by Sally Barnden

Full essay in the print edition or on Project MUSE

This essay considers how theatre photographs have deployed celebrity images to repackage Shakespeare for the tastes and values of particular audiences. It focuses on two images associated with productions of Titus Andronicus over a century apart: Ira Aldridge as Aaron in c.1850 and Vivien Leigh as Lavinia in 1955. The former, dating from an early period in the history of theatrical photography, reveals the shifting politics of Victorian theatre and its relationship to printed versions of Shakespeare’s plays. The photograph of Leigh was taken at a time when theatrical photography was undergoing a move from posed, polished images to a rougher, more journalistic style; its statuesque portrayal of a famously shocking scene demonstrates a careful negotiation of Shakespearean cultural capital. Analysing the embodied histories of these archival images – their conditions of production, the priorities of those who participated in making them, the circumstances in which they were reproduced and displayed – the essay argues that they use the celebrity personas of their respective subjects to advertise and represent the play. In particular, the photographs divert attention from the uncomfortable elements of Titus Andronicus and instead represent the performances as reifications of a classical, decorous, traditional Shakespeare. 

Ira Aldridge as Aaron, Titus Andronicus, c.1850. Engraving from a daguerreotype by Paine of Islington. Folger Shakespeare Library Call #: ART file A 365.5 no.1. Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

 

Vivien Leigh as Lavinia, Titus Andronicus, 1955. Photograph by Angus McBean. Reproduced by permission of the Royal Shakespeare Company.