A Show of One's Own: Dorothy Sands and the Rise of Solo Performance in America

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This dissertation calls scholarly attention to Dorothy Sands (1893-1980), an American actress and parodist who achieved nationwide fame during the Great Depression for one-woman shows that put theater history itself onstage. In her solo works, Sands alternated lectures on theatrical periods with impersonations of stars from the past, delivering monologues in the styles in which they would have been performed. In Styles in Acting (1932), Sands presented speeches from the English stage as delivered by past and then-present stars, from the Restoration era forward. In Our Stage and Stars (1933), Sands traced theater history from the American Revolution up to the “Vampire Vixens” of cinema (Greta Garbo, Theda Bara, and Mae West). Sands earned accolades from critics and audiences alike; accrued a resume of over 100 Broadway, regional theater, television, and radio drama roles; and became a noted theater educator. Solo performance represents the most widespread kind of theater worldwide, and perhaps the most ancient. Recovering Sands from her position as an understudied voice contributes to our understanding of the development of solo performance in America. Also, Sands’ work touches on key issues in theater and performance studies, such as the limits of historical retrieval in past performance forms, the politics of archive and canon, and the nature of embodied identity in performance. This dissertation studies Sands’ life and work in order to fill in a gap in theater history, and also to address current debates in performance historiography, new play development, and actor presence.