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Stages of Suffering: Performing Illness in the Late-Nineteenth-Century Theatre

Conti, Meredith Ann (2011) Stages of Suffering: Performing Illness in the Late-Nineteenth-Century Theatre. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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Few life occurrences shaped individual and collective identities within Victorian society as critically as suffering (or witnessing a loved one suffering) from illness. Boasting both a material reality of pathologies, morbidities, and symptoms and a metaphorical life of stigmas, icons, and sentiments, the cultural construct of illness was an indisputable staple on the late-nineteenth-century stage. This dissertation analyzes popular performances of illness (both somatic and psychological) to determine how such embodiments confirmed or counteracted salient medical, cultural, and individualized expressions of illness. I also locate within general nineteenth-century acting practices an embodied lexicon of performed illness (comprised of readily identifiable physical and vocal signs) that traversed generic divides and aesthetic movements. Performances of contagious disease are evaluated using over sixty years of consumptive Camilles; William Gillette's embodiment of the cocaine-injecting Sherlock Holmes and Richard Mansfield's fiendishly grotesque transformations in the double role of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are employed in an investigation of performances of drug addiction; and the psychological disorders enacted by Henry Irving and Ellen Terry at the Lyceum Theatre serve as the centerpiece of an exploration of performances of mental illness. Each performance type is further illuminated using a dominant identity category: I contend that contagion was subtly tethered to notions of nationality and boundary crossings, Victorian class strata informed performances of addiction, and prevailing understandings of the masculine and feminine inspired the gendering of mental illness categories.In an age in which the expansion of physician authority and the public's faith in the findings of medical science encouraged a gradual decentralization of the patient from her own diagnosis and treatment, I see Victorian performances of illness as potentially curative. Even on the popular stage, where the primary objective was to entertain, performances of illness crucially restored the patient and his illness (both figuratively and literally) to center stage in ways unsurpassed by the period's novelists, painters, social reformers, and journalists. The difficulty of articulating experiential suffering with words or brushstrokes was partially ameliorated in theatrical enactments of illness. After all, theatre's very nature guarantees that when words fail, bodies take up the cause.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Conti, Meredith Annmac118@pitt.eduMAC118
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairMcConachie, Brucebamcco@pitt.eduBAMCCO
Committee MemberFavorini, Attiliobucfav@pitt.eduBUCFAV
Committee MemberGeorge, Kathleengeorgeke@pitt.eduGEORGEKE
Committee MemberChemers,
Date: 6 June 2011
Date Type: Completion
Defense Date: 11 April 2011
Approval Date: 6 June 2011
Submission Date: 6 April 2011
Access Restriction: 5 year -- Restrict access to University of Pittsburgh for a period of 5 years.
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > Theater Arts
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: Camille; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Eleonora Duse; Ellen Terry; illness; Lyceum; medicine; nineteenth century; performance; Richard Mansfield; Sarah Bernhardt; Sherlock Holmes; Victorian; William Gillette; Henry Irving; theatre
Other ID:, etd-04062011-104057
Date Deposited: 10 Nov 2011 19:34
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2016 13:38


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