This week, learn how the most famous American theater actress of the early 20th Century used gender-bending roles to push the early boundaries of a queer aesthetic.
Salt Lake City native Maude Adams was the highest paid and most beloved American actress of her time. She was also a cross-dressing performer whose choice of theater parts routinely disrupted gender roles.
Adams worked in the theater since childhood, but became a bona fide star in 1897 in “The Little Minister,” which ran for 300 performances at the Empire Theatre in New York City. With stardom came power. And Adams used that power to work with theater producer Charles Frohman – a gay man – to expand the kinds of stage roles available to American actresses. These roles involved playing male characters in five major Broadway shows – at the time called “breeches productions” in reference to the men’s pants that cross-dressing actresses wore. More than any other role, Adams was known as the original Peter Pan. In multiple stagings over many years, her portrayal of the winsome, puckish boy “who wouldn’t grow up,” secured her place – and that of her character – in the hearts and minds of whole generations of Americans.
Adams was a closeted lesbian, and was determined to portray women as different, and more nuanced, than the one-dimensional female stereotypes that were common at the time. And she did so – not on the vaudeville or burlesque circuits – but within the legitimate theater, which had become a place of great “social cachet for the monied class.” With her elfish mannerisms, the hard-working Adams had a reputation for virtue and wholesomeness, even shyness, which kept her “beyond suspicion – even in male attire – for those repulsed by purported perversity.”
Adams always recalled with fondness her upbringing in the Beehive Sate. “When complimented on her [signature] kindness to strangers … she would say, ‘It was not kindness; it was Salt Lakeness.’” Still, her sweetness belied her strength. The tiny but formidable actress chose her roles carefully and used her popularity to shape a career that would become the prologue for female and LGBTQ empowerment for generations to come.
David G. Pace for Utah Humanities © 2017
See Rachelle Pace Castor, “Maude Adams: No Other Actress Can Take Her Place,” in Worth Their Salt: Notable but Often Unnoted Women of Utah, ed. by Colleen Whitley, Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1996, pp 189-201; Kim Marra, Strange Duets: Impresarios and Actresses in the American Theatre, 1865-1914, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2009, pp 106-107; and Susan Easton Black and Mary Jane Woodger, Women of Character, American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, Inc., 2011, pp 1-3.