Rhetorical performance: Inscription, embodiment, and resistance in the work of nineteenth-century actress/writers

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Writing Program


Eileen E. Schell


Nineteenth century, Actresses, Writers, Rhetorical performance, Inscription, Embodiment, Resistance

Subject Categories

Rhetoric and Composition


Feminist rhetorical analyses have tended to focus on women engaged in persuasive discourse in the public sphere--suffragists, for example, or abolitionists. My examination of three actress/writers looks beyond such "respectable" rhetorics and seeks to make a significant contribution to the field of rhetoric in two key ways. First, this study offers an opportunity to better understand how women of the nineteenth century negotiated and challenged cultural scripts around gender, class, and work. Second, I demonstrate what feminist rhetorics and theatre history can offer each other in terms of analytical frameworks and sites for analysis. Adah Isaacs Menken (1835?-1868), Anna Cora Mowatt (1819-1870), and Ada Clare (1836?-1874) left records in the form of reviews, autobiography, fiction, and photographs. My analysis deploys the concept of "rhetorical performance," which broadly defined refers to an expressive act embodied and enacted by an individual subject. With its roots in feminist rhetorics and theatre history (and informed by recent work in performance studies), this understanding of rhetorical performance assumes there is a script, or rather, multiple and conflicting scripts. As individual subjects adapt and enact those scripts within particular rhetorical moments, they unconsciously alter and consciously resist those scripts through their performances. Chapter Two considers the ways in which dominant discourses of womanhood worked to constrain and enable the female subject and examines how Mowatt and Clare reinterpreted the scripts of sentimental culture to create greater agency for themselves. Chapter Three moves from an emphasis on inscription on the body to the work of the body. Directing my analysis to onstage and photographic performances of Menken, I argue that she used her body tactically as a "bad subject" even as that body was used against her. Chapter Four focuses on strategies of self-representation in various genres, considering how these women consciously crafted public personas. Finally, Chapter Five considers future applications of rhetorical performance as an analytical framework in order to investigate the role of contemporary celebrity culture in constructing and maintaining particular ways of being. As popular performance masquerades as "mere" entertainment, obscuring its material impacts, new critical literacies are needed to challenge dominant discourses.