Women in Theater

In his book Actresses and Suffragists Albert Auster contends that "the 1890s were a period of preeminence for theater in American society and culture."1 By 1900 there were 3000 theaters in the United States and with industry producing at peak levels, the increase in leisure time and disposable income translated into a swell in the popularity of the stage. What is often overlooked, however, is the role that women played in the rise of theater.
Women were not only attending plays in record numbers but were finding positions in chorus lines and as featured actresses. Theodore Dresier's Sister Carrie is not only an intriguing story of a young woman's dreams of stardom but a startlingly accurate portrayal of theater life for women at the turn of the century.

Ethel Barrymore
Ethel Barrymore, 1901
Photograph courtesy
Library of Congress
Women helped change the dynamic of theater in the second half of the 19th century and were directly responsible for the rise in its popularity. Augustin Daly noted that in the late 1800s, women made up a majority of theatergoers. The emergence of "matinee girls"--young women who would attend matinee shows unescorted--was part of the new feminine patterns that would dictate what plays were shown and to which leading actors would starring roles be given. It was not just inside the theater where women influenced the trends. Broadway was a boulevard of spectacle where women could "indulge their need for display and competitiveness in beauty and dress."2

The late 1800s also saw an influx of women to careers in theater. The U.S. census shows that from 1870-1880 the number of women who declared "actress" as their profession rose from 780 to 4,652 (an increase of 596%). By 1910 that number was 15,432 (up 332%).3 This surge of women to the stage that saw 25 new women to every one new man was signified not only economic opportunity but "social and sexual independence."4 Women obtained wealth, mobility and social power through their new found dominance in the theater.

The life of an actress, however, was not always a glamorous one. While stars could command a salary of up to $150 a week, most chorus or ballet girls made between ten and twenty-five. Most actors were not paid for rehearsal time and since the theater season lasted for thirty to forty weeks a year, players could usually expect long layoffs. While beauty was deemed an asset for an actress in terms of landing roles, even more important was the quality of her dress. Featured actresses were expected to supply their own costumes, which could cost between three hundred and four hundred dollars a season. Newspaper columnists often devoted a good deal of space to a wardrobe review.

Beyond the economic adversity there was also a competitive, and not very friendly, work environment. Without benefit of a drama school, most aspiring actresses would go from office to office looking for work. If they were able to get past the obstructionist office boys, they often encountered the sexual advances (if not the indifference) of theater managers.
Lillian Russell
Lillian Russell, 1895
Photograph by
Napoleon Sarony
Besides beauty, most great actresses possessed some combination of "temperament,…instinct,… and intelligence"5 qualities often attributed to Carrie and most likely responsible for her success. While jealousy behind the scenes was prevalent, a newcomer often received advice from veteran performers regarding the ways of the stage. This counsel could often come in the form of a lecture warning of the unseemly act of "upstaging" the star. Dresier creates Lola to fill the role of mentor and friend to Carrie and also to advise her against "going on the road." The road life was often difficult--low pay combined with travel costs and small venues made it more worthwhile to quit a show and find work elsewhere, as Carrie does.

For all the apparent drawbacks of life on stage, there was also glamour, excitement and the public admiration that so many women saw as appealing. The theater lured women, to its audience as well as its professional ranks, and in doing so grew as an industry and gave women who were normally held to jobs that were unrewarding both economically and personally an opportunity to make a go of it, and become a star.

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