Friday, May 28, 2010

Book Review: Rival Queens

One of the many enchanting things that draws people to the eighteenth century is the theater. The venues, the actors, the audience; there is just so many captivating aspects to this period in theater history. But perhaps the aspect that drew the most people into the theaters at the time and what still catches our modern-day interest is the actresses. It is the British actress that caught Felicity Nussbaum's interest which culminated in her newly released book, Rival Queens: Actresses, Performance, and the Eighteenth-Century British Theater.

Rival Queens is an analysis of the celebrated English actress in the long eighteenth century. As Nussbaum makes clear in her introduction, her mission is not to give a historical account of her subject but to "focus on the exceptional actresses who changed theater history and afforded unprecedented models of public display as they confronted the social and theatrical strictures that traditional femininity imposed." Nussbaum does just that, with finesse. She does this all while drawing a comparison of the world these actresses encompassed with Nathaniel Lee's popular play, The Rival Queens, the story of Alexander the Great's wives, Roxana and Statira's jealousy for each other. Among the many topics Nussbaum covers is the actress' relationship with the audience, how the eighteenth century actress infiltrated the caste system, and how the actress would play up their personal life (which was of interest to the public) in her work.

Rival Queens is an exceptionally researched and thought-out book. I really enjoyed the information and research Naussbaum presented and especially appreciated her creative comparisons throughout the book. She consistently proves her expertise on gender-roles in the eighteenth century while drawing various arguments from other researchers to support her theories. Great actresses, many of whom have been discussed here, are examined in great detail. Like Naussbaum warns in the beginning of the book, this is not a history lesson text. Even though I learned much from this book, readers are expected to have somewhat of a background knowledge before reading it. This is an academic book, abundant with theories so it is not a book for every eighteenth century enthusiast. This doesn't mean it's a bad read; far from it, in fact! Rival Queens is an excellent book and I can see it soon gracing many a library and bibliography.


  1. Sounds like my kind of book- thanks for posting your review, I'll definitely be adding this to the shelf! I have a definite soft spot for Fanny Abingdon, Sarah Siddons et al... :)

  2. Great review- sounds just like my kind of history book! what an interesting way of captivating the times through theatre. Thanks:)

  3. Thank you so much! I have my Eng Lit A Level exam in three weeks and we have to compare The School for Scandal with The Rape of the Lock and must incorporate quoted critical viewpoints about the two media, theatre and poetry. (So I can now use this as one for theatre!) It's on order straight away!