[CFP] Infinite Variety: The Older Actress On Stage 1660–Present

Dame Judi Dench as Titania (2014). Photo by Nobby Clark.

Infinite Variety: The Older Actress on Stage 1660–present

A two-day symposium on 18–19 October 2019, taking place at Christ Church, University of Oxford, UK. 

Symposium Directors are Dr Sophie Duncan and Professor Mary Luckhurst 

The event is jointly convened by the School of Arts, University of Bristol and Christ Church, University of Oxford, with support from The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH). 

Confirmed keynote speakers include Professor Gilli Bush-Bailey (Central School of Speech and Drama), Professor Jacky Bratton (Royal Holloway) and Dr Fiona Gregory (Monash University). 

We welcome proposals for 20-minute papers from scholars and practitioners in theatre and related disciplines. Suggestions for topics include, but are not limited to:

  • older actresses on and off stage: as performers, managers, stage-managers, playwrights, producers, directors, and teachers, 1660–present.
  • older actresses – their approaches to acting and their creative and career strategies
  • older actresses and the one woman show
  • older actresses – stage v. film and television
  • older actresses on ageism and the politics of transgression
  • writing by older actresses, e.g. memoirs
  • genealogies of female performance and concepts of female ‘succession’
  • retirement and its alternatives
  • ‘canonical’ roles for older women; repertoire and ageing
  • older actresses and non-traditional casting
  • the depiction of older actresses and/or fictional older actresses in criticism, journalism, literature, the visual arts, and film
  • ageism, ageing, and the body in casting, rehearsal, performance, and reception
  • older actresses with additional marginalised identities, including LBT older actresses, BAME actresses, and actresses with disabilities (including age-related disabilities); the intersection of age with other kinds of marginalisation
  • the older actress in theatre historiography and as theatre historian
  • retrospectives, gala performances, honours lists and becoming a ’national treasure’.

Proposals, which should be 300 words long and accompanied by a brief biography, should be sent to the symposium’s directors, Dr Sophie Duncan (sophie.duncan@chch.ox.ac.uk) and Professor Mary Luckhurst (mary.luckhurst@bristol.ac.uk) by May 31 2019. 

Mrs Patrick Campbell and George Cornwallis-West

Mrs Pat as Paula Tanqueray.

At the moment, I’m researching Mrs. Patrick Campbell (born Beatrice Tanner; familiarly called Stella). Mrs. Campbell is most famous for her “Pinerotic” roles in the 1890s, such as The Second Mrs Tanqueray and The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith; for her Hedda Gabler; and as the original Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.

I, however, am interested in her Shakespearean roles. In the late 1880s and until about 1893, she had several successes in roles like Rosalind; then, at the other end of the decade, she played the trio of tragic roles that most interest me. These were, in order, Juliet (1895), Ophelia (1897) and Lady Macbeth (1898).

With the Bodleian Library doing various interminable and obscure things in the way of moving book depositories, I wasn’t able to get my hands on Mrs. Pat’s autobiography for weeks, and ended up reading everything but; finally, I caved, and bought it myself, on Ebay.
I originally conceived my doctoral project as a study of Shakespearean actresses’ autobiographies (and later, as a study of writings by actresses on the women of the Late Plays), and even though my textual focus has shifted (both in and out), I feel as if, until now, my research has been hobbled by not having My Life and Some Letters in front of me.

I may say that Mrs Pat’s name-dropping makes Madge Kendal and Constance Benson look positively restrained. I enjoy old theatrical memoirs very much for their own sake (and am looking forward to reading Irene Vanbrugh’s, on Simon’s recommendation), but this one balances incredibly useful, challenging/problematic insights (v. wholesome and good for thesis) with delicious and irresistible snobbery. Bless her, it seems she had no friends without titles. She makes me want to be called Frances something, COUNTESS of MADEUPPLACE. And then write gushy, borderline-homoerotic letters to actresses. An impulse which society cruelly demands I subdue.

Campbell is much more open about her life than Langtry (although omitting the affair with Johnston Forbes-Robertson) and – unlike Ellen Terry – absolutely fascinating in her detailed discussion of her children. I’ve just got to the bit where her son, Beo, dies in the First World War. For the first time reading one of these memoirs, I found myself welling up.

I’m also interested in Campbell’s apparently disastrous second marriage, which goes from huge affection (her son, particularly, seems to have held him in high esteem) to breakdown in a very few pages. Reading about the suicide of Elizabeth Robins’s first husband, who put on a suit of armour, then jumped into the Charles River; and about the complicated life of William Hunter Kendal has interested me in theatrical husbands.

George Cornwallis-West.

Mrs Patrick Campbell’s second husband was George Cornwallis-West. Major Cornwallis-West (who had been rumoured to be Edward VII’s lovechild) first married the stunning Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Winston and twenty years his senior; he remarried to Stella Campbell just five days after their divorce. The marriage broke down in 1921; Cornwallis-West also seems to have been plagued by financial troubles for most of his life. In 1940, the year of Stella’s death, he remarried for a third time, to a Mrs. Georgette Hirsch. In 1951, while suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, he took his own life.

Never a dull moment, with this lot, but what sad & eventful stories.

Britgrad 2011 and a summer of conferences…

On Sunday, I returned to Oxford from the Britgrad 2011 conference, where I was part of the Victorian Theatre Practices panel with the fragrant Jem Bloomfield.

KENDAL 4 LIFE. Or similar.

Jem was talking about mid- and late-Victorian productions of The Duchess of Malfi, while my paper was entitled ‘”Marriage of Orlando and Rosalind”: Madge Kendal and Victorian Shakespeare”. The conference organisers charitably having given us a panel in which to get REALLY EXCITED to the bemusement – and, thankfully, amusement – of our colleagues, we waved our arms and talked actresses to our hearts’ content.

A large proportion of the delegates at our panel had strong interests in performance; sometimes both as scholars and practitioners. I’d hoped one of the main points of my paper – that our current theatrical historiography is problematic in its accommodations for women, as evinced by Madge Kendal, acclaimed and central Victorian actress, falling through the gaps of history – might be disproved by someone bouncing up to say they, too, are a ridiculous enthusiast/horrified onlooker at the fireworks of her life. But no. While this does tell me I’m probably on the right track (conference full of excitable Shakespeare postgrads = not a flicker of recognition, but much interest), it’s such a shame!

Overall, a productive three days. Having swotted up on posts from (all I really need to know, I learn from) Thesis Whisperer, I made myself ask questions at most panels. I usually struggle to think of them (and am slightly allergic to Q&As as it is), but found that if I went in determined to ask, it made me a more proactive listener and I ended up with genuine queries. So hurrah for that. My only Britgrad regret is that there was a girl in my panel who asked a really fascinating question about Victorian theatrical fan literatures. I’d hoped we’d get more of a chance to talk afterwards (Victorian fan literatures are honestly one of the most exciting, and weirdest, things on God’s earth), but sadly I didn’t see her again.

My conference schedule for the rest of the summer is ridiculously busy. Should you have an inexplicable yen to see a short girl in glasses talk about Victorian actresses, you can catch me at any of the following:

10 June 2011: Oxford English Graduate Conference, University of Oxford: “The Famed and the Forgotten”.

7-9 July 2011: Universities of Birmingham and Lancaster, The Storey, Lancaster: “Politics, performance and popular culture in nineteenth century Britain”.

18-19 July 2011: Victorian Popular Fiction Association Conference, University of London: “Sex, Courtship and Marriage in Victorian Popular Culture”.

If you’re attending any of these events, please let me know! It’d be great to make some new conference-friends beforehand…