bounds of the home, is victimized by violence, and is always in danger of being defined as a freak. Crafting this sensational body allows Mowatt to move outside the narrative constraints of true womanhood and sentimental literature. While the sensational body as Mowatt describes it can remain respectable as it enacts extreme possibilities, the sensational body may come to resemble and thus become the body of the freak, and the freakish body cannot be respectable. Mowatt's autobiography describes a trajectory from the fully respectable sentimental body through the potentially dangerous liminal site of the sensational body to the transgressive, abject freakish body. Although the sensational body may represent a way to escape the bounds of the sentimental body, the freak's body represents the boundary of sensationalism, the point of no return.
Thus, as an author, Mowatt had to negotiate her bodily representation carefully. This task was made even more complex by her status as an actress. As an actress, Mowatt's body was on display not only literally but also metaphorically: acting and prostitution were often conflated in the public mind. As Faye Dudden explains, "the problem with the theatre for women is that their very presence makes their bodies available to men's eyes-'the eyes of the world'-eyes prepared to read them as sexual objects." John Elsom puts it even more bluntly: "On reading memoirs of the period, playbills and contemporary reviews, one is struck by the sheer burden of sexual fantasy which ... actresses were doomed to drag around." Sexuality was always already part of the narration of Mowatt's life simply because she was an actress. Therefore, her autobiography was already invested in sensational narrative because of its subject matter. Mowatt had to negotiate this investment carefully. The sexual subtext of Mowatt's career was one way in which the stage was a site constitutive of sensational female embodiment; rather than deny this sensational embodiment, Mowatt capitalized on it, utilizing sexuality, violence, and other sensational elements to define a complex public life in print.
The Autobiography was widely read and reprinted during Mowatt's lifetime, selling more than 20,000 copies in its first year in print; however, the era of scholarship committed to an ethos of true womanhood and domesticity foreclosed full consideration of this text and texts like it. Because Mowatt is strategic in her use of sentimental tropes, pairing them always with an underlying sensational message, her autobiography has been difficult to interpret through traditional models. This text challenges the conventional narrative models for describing women's lives. However, even as Mowatt challenges the rhetorical structures for defining women's lives, her construction of her own sensational body ultimately reinscribes the differences between sensation and sentiment and threatens to rehierarchize these two forms, identifying the sensational with the freakish and valuing the sentimental above the sensational.
Mowatt is not an unknown figure within nineteenth-century literary and historical studies. She is most often noted as an author; her first play, Fashion; or, Life in New York (1845), is regularly recognized as one of the foundational works of early American drama. Mowatt herself appears in histories of American theater, particularly in texts which examine actresses. Her Autobiography appears both as a reference work in studies of American theater and as an example of nineteenth-century women's autobiography. She is not, therefore, a forgotten figure.
She is, however, a neglected one, particularly within literary criticism.
Excerpted from Out in Public by Alison Piepmeier Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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