As a member of the younger of the two professions that are the focus of this book, I am not naive enough to be ignorant of the connection between them. The casting lots of Hollywood studios, full of actresses flaunting themselves in their Sunday best, are a sharp reminder of our fleshpit expendability. And one of my colleagues recently told me of a "meeting" with a producer that began with him stepping out of the shower with a towel hanging loosely around his groin. (Oddly enough, she never did tell me what happened next.)
Women first climbed on to the stage in Britain following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The profession offered women a means of escaping marriage or domestic drudgery without having to sell their bodies to fend off financial ruin. (Economic independence is still one of the joys of what can be an angst-ridden vocation.) And yet actresses were commonly seen as whores. In her riveting study of the interplay between the two professions, Kirsten Pullen places actresses and whores firmly on the ever-present stage of society - and reminds us that it is not only prostitutes we remain ambivalent about, but theatre and film workers, too.
Pullen sets the whore-like qualities of actresses -- the eroticism of cross-dressing on stage, their undressed "availability" backstage -- against the real life of an 18th-century prostitute, Margaret Leeson. In her memoir, Leeson described and justified her fall from grace, painting a vivid picture of a decadent Dublin. In one section, she described how she once offered a client a proportion of her ten-guinea fee for every orgasm she enjoyed. By dawn, she had returned only one guinea.
As ever more women took to the stage in the 18th century, they found themselves playing vulnerable heroines or repentant dolts - versions of "female" that may have pleased male audiences and warned women against transgression, but which had little to do with their lives. It wasn't long, however, before women took on more transgressive parts. Although at first women in "trouser roles" -- that is, playing male characters -- were little more than an excuse for men to admire the female physique, actresses were soon competing with men for serious parts. Pullen tells the story of Charlotte Charke, who rebelliously played Macheath in The Beggar's Opera, and of the American Charlotte Cushman, who is shown cross-legged and comfortable in her daggered belt as Romeo. Putting on trousers was a way of reaching for freedom. On occasions when I have had cross-dressing roles in Shakespeare, I have felt myself to be part of a tradition of boundary-pushing, of theatre's forward movement.
It was not until the 20th century and the rise of Stanislavsky's school of "realism" that acting finally became respectable. Art began to be drawn from life, and the theatre -- in America at least -- was upgraded to a "moral instrument". No longer were actresses assumed to be whores. Pullen, though, has a good stab at demonstrating the reverse: that a whore is also an actress. There are undoubtedly elements of performance in prostitution -- it is, by its very nature, an improvisatory event; a prostitute has to adapt to a client's imagination; and her behaviour and dress are likely to be at odds with her normal self. Pullen points out that, just as an actress might not feel up to playing Lady Macbeth six nights a week, a whore isn't always in the mood. She quotes one sex worker who complains of having to shower before seeing a client, of having sex with him in the shower, and of returning home to wash -- whereupon she has to explain to her room-mates why she always has wet hair.
However, it seems to me that acting and prostitution, despite sharing a territory of dressing up and performing, are profoundly different. For the prostitute, the purpose of the "lie" is to fool the client. The point of acting, on the other hand, is not to disguise truth but to discover it. Over the centuries, the reasons for acting have changed, and this has been to our benefit. I fear that the reasons for whoring have stayed the same.