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Gustavo (Marcelo Alvaraz) and Amelia (Sondra Radvanovsky

So, friends and readers,

They sang their hearts out and acted the parts superbly well. To begin with what what is most memorable, second most and so on: Dimitri Hvorostovsky as the sexually betrayed husband best friend to the king, Count Anckarstrom (Renato), baritone in his role in the third act, was shaking from his controlled hysteria at his wife and decision (just) not to kill her when he’d done his magnificent long aria.

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Count Anckarstrom, Renato (Dmitri Hovorostovsky)

Stephanie Blythe as the sybil Ulrica, as her name reveals a Scott like mad prophecy moment turned into the nervous cynical court fortune teller was superb; her entrance in trailing coat and sleuth-woman hat which she then took off they improved on what in the opera has become cliched stuff. She was attention-getting with her pocketbook with its large gold clasp, cigarette and flask (liquor):

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Ulrica (Stephanie Blythe), Gustavo, Oscar, Gustavo’s page (Kathleen Kim)

Suddenly I wish I knew what Scott was available in Italian and what the Italian texts were like. The graveyard scene (contradictory as were they all with its Icarus ceiling and white walls):

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Amelia, Gustavo, Renato

Act 3 is songfest, from extraordinary alluring thrilling melodies, to ominous choruses. The set as a whole, symbolic on top, walls, including the soprano in a slip falling against a white wall with a single large symbolic object nearby reminded me of Willy Dekker’s Traviata. David Alden was the producer and Saul Steinberg the set designer and they have clearly been influenced by Euro-trash (as it’s called operas) as well as Broadway too.

Stark was the aim, simplify and symbolize the mode.

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The opera does have problems. One could say of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito there’s more there; they could do this or that. This one is what it is. It feels ungrateful to say that but it’s more dated than Traviata: the complicated plot for example. And the depiction of women’s chastity with the implication that if she had had a full sexual relationship with the king, she would have been abhorrent is deeply anti-women — especially as the opera is ultimately based on a real 18th century king and his court, Gustavus of Sweden who took the wife of his chief supporter and courtier for his mistress. Many plays of the Jacobean era show this was common; other sources show the way a married couple could rise in court was that she become the king’s mistress. They also show inevitably often the “cuckolded” man became humiliated and sometimes killed the wife and/or the king or tried to (e.g., Beaumont and Fletcher’s King and No King). The original, Una vendetta, had political matter which is feebly reflected because of the censorship. At the real court there was a fortune teller, who when she told of the king’s death and it came true, was shunned.

It is true that had Verdi been able to explore some truths about politics at court, this would have been a sizzling important opera. Had he been able at least to present as aspect of where revolutions come from, court coteries, ditto. If we knew something of his preoccupations, something never gone into or rarely during intermissions. As he was not, and they do not, the opera remains contradictory, half-baked partly senseless antics leading nowhere. It feels ungrateful to say this but it should be said. As Clement says in her Opera, or the Undoing of Women or Kerman in his Opera as Drama, the content of the opera matters.

It is what it is, and the Met did its best to make the emotions that are believable effective, resonate. They provided absorbing entertainment through the masque background, costumes, and intermission material.

So I enjoyed it and was glad we went. I really feel it was the first time I truly saw it. I understood it for the first time, the subtitles of course did that, and the staging underlined what was happening inwardly. So for the first time I was roused by the music — having understood the content of the lyrics and what the gestures of actor-singers meant. Sondra Radvanovsky: first time I ever saw her; she effective.

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Amelia in her chair Hamlet-like over a skull, Ulrica behind her

During his interview Dmitri Hvorostovsky swaggered and preened, and looked out at the audience and camera instead of at Deborah Voight, but he sang so well and is attractive. The tenor Marcelo Álvarez had a feel for it as an Italian opera, and that’s what it is, complete with comic fishermen, smugglers, men laughing at a cuckold, patriotic choruses. Oscar (Katherine Kim) didn’t make any sense in his white suit with white wings, the job was to provide a coloratura soprano throughout. I’m glad we went even if in insight into the human condition this was the equivalent of a pop melodramatic movie of 1950s TVm a proto-Sopranos.

Middle career Verdi. The soaring of Traviata, Rigoletto (a new production coming up this season), La Forza del Destino, Trovatore. Who can resist these if well done?

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What the roving camera shows before the opera, during the interviews, just afterwards central to experience

It is real fun, an education, fascinating to watch the crews during most of the intermissions. (There are some where there is little for stagehands to do.) The stage is somehow not quite de-mystified. You are in on what’s happening behind the screen. We love that. This time we witnessed (if you were watching a small spat between the chief carpenter, head of the crew, and one of his people protesting apparently against being asked to clean the mirror-glass. Beneath his dignity, not important enough.

It takes hundreds of people to put up the scenes the curtains open up on. You learn a lot about staging as you watch them.

You feel part of the here, now alive aspect of things because the camera shows us the audience. They cannot see us, but we see them.

I can find no shots online of Deborah Voight (soon to be Cassandra in Les Troyens) as hostess for the interviews this time. I didn’t expect to. Nor probably Susan Graham (soon to be Dido in Les Troyens). None of the tech people and crews moving, pulling down, putting up pieces of staging.

The interviews and watching the crew set up the stage are part of what we the movie-house audiences are offered — and cannot be seen by the live people in the house. It adds a lot — pace each hostess’s mantra about how much better it is to be in the house, I’d say from the second tier up it’s not. We are taken to the costume shop, to the dressing rooms, hear taped interviews with composers and directors that can be informative, watch rehearsal sessions.

So a little on these.

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Bootleg photo of intermission scene that I found on the Net — possibly by someone using a cell phone

This time, as I say, Deborah Voigt did it; she frequently has (as also Renee Fleming). They are personable and seem comfortable, feel like they are ad-libing, are comfortable and can cope with whatever their interviewees say or do. At one point the camera allowed us to see Deborah chatting with the two people she was about to interview from afar (while we watched the sets set up — and hard physical labor it was too) and I could see she had a teleprompter with the words she was to say facing her. That with its words is usually unseen by movie-house viewers.

The ability to be hostess (or host) takes a very different kind of talent to that of singer-actor within the opera play-world. Sondra Radvanovsky was the hostess I saw for the Otello, whose behavior was so cliched and absurd, so frozen. She could not get herself to react spontaneously enough — or seem to — the interviewed. So as a singer-actress I’d never have identified her as the same person. She certainly didn’t remind me of the stiff cliched inappropriately (for her body) overdressed, over-sexed hostess. Joyce Didonato was marvelous as Sycorax and in the interview done “at sea-level” in this production of her practicing Maria Stuarda promises a stunning performance. She was a very poor hostess, dull, lifeless.

As hostess (or host), you don’t have the mask of “being in your character” and you come out as partly yourself. So no or not-as-much hiding. Since inveighing against Radvanovsky’s super-tight, super-sexy outfit, I’ve since realized that the clothes the host or hostess wears (and jewels the hostess wears) are provided by the Met. There are credits saying Miss so-and-so dressed by. I didn’t know that. So Radvanosky was dressed by the Met that way.

Jim tells me that Radvanosky is said to have a gay following (fans who refer to her as Sondra); this kind of thing is known. Maybe she was dressed that way because of this perceived following. Renee Fleming by contrast has not. I’ve noticed what I’d call snobbery towards Fleming among people who go to opera; they call her vulgar! vulgar. Opera itself, the whole thing, including house is an extravaganza of vulgarity on one level — crass, unashamed revelling in luxury, in the apparatus of wealth: let’s pretend to be aristocrats going to a palace. But I grant Fleming may be is perceived as “wholesome: and her roles and outfits as hostess are all traditionally feminine.

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Photo of Fleming from a story telling of how she is gone to for hostess type help

I would believe that the women singers especially have some say in what they are going to wear too. The older ones do have this problem of ideals of youth and real slimness. I’ve been told that Deborah Voigt had the operation where you have your stomach stapled to make herself thin enough to do the heroine role in the Ring. I can see that Radvanosky is still playing sexy young or youngish women. She may feel — as some women do – that dresses that are youthful and tight make her look younger and thinner. I should probably on principle sympathize (feel for “my sisters”), but I’ve a real distaste for clothes that announce people as super-rich and glamorous and my experience is looser things that swirl around your body make you look smaller at least and maybe thinner. But these sort of looser clothes are not glamorous. Those who dress the actress-singer and she collaborating study carefully each choice of clothes.

Deborah Voight is dressed slightly mannishly in suit-like outfits, shoulder-length blonde hair in a flip page-boy.

Telling: the hosts just wear tuxes, much less trouble and yet despite the women having troubles such as I’ve suggested, for the 4 year period we’ve been going I can count on one hand how many times there has been a male host. Three times is all I remember. The first time we went: Thomas Hamsen was personable, handsome, but he never did it again of those I’ve gone to. We have gone to a concert of his at the Carnegie.

Eric Owens, the brilliant black singer who was so marvelous as Alberich in Wagner’s Ring: he seemed embarrassed to do it, determined to come out all sweetness and light, utterly harmless. So he was countering myths about black men — by contrast, let’s recall he had played Alberich using from deep within himself his own felt resentments as an outsider. On the stage as singer he has a mask; not as host.

And once Placido Domingo. He was charming and unashamed in asking for money. I could imagine his pitch at fund-raisers. But he was a bit unusually stiff, watching himself. Too much is riding on the success of these HD productions? more than money perhaps?

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Photo of tech crew backstage found on the Net

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To conclude, I had an exchange of email letters with a friend who has been going to these HD operas for about 6 years and (like us) goes to the European operas transmitted by HD. He buys a season ticket to the Met nowadays and this year is going to several operas from La Strada, the Royal Opera House and elsewhere in NYC movie-houses. He wrote: “I have the busiest opera schedule this season I’ve ever had.” He’s even nowadays going to the New York City opera “something I haven’t done in years. Most of this is due to the fact that HD productions are the greatest thing since macaroni.”

Us too. Jim is planning several of these Eurocinemas. We’ll get to see Lohengrin, two more operas with the very handsome Jonas Kauffman, two more with the magnificent Simon Keenleyside. We nowadays go to Opera Lafayette, in summer Castleton in Virginia and Wolf Trap. I seems we hardly have a month without an opera. It’s hard to find time to go to an ordinary movie. And I remember years where we never saw one opera, especially when PBS goes through periods of not doing them — lest they put off an audience who never watch PBS anyway.

I read some in the audience in the Met theater are resentful. They complain they suspect the staging is nowadays done for the movie-houses. (They can see the cameras this year.) Why should they (those who do) pay $300 a seat, when we poor plebs pay $20. This is not the first time technology has made available to many what was once available only to a few. And this has changed what’s available — often with some disadvantages coming in.

I’ve no doubt this new technology and all the new kinds of staging, scenic design, half-Broadway productions will bring in a much bigger traditional audience of classical music lovers, usually older people with time and money to go on weekends and weekdays or evenings. It will bring in younger people too: again and again I see Izzy so charmed by the younger singers in the present productions as well as the more modern operas. She loved The Enchanted Island. Doing so many a year will exert pressure to expand the repertoire into the baroque and modern. It already has. Everyone must really act. The production design must be good and appropriate. All this may cause new 20th and 21st century operas to be mounted, and then more written. These can speak to us the way a Un ballo en maschera can’t.

As to the disadvantages, they have not yet emerged — except the pressure on singers to look conventionally young and beautiful. That was happening already.

Ellen

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An imagined portrait of Margaret Woffington’s first interview with theater-owner and manager, John Rich (whose theater harbored many cats is the joke)


Francis Abingdon as Lady Bab in in Burgoyne’s Fair Maid of the Oats by John Hickey

Dear friends and readers,

On and off for the past couple of months, I’ve been reading Felicity Nussbaum’s Rival Queens: Actresses, Performance and the Eighteenth-Century Theater with a view to writing a review for publication in an academic journal on it. When I write reviews, I not only read the book with great care, thinking about it as I go, but (unless I really am an expert in the area or, conversely, when I find I can’t stand the book or the material and will still write briefly on it because I promised to), I read a selection of the materials the author read to write it. In the case of Nussbaum, I was eager to read more than I had. I had read some contemporary biographies of the actresses (e.g., Anne Oldfield) and memoirs by them too (George Anne Bellamy), and a few modern biographies (of Oldfield, of Bellamy, Dora Jordan [Claire Tomalin’s], Hannah Pritchard, Elizabeth Inchbald) and a few essays on and texts either by them or intended for them to act out (Catherine Clive, Sarah Siddons), and also a few general histories, but this was my opportunity to read more. And I did.

I’d like to share some of this with my reader as it’s just fascinating stuff, relevant to our world today in so many ways, but unfortunately I didn’t have the time to write up coherent notes as I went, plus I was partly directed by my reaction to Nussbaum and my task to check her out, see how accurate were her readings and who disagreed with her and why. I chose to write up two because one swallow does not a summer make and if two don’t either, the pair do reveal the tragedy, pain, and ambivalent lives of loss as well as triumph both women lived.

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Woffington as Sir Harry Wildair in Farquhar’s The Constant Couple

Margaret Woffington (1720-60) is one of the women Nussbaum focuses on and like other 18th century actresses still remembered for their supposedly exciting sex life and transgressions on stage, it’s not hard to find sites which purport to give a gist of her life and pictures of her on the Net. Unfortunately, like many of these (and Nussbaum too) what is available is filled with falsifying glamor and puffery, which obscure what was Woffington’s experience of life.

The only full-length book that exists is Janet Dunbar’s Peg Woffington and Her World (1968). On one level, it’s a poor book. It’s a story outline of Woffington’s life interspersed with potted biographies of those she worked with, and imagined thoughts she gives them, nothing of which contains any real insight into the characters of the people. What’s also missing is the keen ethical perspective of Mary Nash’s Provoked Wife (a life of Susannah Cibber in the context of her family, era, musical and stage theater).

OTOH, since meager records (playbills, lists of plays performed from memoirs of the era and various documents) and gross bogus history and legend, calumnies that make Woffington into a monstrous sex-made half-prostitute, and recorded silly exaggerations that idolize her are mostly what’s left from Woffington’s life, Dunbar’s book is a unexpectedly sober, respectful and coherent narrative from which one can draw a probable understanding of Woffington’s life.

What else is available? a very few articles which treat Woffington from an author’s agenda-driven point of view (nowadays a favorite is her penchant for cross-dressing); the ODNB biography; A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660–1800, ed. Highfill, Burnim, Langhans (1993); Nussbaum’s chapter in her book and the first writing; and a 1760 biographical memoir (Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington). This memoir is disgraceful, a document which testifies to the shameful tone of writer’s mind. Suffice to say that as an adolescent Peg was perhaps “discovered” by a French impresario woman who was looking for talent for fair-ground, and this memoir presents part of this time as Peg, an 11 year old giving herself up to disgusting fellatio and other forms of oral and anal sex to young men out of sheer love of it. The tone of the memoir throughout is crude, leering, voyeuristic.

Margaret Woffington spent her life as an actress living on her own and now and again she lived with different well-known males and she did not attempt to hide this. None of them had the high friends that Anne Oldfield’s first choice did — Arthur Maynwarning was attached to the Queen and high gov’t Whigs. Garrick’s popularity and position did not cut anywhere near that high. Peg really defied many norms: she did not even try to appear chaste or virginal when not married. Like Clive, she seems not to have had any children. Woffington did not weave total lies of improbable virginity and chastity like Elizabeth Farren. She just let her life be seen.

Several times she found herself ousted from her theater group: sometimes from the London group and then she’d quietly turn up in Dublin and then after a while the journey would be reversed (she’d be ousted from Dublin and then be found playing on a London stage). Her specialty was the transvestite role: dressing as a men and playing a man’s role nearly straight, dressing as a man and playing it as a travesty (with her woman’s body emphasized): what we can see in this is this the outsider and perhaps a bisexual or lesbian person. Her one long-time liaison with Garrick is not atypical in that she apparently did want to marry him, but he found her unacceptable as a social choice. Once Margaret educated her sister, Polly, and managed to marry Polly into Walpole’s family (Horace sneered at the man who married the girl) the sister more or less dropped Margaret.

The way Nussbaum treats Woffington’s collusion with the powerful authorities in Ireland (Duke of Dorset) to encourage men to go to war reveals Nussbaum’s agenda: Nussbaum’s goal is to counter those who have said women had no effect on politics. Nussbaum seems not to care what kind of effect. Woffington “influenced the political imaginary of the time.” One famous instance of her pronouncing an epilogue (as a “Female Volunteer”) we know about it because the playbill of Woffington has her dressed as a soldier with a low cut blouse that emphasizes her breasts and a bunch of cloth that shows where man’s phallus would be; she spoke an epilogue which reminds me of WW1 posters urging women to send their sons to fight. Nusssbaum is just all ga-ga about how this shows how important and powerful Woffington was (!). Woffington was then invited to a dinner at an exclusive club with the Duke of Dorset — Dunbar describes this and provides the sycophantic poem Woffington recited, and then quickly tells how not long afterward Woffington was hooted from the stage by an Irish contingent and fled to London. Nussbaum chose Woffington because Woffington was especially known for this kind of “patriotic” cross dressing. For one of her epilogues see comment.

Nussbaum argues such enactments show Woffington bringing together cross-dressing, sexual transgression and patriotism; she was answered by a satirical pamphlet that defended the English soldier against this attack on their masculinity. It dismisses Woffington’s piece as sexual contamination not genuine patriotism. A later tract, Guide to the Stage (1751) maligned Woffington by claiming she rather than Jacobites lures audience “into a clap”.

Woffington apparently spoke another epilogue, one to the Non-Juror (by Cibber) where she appears as feminine and again nags the audience to be English protestants against “vile banditti” from “Church of Rome” (Charles Stuart). She thus distanced herself from Catholicism, critiqued the festering Jacobitism of Scotland, called French “henpecked” and effeminate.

At the time in Dublin Sheridan was playing one of Voltaire’s radical plays Mahomet ou le Fanatisme and Woffington was in it. The audience was heavily Irish Catholic; they cheered for the villain-hero and insisted he re-say his speech. Sheridan was livid at the actor who did this. The next performance Sheridan forbad this. What emerged was the hostility and anger of the audience towards the players who were co-opted by the Anglo-Protestant establishment into doing such a play to flatter them at the same time as they had Woffington (paid her of course and Sheridan) do these “patriotic” epilogues. They booed Woffington and threw eggs at her when she came on stage. Sheridan fled. The theater inside was smashed. The theater was fixed and within a few months everything but to normal but Woffington found herself not appreciated by anyone after all and returned to London.

Nussbaum does present this but as a triumph by not telling us the details, not telling us the realities of what Woffington was enacting and for which side. Does it not matter? Again I cannot see how this is admirable if that’s what Nussbaum wants me to see. I see an actress maligned and castigated, doing reprehensible kinds of urging for money in clothes that make her body a salacious joke. Not that Dunbar is any better, for she does not mention the true or full context; the reader has got to be politically aware, knowledgeable him or herself to understand fully what is happening.

There is at this time nothing written about Woffington that conveys her reality, that tells the politics of it with any humanity or decent values and relates it to our time as I have just done. I suppose it’s in no one’s interests but perhaps the Irish who however will today have a nationalist agenda anyway.

Margaret died young (perhaps a heart attack while on stage) because she ceaselessly worked. People who’ve studied her playbills mention how she seems hardly ever to have taken off. Night after night ceaselessly.

She did make money, enough to support her probably illiterate and very low-in-class mother in Ireland. Surprisingly Nussbaum does agree openly with the earlier biographers which have Woffinton the daughter of a bricklayer and laundry-peddlar woman. Woffington bought a nice house in Twickenham area, Teddington. Several times like Clive she found herself tricked and pressured into taking a much lower salary and she refused. She never wrote defenses of herself. I assume she was not sufficiently educated. In fact we have hardly any writing by her about herself.

Nussbaum presents a version of Woffington’s life which is all success and power and money and achievement. Nussbaum is of the idolizing school. She omits what Dunbar presents under the wraps of conventional dullard speech: such as for example, that Owen M’Swiney, a Signor Angelo, and later in life a Colonel Caesar functioned as her protector-males (M-Swiney and Caesar probably capable of the necessary thug behavior) from other thugs who might and would attack a woman living alone. From my reading of Anne Halkett’s memoir and other 17th and 18th century women who lost their respectability and had no family or friends or connections to support them (who would have to be answered to), I know a woman living alone was continually at risk for any bully male to break in and try to harass and rape her.

She apparently suffered a stroke while playing Rosalind in As You Like It; she retired to her hard-won house, a villa in Teddington where she was cared for by Colonel Caesar for her last three years.

My favorite picture of Woffington F. Haytley’s as Mistress Ford (from Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor). I fancy her courage and intelligence shines through:

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Mrs Abingdon as Miss Prue in Congreve’s Love for Love by Joshua Reynolds (1771)

Again there is no good modern biography, a few articles which push an agenda; the ODNB and the Highfill, Burnim and Langhans Biographical Dictionary; Nussbaum’s chapter and an earlier biography, this one written in 1888 (The Life of Mrs Abingdon) – which is however not bad. Like Dunbar’s life of Woffington, this 1888 life of Abingdon provides an outline, some imagined suppositions, and is based on documentary evidence, including this time a revealing series of letters between Garrick and Abingdon, which letters show them to have had high quarrels and frequent bickering.

Frances Abingdon (1737-1815) also rose from very poor people, spent a period as a young girl surviving and promoting herself in whatever way she could, and slowly took on distinctive roles: in Abingdon’s case, they were often a strong, cool, guarded fashionable woman. She became rich men’s mistresses more manipulatively, and used dress as a costume to distance herself from others. She wanted people to forget her origins. She quit the stage more than once. Like Woffington, forced out of London, she went to Dublin and unlike Woffington had a unqualified success monetarily and from the point of view of her reputation. Unlike Woffington, she got two men to leave her big legacies and retired. She was not short lived either as she didn’t exhaust herself the way Woffington had.

From the 1888 biography a complex woman who dressed the way she did out of intense pride emerges. The comic roles she took were quite different from Clive’s (hoyden, chambermaid) or Oldfield (aristocratic witty lady); she took on middling women who were super-elegant and highly intelligent. Her intense engagement with such roles was the result of her perpetually beating back her background to show how she was as good as any one else. The facade became her protection.

About 2/3s the way through the biography the anonymous biographer suddenly dumps a huge cache of letters between Garrick & Abingdon on the reader. They are mind-bending. However corrected, they read as real. Abingdon was continually taking offense, tirelessly defensive, ever accusing Garrick, paranoic some might say. If he wanted control, strong respect from her, and profit, she was tremendously touchy and probably was often slighted. They fight over each iota of status, monetary gain or loss continually. She quit several times. Abingdon’s constant complaints, anger, go beyond something pragmatic, well beyond. She was hurt and angry from within from her experience of life.

She paid the one husband she married to stay away: his jealousy reminds me of the Frenchman who beat his actress wife to death: it’s not sexual or even plain jealousy of her success; it’s something more dangerous; he cannot bear that his wife should do better than he since for him too the rest of the world was despising him. Perhaps that was their initial bond. She too had many epilogues written for her and these do provide a fascinating take on her which somehow emanates from her even if she didn’t write them. (I reprint a typical one in a comment.)

For a narrative life once she gets successful the 1888 biographer gives us the gist of each of her famous roles, then little paragraphs about the play’s production, then a contemporary review and then we move onto the next famous role. And after all what were her waking hours but these? It’s wisdom to make this the central text rather than the marginal love and sex stories that occurred in the interstices of time or even her social support network — fragile without the legacies she got from her two lovers. It’s revealing that Mrs Abingdon called herself Frances and made it stick. Not Fanny. I see in that her intense desire for respect.

The most interesting thing Nussbaum tells is that Abingdon was “reputed to have been a servant to a French milliner in Cockspur Street where she learned dressmaking and design.” The actresses were supposed to get their own costumes. Nussbaum suggests the rumors of prostitution in youth might have come from her having been a milliner (here she resorts to old-fashioned language: milliners the “prey of unsavory men,” regarded as morally suspect!). Abingdon would know how to make all sorts of articles of clothing, what was liked when it came to her to commission clothes for others once she rose to have a good salary and fine clothes herself. I remember that George Anne Bellamy mentions sponsoring a milliner to go to France to learn the art of making clothing of all sorts.

Abingdon’s epilogues bring out her role as an icon of fashion. She combined a material milliner with lady of quality she aspired to be. She was adroit in the use of accessories, like fans, pins, flowers (as a girl selling flowers she was known as “Nosegay Fan”). Rather than asserting sexual power through body anatomy she manipulated accessories. The biographer of Elizabeth Inchbald and Sarah Siddons wrote that Abingdon commanded space. Nussbaum insists that Abingdon was not trivialized and lists her famous roles: Widow Bellmore, The Way to Keep Him; Lady Bab in The Maid of Oaks, Mrs Candour in School for Scandal. Abingdon combined a nostalgic or traditional femininity with an avante-garde/modern femininism.

Abingdon did dressed just spectacularly jewelled and overdressed (she wears Satin as Prue), got up as a kind of Madame de Pompadour. Abingdon broke with a tradition of generic type dressing and when she could dressed individually and sumptuously for each character; we see these outfits immortalized in paintings which do justice to her costume. A contemporary is quoted saying that Abingdon was consulted as a physician, paid as an artist, people of fashion treat her as an equal (the 1888 biography, p 232-33). Other women were copied this way: Anna Cartley, Woffington. I remember that Pritchard came from family of staymakers, costumers for stage, said to be consultant to Queen Charlotte; the Pritchards had a warehouse.

I remember reading in Bellamy’s autobiography that she lost a wardrobe worth hundreds of pounds in New Theater at Glasgow; ladies of Edinburgh loaned her more than 40: “some new … as well as very rich” Nussbaum brings in Bellamy’s intense quarrel with Elizabeth Furnival over Bellamy’s outfit to be Cleopatra, which ended in outrageous insults. Furnival stole clothes for Octavia that Bellamy intended for herself as Cleopatra; seamstress fell on her, Bellamy complained to Sheridan.

Nussbaum wants us to believe that Abingdon “mobilized nation’s fashion industry.” One thinks of Bette Davis who in Now Voyager becomes beautiful and sexy by dressing glamorously. Carole Lombard movies were sales pitches for clothes in the Neiman Marcus mode.

What I’d end on was how Abingdon got writers to rewrite Jacobean and Caroline plays for her (by Fletcher, by Massinger) so as to present earlier hard types, strong, abstract female characters, who (if in the end humiliated) give as good as they get for most of the play, e.g., The Capricious Lady out of The Scornful Lady; an updated version of an updated version of the heroine in Rule a Wife and Have a Wife. Abingdon wanted to enact fantasies of power and one of the famous portraits of her (by Reynolds) comes from her role in the farce, The Sultan where we are asked to take seriously that she reasons the Sultan into changing the nature of his relationship with women and his court, (absurd) Orientalist fantasy. Nussbaum says she “reforms the seraglio, erases erotic power of tragic Eastern woman, and replaces it with comic female sway.” She forgets how the play teaches us to despise the eunuch. Well, one can’t have everything.

My favorite story of Abingdon: Samuel Johnson liked her so much that he sat in the pit to watch a play he could neither see or hear very well. Boswell pictures Johnson sitting there gravely and attentively.

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The interested reader is invited also to look at my Anne Oldfield as actress, and foremother poet-writer blog on Catherine Clive; and what I managed of an etext edition of Bellamy’s autobiography before I discovered this 6 volume autobiography is readily available on ECCO. These women I also bond with. I’ve put some notes on Susannah Arne Cibber as revealed by Mary Nash’s Provoked Wife and briefly defended Sarah Kemble Siddons in my comments too.

Ellen

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Brief review and summary

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been puzzled for quite a while over the terms of debates feminists have about prostitution. Well-meaning feminists stigmatize and inveigh against those working to rescue and help prostitutes (which includes Emma Thompson who travels about trying to help women by lending her acting talent and prestige). This morning for the first time I read an essay which outlined what can be behind arguments like those of Laura Augstin against much of the legislation that seems to be promulgated to protect prostitutes, help them escape what is in effect a new form of chattel slavery (done by trafficking — simply snatching women in the way slaves were once snatched), and decrease, yes perhaps even end prostitution in some places by at least punishing the men who pay for it. The line of argument is partly persuasive. It coheres with a description of how prostitutes were treated in 18thc Magdalen houses that I recently read

First, a brief resume of the arguments of those who say prostitution is a degraded and debasing way to make money; further that the woman who practice it are subject to extreme violence, victimization and often become (in effect) chattel slaves (through sheering snatching of them in what’s called trafficking). On prostitution: an article meant for popular consumption about what kind of men pay prostitutes for sex, and a study of what prostitutes say about their experiences. It’s claimed that the demand to purchase sex this way is increasing; the same people who pay prostitutes read porn. And here is Agustin’s series of objections to the report.

My first reaction is to say I find the objections to Farley come out of an agenda about prostitution which while seeking to empower these women (they are a very abused set of people) does so by trying to present their lives as less victimized than they are. A friend replied that my reaction reminded her of her reaction to a talk by Dr Laura Agustin that she attended at Zurich University’s Gender Studies Department late last year. Here is the title and introduction to the talk which surrounds words like helping and prostitution with critical marks:

Leaving Morality Debates Behind: The Cultural Study of Commercial Sex With the academic, media and “helping” gaze fixed on women who sell sex, the great majority of phenomena that make up the sex industry are ignored. People who sell sex tend to be examined in terms of “prostitution,” focussing on transactions between individuals and personal motivations. A cultural-studies approach looks at commercial sex in its widest sense, examining its intersections with art, migration, ethics, service work, consumption, family life, entertainment, sport, economics, urban space, sexuality, tourism, informal economies and criminality, not omitting issues of race, class, gender, identity and citizenship. The object is to study the everyday practices involved, to reveal how our societies distinguish between activities considered normatively “social” and activities denounced as criminally and morally wrong and to look for ways out of a seemingly intransigent social conflict.”

My friend wrote that she “was still somewhat surprised by the tenor of the talk itself which seemed to be arguing for social and legal acceptance of sex for money in general as simply a further form of economic service and economic choice by the people – not only women- involved, questioning the actual existence of large scale trafficking networks – ‘trafficking’ being another term she preferred not to use – and both highly critical of what she terms the ‘rescue industry’ in the book she was also pushing that evening, ‘Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry’, and extremely allergic to feminist criticism of her own approach.”

After reading Agustin’s blogs I wrote in reply:

On one level she is offering the pragmatic argument that fighting sex trafficking doesn’t “work” (bring an end to it) any more than wars “work” (though the aims of wars are often to make money for arms dealers and put people in power and the first is certainly achieved); thus it’s waste of money to try.
Nowhere does she acknowledge what trafficking in women is and how it works. It’s kidnapping, people snatching done just in the way people were once snatched to become chattel slaves.
Nowhere is there an acknowledgement of the violence inflicted on prostitutes. To say they freely chose this and should be respected for their choices would be hilarious if the lack of acknowledgement of how limited are our choices in life were not so painful.
That sex workers should be treated as equal citizens trying to survive and not punished is obvious and part of the motive for people like Agustin, but it’s also the motive of those who want to end the trade altogether or limit it insofar as they are able to. The problem is that our society refuses to take responsibility for helping people to jobs, to support, to decent schools (the US nowadays pays almost nothing for needed post-secondary education).

I was very puzzled by her motives. Here we are at the core of why women are repressed, controlled, despised and disgarded: men want to use them as sex objects, as baby making machines, as housekeepers, nurses, all of which involved the body so prostitutes are a lightning rod. From the beginning of recorded history women have had to sell their bodies directly — often as a side occupation — because they have so little access to money or property, and this selling has subjected them to severe loss of status, violence, death from disease and childbirth, maiming, self-hatred.

Grace Chang’s review of Sealing Cheng’s On the Move: Migrant entertainers and the US military in South, Korea which appeared in the latest issue of the Women’s Review of Books (September/October 2011) finally at least explained the line of thought to me in a way that makes sense, that shows the people making this argument are not simply dismissing women who are prostitutes.

Cheng outlined for the first time for me what can be behind arguments like those of Laura Augstin against much of the legislation that seems to be promulgated to protect prostitutes, help them escape what is in effect a new form of chattel slavery (done by trafficking — simply snatching women in the way slaves were once snatched), and yes end prostitution by at least punishing equally the men who pay for it.

The core that struck me is the argument that the behavior of agents who profess to be doing this is much more aimed at getting and keeping their jobs. I suppose I was struck by this since I’ve become convinced that the supposed agents (of institutions) who are being paid it’s said to help disabled people get jobs and services are doing no such thing; that their values and norms are that of the larger society which impose on disabled people impossible, conflicting demands and that their services are anything from feeble to non-existent. They are perpetuating their institutions, serving the values and norms of a society which will not help disabled adults and their own interests; so these agents for prostitutes are similarly serving their own interests, not those of women. They are making the women’s lives worse; they are doing nothing to raise their status or enable others to understand and to sympathize.

I have seen the larger argument that these agents are serving a puritanical anti-sex agenda which keeps up the attitude towards sex work as criminal, keeps up blaming them (in effect), sends them back home to places where they have no means of support and are anything from ostracized to murdered.

It is germane to consider how societies have regarded and treated prostitutes even supposedly enlightened cirlces, e.g., in an essay on the 18th century Magdalen house – by Peter Stearns, in Journal of Social History, 17:4 (1984): 617-628: we find the model Emma Donoghue based her depiction of the Magdalen house in Slammerkin on. Stearns demonstrates that basically the women who entered were treated as prisoners in a penitentiary, and many techniques begun which reached a fruition in the 19th century. You could leave, that’s the difference but if you did without references (as Mary Saunders did) you are bereft of a future — her finding her mother’s old friend is actually fairy tale. To anyone interested I can send it on by attachment. It connects directly to this modern debate on prostitution and does provide some ammunition for those who argue that prostitutes ought to be left alone, and not protected if the protection is as severely punitive as the supposed crime, if they are treated as low status people without any say in their future.

Back to Cheng and Change: This is the first time I’ve come across descriptions of what actually happens. Thus the attempt to de-stigmatize the women, to treat them as workers like any other, workers forced into this work for the same reasons others are forced into other work (most people’s jobs are not taken by any choice, we have very limited choices by the time we are ready to try to seek paid employment), is to free them of these useless agents and let those who are making money this way and controlling their lives more than is realized (or admitted) carry on surviving with what tools (so to speak) an deeply anti-woman society makes available to them.

It is a lesser of many great evils arguments from my point of view.

Grace Chang’s review does not quite put it this way — especially the idea that prostitution of any more degrading or based on violence than most work women are forced to perform. The argument on the other side (from Augstin’s) is that prostitution is degrading, debasing, violent; that women are forced into it and everything should be done basically to outlaw and punish severely trafficking in women and do all that one can to (ultimately this is the aim) end or decrease prostitution. Sealing Cheng’s book is one which (according to Chang) gives us the women’s view of themselves. The history is not retold of what the laws and customs in the Philiippines were which did push (force let’s say) women to migrate. Apparently she likens the conduct and movement of these women to women who emigrate as nurses, factory and agricultural workers, and domestic servants. To see them against this background is indeed to make them seem much less different and to remember how marriage and having children is treated in traditional cultures in these starving places extends the picture. According to Cheng, one way the women better themselves is to pretend to adhere to romantic love: they pretend to be in love with a customer in the hope he will marry them or enable them to migrate elsewhere or simply provide decent protections the pimp does not. We should not then make fun of them or deride them for this behavior as false consciousness for it is a performance just a much as romantic love is in the US and elsewhere among many middle class women. The woman want to marry and an American male especially; the men persist in believing these women long to have sex with them — men often do believe this.

Cheng then describes who the NGOS are, these agents and how they behave towards these women – it reminds me of what I’ve read and been told about agents in service agencies supposedly helping disabled people to get job or other services. No tangible support or use but a continued need for the organization itself. So the idea is these attempts to stamp out prostitution as debased, degraded, just further exploit the women – now they are abused by the states running them through their agents.

There is a problem with this as trafficking is snatching and the women are made into slaves. So while it may be that Agustin has a real argument on her side for prosititutes who have not been snatched, it does not follow she does in the area of trafficking. On the other hand, I now wonder how much these agents help the trafficked women. Do they give them places to live for real, help them to decent situations and jobs? I fear they do not; perhaps this may not be possible without spending a great deal of money and changing present misogynistic and puritanical norms and values. I don’t know enough about this.

I also wonder why Agustin and those who write like her have never brought this up or out, have never exposed the agents themselves. She would have no reason to keep quiet about it. So I’m sceptical. Shall one just give up in despair?

Still I wanted to share Chang’s review of this Cheng book in an effort to shed light on something that has puzzled me. Why someone calling herself a feminist like Agustin should take the side she does. Could it be that she doesn’t expose the agents out of some (perverse surely) ideas of political diplomacy or fear of what might be thought if she exposed these people? I know from my own experience I am sometimes astonished at the way the average person reacts to a variety of ordinary situations and cannot fathom the thinking that leads to the usual stupidities we hear all the time — say on behalf of the various Republicans who propose to do such evil. So maybe Agustin knows better than me — silence (as I’ve suggested) is a very feeble weapon, so feeble it boomerangs most of the time.

Unfortunately the review is not online and it may not be one of those few chosen to be online when the latest issue turns up on the website. This is why I have written this blog. I did write a first version to Women Writers though the Ages at Yahoo, and am sending the URL to this blog to the Women’s Studies list run by Joan Korenman (WMST-l). There is now a list of publications published by Moira Richards each week on Wompo (Women’s Poetry list first founded by Annie Finch, now run by Amy King) by members, and maybe I’ll send this along there even if the listserv is really about women’s poetry (prostitution is an important topic for women).

Ellen

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