"Theatrical revolutions are as frequent, and owe their rise to the same principles, as those in the political world. —Pique, resentment, ambition, or interest, which ever motive happens to preponderate, brings them about." George Anne Bellamy, An Apology for the Life (1786)
The London stage is haunted by the performances of plays recycled from earlier periods, many of which centered on pairs of historical or classical female characters. The new phenomenon of actresses —real, beautiful women —catapulted the antiquated roles into an eighteenth-century present. "Before the Restoration," writes theater manager, actor, and playwright Colley Cibber in his Apology, "no Actresses had ever been seen upon the English Stage. The Characters of Women, in former Theatres, were perform'd by Boys, or young Men of the most effeminate Aspect," but after their appearance as players, there was a radical shift, for "the additional Objects then of real, beautiful Women, could not but draw a proportion of new Admirers to the Theatre."1 The success of the innovation depended upon the erotic impact of live female bodies, but also, less obviously, upon the women's genuine entrepreneurial skill and increasing economic authority. Actual women engaged in rivalries kept heroic tragedies such as Nathaniel Lee's The Rival Queens, and other plays resembling it, viable. The characteristic scene of two women locked in combat remained a staple of the genre from The Mourning Bride (Zara-Alemeria), to All for Love (Octavia-Cleopatra), The Indian Emperour (Almeria-Cydaria) and Jane Shore (Jane-Alice), and the confrontation scene contributed to the popularity of the anachronistic plays for generations of theatergoers. In their sensational reenactments, the tragedies were transformed into what John Downes called "living play[s]," featuring living, breathing actress-characters for over more than a century.2
By considering ongoing productions of Nathaniel Lee's popular Restoration tragedy The Rival Queens, I will argue here that actresses drew the eighteenth-century theater into its contemporary moment by resetting and realigning the audience's relationship to time. Relevant to my argument here is Jean-Christophe Agnew's influential book, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theatre in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750 (1986), which posits that the separation between market and theater had fully emerged by the middle part of the eighteenth century. Agnew defines commercialism and theatricality as "abstracted properties" and argues that a more fluid market, with its timeless and fleeting elements, comes to replace a theater situated within specific material practices.3 As Natasha Korda succinctly frames the issue, Agnew, "in defining the 'situated phenomena' of the marketplace as residual, and the 'placeless and timeless' (x) market process as emergent (and ultimately dominant) privileges the latter." 4 This increasing abstraction of the market is represented in part for Agnew by the socially mobile actor for whom identity and class position were as unstable and unfixed as the emerging credit economy. But the concept of liquidity does not, as Korda points out, fully dominate the theater until the end of the eighteenth century and thus should not be applied to the earlier periods. Instead of "the placeless market," Korda astutely analyzes how the material practices of the theater economy before the eighteenth century intersected with the larger culture. Uncovering diverse networks of commerce, production, and exchange, she shows how women apprentices and workers in guilds, trades, and the informal economy of pawnbroking, for example, permeated Renaissance theater walls to blend the theater into the larger culture, even at this early juncture (195-96).
Both Agnew and Korda largely exclude actresses from their consideration —in Agnew's case because he thinks of the actor as the "Protean man" (my emphasis) and consequently ignores the ways that a woman's situation differs vis-à-vis the market and the theater. Korda, on the other hand, is interested in the theater prior to the Restoration, and because the Renaissance stage included no women players, she focuses instead on tradeswomen's economic activities as they intermesh with theater productions. Here I will suggest that between 1700 and 1780, women, especially celebrated actresses, through their often invisible labor were intermediaries between residual modes of production and these newly emergent abstract and liquid practices. I join the many feminist...