Date of Degree

6-2020

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

M.A.

Program

Liberal Studies

Advisor

Christopher Schmidt

Subject Categories

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies | Museum Studies | Performance Studies | Theatre History | Women's History

Keywords

New York City

Abstract

This thesis depicts the emergence of one particular iteration of the popular female actor within 19th century performance, the male impersonator, and identifies the ways in which this theatrical expression was related to and affected by similar amusements of the period. Public amusements of this period include a diversity of experiential entertainment that was primarily geared toward working and lower-middle class males. Included in these types of illegitimate theater is the variety hall. Male impersonators were the height of theatrical fashion not only in New York City, which is the focused landscape of this paper, but this type of act was also very popular in performance circuits around the United States and England. Female actors portraying men in this manner did not exist on the stage without context or meaning. They were both a result and a function of the time period and culture in which they performed. An overlooked piece of this influence was the genre of curiosity exhibition as it had developed in the 17th to 19th centuries.

I will discuss the way in which the curio lens would be activated within the variety setting and explore how this lens may have functioned. The presences of curiosity culture affected the way in which the audience perceived a male impersonator on stage, but it also played a part in the public’s reception of the impersonator in her private life. Two of these impersonators were women who pursued romantic relationships with other women throughout their lives: Annie Hindle and Ella Wesner. Hindle, the originator of American male impersonation, was even married to another woman on two occasions. The micro-transgressions that were committed by these two performers, both while acting on the stage and in their personal lives, are indicative of the ways in which the American audience would have received their act. This thesis serves to strengthen the connection between the curio object and female as an object on the stage. This curiosity obsession of Victorian culture is closely related to functions of recreational performance spaces in the 19th century, and both of these institutional histories come together to form the arena in which the male impersonator enters the stage.

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