Acts of Desire: Women and Sex on Stage 1800-1930, by Sos Eltis

Hayley Jayne Bradley on how she has been depicted over the centuries

September 26, 2013

If the Theatre is to remain a living art it must be allowed to draw inspiration from contemporary life outside. Standards change from decade to decade, and this fact must inevitably be reflected on the stage.” So said the Earl of Clarendon, then Lord Chamberlain, in 1940, and it is this process that Sos Eltis considers in charting the permutations of the “sexually errant” woman on stage – from mother, wife, daughter, sister to adulterer, bigamist, prostitute, tempted virgin, “fallen woman”.

By “cutting a slice through theatre history” (and drawing on the “leakages” and “constraints” of the Lord Chamberlain’s office, until 1968 the official censor for theatre performed in Britain), Eltis moves from melodrama to sensation fiction, French adaptations to Henrik Ibsen, “woman with a past” and problem plays to New Woman and suffrage dramas, musical comedies to Somerset Maugham and Noël Coward. Simultaneously, she considers how these works reflect the relationship between stage and society and the means by which social, economic, class, political and gender issues offstage were represented and debated onstage.

While to date much has been written on the “fallen woman” in literary and visual depictions, less has been said about her presence in drama in the period Eltis considers. It is this “rich area for investigation” that she looks to mine, although, by her own admittance, which I would strongly echo, she has only scratched the surface.

From virginal maid to the villainess, the female figure on the 19th- and early 20th-century stage served as a means first to extol the Victorian model of “the angel in the house” and male patriarchal constructions of femininity; second, to warn, judge and police norm-violaters; and third, to challenge, question and even present alternatives to the idealised and controlling stereotype.

This sexual double standard meant that women who contravened the moral codes espoused and upheld by the Church and the State (be they raped or seduced into “falling”) were exiled from hearth and home to fall into destitution and/or prostitution, to make difficult choices during their descent and condemnation, to either die on the streets (through poverty, suicide or murder) or redeem themselves through self-sacrifice. As such, the subject and spectacle of what Eltis calls the “sexually transgressive and actively desiring woman” made ripe and topical fodder for the popular stage and public entertainment.

This engagement with contemporary anxieties, taboos and discourse in the theatre lies at the core of Eltis’ book as she (largely chronologically) attempts to uncover, map and connect the shifting form of the fallen woman through paintings, songs, novels, operas, plays and film, over 130 years, against both urban and rural backdrops, although largely as depicted on the London stage. She also signals the significance of the actress as a crucial “player” in the staging of the fallen woman, and considers Mrs Patrick Campbell, Sarah Bernhardt and Lillie Langtry, among others.

The many plays Eltis discusses are carefully considered, and her mapping of the movement from the Manichean allegory and “just world” of melodrama to the complex questioning and unresolved endings of plays after the 1890s is informative and enjoyable. But at times one can’t help but want her to dig a little deeper. She concludes that the plot lines and tropes of Victorian/Edwardian theatre are still very much present in contemporary culture and that film in particular has, from the days of silent movies to the 21st century, looked back to the archetype of the fallen woman (she cites Moulin Rouge and Pretty Woman, to which I would add Bad Girls). It is an argument that warrants further investigation – and, one hopes, a future book.

Acts of Desire: Women and Sex on Stage 1800-1930

By Sos Eltis
Oxford University Press, 288pp, £55.00
ISBN 9780199691357
Published 18 April 2013

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