Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Sharon Marcus's "The Drama of Celebrity"

Sharon Marcus is the Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She is a founding editor of Public Books and the author of the award-winning Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England and Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London.

Marcus applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Drama of Celebrity, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Drama of Celebrity starts with a discussion of an image reproduced on page 98: a splendid color portrait of the actress Maude Adams, which a scrapbook compiler tore out of a magazine and glued into an album. I describe the act of placing a magazine page in an album as “resituation.” Media scholars often talk about remediation: examples of that include turning a record into a CD, or a piece of paper into a PDF. Resituation is even more bare bones: the medium doesn’t change, someone simply moves a piece of media – from a magazine to an album, or from one website to another.

Page 99 then shifts to discussing a typical page from a typical theater scrapbook compiled in 1892. In the 1890s, millions of people attended the theater every year, and the woman who compiled this 1892 scrapbook went to the theater a few times a week. Her album featured preprinted rubrics that prompted the compiler to list “Impressions of the Play,” “Criticisms of the Performance,” and “Criticism of Individual Actors.” Like many compilers, this one was as interested in describing her social experience as her theatrical one. She did comment on the actors, but under “Impressions of the Play,” she talked about where she went to dinner.

Page 99 is typical of my book in several ways. The page discusses theater, and my book argues that to understand celebrity culture, we need to understand its theatrical origins, to go back before the Internet and before Hollywood. Page 99 is about scrapbooks, and my book draws on hundreds of 19th- and early 20th-century scrapbooks to reconstruct how fans responded to celebrities before the Internet. Most tellingly, page 99 discusses how fans interact with media that represent celebrities, which exemplifies my book’s definition of celebrity: it results from the unpredictable interactions of publics, media, and celebrities themselves. Throughout, I try to focus on the most ordinary fans – not the stalkers, not the energetic, creative folks who write fan fiction, but the millions of people whose “brief acts of attention,” such as compiling scrapbooks, sustain celebrity culture. When it comes to twentieth-century stars, we usually have film or video footage that allows us to see them in action and witness how audiences responded to them. For nineteenth-century celebrities, we need to turn to neglected sources like these scrapbooks to understand how publics perceived them.
Learn more about The Drama of Celebrity at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue