Author(s): Jem Bloomfield (University of Nottingham)
This paper examines Isabella Glyn's performance as the Duchess of Malfi at Sadler's Wells during the 1850 season, investigating the way in which she was seen as performing social and sexual risk whilst presenting a model of respectable female behaviour. John Webster's Duchess of Malfi, adapted by R.H. Horne for a Victorian audience, was presented as part of Samuel Phelps's project to improve the morals and conduct of the Sadler's Wells audience via legitimate drama, and the Duchess's second (potentially compromising) marriage provided a focus for anxieties around female sexual agency and the display of desire.
The stage upon which Glyn performed was widely discussed as having been reclaimed from coarse and prurient melodramas to be used as a tool to reform the pleasures of the working class, and contemporary commentary shows particular concern with the presence of ‘bold women' in the theatre. Horne himself had collaborated with Dickens on a piece for Household Words which stressed these women as the aspect of theatre most in need of reform. Thus the production would have been inevitably haunted by the theatrical ghosts of the "fallen" women who had appeared in the despised melodramas which The Duchess of Malfi was intended to supplant, and who had formed part of the public to whom the theatre had played.
Glyn's performance took place at the intersection of competing discourses around female sexual propriety, social respectability and the effects of legitimate drama, a fact which was recognised by contemporary reviewers. The terms of their commentary frame the production as Glyn performing the Duchess's appropriate performance of her own feelings in a compromising situation. The praise awarded to her, which seems to locate her artistry in her ability to perform the potentially problematic material in a haunted setting, demonstrates the way in which her labour as an artistic professional became visible in her negotiation of these discourses.
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