Friends, Beloveds, and Companions: The Shadow Life of the Fin-de-Siècle American Lesbian Actress.
Abstract: Johnstone Bennett, Elsie de Wolfe, Ada Dwyer, Elizabeth Marbury and
Eleanor Robson were a group of women working in the legitimate theatre in New York from
1890 to 1920. These women enjoyed successful careers and upheld respectable positions as
celebrities, socialites, and philanthropists while they maintained intimate relationships
with female partners throughout their lives. These ... read more"lesbian-like" women avoided censure
from colleagues, fans, audiences, and the press regarding their female partners during a
time when the modern definition of lesbianism was beginning to emerge in the culture. I
explain the difficulty in locating archival materials and breaking the codes set in place
within the archive. Using popular representations of the stock "lesbian" figure from the
period, I investigate a potential code of lesbianism that highlights the cultural response
to the emerging lesbian figure in the United States and abroad. I analyze the lives of
these women as theatre professionals and explore how the legitimate theatre offered them a
safe environment that supported their careers and protected their privacy. Finally, I
consider the available archival evidence about these women --personal correspondence,
publicity photos, interviews, memoirs, and play reviews--in order to understand the surface
narrative these women constructed for the public and the press, along with the personal or
shadow narrative constantly sitting below the surface. I argue that this group of actresses
and theatre professionals challenge our understanding of the history of lesbian identity
and our belief in a "universal" narrative of lesbian history that too often focuses on
identities based on social rejection, shame, and the "closet."
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Tufts University, 2011.
Submitted to the Dept. of Drama.
Advisor: Laurence Senelick.
Committee: Downing Cless, Barbara Grossman, and Martha Vicinus.
Keywords: Theater history, and GLBT studies.read less