Their Names in Lights
Canadian women who made it big
Cecilia Morgan, the author of the 2017 monograph Travellers through Empire: Indigenous Voyages from Early Canada, has now produced a book where her spadework digs up interesting facts and sidelights about Canadian actresses who made it big abroad. In their era — from the 1870s to the 1940s — Shakespeare was not considered a damnable foreign playwright, and cultural appropriation was accepted virtually by decree. Margaret Anglin and Viola Allen wrote articles about their interpretations of Lady Macbeth, Portia, and other lead roles; Julia Arthur expressed disapproval of acting schools and claimed that there was no such thing as a “national” style of acting. Nobody winced in embarrassment when Annie Russell took on a Japanese character or when Allen played a Chinese dowager empress.
The stereotypical tropes of the period were most explicitly demonstrated by such popular plays as Claude Askew and Edward Knoblock’s The Shulamite, an English drama set in South Africa, and Edward Sheldon’s The Nigger, a violent American melodrama that dealt brazenly with interracial issues, gender, sexuality, and power on the frontier. Yes, Canadian actresses portrayed figures of heroic suffering in productions that explored themes of sex outside marriage, the fragility of social reputation, and secrets of private and public lives. But several of these women also were themselves racists or at least white supremacists, as exemplified by their outrageous views of Indigenous people in Australia and Africa (for Anglin) and Chinese Americans (for Clara Morris). To her credit as an honest researcher, Morgan does not conceal any such ugliness in Sweet Canadian Girls Abroad: A Transnational History of Stage and Screen Actresses.
Yet I did not enjoy this book as much as I would have liked. Its twee title (with a cover photo of the comedienne Beatrice Lillie on a swing) was a forewarning. As Morgan, who teaches at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, explains, this country was often seen as “a place distinguished by its abundance of nature, its simpler and more innocent ways: in short, a place that produced ‘sweet Canadian girls.’ ” Being one of those sweet girls meant “honesty, sincerity, and humility.” It might also suggest “a desire to work hard for achievements, a quality that features in many of these accounts as intrinsic to these women’s lives and the bedrock of their success.”
Just how sweet were they? These artists helped in the formation of middle-class attitudes and discourses; they achieved social mobility; their celebrity was shaped by claims to “respectability, self-improvement and education, hard work, concerns for family and heterosexual domesticity, and social responsibility, not least in their charitable work for their profession and beyond.” And they all shared an “important form of identity and affiliation — their whiteness.”
Some of the most interesting parts of this collective feminist biography tend toward (perhaps unintended) satire, as when Morgan reports on how the actresses’ offstage lives generally comported with notions of national, transnational, and imperial identity. Annie Russell “counselled both men and women to cultivate and practise good manners. Women in particular, though, needed to be ‘notable but not notorious,’ to cultivate knowledge, to work hard ‘for true meaning,’ and to not behave with ‘exaggerated emotion.’ ” Morgan cites the lack of tantrums, scandals, lapdogs, expensive chocolates, and extravagant dresses. She repeats a reporter’s praise for Julia Arthur, who seldom went out shopping or sightseeing in New York, instead spending her days reading or studying new roles. Another journalist, describing “Miss Viola Allen at Home,” applauded her for showing no hint of the “theatrical” around the house — “not even a pug dog or a box of bonbons, common symptoms of the actress in general.”
Morgan does hint at the contradictions and cracks in images of uncomplicated domesticity. Allen and Anglin invited strangers into their homes and must have expected comment. Despite her financial problems, Arthur lived in middle-class comfort and never looked poverty-stricken in “her large hat that matched her dress, white gloves on her lap, and fur stole.” In 1912, Anglin visited Lawrence, Kansas, where the local paper revealed that she was accompanied by a “really truly live ‘petite’ French maid, of the fascinating type with the high heel slippers.” Other compelling evidence suggests lines were crossed at times, as when Lena Ashwell was victimized by salacious public exposure of her suffering at the hands of her abusive, alcoholic husband, or when Margaret Mather horse-whipped her wealthy husband in the street.
Such cracks are welcome diversions from the book’s high moral seriousness — which is heavily and repetitively underlined. Morgan allows her extensive research to be squeezed into a rubric that would bore anyone not already captive to the seminar room or academic conference. Her introduction — with the title “Why Actresses? The Personal and the Professional”— pays plenty of scholarly attention to social history, with its “categories of gender, class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality,” rather than getting down to the eccentricities and idiosyncrasies of artistic sensibility. “Why study actresses,” she asks in her first sentence. But another question — Why act at all? — goes largely unexamined.
Laurence Olivier suggested one reason these women might have taken to the dramatic arts: the individual’s need to be recognized for an exhibitionistic talent. Such a reason transcends gender, class, race, ethnicity, and even sexuality. But Morgan isn’t having any of this — which is all the more surprising because she says she has worked in professional theatre, “primarily in stage management.” (I found little evidence of a theatrical bent, apart from her deep interest in costumes.) Instead, she relies on “a framework and method of critical feminist biography.” She looks to family backgrounds, whether modest (as for Elizabeth Jane Phillips), middling (Julia Arthur, Catherine Proctor), prosperous (Margaret Anglin, Frances Doble), or wealthy by marriage (Viola Allen). Schooling also plays a part: convent education (Anglin), private tuition (Lucille Watson), or all-female Anglicanism (Lena Ashwell). Such contextualization is merely a tracery of entrances onto the stage.
Her obvious penchant for labels and categories means her book continually plumps for themes that are either largely ancillary, tangential, irrelevant, or nugatory to theatre scholarship. Think celebrity culture, sexually transgressive behaviour, citizenship, and charity work.
Sweet Canadian Girls Abroad will appeal to those who want to know how Canadian actresses who were celebrated in their own day (such as Margaret Anglin, Julia Arthur, Margaret Bannerman, Beatrice Lillie), as well as lesser-known performers (such as May Waldron Robinson, Elizabeth Jane Phillips, Frances Doble), flourished when this country was part of an international network of theatrical circuits. Morgan explores various circumstances for her subjects’ choice of profession, plays, and roles. She delights in providing examples of what it was like to tour across North America when constant travel became a necessary part of theatrical survival. But when has a degree of itinerancy not been a necessary part of theatrical survival for most performers, especially in a nation where theatre is not an essential part of the cultural mosaic? Whether capable of producing a tour de force or not, most actors are forced to tour or to work in various cities or countries in order to survive.
When Morgan applies her focus to these women and their actual performances, she is at the mercy of contemporary reviewers who littered their coverage with adjectives such as “wistful,” “tremendous,” “distinguished,” and “young and talented.” Theatre in the late nineteenth century did not see the sort of piercing criticism that later arose in England, the United States, and Canada. It was not yet an overcrowded profession, and the competition was not yet so strong. But even the hack adjectives are easier to understand as part of a historical chronicle than Morgan’s indulgence in pompous articulations, as in this passage from the introduction:
Adopting the multi-sited method demanded by a transnational perspective, one that tracks the circulation of people, things, or ideas and imaginations, allows us to take stock of the reciprocity between “demarcated territorial units” and circulations, how one works on the other and vice versa.
That may be enough to make thesis examiners applaud with gusto, but surely the ghosts of George Bernard Shaw, Kenneth Tynan, and Walter Kerr would either weep or guffaw. Here’s another example from later in the text:
If, as Sara Ahmed has argued, “the collective takes shape through the impressions made by bodily others,” these women used their bodies and voices — both individually and collectively — in ways that might have shaped structures of empathy within their audiences, who could experience those feelings both as individuals and as a group. In a similar manner to the workings of individual and collective memory, “emotionality,” as Ahmed goes on to remind us, “as a responsiveness to and openness towards the worlds of others — involves an interweaving of the personal with the social, and the affective with the individual.”
At such moments, I wanted to fling the book across the room.
Nevertheless, there are some wonderful archival photos and gems of revelation here: Judith Zaraine, based on labour conflict, was staged at the Royal Alexandra, a Toronto theatre that was one of Canada’s most lavish, “built with the support of a syndicate of wealthy investors, in a city that had recently seen both socialist rallies and anti-left riots.” While generally praised, Julia Arthur’s Hamlet (a case of gender-bending way ahead of our Shaw and Stratford Festivals) also earned a stinging review: “We have heard H spoken of as a grouch, a nut, and an unmitigated bore, but we have never heard him spoken of as a perfect lady. . . . Considering her sex and everything, Miss A’s performance was interesting. But unsuccessful.” Such imperishable wit is worthy of the late Ken Tynan.
For all Morgan’s emphasis on “sweeter” forms of celebrity, there is the fact that Julia Arthur, Margaret Mather, and Viola Allen all posed for cigarette ads (mainly without a cigarette in sight) and plugged other commercial products, such as soap, ginger ale, and Pond’s Cold Cream. In 1930, Margaret Bannerman put her name behind an electric “waving comb” at the Daily Mail ’s Ideal Home Exhibition in London. It’s true that many of these actresses graced their lives by instances of charitable work on behalf of suffrage and the war effort. But they also were quick to use their profiles to egotistic advantage — as when Julia Arthur promoted wartime patriotism with a 1917 production of Liberty Aflame, posing as Lady Liberty centre stage and on a pedestal, chatting loquaciously with her audience.
“As ‘sweet Canadian girls’ they helped spread messages about gender, class, race and whiteness, and empire, and played a significant part in linking Canada to transnational worlds,” Morgan writes at the end of her lengthy case for how these actresses became their own women. “In multiple ways, then, these women assisted in the spread of middle-class global modernity. While their ghosts might not be of much use to us, I hope their histories are.” I am not sure most Canadianists would applaud when an empire of whiteness comes to the foreground of a book like this, especially as it remains difficult to understand what Morgan actually means by “middle-class global modernity.” And doesn’t she realize all history becomes ghostly?