Felicity Nussbaum: The Invention of Celebrity

This is an Archive of a Past Event

In the long eighteenth century England experienced the birth of celebrity. The expansion of print culture, along with the rise of mercantilism, the lessening power of the aristocracy, and an increase in leisure gave rise to a media apparatus that was essential to the construction of inordinately powerful and often willfully mysterious public figures. In an age arguably dominated less by the author than by the actor, celebrated actresses-- consistently dismissed as prostitutes who traded on their sexual power rather than their talents-- became central to the success of the commercial theatre that emerged from a patronage system. Urban, newly moneyed, and thoroughly engaged with their audiences, they were among the first women to achieve social mobility, cultural authority, and financial independence by virtue of their own talents. These early celebrities embodied new forms of individuality that emphasized the value of the private even while encouraging its invasion.