Celebrity Origin Stories: Mary Ann Yates's biography

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter in a book


In April 1783, the British Magazine and Revue; or Universal Miscellany published a “modern biography” of the actress-manageress Mary Ann Graham Yates, who was still living, and indeed, still performing, although at the end of her stellar career. This biography, which was excerpted and reprinted as Yates’s ‘authentic memoirs’ after her death in 1787, purports to “give an account of her progress in the delightful art she has made her profession” (251). The account begins with a theatrical anecdote: “our celebrated actress had never seen a play, till, at the age of sixteen, a lady took her to Romeo and Juliet; when the impassioned performance of Mrs. Cibber opened a new day on her delighted imagination” (251). The anecdote goes on to describe the impact of Susannah Cibber’s performance on the mind, manners and life of Mary Ann Graham, who succeeds Cibber as the stage’s leading tragedienne. This is theatrical anecdote at its most powerful. It is as revealing as it is factually inaccurate. However, the significance of this anecdote is not in any truth value it might have, but in the cultural need the story serves: it gives Mary Ann Yates an origin story and slots her into a theatrical line of succession, turning her relationship with Cibber into a story about the contagion of genius. It erases the differences between Cibber and Yates as well as rendering the craft and labour of acting invisible. My essay will use this anecdote to theorise the cultural work of origin stories in erasing theatrical conflict and in making “celebrity” appear natural and inevitable.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTheatrical Anecdotes
EditorsHeather Ladd
PublisherUniversity of Delaware Press
Publication statusIn preparation - 2019


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