Actress Charlotte Cushman gained acclaim for her talents in the relatively young theatre world of early nineteenth century America, but more importantly for that time, she also found success on the established London stage. In America she played alongside Edwin Booth, brother to the infamous John Wilkes Booth, and in London she worked with William Macready. After her death, however, she fell into relative obscurity while the names of her male counterparts became staples of theatre history. While renewed interest in Cushman’s career certainly highlights her talents as a performer, the roles she created for herself outside of the theatre reveal that she was a master of representations and understood how to manipulate gender roles to privately live her secret while remaining in the public eye.
Cushman was a woman who loved women, and although she lived with other women and had close friendships with them, the nature of those relationships was rarely, and never explicitly, commented on during her lifetime. And while Cushman took care to conceal her private relationships, she found great success proclaiming her love for another woman on stage in the role of Romeo. It is well-known that men played female roles in Shakespeare’s day, but perhaps less known that it was common in the1800s for women to take on male roles known as “breeches roles.” These roles carried with them a sense of the erotic because when dressed as a man, a woman revealed more of her body, particularly the shape of her legs. The eroticism of these roles was widely understood and accepted, to the extent that that for another London actress, Madame Vestris, “[p]laster casts of her shapely legs were on sale in London, for she made her reputation in ‘breeches parts’” (Kent 99). This blatant objectification of the actress describes the theatre world in which actresses were sexually desired at the same time that society’s ideas of morality stifled female sexuality.
Cushman’s portrayal of Romeo, however, seems to have been playing with sexuality in a different way. A common theme amongst descriptions of Cushman is her lack of traditional feminine beauty, and later accounts of her success often claim it occurred “despite” this apparent handicap. With a square face and prominent jaw, she is described as masculine or manly, and indeed praise of her role as Romeo often included statements claiming that nothing in her portrayal suggested that she was a woman. Although Cushman also played other male figures like Hamlet and Cardinal Wolsey, her Romeo remained the most successful, which some have suggested is because of Romeo’s effeminate character. “As an emotional, immature male, Romeo was an inappropriate character for actors who were either embarrassed to or incapable of performing the role. Women, it was thought in the nineteenth century, inherently possessed those qualities, by virtue of their sex, which enabled them to depict the impetuous, emotional, immature, and therefore effeminate Romeo” (Walen 57). The secret to Cushman’s success in this role appears to be that she was masculine enough to ‘pass’ as a male character, and Romeo is effeminate enough that only a woman could accurately portray his feelings.
Cushman’s Romeo was not without controversy, however, but in another savvy self-representation decision, Cushman invited her sister, Susan, to travel to London and play Juliet.
Susan had married Nelson Merriman, a much older friend of her father’s, and they had one son. When the son was still young, Merriman abandoned child and mother, and Cushman took on the responsibility of caring for her sister and nephew. Bringing Susan to play Juliet not only gave Susan an occupation, but also “would allow Charlotte to represent herself as the protector of her sister’s respectability, rather than as a possible transgressor of gender norms in her own right” (Merrill 112). The role of Romeo allowed Cushman to publicly show love to another woman (there were other Juliets than Susan’s), and it “afforded Cushman the position of a desiring subject, which she could not claim as a woman in her particular nineteenth century culture” (Walen 56). If any question arose during Cushman’s early performances, her sister’s involvement in the productions provided a respectable cover of dutiful and devoted sister.
After her years in London, Cushman no longer had to fight for roles or her position in society, and she used her freedom to champion the work of other female artists. In 1852 Cushman moved to Rome and lived with a small group of women, some of whom over the time she lived with them became her intimate partners. The relationships between the women were often supportive, sometimes volatile. Matilda Hays came to the home as Cushman’s partner but left after a bout of jealousy that heightened to a physical altercation. Hays’ jealousy was provoked by Cushman’s relationship with Emma Stebbins, and Stebbins is the woman who would be with Cushman when she died of breast cancer in 1876.
The term “lesbian” did not exist during Cushman’s lifetime (1816-1876), and though Victorian society was aware of “women who loved women,” the general understanding of women’s sexual desires and impetus to act on those desires made these relationships harmless and asexual. Victorian society accepted amorous relationships between women as “chaste and respectable” friendships (Merrill 124). The characteristic of Victorian society to deny the existence of erotic desires between women helped Cushman to protect her public persona while maintaining relationships with her lovers. Surrounding herself with women seems to have suggested a convent life more than something erotically charged. In a rather paradoxical way, the private secret that certainly would have removed Cushman from ‘good’ society, instead prompted her public self-representation as “a model of chaste respectability, a quality rarely associate with women on the stage” (Merrill 244).
Cushman was most certainly a master of representations, both on and off of the stage. While so many aspects of her story are intriguing, considering her life from a modern day perspective highlights how strongly Victorian gender roles influence American society today. Discussions of Cushman’s career always discuss her personal appearance and comment on how unusual it is that she succeeded without the help of traditional beauty. Cushman’s lack of sexual or romantic relationships with men helped to promote her as an ideal of feminine purity and morality, and yet it was her masculine comportment that contributed to her success on stage. Her self-representation and the way others spoke about her prompt many questions about identity. What do feminine and masculine mean? If one person can be the exemplar of both, where is the division between the terms? How much of a person’s identity is innate and how much does one create, in the same way one creates a role for the stage? Cushman raised important questions about gender identity before society even had the ability to ask them.
Kent, Christopher. “Image and Reality: The Actress and Society.” In A Widening Sphere. Ed. by Martha Vicinus. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977.
Merrill, Lisa. When Romeo was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and Her Circle of Female Spectators. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.
Rapp, Linda. “Charlotte Cushman: 1816-1876.” glbtg: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer culture. Web. 17 July 2015.
Walen, Denise A. “Such a Romeo as We Had Never Ventured to Hope For” CharlotteCushman.” In Passing Performances: Queer Readings of Leading Players in American Theater History. Ed. Robert A. Schanke and Kim Marra. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1998. 41-62.