One of the most memorable of the many memorable lines uttered by the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey occurs during Season Two when word comes that her granddaughter, Lady Edith, is considering a career as a journalist. “When may she expect an offer to appear on the London stage?” snaps the old lady.
That disparaging comment reflects an attitude, held for centuries in England and inherited by the United States, that the acting profession was one of the lowest of the low – indeed, barely a step above criminal and prostitute. It held in Shakespeare’s time, and lingered into the 20th century, into and beyond the Edwardian era.
The irony in the case of the fictional Dowager Countess is that she is played by Dame Maggie Smith. That honorific, which corresponds to the male Sir, denotes that the bearer is a Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (DBE), an honor bestowed upon actors for their “services to drama.” For a man, it’s called a knighthood. The notable performers who’ve received the honor include Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir Michael Redgrave, Sir Alec Guinness, Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Patrick Stewart, and Sir Elton John. The female ranks have included Dame Judi Dench, Dame Helen Mirren, Dame Judith Anderson, and opera singer Dame Joan Sutherland. Lower on the hierarchy are respected performers who haven’t been around as long. Kate Winslet gets the letters CBE appended to her name, having been honored as a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, a lower rank that doesn’t merit the title Dame but still represents a type of formal recognition we don’t have in the U.S.
The founders of the United States expressly rejected the class distinctions reflected in those titles, and such honorifics have never taken hold in America. Nevertheless, the acting profession stateside has undergone a similar status lift, though, sadly, in the U.S. men have a much easier time breaking into the honored-actor corps than women do. The American public venerates their most accomplished actors almost as much as the British do their own. Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and Meryl Streep are just a few of those admitted to the (informal) pantheon after long and distinguished careers.
What accounts for this drastic reversal in status – from the dregs to the heavens – for the acting profession on both sides of the Atlantic? Maybe it’s a question best left to sociologists, but I’d guess that broadcasting and mass communication had something to do with it. When a whole population, rather than just a select and mostly local live audience, can witness en masse a fine performer reflecting and distilling a recognizable and important facet of the character of the age, they way the best actors can; when appreciation for a performer’s skill and loyalty to the truth becomes universal; when people who know each other only casually, or not at all, can debate the merits of the latest TV series, Hollywood film, or Oscar nominations over the water cooler or the Internet; then the stars of those productions have ascended to the heights of respect as well as fame, and in the process become cultural demigods.
It’s no wonder, then, that the British now make their heroic thespians – their Captain Picards, Obi Wan Kenobis, and “M”s as much as their Hamlets and Falstaffs – into Sirs and Dames, no matter what the Lords and Ladies of Downton Abbey would have thought.