Article Title

The "Female Martinet": Mrs. Harper, Gender, and Civic Virtue on the Early Republican Stage


Jason Shaffer


In the wake of the American Revolution, citizens of the new republic of the United States began to reconsider a number of important social categories, among them gender. What did it mean, in the absence of a wartime climate, to be an American man? What did it mean to be an American woman in the aftermath of a ten-year political crisis during which politicians frequently appealed to women as political leaders on the “home front”? Did the gender standards of classical republican political theory apply, or did the country’s transition to a commercial republic alter the standards for the performance of gender as well? As it reemerged from obscurity after being banned for almost a decade, the professional theatre often found itself in the middle of controversies generated by such questions of gender and identity during the 1780’s. Mrs. Harper, an actress with the Old American Company in New York, met with positive reviews early in her career for portraying sympathetically vulnerable women. After she performed the breeches role of Sylvia Balance in George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, however, Mrs. Harper found herself condemned in the press for offending the republican modesty of New York’s theatergoers. By considering Mrs. Harper’s career in New York, this essay explores both the emerging models of masculinity and femininity popular in the New York theatre of the 1780’s and the surprising degree of intermingling between bellicose “masculine” traits and “feminine” sensibility in many of the leading female roles played by Mrs. Harper and her contemporaries.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.