Author Robin Warren draws back the curtain on Southern actresses

imagesNew book highlights trailblazing women of the 19th century

Story by Pamela A. Keene

Habersham County resident Robin Warren knew she had to go further than the dissertation she submitted to earn her Ph.D. from the University of Georgia in 2005. After all, she’d focused on a little-known group of trailblazers from the 19th century: independent women who gained notoriety breaking into the world of the stage theater.

Belle Boyd was a Civil War spy who became an actress after the war. She inverted a traditionally male role during the war and was called “La Belle Rebelle.” She was from an elite Virginia family and imprisoned many times during the war. She died penniless in 1900. Image courtesy Brady-Handy Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Belle Boyd was a Civil War spy who became an actress after the war. She inverted a traditionally male role during the war and was called “La Belle Rebelle.” She was from an elite Virginia family and imprisoned many times during the war. She died penniless in 1900. Image courtesy Brady-Handy Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

“These women deserved to be read about and known to the public, because for their time they were indeed in uncharted territory for females,” says Robin, whose “Women on Southern Stages, 1800-1865” is shining the spotlight on a handful of Southern actresses from 200 years ago. “In many cases, they were wealthy, sophisticated entrepreneurs, but they were never accepted in society by the landed gentry. They broke the barriers of race, gender and socio-economics when it wasn’t the thing to do.”

Earning her undergraduate degree from Agnes Scott in Decatur, and then her masters from the University of Georgia, the Jacksonville, Florida, native went into the work world, married husband Wally and taught for several years before setting her eyes on a Ph.D.  “It took me seven years as a non-traditional student to complete, but it has been an amazing journey.”
Her daughter Phoebe was born shortly after she completed her dissertation. She set aside the book idea for a half-dozen years. “Then I realized that I didn’t want these stories to sit on a shelf, so I went back to it four years ago after Phoebe got a little bit older. I found a good publisher — McFarland Press in North Carolina — and they have been a huge help throughout the process.”
As for publishing a book, she applied the same discipline required to earn an advanced degree while working full time as an English teacher. Robin set up a dedicated writing space in her home and started a new routine of rising early, exercising then spending time in her home office.

adah-isaacs-menken_nypl_mazeppa
Actress Adah Isaacs Menken was born in New Orleans in 1835. She was very flamboyant and quite risque. Menken was most famous for playing the part of Mazeppa in an equestrian drama by the same name. She actually rode a horse on stage and wore the skimpy outfit in which she is pictured here. Images courtesy of Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library.

“Someone told me that you needed to require yourself to turn out at least two pages every single day, no matter how bad they might be,” she says. “And, of course I did a great deal of additional research, searching archives and finding out everything I could about them.”

As Robin began to write, she says many of the women became like friends. “Some of them were very wealthy, but extremely independent. Some owned slaves but they weren’t plantation mistresses. They truly blurred the lines from the image we have of women in the Antebellum South.”
She says they performed all kinds of female roles, from exotic ethnicities using soot to color their skin to showing off the female anatomy almost to the point of ruining their reputations. “In some ways, they were the forerunners of burlesque, which rose in the 1870s and 1880s, because of their ‘leg show,’ but burlesque was quickly taken over by men who objectified women.”

Among her favorites? New Orleans’ Adah Isaacs Menken and Julia Dean Hayne, the daughter of a theater family who began her stage career at age 13. Later she married a Charleston doctor who soon revealed his true abusive nature. “On her own while on a tour

Author Robin Warren in her home office.
Author Robin Warren in her home office.

of mining camps out West, she got a divorce from him — something unspeakable at the time. She even got custody of their children,” Robin says. “She later remarried but died in childbirth. She was so admirable and so strong.”
“Women on Southern Stages, 1800-1865: Performance, Gender and Identity in a Golden Age of American Theater” is available at www.mcfarlandbooks.com or through Amazon. The 280-page book includes more than two dozen historic photographs from the time.

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