Women Actors Now and Then [GUEST POST]

Meryl Streep at the 89th Oscars

“Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.” —Meryl Streep (Photo by ABC/Adam Rose, Flickr)

We have always loved the theatre. In fact, for our very first date we went to go see the deliciously dark Jekyll & Hyde, and its score has entranced us ever since. We relish opportunities to watch amazing actors perform live in shows like The Beauty Queen of LeenaneCabaretChicago, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Gypsy. But what would any production be without the awesome talents of actresses who were bold enough to make a career on stage and screen? In today’s guest post, author Susana Aikin examines why it still takes a certain kind of woman to live life in the limelight. —J&H

There is a tremendous love and devotion behind the choice of becoming an actor. Being in the theatre, or in film, or both, requires an enormous amount of work and sacrifice. Actors in ancient Greece, India and other civilizations were priests and shamans, and their role in society was to be mediators with the gods. That dynamic is still present in the spirit of the profession. Theatre is mystical, magical, compelling: it connects people and takes them through an odyssey of emotional experiences. It is that odyssey of experience that draws actors to the profession.

Most people seeking to become actors have rich imaginations that need to be channeled through taking on different characters, something that allows them to experience multiple angles of reality, entire other lifetimes. Actors live for their trade: they light up when they are onstage, even if their profession renders their personal lives difficult. The lives of women actors are even harder than their male counterparts because, among other things, after quite an early age there is an ever increasing difficulty in finding work.

But for women of a century and a half ago, the decision to become an actress was even tougher and more complicated. It involved going against the grain, breaking the ideological molds of a society that viewed women as dependent and passive, separated from public life and restricted to home, marriage and morality; under the absolute power of men. That required not just passion for acting, but quite a deal of courage.

Three Grebnieff sisters

Three Grebnieff sisters, circa 1900s

In the second part of the 19th century, when the world of theater and entertainment flourished in big cities like London, Paris and New York, its rapid growth determined an increasing need for performers. This opened up big employment opportunities for women.

Saturday night at the Victoria Theatre

Saturday night at the Victoria Theatre (Credit Godefroy Durand, Public Domain)

Along with retail service, mill work, and small scale artisan trades such as watchmaking, bookbinding, and boot-making, the theatre became viable as a growing trade for women. And not just for working class women, but also for educated middle class women. The theatre at least kept marriageable women visible, and paid in the meantime.

Phyllis Dare in The Arcadians

Illustration of Phyllis Dare in the musical, The Arcadians, 1909. (Public Domain)

Of course, female performers had to be worldly-wise, self-sufficient, self-determining, and hard-working and it was useless to pretend otherwise. But, as a pay-off, in the co-sexual work place of theater, female performers enjoyed freedoms unknown to women in other socially sanctioned occupations. But these freedoms came with a substantial price. The public nature of acting and the necessity of putting oneself up for general scrutiny soon led to an association between actress and prostitute that no other educated public woman moving in society on a pretense of her accomplishments, marriage, or breeding was saddled with.

However, and even if Victorian society never ceased to question their respectability, there is no doubt actresses became symbols of women’s self-sufficiency and independence. It just happened that they were doubly threatening: they advocated and embodied hard work, education, culture, and family ties, and unlike prostitutes, they were regarded as proper vessels of physical and sexual beauty and moved freely in society as attractive and desirable beings.

Kate Vaughan

Publicity photograph of Victorian actress Miss Kate Vaughan as Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal. (Photo by W&D Downey Photographers/Victoria and Albert Museum, Public Domain)

Women actors today still feel on the cutting edge when it comes to performance, putting themselves out there to embody situations and emotions that are difficult to show and to express. In this way they continue to stretch the legacy of those daring ancestresses who first broke into acting and took theatres by storm.

Bernhardt-Postcard-Puzzle-1906

Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) was a French stage actress who was arguably the most famous actress of the 19th century. She deliberately cultivated an aura about herself using every form of media, earning such titles as “the Divine Sarah” and the “Sacred Monster.” In France and other countries, her image was endlessly circulated in paintings, engravings, photographs, statues, posters, advertisements, and satirical drawings. This puzzle, consisting of ten postcards, displays her silhouette in her most famous roles, female and male, tragic and dramatic. Throughout her career, Bernhardt reinterpreted many classic roles, such as in the title role in Phèdre by Jean Racine (1639-99), but she also played many roles that contemporary authors created just for her, for example in such plays as The Passer-By (1869) by François Coppée (1842-1908), Frou-Frou (1883) by Henri Meilhac (1831-97) and Ludovic Halévy (1834-1908), Theodora (1884) by Victorien Sardou (1831-1908), and The Eaglet (1900) by Edmond Rostand (1868-1918). Actors; Bernhardt, Sarah, 1844-1923; Postcards; Puzzles (Public Domain)

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Susana Aikin's WE SHALL SEE THE SKY SPARKLING

Kensington

ABOUT THE BOOK

Set in London and Russia at the turn of the century, Susana Aikin’s debut introduces a vibrant young woman determined to defy convention and shape an extraordinary future.

Like other well-bred young women in Edwardian England, Lily Throop is expected to think of little beyond marriage and motherhood. Passionate about the stage, Lily has very different ambitions. To her father’s dismay, she secures an apprenticeship at London’s famous Imperial Theatre. Soon, her talent and beauty bring coveted roles and devoted admirers. Yet to most of society, the line between actress and harlot is whisper-thin. With her reputation threatened by her mentor’s vicious betrayal, Lily flees to St. Petersburg with an acting troupe–leaving her first love behind.

Life in Russia is as exhilarating as it is difficult. The streets rumble with talk of revolution, and Lily is drawn into an affair with Sergei, a Count with fervent revolutionary ideals. Following Sergei when he is banished to Vladivostok, Lily struggles to find her role in an increasingly dangerous world. And as Russian tensions with Japan erupt into war, only fortitude and single-mindedness can steer her to freedom and safety at last.

With its sweeping backdrop and evocative details, We Shall See the Sky Sparkling explores a fascinating period in history through the eyes of a strong-willed, singular heroine, in a moving story of love and resilience.

Susana Aikin

Susana Aikin

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Born in Spain of an English father and a Spanish mother, Susana Aikin is a writer and a filmmaker who has lived and worked in New York City since 1982. She was educated in both England and Spain; studied law at the University of Madrid, and later Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. In 1986 she started her own independent film production company, Starfish Productions, producing and directing documentary films that won her multiple awards, including an American Film Institute grant, a Rockefeller Fellowship, and an Emmy Award in 1997. She started writing fiction full time in 2010. She has two sons and now lives between Brooklyn and the mountains north of Madrid.

For more information, visit Susana Aikin’s website. You can also find her on FacebookTwitterInstagramPinterest, and Goodreads.

HFVBT_Logo_Banner TwitterWE SHALL SEE THE SKY SPARKLING 
By Susana Aikin
416 pp. Kensington. $15.95

Purchase We Shall See the Sky Sparkling at one of these fine online retailers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, IndieBound and Powell’s.

We Shall See the Sky Sparkling is brought to you in association with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

We Shall See the Sky Sparkling_Banner

About Susana Aikin
A writer and filmmaker, I was born in Spain of an English father and a Spanish mother, and have lived in New York City since 1982. I was educated in both England and Spain; studied law at the University of Madrid, and later Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. In 1986 I started my own independent film production company, Starfish Productions, which producing and directing documentary films that won me multiple awards, including an American Film Institute grant, a Rockefeller Fellowship, and an Emmy Award in 1997. I started writing fiction full time in 2010. I have two sons and now live between Brooklyn and the mountains north of Madrid.

2 Responses to Women Actors Now and Then [GUEST POST]

  1. susanaaikin says:

    Dear Jathan and Heather, thank you for hosting my article in your awesome website! I really appreciate your support– and love the extra video and pictures you added. Hope we come across each other again! Susana

  2. Amy Bruno says:

    LOVED this post! Thank you so much for hosting Susana’s tour!

    Amy
    HF Virtual Book Tours

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