I recently finished Sharon Marcus's delightful book The Drama of Celebrity. Focusing on the career of legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt, the book examines the interplay of celebrities, the media, and the various publics they both serve.
Her next chapter, "Sensation," looks at the desire of audiences and critics alike to willingly submit to a star's overpowering performance. As an example, Marcus cites Bernhardt's exit at the end of Act Four of Victorien Sardou's La Tosca. After killing the villain Scarpia, Bernhardt's character (according to Sardou's stage directions) "takes a carafe of water, wets a napkin, cleans the blood from her hands, and removes a small spot from her dress." Marcus notes, however, that the Chicago drama critic Sheppard Butler was fascinated by how Bernhardt "finger by finger, scrubbed the blood from her hand." By isolating each finger individually, Bernhardt slowed the action down just when the audience wants the heroine to get away as quickly as possible. At the same time, the stage business delayed the exit of the star everyone had come to see, prolonging the audience's enjoyment.
In "Intimacy" Marcus delves into attempts by fans and stars to form an important bond (or at least the illusion of a bond) between the two. While previous critics have discussed the "remediation" of a piece of art in one format into a new format, Marcus argues that fans clipping images and pasting them into a new context are not so much engaging in remediation as "resituation." Fans collecting photos, programs, articles, and ticket stubs in scrapbooks nevertheless engage with the material they resituate in a new location. In an era long before Pinterest or Tumblr, theatre fans could resituate images next to one another, and thus close "the gap between the players themselves and between celebrities and fan." According to Marcus, such resituation "registers work that hovers between production and consumption, looking and making, and speaks above all to a desire to bask in celebrities' presence by collecting, handling, and holding their representations."
Chapter Six on "Imitation" might seem closely related to the multiplication discussed earlier, but Marcus instead focuses on failures of imitation. Her central thesis of the chapter is that celebrity imitation is "a privilege that members of dominant groups often seek to deny those in subordinate ones." She bypasses José Esteban Muñoz's theory of disidentification to focus instead on depictions of ethnic and racial minorities failing in their attempts at mimicking white celebrities. While Marcus comes up with some compelling examples for her arguments, I found it strange that she seems to ignore so much theory from the past 20 years. For instance, in discussing a story about Henry James failing to impersonate Bernhardt, she notes that there is "more than a hint of gay shaming" in the account. Shouldn't that remind us of J. Halberstam's notion of "queer failure"? Like Muñoz, Halberstam is oddly absent from the book.
Marcus's final chapter on "Merit" looks not just at how fans have judged individual performers, but how they have compared those performers to one another. Originally, fans and critics alike relied on historical competition, for instance comparing Bernhardt to the earlier star Rachel Felix, or to Mademoiselle Mars, who originated the part of Doña Sol in Victor Hugo's Hernani. People could also compare stars to other living performers, especially when actors developed what Marcus calls shadow repertories. This is when actors deliberately pursue roles already made famous by their peers. Bernhardt did this when she played the lead in Sardou's La Sorcière, which had previously been played by Pat Campbell. In some cases, stars have even developed mirror repertories, in which two actors perform the same role in rapid succession.
Ultimately, the book argues that celebrity culture is a lot more complicated than many of its critics are willing to admit. Some celebrities like Bernhardt can deftly handle their fans and the press, but they are still reliant upon both. Media moguls play a big role, but they have failed again and again when they have tried to foist an unpopular celebrity on an unwilling public. Ordinary individuals have some agency, but our access to celebrities is always mediated through something else, whether it's a producer, a journalist, or an Internet platform. As Marcus concludes, "no single person or force can ever be assured of permanent victory."