Hi-Ho the Glamorous Life: How Theater Became a Good-Girl Pursuit

Marissa Skudlarek, always ahead of her time.

Last Saturday, I read a New York Times story about how the Ziegfeld Club is transitioning from an institution that will support down-on-their-luck aging showgirls to one that will support women who are creating new works of musical theater. It’s a fun story, mixing human interest, glamorous New York theater history, and upbeat modern-day feminism. But it also seems to epitomize something I was talking about earlier that day with my editor, Stuart Bousel: the way that theater went from being perceived as disreputable, to being a hobby that “nice girls” could participate in.

This point came up in a larger conversation that Stuart and I were having about the lack of roles for actresses. We know that there are more male roles than female ones in theater and yet, per anecdotal evidence, many more women show up to auditions than men do. Also, though there are always exceptions, severely male-heavy casts seem more prevalent in older (but still post-Renaissance) plays than in newer ones. Stuart and I wondered if perhaps, back in the day, there weren’t more women than men auditioning. Is the oversupply of women in theater a contemporary phenomenon?

Well, we Anglophones do come from a tradition that didn’t even allow women onstage till the late 1600s, and for hundreds of years after that, considered actresses one step above prostitutes. (For a play that deals with many of these themes, see Compleat Female Stage Beauty, opening this weekend at the New Conservatory Theatre Center.) If Shakespeare had had adult women in his company, if acting had been a more respectable pursuit in the centuries that followed, would classic plays feature more gender-balanced casts?

And then, Stuart and I continued our speculations, what happened to change the perceived respectability of being an actress? It’s reasonable to suppose that in the past, many women who might have been interested in theater were dissuaded from pursuing it, due to the stigma it might bring upon them and their families. Theater represented a step up in fame and prestige for women from poor families (Sarah Bernhardt was the daughter of a prostitute), but bourgeois women would see it as a comedown. In older plays and novels there’s a frequent trope where a respectable family’s playboy son brings home his new wife to meet the parents and – gasp! horror! – she is an actress!

That’s all in the past, though. Now, American bourgeois families might dissuade their daughters from pursuing theater because it’s not a lucrative profession, but not because they consider theater immoral. If anything, girls who do high-school theater these days are considered a bit nerdy and uncool (viz. the term “theater geek”), not as temptresses and home-wreckers in training. As Stuart put it, “Theater went from being considered on par with prostitution, to being considered on par with the chess club.”

What’s less clear to us is exactly when, and why, this shift occurred. When did actresses become respectable; when did theater become something that middle-class “good girls” could freely pursue? Can it, along with so much else about modern society, be traced to the sexual revolution? Perhaps one reason that actresses were not considered respectable is that, in the past, very few women other than actresses earned their own money and dictated the terms of their own lives. But when it became socially acceptable for women to join the workforce, earn money, live alone in the big city, date multiple people, etc., one could no longer condemn actresses for doing those things.

I realize that there’s still something inherently misogynistic about dividing women into “good girls” and “bad girls.” And that there are still many problems with the way that women are represented in theater, both onstage and offstage. At the same time, I do think it’s a sign of progress that we’ve gotten rid of the association between actresses and immorality.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote “The only thing worth loving is an actress,” and I can’t help hearing that as another one of Wilde’s famous paradoxes, turning the conventional wisdom of Victorian society on its head. Wilde wrote “The only thing worth loving is an actress” because that idea affronted the mores of his day. But even Wilde, progressive and defiant though he was, was still somewhat stuck in the Victorian era: his actress character, Sibyl Vane, primarily functions as a love interest. She is virtuous, but she is also tragic and doomed, in a melodramatic fashion. Again, I don’t dispute that there are still problems with gender parity and misogyny in theater, and in the world at large. But I’m glad we’ve reached a point where the conversation about actresses has expanded to include far more than just whether they are “worth loving.”

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, producer, and arts writer. She’s pretty sure that if theater were still popularly associated with prostitution, she’d never have had the courage to pursue it. Find Marissa at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.