Theses Doctoral

To Stage a Reading: The Actor in British Modernism

Brown, Jeffrey M.

The popular British theatre of the late nineteenth century has often been regarded as both aesthetically and politically bankrupt: bombastic and spectacular, it offered a vision of sensational theatricality lacking both the formal innovation and the intellectual charge of the later avant-garde stage and of literary modernism. My dissertation, by contrast, argues that one element of the nineteenth-century stage survived and claimed a place at the heart of British modernism: the idea of the actor. In successive chapters stretching from 1897 to 1958, I take up works of fiction and drama by Bram Stoker, Bernard Shaw, T. S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, revealing how various performers of the late-Victorian stage became essential to the formation of modernist aesthetics. I show that the actor's significance lay not only in her cultural station but also in her subversive mediation of artistic convention and self-conscious reenactment of the past; by returning to the performers of the 1890s, these British and Irish writers reconceived the terms that are central to our understanding of modernism: personality, history, and tradition. As the late-Victorian stage passed out of living memory, these writers continued to invoke the actor in their treatments of the technological proliferation of text, the politics of reading during the First World War, the authority of obituary in the literary tradition, and the potential for re-writing historical progress through the lens of community theatre. Positioned between media--theatre, poetry, and the novel--and also between opposing visions of creativity and the artistic process, my research intervenes in related discussions in both theatre studies and the scholarship on modernist literature. By focusing on the art of the actor at this pivotal moment in both theatrical and literary history, I challenge the dominant assumption of an abstract anti-theatricality on the modernist stage by discussing the ambivalently "naturalistic" performance styles of Henry Irving, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Marie Lloyd, and Ellen Terry. Likewise, I argue that their art of acting reframes the key terms of literary modernism by reversing the prerogatives of textuality and the cultural practice of reading. In these ways, the actor provided a means of continually restaging the advent of modernity (and the death of the past) into the middle of the twentieth century.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Worthen, William B.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 31, 2013