Theatre, Theatricality and Metatheatre in "Behind a Mask" (1866) by Louisa May Alcott

Term Paper, 2017

14 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theatre in Behind a Mask
2.1. The Stage – Making the Home a Theatrical Space
2.2. The Mask – Playing the Leading Role
2.3. The Play – Acting with the Ensemble

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

„Is not the last scene better than the first?” (BaM 104). This question is asked by the ambiguous heroine Jean Muir when at last she has succeeded with her scheme and has become Lady Coventry and wishes goodbye to the Coventry family. In Louisa May Alcott’s novella Behind a Mask, which was published under a pseudonym in 1866, theatre is immanent. It is not only part of the text-internal reality, in which the seemingly innocent governess turns out to be an ambitious actress. Theatre is also represented and reflected on other levels of the story. The action and characters of the story can be considered to be part of a play, a mise-en-scène of the revenge on society planned by Jean Muir.

According to a basic definition, theatre is what happens when “A impersonates B while C looks on” (Balme 2008:2). A, the actor, is a person who “seems to speak and act, not as him or herself but in a role that he or she pretends to be” (Balme 2008:17). These terms may be applied to Behind a Mask. However, they do not seem to be able to fully grasp the plot. Jean Muir’s actions are morally reprehensible and seem to mirror prejudices: “Throughout the Western culture, theatre has been associated both with falsehood and the female” (Dudden 1994:2) and, moreover, the physical aspect of acting, the ‘embodied art’, has been associated with immorality and sexuality, especially for women (cf. Dudden 1994:2). Still, there appears to be more behind a fraud of the extent that Jean Muir conducts.

To show that theatre in the novella is not only a prejudice of a female net of deception, masks and playing pretend, this essay will explore the ways in which theatre, acting, and staging are essential to Behind a Mask and which theatrical elements lead to the thesis that not only Jean Muir is acting, but she turns other characters into actors and a domestic home into a theatre. To keep within the bounds of this paper, the analysis will be focussed on three aspects meant to show some instances of theatricality and reveal the underlying ideas behind it. Those are the stage (chapter 2.1.) Muir sets for the other characters, the leading role (since “Jean’s behaviour is clearly defined as a role” (Fetterley 1983:8)) (chapter 2.2.) and the staging of the play (chapter 2.3.).

2. Theatre in Behind a Mask

“Masks and masking are deeply embedded in the history of the medium [theatre]. The Greek theatre masks, and the mask has in fact come to be a symbol of the medium, embodying as it does central metaphors such as concealment and the distinction between art (the mask) and life (the living actor)” (Balme 2008:9). The title of the novella Behind a Mask already implies the story’s entanglement with theatre. Though the Greek theatre masks were not part of the theatre practice anymore in Alcott’s time, the symbolism of the masks lingers on to the present day. Psychological aspects moved into the focus of theatre and performance, so actors’ face needed to be seen. “The mid-nineteenth century was the age of the actor, and those who were physically commanding were most celebrated” (Ackerman 1999:16). Therefore, hiding her pretty face would have been counterproductive for Jean Muir.

Since masks imply theatre or theatricality and, thereby, immorality, hiding a face behind a mask directly is a symbol of deception as not seeing a person’s face when talking to them generally makes people feel uncomfortable. To some extent, this relates to the term ‘theatricality’ which is often pejoratively used for either dramatic excitement or simply deceit (cf. Balme 2008:89). In the case of Jean Muir, another definition seems to grasp the theatricality in her actions: theatricality is the opposite of authenticity (cf. Balme 2008:90), a behaviour Jean Muir fails to display. Since “acting is role-playing, role-playing is lying, and lying is a woman’s game” (Dudden 1994:2) the connection between the actress and the liar or swindler is one not hard to make: theatricality in Behind a Mask implies insincerity (cf. Ackerman 1999:175).

Both in her well-known Little Women novels and in her sensational fiction, Alcott seems to have a particular interest in actresses like Jean Muir. Unlike the March sisters, who represent the rise of interest in theatre of middle class families in the 1850s and 1860s (cf. Ackerman 1999:155) or other professional actresses who “fail to bridge the gap between domesticity and theatre” (Ackerman 1999:179) and must to choose either the stage or the home, Jean Muir seems to be able to have both. Behind a Mask combines two strategies Ackerman identified in Alcott’s fiction to reveal a relationship between theatricality and domestic life. These are to “convert the home […] into a theatrical space” or to “represent the private life of a professional actress” (Ackerman 1999:156). By putting an actress in a Victorian home, Alcott explores the “theatricality of everyday household situations” (Schewe 2008:580) and uses it for her melodramatic plot-driven ‘blood-and-thunder-tale’.

2.1. The Stage – Making the Home a Theatrical Space

Beginning with her arrival in the Coventrys’ home, Jean Muir dramatizes the life of the family and makes them part of her play. This begins with her first entrance onto the ‘stage’ – defined as a space where actors perform (cf. Balme 2008:48) – the living room of the Coventrys. While the family awaits her arrival, the characters are introduced via dialogue. Their expectations and doubts in regard to Miss Muir are shown through verbal statements like “She is a nice person, I dare say” (BaM 4) or “she is a bore” (BaM 3). Also the prose descriptions of the positions of the family members in the room resemble stage directions: “Mrs. Coventry sank into a chair”, “where he stood teasing his dogs”, “lounging on a couch near his cousin” (BaM 3). Moreover, the family situation and the natural connections between the members set up a narrative of typical conflicts and roles (Ackerman 1999:155) such as a rivalry between brothers. Therefore, when Jean Muir enters the room, parts of the stage and play are already set up for her. She only needs to take action or, so to speak, open the curtain.

With her first scenic entrance, she immediately becomes the focus of both the readers’ and the family’s attention. “For an instant no one stirred, and the governess had time to see and be seen before a word was uttered” (BaM 5). The image can easily be compared to a great stage entrance: Though the curtain has opened to an everyday domestic scene, a family gathered in the evening, the dramatic or theatrical enters this space embodied by Jean Muir. She is completely aware of this and after this dramatic pause which she uses to analyse the family, she introduces her meek role, entering “bowing slightly” (BaM 5). The theatrical power of a successful stage entrance is not lost after the initial meeting with the Coventrys. In many other cases, she enters drawing attention to her or introduces a scene by carefully arranging the stage. For example, when she impresses Ned by taming his horse, the scenery is prepared beforehand: “Seating herself in the grass, she began to pull daisies, singing idly the while, as if unconscious of the spirited prancing of the horse” (BaM 15). With this scene on-going, she only needs to wait for Ned to come her way.

Not only stage entrances but also stage exits are part of Jean Muir’s repertoire. Often close to melodramatic stereotypes, she repeatedly leaves rooms or situations displaying strong emotions: “The color came up beautifully in her pale cheeks as she pressed the hand and without a word vanished from the room” (BaM 36) or “Almost fiercely she had spoken, and with a warning gesture she hurried from the room” (BaM 45). This continuous entering and leaving of the place of action is comparable to an actress going on- and off-stage and can be put in context with another aspect of the Coventrys’ home as a stage.

The home becomes a theatre and a stage, but not only by Jean Muir’s acting. The Victorian home in its essence already is a kind of stage, split into a front region (place of performance: parlour, dining rooms…) and a back region (place of creating illusion: kitchen, dressing room, bedroom…) and the role of the governess is part of both regions (cf. Schewe 2008:580). With the theatre’s tendency of Alcott’s time to move the stage into the private sphere (cf. Ackerman 1999:29), the home already was a stage before Muir’s arrival. The theatre in the home becomes even more explicit in the scene when ‘tableaux vivants’ are performed in Sir John’s home. Not only does the theatre come to his house, Muir’s participation in the activity resembles the dramatic device of ‘a play within a play’ (a typical metatheatrical instance); she becomes an actress playing a governess playing a lover (BaM 50-53). Also, for other characters the front and back region of the domestic stage become blurred (cf. Schewe 2008:584) when, for example, Gerald joins the performance.

In this chapter, there is a defined audience but bearing the ‘theatrum mundi’-like idea of the home in mind, the question arises where the backstage area for Jean Muir is. To her, the entire house is a stage and everything in it is scenery or props. When Sir John does not directly respond as she has planned, she uses the stage surrounding her to improvise: “Her own eyes roved about the room, seeking for some aid from inanimate things, and soon she found it” (BaM 80). Except for the unmasking in her room, where she removes the parts of the costumes which help her maintain the illusion of youth and innocence (cf. BaM 12), there are hardly ‘off-stage’ moments to Jean Muir’s character. The actress never leaves character and continues acting while unwatched to maintain the illusion. “Last night I found her crying over a rose” (BaM 68) reports Bella and Sir John watches silently as “she threw her arms across the table, laid her head down upon them, and broke into a passion of tears” (BaM 24). These supposedly intimate and private moments, which appear to happen off-stage, are also nothing but calculated acting.

Jean Muir’s awareness of always being on a stage is reflected by herself. Her acting job – for this is nothing but a job (cf. Schewe 2008:578) – “requires continuing and continual consciousness” and “self-discipline and self-control” (Fetterley 1983:7). However, the living actress behind the mask sometimes seems to break character. Upon her first entrance, Gerald accuses her of acting and she responds by remarking “The last scene shall be still better” (BaM 7), which is the first moment that raises suspicion to the readers. In a later chapter, she points out to Gerald that they are being watched, she adds “I am used to it” (BaM 72); an ambiguous statement for an actress while acting.

In short, the Conventrys’ home becomes a stage by Jean Muir’s performing and is used to support her playing in terms of props and scenery. There are front stage and backstage regions which are blurred on several occasions, raising the question whether or not the Coventrys are an audience in an environmental stage (cf. Balme 2008:50), which will be explored in chapter 2.3. First, however, the ‘mask’ and the leading role Jean Muir invents for her play will be analysed.

2.2. The Mask – Playing the Leading Role

The stage is a place “for not being oneself” (Klaiber 2004:228) and Jean Muir is not her natural self when she is with the Conventrys. Her ‘mask’, the leading role of the play, is essential to the rest of the play which revolves around her character. In regard to the crucial abilities of an actor to “exercise emotional control over their bodies”, “act on wide physical space” and “emotionally affect listeners sharing the same space” (Balme 2008:19) she has mastered all three. Within short time “Jean Muir was the life of the house” (BaM 25) and is liked by its inhabitants. She achieves this easily by her acting abilities, marking her as the leading role in both a literal and figurative sense. ‘Leading role’ here means not only that she is the main character in her play but also that she is leading the other characters into following her narrative and into taking their respective roles in it.

An obvious method to do so and to be perceived the way she wants to be is wearing a costume. Besides her false young appearance, she always wears black which gives the ‘costume changes’ more meaning. She dresses “all in white, with no ornament but her fair hair” (BaM 38) to appear more innocent to appeal to Gerald. Even Bella, who does not know of Jean Muir’s engagement to Sir John, remarks “how like a bride you look” (BaM 89) when her governess dresses accordingly for her secret marriage later that day. By appearance she can provoke certain images of her in other characters, raise expectations and lead them into the narrative she wants because she as an actress has knowledge of how she is perceived (cf. Klaiber 2004:217). This is reflected in the description of her having “very expressive features” and a “clear, low voice” (BaM 6), both attributes showing that she can deliver and embody a different character.

Throughout the novella her body language and gestures are described in more detail and length than any other characters:

- “Tears streamed down her cheeks, sobs choked her words, and she clasped her hands imploringly as she turned towards the young man” (BaM 58).
- “She colored beautifully, hesitated, then spoke out in the clear, steady voice which was her greatest charm” (BaM 32).
- “Her face was altered as her dress, for now a soft colour glowed in her cheeks, her eyes smiled shyly, and her lips no longer wore the firm look of one who forcibly repressed every emotion.” (BaM 39).

These are only a few instances of her acting abilities. These quotes demonstrate how well she deceives the Coventrys not only by words but by the physical, non-verbal and paraverbal aspects of acting.

Since she almost never leaves the stage, the actor-role relationship seems to be relying heavily on involvement as an acting strategy which in turn relies on creating a role by one’s own (emotional) experience (Balme 2008:22). Neither her role’s backstory, claiming to be daughter of Lady Howard (BaM 47), nor her extreme emotions turn out to be mere illusions or lies. The story of her background is partly true and the relation to Lady Howard not invented; Jean Muir turns out to be “the daughter of Lady Howard’s husband” (BaM 102). This grain of truth is the base principle of Jean Muir’s “self-dramatization” (Klaiber 2004:218). She uses aspects of her own life and puts them in a narrative which suits her plans. Her reactions and emotions, which seem sentimental or even overacted to modern readers, correspond with her off-stage self. Jean Muir has intense emotions which seem hard to control. Alone in her room she speaks “with passionate force” (BaM 11), marking her determination to succeed with her scheme. Also, her inner monologue reveals how she turns real emotions and passion into theatrical ones. When Sir John does not react to her acting as expected, “Jean watched him with despairing eyes and wrung her hands, saying to herself, Has all my skill deserted me when I need it most?” (BaM 80). Her desperation is to some extend real (self-doubt) but she turns it into the desperation of a unrequited lover.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Theatre, Theatricality and Metatheatre in "Behind a Mask" (1866) by Louisa May Alcott
University of Heidelberg  (Neuphilologisches Institut)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Louisa May Alcott, Behind a Mask, Theatre, Metatheatre, Theatricality, Acting
Quote paper
Almut Amberg (Author), 2017, Theatre, Theatricality and Metatheatre in "Behind a Mask" (1866) by Louisa May Alcott, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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