In the audience's acceptance of Charke as Lucy lies a warning to the actress of just what degree of movement is allowed outside of normal female domains.  Lucy is redeemed of her "wicked," feminist ways when she accepts religion as her savior, and betrays Millwood in the name of morality.  Charke does not mention religion in her Narrative, but another ideological force takes religion's authoritative role, that of conventionality. Charke's plea for her readers to accept her attempt to "justify [rather] than condemn" her past is indicative of her belief that this past is needy of rationalization, that it is abnormal, and therefore, "guilty until proven innocent" (Charke 1930).  The implication is that she must accept and display conventionality and its dictates to be reformed of her past sins.

Agnes, the role that Charke would play five years later, is of a different variety than Lucy.  She is an older woman who is described as "gloomy, proud, / Impatient," and again, along with her husband, as the "hoary, helpless, miserable pair" (Lillo 1979).  Although thrust into poverty, the haughty Agnes maintains her old values, which only serve to make her situation more difficult.  The most significant of Agnes' traits is her will to live.  On numerous occasions she articulates her disgust of suicide as an alternative to suffering. In her perspective "death is the worst / That fate can bring, and cuts off ev'ry hope" (Lillo 1979).  Agnes later displays a sense of despair when she complains that she and her husband are "The last and most abandon'd of [their] kind, / By heaven and earth neglected and despis'd, / The loathsome grave that robb'd [them] of [their] son... must be [their] refuge" (Lillo 1979).  Here Agnes reveals her belief in the continued membership within a certain socio-economic class, her disbelief in the healing power of heaven and her decision that only she can help herself, and her repugnance of death, the irony being that only in the grave will she be relieved from her suffering.

When Agnes finds jewels in a chest entrusted to her by a stranger, she decides to kill him in order to keep the fortune. Once again, her main motivation is the preservation of her life, so much so that she considers the murder of a stranger a "crime much less" than "detested suicide" (Lillo 1979).  Agnes' courage and determination are shown in her willingness to commit the murder herself when her husband falters.   Arguably, the ultimate evidence for Agnes' valuation of life is her decision to take her own when she realizes that the murdered stranger is her son.

Charke was still a young 23 when she opened as Agnes at the Haymarket, but clearly the placement of her in the role of Agnes resulted from a different analysis of persona than did her being cast as Lucy. Of course, it is again tempting to argue that Charke was simply a

 

versatile actress and as such was able to play varying roles.  However, Charke mentions her debut in the Narrative with the note that the she and the actor playing her husband "were kindly received by the audience" (Charke 1930). The important role that audience acceptance had on the success of a play must not be ignored; for this reason the qualities that appropriated Charke to the role of Agnes are explored.

Like Agnes, Charke had been gradually thrust into increasingly dire straits. Although she was a well-received and hard-working actress, she never made much more than the 30 shillings promotion she received after her debut as Lucy (Charke 1969).  Even Cibber denied her any financial support. Charke, in her mention of The Fatal Curiosity remarks that Agnes' fall was due to her "unbounded Pride" (Charke 1930).   Ironically, even though Charke was able to perceive this flaw in Agnes, she was blind to this quality in herself. Although she was never a leading actress of a playhouse, she seems to have taken with her a sense of confidence and experience wherever she went.   This is evident in her numerous quarrels with the Drury Lane company. Another trait associated with Charke was her intense will to survive in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. She was well-chosen to play Agnes in this respect, for Charke had the tenacity to continue devising ways to support her family, in spite of problems on-and off-stage.

What is the commentary being made on Charke by her audience?  Agnes' drive to survive at any cost is the "flaw" that ultimately leads her to murder and her own quasi-suicide.  In her effort to survive, Agnes rejects religion and turns to herself.  As we have seen in the case of The London Merchant, religion can be applied to Charke's case through the concept of conventionality; Charke, rejecting the world that hinders her survival, takes the responsibility of her life into her own hands.   When she played Lucy, Charke was still perceived as being traditional enough to warrant audience approval.  However, Agnes does not get the chance to reform. Just as the character of Lucy was an appeal to bear in mind the limits of a woman's conventional role, Agnes is a reminder that crossing these limits is suicide, both socially and professionally.  In the end, Agnes, by virtue of her flaws, is the only one responsible for starting the machinery leading to her own death.  In this dramatic theme there is a place for Charke. Her drive to survive in a man's world leads her to act unconventionally (in her thinking, cross-dressing, and taking of male occupations) off-stage in order to make a living.  However, she is persecuted by her father, by the patent theatres, and by her society.  She is then forced to assert, in the Narrative, the characteristic of normality that, if really put to practice, would have failed to serve her survival.

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Priya Shah - The World is a Stage: Theatricality, Conventionality... [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]