The rise of celebrity actresses in eighteenth-century London created a class of women who worked in the public sphere while facing considerable scrutiny about their offstage lives. To maintain their prominent status, stage celebrities turned to performance, portraiture, and print to cultivate stable and compelling public identities. Such labor required a delicate balance of concealment and revelation; adding significantly to the challenge was the fact that many of these actresses were also performing while visibly pregnant.
Contrary to popular belief, the patent theatres were not hostile to the needs of their childbearing labour force. Instead, financial and repertory records reveal that they facilitated and even capitalised upon these circumstances, offering a range of accommodations for pregnancy and childbearing to their employees. In turn, powerful celebrity women used the cultural and affective significance of their reproductive bodies to leverage audience support and interest to advance their careers. This paper situates actresses’ experiences on and off the stage within wider social, medical, and political conversations about gender, sexuality, pregnancy, and motherhood.
Dr. Chelsea Phillips is Associate Professor of Theatre at Villanova University. Her research interests include women, Shakespeare, and the eighteenth-century theatre. She received her MFA in Dramaturgy from Mary Baldwin University/The American Shakespeare Center, and her doctorate from Ohio State University. Her work has appeared in Theatre Survey, Theatre Journal, Women's History, and numerous edited collections. Her article, “Bodies in Play: Maternity, Repertory, and the Rival Romeo and Juliets, 1748-1751” won the 2020 Gerald Kahan Scholar's Prize from the American Society for Theatre Research. Her first book, Carrying All Before Her: Celebrity Pregnancy and the London Stage 1689-1800 (University of Delaware Press) will be released on 14 January 2022. Research for the project was funded by generous grants from the Folger Library, the Huntington Library (Harvard), the Lewis Walpole Library (Yale), Villanova University, and Ohio State University.
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