CLASS AND THE CLASSICAL BODY
The overwhelming majority of beauty and strength performers in the long 19th century, including dancers, actresses, strongmen, contortionists, strongwomen, wrestlers, boxers, novelty performers, artists’ models and posers of all kinds, came from working-class families.1 Reliable biographical material, even if they became international sensations, is slim. In order to succeed in their chosen profession, performers who stretched the limits of contemporary conceptions of the body, needed to allure members of the middle and upper classes. Until the 1930s, this called for a new narrative, obscuring mundane origins, and, the greatest trick, rising above the chosen profession and the class position it betrayed. Their industry was the entertainment industry, their tools were their bodies, their lives were dependent on the paying public or wealthy patrons, and they appear in this chapter because they frequently used reference to the classical world to authorise, legitimate and broaden the appeal of their artform.
To convert their physical and often erotic capital into economic and social capital they draped their performance in the garb of respectability, which was either the lavish suits and dresses of the upper classes, or the fabric drapings, leather straps and bared flesh which people identified with Greco-Roman antiquity. The story of the relationship between the classical and the modern body in the late 18th to early 20th century is complex. To examine the performance of its protagonists is to witness an often perplexing dance, in which every step or flex of muscle risked confounding fair with foul and foul with fair. It is on this thin line, or perhaps ‘high-wire’, suspended above hazards including obscenity charges, scandal and oblivion, that the best strength and beauty performers deftly trod.
The smooth marble forms from Greek and Roman statuary could create aspirations for hygiene and physical health as well as for aesthetic and moral ideals. By desexualising the naked form (or by appearing to do so), performance which engaged with classical images perceived as incomparably noble could, and did, enable discourse about the body without descending to unchristian corporeal knowledge. This was essentially analogous to the role of the fig leaf. But such performance was simultaneously exploited as a means by which sexual imagery, which tapped into our deepest ‘heathen’ desires, could be commodified and brought to market.
There are countless contradictions and conundrums associated with the performance of classical forms for modern audiences,2 and they have been skilfully addressed by Anne Carden-Coyne and Joan Tumblety with regard, respectively, to Australian and French physical culture.3 But categorising bodily performance nationally is almost impossible, since it was a global phenomenon. The lives of modern Herculeses and Venuses were international and fast-moving. Strong men and women, fighters, and all manner of posing novelty actors toured incessantly, both around their home nations and abroad. Their acts were uniquely transcul-tural because language was no barrier. Beauty, strength and erotic appeal tend to operate universally. The familiar imagery of the classical Mediterranean world, exported for hundreds of years by European colonialism, but now in a period when commercialised ‘mass’ culture was rising steeply, also played an important part in the global marketing of these performances.
The popular and international consumption of the erotic classicising performance operated in four distinct but interconnected traditions, all pioneered by men and women from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, who captivated British audiences and inspired them to view the human form through a classical lens. First, Emma Hamilton (1765-1815), a blacksmith’s daughter from Cheshire, led the way in public appreciation for classical poses in her ‘Attitudes’, which she devised in Naples in the late 1780s.4 Second, the early 20th-century craze for ‘Greek dance’ in sheer muslin draperies, whose performers offered a veiled promise of sexual availability by abandoning their shoes and corsets, was inseparable from the name of Isadora Duncan (1878—1927). She first developed her taste for ancient Greece in London, and her performances in Britain caused a sensation;’ she was once referred to as ‘the Schliemann of ancient choreography’ for her reconstruction, restoration and ‘rebirth’ of ancient Greek dances.6 Duncan and her siblings grew up in a low-income single-parent family and were required to make money from giving dance lessons to local children in Oakland, California, from an early age.7 Third, the pioneer of equestrian circus performance was Andrew Ducrow from the Netherlands (1793-1842), the son of a Belgian circus performer and heavy athlete, Peter Ducrow, known as the ‘Flemish Hercules’, who had himself found great success on tour in Britain.8 Ducrow Junior devised wildly acrobatic classical re-enactment, often done at high speed on the backs of horses (see above pp. 348-9).9 Finally, Eugen Sandow (1867-1925) is widely considered to be the father of modern bodybuilding. Of obscure Prussian origins, in his youth Sandow plied the disreputable trades of artists’ model and prize-fighter, but later became an internationally renowned strongman and poseur, establishing the global phenomenon of ‘Physical Culture’ on classical foundations, and we shall return to him later.10