Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Friends With Benefits

One of the ways actors in the nineteenth century were able to make a living was through the tradition of the benefit performance. Proceeds from a benefit were usually given to a single person, though they could also go to a group. Later on, benefits were increasingly used to raise money for a particular cause or charity rather than for an individual. However, the first benefit performances were strictly an economic opportunity for a performer. This tradition began all the way back in 1687, when the actress Elizabeth Barry negotiated a clause in her contract for annual benefit performances.

Though men gave benefit performances as well as women, the benefit system was particularly important for actresses. Women often did not have the same opportunities to invest in theatre companies or become a part of management, so for an actress, a benefit might be a major portion of her income. All of the other performers were donating their time and skills, so a person having a benefit had to be on good terms with a large number of people. Of course, one of the ways to win favor with other actors was to appear in their benefits. After you staged your own benefit, anyone who helped you would then expect you to someday return the favor.

The person receiving the proceeds of a benefit performance got to choose the program for the evening. Actors and actresses got to call the shots, even if it was just for one night. In the case of actresses, this meant there was often a greater emphasis on female characters. Sometimes women even wrote plays for themselves intended to highlight their own specific skills. Performers were also given an opportunity to address the audience while not in character, forming a bond with their public. These speeches were sometimes written by the person receiving the benefit and always written with that person's best advantage in mind.

Most interesting to me are the plays written specifically for an actor's benefit. The eighteenth-century novelist and playwright Susanna Rowson wrote her most popular play, Slaves of Algiers, for a benefit for a family member. The nineteenth-century actress Matilda Heron, best known for playing the title role in Camille, wrote her own version of Medea for a benefit. The actress Charlotte Barnes also used benefits to break into playwriting. She wrote her play Octavia Bragaldi for a benefit performance for her father and then went on to pen such dramas as The Forest Princess about Pocahontas and an adaptation of a French play about Charlotte Corday.