The latter half of the nineteenth century was a turbulent time for American theatre, and dubious was the occupation of the professional actress. To be successful, leading ladies needed to be independent, innovative, and appealing. Few were more so than Charlotte Cushman and Adah Isaacs Menken. Treading center stage and bathing in the hot footlights, both mesmerized their rowdy audiences with their compelling breeches or drag performances. The breeches convention was, of course, not new when Cushman first portrayed Romeo in 1837. As early as the seventeenth century, women acted male roles, usually boys or romantic leads, in British productions. Breeches roles were popular because the bodily display of the performer fulfilled heterosexual desire. However, breeches performances undermined heterosexual ideology by blurring concepts of gender.
Culminating with the 1845 London Haymarket production, Cushman infused the role of Romeo with a new subversive energy. Not conventionally feminine, the tall and commanding Cushman was a convincing Romeo, for some spectators were not aware of her actual sex. In contrast, Menken's breeches depictions were not purposely realistic as the coquettish Menken often underscored her feminine appeal in the play Mazeppa. Debuting the play in 1861 at the New Bowery Theatre, Menken played the hardy Ivan Mazeppa, a nobleman betrayed by his lover and wrongly punished to death by being strapped to a wild horse. While her costume choice of scanty tunic and flesh-colored tights enticed many spectators to attend this equestrian drama, critics overlooked Menken?s gender critique implicit in her costume and athleticism. In fact, Cushman and Menken's performances were subliminally liberating as they showcased independent, strong women and allowed female spectators to engage in homosexual feelings without condemnation.
What distinguishes Cushman and Menken is that their challenges occurred onstage and off, for many of their subversions were more symbolic than literal. They were liberated individuals in their personal lives and shrewd self-promoters triumphing on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite the sometime tarnished reputation of the actress, both actresses fashioned their images to appeal to middle-class society. Fiction like Cushman's "The Actress" and poetry like Menken's collection Infelicia not only kept their names on the readers' minds but also legitimized their artistic talents. Analyzing contemporary publications and writings, I am interested in Cushman and Menken as self-made icons and will focus on the role of the popular press and photography as sites of image construction. Through their literary output and manipulation of public persona, Cushman and Menken assured the potential of the professional woman. Onstage, in the press, and in their personal lives, Cushman and Menken transcended the discourse of containment that would confine them strictly to the domestic sphere. By transforming the image of the actress, Cushman and Menken were rebellious yet respected American celebrities.