Chorus Girls

From the cabaret to the nightclub, from the theater to the ballet, women who perform in public have attracted writers and artists for as long as women have performed in public. Unlike the prostitute, who, as Walter Benjamin once said, is “saleswoman and wares in one,” the chorus girl is not exactly selling herself—she’s selling a dream of who she might be. The gaze that falls on her is sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes singular, sometimes multiple. Onstage or off, the chorus girl is defined by her relationship to a necessary other—her audience—who, after all, may just be the reader.

Nana by Emile Zola, translated by George Holden

Born on the “dung heap” in the insalubrious Goutte d’Or section of Paris, Nana is a chorus girl and prostitute–turned–leading lady and demimondaine. The novel opens as a crowd gathers at the Variétés Theater, waiting for Nana to make her debut. Zola lifts one veil after another in the multilayered first chapter, setting the scene by introducing us to the audience and the actors, building anticipation before Nana takes the stage. She is exceptionally untalented (“Never had a more tuneless voice been heard or one managed with less art”) but is still a resounding success, largely because she “shed round her an odor of life, a sovereign feminine charm, with which the public grew intoxicated.” Zola employs the juxtaposition of Second Empire luxury with the filth and decay of the city’s poverty to great effect, perfectly framing it all with the decadence of late-nineteenth-century Parisian theater.

“The Chorus Girl” by Anton Chekhov, translated by Constance Garnett

Madame Kolpakov shows up at chorus girl Pasha’s summer villa and tells her that her husband is wanted for embezzling money. She begs Pasha for the jewelry that she wrongly assumes her husband has given her. In order to mollify the woman, Pasha gives Madame Kolpakov gifts that she received from other admirers. Here, Chekhov collapses the difference between the wife and mistress; the wife’s disarray is as much a performance as any Pasha gives at the theater. The twist at the story’s end skirts sentimentality and leaves the reader with a strong feeling of injustice.

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

Caroline Meeber, a “little soldier of fortune,” leaves home for Chicago to stay with her sister. The novel recounts Carrie’s fall from virtue, which coincides with her rise to fame and fortune. She runs off to New York with Hurstwood, a married man, and quickly begins to make a living onstage. Through a combination of luck and charm, she eventually rises to the top, headlining on Broadway, and we see her ensconced in a swanky hotel room. Meanwhile, Hurstwood sinks to the depths and dies an anonymous death.

The Vagabond by Colette, translated by Enid McLeod

After leaving her husband, Renée Néré (note, in the name’s near palindrome, rené, “reborn”), who has had some success as a writer, takes to the stage, relishing her independence and her “pleasant, painful work.” When the marquis de Fontanges comes a-courting after a performance, she rebuffs him. For Renée, a lover—any lover—can only interfere with one’s relationship to oneself: “Who will knock at my dressing room door, what face will impose itself between myself and the rouged advisor who peers at me from the other side of the mirror?”

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

Performer Anna Morgan is a dreamer; on being taken up by the wealthy Walter Jeffries, she thinks she has found real love and gives up the theater. When he leaves her, she sinks into despair that gets worse as she goes from man to man and bed to bed. Rhys is an expert at depicting the dark side of postwar female independence; she shows that a “liberated” society can destroy a woman as surely as can an unliberated one. In a nice moment of intertextuality, Anna reads Nana at the beginning of the novel.

“Sally Bowles” by Christopher Isherwood

In Weimar Germany, Isherwood’s alter ego meets Sally Bowles, a nineteen-year-old English girl working in a seedy cabaret, dreaming of becoming a famous actress. Isherwood shows that she has carefully constructed her persona: “She pronounce[s] every word in a mincing, specially ‘foreign’ manner,” laughs a “silly little stage laugh,” and calls everyone “darling” and “sweet”; a prototypical Holly Golightly with a fondness for prairie oysters.

Wise Children by Angela Carter

Of all the chorus girls on this list, Carter’s septuagenarian song-and-dance girls, Dora and Nora Chance, pack the most punch. They’re just the first set of twins in this 1991 novel, which is Shakespearian to the hilt, with carnivalesque bawdiness, gender swapping, switched identities, comic (and tragic) revelations, and comic (and tragic) reversals. Shakespeare connotes highbrow culture to many, but Carter deftly channels the campiness, the queer, and the slapstick that have been Masterpiece Theater–ed out of the Bard.

Lauren Elkin publishes the Paris-based blog Maîtresse.