Rose Coghlan as Jocelyn. [chromolithographic theatrical poster for a burlesque player and leading actress in a cross-dressing role]
Disguised as a man, Jocelyn avenges the deaths of her brothers by killing her Prince
Brilliant poster for Rose Coghlan (1851–1932), Gilded Age burlesque player and leading actress, here in a female-to-male cross-dressing role in the romantic play Jocelyn set in France during the reign of King Louis XIII. Coghlan is prominently featured on the poster disguised as a man, in the title role of “Jocelyn, the Chatelaine of Boissac.”
The play was written by Coghlan’s brother, Charles F. Coghlan (1842–1899), an Anglo-Irish actor and playwright who enjoyed a long career on Broadway. Jocelyn was first produced in New York City, opening April 1, 1889 at the Star Theatre on Broadway with Rose Coghlan in the lead. Prior to this, in 1885, Rose had set up her own acting company and would later stage the first American production of A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde. She became an American citizen in 1902.
Coming to America from England in 1872, Rose Coghlan joined the burlesque touring company of Lydia Thompson (1838–1908), English dancer, actress, and theatrical producer. In her début role with Thompson’s company, Coghlan played “Jupiter,” king of the gods, in the play Ixion, with Thompson herself playing the male role of King Ixion. Thompson’s troupe, known popularly as the “British Blondes,” had come to America in 1868 causing much controversy. Risqué jokes and cross-dressing made them the talk of America. They were Victorian age sex symbols and their cultural impact undeniable. Author Maria Elena Buszek notes:
The biggest surprise of the Blondes’ success was the fact that the troupe used not the highbrow pretense of drama or ballet for their “leg show,” but bawdy humor and satire as the framework for their largely all-female performances. They lampooned…the very notion of the melodramatic and sentimental contemporary female that the ideal nineteenth-century “true woman” supposedly represented…Their choice of stage attire was equally brazen. Whether adapting togas or male garb, their costumes always emphasized the performers’ forms according to the very contemporary ideals of charismatic sexuality that actresses like Menken had already popularized. (Buszek, p42)
Critic Olive Logan found their performances scandalous: It was not their sexual display that Logan found objectionable—for that had been a residual effect of the art of actors and dancers for generations—but the acknowledgment and flaunting of their capacity for agency and pleasure, both professionally and sexually. For Logan, as for many social critics of the late nineteenth century, women’s ability to provoke sexual desire was an unfortunate fact of their existence, inevitably hindering women’s ability to function in the public sphere. However, for women to actually invite, control, and relish the same was another, more dangerous issue entirely. (Buszek, p42)
In Jocelyn, Coghlan plays the orphaned daughter of a poor Huguenot family. Jocelyn is courted by the play’s villain, Italian Prince Saviani, who, she discovers, has caused her three brothers be assassinated. While making her escape, Jocelyn disguises herself in her younger brother’s clothes. Meeting up with Prince Saviani, Jocelyn kills him in a duel. That a woman should should violently avenge the deaths of her brothers in a stage play—even while the actress is disguised as a man—is a potent image of her agency. She is a woman who does not need her prince.
Description: Rose Coghlan as Jocelyn. [chromolithographic theatrical poster for a burlesque player and leading actress in a cross-dressing role]
Cincinnati, New York, London: Strobridge Lith. Co., [c.1889]. Chromolithographic Poster. Approx. 40 x 29½ inches. Compound image depicting four vignettes from the play. Previously laid down onto paper and cloth thereby repairing a few closed and remarkably hidden tears; Very Good. A striking and attractive image.
No copies in OCLC. Refs. Brown, A History of the New York Stage…Vol. II (New York, 1903). Buszek, Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture… (Duke, 2006). “The Mimic World…Rose Coghlan in Jocelyn,” in Daily Alta California, Vol. 81, No. 35, Sunday, August 4, 1889 (San Francisco), p2.