The Restoration brought with it the return of the king and of the stage.  In 1660, King Charles II called for the reinstatement of theatres and acting companies in England and proclaimed that female roles must be played by women.  This warrant marked the advent of women in the theatre; in the past, only boys had played female roles. John Wilson, in his book, All the King's Ladies, about Restoration actresses discusses the interdependence between elements of the theatre (the actresses, playwrights, and audience) and asserts that "in the small, intimate theatrical world, it was difficult for an audience to separate the stage character of an actress from her real character" (Wilson 1958).   Directors kept in mind the real-world persona of an actress when casting, for if a role blatantly contradicted the commonly held perception of that persona, the audience would not be able to take the character seriously.  It follows that an examination of the roles an actress was chosen to play allows insight into her perceived identity.

Keeping this concept in mind, we come to Charlotte Charke, an actress of the 18th century who wrote her autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke, daughter of Colly Cibber, in 1755. Much of the research done on this text has focused on Charke's consistent cross-dressing both on and off the stage. Charke played a number of male roles and breeches parts, roles in which a "male" character was played by a woman. In addition, Charke often dressed like a man off-stage; in this lies much of the fascination with her life.

Although analyses differ, some like Kristina Straub's feminist reading of Charke, and some like Erin Mackie's emphasis on Charke's conventionality, a common thread that runs through each is that of the theatricality inherent in Charke's life both on- and off-stage.   Theatricality is a heightened concern for representing the elements of theatre, such as performance, acting, and the dramatic, both on the stage and in other contexts.   This theatrical dimension is supported by examination of the various kinds of roles that Charke undertakes; this dimension also unearths Charke's conflicted relationship with conventionality.  Firstly, along with dramatic roles, Charke also played a number of occupational roles, such as physician in her youth, and grocer and waiter later in her life, all retold in the Narrative.  The underlying motivation behind Charke's casting of herself in these roles is fundamentally theatrical, and the manner in which she approaches each role is like that of an actress approaching a dramatic challenge.


Secondly, Wilson's establishment of a relationship between the character of any actress and her stage roles uncovers the existence of typecasting.  Although we cannot fully establish the extent to which a specific character is related to Charke, typecasting allows for strong assumptions regarding her identity, as perceived by her audience.  Two plays by George Lillo, The London Merchant and The Fatal Curiosity, contain roles that Charke debuted.  This paper examines the roles of Lucy and Agnes, respectively, rather than Charke's other roles, because of the closer relationship produced by the fact that she originated these characters.  The difference between the roles (Charke played Lucy in 1731 and Agnes in 1736) marks a negative shift in audience reception towards Charke's unconventional nature.

Finally, the Narrative is approached as a story of on-and off-stage performances, told by the author Charke.  Charke interprets the position of author as playwright and turns her life into a series of performances, the ultimate evidence for the theatricality present in the many roles of the actress.  However, it is not enough to say that Charke's role-playing is motivated simply by a pleasure and skill in theatricality.  Charke takes on the role of playwright in order to reconcile the dichotomy between her transgressive actions and the conventional persona she seeks to forward in the Narrative.  This reconciliation is achieved in the autobiography through Charke's emphasis on the dramatic nature of her unconventional life.

Occupational Roles

Performance is not a phenomenon confined to the stage; it is often played out in reality.  Charlotte Charke, as she recounts in the Narrative, is an actress who practices her craft off-stage as well as on. It is often the case that scholars of Charke refer to her in pathological terms, ascribe her male roles to the intention of asserting an abnormal masculinity, or deem her the celebrated example of early lesbian subjectivity.  In order to relieve Charke of potentially unjust impositions of modern thematics, it is essential that we notice what she presents as the motives behind her various assumed roles.

One of her childhood roles is that of physician.  She cultivates a fondness "of the Study of Physick" when she is sent to live with a doctor uncle (Charke 1930).   The Doctor entrusts Charke, the character, to help him with the care of his patients, an act that begins to weaken the claim made by some scholars that Charke was unsuccessful at what she pursued. When given the "Opportunity of fancying [herself] a Physician," Charke's tendency toward theatricality asserts itself

back.gif (287 bytes) back.gif (221 bytes)


Page 2


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