Gender in Transition as a Set of Quick-Changes: Child Actress Jean Margaret Davenport and the Transgender Infrastructure of Nineteenth-Century Theatrical Practice
By Anthony Sansonetti
In May 2016 I took part in a praxis-based workshop on nineteenth-century theatrical training and practice, which was designed and facilitated by Marlis Schweitzer and Roberta Baker at Dalhousie University’s Fountain School of Performing Arts. The workshop was alive with crucial insights into the deep affinity between eight-year-old Jean Margaret Davenport’s performance of gender in transition in The Manager’s Daughter1 by E. R. Lancaster and the trans-Atlantic and, in turn, mobile world she lived in.2 I am particularly interested in this workshop’s focus on Jean Margaret’s gestural moments of gender in transition, the doing of the quick-change and questioning what it felt like for Jean Margaret to embody gender in transition on a regular basis. This reflection aims to hone in on what can be learned from Ivy Charles’3 exploratory performance of Jean Margaret’s quick-change from herself to Hector Earsplitter, “an American boy, with a stick and bundle across her shoulder” (Lancaster 19, emphasis added).
An interesting element of Charles’ conception of Jean Margaret was her initial decision to take up minimal space while playing with and singing to her doll amid a moment of familial despair (Figure 1). Is this the power of the child’s accidental gesture, reiterative kinesis and muscle memory? Charles’ explication of the script ultimately illustrated that Jean Margaret is reduced to a “feeling girl” when she performs the role of herself; that is, a sad, one-dimensional cisgender girl in the face of those who she is indebted to, those who believe that she is financially worthless and those who produced her biological and so linear embodiment. Jean Margaret complains, “[Y]ou and papa are always so happy when I am joyful, that when I see you grieved, I almost think it a duty to be sad too” (Lancaster 18). After several runs of the initial scene of the performance, this image became clearer. I noticed that Lancaster’s script renders Jean Margaret a double of her doll—passive, docile, a shoulder to cry on and one-note—until she conjures up an idea to become gender-creative. Jean Margaret’s genius is thus defined by her gender-nonconforming embodiment, desire and plan: “[A]h! I have it; I can represent [. . .] all [my schoolfellows] myself [. . .]” (Lancaster 19, emphasis in original).
Following the final run through of this scene, Charles engaged in a quick-change with the help of one dresser. I was suddenly more interested in the liveness intrinsic to Charles’ performance of Hector Earsplitter after the quick-change as well as
Lancaster’s written account of gender in transition rather than the effort involved in transforming Jean Margaret into Hector Earsplitter. Jean Margaret’s quick-change and the stick and bundle associated with it added vitality to her body in performance, since the extensions of the body allowed her to steal the spotlight from her father and take up an abundance of space on stage (Figure 2). Jean Margaret no longer bore the weight of the doll. If Hector Earsplitter’s song and dance in the face of a rigid Mr. Davenport were not comical enough, Jean Margaret’s new persona and his stick and bundle had many violent encounters with the materiality of her father’s body. It was hilarious: a theatrical triumph. Gender in transition on the social and artistic stages of the nineteenth-century appeared to be playful, virtuosic, transgressive and enjoyable. Take a look at the joy on Charles’ face (Figure 3).
We are well aware that quick-changes and protean roles were popular in the nineteenth-century theatrical arena and often contributed to the success of a performing child, yet the quick-change, as Matthew Solomon tells us, is also part of a “tradition of transformational performance” (5). “Much of the appeal of protean artistry hinged on the speed with which an individual performance could make costume changes that effected complete and striking transformations of character” (5-6), Solomon explains. I read Jean Margaret’s bodily creation of a “passing” politic, a seamless transition from an unambiguous girl to a definite boy in her father’s eyes, and the audience’s appeal to this politic as synonymous with the prefix trans-, denoting what the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “across, through, over, to or on the other side of, from one place, person, thing, or state to another.” When read with the sense of gestural or otherwise movement-based “bending”4 (gender-bending and spatial-maneuvering as a method for a lucrative career), transgender and trans-Atlantic movement illustrates that “passing”—as a method for constructing gender-nonconforming embodiment, fame and capitalist success—can also contribute to studies of what Trystan T. Cotten calls Transgender Migrations: The Bodies, Borders, and Politics of Transition. For Cotten, transgender movements and relocations can “comprise moments of desire, agency, and generativity without unitary subjects or foundation” (3).
What happens when we add trans-Atlantic voyages to the mix? I continue to wonder what it would have felt like for Jean Margaret to constantly take on the role of the gender-nonconforming child on her journeys across the Atlantic Ocean. Charles spoke openly about the intense fun, albeit immense labour involved in the performance of the quick-change and the events that followed this said quick-change. It is interesting to consider that Jean Margaret did several gender-nonconforming quick-changes throughout her childhood, performing a gestural set of relations in the role of a girl who performed the role of a boy who performed the role of a girl who performed the role of a boy. Did Jean Margaret, like Charles, enjoy these creative choreographies in which new identity arrangements could arise in cisgender girlhood time and time again? Or was the role of the gender-variant child performer physically and emotionally demanding, an example of what José Esteban Muñoz calls “senses of being in the world that are felt and not simply displayed” (126)? Here, I am reminded of a roundtable conversation where we realized that there is a “blurry line” between the exhibition of “affect” (felt emotion) and “mimicry” (displayed emotion) in nineteenth-century methods for theatrical performance. For Lancaster, who wrote this script for Jean Margaret herself,5 there is a pleasure principal fundamental to an eight-year-old girl’s choice to disobey and “deceive” her father and take on the role of gender-nonconforming characters (Lancaster 19). No matter what your reading of Jean Margaret’s subjectivity implies, I argue that we should begin to consider the talented child’s gender-nonconforming schooling and performance as a physical and organizational structure or facility needed for the operation and creation of a nineteenth-century theatrical enterprise. Picture it: gender in transition amid the state and time of childhood as a nineteenth-century business model. Intriguing, is it not?
- For a plot of The Manager’s Daughter as well as other contextual frameworks regarding this dramatic text, see Schweitzer’s essay “An ‘Unmanly and Insidious Attack’: Child Actress Jean Davenport and the Performance of Masculinity in 1840s Jamaica and Newfoundland.”
- Transcending gender and its roles was a common theme throughout this workshop. In our exploration of Henry Siddons’ Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action, actors GaRRy Williams and Kim Parkhill used Siddons’ text as a jumping-off point from which to deploy gender-creative possibilities for nineteenth-century theatrical gestures.
- It should be noted that the role of eight-year-old Jean Margaret was played by an adult during this workshop.
- After our first enactment of the theatrical gestures included in Siddons’ Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action, actor Kim Parkhill mentioned that the postures included in Siddons’ text embraced the aesthetic of both exterior and interior modes of theatrical expression. I added that nineteenth-century gestural practice like the ones pictured and described in Siddons’ texts appeared to privilege the act of “bending space” as a means to communicate with other actors.
- See Schweitzer’s essay “An ‘Unmanly and Insidious Attack’: Child Actress Jean Davenport and the Performance of Masculinity in 1840s Jamaica and Newfoundland” for further information.
Cotten, Trystan T. “Introduction: Migration and Morphing.” Transgender Migrations: The Bodies, Borders, and Politics of Transition. Ed. Trystan T. Cotten. New York: Routledge, 2012. 1-10. Print.
Lancaster, E.R. The Manager’s Daughter. Lord Chamberlain’s Play Collection, ff. 893-903. 1837. British Library.
Muñoz, José Esteban. “From surface to depth, between psychoanalysis and affect.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 19.2 (2009): 123-129. Web.
Schweitzer, Marlis. “An ‘Unmanly and Insidious Attack’: Child Actress Jean Davenport and the Performance of Masculinity in 1840s Jamaica and Newfoundland.” Theatre Research in Canada 35.1 (2014): 49-69. Web.
Siddons, Henry. Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action. New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1822. Print.
Solomon, Matthew. “Quick-Change: ‘Twenty-Five Heads under One Hat’ in the 1890s.” Meta-Morphing: Visual Transformation and the Culture of Quick-Change. Ed. Vivian Carol Sobchack. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. 3-20. Print.