[Paleopsych] New Statesman: Review of Actresses and Whores: on stage and in society

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Actresses and Whores: on stage and in society 

by Kirsten Pullen
Cambridge University Press, 215pp, £16.99
ISBN 0521541026

    Reviewed by Fiona Shaw

    As a member of the younger of the two professions that are the focus
    of this book, I am not naive enough to be ignorant of the connection
    between them. The casting lots of Hollywood studios, full of actresses
    flaunting themselves in their Sunday best, are a sharp reminder of our
    fleshpit expendability. And one of my colleagues recently told me of a
    "meeting" with a producer that began with him stepping out of the
    shower with a towel hanging loosely around his groin. (Oddly enough,
    she never did tell me what happened next.)
    Women first climbed on to the stage in Britain following the
    restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The profession offered women a
    means of escaping marriage or domestic drudgery without having to sell
    their bodies to fend off financial ruin. (Economic independence is
    still one of the joys of what can be an angst-ridden vocation.) And
    yet actresses were commonly seen as whores. In her riveting study of
    the interplay between the two professions, Kirsten Pullen places
    actresses and whores firmly on the ever-present stage of society - and
    reminds us that it is not only prostitutes we remain ambivalent about,
    but theatre and film workers, too.
    Pullen sets the whore-like qualities of actresses - the eroticism of
    cross-dressing on stage, their undressed "availability" backstage -
    against the real life of an 18th-century prostitute, Margaret Leeson.
    In her memoir, Leeson described and justified her fall from grace,
    painting a vivid picture of a decadent Dublin. In one section, she
    described how she once offered a client a proportion of her ten-guinea
    fee for every orgasm she enjoyed. By dawn, she had returned only one
    As ever more women took to the stage in the 18th century, they found
    themselves playing vulnerable heroines or repen- tant dolts - versions
    of "female" that may have pleased male audiences and warned women
    against transgression, but which had little to do with their lives. It
    wasn't long, however, before women took on more transgressive parts.
    Although at first women in "trouser roles" - that is, playing male
    characters - were little more than an excuse for men to admire the
    female physique, actresses were soon competing with men for serious
    parts. Pullen tells the story of Charlotte Charke, who rebelliously
    played Macheath in The Beggar's Opera, and of the American Charlotte
    Cushman, who is shown cross-legged and comfortable in her daggered
    belt as Romeo. Putting on trousers was a way of reaching for freedom.
    On occasions when I have had cross-dressing roles in Shakespeare, I
    have felt myself to be part of a tradition of boundary-pushing, of
    theatre's forward movement.
    It was not until the 20th century and the rise of Stanislavsky's
    school of "realism" that acting finally became respectable. Art began
    to be drawn from life, and the theatre - in America at least - was
    upgraded to a "moral instrument". No longer were actresses assumed to
    be whores. Pullen, though, has a good stab at demonstrating the
    reverse: that a whore is also an actress. There are undoubtedly
    elements of performance in prostitution - it is, by its very nature,
    an improvisatory event; a prostitute has to adapt to a client's
    imagination; and her behaviour and dress are likely to be at odds with
    her normal self. Pullen points out that, just as an actress might not
    feel up to playing Lady Macbeth six nights a week, a whore isn't
    always in the mood. She quotes one sex worker who complains of having
    to shower before seeing a client, of having sex with him in the
    shower, and of returning home to wash - whereupon she has to explain
    to her room-mates why she always has wet hair.
    However, it seems to me that acting and prostitution, despite sharing
    a territory of dressing up and performing, are profoundly different.
    For the prostitute, the purpose of the "lie" is to fool the client.
    The point of acting, on the other hand, is not to disguise truth but
    to discover it. Over the centuries, the reasons for acting have
    changed, and this has been to our benefit. I fear that the reasons for
    whoring have stayed the same.
    Fiona Shaw will be performing in Julius Caesar at the Barbican, London
    EC2, from 14 April (see page 40)

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