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Making a Spectacle of Themselves: Art and Female Agency in 1890s Music Hall

Elena Stevens[1], Department of History, University of Southampton



Tableaux vivants were a popular genre of music hall entertainment in the 1890s. Performers, generally female, posed in frozen 'attitudes', imitating classical statuary, Old Master paintings and contemporary artworks. The 'nude' tableaux were particularly controversial, thought to compromise the morality and artistic sensibilities of performer and spectator alike. A number of studies have located the tableaux genre at the intersection between decadent 'Naughty Nineties' culture and the tightening municipal censorship of 'indecent' popular entertainment. However, the aesthetic dimensions and impact of the genre have been almost entirely overlooked. This article therefore considers the relationship between the tableaux produced on stage, and the pictures or sculptures upon which they were based. Secondly, it situates the genre within the campaign for female emancipation, arguing that the tableaux performers, poised on the brink of movement, exemplified the increasing artistic, cultural and physical agency of women at the turn of the twentieth century.

Keywords: Tableaux vivants, music hall, artistic nude, classical sculpture, New Woman, social purity.



Between 1893 and 1897 a number of London music halls staged 'living' reproductions of contemporary artworks and classical sculpture, importing the high art of the Royal Academy exhibition into the realm of popular entertainment. The tableaux vivants were an adaptation of the middle-class parlour charade first practised by Emma Hamilton in the 1780s (Faxon, 2004). Hamilton and her contemporaries posed in classical and mythological arrangements for the entertainment of friends, who might attempt to guess the character enacted in each 'attitude'. While participants in the parlour charade wore elaborate costumes or Grecian drapery, music hall tableaux performers were often 'nude' – an effect achieved by means of flesh-coloured body-stockings. Proponents of the music hall genre noted its moralising qualities; Royal Academician Marcus Stone claimed that successful tableaux were able to 'serve more or less those good purposes which pictorial art is fondly hoped to serve – to refine, to delight purely, to elevate, and perhaps to teach' (New Review, 1894: 463). However, a number of critics were unconvinced by the genre's artistic pretensions. These commentators argued that the tableaux were tantamount to a pornographic display, and exploited vulnerable young women, corrupting the pure, intellectual beauty of the paintings or sculptures which the tableaux emulated.

The tableaux were targeted in particular by the National Vigilance Association (NVA) and the British Women's Temperance Association (BWTA). Both social purity groups aimed to eradicate public vice and immorality, encouraging temperance among the working classes. The NVA (1885-1953) targeted prostitution and obscene publications, and the BWTA (1876-1925) agitated for the restriction of alcohol sales. The tableaux genre was thought to compromise working-class morality. Both organisations aimed to 'save' the female performers from 'ruin and degradation', and to expose the genre's artistic veneer as a 'silly lie' (The Woman's Signal, 1894b: 63). These campaigns, and the largely ineffectual attempts of the London County Council to regulate popular entertainment, form the focus of studies by Susan Pennybacker (1995) and Brenda Assael (2006). However, few studies have reflected upon the genre's aesthetic dimensions. Like late-Victorian commentators, historians have tended to presume that tableaux directors strategically exploited the classical reference as a means of claiming respectability and avoiding censorship. The tableaux phenomenon is rarely considered to have represented a genuine attempt to inspire aesthetic or intellectual pleasure, such as might be gained from a study of nude paintings at an Academy exhibition in Burlington House. Indeed, though a number of the original artworks had clear erotic overtones, critics and historians alike have tended to locate the erotic almost exclusively within the tableaux reproductions.

The first section of this article outlines a typical evening at the Palace Theatre in 1894, at the height of the tableaux phenomenon. Though tableaux troupes might fulfill brief engagements at the music halls of Brighton or Manchester, tableaux performers at the West End theatres seem to have attracted the most sustained objection of social purists, and the Palace specialised in the highly controversial 'nude' tableaux. Secondly, the article considers the aesthetic pretensions of the tableaux, drawing comparisons between artistic and tableaux versions of the 'nude'. It examines the extent to which the genre might legitimately be claimed as a philanthropic project, diffusing 'high art' among a wider audience, and thereby improving working-class taste and morality. A final section situates the tableaux within the female emancipation movement, highlighting parallels between the tableaux performer and the 'New Woman' suffragist. Both figures were, in a sense, 'coming to life' in the final decade of the nineteenth century, and, in the minds of numerous commentators, this presented further evidence of the erosion of traditional, patriarchal authority (Richardson and Willis, 2001: xi).


A night at the Palace

The music hall had been a staple of British working-class culture since the early 1840s, and, towards the close of the nineteenth century, a number of London halls developed variety programmes popular with all classes of society. The Palace Theatre of Varieties, situated in the heart of London's 'Theatreland', attracted a cosmopolitan audience, drawn from the West End's elite theatre crowds and Soho's immigrant, working-class population (Mander and Mitchenson, 1961: 122-25). Stage periodical The Era credited the Palace management with having achieved 'a very high pinnacle of success' with the various series of tableaux vivants exhibited at the Palace between October 1893 and March 1897 (The Era, 1894: 17).

In 1894, a visitor to the Palace Theatre would pay three shillings for a seat in the stalls and one shilling for entry to the gallery, the upper-most tier of seating (Palace programme, 9 August 1894). These were typical admission fees for the fashionable London halls, placing an infrequent visit to the Palace within the reach of the average working-class family. Upon payment, the visitor was guided to the auditorium by way of the bar or, in the case of wealthy male patrons, the smoking saloon. He or she would be discouraged from interacting with members of other classes by the fixed-stall seating which, in contrast to earlier music halls, compelled spectators to face the stage and not each other. The variety acts would begin at eight o'clock, and the tableaux connoisseur would have to wait for about an hour before the lights were dimmed for the latest series of 'living pictures'.

A typical Palace programme featured several vocal and dance acts, a comedian, a circus performer and possibly a novelty animal act. The 'Palace Tableaux Vivants' were generally billed towards the end of the evening's programme. This might have represented an attempt, on the part of the Palace management, to heighten audience anticipation. However, social purists contended that the consistent allocation of the tableaux to the nine o'clock slot led to a perceptible shift in audience behaviour at this time, with prostitutes and their prospective clients using the darkening of the auditorium as an opportunity to conduct an illicit exchange of money or promises (Empire, 1894: LCC/MIN/10,303). Finally, the curtain would be raised to reveal the first of the tableaux. A popular opening picture at the Palace was an enactment of Johann von Dannecker's Ariadne, a classically-inspired sculpture which represented a woman reclining on the back of a tamed lion. Tableaux directors would have arranged a female performer on a replica lion statue, ensuring that her colouring, facial expression and body position replicated the original sculpture as closely as possible.

Johann von Dannecker's Ariadne (c. 1824), a sculpture upon which one of the tableaux was based

Figure 1: Johann von Dannecker's Ariadne (c. 1824), a sculpture upon which one of the tableaux was based.

By means of an innovative stage mechanism, up to eighteen 'pictures' could be displayed in rapid succession, with performers arranged in advance on divided sections of the same platform. Each picture might be displayed for as long as a minute, before the platform was rotated and the next scene revealed (Donohue, 2010). By the mid-1890s, most theatres had capitalised upon advances in electric lighting which made it possible to spotlight the tableaux arrangements, and to plunge the rest of the auditorium into darkness (Engineer's Report, Palace, 1896: LCC/MIN/10,870). This would have created the illusion of intimacy between spectator and performer; perception of everything but the tableaux pictures would fall away, and each viewer would, in a sense, be alone with the performer on stage.

Music hall tableaux series tended to represent mainly classical and genre artworks, the majority of which called for just one or two performers per 'picture', and required a fairly basic background scene in order to evoke key aspects of the original piece. Familiar paintings by Academy artists Frederic Leighton and Luke Fildes proved popular tableaux inspirations across the London music halls. These were perhaps intended to cement the 'high art' premise of the genre before the enactment of more obscure (and controversial) pictures later in the series. Representations of Luis Falero's Polar Star and Jean-Leon Gérôme's Moorish Bath were criticised by social purists, who felt that the performers called upon to enact these pictures were particularly exposed. Alexander Coote, an ardent opponent of the tableaux genre, wrote in a letter to the London County Council's Licensing Committee, 'It is out of proportion to anyone's sense of right that such things should be allowed to be exhibited on any entertainment stage or anywhere in public' (Palace, 1894: LCC/MIN/10,870). The Palace's Moorish Bath was one of a small number of tableaux to be removed from a music hall programme, after the LCC received several complaints regarding its lack of artistic merit.

Jean-Leon Gérôme's Moorish Bath (1889).

Figure 2: Jean-Leon Gérôme's Moorish Bath (1889).

Sadly, it is difficult to compare the paintings and artists represented across different music hall tableaux series; while the Palace programmes recorded the original names and artists of each tableau picture displayed, the Empire recorded only the paintings' titles, many of which are difficult to trace. The Oxford, Tivoli and Alhambra theatres simply billed their tableaux as 'A Series of Living Pictures', without providing details of the paintings or sculptures emulated. Though the LCC minutes recorded a portion of the dialogue between tableaux objectors and music hall proprietors, the experiences of the tableaux performers themselves were not documented; in most cases, performers' names were not even listed on music hall programmes. In the theatrical world more broadly, a number of actresses and female music hall performers were beginning to achieve 'celebrity' status; contemporary critics described Sarah Bernhardt as a 'legend' and a 'cult in her own lifetime', and feminist actresses Elizabeth Robins and Cicely Hamilton used their fame to attract support for the suffrage cause. Tableaux performers, in contrast, had very little opportunity to control the theatrical 'spectacle', or to manipulate it for political ends. The tableaux spectacle was not by women, but of women; they were positioned as passive objects for the dissemination of an artistic ideal.


The nude versus the naked: the tableaux as 'art'

In May 1885, a letter printed in The Times sparked an intense debate in the newspaper's correspondence pages concerning the aesthetic and moral value of the female nude in art. The author 'A British Matron' (thought to be the pseudonym for conservative Royal Academician John Horsley) bemoaned the frequent display of nudity at London's art galleries, arguing that 'to show an utter want of delicacy when selecting a subject painted for no purpose but to testify to the painter's skill is an insult to that modesty which we should desire to foster in both sexes' (The Times, 1885: 10). The letter divided readers; while some agreed that it was impossible to view nude paintings without experiencing 'a burning sense of shame', others accused the Matron of possessing no 'knowledge of art for art's sake', and being blinded to the 'true merits' of the skillfully-executed nude (The Times, 23-25 May 1885: correspondence pages). Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the female body thus became the ideological site upon which opposing fin de siècle values were contested. For traditional moralists, nudity was firmly equated with indecency and prostitution, and concealment of the female body was necessary in order to protect women from exploitation and men from temptation. However, proponents of aestheticism (or 'art for art's sake') argued that the nude was an ideal subject for art, and should in fact be celebrated for its ability to stimulate the senses.

In his seminal work on the artistic nude, Kenneth Clark outlined the fundamental distinction between the 'naked' and the 'nude'. He argued that to be 'naked' was simply to be without clothes, whereas the 'nude' was an artistic ideal, a 'balanced, confident and prosperous body', free of awkwardness or imperfection (Clark, 1956: 1-4). The 1860s had seen a revival of the female nude in art, with a new generation of 'progressive' painters (including Frederic Leighton, Albert Moore and Edward Poynter) drawing inspiration from the ancient Greek sculptural form. This reference to Antiquity represented a means by which artists and critics could placate the moralists; the Greeks were generally held to have developed the 'purest prototype' for the female nude (Smith, 1999: 219). Fundamentally underpinning the revival and increased acceptance of the nude after 1860, however, was the doctrine of aestheticism, which argued that art should be freed of any ethical accountability. Aesthete Walter Pater maintained that the purpose of art was to elicit a sensory response in the viewer, and to 'set the spirit free for a moment'. Life was transitory and, in order to heighten the value and intensity of one's experiences, the individual should indulge in 'art for its own sake'. Art (and, by extension, the artistic nude) should concern itself with neither narrative nor moral ends because, as Pater noted, 'experience itself, is the end' (Pater, 1961: 220-24).

Concerns over the relationship between the nude and sexual morality nevertheless persisted. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the life-drawing class and the music hall came under scrutiny, with social purists equating both forms of female modelling with prostitution. These displays of public nudity were carefully regulated; in both cases, a physical distance was maintained between model and spectator, indicating that the female body was to be studied as an artistic form, and that there would be no opportunity for interaction between female models and male spectators. Perfect stasis was essential to the maintenance of female virtue. As Lynda Nead has pointed out, the slightest movement of the nude body destroys the illusion of statuesque purity, and the display veers, irreversibly, towards obscenity (Nead, 1992: 85).

Although the tableaux acts were ostensibly based upon the motionless reproduction of paintings or sculptures, much of their appeal seems to have derived from an awareness of the performers as 'living' women. Tableaux directors introduced an element of suspense into the performance by selecting artworks which featured complicated or challenging arrangements, thus increasing the danger of performers dropping the pose. For example, The Three Graces (featured at the Empire Theatre in December 1894) involved the intricate staging of three women, each dependent upon the other two for balance. Venus de Milo (displayed at the Palace in November 1893) required the performer to assume the contrapposto stance, poised at a slight angle so that her weight rested on just one foot. Learned audience members would no doubt scrutinise the tableaux for their fidelity to the original artworks, and for signs of movement: perhaps a twitch or a blink, a slackening of the rigid pose, or even the perceptible inhalation and exhalation of breath. Directors seem to have deliberately positioned the tableaux on the border between respectable stasis and indecent animation. For the duration of the performance, the 'living' properties of the performer were merely suspended, and could be restored at any moment, either by accident or by design.

Jean-Leon Gérôme's Moorish Bath (1889).

Figure 3: The ancient Greek statue Venus de Milo (c. 130 BC), on display at the Louvre.

The concealment of performers' 'real' naked bodies was important for the preservation of the genre's respectability. However, tableaux directors' refusal to confirm the precise nature of the concealing garment served to heighten public intrigue, and to emphasise the fine distinction between the indecent, 'naked' human body, and the supposedly virtuous 'nude' classical form. In a symposium on the tableaux published in the periodical New Review, a number of social commentators speculated upon the tableaux designers' choice of material. Playwright George Bernard Shaw thought that the performers wore body-stockings, while the Reverend H. C. Shuttleworth was convinced that the women were coated in a layer of wax (New Review, 1894: 461-70). Spectators would have been compelled to lean in closer, scrutinising the texture, colour and thickness of the material, and attempting to identity the 'joins' where material met human flesh. Indeed, though the body-stockings or wax-cast enabled the transformation from 'flesh' to 'marble' (and thus from indecency to artistic respectability), it was impossible to remove all traces of the performer's 'real' body. Imperfections and blemishes might be smoothed out, but the basic shape of the imitative statue would be determined by the performer's own figure.

If music hall proprietors could demonstrate that the tableaux emulated the aesthetic 'purity' of classical statuary, they might claim the music hall as an alternative exhibition space to the art gallery, and the tableaux genre as a moralising project, responsible for impressing the edifying effects of 'high art' upon a more diverse audience. The 'Rational Recreation' movement, born in the 1830s, attempted to regulate the leisure time of the working-classes, tempting them into museums and away from 'licentious' gin palaces and public houses. By making art more accessible to the masses, the music hall might assert its place alongside such institutions as the British Museum and the National Gallery, improving the taste (and thereby the morality) of working-class visitors. At the 1894 meeting of the LCC's Licensing Committee, the Palace management was keen to point out the intrinsic relationship between the original classical statuary and the tableaux reproductions. Mr Gill, the Palace's legal representative, argued that the majority of the tableaux were based upon pictures by respected artists, and that divergence from the original artworks was minimal (Palace, 1894: LCC/MIN/10,870). The Era was impressed by the respectability of the Palace tableaux; in 1896 the periodical congratulated the Palace management on the overall 'tone' of its entertainment, noting that the tableaux 'are still the staple attraction, and their artistic qualities are fully appreciated by the sensible and refined audience which assembles in the exquisite auditorium' (The Era, 1896: 18).

The Palace was less successful in convincing staunch tableaux critic Alexander Coote of the genre's artistic value. Coote, a secretary of the National Vigilance Association, appeared at several Licensing Committee meetings to object to the renewal of the Palace's licence. He argued that the tableaux were 'detrimental both to the well-being of those who unfortunately have to take part in them, and also an insult to the community at large' (Palace, 1894: LCC/MIN/10,870). For Coote, the 'high art ideal' of the genre was undermined by the 'obscene and indecent' pictures displayed on the stage. He called for a renewal of 'healthy' entertainment in variety theatres, of the kind that generated 'good thoughts' and did not 'inflame the passions' of spectators in any way (Palace, 1894: LCC/MIN/10,870). For Coote, the Palace tableaux fell short of the pure, aesthetic beauty of classical sculpture. Indeed, the classical allusion represented nothing more than a thinly veiled expedient by which the near-pornographic spectacle avoided censorship. Even if the performer's appearance precisely emulated that of the original statue, the fact remained that, under the fragile fleshings, she was a living, breathing woman. The continued potential for 'life' and for movement rendered the display erotic, and, according to the traditional dichotomy, the 'erotic' simply could not co-exist with the 'beautiful'.

However, the tableaux genre seemed to call attention to the antiquated nature of the beauty/eroticism polarisation, demonstrating that the technical, chaste beauty of the classical nude might be enhanced (or at least made to appeal to a more diverse audience) by means of its collaboration with eroticism. The tableaux may be situated within a broader trend in the late nineteenth-century art world; a number of artists (including George Frederick Watts and Lawrence Alma-Tadema) were beginning to combine the drawing techniques of the Renaissance masters with the suggestion of eroticism, thus creating a new trope of 'erotic beauty' in their female nudes (Prettejohn, 2005: 139). The tableaux restaged the Antique within a modern context, lending classical sculpture 'mass appeal'. Beauty and eroticism might, the tableaux genre suggested, coalesce within a single picture.


Female agency and the tableaux

The vogue for tableaux vivants coincided with a moment of widespread anxiety concerning the increased public and political visibility of women. In the 1860s, the press had called attention to the presence of women on the streets of London, noting, with some surprise, that such women were not necessarily prostitutes (Nead, 2000: 62-73). For the first time, respectable middle-class women were able to gain a sense of ownership of the city, roaming its streets unaccompanied, and simply for pleasure. These new freedoms seemed to be concomitant with new 'femininities'. In 1894, the 'New Woman' was christened in the periodical press, a derisory label for those women who, as a result of their political activism and masculinised appearance, seemed incompatible with the idealised Victorian 'angels in the house'. The female body was no longer the exclusive, commodified and symbolically corseted property of her male guardian; women were becoming agents of the city, and perhaps even agents of their own sexuality. In the midst of fin de siècle anxiety concerning a perceived decline in Britain's economic, political and cultural supremacy, the subversive behaviour of both 'New Women' and 'Decadent' men seemed to indicate the deterioration of gender and sexual norms (Marsh, 2001: 105-07; 123).

Sally Ledger points out that the naming of the New Woman inadvertently opened up a 'discursive space' in the public press for those women (and men) in sympathy with the feminist movement (Ledger, 1997: 9). For the first time, the New Woman was able to speak on her own behalf. Indeed, by the final decade of the nineteenth century, almost all mainstream newspapers and magazines included features written either by or for women. In December 1894, the feminist periodical The Woman's Signal featured a short, fictional account entitled 'Footlights: The Story of a Living Picture', which drew upon a number of themes from contemporary New Woman discourses. In the story, Cecil, a female journalist, agrees to fill a vacant spot in a tableaux troupe for the night. Prior to the engagement, Cecil notes that the tableaux are 'most beautiful', and that 'only depraved people could see any harm in them'. Only under the unforgiving glare of the footlights does she realise the full horror of her position, with the scanty fleshings making her 'feel her nakedness the more'. In the eyes of her admirer, Clarke, Cecil is forever tainted by her association with the tableaux, and he watches on in horror, powerless to silence male spectators' lewd jeers (The Woman's Signal, 1894a: 391-92).

Although The Woman's Signal claimed allegiance to the women's movement, the periodical's position on the entry of women to male-dominated spheres seems ambivalent. Lady Henry Somerset, co-editor of the periodical and president of the British Women's Temperance Association, was a fierce opponent of the tableaux genre, arguing that the female performers were corrupted by their exposure on the music hall stage. In an article published in 1894, Somerset urged 'everyone who has a voice' (presumably excluding the performers themselves) to 'join in a protest against this unholy thing'. For Somerset, the tableaux performers represented a homogeneous, passive group of 'fallen' women, forced into the 'public pageantry of shame' of tableaux modelling out of financial desperation (The Woman's Signal, 1894b: 63). It is clear that Somerset saw little distinction between tableaux modelling and prostitution, both of which called for the exhibition of the female body for the pleasure of a male audience.

Despite the long-held, stereotypical association between the actress and the prostitute (Davis, 1991a: 19), there seems to have been little or no overlap between tableaux performing and prostitution. There was in fact genuine opportunity for progression from the performance of tableaux pictures to a successful career in the entertainment business. George Edwardes, manager of the Empire, Gaiety and Adelphi theatres, selected dancers for his renowned burlesque troupe of 'Gaiety Girls' from the ranks of the tableaux; famed twentieth-century actresses Marie Studholme and Constance Collier began their careers as tableaux performers at the Empire Theatre (biographical files, V and A Theatre Collections). Though the stage might not yet have been a 'respectable' occupation for women, it seems unlikely that aspiring actresses would have considered their association with a tableaux troupe shameful or exploitative. The body-stockings concealed the performer's 'nakedness'; the basic outline of her body might be traceable, but she was actually clothed from the neck down, unlike the artist's or pornographer's muse. As John Berger noted in the television series 'Ways of Seeing' (BBC, 1972), to be 'naked' was to be 'without disguise'. The 'nude', on the other hand, was an artistic subject whose existence was entirely predicated upon the pleasure of the male spectator. The body-stockings worn by the tableaux performer served as a form of disguise. While the male spectator might 'possess' the tableaux as a sight, the layer of material acted as a barrier against genuine intimacy. Indeed, the performer consented to adopt the role of the 'nude' artistic muse only for the duration of the act; thereafter, she would resume an independent, mobile (and fully clothed) existence. In a significant way, the female performer dictated the terms of her subjection to the male gaze.

The tableaux performers had very little creative agency; their role was to 'bring to life' the works of male artists and sculptors, without noticeable divergence from the originals. As a reviewer for The Era noted, 'every hue and every contour' of the tableaux must follow the scheme of the artwork upon which it was based, in order that the 'harmony secured by the artist' might be retained (The Era, 1894: 17). The 'beauty' of the tableaux lay in the artwork's original construction. The tableaux performer was not a co-creator, but merely the vessel by which 'classical' art might be disseminated to a wider audience. Indeed, though many women painted or drew as a recreational activity, there were very few professional female artists in the Victorian art world. Women were denied access to the majority of training schools and exhibition venues. As Deborah Cherry notes, 'femininity' was deemed incompatible with professional artistic practices. Women might execute a passable watercolour in imitation of the male artist's style, but historical painting and portraiture required a level of skill and vision which was thought to elude women (Cherry, 1993: 9). Neither the female painter nor the tableaux performer was considered a true 'artist'; both were, in a sense, copyists, imitating the work of more accomplished male artists.

While the tableaux performer was not an 'artist' (and nor was she really an 'actress' as she stood motionless on the stage), she could nevertheless claim a certain authority; even a 'power', holding the male spectator 'captive' for the duration of the performance. The genre's classical aspirations served as a kind of disguise for the performer; she could adopt an artistic persona, and thereby conceal both her true identity and her 'naked' body from the gaze of male onlookers. At a time when women's increased presence in public and political spheres was noted with some concern by social commentators, the tableaux genre's immurement of women offered male spectators a reassuring image of the obediently contained, motionless female. However, neither the tableaux performer nor the 'New Woman' could be restrained for long. The tableaux performer's potential movement would be realised in the motion picture productions of the late 1890s, and the suffragist movement of the early twentieth century would see women from all social classes uniting to demand political and economic independence.



In April 1896, the Alhambra Theatre announced the arrival of the 'Animatographe', an embryonic version of the motion picture projector which, promoters claimed, could display up to nine hundred photographs per minute (Alhambra programme, 31 August 1896). Although the emergence of the first film shows signalled the beginning of the end for the tableaux phenomenon, it seems that early filmmakers recognised the enduring attraction of the tableaux genre's basic themes. The mutoscope, a motion picture device popular at piers and arcades in the early twentieth century, allowed viewers to select a film (from a limited range) and to subsequently control the speed at which the sequence of pictures appeared in the eyepiece, by turning a handle at their chosen pace. Most of the films featured women in various states of seductive undress; one, entitled 'The Birth of the Pearl', showed Venus emerging, naked, from her oyster shell (Nead, 2007: 78-79). For both the tableaux and the early motion pictures, much of the erotic appeal lay in the potential oscillation between stasis and animation, between the chaste, motionless 'nude' and the suggestive, moving female body.

Further research is needed on female responses to the tableaux; the majority of music hall critics were male, and Lady Somerset's condemnation of the genre was not, one presumes, an entirely typical female response, belonging to a fervent temperance campaigner and educated journalist (Niessen, 2007). It would be interesting to assess the extent to which women interpreted the tableaux as artistic nudes, or whether they in fact saw a parade of motionless, living women on stage. An improved understanding of female spectators' responses might indicate the success (or failure) of music hall proprietors in convincing contemporary audiences of the genre's aesthetic dimensions.

The tableaux genre seems to have blurred the distinction between 'high' and 'low' forms of entertainment. For a number of conservative critics, the genre was sordid and indecent, and the classical allusion merely a 'silly lie'. For others, the tableaux effectively synthesised the classical and the modern, appealing to the working-class masses as well as to more discerning artistic spectators. Perhaps in consequence of this confusion, opponents struggled to mount a sustained attack upon the tableaux genre, uncertain whether it posed a threat to morality, to 'art', or to traditional male authority; whether, indeed, it posed a threat at all. The failure of contemporaries to agree upon the significance of the tableaux spectacle seems to be indicative of a more widespread ambivalence towards the female body, the artistic nude and the role of popular entertainment in the modern metropolis. The extent to which the new 'Entertainment Industry' (of which the variety theatre formed a major component) might be trusted to provide respectable amusement, free of the guidance of 'old' institutions and regulatory bodies, had yet to be determined.



List of illustrations

Figure 1: Johann von Dannecker's Ariadne (c. 1824). Image reproduced courtesy of the Art Renewal Center

Figure 2: Jean-Leon Gérôme's Moorish Bath (1889). Image in the public domain and obtained froméon_Gérôme_013_Moorish_bath.jpg on 20 September 2013.

Figure 3: Ancient Greek statue Venus de Milo (c. 130 BC), on display at the Louvre, Paris. Author's own photograph.



[1] Elena Stevens recently completed her MRes History at the University of Southampton, and began a PhD in History in October 2013.



Primary sources
London County Council Records, Metropolitan Archives: Theatre and Music Hall Presented Papers

Palace Theatre of Varieties, 1888-1903, LCC/MIN/10,870

Empire Theatre, 1889-1904, LCC/MIN/10,303

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Alhambra Theatre

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Empire Theatre of Varieties

Holborn Empire

Palace Theatre of Varieties

Royal Aquarium Theatre

Tivoli Music Hall

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V and A Theatre Collections: Biographical Files

Sarah Bernhardt

Constance Collier

Cicely Hamilton

Elizabeth Robins

Marie Studholme


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To cite this paper please use the following details: Stevens, E. (2013), 'Making a Spectacle of Themselves: Art and Female Agency in 1890s Music Hall', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 6, Issue 2, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.