‘Fame, puts you there where things are hollow…’

09 May 2017

Gender and Sexuality | History

(Fame – David Bowie, 1975)

Following a successful management career in international publishing, exhibitions and arts development, Julian has returned to full-time academic study. He completed an MA in ‘Shakespeare and the Theatre’ at the University of Birmingham (The Shakespeare Institute) and at the University of Greenwich. He is currently researching the professional relationships between periodicals, the theatre and actresses in eighteenth-century London.


Left: ​Anne Brown (Mrs Cargill) as 'Clara', 1741-1785 © The Garrick Club Library. Right: Mrs Mary Wells as 'Cowslip', c. 1800-1850 © The Garrick Club Library. Click on the images to view the original document.

The images above are of the eighteenth-century actresses, Mrs Anne Cargill (1) and Mrs Mary Wells (2); they have been taken from scanned copies of Dramatic Annals: Critiques on Plays and Performance and an anthology of performers' letters found in Eighteenth Century Drama: Censorship, Society and the Stage.

They are represented here in their famous stage personas of ‘Clara’ and ‘Cowslip’, characters from The Duenna, and The Agreeable Surprise respectively, performed consistently during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. These are mezzotint engravings, sold as prints for sixpence to the public as mementos of their favourite actresses. These images reflect sentimental heroines, from the popular genre of English ‘ballad operas’. Not necessarily depicting a scene from performance, the images were carefully constructed as perfect examples of youth and beauty. Both Anne and Mary possessed that innocent ‘nymph‘ like quality that was so important for fame and success on the stage.

English ‘ballad operas’ of this period presented a marriage between music and drama that required a specific skill set from the female performers. The most successful performances were repeated many times and the musical set pieces were well known by audiences. These shows were always announced by ‘a particular desire’ in advertisements and in the printed playbills.

There is a distinct air of instability about objects of desire. The instability comes from the value placed on the desired objects, which can be easily taken away. Female performers were vulnerable to attacks by the press and were never really accepted into polite society because of their humble origins and associations with prostitution. Fame and the emergence of actress celebrity in eighteenth-century theatre has been a focus of recent academic research but the careers and lives of these actresses are still hard to get a handle on. (3) Mainly, because research relies on unreliable sources such as press reports, or ‘memoirs’ written at the time. Journalists fixated on the actresses private lives constructing a public persona drawn from exciting escapades, half-truths and lies (this still happens today…). Memoirs, provided pseudo factual information and personal insights into what it might have been like to be an actress during this period - but were they telling the truth? Historians of the stage often wrongly confirmed press information as facts so what actually emerged were merely fragments of the whole person.

Eighteenth-century images constructed in print and the characters they played on stage placed actresses within strictly defined parameters of feminine ideals of behaviour, as such ‘Clara’ and ‘Cowslip’ were always going to be, ‘consigned to passivity: they are to be the beautiful object of contemplation’. (4) However, in these test cases there does always have to be a fall from grace. This happened to both Anne and Mary as soon as they acted outside of those parameters set for them. When the characters they represented on stage became inextricably linked to their off stage personas, creating a mismatch.

Over time present and time past, remains of these captivating young performers continued to exist during their lives and remained long after death but really as a product of the media, sporadically played out in the press, in pictures and print as historical anecdotes. 

Interestingly, in their performances these two actresses who acted together in the same companies at the Haymarket Theatre and then Drury Lane from 1780 – 1782, principally played sentimental comic heroines, roles designed for them, where no one got hurt and all was resolved happily. Sadly, it was always in their real lives off stage that they were marked by misfortunes and real tragedy that was much more akin to Italian opera traditions where a ‘mismatch’ always ultimately leads to a death.



(1) Miss Anne Brown played the part of ‘Clara’ in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s production of The Duenna or, Double Elopement with music by Thomas Linley and his son, first performed on 21, November 1775 at Covent Garden.

(2) Mrs Mary Wells first played the part of ‘Cowslip in The Agreeable Surprise a ballad opera by John O'Keeffe with music by Samuel Arnold, at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket (London), on 3 September 1781.

(3) See: Engel, Laura, Fashioning Celebrity 18th century British Actresses and Strategies for Image Making (Ohio State University 2011). Perry Gill, Spectacular Flirtations (Paul Mellon Centre Yale 2007), Nussbaum, Felicity, Rival Queens Actresses Performance and the Eighteenth-Century British Theatre (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010)

(4) Irigaray, Luce, This Sex which is Not One (Cornell University Press 1985) p.25-16


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