When Romeo Was a Woman

Charlotte Cushman and Her Circle of Female Spectators
Lisa Merrill
Examines the life of the androgynous nineteenth-century American actress and her work on the Anglo-American stage


At the height of her career, actress Charlotte Cushman (1816-76) was one of the most famous women in the English-speaking world. Cushman challenged Victorian notions of gender in her stage portrayals of male characters and of strong, androgynous female characters. Offstage, she was a powerful businesswoman who supported her family, women lovers, and friends.

Lisa Merrill examines Cushman's personal correspondence to shed new light on the actress's relationships and in turn on our understandings of the nature of women's "romantic friendships." She demonstrates how Cushman's androgynous presence served as a symbol to many of her contemporaries, and revealed their multiple and often contradictory attitudes toward female performers, women, and the unspeakable possibilities of same-sex desire.

The biography draws upon unpublished archival material as well as on current critical work to view Cushman's career, relationships, and posthumous reception. When Romeo Was a Woman examines as autobiographical performance Cushman's own narratives, the stories she authorized others to write, and the letters she wrote to intimates. The book is richly illustrated with many previously unpublished portraits of Cushman in her various stage roles, including Romeo and Lady Macbeth, and other revealing photographs of her family, lovers and friends.

When Romeo Was a Woman will find an appreciative audience among general readers as well as specialists in gay/lesbian history, women's history, theater and performance, popular culture, Victorian studies, and American studies.

Lisa Merrill is Professor of Communication and Performance Studies, Hofstra University. She is the co-author of The Power to Communicate: Gender Differences as Barriers, and the co-editor of Untying the Tongue: Power, Gender, and the Word.

Praise / Awards

  • ". . . succeeds . . . in completely and fully restoring and re-empowering Charlotte Cushman in her overlapping roles as both actor and woman. It is a richly historicized and theoreticized portrait of a multifaceted, paradoxical, altogether compelling figure. As such, Merrill's work is not only an important theatrical biography, but a signal study of the complex interstices between public and private personas. . . . When Romeo Was a Woman is an impressive scholarly achievement . . . . [It is] likely to stand as the final word on Cushman for many years to come."
    —Daniel J. Watermeier, University of Toledo, Theatre History Studies, 1999

  • "This is the definitive biography of Cushman, a 'major contribution to our understanding of lesbian history.' Richly illustrated and highly anecdotal, it's also downright good dish."
    —Carolyn Gage, Lambda Book Report, March 1999

  • ". . . Lisa Merrill is able to shed light on the subject [of Cushman's appeal], while offering readers an intriguing interpretation of gender relations and much shrewd analysis of great acting."
    American Theatre, July/August 1999

  • "Merrill's attempt to focus a queer lens on Cushman's long-term relationships with other women adds a significant layer of integrity to the continuing recovery of this major figure in theatre history. . . . Cushman, who brought an unprecedented level of research and reconsideration to each of her theatrical roles, would likely applaud Merrill's own investigative turn of mind. This engrossing account follows her through three decades of performance, travel and residence in the US, England, and Italy. . . . . Lisa Merrill's careful reading of scrupulously marshaled evidence casts new light upon the long history of the passionate munificence of women's lives together."
    —Marilyn Richardson, Women's Review of Books, July 1999

  • "Fascinating and meticulously researched biography. . . . A significant contribution to lesbian/gay theater history, this book should have wide audience appeal."
    Library Journal, January 1999

  • "A fascinating story, and a major contribution to our understanding of lesbian history. . . . The work done on archival resources is both impressive in its extent and wholly convincing in its effect."
    —Jacky Bratton, University of London

  • "Balancing passionate engagement and sophisticated analysis, Lisa Merrill's study of the magic Charlotte Cushman worked both on and off the Victorian stage is eloquent and riveting."
    —Emma Donoghue, editor of Poems Between Women: Four Centuries of Love, Romantic Friendship, and Desire and author of Passions between Women: British Lesbian Culture, 1668-1801

  • ". . . Lisa Merrill's book is . . . a reclamation of a life diminished historically by homophobia and heterosexism. If that were its only strength, it would still be worth reading, for Cushman's is a tale that deserves to be told and Merrill is an expert and scrupulous storyteller. But When Romeo Was a Woman is more than that and by no means a hagiography of its subject: it also uses Cushman as the occasion to theorize about the intersections of gender, nation, and performance—both performance as an aesthetic, theatrical event, and performance as a cultural, sometimes interpersonal, even intimate set of experiences. . . . [I]t would serve well as required reading for anyone interested in knowing what it is performance studies scholars 'do.'"
    —Bruce Henderson, Ithaca College, Text and Performance Quarterly, Volume 19 (1999)

  • "Merrill offers us a compelling look at the ways in which women-loving women find a way to live their lives in spite of cultural efforts to disappear us. When Romeo Was a Woman is a biography to relish and reread."
    —Deborah Peifer, Bay Area Reporter, September 14, 2000

  • ". . . Merrill's biography has much to teach historians. She uncovers the individual nuances of sexual desire and identity, the wide variety of one woman's romantic friendships, and early doubts about women's chastity as well as the purity of their same-sex friendships. Cushman's unconventional life, as Merrill deftly illustrates, challenges simple labels and dichotomies."
    —M. Alison Kibler, Australian National University, American Historical Review, October 2000

  • "Merrill's meticulously researched account explores this paradox of Cushman's phenomenal ability to represent true womanhood and virtue, while transgressing the assumptions about women's position, power, and passion, both on and off the stage. . . . Contemporary theoretical perspectives on gender and sexuality are brought to bear on the reading of Cushman's public performances as well as the private relations described in hundreds of letters Cushman wrote to her circle of lovers, friends, and admirers. Merrill also assesses the relationship of the theatre to American culture, issues of nationalism and class that entered into the reception of Cushman's performances in England, the shifting position of women in that picture, the posthumous pathologizing of her appearance, relationships, and performances, as well as the later marginalization by twentieth-century theatre scholars. When Romeo Was A Woman far surpasses previous attempts to write biographical accounts of Cushman's life in its fresh perspective on Cushman's stage career in the context of her life and loves. Merrill examines Cushman as an actor, a woman, and, explicitly, a lesbian. The scholar herself is a palpable presence in this work, and as it is, obviously, an intensely personal work for her, she makes it so for us."
    —Noreen Barnes McLain, Virginia Commonwealth University, Theatre Journal, December 2000

  • "When Romeo Was A Woman is not so much a thoroughgoing biography as it is a focused study of this independent woman and the roles she played both onstage and offstage as she struggled to negotiate nineteenth-century conventions."
    —Elaine Brousseau, Kritikon Litterarum, Volume 28 (2001)

  • Winner: New York University (NYU) 2000 Joe A. Callaway Prize for Best Book in Drama or Theatre

Look Inside


List  of Illustrations-ix
Foreword by Jill Dolan-xi
1. Crossings: Passion Embodied and Remembered-1
2. The Hero in the Family and on the Stage-15
3. "Is Such Love Wrong?"-52
4. Embodying Strong(-minded) Women: The Shapes Charlotte Cushman Wore Onstage-80
5. Wearing Breeches: Charlotte Cushman's Male Roles-110
6. Scribbling Circles and Strange Sympathies: Charlotte Cushman's London Circle of Lovers and Friends-138
7. Building a Community: Charlotte Cushman's Roman Salon-171
8. The Sapphic Family-205
9. The Backlash and Beyond-243

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Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 344pp.
  • 7 drawings, 24 B&W photographs.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 2000
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-08749-5

Add to Cart
  • $36.95 U.S.