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Unit information: The Age of the Actress: Eighteenth-Century Performance Practices in 2020/21

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Unit name The Age of the Actress: Eighteenth-Century Performance Practices
Unit code THTR30022
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Professor. McGirr
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of Theatre
Faculty Faculty of Arts


The long eighteenth century (1660-1832) was The Age of the Actress. The introduction of actresses to the restored stage in 1660 created new roles for women, from the femmes forts of she-tragedy to the ‘gay romps’ of Restoration sex comedies. Stage business from comedic cross-dressing to comic (and tragic) bed-tricks ensured that actresses were centre stage and women’s plots the main attraction. These new roles were also vehicles for managing and promoting the celebrity of star actresses from Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons, who became adept at using their on-stage characters to promote their off-stage celebrity personae, while their celebrity personae inflected and informed interpretation of the roles they played. This course will focus on the power of celebrity actresses to make meaning both on-stage and off. We will use both celebrity studies and eighteenth-century acting techniques to perform celebrity personae and create ‘star turns.’

Intended learning outcomes

Students successfully completing this unit will be able to demonstrate:

1. Understanding of the variety of ways – historical, social, ideological – in which theatre and performance engage with, and are shaped by, the culture around them.

2. Specific knowledge of: social and cultural conditions of eighteenth-century theatre, celebrity theory, and the interplay of celebrity persona, dramatic character, and audience reception.

3. Awareness of the relationship between past traditions – especially eighteenth-century acting and early theatrical marketing – and present practice.

4. Critical and historical understanding of the significance of female performers in the development of drama, theatre and celebrity culture.

5. Skills in research, especially gathering, evaluating, sifting and summarising appropriate evidence and ideas, as appropriate to level H.

6. Skills in applying and articulating critical and historical understanding to embodied work as appropriate to level H.

Teaching details

Each week's topic will be brokedn down into deifferent categories: Lecture, Workshop, Discussion and Paractical Seminar. Lectures will be pre-recorded and available via Blackboard on demand. Workshop exercises can all be done independently off-campus and practical seminars, whilst collaborative exercises, are mostly strutured to allow for sequential contributions which can be achieved in an online environment

Assessment Details

Summative Assessment:

Group Practical Essay & Documentation (100%): A 15-20 minute performance of a scene or pastiche of scenes demonstrating knowledge of and advancing an argument about the interplay between an eighteenth-century actress’s celebrity persona and dramatic role(s). Portfolio Submitted to Blackboard: (1 per group) consisting of:

  • 500-750 word Project Rationale, expanding on the ‘elevator pitch’ presented earlier in the Teaching Block, detailing & explaining the choice of actress, text(s), and argument being made through the performance;
  • an annotated script with detailed stage directions.

NB If pandemic protocols mean that assessments cannot run in person, groups will be asked to submit a plan for performance, which, in addition to the portfolio requirements above, should also include some of the following as appropriate: still and/or video images; blocking plans; design elements; music or other sound effects; additional printed materials such as playbills, performance reviews, correspondence, prompter’s notes.

Formative Assessment:

1) Group oral presentation on performer biography (5 mins, in groups)

2) Draft / rehearsal performance of practical essay for peer and tutor feedback

Reading and References

Engel, Laura. Fashioning Celebrity: Eighteenth Century British Actresses and Strategies for Image Making. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011.

Engel, Laura and Elaine McGirr. Stage Mothers: Women, Work, and the Theater, 1660-1830. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press 2014.

Fisher, Judith. ‘Through Others’ Eyes: Representations of Actresses in Eighteenth-Century Drama,’ Eighteenth-Century Women. 6 (2001): 181-208.

McGirr, Elaine. ‘Authorial Performances: Actress, Author, Critic’, pp. 97-116 in Women’s Writing 1660-1830. eds. Jennie Batchelor and Gillian Dow. London: Palgrave, 2017.

Nussbaum, Felicity. Rival Queens: Actresses, Performance, and the Eighteenth-Century British Theater. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

Rojek, Chris. Celebrity. London: Reaktion Books, 2001.