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Editor in Chief: Franc Chamberlain, Nene College, Northampton, UK.

Editorial Board: Rufus Collins (Netherlands), Leon Gitelman (Russia), Malcolm Knight (UK), Jacques
Lecoq (France), Judith Malina (USA), Neville Shulman (UK), Anatoly M.Smeliansky (Russia), Maria
Delgado (UK).
Aims and Scope
Contemporary Theatre Review is an international journal concerned with all aspects of theatre—from
text-based drama and current developments worldwide, to work of an interdisciplinary or cross-cultural
nature. The journal includes primary material, production notes, documents and interviews as well as
research. Contemporary Theatre Review complements the companion Contemporary Theatre Studies
book series.

Notes for contributors can be found at the back of the journal.

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ISBN 0-203-98607-5 Master e-book ISBN

ISBN 3-7186-5598-5 (Print Edition)

Julia Pascal

This introduction explores some of the feminist debates conducted by theatre practitioners over the
past fifteen years. It is a personal account of the editor’s own experience coupled with an analysis of
several, particularly British, problems.

KEY WORDS The Glass Ceiling, drama-as-conflict, The Conference of Women Theatre Directors
and Administrators.

My impulse for editing this work was to encourage the feminist debate in theatre. During the last decade in
Britain, the serious discussion has gone on mainly in secret. Anxiety about criticising inequality,
particularly in the subsidised sector, has been, and still is, widespread. Many women practitioners fear
jeopardising future possible employment by expressing feminist views. In a world of high unemployment
and fierce competition between rival males, women’s position is extremely weak. Sexual apartheid is
frequently the norm in British state theatre. Although government funding bodies, such as the Arts Council
and Regional Arts Associations, have pressured clients to employ the disabled and those from so called
‘ethnic minorities’—there is no such parallel impulse to offer equality to women.
The writers, I invited to write for this edition, were not involved in those particularly British discussions
because most of them live elsewhere. They speak from their individual experiences and their own cultural
and political backgrounds. But many of the issues raised are international.
Béatrice Picon-Vallin offers the works of the Russian playwright Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. In two
papers, Celita Lamar examines the contemporary French perspective. The French Revolution, as seen
through the eyes of modern playwright Vera Feyder, is analysed by Patricia Lancaster. British gay politics are
explored by Jackie Clune. Elizabeth Jane Schafer examines Cleopatra through the male gaze. Susan Lynn
Carlson gives us the Midwest’s Omaha Magic Theatre. A pragmatic view of women’s role in Australian
theatre is offered by Peta Tait. Susan Bassnett takes a look at contemporary Italian Theatre and Susan
Bennett at Canadian theatre.

But what of the British debate?

It was one weekend in the early 1980s that the women’s theatre movement lurched from a state of imminent
rebellion to subservient reform. The moment in question was the end of a long-running series of debates
held by The Conference of Women Theatre Directors and Administrators. This organisation was a think-
tank engaging in theories of women’s working methods. It also surveyed the state of women’s employment
in British subsidised theatres and found out, to nobody’s suprise, that women were either secretaries, personal
assistants, domestic workers and occasionally assistant directors or designers. The majority of women
directors were to be found marginalised, on the ill-funded fringe. Women administrators fared slightly
better in small and middle scale companies but hardly figured at all in the large playing arenas of the high
profile theatres such as the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company. The governing bodies or
boards, as they are known, were also examined. It was found then (and in 1994, little has changed) that
most boards—the so-called ‘great and good’ were a majority of men with a few token ‘ladies’. This meant
that women applying for high profile jobs were always made to feel outsiders to the norm.
I should perhaps state my own background to show where I personally fit in to the debate. I am the
granddaughter of Roumanian Jews who settled in Manchester on my mother’s side and, paternally, the
great-granddaughter of Lithuanian Jews who ended up in Dublin. The Roumanians were of a liberal
bourgeois mentality and the Lithuanians rooted in the mores of the nineteenth century ghetto. My father was
of the generation that moved from a family of impecunious Talmud scholars to the respectable Anglo-Irish
world of medicine. He and his three brothers studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin and were the first
generation to go to university. The money to pay their fees was earned by their sisters who played piano for
the silent movies. My father, true to his background, urged me to spurn education, marry in to a good
Jewish family and produce sons! My ambition to work in theatre was considered a sin close to prostitution!
I refused his world. In 1967, I was accepted as a student at E15 Acting School which was inspired by
Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop methods. I then acted for four years. At 24 I wanted to move from
acting to directing and read English Literature at London University. While taking finals, I returned to
acting at the National Theatre and then, after a year as Associate Director at The Orange Tree Theatre,
formed Pascal Theatre Company.
The decision to go to university changed my life and was the most important step in my personal
liberation. I wanted to use my education to help myself and others express themselves in the world I know
But none of us can work in isolation and it was important to me to connect with those who were not part
of the Oxbridge establishment. In the daily British newspaper The Guardian, and the now defunct weekly
London Magazine City Limits, I wrote of inequality in Peter Hall’s National Theatre and in Trevor Nunn’s
Royal Shakespeare Company. This provoked an immediate reaction as token women were briefly hired as
writers and directors but, fundamentally, the power structure remained static. At the same time, interestingly
enough, black actors were agitating for integrated casting and their protest had some measure of success.
They were ready to be more vociferous than the mainly white, middle class women practitioners. They knew
they had nothing to lose whereas the women already felt themselves somewhat privileged in this society and
therefore were less willing to rock the boat. They did not realize that even if one is born middle class and
privileged there is no need to identify with this state of mind.
By the mid 1980s the argument amongst us progressed. Gloria Steinem’s question was raised. Did we
just want a piece of the cake or did we want to bake a new one? The larger political questions of class, race
and working methods were occasionally touched upon and quickly forgotten. Since 1990 The Glass Ceiling
Debates organised by The Sphinx Theatre Company (formerly Women’s Theatre Group) have revitalised
the debate. But the gap between talk and action is still to be breached.

For this volume, many of the women theatre directors I admire could not be persuaded to write of their
experience. It was as if the doing itself could not be analysed yet. Part of our discussions a decade ago asked
where were we to find models. Should we copy the male style of Oxbridge game-playing where the director
is the model of his form master; the gentle or perhaps didactic pedagogue leading the rehearsal room as if it
were a minor public school?
On a deeper level we asked ourselves should we be the dictator or the democrat? Should we follow
Socrates and the drama-as-conflict theory or redefine drama as an expression of lateral thinking? As
playwrights, we knew our texts could also be inspired by dreams, song and dance. We looked at the drama
of continents other than our own white western Europe. We saw that Indian and African dance drama could
also teach us skills. Students of Peter Brook and admirers of his book The Empty Space, we knew that we
also were entering a holy place.

But whose holy place?

If theatre in Britain connects back to the Church and its Mystery Plays, then how could we escape the
unconscious male collective memory of theatre/church as a place where woman is a spectator and never a
leader: a place indeed where she is often ‘unclean’ and where her voice should not be heard. Are the images
of Eve, Mary Magdalene and Mary The Virgin, still firmly rooted in that memory? In the Apocrypha we
read that Lilith, Adam’s first wife, was thrown out of the Garden of Eden for manifesting her sexual power.
Lilith who steals babies, steals semen, steals creativity: is the warning to all ‘disobedient’ females. Today’s
current conflict about the place of women priests in the Anglican Church tells us that in Europe, the power
struggle for control of the ‘holy’ is still crucial.
Where women have been hugely instrumental in changing British theatre their role has been forgotten.
Without Annie Horniman or Lilian Baylis there would be no National Theatre today. But The National
Theatre has named no Baylis or Horniman Theatre in their honour. Poor Lilian Baylis has only a National
Theatre Terrace and Annie Horniman—no mention at all.
Returning to our recent historical perspective, at the momentous meeting a decade ago, a minority of us
suggested approaching the Arts Council of Great Britain (as it was then known). We proposed that they only
fund our national theatres when these institutions implement an equal opportunities policy. Some of us were
learning from our black theatre colleagues’ demands. If black theatre workers could demand equality, why
couldn’t we women?
When the debate started, a majority of Conference participants expressed alarm. They said, ‘let’s have
meetings with Peter Hall and see if we can improve the situation’. At the National Theatre, representatives
from the Conference were politely listened to, smiles were offered by the women hoping for employment
and, of course, in that particularly British way, nothing happened. The root of the problem was these
women’s deep fear of political confrontation. And, being British, they were in a double bind. As women
they had learnt to “get their way” by being “good little girls” and not by making demands. As middle class
British citizens they had learnt that “good behaviour” means never expressing too strong an opinion or
standing out in a group. Although they could acknowledge that others making demands, such as the gay and
the black practitioners, were being heard, the women, unable to see themselves as ‘outsiders’, individually
hoped to gain entrance through the back door as the chosen exception. Those who have gained entrance
through the action of the more militant activists, have remained silent about their role as the token women in
these state theatres. In Thatcher’s spirit, they have never challenged the state theatres on their position. It is
as if the establishment has bought their silence.

The Conference of Women Theatre Directors and Administrators decided to persevere with its soft option
of talks—not—action. There was a general desire ‘not to cause trouble’. There was little political awareness
except a low level feeling that ‘things are not quite right’. At the open vote only the women’s theatre
company Clean Break (an ensemble composed of former prisoners, mostly gay, working class) and myself
voted for direct action. The majority were seduced by the Thatcher idea of setting up shop in the private
sector. This gave the illusion of activity without engaging in political confrontation. The Women’s
Playhouse Trust was formed to buy a West End theatre and produce commercial plays. It was a Thatcherite
idea which encouraged the dream of, sponsorship from rich Tory ladies, and gaining patrons such as Lady Di
to help raise sponsorship. Of course few fairy godmothers appeared.
In the early 1980s we saw male establishment directors who had graduated in a climate of civil liberties
during the 1960s and seventies, men once the vanguards of freedom and anti-censorship, now in their
middle age, controlling these exclusive power structures. We, as women, were paying taxes to subsidise
state theatres which refused our equal participation. Even Tory feminists acknowledged this injustice but, so
great was their fear of confrontation, that the Conference was unable to progress.
All debate ceased and the majority still continued to slog it out on the ill-funded fringe. There have been
some recent improvements, particularly in the regions. Today there is Jude Kelly at Leeds Playhouse and
Helena Kaut-Howson at Theatre Clwyd. (As we go to press it is revealed that, despite her success at Clwyd,
the Board is not renewing her contract.) Annie Castledine was Artistic Director at Derby Playhouse for several
years. But these are the still the exceptions. It is with ‘Auntie’ (the pet name for BBC Radio) that women
have flourished as writers, directors and producers (Radio is still perceived-wrongly-by many to be a
women’s medium.)
Is the situation different in France or Germany? I asked group of leading French journalists if women are
well-represented in theatre. ‘We have had our feminist movement’ they tell me. ‘There is no
discrimination’. Indeed there seems to be no great surge of women’s playwriting or directing in France but
then, theatrically, there is little New Writing at all. During the 1970s and early 1980s, Britain encouraged
New Writing Schemes which obliged companies to commission emerging talent. In France, there was no
such funding pressure. In Paris and the provinces, this is Director’s Theatre where directors, usually male
(the notable exception is Ariane Mnouchkine) adapt a novel or present yet another high-tech production of
An invitation by The Goethe Institute to Berlin’s 1993 Theatertreffen gave me a sense of the
contemporary German theatre scene. Theatertreffen is a two week May festival where ‘the best of German
theatre’ is shown in Berlin. Of the twelve productions selected, two have women directors. There are no
women writers represented. But then many of the male writers are dead: Shakespeare, Rolf Hochhuth,
Georg Büchner, Alexander Ostrowski, Hugo Von Hofmanthsthal.
Does it really matter that women are so poorly represented in European theatre? Won’t they continue to
write and direct despite their disadvantaged positions? Being a talented writer or director is not enough. The
individual has to know how to engage in the larger political struggle. It means ‘coming out’ rather than
trying to gain a special individual place in the sun. Theatre is a very public world and (s)he who holds the
purse strings dictates the cultural and political agenda.
What is the answer? In the commercial world, Agatha Christie is London’s longest running successful
author. Where money talks gender politics are irrelevant. In Britain, France and Germany the subsidised
theatre is a microcosm of state politics whether Left or Right is in power. At this moment Jacques Toubon,
France’s Minister for Culture, is replacing Jack Lang’s Socialist appointments. In this merry-go-round, the
men exchange places as Right replaces Left. But, onstage, does anything really change?

Women in European theatre—and internationally—need to move towards concerted political action.

Black performers have begun a serious and fearless movement. Their battle is not won but at least their
rights as British citizens and performers have been recognized and changes have been made. Women theatre
workers have to be braver in their demand for equality. We are 52% of the population and yet we accept
sexual apartheid in our cultural establishments. Power has to be taken by whatever means possible—all
revolutions show us that it is never freely given up. What have we to lose—but our silence.

Julia Pascal was the first woman director at The National Theatre. Her plays include: the
dramatisation of Dorothy Parker’s writings, Men Seldom Make Passes, (National Theatre), Far
Above Rubies (Drill Hall), Charlotte & Jane for BBC Television, Theresa, A Dead Woman On
Holiday, The Dybbuk and Year Zero/L’Année Zero. She is a theatre director and founder of Pascal
Theatre Company working both in Britain and Europe. Her childhood autobiography Prima
Ballerina Assoluta is published by Virago in Truth, Dare or Promise.
Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, the Male Gaze, and Madonna:
Performance Dilemmas
Elizabeth Schafer
Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, University of London

Shakespeare’s Cleopatra offers much material for feminist analysis; however, her circumscription by
the male gaze is disabling both for herself and for women caught in the trap of believing ‘infinite
variety’ to be a desideratum in a woman. Consequently Cleopatra’s success in playing to the gaze
needs to be deconstructed. Cross reference to the example of Madonna suggests that even an intensely
self-conscious and analytical performer is likely, finally, to collude with the oppression of the
male gaze.

KEY WORD: Shakespeare’s Cleopatra: male gaze: feminist criticism: Madonna

A striking feature of Shakespeare’s construction of Cleopatra is its overt theatricality. Barbara Freedman
(1991) suggests that theatricality involves a subject who is always ‘aware that she is seen’ and ‘reflects that
awareness, and so deflects our look’ (p. 1). This offers a useful approach to Cleopatra and suggests that
Antony and Cleopatra, like the Shakespearian comedies examined by Freedman, could be seen to be
playing subversive and complex ‘games with right spectatorship’ and problematizing the action of
presuming to ‘read’ (p. 20). However, Cleopatra’s potentially subversive theatricality also tragically
confines Shakespeare’s construction of the (camp) queen/quean of Egypt. Cleopatra is consistently
exhibited as trapped by and yet also in collusion with the male gaze, a gaze which feminist theatre critics
are increasingly committed to deconstructing (Case, 1988; Austin, 1990; Freedman, 1991).
Positioning Shakespeare’s Cleopatra as both a victim of and accomplice with the male gaze is a
depressing project because in many ways she is the only consistently stimulating, seriously heroic female
character created by Shakespeare. The extent of the challenge she provides to dominant ideology is
evidenced by the lengths critics have gone to in order to discredit her theatrical power; Linda Fitz (1977)
charts the overt misogyny successive generations of ‘objective’ academic male critics have had to deploy in
order to discredit the character. The tradition of demonising Cleopatra is continued and far more widely
disseminated, in the cover illustration of the new penguin edition of Antony and Cleopatra. Antony’s
‘serpent of old Nile’ (I.5.25) is represented as a hooded cobra, dangerous and clearly poised to strike. The
snake is encircling/strangling a broken off/castrated Roman column, the fallen remains of Antony’s
manhood. A fig leaf references not only the basket of figs in which the ‘asp’ is conveyed to Cleopatra but
also the misogynist linking of snakes and ‘evil’ women in the Eve story. The fact that the snake also

suggests the royalty of the pharaonic crown hardly compensates for the overwhelming impression—on a
symbolic level—that the snake Cleopatra is a devouring vamp.
The need for such misogynist tactics to be deployed only confirms that of all Shakespeare’s plays Antony
and Cleopatra offers some of the most exciting and amenable material for feminist analysis, inviting the
feminist critic of Renaissance drama to take a break from the usual disempowering routine of charting
woman as victim, the monstrous feminine and seductively packaged misogyny. For example, on the basis of
her lyrical reading of Antony and Cleopatra Helene Cixous (1987, p. 122) can claim approvingly that
Shakespeare ‘was neither man nor woman but a thousand persons’. Woodbridge (1984) confirms that
Antony and Cleopatra centres on a tragic and sympathetic sexually aware female character in a way almost
unparalleled in the English Renaissance.1 The play is also suggestive for feminism in its iconography. The
power of the mother goddess Isis is remembered at Cleopatra’s court (I.2.65, 68, 70: I.5.70: III.3.15) and
Cleopatra identifies herself with the power of Isis when she appears in public in ‘th’ habiliments of the
goddess’ (III.6.17). The image of Isis is sometimes serious, sometimes joking, but it is also picking up on
centuries of recognition of effective female power.
Another suggestive feature of the play for feminism is its emphasis on fluidity, on deliquescence. The
over spilling Nile, in its destructive but also life giving expansiveness, offers an emblem of the play’s own
overflowing, a structuring which could be described (in comparison with other plays by Shakespeare)
as having a feminine morphology (Case, 1988, p. 129). Despite Philip J.Traci’s (1970) attempt to read the
play as achieving a single, male, sexual climax, Antony and Cleopatra’s multiple climaxes, its refusal of
clear focus or linear development all suggest a female libidinal flow. Cleopatra’s sensuous, (orgasmic?)
deliquescent death (Neely, 1985, p. 161) also reconstitutes the phallic asp as Cleopatra’s baby at her
breast, complicating Freud’s construction whereby a baby substitutes for a woman’s lack of the phallus
(Gardiner, 1985). The snake is a particularly loaded symbol here because, before its appropriation as a
phallic symbol, it was associated with the power of the mother goddesses, wisdom and healing (e.g.
Hughes-Hallett (1991) plate 4).
Perhaps the most obvious material for encouraging a feminist reading of Antony and Cleopatra appears in
Cleopatra’s provocative play with gender roles. As many critics have pointed out, Cleopatra disrupts the
masculinity of Antony and the femininity of herself;—she wears his ‘sword Phillipan’, he wears her ‘tires’
(II.5.22–3): Antony is ‘not more manlike/Than Cleopatra, not the queen of Ptolemy/More womanly than he’
(I.4.5–7): Cleopatra will ‘appear there for a man’ in battle (III.7.18): and Antony mourns ‘She has robbed me
of my sword’ (IV.14.23.). However, the image I find most telling appears in Cleopatra’s comments on the
treacherous Antony; ‘Though he be painted one way like a Gorgon,/The other way’s a Mars’ (II.5.116–7).
The reference is to trick perspective pictures much in vogue in the Renaissance (Freedman, 1991, p. 28–9).
However, the alternative views of Antony construct him either as the male god of war or the
female, snake-haired Medusa whose gaze transfixed men and turned them to stone. Medusa is important as
a myth figure because she offers a remnant of the mother goddess power outlawed and rendered monstrous
by the patriarchal myths of Ancient Greece, ‘an image of womanly potency and castration which has
always struck

1 The only comparable character according to Woodbridge (1984) p. 260 is Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. Woodbridge
claims that in the Renaissance; ‘Defenders of women almost never got beyond contending that the old ugly charges
were not true, or not universally true. The duchess and Cleopatra are virtually the only women whose creators dared to
maintain that the old ugly charges weren’t really ugly’.

terror into male hearts’ (Hughes-Hallett (1991) p. 185).2 Cixous (1987) mocks the patriarchal terror; ‘All
you have to do to see the Medusa is look her in the face: and she isn’t deadly. She is beautiful and she laughs’
(p. 69). However, the male inscribed version—Antony as Medusa—does, as it were, turn Cleopatra to stone
or inanimacy with its gaze; playing for a final time to Antony’s gaze the dying Cleopatra ‘changes before
our eyes from a breathing human being into an inanimate work of art, something to be gazed at—as Caesar
and his men do in fact gaze at her’ (Jones, 1977, p. 42).
Cleopatra is also however, damagingly complicit with the male gaze that kills her. Partly this is a survival
strategy. Despite the fact that Cleopatra is queen of Egypt, her femaleness means she has both to pander to
the male power brokers—

That Herod’s head

I’ll have; but how, when Antony is gone,
Through whom I might command it? (III.3.4–6).

and play to their gaze—‘my becomings kill me when they do not/Eye well to you (Antony)’ (I.3.96–7).
Cleopatra’s enthusiasm for playing to the gaze is also related to her much commented upon fondness for
play acting;

Cleopatra, catching but the least noise of this, dies instantly. I have seen her die twenty times upon far
poorer moment. I do think there is mettle in death, which commits some loving act upon her, she hath
such a celerity in dying (I.2.141–5).

Her ‘infinite variety’—an attribute which, given its enthusiastic endorsement by the ‘boringly conventional
antifeminst’ Enobarbus (Fitz, 1977, p. 306),3 we should resist as a desideratum—is simply skill in acting or
deceit. Loomba (1989) finds subversion here and a ‘threat’ allied to the threat Renaissance popular theatre
‘posed to the status quo’ (p. 77). Cixous (1987) celebrates Cleopatra’s enjoyment of playacting to the gaze;

She knew how to give herself to being seen, to bestow unforgettable beauty on seeing, in a
representation whose moments rhythm the awakening of desire, its blooming and its delighted
satisfaction (p. 126)

and goes on to speak of Cleopatra

organizing the look’s route, by degrees, by a series of postponements, of detours, of approximations

that excite and suspend and make souls spin around the fire…Then she, immobile and apparently
indifferent, seemingly passive, yields to the looks, which she calls, which she takes (p. 127).

2 Australian playwright Alma de Groen, in her play The Rivers of China, deconstructs both the male gaze and a liberal
feminist counterpart, ‘the medusa look’, which has developed in a dystopia where women rule men as oppressively as
men ruled women under patriarchy. De Groen insists that binary oppositions male/female, powerful/powerless must be
broken down not merely reversed. Her choice of the emblem of the medusa look is challenging, not least in the definite
attractions of such a phenomenon alongside the horrifying limitations De Groen evokes.
3 See also Fitz writing as Woodbridge (1984) p. 294–7.

In the face of such ecstasy it seems churlish, but vital, to maintain that the frame of the male gaze also
places Cleopatra’s play acting as tragic, even desperate, self fashioning.
The desperate element is most forcibly suggested by the interchange between Cleopatra and Charmian in
I.3. discussing tactics, specifically which tactics will ensure the gaze of Antony the power broker is kept
fixed upon Cleopatra. The ‘infinite variety’ here becomes a frenzied attempt to entertain, to attract the gaze,
seeking to counteract any possible diminishing of Cleopatra’s beauty with the onset of age and wrinkles
(Fitz, 1977, p. 300–1). The queen whom ‘everything becomes’ (I.1.49), who is ever ready to improvise and
switch roles—‘If you find him sad,/Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report/That I am sudden sick’
(I.3.3–5)—is maintaining an exhausting performance regime as oppressive, and as predictable, (Fitz, 1977,
p. 316) as anything described by Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth (1991). Wolf is describing a phenomenon
she sees as a backlash response to the successes of second wave feminism but the condition she describes
intersects with the behaviour Shakespeare attributes to Cleopatra—consciousness of aging, compensatory
acting and stage management (‘Age cannot wither her’ (II.2.240)), the diversion of energies in a woman
who does have actual power into ludicrous ploys aimed at fascinating men (thereby assuring them that her
power cannot ultimately challenge theirs), etc. The most damning indictment of Cleopatra in terms of her
endorsement of the ‘beauty myth’ and competition for the gaze, however, comes in her construction and
treatment of Octavia.
Cleopatra clearly accepts the dangerous standards of the male gaze and measures herself by her ability to
capture and hold that gaze—she gloats that;-

great Pompey
Would stand and make his eyes grow in my brow;
There would he anchor his aspect, and die
With looking on his life (I.5.31–4)

Something of the risk Cleopatra is running is indicated by the fact that this standard is so enthusiastically
endorsed by Cleopatra’s antagonists. Enobarbus pays tribute (on his terms) when he comments that Antony
at Cydnus paid ‘his heart/For what is eyes (ate) only’ (II.2.230–11). Philo grudgingly admits Cleopatra’s
power when he complains that Antony’s

goodly eyes,
That o’er the files and musters of the war
Have glowed like plated Mars, now bend, now turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front. (I.1.2–6).

Most revealingly, however, Enobarbus (in response to Antony’s ‘Would I had never seen her!’) even as he
praises Cleopatra’s skill in playing to the gaze, reduces her to the status of tourist attraction;-

O, sir, you had then left unseen a wonderful piece of work, which not to have been blessed withal
would have discredited your travel. (I.2.154–6).

Given Cleopatra’s endorsement of the gaze, it is not surprising that Caesar’s invitation to Antony to ‘view’
Octavia (II.2.172) is paralleled by Cleopatra’s desire to ‘view’ Octavia’s physical attributes vicariously,
asking her messenger for details of height, voice, visible ‘majesty’, gait, age, roundness of face, colour of

hair (III.3.). There is little interest in Octavia as anything more than a competing object of the gaze and this
competition is used to create misogynist comedy. For example, III. 3. depends on the ‘joke’ of competitive
female ‘bitchiness’, both in Cleopatra’s predictability in constructing Octavia unfavourably (‘low-voiced’
and not as tall as Cleopatra becomes ‘Dull of tongue, and dwarfish’ (1.16)) and the trap she falls into;-

Cleopatra: Widow? Charmian, hark.

Messenger: And I do think she’s thirty.

The stage tradition of playing this as a slap in the face for the thirtysomething Cleopatra invariably gets
laughs. However, at the risk of appearing humourless, this comedy needs to be placed. The comic catfight
element is extremely demeaning (as is the comedy of II.5. which constructs the representation of a woman
inflicting violence on a man as a joke and in creating that joke, of course, belittles the ‘real’ power of the
Cleopatra’s construction of Octavia solely as a rival for the gaze of Antony also helps to create a divisive
image of the female gaze. The only individualised gaze that Cleopatra fears in the crowd watching the
triumphal procession, as she imagines it, is Octavia’s—her ‘sober’ (V.2.54.) and ‘modest eyes’ are
imagined ‘Demuring’ upon Cleopatra (IV.15.27, 29). Antony also expects Cleopatra to be ‘shown’ in Caesar’s
triumph as a prelude to being offered to ‘Patient Octavia’ for her to ‘plough (Cleopatra’s) visage up/With
her prepared nails’ (IV.12.38–9). Although Shakespeare’s Cleopatra subscribes to Antony’s divisive vision,
and expects a version of the Medusa look, a mutilating female gaze from Octavia, this caricature vision of
female rivalry counters history; Octavia was so far from being dedicated to revenge that she brought up all
the children of Antony and Cleopatra’s union.
If the tactical discussion of I.3. shows some of the work that goes into maintaining Cleopatra’s ‘infinite
variety’, that is her main resource in her one-upmanship (sic) over other women, more of the cost of playing
to the male gaze is suggested in the fact that two of Cleopatra’s tour de force performances are extremely
disabling for her and threaten her identity with annihilation. In Enobarbus’s description of the Cydnus
performance, Cleopatra as human being entirely disappears behind Cleopatra’s costumes, hand properties,
settings and crowds of extras. The peripherals are described in gorgeous detail but all we learn of Cleopatra
is non-specific; ‘her person’ ‘beggared all description’ (II.2.202–03) and she ‘o’erpictur (ed)’ Venus. Even
the air wants to ‘gaze’ on Cleopatra but her performance is so well stage managed that she herself becomes
almost redundant, she becomes an absence. Cleopatra’s cry ‘O, my oblivion is a very Antony,/And I am all
forgotten’ (I.3.90–1) seems disturbingly suggestive of the price she pays to perform successfully to
Antony’s gaze. Freedman (1991) discusses play with absence and presence as a subversive strategy
commenting on the nature of theatre and performance. However, Cleopatra’s ‘absence’ here resonates
sinisterly with her ‘absence’ in her final ‘great’ performance, that is her death. Again accoutrements are all
important; the image must be perfect. ‘Show me, my women, like a queen’ (V.2.227) says Cleopatra and so,
before suiciding, Charmian adjusts the crown that’s ‘awry’, so that in death Cleopatra is playing perfectly to
the male gaze—‘As he would catch another Antony’ (V.2.345). This death tableau is particularly suggestive
for feminist readings dealing with fetishism (Kaplan, 1983, p. 31)—Cleopatra is quite literally objectified
and with help from the phallic snake is comfortingly adjusted to the demands of the male gaze.
Cleopatra is undeniably centre stage at this point. Callaghan (1989) discusses the gaze of the dead female
characters of tragedy, in particular Cordelia and Desdemona, as creating a ‘dead centre’ (p. 96) upstaging
the male hero and helping to induce crisis in him. Cleopatra, unusually among Renaissance tragic heroines,
has no need here to upstage the male hero who is well beyond crisis. However, Cleopatra’s dead gaze may
help to induce unease, if not crisis, in the audience as it offers such a profoundly disturbing theatrical

appeal. She destroys her own identity in a way which can be pleasurable and indeed titillating to the male
gaze but which also aligns the pleasure of the gaze with necrophilia. Something of the degree of pleasure an
audience may derive from gazing on this scene can be conjured up by considering the possibility of its
frustration—in a staging of Antony and Cleopatra which contested the gaze framing and deliberately staged
Cleopatra’s death so that the audience could not see it. This would disrupt and question the dominance and
acceptance of the male gaze in classical theatre extremely effectively but would totally destroy a famous
theatrical set piece. This particular set piece—Cleopatra’s death—is also the tableau that Hughes-Hallett’s
(1990) collection of Cleopatras suggests most artists expect their audiences to want to see most (second
place would go to ‘Cleopatra feasting’).
However, denying the theatre audience the ‘pleasure’ of witnessing Cleopatra’s death would be partly in
line with Cleopatra’s own expressed wishes. In V.2.207–21 Cleopatra explains her suicide as a deliberate
attempt to avoid two horrific prospects—firstly the fate of being subjected to a public gaze, out of her own
control, in Caesar’s triumph, and secondly the fate of being represented to a public gaze, in a way she cannot
control, in theatre. The first of these prospects is a horror shared by others in the play. Roman culture in
Antony and Cleopatra is obsessed with demonstrating power by subjecting unwilling victims to a public
gaze by means of a triumphal procession (see e.g. IV.12.33–7, IV.14.72, IV.15.23–5 and the whole of III.1.
which consists of a triumph). Cleopatra would rather be exposed to the male gaze ‘stark nak’d’ (V.2.59),
with her own stage management, than be exposed even in all her glory in a triumph, a show she cannot
control because Caesar is stage managing it.
The second nightmare prospect for Cleopatra, that of being exposed to a male gaze in theatre, is
extremely confrontational for the play’s audience. The metatheatrical references in V.2. (particularly in
Renaissance staging when a ‘squeaking boy’ would have been uttering the lines) clearly position the
audience as oppressors in their acts of gazing. Cleopatra constructs the fate of being represented by an actor
and being offered in an unauthorized form to the public gaze as something so horrific that one of her
motives for suicide is to avoid seeing this happen. Here she, as it were, resists the creation of Shakespeare’s
own text and we as audience members are made embarrassingly aware of the fact that we have paid money
to subject Cleopatra to our gaze, that is to make her nightmare happen.4
Cleopatra plays to the gaze magnificently but finally this playing to the gaze helps to kill her. Framing
Shakespeare’s Cleopatra by acknowledging her subordination to the gaze disempowers her but liberates the
audience from being seduced by an oppressive myth of ‘infinite variety’ as a desideratum in a woman, from
allowing Cleopatra (a male creation, written to be performed by a male to a male gaze) to set strained,
unrealistic standards for ‘fascinating’ women and from being enthralled by a gaze which demands
enormous sacrifices, in Cleopatra’s case granting apotheosis only in death.

4 Austin (1990), p. 90–1 discussess Wine in the Wilderness by Alice Childress in terms which are suggestive alongside

Cleopatra’s ‘resistance’ to the creation of Shakespeare’s text. Tommy, the artist’s model does not allow Bill, the artist,
‘to devalue, punish, save, or fetishize her. The female “muse” resists being “written” as what she is not and acts as
critic, before the fact, influencing the making of the art in a more active way than that of a passive model. She inserts “I
am” into the picture.’

The iniquitous nature of the trap Cleopatra is caught in and some of the dangers of performing an ‘infinite
variety’ so successfully that even a misogynist like Enobarbus is captivated, are illuminated by a
comparison with the public performances of Madonna.5 Like Cleopatra, Madonna is extremely skilful at
stage managing her own infinitely variable iconicity. Both Cleopatra and Madonna rely heavily on camp, on
dress ups, on overt theatricality, on enjoying the attention of an audience.6 What is more, in their
performances Cleopatra and Madonna inhabit related territory; Cleopatra appears as the goddess Isis,
Madonna appears as the sex goddess Marilyn Monroe; both gender bend; both create so many and such
various self images that it is difficult to identify a ‘real’ identity; both flout decorum—the queen of Egypt
indecorously hops through the public street, Madonna indecorously simulates masturbation on stage; both
demand attention and stage manage spectacles which demand total attention on themselves; both have
international political impact—Cleopatra changes the face of the Roman Empire, Madonna clashes with the
Pope and causes riots in India.
Cleopatra and Madonna also seem to me to intersect in offering very male versions of female sexuality.
Cleopatra’s joyous sexuality may be astonishing in terms of Renaissance sexual politics but it is still
portrayed in terms of misogynist stereotypes—particularly the bitchiness over Octavia which fulfils the
fantasy of the male being fought over by two women—one the good ‘virgin’ type, the other the bad ‘whore’.
Madonna parades an upfront sexuality which includes the very (traditionally) male characteristic of
aggression and she evokes male dominated constructions of female sexuality in her quotations from
pornography. In addition she offers very male identified visions of her own power; she has male dancers
grovelling at her feet in a reversal rather than a deconstruction of power; when the dancer ‘Madonna’
escapes from the peepshow in the video of Open Your Heart, she is dressed in men’s clothes to signal her
movement to empowerment; as the Madonna character in the video Justify My Love is revealed as the real
power figure, she becomes a sex centred (and sexy) version of the successful, powerful, and male
identified Marlene in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls—the moral of the video helpfully underlines this male
identification: ‘Poor is the man (sic) whose pleasures depend on the permission of another’.
It is partly because Madonna has such enormous power that she can play at disempowerment, imaging
herself as victim in Open Your Heart and (initially) in Justify My Love, and even more problematically
singing in Hanky Panky of the joys of being spanked. Despite the parody music and the throaty camp voice,
Danny Ecclestone (1990), is right to point out (in a very classist remark):

Y’see MADONNA a thousand bricklayers winkingly confide likes a bit of rough. As of course, do
they all. Her declaration that ‘I’ll settle for the back of your hand’ hardly considers the fact that
thousands of women are forced every day to settle for just that.

Madonna may play at lack of control, being spanked for being naughty, but ultimately she is only playing.
She has the power to dictate most of the rules of the game and when the games stop. In this the artistic
construction of Madonna, like Shakespeare’s artistic construction of Cleopatra, offers an image of
femaleness which can be liberating for most women only up to a point; both constructions empoweringly

5 I’m not suggesting direct influence here—apart from the tradition of the Hollywood queen, Madonna’s well publicised

interest in Frida Kahlo indicates a more immediate source of interest in female self-fashioning.
6 For dependency on audience see In Bed With Madonna (released as Truth or Dare in America) (1991). Amidst the

pretence of parading the private as public, Warren Beatty comments that Madonna ‘doesn’t want to live off camera’.
Cleopatra’s private life is so public that she is only once alone (for five lines) in her entire play and when her man
(camera?) is absent, she is bored and wishes to ‘sleep out’ (I.5.5) the time he is away.

state that women can have huge power, but their image-making is not empowering for women who do not
have the resources to compete in the infinite variety stakes or who do not want to play power games while
the same old oppressive set of rules are still in force.
As with her simultaneously empowering and disempowering imaging of her own power, Madonna’s
projections of herself often seem to be simultaneously available for feminist applause and opprobrium.
Judith Williamson in an excellent analysis of male sexism in the British reviews of Madonna’s ‘Blonde
Ambition’ tour7 is right to remind us both that ‘Darlings, MADONNA is CAMP’ and that the ‘armour
plated’ underwear as outerwear is witty and speaking seriously of a female vulnerability, the need to wear
armour if discoursing in public on the subject of female sexuality. However, the exaggeratedly breasted
‘armour’ also evokes the quasi-pornographic caricature women of science fiction and fantasy comic strips.
Again, the furore over the ‘Blonde Ambition’ tour placed female sexuality on the agenda for debate in
national newspapers—but female sexuality was being defined only in limited ways, most of them centering
on aggression. And despite generating debate on the subject of female sexuality, the recorded voices in the
press generally demonised Madonna—as Cleopatra’s frankly sexual voice was demonised by male critics
for so long (Fitz, 1977).
A similar tension is also to be found in Madonna’s analysis of and playing to the male gaze. One of the
foremost proponents of male gaze analysis, E.Ann Kaplan (1987) examines the complexities of Madonna’s
video Material Girl—where the video contradicts the materialist message of the song lyrics—and identifies
Madonna as a:

postmodern feminist heroine with her odd combination of seductiveness and a gutsy sort of
independence. (p. 117)

However, Madonna, like Cleopatra, can be read as dedicated to projecting a self image in such as way as to
hold the male gaze and attract the wealth and power that goes with it. And although Madonna’s medium,
video, gives her far more power over the gaze, more control than Cleopatra in the theatre (or even more
unstably, in a reading of the play) yet Madonna still has problems, like Cleopatra, in terms of what it means
to play to the male gaze, despite the fact that, in her performance work, Madonna displays an acute
awareness and critical analysis of this gaze.
Madonna explicitly features the male gaze as a subject in the narratives of her videos Justify My Love and
Open Your Heart; indeed Open Your Heart offers an almost textbook exposé of the male gaze and mocks this
gaze by assembling a parody parade of ‘male’ gazers which includes a female transvestite and several
caricature cardboard cut outs. In Justify My Love the gaze is problematized as it becomes increasingly
difficult to distinguish female and male or who is gazing at whom.
Open Your Heart portrays the male gaze (and performance generally?) as a dirty raincoat, peepshow
mentality which the performer Madonna breaks free of when she escapes with a small boy who has been
trying to get in to the peepshow. Madonna’s role as performer is clearly characterized as involving
unpleasant subjugation to the gaze as long as she remains at the peepshow, something which indicts the
gaze of both her on and off camera audiences. However, her escape from the gaze is both unbelievably
fairytale—skipping off into the sunset with a small boy (something which can admittedly be read as a fairly

7 Williamson is devastating at the expense of some of the critics: ‘John Sweeney on The Observer felt that in

MADONNA’S masturbatory act to ‘Like a Virgin’, ‘she was clearly enjoying herself, but it seemed there was someone
(or something) missing…’ ‘You, Big Boy?’

contentious ‘happy ending’ given the kiss Madonna gives the boy) and fallacious—because in her act of
escape from the gazers of the peepshow Madonna is still of course subjected to the gaze of the video
Justify My Love plays with the gaze by problematizing right reading (particularly on gender) and by initially
misleading the viewer into reading Madonna’s role as that of a disempowered woman. In a liberal feminist
gesture, the narrative reveals Madonna as the real power figure—the final image is of her laughing with joy,
having obtained the pleasure she set out to obtain. There are subversive qualities; the gender bending, the
multiple role-playing, the overt theatricality, the lesbianism. However, the lesbianism is performed to an
on-camera male gaze, which sites the sequence more in terms of traditional pornography than radical
feminism, particularly as the video is full of quotations from pornography, evoking, as it does, wholesale
oppression of women. Even when Madonna herself becomes the gazer and watches others performing sex,
the power structure of the gaze is not interfered with—the gender of the gazer has changed but the same
politics of oppression are in place—it’s just that Madonna has assumed a power role more usually occupied
by men than women in our society. For me this sequence hardly critiques the gaze, it plays to it and validates
it as a source of pleasure.
Justify Your Love, for me, constructs women as sex-centred, as on heat and incapable of ever really
meaning ‘no’. Madonna is protected by her wealth, power and bodyguards from running the danger of
having to pay the cost that this video has the power to exact. However, while, for me, Madonna’s assiduous
and sex-centred playing to the gaze is finally regressive, it has to be conceded that, in her two videos Open
Your Heart and Justify Your Love, she has done more to popularise the notion of the male gaze than any
academic discussion could hope to do and has reached an enormous audience no academic could ever hope
to match.
Freedman (1991) comments that ‘Since the male is traditionally envisioned as the bearer of the gaze and
the woman as the fetishized object of the gaze, the staging of any spectacle is always a matter of sexual
difference’ (p. 117). Hence it is not surprising that despite Madonna’s acute awareness of and ridicule of the
gaze in her spectacular videos, she ends up playing to the gaze more than she subverts it. When Madonna is
so successfully contained by the gaze, it seems inevitable that ‘Cleopatra’ in performing her gaze conscious
spectacles will also be contained utterly by the gaze. However, in the theatre, a performer playing Cleopatra
may, by means of an awareness of the performance dilemmas generated by the stranglehold of the gaze, at
least find ways of resisting if not defeating that gaze.


Austin, Gayle. (1990) Feminist Theories For Dramatic Criticism Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press
Callaghan, Dympna. (1989) Women and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy Brighton: Harvester
Case, Sue-Ellen. (1988) Feminism and Theatre London: Macmillan
Cixous, Helene, and Catherine Clement. (1987) The Newly Born Woman translated by Betsy Wing, Manchester:
University Press
De Groen, Alma. (1989) The Rivers of China in Australia Plays edited by Katharine Brisbane, London: Nick Hern
Ecclestone, Danny. (1990) ‘Slap, crackle and pop—just when you thought you didn’t want to read another article about
what MADONNA means to other women…Danny Ecclestone airs his own views on the case.’ Guardian, Women,
7th August
Fitz, Linda. (1977) ‘Egyptian Queens and Male Reviewers: Sexist Attitudes in Antony and Cleopatra Criticism’,
Shakespeare Quarterly 28, 297–316
Freedman, Barbara. (1991) Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy Ithaca and
London: Cornell University Press

Gardiner, Judith Kegan. (1985) ‘Mind mother: psychoanalysis and feminism’ in Making a Difference: Feminist Literary
Criticism, edited by Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn, London: Routledge
Hughes-Hallett, Lucy. (1990) Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions London: Vintage
Kaplan, E.Ann. (1983) Women and Film; Both sides of the Camera London: Methuen
Kaplan, E.Ann. (1987) Rocking Around the Clock: Music Television, Postmodernism, and Consumer Culture London:
Loomba, Ania. (1989) Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama Manchester: University Press
Neely, Carol Thomas. (1985) Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare’s Plays New Haven and London: Yale University Press
Shakespeare, William. (1977) Antony and Cleopatra, edited by Emrys Jones. Harmondsworth: Penguin
Traci, Philip J. (1970) The Love Play of Antony and Cleopatra The Hague: Mouton
Williamson, Judith. (1990) ‘What men miss about Madonna—Second Sight’ The Guardian, Arts, 2nd August
Wolf, Naomi. (1990) The Beauty Myth London: Chatto and Windus
Woodbridge, Linda. (1984) Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind 1540–1620
Brighton: Harvester

Elizabeth Schafer lectures in Drama and Theatre Studies at Royal Holloway College, University of
London. She has published on Shakespeare and other Renaissance dramatists, Aphra Behn, Georg
Büchner and Dorothy Hewett. Her research interests focus around feminist readings of the
Renaissance, women’s writing and Australian Drama. She previously taught for four years at La
Trobe University Melbourne. She is currently editing Thomas Middleton’s play The Witch for New
Uncovering Heroines: Some Theatrical Perspectives on the
French Revolution
Celita Lamar

The celebration of the Bicentennial of the French Revolution in Paris provided a setting for the
theatrical introduction of patriotic heroines whose very existence had been virtually ignored for nearly
two hundred years.
In three plays: Monick Lepeu’s Elles étaient citoyennes (They Were Citizens), Marianik Réveillon’s
Théroigne de Méricourt, I’Amazone de la Révolution, (Théroigne de Méricourt, the Amazon of the
Revolution) and Michèle Fabien’s Des Françaises (Frenchwomen), historical figures such as Olympe
de Gouges, Manon Roland, Théroigne de Méricourt and Claire Lacombes look back on their
participation in the struggle to create a new Republic. This article discusses the plays and focuses on
how each of these women, in her own way, comes to the realization that, ultimately, her identity as a
woman overrode every other consideration of her merits and that, ironically, her brave deeds,
inspiring words and vision of equality had only succeeded in bringing about a humiliating defeat for
all women.
KEY WORDS Heroines of the French revolution, feminism and theatre, Olympe de Gouges,
Théroigne de Méricourt, Manon Roland, Claire (Rose) Lacombe

In the spring and summer of 1989 the celebration of the bicentennial of the French Revolution in Paris
provided the setting for uncovering not only the courageous and inspiring roles that many women had
played in the struggle for freedom, but also the seemingly incredible fact that their participation had been
ignored for nearly two hundred years. A major part of the celebration was the production of a number of
plays with revolutionary themes. While this was not surprising, given the many grants to encourage patriotic
creativity, what was unexpected was the number of plays written about the heroic women of the Revolution.
These women and their exploits were virtually unknown to theatre audiences, and their names were
unfamiliar to the great majority of the French people.1

1Although a number of these women went before the National Assembly to give speeches or to present petitions which
were made part of the public record, and although some of them had even published their ideas in pamphlets, these
historical sources have not made it into mainstream history books or school texts. During the second half of the
nineteenth century, the general revival of interest in the revolutionary period included the unearthing of some of these

To see these plays is to witness the making of heroines, an activity that has not been in favor in France since
the time of Joan of Arc. Whereas the French adore heroism, and the wearing of military or civilian medals
is both common and expected at any “gala” affair, this adoration for the most part is limited to male heroes.
Why then are heroines suddenly in fashion? Perhaps these playwrights and directors, almost exclusively
women, felt the need in this bicentennial year to delve below the surface of prevalent revolutionary myths,
to find a place for themselves in the celebration of the Revolution, not just as French citizens, but as
Three plays will be considered2 here: Monick Lepeu’s Elles étaient citoyennes, Marianik Reveillon’s
Théroigne de Méricourt, I’Amazone de la Révolution, and Michèle Fabien’s Des Françaises. With no
networking and practically no knowledge of the others’ projects, these playwrights have produced a
panorama of the hopes, aspirations, accomplishments and disillusionments of women revolutionaries from all
walks of life. They have presented us with real-life heroines, pioneers in the struggle for women’s rights in
France, historical figures who serve as models for literary creations.
These heroines had one thing in common with their male counterparts, and that was the abruptness with
which all of their careers, and in many cases their lives, ended. The principal difference between them was
that the men’s glory survived the guillotine or the assassin’s knife, while most of the women’s contributions
failed to make it into the pages of history until much later.3 The plays under consideration here, on the other
hand, have kept the men in the background and have brought the women to center stage. The heroines of all
of these plays were women with significant if brief roles in the revolution, and well known in their day.
Another element shared by these plays is that they are set late in the lives of the protagonists, when each
one’s hour of glory was past and she faced the guillotine, imprisonment or oblivion. From this vantage
point the women look back on their triumphs and their defeats.
Elles étaient citoyennes, written and directed by Monick Lepeu, brings together from different social
backgrounds three heroic women who were noted at the time for their exploits or for their words: three
women who believed that the abstract notion of liberty for which they were struggling could also
correspond to their individual desires for liberty as women. Although they were neither tried nor imprisoned
together, Lepeu takes the historical liberty of associating them in this setting in order to allow each

sources. The eminent historian, Jules Michelet, was one of the first to have written specifically about the heroines of the
period, but when he published his book—The Women of the Revolution, an excerpt from his History of the Revolution—
in 1853, he was deposed from his Chair of History at the Collège de France. There was no attempt to incorporate the
information contained in his work into history books more accessible to the general public; works by lesser authors
were totally ignored as well. A new edition of Michelet’s book, with notes and commentary by Françoise Giroud, was
published in 1988.
In the past few years, there has been a great deal of research done that has unearthed a wealth of information about the
women of the Revolution. Most of this research has been the work of women historians. Careful studies of public
records, including police archives, library collections and private correspondence have resulted in the publication of a
number of books by and about these women. An excellent bibliographical source book was published in March, 1989
by the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand and the Mairie de Paris (see Bibliography). The authors of the plays considered
in this article were well aware of the excellent sources that had recently become available and made good use of them.
2 A fourth play—Musiques, citoyennes! based on an idea by Francesca Solleville and written by Eugéne Durif and

Dominique Guihard—was not included because the heroines depicted were fictional characters meant to represent
typical women of the time and not historical personnages. This play was performed in Paris in the Spring of 1989 under
the direction of Dominique Guihard. It included several musical numbers—both revolutionary songs and some modern
ones—most of which were sung by Francesca Solleville.
3 See note 1.

woman’s story to be supported and corroborated by the others’. She then uses a fourth woman, who
represents “the people”, to be a foil for the others’ views and to read the accusations against them in their
“trials”. This character plays a complex role: at times she accuses the other women, at other times she
appears to be the sensitive witness to their condemnation; she, herself, is a composite of the Woman of

Manon Roland (née Marie Jeanne Philippon) was born in Paris of humble parents who gave her an
education well above their means. Better able “to explain the celestial spheres than to cook an omelette,”
her extensive reading, especially of the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau,4 aroused in her a revolutionary
zeal. She held a salon in her home, which was a focal point for the Girondin party.5 The accusations against
her consisted primarily of allowing members of the opposition to meet in her home and of writing letters in
support of her husband, Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière.6 Her final words as she was about to be beheaded
were: “Liberty, how many crimes are committed in your name!”
Olympe de Gouges (née Marie Gouzes) was the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy nobleman. Her
education was neglected by her mother and stepfather, and she never learned to read and write French,
having been taught these skills in the Occitan language. This did not prevent her from writing plays or from
penning the “Droits de la femme et de la citoyenne [Rights of Woman and of the (female) Citizen],”7 a
document that proclaimed the same rights for female citizens as for male. She presented to the National
Assembly petitions for homes for the elderly, for hygiene in hospitals, for public works projects for the
unemployed, for the opening of schools to the people and to women, and for the rights of minorities.
However, she also dared to oppose Roberpierre’s8 extreme measures during the period of the Terror and to
speak in favor of a trial for Louis XVI.9 Her most famous words were addressed to her fellow women
citizens: “Since a woman has the right to climb to the gallows, she should also have the right to climb to the

4 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712–1778. The son of French Protestant immigrants, he was born in Geneva, Switzerland.
At sixteen he went to France, working at many different jobs in various cities. He invented a new system of musical
notations using numbers; wrote an opera, Les Muses galantes; and collaborated on Diderot’s Encyclopédie. He is best
known for writing La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) and Le Contrat social (1762) and for his Discourse on inequality (1754).
His philosophy of education and his ideas on virtue and liberty greatly influenced some of the leaders of the Revolution.
One of his most famous and influential quotations is from the Contrat social: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is
in chains.”
5 The Girondins were the moderate members of the Convention Assembly. They were pushed out of power by the most

fanatical members of the Convention, the Montagnards, in June of 1793.

6 Jean-Marie Roland was a Girondin who twice served as Minister of the Interior.

7 “The Rights of Woman and of the Citizen” (fem.) parallelled the official document of “The Rights of Man and of the

8 Maximilien de Robespierre (1758–1794). A native of Arras and known as “l’Incorruptible”, the incorruptible one,

Robespierre was the principal revolutionary leader responsible for the period known as the Terror, when the guillotine
was used daily for purging the nation of its “enemies”. He was a member of the Jacobin party. In July of 1794 a group of
moderate deputies, weary of the climate of terror, got together to declare Robespierre “hors la loi”, or outside of the
law. He was sent to the guillotine, and his death marked the end of the Terror.
9 Louis XVI (1754–1793) succeeded to the French throne upon the death of Louis XV, his grandfather. He was not

quite twenty years old, and his wife, Marie Antoinette, was barely nineteen. Although his youth and that of his wife
made them popular at first with the French people, his inept rule and the extravagant life they led when hunger was
rampant were at least partly responsible for bringing about the Revolution. He was accused of betraying France to a
foreign power (Austria) and was tried and finally executed on July 21, 1793.

tribunal.” Both Manon Roland and Olympe de Gouges were guillotined for their “crimes against the
Théroigne de Méricourt, known as the “Amazon of the Revolution,” was the daughter of Belgian
farmers. She was ill-treated by her parents as a child and was sent to live with different relatives who dealt
with her even more harshly. She eventually escaped this life by becoming a companion to a noblewoman,
Madame Colbert, who took her to London. There she met and fell in love with Lord Spenser who brought
her to Paris where she suffered the disillusionment of being one of many mistresses to a man who was given
to having orgies. Théroigne left Spenser and had several other liaisons, one of which resulted in her
enjoying a brief career as a singer in Italy prior to her revolutionary activities. She founded a club, “Les
Amis de la Loi,” and thereby drew the attention and wrath of the royalists who lost no opportunity to
defame her in their newspapers.10 The irony was that, once she became devoted to the Revolution, Théroigne
gave up her romantic liaisons; yet her name was constantly being linked with that of one or more of the
deputies. She often wore an “Amazon” costume which contributed to making her at first famous and later
legendary.11 Théroigne was elected to the National Assembly as “President of her sex” by the women patriots.
However, when she attempted to recruit a battalion of “Amazons” she was again attacked by the
newspapers and vilified as a “second class courtesan” and a “boudoir heroine”. Even the patriots who had
previously supported her subsequently accused her of turning women away from their duties, of betraying
their femininity. Unlike the other two women, Théroigne was never condemned to death, but she was
imprisoned more than once and was eventually interned in an insane asylum, where she lost her reason and
died many years later. The greatest humiliation she suffered was that of being publicly stripped and spanked
by the Tricoteuses.12 Lepeu uses Théroigne’s madness as a kind of Greek chorus to the final moments of
Manon and Olympe.
At the beginning of Elles étaient citoyennes, the woman of the people reads the charges against the three
other women. The stage is draped in red and black, with white tulle curtains in the center through which
will be projected a stylized silhouette of the guillotine at the precise moment of each woman’s execution.
There are several red, white and blue cocardes13 as well as a large candle and a wooden panel containing a
representation of the Declaration of the Republic. A wide plank held up by trestles symbolizes the tribunal.
The women are dressed in the colors of the Republic: Manon Roland in a white dress and cape; Olympe de
Gouges in a blue and white dress; and Théroigne de Méricourt in a red “Amazon” suit with a black hat
sporting an ostrich feather “in the style of Henri IV.” The use of these patriotic colors in their dress
emphasizes the women’s devotion to the Republic, a Republic that they had helped to establish and in which
they were attempting to find their place. Lighting variations transform the stage into the common hall of the
prison, the women’s individual cells, the asylum to which Théroigne was committed and the Revolutionary
Tribunal. As each woman responds to the charge that she has “maliciously and deliberately participated in
the conspiracy against the unity and indivisibility of the Republic and against the liberty and security of the

10 It was one of the royalist newspapers that gave her the name, Théroigne de Méricourt. It took the French version of
her Walloon family name, Terwagne, and combined it with the French version of the name of the town she was from,
Marcourt. Her full, real name was Anne-Josèphe Terwagne.
11 Théroigne’s exploits were described and magnified by the nineteenth century poets Alphonse de Lamartine and

Charles Baudelaire, as well as by the historian, Jules Michelet (see note on Michelet).
12 The Tricoteuses, or “knitting women”, were used as spies by the police. They were paid forty sols a day to knit and to

make derisive remarks at the foot of the guillotine. They roamed through the streets of Paris, denouncing those who
appeared to them to be enemies of the Republic.
13 A rosette made of red, white and blue ribbon and worn as a symbol of allegiance to the Republic.

French people,” she reveals her strength and also her vulnerability as a woman. She describes both heroic
deeds and commitments, as well as personal disappointments and disillusionments such as the horror of
being married at fourteen to a much older man, the difficulty of nursing a child, or the humiliation of having
the fatherhood of her child attributed to a dozen men. All three women had believed and had acted upon the
belief that their participation in the front lines of the Revolution would be a first step in the recognition of
their personal right to “liberty, equality and fraternity.” They had fought side by side with other women and
with men, and their words had inflamed others with revolutionary fervor. Now they were having to face the
fact that their identity as women overrode every other consideration and that their brief taste of liberty had
ended in defeat. The heroism of Manon Roland, Olympe de Gouges and Théroigne de Méricourt was
twofold: not only did they participate in fighting the royalists and establishing the Republic, they also
withstood vicious personal attacks from the very people they were trying to help. As Manon, Olympe and
Théroigne speak of what each has accomplished and lost, of her dreams and aspirations for herself and for
all women, they could well be participating in the creation of a modern manifesto for the rights of women.
In Marianik Réveillon’s play, Théroigne de Méricourt, I’Amazone de la Révolution, we encounter
Théroigne as she is brought to the Hospice de l’hôtel Dieu. She is led there by a man who is both her keeper
and her protector. There are nine other women in this prison, and with the exception of a young girl who
idolizes Théroigne, the women attack her unmercifully, both verbally, and at times, physically. Two images
of Théroigne are intertwined throughout the play: the militant revolutionary and the image of the woman
created by public opinion, as portrayed by the other women prisoners. Throughout the play Théroigne
repeats the statement, “Oh women, you have acquired nothing in this revolution.” Her fellow prisoners are
all women of the people: La Rose, Jeanne and Marthe were sellers of soap, of fish and of vegetables.
Clarissa was a Tricoteuse, and she continues to knit as she had done for Robespierre. Antoinette was a
dressmaker who spends all of her time making knots and bows with which she adorns herself. Marie sold
rosaries and Cornélie hates the Jacobins14 with a passion. The little girl is the daughter of a woman who
was shot during a demonstration. La Rose protects the girl, but does not encourage her admiration of
The setting for the play is the women’s prison to which Théroigne was condemned. Two large panels of
translucent cloth, backed by an open weave material that appears to be a grill when lit from behind, form the
backdrop. When Théroigne is brought in by her jailor/protector at the beginning of the play, the other
characters are asleep, huddled beneath their blankets and the canvas sacks containing their possessions.
These sacks, too, hold the props that the characters will use during the performance. The use of fabrics in
various forms makes a powerful statement in this play. Each woman produces from her canvas bag hats,
scarves and other articles of clothing in order to dress as royalists as they act out a mock wedding of
Théroigne and the legislator Populus. At other times they use the scarves to turn their skirts into culottes in
mockery of Théroigne’s exhortation to women to claim the right to wear pants. Their belts become whips in
the most violent scene of the play, which is, of course, the re-enactment of Théroigne’s public spanking by
the Tricoteuses. All of these fabrics, cloths, clothes, bags, ribbons and knitting materials are closely linked
to the women themselves, to the way in which they spent their time, as well as to the manner in which
women are adorned, armored and trapped in their lives.

14 The Jacobins were a society that, during the Revolution, held its meetings in the former convent of the Jacobins on
the rue St. Honoré. Its members were Republican partisans of a centralized democracy. At first a moderate group, it
took on a more Revolutionary aspect under Robespierre, who became its principal moving spirit in 1792. The society
was finally dissolved in 1799.

In another scene, huge marionettes with grotesque masks represent all of the men of power who used and
then persecuted Théroigne. The men recite all of the charges and the calumnies with which she was branded
as they look down upon her. Théroigne tries to pull off their masks, but they are out of her reach. She
responds to their charges:

Stop, you are all monsters…I only wanted one thing, to raise the people to the level of dignity of their
rights…To shed light on their true interests and on the degree of confidence and esteem that they owe
to the zeal, the brilliance and the virtues of their representatives to the National Assembly. To develop
for them the advantages of the Revolution in order to assure their well-being. But they refused to
listen to me.15

Nonetheless, in Marianik Réveillon’s depiction, it is the women, the Tricoteuses who humiliated her and
also her fellow prisoners, who continue the ordeal and who finally break down Théroigne’s resistance,
reducing her to a state of near dementia.
In the final scene of the play, Théroigne is transferred to la Salpétrière, an insane asylum where she will
spend the rest of her life. From there she reads a letter she has written to her former friend and supporter,
Saint-Just.16 It is a lucid but pathetic letter describing her plight and her desire to be free and to continue
working and writing for the Republic. The playing of a sad refrain on the violoncello as Théroigne reads the
letter symbolizes the depths of human ingratitude and underscores the hopelessness of her appeal. The final
lines of the letter are also the final lines of the play:

I have always been guided in all my proposals by a love for what is good and by the glory to be
acquired in rendering myself useful to the nation. But for that I had neither enough talent nor enough
experience, and I was a woman…I was a woman…I am a woman…17

The sad repetition of the statement “I was (I am) a woman,” along with Théroigne’s oftrepeated refrain
addressed to the women of France,18 seem to signal the end of a period of intense activity on the part of a
number of women, an activity that was both patriotic19 and feminist. Théroigne’s descent into madness
paralleled the descent into oblivion of these individuals, as their aspirations and their very existence were
obscured by a veil of silence.
Des Françaises was written by Michèle Fabien and directed by Laurence Février.20 It is the only one of
the plays that departs from a strictly revolutionary theme. Divided in two parts, it evokes the heroism of two

15 From the unpublished text of Théroigne de Méricourt, l’Amazone de la Revolution, given to me by Marianik
16 Louis Antoine de Saint-Just was a close friend and supporter of Robespierre and one of the more extreme members of

the Jacobins.
17 Réveillon, op. cit.

18 “Oh women, you have acquired nothing in this Revolution!”

19 A “patriot”, according to the Scribner-Bantam English Dictionary (1979), is “one who loves and supports his country

and its interests.” It is in the definition of a country’s “interests” that we find the most disagreement as to who deserves
to be called a patriot. All of the women in these plays loved and suported their country, and they believed that its best
interests were served by recognizing the rights of all of its citizens.
20 This alone of the four plays I saw has been published.

women who lived a century and a half apart. In “Claire Lacombe,” which constitutes the first half of the
play, Claire has just been released from eighteen months of prison. She has finally been declared “pure in
her intentions towards the Republic,” but her incarceration has left indelible physical and spiritual scars. She
is “free” but cannot come to terms with a type of freedom that is not liberty. An actress who worked closely
with the Jacobins and who used her eloquence to further the aims of the most violent partisans of the
Revolution, the Enragés, she was a founding member and president of the Club of Revolutionary
Republican Women. She also regularly attended meetings of the Jacobins. On July 25, 1792, clothed as an
Amazon, she addressed the Legislative Assembly, offering to do battle against the tyrants. On August 10,
carrying arms, she took part in the assault of the Tuileries Palace, which resulted in the arrest of Louis XVI.
On August 26 she read her club’s petition to the Convention. It was the Jacobins, with whom she had
worked, who eventually turned against her. Accused of consorting with the nobility through her affair with
the journalist Leclerc, she was refused the right to speak in her own defense. During the term of her
imprisonment all women’s clubs were outlawed, as were all public gatherings of more than five women.
Robespierre himself was deposed and guillotined, but the end of the period of Terror did not end the
repression of women’s voices; on the contrary.
In this theatrical rendition of Claire’s first hours out of prison, she encounters three other women: her
former landlady, an allegory for those women whose lives have been reduced to seeking survival and
security; Anne Colombe, a former printer and colleague of Claire’s; and Gabrielle, a young actress who had
seen her mother, also a club member, guillotined. The landlady wants Claire to come back to the house
where Claire had once rented a miserable garret room; she offers Claire shelter and safety in return for
taking care of her. This woman is old and has lived under the Old Order, what could be called the ancient
servitude of those who have never had the right to anything. For her the Revolution is a strictly individual
affair; she has profited from everything including the Terror and the Emigration of the Nobility, but her age
and disposition now make it difficult for her to deal with shopkeepers in the daily struggle for the
necessities of life. Lacking any social or political conscience, she wants to drag Claire into her hateful
cocoon in order to take advantage of her youth for her own, materialistic ends. Claire is repulsed by the
notion of mere survival. She would prefer to start over again, inciting women to participate in the affairs of
Yet, she finds no support or encouragement from any of the other women; even her once militant friend
Anne Colombe has given up the struggle. As she gives Claire the key to their former meeting place, Anne
refers to it as “the key of aborted dreams,” thereby ironically linking the imagery of abortion and childbirth
to the silencing of women’s voices.

And we are the fetuses! We believed that we women were being born, but it was an error, a
monstruous illusion: false, all of that, everything was false…When women give birth or when they
fuck, you know who they are. But when they speak, when they write, when they print, when they
think about something other than hearth and home, you no longer know. We were born dead!…Flown
away, defeated, finished, our words have evaporated into nature or have been hurled and broken
against a wall; even our bodies are superfluous. (15)

The use of this metaphor is certainly apt, for the rebirth of women as “Amazons” was a frightening prospect
to the Founding Fathers of the new Republic; in their minds, such dangerous voices had to be suppressed. Anne
acknowledges her own defeat; she has run out of hope and cannot respond to Claire’s need to resume or
renew the fight.

Nonetheless, it is the young woman, Gabrielle, who more precisely foreshadows the nearly two centuries
of oblivion to which the dreams and the very existences of these women will be cast. She, whose mother
died for her convictions, can only detest those who she believes took her mother from her. Her own solution
is to escape into her acting: “It’s fine, even if the books don’t tell the truth; on a stage, one can be happy to
cry, even to lose…as many of us21 as we wish to be!” (27)
Claire’s bitterness over her helpless position is exacerbated by the landlady’s repeated insistence that
Claire resign herself to the fact that the Revolution is over for her, and that she must learn to live—that is, to
survive. In the following passage Claire is responding to the landlady, as well as addressing herself:

Claire Lacombe, you who contributed to the arrest of the King, you who founded the Society of
Revolutionary Republican Women, you who knew the Convention, the decrees and the Law, who
wanted them to be applied; you, Claire Lacombe, since you are living and since you are free, you
become null and void, you may learn to knit. You and all of the women! Women are supposed to stop
everything: their lives, their desires, History, their history?
The Revolution is frozen, thus women will be, too?
It’s out of the question.
I don’t want to think that, it isn’t true; we are shadows, so be it, then let us be shadows to the end,
truly. Liberty, for us is a phantom; equality too, for us, is a phantom. That doesn’t prevent them from
existing, liberty and equality, in one’s head…(20–21)

Claire believes that it is possible for them to keep alive a dream of liberty and equality, even if, as women,
they are, for the moment, politically nonexistent. But she is unable to persuade Anne to help her or even to
understand her need to act. Claire’s encounter with Gabrielle and the young woman’s antipathy to their
cause then deal the final blow to her fragile hopes. When Gabrielle makes her exit, Claire remains alone on
the stage; she has been deserted by both her enemies and her friends, and her voice will not be heard again
in public for nearly two centuries.
There is a marked contrast between the portrayal of Claire’s spiritual defeat and the second half of the
play which focuses on the more public, though long undervalued, contributions of Berty Albrecht to the
French Resistance movement from 1940 until her execution in 1943. Although Berty Albrecht’s death at the
hands of the Nazis was a more extreme punishment than Claire Lacombe’s eighteen months in prison, Berty
was killed by the enemy while fighting for her country while Claire, ironically, was punished by her country
for trying to fight the enemy. Berty’s half of the play begins with the words of a female journalist who is
looking at the stone monument to Berty Albrecht (in the Paris production it was a postcard showing the
monument) when Berty’s daughter, Mireille, appears. The journalist’s questions to Mireille serve as a
catalyst for the appearance of Berty and subsequent scenes between mother and daughter and between Berty
and her husband, Frédéric. There is also a scene between Berty and her Resistance partner and lover, Henri
Frenay, and a long monologue delivered by the woman who betrayed Berty to the Nazis. In these scenes we
become aware of not only Berty’s pre-war work to promote birth control and her Resistance activities, but
also of the intensity of her commitment, which at times caused her to leave behind her husband and
daughter and which kept her own life constantly in peril.

21This is an allusion to the news brought by Anne that henceforth and public gathering of more than five women was to
be forbidden.

From Mireille we learn of the difficulty of being “the daughter of a heroine,” and we witness her sorrow
at losing her mother “so soon after reaching an understanding with her.”
The two men help us to understand Berty a little better. The scene with Frédéric takes place in London at
a moment when Berty has decided to return to France to work in a factory. Frédéric, a successful
and wealthy banker, is trying to persuade her to stay with him. He speaks of his love for her, of her
own appreciation of fine food, wine and fashionable clothes, and, finally, of how unsuited she is to a
working-class environment; but Berty’s need to leave and to be useful is visceral; it cannot be denied.

I want to know, I want to become familiar in my body with the true life of those whom I defend…they
(the women) need it so much…
Things are done here that are good, that please me; England knows how (to do things), but I don’t feel
needed, I don’t like the taste of the ashes of uselessness. In France, I believe, it’s different. All women
everywhere must learn that they are not machines for making babies, that they don’t have to live
hanging on their menstrual periods, that a uterus is not a destiny. (40)

In the scene between Berty and her partner, Henri Frenay, the discussion is of the activities of their Resistance
group, “Combat”. They have finally found a printer they can trust to put out a clandestine newspaper. They
speak of their first meeting, of learning to trust each other, and they drink a toast to the future of their group
and of all the other Resistance groups. What is evident here is Berty’s enthusiasm, her dedication to a cause:

I’m fine now, I’m fine.

Everything is lacking here, food, clothing, information…We have to do everything here, begin
I love beginings.
Finding a printer becomes an action one can celebrate…
To your health, Henri, to mine, it’s all the same!
I like this feeling of tiredness in my legs. Do you feel it, too?
Does History have to whirl in order for me to find my place? (49)

Berty is an historical heroine in the classic sense: she fights selfessly for the causes she believes in, and she
thrives on the danger. Yet there is another, vulnerable, side to her personality, which is evident in her
conversations with her daughter. She feels guilt for having put her daughter’s life in danger, and rage when
Mireille’s friend is raped by the Nazis, singled out from among those who were “too old, too young or too
ugly,” a group that included Berty and Mireille. In discussing this event with her daughter, Berty tells her
that “the hardest part is this desire to bite, to claw, to disembowel, to blind, to castrate…” (45) We also hear
Berty agonize over whether she will be able to survive, in the asylum to which she has been committed,
until Mireille and her Resistance friends are able to rescue her.
Berty’s heroism was welcomed by her country, even if it took a long time for it to be recognized
publicly.22 This recognition of her contribution may be seen as a vindication for all the women whose deeds
were effaced from the history they had helped to create. There is no attempt, within the framework of the
play, to create a direct connection between Claire Lacombe and Berty Albrecht; yet they are both examples

22 Berty Albrecht received four posthumous decorations: la Croix de Compagnon de la Liberation, la Médaille
Militaire, la Croix de Guerre avec palmes, and la Médaille de la Resistance. The monument referred to in the play was
constructed more than forty years after her death.

of historic heroines. The seeds sown by Claire Lacombe and other women of her time finally took root one
hundred and fifty years later in the person of Berty Albrecht; it seems that History was finally ready to
accept and to recognize a woman’s heroic accomplishments. Des Françaises elevates the two women to
their well-deserved status as heroines, even as it protrays them in their most vulnerable moments.
In Des Françaises there is no stage; rather, there is a space surrounded by small tables and chairs, where
the audience sits. There are cones of light on each table and a piano at one end of the room creating the
ambience of an intimate café. The characters themselves bring in the few props that they use and, especially
in the second half of the play, address and interact with the audience. The journalist distributes to each
person in the audience a postcard displaying a photograph of the monument to Berty Albrecht. Henri Frenay
opens a bottle of wine and places it on a table at which members of the audience are sitting. The setting is
one of intimacy but also of discomfort: there is no escaping the disquieting truths expounded by these
women, no way of avoiding the spectacle of their suffering. The audience is predictably silent when
apostrophized by the players.
In the last analysis, it was their sex, their being women, and not their actions as such, that was responsible
for the defeats suffered by Claire Lacombe, Manon Roland, Olympe de Gouges and Théoigne de Méricourt.
Manon Roland recalls the attacks that newspapers directed against her for having entered an essay contest
sponsored by the Academy of Besançon on the subject, “How the education of women can contribute to
making men better.” Her sin was to receive the same praise for her work as the writer Bernardin de
Saint-Pierre.23 Olympe de Gouges and Théroigne were both vilified for claiming the right to free love and
the right to divorce, and especially women’s right to education. Their beauty also occasioned the fabrication
of scurrilous gossip linking them amorously to every man with whom they worked. Claire Lacombe was
denied the right to speak in her own defense because of her “dangerous eloquence”. Virtue was the order of
the day and, according to Robespierre and other revolutionary leaders in power at the time, those who
encouraged women to leave the home could not themselves be considered virtuous. A virtuous woman, in
their eyes, was one who stayed home, had children and took care of and encouraged her husband, a silent,
modest mother and wife.24
Some of the excitement of the three plays emanates from an obvious delight among the authors, directors
and actors at having discovered and resurrected a forgotten part of their history. The playwrights harbor no
illusions that their works will bring about the rewriting of history overnight, but they know that the effort
has to begin somewhere. They are fulfilling a role as “human archeologists”, bringing to light long-buried
persons/artifacts of their culture. Yet, these plays are more than period pieces created to celebrate a
particular aspect of the bicentennial. They recreate living characters with whom we can empathize for
reasons other than their ideals.

In Des Françaises Michèle Fabien has drawn a Claire Lacombe of flesh and blood, a woman whose spirit
has been crushed but not broken, and who is not yet ready to abandon her ideals or her cause. Her story is
one of courage and daring, but also one of loneliness and disappointment. The four women in this part of
the play represent four distinct reactions to the events leading up to and including the August day in 1795
when Claire Lacombe was released from prison. The landlady and Gabrielle, each in her own way, embody
the opposition: they do not understand the thirst for freedom that motivated women such as Claire Lacombe

23From the unpublished text of Elles étaient citoyennes given to me by Monick Lepeu.
24Yet, in 1789, the great majority of women who lived in Paris performed some kind of work outside of the home, for
which they received wages far below those earned by working men. Some of their petitions for better working
conditions, access to education, etc. have been published in 1789, Cahiers de doléances des femmes (see Bibliography).

and Anne Colombe. Anne herself does not regret having participated in the effort, but she believes the
situation is hopeless until such time as women can come out of their isolation to gather once again in the
streets. It is Claire who insists that their story must be told, and she proceeds to tell it with passion and
conviction. As previously mentioned, the presentation of “Claire Lacombe” with “Berty Albrecht” produces
a composite of two very different women who share the same ideals of devotion to their country and to the
cause of freedom. Each has much to say about the value of standing up for one’s convictions, even in the
face of overwhelming odds. The intimacy of the setting and the proximity of the actors to the audience
constitute a deliberate attempt to make that communications as direct as possible.
Elles étaient citoyennes is the only one of these plays that is overtly feminist in its perspective on subjects
ranging from politics to childbirth.25 Not only does the play revive the memory of forgotten heroines, but by
delving into the more personal side of their lives as women, it transcends the historical and political aspects
of their contributions. In their private lives they suffered dissatisfaction with marriage (which Olympe de
Gouges refers to as the “tomb of love”), and frustration with the child each has borne. All of them had a
strong sense of identity and an eloquence with which to incite other women and men to action. The contrast
between their aspirations and early victories on the one hand, and their ultimate situations on the other is
sensitively developed. We see them in moments of personal weakness: when faced with execution, Olympe
wonders whether she could save herself by pretending to be pregnant. Manon points out to her that she
would only be doubly defamed, and that she must go to her death bravely. Despite all of the setbacks and
humiliations they suffered, these women considered themselves patriots until the moment of their death.
What comes through clearly in Lepeu’s work is the sense of a terrible waste of women’s lives, and the
subsequent paranoiac effort to erase the very fact of their existence.
Marianik Réveillon’s portrayal of Théroigne de Méricourt is both a political allegory and the story of the
rise and fall of a woman whose strengths—her beauty and power—catalyzed her destruction. By setting the
story in prison, Réveillon is able to use the women prisoners to evoke the destructive forces unleashed by
Théroigne’s rapid rise to prominence. Their unquestioning acceptance of all of the gossip about her, and
their acting out of alleged incidents in Theroigne’s public and private life, are effectively counterpointed by
the presence of the “real” Théroigne amongst them. She has been reduced to a caricature of herself, able
only to produce sporadic glimpses of her former glory interspersed with pleas for water that go unanswered.
The evocation of Danton,26 Robespierre and the other “great men” in the form of grotesque marionettes is
most effective in demonstrating the extent to which she was betrayed. In addition, Réveillon keeps the
entire cast of the play on stage at all times, with minor interactions going on continuously among the
characters. This contributes to making the staging of Théroigne the most developed of the three plays.
The recent search for heroines and female role models is unquestionably a contributing factor in the
creation of these plays. While none of the revolutionary women portrayed achieved any lasting success, all
of them may still be viewed as “foremothers” of present-day women’s rights movements. It is difficult to
predict what lasting effect, if any, these plays will have on the perception of the role of women in French

25 It is interesting to note that Elles étaient citoyennes received its most favourable reviews in the French press from

distinguished male critics. Its author and director, Monick Lepeu, has won acclaim for her work in other plays dealing
entirely with women: notably, Gertrude morte cet après-midi, based on the works of Gertrude Stein (1985–86); 20, rue
Jacob named for the Paris address of Nathalie Barney at whose home both French and expatriate women writers, artists
and intellectuals gathered and Moi, Zéro magnifique, a play about Violette Leduc, a lesbian writer of the fifties.
26 Georges Danton (1760–1793) was an extremely popular figure in the years preceding the Revolution. He had great

influence in political circles and was an early supporter of Robespierre. When Danton turned against his former friend
in the midst of the excesses of the Terror, he was denounced, tried and executed.

history. The ephemeral nature of plays, especially plays that are not published, coupled with the reality of
small theatres and sparse audiences, will doubtless limit their impact. Nevertheless, new light has been shed
on a previously dark corner of French history, and for those fortunate enough to be a part of the audience,
history has begun to be rewritten and heroines are being reborn.


Fabien, Michele. (1989) Claire Lacombe suivi de Berty Albrecht. Paris: Actes Sud-Papiers. (The play was presented
under the title: Des Françaises.)
Lepeu, Monick. Elles étaient citoyennes. Unpublished manuscript.
Réveillon, Marianik. Théroigne de Méricourt. Unpublished manuscript.

Additional Bibliography

Abrey, Jane. “Feminism in the French Revolution,” American Historical Review, No. 80, 1975.
Blanc, Olivier. Olympe de Gouges. Paris: Syros, 1981.
Blanc, Simone. Les Femmes et la Révolution Française. Paris: Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand, Mairie de Paris, 1989.
Bouchardeau, Huguette. Pas d’histoire les femmes.Paris: Syros, 1978.
Bouvier, Jeanne. Les Femmes pendant la Révolution: leur action politique, sociale, économique, militaire, leur courage
devant l’échafaud>. Paris: E.Figuière, 1931.
Bruhat, Yvonne. Les Femmes et la Révolution Française. Editions du Comité mondial des Femmes, 1939.
——. Cahier de doléances des femmes. Paris: Des Femmes, 1981, 1989.
Cerati, Marie. Le Club des citoyennes républicaines révolutionnaires. Paris: Editions Sociales, 1966.
Charzat, Gisèle. Les Françaises sont-elles des citoyennes? Paris: Gonthier, 1972.
Chatel, Nicole. Les Femmes dans la Resistance. Paris: Julliard, 1972.
——. Le Club des Citoyennes républicaines. Ed. Sociales, 1966.
——. Le Club des Républicaines révolutionnaires. Ed. Sociales Chaudieu, 1833.
Collins, Marie et Weil Sayre, Sylvie. Les Femmes en France. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974.
Duhet, Paule-Marie. Les Femmes et la Révolution. Paris: Julliard, 1971.
Eaubonne, Françoise d’. Histoire et actualité du féminisme. Paris: Alain Moreau, 1972.
Francos, Ania. Il était des femmes dans la Résistance. Paris: Stock, 1978.
Godineau, Dominique. Citoyennes tricoteuses. Les femmes du peuple à Paris pendant la Révolution française. Aix-en-
Provence: Alinéa, 1988.
Gouges, Olympe de. Oeuvres, presented by Bénoite Groult. Paris: Mercure de France, 1986.
Groult, Benoîte. Le Féminisme au masculin. Paris: Gonthier, 1977.
Guibert-Sledziewski, Elisabeth. “La femme, objet de la Révolution,” Annales historiques de la Révolution française
janvier-mars 1987, 1–16.
Jourcin, A. and Van Tieghem. Dictionnaire des Femmes Célèbres. Paris: Larousse, 1969.
Lacour, Léopold. Les Origines du féminisme contemporain: Olympe de Gouges, Théroigne de Méricourt, Rose
Lacombe. 1900.
Legouvé, Ernest. La Femme en France au XIXe siècle . Paris: Librairie de la bibliothèque démocratique, 1873.
Marand-Fouquet, Catherine. La Femme au temps de la Révolution. Paris: Stock—Laurence Pernoud, 1989.
Michelet, Jules. Les Femmes et la Révolution. Présenté par Françoise Giroud. Paris: Carrère, 1988.
Monestier, Marianne. Elles étaient cent et mille, hommage pathétique aux femmes de la Résistance. Paris: Fayard, 1972.
Portemer, Jean. “Le statut de la femme en France depuis la réformation des coutumes jusquà la rédaction du Code civil”,
Recueil de la Société Jean Bodin sur La Femme, IIe partie, t. XII. Bruxelles, 1962.
Rosa, Annette. Citoyennes: les femmes et la Révolution française. Paris: Messidor, 1988.

Roudinesco, Elisabeth. Théroigne de Méricourt, une femme mélancolique sous la Révolution. Paris: Seui, l 1989.
Sarde, Michèle. Regard sur les Françaises. Paris: Stock, 1983.
Sopriani, Anne. La Révolution et les femmes, 1789–1796. Paris: M.A., 1988.
Stephens, Winifred. Women of the French Revolution. London: Chapman & Hall, 1922.
Strobl-Ravelsberg, Les Confessions de Théroigne de Méricourt. L.Westhausser, 1892.
Villiers, Marc de. Histoire des clubs de femmes et des légions d’amazones. Paris: Plon, 1910.
Dialogues of the Heart: Norodom Sihanouk and Mahatma
Ghandi as Portrayed by Hélène Cixous
Celita Lamar

In 1985, Hélène Cixous’ eight-hour play, L’Histoire terrible mais inachevée de Norodom Sihanouk,
roi du Cambodge (The Terrible but Unfinished Story of Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia),
opened in Paris at the Théâtre du Soleil. Two years later, in 1987, Cixous presented a second major
play based on recent history: L’Indiade, ou l’Inde de leurs rêves (The Indiade, or India of their
Unlike Cixous’ earlier plays, which featured female protagonists and few characters, these two
revolve around strong male figures, Sihanouk and Ghandi, and a cast of some fifty other personalities
ranging from powerful men such as Chou-En-lai, Jawaharlal Nehru, Henry Kissinger and Lord
Mountbatten to simple peasants and ghosts.
Cixous portrays Sihanouk and Ghandi at dramatic historical moments, when their countries are
being torn asunder. She captures the essence of each man as the spiritual symbol of a people in crisis.
Focusing on their “dialogues of the heart,” this article examines comparable elements in the portrayal
of Sihanouk and Ghandi against a background of political intrigue and fratricidal struggles.
KEY WORDS Contemporary French theatre, Cixous, Norodom Sihanouk, Mahatma Ghandi,
Cambodia, the Partition of India.

In 1985, Hélène Cixous’ eight-hour play, l’Histoire terrible mais inachevée de Norodom Sihanouk, roi du
Cambodge (The Terrible but Unfinished Story of Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia) opened in Paris at
the Théâtre du Soleil. Two years later, in 1987, Cixous and director Ariane Mnouchkine presented a second
major play based on recent history: l’Indiade ou l’Inde de leurs rêves (The Indiade or India of their
Dreams). Both of these plays recreate significant and explosive moments in the history of the respective
countries; they present fratricidal struggles, dreams of independence—and the tragic disintegration of those
Cixous was a belated “convert” to the theatre. In an article written in 1977 for the Parisian newspaper, Le
Monde, she expressed her distrust of the theatre, referring to it as a place of sadism directed against women,
and further, of the reproduction of a patriarchal family structure wherein the woman assumes the eternal
position of victim. She stated that if she went to the theatre then it had to be as a political gesture, “with a
view toward changing, with the help of other women, its means of production and expression”. This she

sought to do with her first play, Portrait of Dora (1976), based on Sigmund Freud’s “Fragment of an
Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.”
In the ten years between the staging of Dora and the production of the Sihanouk play, Cixous’ views on
the theatre underwent a metamorphosis. By 1983 her initial mistrust had already given way to an
enthusiastic endorsement of the theatre as a place where “we have chance to meet the gods. The gods? I
mean that which surpasses us and carries us along, and to which we address ourselves blindly. I mean our
own part of divinity.’1 She writes of an “archaic complicity” both between spectators and performers, and
among the members of an audience. In some of her most recent writings on the theatre, Cixous has come up
with a further refinement of her definition of the theatre:

…the theatre is the space where we as human beings experience ourselves as an atom in the cosmos,
as a moment in time, as a question in the multi-millenium dialogue between men and the Gods, as one
of the thousands of “whys” hurled from the mystery of the spoken question in the direction of the
formless Mystery, of the disembodied Cause.2

In this progression from a deep distrust of the theatre to a sense of awe at its divine possibilities, Cixous has
made radical changes in her approaches to the stage. Her first two plays featured women protagonists who
were struggling to free themselves from patriarchal restraints and to experience their personal power. These
were small, intimate plays with few characters. L’Histoire terrible and l’Indiade each bring to the stage
strong male protagonists and a cast of some fifty other personalities. The scope of the plays has expanded as
dramatically as the number of characters. The Sihanouk play encompasses twenty-five years of Cambodian
history, from 1955 to 1979. It is divided into two epochs, presented on different evenings, each composed
of five acts and twenty-five scenes. L’Indiade, a five hour play presented in a single evening, spans eleven
years of Indian struggles for independence, from 1937 to 1948. It consists of five acts and nineteen scenes.
This seeming reversal of priorities and values is, in fact, no reversal at all. For in her portrayal of
masculine protagonists such as Norodom Sihanouk and Mahatma Ghandi, Hélène Cixous has remained true
to her basic principles. Portrait of Dora represented the theatrical incarnation of a personal and political
philosophy. With the staging of L’Histoire terrible, Cixous took on the world, as it were. Although the
object of her attention may appear to have altered radically, her interests have merely shifted from the
expression of the particular female voice to the incantation of a collective global agony. In each case her
focus has centered on those whose situation she perceives as “precarious.”3
In her depiction of both leaders, Cixous exphasizes their respectively paternal and maternal qualities:
Sihanouk as Cambodia’s Monseigneur Papa and Ghandi as the “Mother of India.” She portrays the two at
dramatic moments, when their countries are being torn asunder, thus capturing the essence of each man as

1 All translations in this article are mine.

2 “L’Ourse, la Tomber, les Etoiles,” in “Ecrits sur le théâtre” an appendix to L’Indiade ou l’Inde de leurs rêves Paris:
Théâtre du soleil, 1987):248.
3 In several articles and interviews Cixous has spoken of the attraction that Cambodia and its people held for her, “What

I’m interested in is what I call the precarious. Something which is almost on the verge of disappearance, which we have
to pray to keep alive.” This particular quotation is from a paper presented in English to the Focused Research Program
in Gender and Women’s Studies, UCI, May 1988. Similar quotations are found in Veronique Hotte’s “Entretien avec
Hélène Cixous,” in Théâtre/Public (March-April 1986):22; and in Gisèle Barrett’s article based on two interviews with
Cixous: “Petit Essai sur la dramaturgie de l’Histoire terrible mais inachevée de Norodom Sihanouk, roi du Cambodge”
in Cahiers de Théâtre Jeu 39–2 (1986):140.

the spiritual symbol of a people in crisis. It is through their “dialogues of the heart” that Sihanouk and
Ghandi emerge, vividly delineated against a background of the vicissitudes of their respective peoples.
Before turning to the similarities between the two leaders, let us briefly examine their situations and some
of the differences between them. At the beginning of the play, Sihanouk is King of Cambodia. He decides to
give up the throne and to present himself as a parliamentary candidate to his people in order to preserve the
monarchy and the independence and neutrality of Cambodia. Sihanouk’s enemies include his cousin Sirik
Matak, who believes himself to be the rightful ruler of Cambodia, the Khmers rouges (Cambodian Communist
extremists), the United States of America as embodied by several ambassadors and Secretary of State Henry
Kissinger, and Cambodia’s traditional enemies, the Vietnamese. Sihanouk envisions Cambodia’s future as
that of a neutral nation, independent of interference from other, larger nations. He perceives the United
States as being indifferent to the fate of Cambodia, wishing only to use it as “a silken footstool to peer over
the wall into Vietnam.” (II, 2) Sirik Matak, on the other hand, prefers to receive aid from the Americans and
to ally Cambodia with them against the Vietnamese and the Communists. In his desire to remain neutral and
friendly to the rest of the world, Sihanouk sets out to visit heads of state in France, Russia and China. He
leaves army chief Lon Nol, in charge during his absence. Lon Nol betrays Sihanouk’s trust as he allies
himself with Sirik Matak and takes over rule of Cambodia, leaving Sihanouk in exile in Beijing. Sihanouk’s
efforts to counteract Lon Nol’s influence by allying himself with his former enemies the Vietnamese, and
the even more vicious and deadly Khmers rouges, is doomed to failure. The tragic mistake he makes by
leaving Cambodia in a time of crisis proves to be a costly one. When Sihanouk is finally permitted to
return, it is as a prisoner and in order to serve as a mere figurehead for the Khmer rouges. His subsequent
departure into exile is inevitable.
Mahatma Ghandi, on the other hand, had no pretentions to royalty. As a Hindu holy man he lived in
poverty, walking barefoot through the dusty roads of India, carrying his message of non-violence and
independence. His constant message to the British, “Quit India” serves as a leitmotif for the play. For
Ghandi, and for 400 million Indians, independence is the long-awaited dream. But even as the dream begins
to emerge as a possible reality, it is eclipsed by the nightmare of the Partition, the creation of Pakistan out
of the very heart of India. Sides are drawn between the Hindu majority under the Pandit Jahawarlal Nehru
and the Mohammedan League led by the atheistic Mohamed Ali Jinnah. The British are represented by Lord
Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India. Jinnah’s dream is the creation of Pakistan as a Muslim state.
Ghandi’s own political stance is independence for a whole and undivided India. His efforts to that end fail
as Nehru’s party bows to what they perceive to be the inevitable “Partition.” On August 15, 1947 the safran,
green and white flag of India flies for the first time as Independence is granted by the British. But the
moment is bittersweet, for on the eve of this great day the state of Pakistan was created, dividing provinces
and setting brother against brother, friend against friend in a bloodbath of unimaginable proportions. In an
attempt to put an end to this fratricidal frenzy, Ghandi goes on a hunger strike. As he is about to reach the
end of his endurance, the news comes that all sides have agreed to stop the bloodshed. But soon after a
victoriously smiling Ghandi has left the scene, leaning on two of his friends, bells begin to toll. Word comes
that the Mahatma Ghandi has been killed by a Hindu assassin.
The two sets of bare facts outlined above form a framework for each of the plays, but tell us little of their
essence. For it is not the historical events that are of principal interest here but rather the vibrant glimpse
Cixous affords into the hearts of two unique human beings with extraordinary bonds between themselves
and their people: Norodom Sihanouk, Monseigneur Papa of Cambodia, and Mahatma Ghandi, the Mother of
Cixous portrays Sihanouk as a strong Father figure who loves his children, his people, and is loved in
return—albeit not by everyone. It is the constancy of this love, and not its betrayals, that becomes the focus

of the play. The words Sihanouk uses to refer to Cambodia and its people resemble at times the romantic
words of a lover to his beloved; at other moments they seem more like those of a father speaking to or about
his children, or like the heartfelt devotion of a loyal friend. These words are most often pronounced in the
company of the two individuals closest to Sihanouk, his wife (referred to only as “the Princess”) and his
close friend and advisor, Penn Nouth. It is to them, and to the ghost of his father, King Suramarit, that
Sihanouk voices his fears for his people and his sorrow at being separated from them. Four examples will
illustrate how Sihanouk’s words express his intimate ties with the Cambodian people and with the land
itself. Early in the play Sihanouk explains to the ghost of King Suramarit why he has decided to abdicate in
favor of his mother and to present himself as a candidate, thereby keeping the throne in the family and the
political power to himself. He is certain of the support of his loyal subjects:

SURAMARIT: All right, my son, let’s abdicate! But you will be hated as a politician. Do
you have a few friends?
SIHANOUK: I have all of the people. Within the palace walls it is like the ancient circus
with its wild beasts. But as soon as one has passed through the gates, then
there is love. (I, ii, 33)

In this next scene Sihanouk is on a plane with the Princess; they are flying between Moscow and Beijing.
He has just learned of the coup d’état that has suddenly turned him into an exile. Here he identifies
intimately and passionately with both the land and the people of Cambodia.

SIHANOUK: …And now how can I forget the great dream that I have become…I can no
longer stop being Cambodia. I myself have become these rivers, these rice
plantations, these mountains and all of these peasants who inhabit me. (IV,
iv, 165)

In Beijing, Sihanouk has just learned from Penn Nouth that all of his ambassadors have rallied behind Lon
Nol save one, Chea San. Rather than dwelling on the defections of the others, he is instead deeply moved by
the simple expression of loyalty on the part of one courtier.

SIHANOUK: San! San! Precisely and only he! Among all of them, San, the one whom I
have so harshly treated. Penn Nouth, in your bad news there was hidden a
piece of information so precious that it almost reconciles me with
humanity. A single look suffices at times to pull us out of hell. At this
moment, thanks to someone from whom I expected nothing, I am happy. (V,
i, 80)

Nonetheless, Sihanouk is far from sanguine towards what he perceives as a complete betrayal. Later in the
same scene Penn Nouth has just told Sihanouk of the lies being spread by Lon Nol in the newspapers and by
loudspeakers to discredit him and his family in the eyes of his people. Sihanouk experiences this attempt to
separate him from his subjects as the most heinous of all of the offenses committed against him.

SIHANOUK: I want the blood in my veins to turn to fire

For henceforth I want, and this is irrevocable, to fan the flames of a
superhuman rage

They have stolen from me my land, my people, my power,

They have thrown me to the depths of the world
And now they want to close those hearts
Where what remains of Sihanouk could find shelter. (V, i, 182)

Sihanouk identifies in a very personal, intense way with Cambodia; he is not only the Father of his people,
he is the living symbol of their land. The confidence he feels in their love, the pain of separation, are
poignantly expressed time and again in his conversations with the Princess and Penn Nouth. In the midst of
politics and tragedy, Cixous’ portrayal of Sihanouk remains that of a love story between a prince and his
In l’Indiade, Ghandi’s love for India and for all of its people transcends political considerations. Cixous
writes in her introduction to the play that “The glorious entry of love into the public sphere in the middle of
the twentieth century, that is the gift that, through Ghandi, India gave to the universe.” She refers to Ghandi
as “the divine warrior.” “Yes, Ghandi is a warrior. His bow is love. His law: unbiased action. Do or die, that
is his motto.” But Ghandi was also a human being and, according to Cixous, therein lay his greatness. His
strength was evident in the effort, not necessarily in the result.
There are so many references to love in this play that I shall limit examples to a few utterances delivered
by Ghandi. In the following scene Ghandi’s wife, Kastourbai, has just died; it is 1944 and Ghandi is in
prison with her and with their friend, Sarojini. He speaks to Kastourbai the words he had never said to her
while she was alive. He mingles his love for her with his love for India, using a double mother image in
which each spouse is both the other’s mother and child.

GHANDI: Ba, my girl, my old woman, my village. You my secret India, my pupil and my
teacher, you my thirst, you my milk and my bread. Sixty-two years we have
proceeded together through childhood, youth and old age, Ba and Bapu
together towards Truth.
How lucky we have been.
You my mother and my baby, I your baby and your mother.
Each nourished at the other’s breast for sixty-two years. (II, i, 75)

Having poured out his heart, Ghandi is ready to go forward, to take up his cause once again. His greatest
desire now is to conquer the Muslim leader, Jinnah, with love.
In his efforts to bring together in love the warring factions in his country Ghandi, the Hindu holy man,
calls upon Jesus Christ to help him. Immediately before the meeting between Ghandi and Jinnah, Ghandi is
with Haridasi, the itinerant Bengali woman whose role is similar to that of a Greek chorus in the play:

GHANDI: I keep going around Jinnah as Joshua did around Jericho. Today, Jesus Christ,
it is of you, wounded God, that I will ask for help. Give me the strength to
wound and to be wounded. Give me the opportunity to pay in order to buy

4 In the introduction to L’Indiade ou l’Inde de leurs rêves, Cixous also speaks of writing a “love story”: “The [hi]story
that bears the fatal name of Partition is in reality an immense love story. Love, that’s what is was all about beyond the
[question of] politics and religion”(13).

back my brother’s love. I am ready to go too far, to lose honor and self-respect
if I can bring him to my breast. (II, ii, 79–80)

Once again the mother image surfaces: Ghandi sees no act as too ignoble if it will only bring back his lost
Ghandi relates to Jinnah a nightmare in which he saw “a body torn limb from limb, a mother
disemboweled, India sliced up like a piece of meat.” When Jinnah nonetheless reiterates his desire to have
India divided into “Pakistan and Hindoustan,” Ghandi begins his most fervent plea for love:

GHANDI: If you will permit me, today I am going to speak to you of love. Love, there is
the remedy. Let us all love one another. That is everything. That is the door,
the lock, the key…do we love one another? Do the Hindus and the Muslims
love one another?
GHANDI: No? How can you say that? We have been living together for a thousand years,
fighting and making up. For a thousand years we have been wondering: Does
he love me? Does she love me? He doesn’t love me any more! No, it is I who
no longer love him. And yet how can we live without you? At times, in the
midst of love, we think that we no longer love each other. At this moment, you
believe that you no longer love me. But love still endures under the ashes. Just
allow me to blow on them. (II, ii, 81)

Jinnah violently rejects all of Ghandi’s overtures and mocks his belief that there could be love between
Hindus and Muslims. The spirit of Kastourbai returns and tells Ghandi to stop, that instead of loving him
more, Jinnah loves him less for his efforts. Ghandi responds like a mother whose child is threatened. The
child here is the Muslim part of his country.

GHANDI: He wants to tear the Muslim child from me. I will not let it go. I will roll
myself around it like a glove. You will have to cut me into pieces in order to
reach it…It’s war? Yes, it’s the war that I am declaring against war, against
hatred. (II, ii, 85)

In L’Indiade Cixous returns again and again to images of motherhood. She depicts Ghandi as the mother
who would rather give up her child than to see it cut in two by Solomon’s sword. Just as Lord Mountbatten
offers Jinnah a reduced version of the Partition he had demanded, Ghandi makes his final desperate plea:

I know this song well! And I know an even better one! It’s the Song of Solomon. Listen to me: Your
Excellency, I beg of you, give the living India to Mr. Jinnah and do not put her to death! Do not cut
her in two, for the love of god, give her to Jinnah. (IV, ii, 160)

But Mountbatten is no Solomon, and the sword falls.

The political machinations against which Sihanouk and Ghandi vainly struggle appear to exist in another
dimension through wihich the two men pass, their souls unscathed, their capacity for love undiminished. In
these two tragic tales of our century, the effects of which are still being experienced today, Hélène Cixous
uses the “lovers” as keys to the understanding of their two countries, one small and one immense. Whether

it is Sihanouk’s unfinished story or Ghandi’s legacy, love is portrayed as both the question and the answer;
as the means through which human beings reach the heights of divinity and are inextricably linked to
friends and enemies alike.


Cixous, Hélène. “Aller à la mer”, Le Monde, 28 April 1977. Translated by Barbara Kerslake in Modern Drama 27.4
(Dec. 1984):546.
——.“Le droit de légende”, Introduction to La prise de l’école de Madhubai. In l’Avant-Scène Théâtre 745 (1 March
——. L’Histoire terrible mais inachevée de Norodom Sihanouk, roi du Cambodge. Paris: Théâtre du Soleil, 1985.
——. L’Indiade ou l’Inde de leurs rêves. Paris: Théâtre du Soleil, 1987.
——. Théâtre: Portrait de Dora et La prise de l’école de Madhuboi. Paris: Editions des femmes, 1986.
On Creativity and Anger
Julia Pascal

Anger as a negative transferred in to a positive energy. Its pragmatic use within theatre. Anger at how
history is taught to cover up the truth and how the war history of the Channel Islands was ‘forgotten’.
The use of anger at this misrepresentation as inspiration for the play Theresa. Two monologues from
The Dybbuk and Year Zero to show how anger transfers in to creativity.
KEY WORDS Nuremberg Laws, Kindertransport, Blackpool, Guernsey, Germany.

‘Don’t get angry.’ That’s what they tell you when you are a little girl. ‘It’s not nice. It makes your face
In the playground in a Blackpool primary school in 1958, a fair haired, eight year old screamed at me,
‘You killed Jesus’. And I, opened my mouth not knowing what to say.
‘No, I didn’t’, I heard my voice loud and angry.’ I wasn’t born. It was the Romans’.
A year later the girl attacked me again. By now she was wearing spectacles. I pulled off her glasses and
threw them on the concrete floor fully enjoying the sound of the glass smashing.
What has this moment to do with playwriting?
In 1989 I read an article in the Sunday newspaper. The Observer about the Channel Islands under Nazi
occupation. The feature revealed the betrayal of three Jewish women to the Gestapo by the British
governing authorities. The theme of this article haunted me for several months. I was furious to realise that
an important area of British history was still secret. The Bailiff of Guernsey, together with his ruling elite,
had accepted the Nuremberg Laws and willingly handed over the Jews stranded on the Island. I went to
Guernsey and was given secret access to unpublished documents where I read subservient letters from the
Bailiff, Victor G Carey, to the Gestapo revealing the addresses, ages, and economic situation of all the Jews
on the island. Theresa Steiner, Marianna Grunfeld and Auguste Spitz were the three women first noted in
the Observer article and I traced their fate from Europe to their deportation in St Peter’s Port, Guernsey via
Drancy and finally, through Serge Klarsfeld’s documentation, to Auschwitz.
My research convinced me that I must write a play about these women. I focused on Theresa Steiner and
imagined her life in Vienna before her journey to London. Then, using the experience of German and
Austrian refugees during the Kindertransport, I tried to see London of the late 1930s through her eyes. But
in the final part of the play where she spends two years under Nazi occupation being banned from going to
the cinema, skating rinks, public parks and cafes because she was a Jew, I began to imagine all of Britain

under Nazi rule. If the Channel Islanders could betray the Jews and betray one another by settling old
scores, then what difference on mainland Britain?
The myth we were all taught in Britain was, ‘that it could never happen here’. But this was a lie. After the
war, Guernsey’s Bailiff, Victor G Carey, was knighted for his war service by the Queen (now the Queen
Mother). It is as if the French had honoured Maréchal Pétain instead of imprisoning him.
Obviously Westminster did not wish to show British wartime collaboration. It was bad for Britain’s
public image. And, the fact that Alderney hosted concentration camps where French, Polish, Russian and
Jewish prisoners were murdered, was certainly not a fact anyone wanted to reveal. How embarassing if
Channel Islanders were to be known as collaborators. This would destroy the image of the-plucky-little-
I chose actor Ruth Posner to play the name role. She escaped from the Warsaw ghetto as a child. I wanted
someone who would bring the living experience of surviving the Nazi era, rather than an actress who would
just take on the character as just another job.
The real Theresa was in her early twenties and Ruth was almost sixty. As I was writing the role especially
for her, I was forced to imagine a Theresa of her age. Instead of being a music student in Vienna which was
the reality, I imagined that the music student, had she lived, would have become a Professor of Music. So
Theresa Steiner in my play Theresa is a Professor at Vienna Conservatory. After that, I traced the true story
of Theresa Steiner as far as my research revealed. She came to work as a nanny in England. When her host
family moved to the Channel Islands to escape the expected London bombings in September 1939, Theresa
went with them. But, after the fall of France, it was evident that the Nazis were going to invade the Channel
Islands. The British army left the Islands and Whitehall offered evacuation to those who wished to leave.
This was denied to Theresa Steiner. A British policeman, Inspector William Sculpher, needlessly forbad her
escape, even before the Nazi invasion.
My anger at the official cover up of what happened made me write the play. It was warmly received in
London, Manchester, Maubeuge in France and widely in Germany. Reviews in all countries were very
A small core of Guernsey dissenters tried to get permission to show the play on the Island and I was
asked to send a script for approval. Theresa was banned in Guernsey. The reason given was ‘offensive
language’. There is no offensive language in the play other than the names of the collaborators. Even if the
guilty are now dead or approaching the grave, their children have no wish to see the family name revealed
in public.
How to write such a story? It emerged through rehearsal, as a mixture of naturalism, expressionism,
English music hall and political theatre. There was music. There was song. There was movement.
It starts suprisingly enough with Johann Strauss. I went in to rehearsal knowing that I wanted to use the
leitmotif of Strauss’ Blue Danube to express the end of an era. The Danube seems kitsch to us today. I
wanted this kitsch vision of Vienna before the Nazi jackboot. Ruth Posner, a former dancer with London
Contemporary Dance Theatre, was asked to relive her war memories while reacting to Strauss’ Danube. At
first she listened and then little by little her body expressed her months as a supposed Catholic in Warsaw’s
‘Aryan Sector’ and later in a German prison camp. She moved as a little girl going to her first dance or as a
slave. She moved as someone seeking help or someone on a long painful journey. Impossible to describe the
power her ‘dance’ provoked.
Imagine the body of a sixty year old woman who has the suppleneness of an eighteen year old and whose
face expresses memories which no actress just performing a role can evoke. In one scene on the Channel
Islands, Theresa Steiner is forced to show her passport and declare that she is a Jew. ‘I am a Jew’ she says
and the scene is repeated six times, each time more grotesquely—a Georg Grosz image meant to sear the

Figure 1 Monique Burg in Theresa. Photograph by Julia Pascal

mind and one of the hardest scenes for Ruth to perform. Living in England for most of her post war life, and
being a Jew, was something to keep quiet. Add this to the fact that she hid her Jewishness in order to save
her life in Poland and Germany during the war and you can imagine how she felt.
How to present the holocaust onstage? The question troubled me during the writing of the play. I
explored simple movements. Sometimes I added Jewish humour to show areas of Jewish self-parody. For
instance in one scene Theresa Steiner meets a former German history professor in the lobby of the London’s
Savoy Hotel. He is a bellboy; she a nanny. Both preserve the dignity of their professions and call one
another ‘Frau Docktor’ and ‘Herr Professor’. They are to typify all those German and Austrian middle class
Jews, communists and anti-Nazis, who were forced to become menials in Britain before and during the war.

Figure 2 Monique Burg (white blouse) Kate Margam in ‘Theresa’. Photograph by David Jacobs

I wanted the audience to laugh at the way the German Jews clung on to their pretensions but to also pity
them for all they had lost. German Jews represented the most assimilated of all European Jewry. In 1914
they fought for the Kaiser and many even converted. When they arrived in Britain in the late thirties they
were fondly mocked by Britain’s Eastern European Jews who called them ‘Yeckes’. (This Yiddishism is a
reference to their refusal to take off their jackets even in midsummer for fear of offending decorum. Die
Jacke is German for the jacket).
But gentile audiences are often scared to laugh during a holocaust play. When Jews tittered in self-
recognition, the gentiles felt they were also being given permission to laugh. I wanted the audience to laugh
and to cry. But how to present the actual Final Solution? I decided that the most potent way of doing this
was by sound. In the last scene, the final image is of Theresa and the Gestapo Officer in a tight spot-light
with only the interminable sound of the train heading towards Auschwitz as an indication of what is to

Figure 3 My Lithuanian family. The lost cousins of Esther’s speech in ‘The Dybbuk’.

As the lights come up, the stage is bare except for Theresa’s suitcase, coat and hat. When we played in
Germany there was a terrible silence at the end followed by sobbing. Here our audiences were frequently
students. The play, as they saw it, was not Guernsey, but part of their own living German history. The German
actor playing the Gestapo officer, Thomas Kampe, represented their fathers and grandfathers. In Germany I
learnt of the cathartic weapon of theatre and how such work can help bring together the children of former
After Theresa I wrote, A Dead Woman On Holiday which was the story of two interpreters who fall in
love during The Nuremberg Trials. And the third in the trilogy was my version of The Dybbuk which draws
on Solomon Anski’s classic as an inspirational force.
Here is the first monologue. It shows how the anger I frequently feel in Germany prompts me to
recognize today’s dybbuks.
The second monologue is from my fourth war play Year Zero set in Vichy France. It explores the massive
level of collaboration during the Pétain years. A woman is condemned for ‘horizontal collaboration with the
enemy’. Her accusers are a crowd who, as the Allies land on the Normandy coast, suddenly join the
Resistance! This is her inner monologue against these hypocrites. It is also a modern speech fuelled by my
anger at the sexual hypocrisy still present in contemporary France.
That little girl in the Blackpool playground back in 1958, never knew the favour she was doing me.

Lights Up On Judith—The Dybbuk

The rest of the company have their backs to the audience. They are dressed in 1940s costumes. She is
dressed in today’s casual clothes.

Figure 4 Thomas Kampe in ‘The Dybbuk’ Photo David Jacobs.

I was in Germany and they went on strike. Not because of me. It was nothing to do with me. A little holiday
with my fiancé combined with a little research for my job.
Satelite communication. It was a hot spring day in Frankfurt. In the park by the Opera House, just by
Goethe’s statue, two hundred young people were shooting-up. We were walking hand in hand. And
suddenly we were in Dante’s Inferno.
They were burning stuff, snorting stuff, injecting stuff. It was a kind of communal mass. One girl filled
her vein with heroin and then passed on the syringe to another young woman. I wanted to shout stop, don’t
take it. But she was past knowing anything.
I took trains in the strike. There were no trams or buses but the trains still ran on time. To the second.
Strange things happen to me on trains. I meet men. Of a certain age. Men who have not enjoyed ‘the
mercy of a late birth.’ For some strange reason, they are always drawn to me. They are curious. They ask

me something in German and when I respond they tell me my German is good and where did I learn it.
From my grandmother, I say. ‘Was she German?’ ‘No Roumanian.’ Then I wait. Shall I pretend she was a
Christian? I can’t.
‘She also spoke Yiddish.’
Then they look at me hard. There is usually a silence. Maybe they talk about something else. The strike.
What a pity it is that there is no Berlin Wall. The invasion of all those East Germans. Anything to cover
what is going on behind their eyes. And then little by little it comes out.
‘I knew about the Jews. Yes, I knew. I even helped them. My mother lived on the Dutch border. She
heard the trains. She used to go out when it was a new moon, in order not to be seen, you understand. She went
out and picked up all the scraps of paper, the tiny messages that the people threw out. They wrote on
anything, a label from a jacket, a handkerchief, any scrap of material would do. The messages were to warn
children in hiding. Of course we collected all these messages and filled up our kitchen table with them. We
tried to get messages to those hidden children. We did what we could’.
They don’t always pretend to have helped. Maybe that man did help. How do I know? Sometimes they
tell me of their life in the Hitler Youth. Of their joy in pointing out a Jew hiding a yellow star behind an
empty briefcase. Of Jews riding in trams, refusing to ride in the Jews’ car.
I go to Germany and I think that Hitler won. Where is my generation? Where are my cousins? Where is
the dream of assimilation?
Oh yes, Hitler won.
In Heidelberg, just by Macdonalds, is the square where they rounded up the Jews. I see a man in a
yamulka, a kippa. He wears the mark of a religious Jew in defiance. Somehow he embarrasses me. As so
many religious Jews do. Am I ashamed to be a Jew? Is this my own self-hatred? My own antisemitism? I
don’t even believe in God, so what makes me a Jew? They don’t talk of such things in my family. “Keep
your head down.” “Be British, be cool, be part of the crowd.”
More and more I think about my family who vanished. I wonder what happened to them.
I imagine them in a ghetto in Vilna or maybe in Warsaw or Lodz. I know it sounds strange but I am
haunted by faces, different accents, different bodies, all the lost cousins and aunts and uncles who I want to
have known.
I see a blonde woman, a dark man, a curly haired redhead, a fair young man. I don’t know who they are
but they often come to me in dreams.
They say that a person can be filled with the soul of another and that soul, which has died too early, is a
dybbuk. But I, I, I, I have so many dybbuks….

Lighting change.
Actors slowly turn around. They are carrying suitcases in their arms. Slowly they let the cases fall
to reveal yellow stars on their left breast.

The Cut of 1944

La tondue—The woman with the shaved head. Extract from Year Zero written and produced 1994.
Lights up on a woman on a raised platform in a public square. She is sitting. A man stands behind her
with a pair of scissors as if just about to cut her hair. A German soldier is also present.

L’Année Zero/Year Zero

Figure 5 Veronique Arbez & Stéphane Titelein. Photograph by Pierre Peron. Marbeuge International Theatre Festival,
France, May 1994.
Woman: La coupe de dix neuf cent quarante quatre—nineteen forty four. You don’t need shampoo or
curling tongues. This is really à la mode. In fact there’s another advantage, it costs nothing to keep neat.
You can tip the coiffeur if you want to. Him. It’s always him. Pure white him. Never fucked the wife of a
comrade away on forced labour. Never visited a fille de joie with the juices of Jerry running out of her. Oh
of course. He was in the Resistance. On D-Day. They all were. Cocky little men with their feet in the shit
while they shout “Coco-rico” for victory.
Yes, I know them. They came to me before Jerry. When a man’s inside you you don’t care if his cock is
French German or American.
But, at least with Jerry at least there’s a certain courtesy. Gnädige Frau, may I enter now?
Then he shows you a photo of Fraulein back home and you know in this corner of France you are giving
the warmth of a stolen afternoon’s pleasure. What does he know poor sod. He doesn’t want to be here. He
wants to be back home. The bastard knows he’s probably going to die here.

Figure 6 Maubeuge International Theatre Festival France May 1994. Stéphane Titelein, Veronique Arbez, Marie-Odile
Sahajdak (back of head), Bruno Tuchzer. Photograph Pierre Peron (Actors left to right)
And so what.
Didn’t he kill too?
So go on, get it over with. Tirez un coup mon bel allemand. Tirez un coup mon beau français avec un
balle dans le cerveau pour Monsieur l’Allemand. Sois courageux mon petit soldat de chocolat. A bullet in
the brain or in the heart. Be brave soldier boy.
Me I’m brave with these bastards. Punish the women for what the men do. If I sell my cunt then there’s
always a client. Who is more guilty the seller or the buyer? And does the deutschmark stink more than the
franc? Oh you make laugh with your sense of justice.
Men came to me in the night, in the morning, in the afternoon. Tits and ass. That’s all they want. Woman
is just a hole where man leaves his mark in eternity.
No words. With words. Brutally. Tenderly. ‘Meine liebe.’ ‘Ich liebe dich.’ Words of love for an afternoon
forgotten by night.
They used to cut off heads now they only cut hair. It’ll soon grow.
She puts on a headscarf. Machine gun fire the German soldier is dead.
AMERICAN MUSIC ‘Oh When The Saints Come Marching In’
Bonjour Yankee Soldier Boy. What do you want to give me? Nylon stockings? It’s a long time since I
had a good pair of stockings on me. You want to help me put them on?
She lifts her skirt and we hear sounds of American tanks and voices.

Figure 7 Stéphane Titelein (barechested) Laure Smadja & Bruno Tuchzer. Photograph by Pierre Peron
Revolution and Poetry in Feyder’s Le Chant du retour
Patricia Lancaster
Department of Foreign Languages, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida

To celebrate the bicentenary of the French Revolution, the city of Arras commissioned playwright Vera
Feyder to create a drama based on the life of a famous, some might say infamous, native son—Maximilien
de Robespierre. The city requested that the play have a large cast of characters to permit the participation of
several theatre companies: le Théâtre du Campagnol, Centre Dramatique National de la banlieue sud, les
Tréteaux d’Artois and les Quatre sans cou. To one familiar with Feyder’s previous work, it is difficult to
imagine a subject—Robespierre and the reign of terror—or a style—a large-scale production with numerous
characters—less in keeping with her own themes and dramatic practice. Her best-known play, Emballage
perdu, is an intimate two-character piece that traces the effect of verbal violence on the friendship between
two women. However, Feyder accepted the commission on the condition that she be allowed to set the play
in contemporary France rather than in the Revolutionary period. The result, Le Chant du retour, is a play
that differs in many ways from Feyder’s usual dramatic style, yet remains faithful to her abiding themes:
freedom, human dignity, and the power of language.
This study deals briefly with the thematic content of Le Chant du retour, then looks specifically at both
the literal and symoblic role of a single character, Constantin.
The central action of the play is the disruption of the bicentennial celebration at Arras by the appearance
of a native son, Maxime, who bears a remarkable resemblance to Robespierre. Absent from Arras for five
years, Maxime has been invited back to play Robespierre in the local pageant. However, the Arrageois are
not prepared to extend their hospitality to the companions with whom Maxime returns: a group of tortured
and mutilated refugees from Togo, Peru, Haiti, Czechoslovakia, and South Africa. This plot device allows
Feyder to evoke the worldwide violations of human rights that continue to exist two hundred years after the
Declaration of the Rights of Man. She also manages to include allusions to the many struggles against
violence and oppression that have occurred since 1789—the revolution of 1848, the Commune, the Great War,
and the atrocities of World War II. But human suffering is not viewed merely in an historical or
international context, for Feyder creates a number of Arrageois who illustrate the problems facing modern
France: exploited immigrant workers, impoverished elderly citizens, destroyers of the natural environment.
If all this sounds like a heavy ideological burden for a dramatic piece, Feyder lightens the tone through
the use of word play, song, poetry, comic episodes, and an optimistic dénouement. Much of the humor and
poetry is provided by Constantin, described as “homme libre et poète” [free man and poet] in the play’s list
of characters. His role appears at first to be minor, a hobo taking a bemused interest in the town’s pageant
preparations and supplying appropriate quotations, or misquotations, as the situation demands. However, an

analysis of Constantin’s role shows that he must be understood on both the literal and symbolic levels and
that he embodies the spirit that animates this theatrical event.
On the first level Constantin is a tipsy vagabond who appears after six expository scenes have acquainted
the audience with the play’s main characters, established the city’s intention to re-enact scenes from the life
of Robespierre, and set the stage for the return of Maxime. In scene seven, the stage directions indicate that

…la fièvre des préparatifs est à son comble, la chaleur aussi. On entend répéter dans les salles
avoisinantes: des scènes de la Constituante, des chorales, des fanfares, se juxtaposant, se relayant…
Entre Constantin, homme libre. L’air et l’espace lui appartiennent. (38) […the fever of preparation is
at its height, the heat as well. We hear rehearsals in the nearby rooms: scenes from the Constitutional
Assembly, chorales, fanfares, in juxtapostion and harmony with each other…Enter Constantin, a free
man. Air and space belong to him.]

Constantin announces to two middle-aged women, “Mesdames! Je suis la Revolution en marche, donc
fatigué [Ladies, I am Revolution on the march, therefore tired],” and immediately falls asleep on the bench
next to them. The disparity between his unassuming demeanor and the grandeur of his pronouncement leads
at first to the assumption that his role is purely a comic one, but his subsequent contribution to the action
reveals that he is an unusual sort of vagabond. He is among those most sympathetic to Maxime’s desire to
find a safe haven for his friends and, in fact, functions as a sort of deus ex machina to provide them a home.
In the last act, learning that the city fathers of Arras have confiscated Maxime’s house, Constantin offers
sanctuary to him and his friends. The vagabond reveals:

J’ai eu des terres autrefois, des titres, un château dont il reste quelques murs. Ils sont à vous. Je parle
des murs. S’il vous faut un refuge contre la barbarie, le mensonge ou l’indifférence. Pour vous et vos
amis. Mais ce n’est pas vraiment un cadeau. C’est une ruine en forme d’abri pour ceux qui n’en ont
pas. (109) [I had lands once, titles, a chateau with a few remaining walls. They are yours. The walls I
mean. If you need a refuge against barbarism, lies or indifference. For you and your friends. But it is
not a really a gift. It’s a ruin in the form of shelter for those who have none.]

Having surprised Maxime with the offer of a house, he goes on to say that the real gift he offers will come
from the city of Arras. Ironically, the city’s contest for the best “revolutionary idea” has been won by none
other than Constantin, who intends to turn over the cash prize to Maxime.
So, Constantin functions on the literal level as a descendant of the nobility, against whom the French
revolted in 1789, who recognizes and opposes the continuing oppression of 1989. His voluntary
renunciation of privilege and property, in favor of freedom and humanitarianism, stands in sharp contrast to
the wresting of power from his ancestors by means of force. His choice to be a free man reminds us that all
persons, regardless of rank or class, have the ability and, indeed, the obligation to free themselves and
others from society’s accumulated wrongs.
But Constantin the poet has an even more important role. On the symbolic level he is a Dionysian figure,
inspired with a poet’s ability to understand and express the truth of the human condition, the meaning of
liberty, and the function of poetic language in shaping and sustaining revolutionary ideals. Solving the
“mystery” (a term that seems especially appropriate in this dramatic context) of Constantin’s symbolic
function requires careful attention to his words, particularly in scene seven. As already noted, he initially
proclaims himself the personification, albeit a tired one, of the Revolution. As he dozes upon the park bench,
Constantin rouses occasionally to make revelatory comments. First, when a loudspeaker carries the words

of Robespierre denouncing the injustice of the government, Constantin adds the quotation “Celui qui n’est
pas pour le peuple est contre le peuple [He who is not for the people is against the people].” (40) Second,
upon hearing a reference to the “discours d’ouverture [opening speech]”, Constantin rhymes it with the name
of Haiti’s revolutionary leader. He exclaims “Louverture! Le seul, le vrai…au port de prince: Toussaint
Louverture!” (41) [Louverture, the only, the true…at port of prince] His reactions suggest that he is no simple
wanderer but an educated man who knows something of history and revolution. After sleeping through four
pages of dialogue Constantin next wakes at the mention of a “voyageur assoiffé [thirsty traveller].” Raising
his hand, he answers “Présent.” (46) Given his midday torpor, it seems likely that this traveller unually
thirsts for something stronger than water. Constantin’s next comment is in response to a woman’s
expression of anxiety about atomic war. In an intriguing adaptation of a line from Valéry’s famous
meditative poem “Le Cimetière marin”, Constantin intones: “Un vent de mort se lève, il faut tenter de
survivre! [A death wind is rising, one must try to survive!].” He then asks the woman, “Avez-vous l’heure?
[Do you have the time?]” (46) Here is an excellent example of the intelligence and subtle wit with which
Feyder has endowed Constantin. His version of one of the most famous lines in French poetry resonates
with the contrast between Valéry’s less complex era and our own, which is threatened by the deadly wind of
nuclear fall-out. Valéry’s poem concludes that one must “tenter de vivre” [try to live], but given the dangers
of the modern age, Constantin says one must try to survive. It is a sober thought to be sure, yet a humorous
tone is quickly restored by his asking the time. After all, Valéry’s philosophical poem is known to be set
precisely at noon. Poor Constantin, on the other hand, has lost track of time.
The response to Constantin’s question is “Six heures, voyez bien [Six o’clock, as you can see].” The verb
‘see’ triggers a long, poetic reply that begins “Non, Madame, je ne vois pas. J’ai perdu mes lunettes. Je les ai
perdues dans un rêve et ce rêve ne m’a jamais retrouvé [No, Madame, I don’t see. I lost my glasses in a
dream and that dream never found me again].” (46–7) The speech turns into a rather fanciful tribute to the
sun, whom Constantin calls “the great seer of the universe.” (47) I shall return to this speech later to discuss
its significance in revealing Constantin’s symbolic role.
An important clue to Constantin’s identity is in a conversation with the playwright Michard, immediately
following the former’s poetic outburst:

Michard: Que faites-vous dans la vie?

Constantin: La manche! (Il la lui montre.) Enfin, ce qu’il en reste.
Michard: (lui donnant sa carte) Et moi, du théâtre! Du nouveau théâtre.
Constantin: (déchirant la carte) Je ne crains pas la concurrence.
Michard: Ah, je le dis toujours, les genies courent les rues.
Constantin: Les bois, Monsieur! “Les grands bois et les champs sont de vastes asiles…
Libres comme la mer autour des sombres îles…Marche à travers les champs
une fleur à la main.” (47)
M.: [ How do you make your living?
C.: From tricks up my sleeve. (He shows it to him.) At least, what’s left of it.
M.: (giving him his card) And I am in theatre. The new theatre.
C: (tearing up the card) I’m not afraid of the competition.
M.: Ah, as I always say, the streets are full of geniuses.
C: The woods, sir! “The great woods and the fields are vast sanctuaries…Free as
the sea around the somber isles…Walk through the fields with a flower in
your hand.”]

Since “faire la manche” means to be a busker, Constantin’s reply, on the literal level, indicates that a street
performer has nothing to fear from the competition of “new” theater. However, the term “nouveau théâtre”,
combined with the notion of competition also calls to mind the opposite of ‘nouveau’: ‘ancien’ or ‘antique’.
Also, Constantin makes clear his association with the woods rather than the city, again supplying a suitable
quotation, this time from Alfred de Vigny’s poem “La Maison du berger” (lines 26–28).
Combining the clues of the implied “théâtre antique” and the woods with the earlier identification of
Constantin as a thirsty traveller, it is easy to associate him with Dionysus, the god of vegetation and the
vine, the patron deity of Greek tragic festivals. As Rose Pfeffer explains in her excellent study Nietzsche:
Disciple of Dionysus, the worship of Dionysus had its origins in Thrace and Phrygia, where the god was
associated with orgiastic rites and drunken frenzy. “But”, she states, “when introduced into Greece
and received by the priesthood of Apollo, the old Thracian god is united with the native gods of Olympus,
and the non-Hellenic orgiastic elements of Dionysian excess merged with the measured sublimity and
form-giving force of Apollo” (30). Pfeffer argues that Nietzsche, in his later works, goes beyond the
Dionysian/Apollonian dualism expressed in The Birth of Tragedy to develop a concept of Dionysus that

represents a synthesis in which negation and affirmation, suffering and joy, are reconciled in terms of
a Dionysian faith that includes both gods and achieves true tragic greatness. However, this synthesis
must never be understood as a static and and finalistic one, in which the contest between the opposing
forces is abolished and the dialectical elements are destroyed. Dinoysos remains, as Nietzsche calls
him, “the great ambivalent one,” forever struggling and yet forever giving structure and form. (31)

The notion of a fusion of Dionysian chaos with Apollonian harmony and the idea that struggle is a
productive power help interpret a passage that might at first seem to argue against the association of
Constantin with Dionysus, i.e. the apostrophe to the sun preceding Constantin’s conversation with Michard.
Thinking of a Dionysian/Apollonian dualism, I wondered why Constantin, if he is identified with Dionysus
would praise the sun, symbol of Apollo. Looking again at this passage in light of Pfeffer’s explanation of a
synthesis of the two, I became aware of an important cluster of themes: sun, wine, chance, despair and
revolution. Addressing a young African woman, Djamila, Constantin declares:

Heureusement j’ai rendez-vous avec le grand voyant de l’univers! J’ai nommé, le soleil. Celui qui
nous voit comme je vous vois. Nue du haut des nues. (Il se lève) Celui qui gît au fond de tous les
verres d’amitié et toutes les bouteilles à la mer…Le grand jeteur de sort lumineux, diseur de bonne et
de mauvaise aventure. Soleil du gros rouge, du petit blanc, de la belle bleue. (Il prend la main de
Djamila) Bleu, blanc, rouge…avec le désespoir il a fleuri…Soleil, grand fossoyeur d’idées noires. (Il
s’agenouille devant Djamila et embrasse le bas de sa robe) Princesse, nous nous reverrons. (47)
[Luckily I have a rendez-vous with the great seer of the universe! I have named, the sun. The one who
sees us as I see you. Undisguised from high in the clouds. (He gets up) The one who lives at the
bottom of wine glasses and in bottles cast into the sea. The great luminous sorcerer, teller of good and
bad fortune. Sun of the hearty red, the little white, the beautiful blue. (He takes the hand of Djamila)
Blue, white, red with despair it flowered. Sun, great gravedigger of dark ideas. (He kneels before
Djamila and kisses the hem of her dress) Princess, we shall meet again.]

The sun is found not only high in the sky but also associated with wine. It is in the wine drunk with friends;
it is the sun of red wine and white wine. And although the sun is finally described as the gravedigger for
dark ideas, it is not totally a source of order and harmony. Rather Constantin associates it with an element

of supernatural power and chance, calling the sun a “jeteur de sort” and a “diseur de bonne et mauvaise
aventure”. Moving by association from the color of wine to the colors of the French revolutionary flag,
Constantin says that it “flowered” from despair. The “belle bleue” of the preceding sentence is an allusion to
the blue fireworks that “flower” in the skies of France every July 14.1
So, within this passage are the symbols (sun and wine) of the Dionysian/ Apollonian synthesis as well as
the juxtaposition of chaos or chance (“jeteur de sort”) with the notion of form and structure—as “diseur de
bonne et mauvaise aventure” the sun articulates our fate. There is also the theme of revolution as a struggle
against despair. Besides enunciating the primary theme of the play, this passage is an excellent example of
the act of poetic creation. Through repetition, alliteration, imagery, and rhythm Constantin gives structure
and form to his thoughts, making of them a beautiful and powerful prose poem.
Important as are the meaning and style of this passage, we must also take into account the young woman
to whom Constantin is speaking. Djamila is a mysterious presence in Arras. She has been on stage through
most of scene seven without the citizens of Arras acknowledging her presence. People practically bump into
her without so much as a hello; to the people of Arras she is a nonentity, an invisible woman. Later, in scene
two of Act II, Maxime reveals that he found Djamila lying by the roadside in Togo, nearly dead from a
botched excision of the clitoris. She became one of the band of outcasts and refugees under his protection.
Constantin not only recognizes the existence of this mutilated victim but treats her tenderly, confiding in
her, and calling her “princess.” She is one of the sufferers on this earth, but he reminds her that
revolutionary changes can flower from the kind of despair that she has experienced.
Through the remaining two acts of the play, Constantin continues to be the voice of poetry, sometimes
creating his own, sometimes quoting poets like Blake and Victor Hugo. In the final act he dons the
Robespierre costume formerly worn by Maxime, thus realizing his earlier claim to being Revolution on the
march. Quoting the powerful revolutionary rhetoric of men like Robespierre and Saint-Just he demonstrates
the importance of giving form and structure to the revolutionary impulse that springs from struggle and
oppression. In one of his most beautiful speeches to the people of Arras he defines liberty as the wind:

…Le vent c’est l’âme de la terre, personne n’a jamais pu l’attraper, ni l’enfermer. Mais tout le monde
sait qu’elle existe. Et qu’elle souffle partout où on la persécute…Ecoutez-la. Elle est en marche. Elle
est ici ce soir puisque le vent est de la fête. C’est le chant continu de tous les damnés de la terre, de
tous les forcats de la faim réunis en un même souffle insurrectionnel. (109)
[…The wind is the soul of the earth, no one has ever been able to capture it or enclose it. But
everyone knows that it exists. And that it blows wherever it is persecuted. Listen to it. It is on the
march. It is here this evening because the wind is among those invited. It is the continuous song of all
the damned of the earth, of all the prisoners of hunger united in one insurrectional breath.]

The wind is associated with language through the terms “song” and “breath.” It is the breath of humans,
who are capable of expressing through language as well as action their revolt against suffering and despair.
And it is this idea that wins for Constantin the prize for best revolutionary idea. His entry in the contest is
“La revolution, comme la poésie, doit être faite par tous et pour tous [Revolution, like poetry, must be made
by all and for all].” (115)2 In keeping with the Dionysian/ Apollonian synthesis, struggle against pain and

1 Feyder provided this explanation of the “belle bleue” in a 1992 interview.

2 Feyder identifies this as a variation on the words of the poet Lautréamont who says that poetry should by made “par
tous et pour tous [by all and for all].”

suffering go hand in hand with creative activity. Constantin’s contest entry also bears his true name:
Gontran du Pressoir de Thionville. This Dionysian figure even has ‘wine press’ for a middle name!
So the character who seems on one level to be a deus ex machina, offering a home to Maxime’s refugees,
is really a god who has been at the festival all along, embodying the spirit of dramatic art. His presence is
only one of many techniques that Feyder uses to endow her play with a spirit similar to that of the early
communal ritual in which theatre is rooted. By the play’s end the citizens of Arras (those who
commissioned the play) have seen themselves, represented by the actors on stage, confronting the truth
about oppression in modern society, just as the chorus in Greek tragedy must finally discover the truth. Yet,
in the heroic human tendency to struggle against life’s suffering and pain and in the creative spirit that
dwells in the human heart they may still find the hope of a better future. “Peuple, écoutez le poète [People,
listen to the poet],” Victor Hugo advised his own generation of revolutionaries, and so one should in Le
Chant du retour.


Feyder, Vera. Le Chant du retour. Paris: Actes Sud-Papiers, 1989

——. Interview 1992.
Mansell Jones, P. and G.Richardson, eds. A Book of French Verse: Lamartine to Eluard. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1964.
Pfeffer, Rose. Nietzsche: Disciple of Dionysus. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1972.
Valéry, Paul. Poésies. Paris: Gallimard, 1936.

Patricia Lancaster earned the M.A. and Ph.D. in French Literature from Emory University, Atlanta,
Georgia, U.S.A. She was appointed to the Foreign Languages Department of Rollins College in
Winter Park, Florida in 1970 and was promoted to Professor of French in 1980. From 1983 to 1987
she served as Associate Dean of Faculty. As Director of International Programs from 1987 to 1991
she supervised Rollins study-abroad programs in Australia, Ireland, Mexico, and Spain. Since 1992
she has been Dean of Rollins Brevard Campus. While primarily engaged in administrative work over
the past ten years, she has continued her research on modern French theatre, especially the work of
Belgian-born author Vera Feyder. Among Professor Lancaster’s presentations at conferences are
“Dreams within Dreams: The Film Adaptation of Feyder’s La derelitta” and “Vera Feyder’s
Emballage perdu.” She is currently working on an English translation of Feyder’s novel La derelitta.
Laughing All the Way to the Ghetto: Lesbian Farce
Jackie Clune

This article focuses on the nature of farce as a British theatrical genre with reference to lesbian theatre
in particular. Farce is explored as a political weapon and as such is deconstructed in its traditional
reactionary form in the cultural context of modern British theatre. The rest of the article focuses on a
production by Red Rag Women’s Theatre Company, Ooh, Missus!, which attempted a radical
pastiche of the Whitehall farce from a lesbian perspective. It ends with an analysis of the current
trends in lesbian theatre in London.
The main assertion of the article is that lesbian theatre in the eighties and early nineties has adopted
an overtly “out” and confident identity with a clear set of acceptable humourous forms and characters.
The closed nature of these “givens” is questioned in this article.
KEY WORDS Lesbian Theatre, Farce, British.

“There they are: the most robust survivors of a great tradition, the most successful British theatrical
enterprises of our time. Curious that no-one can be found to speak up wholeheartedly for them—no-one, that
is, outside the enthusiastic millions who have packed every British theatre they have played. It’s particularly
curious considering the current intellectual agitation for a theatre of the masses, a true working-class drama.
Everything, apparently, for which Joan Littlewood (the great British theatre director of the 1960s)1A had
struggled—the boisterous, the extrovert playing, the integrated teamwork, the cockney irreverence of an
unselfconscious, unacademic audience bent purely on pleasure—exists, patently and profitably, at the
Whitehall. Yet how many devout pilgrims to Stratford East (where Littlewood ran her theatre)1A have
hazarded the shorter journey to Trafalgar Square to worship at the shrine of the thing itself? How many Arts
Council grants have sustained Mr Rix’s company? How many Evening Standard awards went to Dry Rot?
How many theses have been written on the art of Colin “Morris, John Chapman or Ray Cooney? The time
has come, surely, to fill the gap.1”
(Theatre critic Ronald Bryden, 1964)

1A Brackets—added by Editor.
1 Ronald Bryden, New Statesmen, 24 July 1964, p. 126, quoted in Leslie Smith’s Modern British Farce, MacMillan
press, 1989, Chapter 4, p. 70.

This article is written from several seemingly diverse interests. The above quotation begins to outline an
attitude towards what can be called a “popular” form peculiar to British theatre: the Whitehall Farce.
However, I do not intend a critique of farce as a form per se; rather, I intend to open a discourse about
modern lesbian theatre in Britain during the last five or six years. My interest in farce vis-à-vis lesbian
theatre, has grown from a production I was involved in by Red Rag Women’s Theatre Company. The play
attempted a radical parody of the Whitehall form and was called Ooh, Missus!, signifying a pastiche, the
ultimate ridiculously suggestive title much favoured by the Whitehall farceurs. I am a performing and
devising member of Red Rag Women’s Theatre Company (a lesbian collective) and I lecture in Drama and
Theatre Studies at London University. Such autobiographical information is not designed to better acquaint
the reader with the author, rather it is to identify the difficuly in constructing a critique from both inside and
out, as it were. This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that there is little language available with which to
describe the experience of performance from the performer’s point of view. Most theatre theory is
constructed from within a patriarchal framework which effectively disempowers the performer in the
creative process, the performer being at the bottom of the pyramid in the male-defined power structures in
operation. However, it is my intention to attempt an analysis of a production by Red Rag Women’s Theatre
Company in London last year with a view to assessing the current trends in lesbian theatre as a whole.
In 1991 Red Rag wrote and performed Ooh, Missus!2 at several different venues all over London. The
play, then, was an inversion of the Whitehall product so lauded in the above quotation. The plot was arrived
at through a study of the laws and structures of the farcical form, plus an agenda of essential ingredients;
mistaken identity, sexual infidelity (either real or supposed), mocking of figures of authority, stock
characters, misunderstandings and the prerequisite that, in the midst of the chaos, something vital must be at
stake. We played to packed houses full of enthusiastic women who were thrilled to see their lifestyles being
represented in a form usually associated with the worst kind of misogynist, homophobic nonsense. The
production was immensely popular (in several senses of the word). The critical response was largely
favourable. We had intended to subvert the form in order to provoke laughter plus an awareness of the
stereotypes perpetuated through farce in its conservative form. This subversion was achieved through
research into the aesthetics of farce plus practical experience of the reception of performances. We visited
what must be considered to be the ultimate farce currently enjoying a long stay in London’s West End; Ray
Cooney’s Run For Your Wife!3 I would like to outline some of this research with a view to establishing
some critical criteria for the study of farce as a whole. I would then like to apply the same criteria to Ooh,
Missus! in order to assess the subversive nature of genre parody.
Run For Your Wife! centres around the confusion created when a bigamist taxi-driver is involved in an
accident which induces a temporary memory-loss. We watch John Smith (whose name signifies his absolute
“normality”) as he blunders between his two homes confusing one wife for the other and getting tangled up
with the gay men living upstairs. The “hilarity” of the piece rests on a number of implicit assumptions about
the reception of the play’s content, and how it is contained within the farcical structure. In order to really
enjoy this play it is clear that we must share the majority of the opinions and prejudices of the writer/the central
character: we must believe that heterosexual serial monogamy is the correct moral framework in which to
live one’s life; we must therefore find the idea of a man duping two women very naughty and amusing; we
must identify with the charming buffoon of a taxi-driver to such an extent that we wish him success in his
duplicity and deception and hope that he gets away with it; we must believe that women are stupid, but that

2 Lois Charlton and Winnie Elliott, 1991, unpublished.

3 Run For Your Wife! Ray Cooney, Samuel French, 1984.

glamorous women are alright; we must find gay men hilariously funny at a distance but threatening in the
extreme if too close; we must share the mistrust of any “foreigners” to the country; we must value the
obsession with material wealth which leads the taxi-driver to overwork and thus cause an accident. In short,
we must hold a white, male, heterosexual middle-class point of view. It is this point of view which often
masquerades as the universal moral system with which everyone is expected to comply. Failure to condone
this system results in the accusation of being overly politically correct and unable to take a joke.
The discourse which suggests that any resistance to the humor outlined above is boringly pedantic is not
reserved for the traditional MCP misogynist joke-teller. This postion is also implied in several critical works
on farce. Leslie Smith’s Modern British Farce (Macmillan, 19894) builds on the assertion in an earlier
critique of the form by Jessica Davis5 which suggests that “…the appeal of farce is at one level universal,
not tied to a particular set of historical circumstances.” Smith calls for the legitimisation of British farce,
and makes a case for its inclusion in the mainstream intellectual culture. He wants the Dirty Old Uncle6 of
British Theatre to take his rightful place in the family album.
The inclusion of farce seems unlikely. The position of British farce in the cultural hierarchy is—and
always has been—caught up in a false dichotomy; namely, that there is “good” and “bad” art, “high” theatre
and “low” theatre. The tacit political agreement is that these distinctions are natural and unavoidable. This,
we are told, will always be the case. The cultural hegemony then tips the balance in favour of the “high”,
and decrees it the most valuable, the most virtuous and the most worthy of a place in the nation’s legitimate
cultural history. The “high” is called educational, concerned with the human existence, on the quest for the
essence of the human condition. It usually excludes women. The “low” is called base, rooted, entertaining,
concerned with innate rebelliousness and bestial pleasure and carnival release. The “low” has traditionally
included women (even if only as sexually available objects).
For those with a different political agenda to the ruling—usually conservative—hegemony, this analysis
of culture is divisive. The charges have been that the cultural élite are guilty of being esoteric, unnecessarily
highbrow and far too refined. The traditional response to this dangerous dichotomy has been to simply
reverse the positions and decry anything bearing marks of “high” culture and, in turn, elevate anything
smacking of authentic popular roots. Such a simplistic and misleading solution is the basis of Bryden’s
lament above.
Farce has thus tradionally occupied a place on the lower end of the cultural ladder. In general comedy is
not seen as a valid art form. Farce can be characterised by its extreme formalisation in a comic mode and is
therefore instantly dismissable.The lack of positive critical response to farce is not a modern phenomenon,
nor is it confined to British theatre. Nahum Tate in his preface to A Duke and No Duke (edition of 1693)
questions the critical silence surrounding the genre and wonders “by what fate it (farce) happens, in
common Notion, to be the most contemptible sort of Drama”.7 Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote that Molière
(Lettre à M. D’Alembert sur le Spectacles, in Œuvres, vol. 11, p. 44) “disturbs the whole order of society to
further his joking…He creates laughter, it’s true, and only makes himself the more culpable for doing so.”8

4 Leslie Smith Modern British Farce, 1989, MacMillan, p. 15.

5 Farce, Jessica Davis, Methuen Critical Idiom Series, 1978.
6 The type of relative who you only see at rare family gatherings, who is always sodden drunk, jolly, making crass

sexual innuendos where ever possible, and who probably tried to molest you when you were six.
7 Jessica Davis, 1978 Farce, Critical Idiom series, Methuen, p. 1.

8 ibid, p. 25.

What Bryden calls for is the elevation of farce in our culture to a postion where its is deemed worthy of
critical study and acclaim. This elevation will, in effect, raise the status of farce in the eyes of the hegemony.
Farce, once recognised as a form full of skill and enjoying immense “popular” appeal, will join the
culturally élite group which includes opera, ballet, fine art, classical music, Shakespeare (on page and/or
stage), “serious” new playwriting such as one can see at the Royal National Theatre or The Royal Court etc.
etc.. The devotees of British farce are in effect bargaining for a place in the upper echelons, a share of the
legitimate pie, the inclusion of the Dirty Old Uncle. The project as far as Red Rag were concerned was not
to legitimise farce but to highlight the conservative and reactionary nature of its traditional morphosis. By
flagrantly keeping the clichés of the parent-genre but substituting the expected heterosexual couple with
lesbian characters we were making a powerful statement about the traditional use of queer sexuality in the
form. If Cooney is going to use queers to raise a cheap laugh for heterosexuals, then let us hi-jack his
vehicle and fill the stage with lesbians for lesbians. The production was not a defiant reaction to farce; rather,
its impetus was a proud gesture of confidence in our ability to take anything from straight culture and use if
for our own purposes. We stole our Dirty Old Uncle’s clothes while he was swimming in the sea and hung
them from the flag-pole. In this sense the impetus for the play was linked to the many queer activist groups
currently in operation. In Britain we have Outrage and Act-Up, and even more controversially, Homocult,
three groups whose main intention is to use radical activist tactics to foreground queer visibility. No longer
content with liberal reformist agendas, queers are taking to the streets and fighting back. They are insistent,
uncompromising, and above all, unashamed. There is no reference to the straight world apart from witty
parodies of it.9 The Stonewall Group, on the other hand, is committed to the reform of legal anomalies as
regards lesbian and gay legal rights. Self-appointed worriers and protectors of disempowered nice
homosexuals, the Stonewall Group seeks to create a dialogue with the oppressors.10 By this dialogue they
hope to increase the awareness of those who hold the power in the hope of getting them to admit that
homosexuals have the right to be as “normal” as anybody else.
My protracted reference to the various agendas of Queer or Homosexual political groups in Britain serves
as a useful analogy to contemporary issues in lesbian theatre. Since the early agit-prop days of issue-based
earnestness such as Jill Posener’s Any Woman Can,11 it has become unclear what the agenda of lesbian
theatre is. The initial reaction to the emergence of identity politics in the seventies was a certain
seriousness, a movement towards redressing the balance and representing lesbian lives with truth and
compassion. Political activity at this time was also, by all accounts, characterised by issue-based campaigns
and reformist agendas. The project would seem to have been to educate then integrate into the heterosexual
community and then demand equal rights. Theatre, then, reflected similar concerns. Gay Sweatshop, the first
known political gay theatre company in Britain, used crude agit-prop plays to reach both gay and
heterosexual audiences. Drew Griffiths, one of the company’s artistic directors, stated in Stages in the
Revolution (Catherine Itzin, 1980),12 that “Wherever we went we made people talk. We used the plays as
the basis for discussion. The theatrical dialogue started a ‘real’ dialogue…Straight audiences would come
up to us afterwards, shake our hands and say we were the first homosexuals they’d ever met. We would tell

9 A recent Outrage demonstration involved hundreds of lesbians and gay men descending on Piccadilly Circus and
holding a “Kiss-In” around that icon of heterosexual romance, Eros.
10 Sir Ian MacKellan recently shared afternoon tea with Prime Minister John Major.

11 Any Woman Can, Jill Posener, 1974 for Gay Sweatshop, published 1987, Methuen Lesbian Plays 1, ed. Jill Davis.

12 Stages in the Revolution—Political Theatre in Britain since 1968, ed. Catherine Itzin, Methuen, 1980, p. 236.

them we weren’t, that they just hadn’t realised before.” Heterosexuals needed educating about
homosexuality. Threatening the status-quo was not really on the gay agenda.
Lesbian theatre in Britian during the eighties and nineties has diverged greatly from this educational
“Gays Are Alright Really” agenda. Red Rag started life as a socialist feminist theatre company, but “came
out” in the late eighties. From the beginning of our lesbian incarnation there was no soul-searching
consideration of what our reason for existence was. We were clear that there was a lesbian audience out
there waiting to be tapped. Homophobia dictated that we should “stay in”, but we knew from tentative
experimentation with lesbian material and from witnessing the immense popularity of lesbian pantomimes
performed at the Drill Hall Theatre, London, that there was a demand for a solely lesbian product. Our impetus,
then, was to gather a pre-existing audience and entertain them. We wanted to create lesbian theatre which
was a celebration of our existence, not an examination of it. There was a whole generation of women who
had experienced the seventies and what it had to offer culturally, plus our generation, whose cultural
expectations, thanks to the efforts of our predecessors, were not overly involved with hearing that it was
alright to be a lesbian. We were committed to our broad comic style to prove that lesbians could be
seriously funny. We felt that as lesbians were needed to loosen our stays and join together for a celebratory
party. Ooh, Missus! represented the pinnacle of this celebration.
The plot followed the guidelines of the genre closely. Penny (a Gestalt Psychotherapist) and Jenny (a
spiritually-aware artist) are a couple with a nice suburban house who are trying to conceive a child by AID
(Artificial Insemination by Donor). On arrival of the sperm (deposited in a mayonnaise jar) they settle down
to inseminate Jenny. Suddenly Jenny’s Tory harridan mother arrives and they desperately try to conceal
their relationship from her. Discovery would result in the usual major family trauma, and Jenny needs to
keep her aura pure for the conception. Fran, a scene-dyke also living in the house, is a fitness freak with all
the right designer sports-wear. Strange men keep leaving odd messages on the ansaphone, leading Penny
and Jenny to assume that Fran is going straight on them; another alarming portent for the much-wanted
child. Fran remains mysterious when challenged and spends most of the play trying to hide a pink box and
its contents from Penny and Jenny. Nosey next-door-neighbour Hetty is fascinated with the antics of the
lesbians next door and takes every opportunity to pop in for a poke around. The mayonnaise jar has
meanwhile gone missing…A baby dyke full of wonderment at the prospect of coming out, Jane, has
arranged to take the remaining spare room in the house. A woman called Jane arrives at the front door and
is ushered up to her new room by Penny, out of the way of the prying mother. Meanwhile the hunt for the
mayonnaise goes on…Mother is discovered about to tuck in to a sandwich which she feels needs something
extra…perhaps some mayonnaise?…Jenny answers the door to a different Jane and shows her to her room…
Penny and Jenny argue over the new Janes’ suitability for the house. Penny says Jane is loud, dirty and
constantly stoned, Jenny maintains she is shy, innocent and in need of support. The audience knows there
are two completely different Janes. Fran encounters the anarcho-dyke opportunist Jane, who turns out to be
Fran’s ex-lover. Jane#1 and Jane#2 discover one another in the same bed and fall into each other’s arms.
Anarcho Jane#1, realising she has just bedded the real Jane for the room, adopts a false persona and
pretends to be a French penpal of Fran’s. Finally the confusion reaches a climax when Hetty disappears with
Jane#1’s “mixed herbs” (grass) and the mayonnaise jar (a spurious cooking-lend which is really a pretext
for another visit), Fran is discovered wearing a wedding dress and the imposter Jane#1 is revealed. Mother
is told of the true nature of Jenny and Penny’s relationship and prompty faints. Hetty arrives stoned with
mayonnaise jar in hand (“I didn’t touch it—smelt a bit funny!”) and Penny and Jenny announce their baby
plans. Mother faints again and on waking recognises Hetty as an old flame from her secret lesbian days.
Jane#1 and Jane#2 decide they will share the room and live as lovers, while Fran discloses she is marrying
an Australian gay man in need of a work permit. Order is restored and they all live happily ever after.

Although the plot sounds trivial, the play, by virtue of its parodic nature, touched on some key political
concerns for lesbians and had its own set of implicit beliefs, viz lesbian mothers are good mothers who
really want their children, homophobics have often got a queer past to hide, lesbian relationships are not the
sad, inverted and doomed affairs that Radclyffe Hall once bemoaned and that lesbians are capable of
creating a safe and caring “pretended” families for other lesbians who have been cast out of their “natural”
families. This list sounds high-blown in relation to the plot as outlined. It also sounds like a lesson plan for
straight anti-heterosexist workshops. It was less about education than affirmation. My assertion is that the
difference lies in the nature of the representation of these issues. As with the Ray Cooney play
deconstructed previously, the reductive statements one can draw from the work are statements about the
tacit assumptions in the piece. There is no laborious justifying of the ideology expressed through either Run
For Your Wife! or Ooh, Missus!, no step-by-step didactic pedagogy; but there is the same sense of a system
of morality at work which is at once implicit and explicit. Ooh, Missus!, however, does have an extra layer
of meaning in that the constant point of reference is the parent genre of the traditional Whitehall farce. Just
as the Outrage Eros Kiss-In at Piccadilly Circus flaunted the stereotypical mores of heterosexual romance,
so Ooh, Missus! indicated an aggressively ironic pastiche of a conservative form which was either
unself-conscious of its reactionary ideology or flagrant in its trumpeting of such ideology as “true” working
class popular culture. Ooh, Missus! was an out lesbian play which made no attempt to educate or explain
lesbian existence to heterosexuals but endeavered to entertain a broad section of the lesbian community.
That this revelling in our sub-culture with no regard to the niceties of heterosexual inclusion or reference
is viable is surely a credit to the pioneering work of women theatre workers over the last two decades.
Having argued for a place in the culture, and having built a solid audience, women are now able to exist—
albeit frugally and often on state benefits—and create work with exclusive reference to other women.
During the late 1980s there was a shift in the nature of lesbian theatre and a large number of comic plays
and camp musicals were produced. At the Drill Hall Arts Centre a Christmas cultural institution was
established in the form of a lesbian pantomime where the cross-dressing of the traditional panto was
subverted and plot-lines were made to incorporate unlikely lesbian love affairs (Cinderella and the Princess
in Cheryl Moch’s Cinderella, the Real True Story).13 The Oval House Theatre, a bastion of up-and-coming
women’s theatre groups under the encouragement of Kate Crutchley’s direction, started to produce new
lesbian plays under the collective banner of Character Ladies (Death on Lesbos, a skit murder-mystery
pastiche and The Sister Mysteries, and Ealing Comedy parody set in a St. Trinians-like girls school, both by
Penny Gulliver. Sandra Freeman’s The Ladies of Llangollen was also produced at the Oval during this
period. The Women’s Theatre Group produced Bryony Lavery’s outstandingly popular Her Aching
Heart,14 an hilarious parody of romantic fiction with a lesbian twist. The standard of this work varied
greatly according to the funds available (for even within our ghetto there is an economic heirarchy with
those at the top being moderately less poor than their unfunded sisters) but the general concensus was that
lesbian theatre had to be fun, that feminist and women’s theatre had suffered from the idea that feminists
had no sense of humour. It is my belief that an alien to the planet, on visiting any of the venues in London
which promote lesbian theatre, would have assumed that all was rosy in our garden and that the post-
everything society was well intact. Compared to the abundance of gay men’s plays during the same period,
which continued the exploration of issues such as

13 Cheryl Moch, Cinderella. The Real True Story, Methuen Lesbian Plays: Two, ed. Jill Davis, 1989.
14 Her Aching Heart; Wicked; Two Marias, Bryony Lavery, Methuen, 1991.

Aids, homophobia and the intersection between personal politics and male desire,15 lesbian theatre has
become camp in the extreme. This is not to say that Camp is not political or that comedy can never point to
serious issues; rather, it would appear that the only way to produce lesbian theatre is in the comic mode. The
mythology we are creating bears witness to the pressure we receive and maintain to appear as
uncomplaining and well-adjusted. The protectiveness we feel towards the representation of our lesbianism
is well-founded in the history of lesbian representation by stereotyping (witness the creation of and reaction
to Basic Instinct), but this protectiveness can mean that we handcuff ourselves to a limiting range of
acceptable lesbian role-models. There is a finite number of ways in which it is OK to portray lesbian
existence, or so one would be forgiven for thinking, judging by the comic but well-adjusted characters
which have become the norm in contemporary British lesbian theatre. The current cultural climate seems to
dictate that being funny and flippant is the only acceptable way to express our identity.
With all this in mind, Red Rag have been planning our next production. We perceive a certain tiredness with
the seemingly-forced gaiety in our ghetto. As writers and directors, we have run out of gags. As performers
we are aching for lesbian roles which requires some degree of earnestness and intensity. As political
lesbians we need to re-open discussion with other lesbians and stop pretending there is a happy concensus.
The time is right for us to begin addressing potentially explosive issues within our community. Our next
production is Desire by Design by Carol Noble and Bridget Hurst, which opens at the Oval House Theatre
in London. The play is a radical of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a Gothic tragedy of epic proportions. A
lesbian scientist decides she is tired with the turbulance and irrationality of relationships with unsatisfactory
women. She begins her quest for all the parts she will need in order to create the perfect woman; touring the
lesbian scene, she selects her favourite bits from a number of different women and physically merges them
into her ideal female form. Her monster complete, she begins the programming which will turn this body
into the ideal partner for her, making her creation act out all of her fantasies in meticulous detail. Eventually
the scientist becomes bored with the predictability of her monster’s responses and casts her out into the
world, an innocent with no personality of her own. Alone in lesbian London, the monster finds she can
survive by being a mirror for whoever she encounters. She is dissatisfied and realises that she must return to
her life-source; the scientist. There follows a global chase sequence where the monster pursues the scientist,
ending with the death of both in the harsh climate of the Arctic. We hope that the play will arouse keen
debate within the community on the nature of lesbian desire, but anticipate a mixed response from the
various political factions within the community whose agenda would appear to be the positive
representation strangle-hold. Whilst we take full responsibility for the characters we employ to tell a story,
it feels significant to the growth of Red Rag (and therefore, perhaps, lesbian theatre in London) that our last
play ended with everyone coming out and coupling in a mirror-image of conventional heterosexuality
(however ironic), while our next play ends with two dead lesbians rotting on icy plains of the Arctic. It also
seems significant that now, and only now, Red Rag have received a modest sum from both the Arts Council
of Great Britain and the London Arts Board. Is this an “acceptable” portrayal of lesbian existence? We shall
have to see.

Jackie Clune is a full time lecturer in Drama and Theatre Studies at Royal Holloway College. She is
also a joint Artistic Director of Red Rag Women’s Theatre Company.

15Notably Martin Sherman’s Bent, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, Noel Greig’s Paradise, Now and Then, Carl
Miller’s The Last Enemy.
Women, Theatre, and Territory: The Omaha Magic
Theatre and the Boundaries of Theatrical Performance
Susan Lynn Carlson

The three women who oversee the Omaha Magic Theatre—Megan Terry, Jo Ann Schmidman, and Sora
Kimberlain—stake out claims for the territory of women’s theatre in four domains: 1) they claim their
artistic territory through collaboration, basing their work on a belief in knowledge as conversation and
selves as socially constructed; 2) they claim the territory of performance by creating shows in which
they integrate text, movement, music, sound, light, and visuals; 3) they negotiate their needs for
capital through creative approaches to funding; and 4) they claim a theatre of the American Midwest
which celebrates freedom and extremes.
KEY WORDS Omaha Magic Theatre, Women’s Theatre, Contemporary Theatre, Collaboration,
Theatre funding, Midwestern theatre

About fifteen minutes into the Omaha Magic Theatre’s performance of Sound Fields: Are We Hear, the five
performers transform from wolves into a band of hunters, sporting spears.1 Fortified by tequila they drink
from a cactus, they—in the words of one character—become “wild women…and swore to be my protectors
and follow me to the ends of the earth and to make sure that no matter how hard I worked there would
always be time to party” (Terry, Schmidman, & Kimberlain, 1991, 8). As the speech ends, all five actors
throw back their heads and ululate in concert, a bold verbal response they will repeat many times during the
course of play. These wild women, projecting associations with the elemental, the mythical, and the
pre-verbal, stand at the center of the play, a central part of the authors’ attempts to transgress boundaries
between civilized and untamed, male and female, words and action. The wild women disappear from time
to time as actors, assume other roles and moods, yet the spears—rugged in their curved six feet of feathers,
wood, and twine—remain always visible on stage. Sound Fields is about many things; ranging from the
environmental destruction of the world to space exploration to starvation; but the wild women are an
ever-present reminder that the show is also about claiming territory. It’s a territory that’s wild, celebratory,
and female.
I would like to extend the metaphor of the wild woman for the course of this essay to speculate about
women’s claims on theatrical territories of various sorts. The “wild women” who have set out to stake a
claim on the male traditions of theatre in the last 25 years have, like the unpredictably recurrent wild women

1 In the original 1992 production, there were four females and one male acting in Sound Fields.

of Sound Fields, maintained a threatening, stubborn presence. They have indeed found a space, many
spaces, refined their ululations, at times made moves toward domestication. With a focus on a women’s
theatre group working in the mid-section of the United States, I would like to study some of the qualities
that attach to the territory we now think of as women’s theatre. Wild women, like those resident at the
Omaha Magic Theatre, stalk the theatres of most nations, drawing nourishment from each other, strength
from a resistance to the status quo.

Artistic Territory: Creative Collaboration

The production (a product) always results, but focus is on the daily evolving “details” of the creative
process. Absolute attention is paid to detail. The reward sometimes may be big box office; but the
prime goal is the growth of each artist, through stronger collaborative and communication skills: artist
to artist, artist to medium, artist to audience and medium to audience. (Schmidman, Kimberlain &,
Terry, 1992, Right Brain 62)


Two: Fewlula is bursting at the seams.

Six: This is the sound of a male trying to get out of a female body.
One: This is the sound of a female trying to get out of a male body.
Two: She invited some guests over and they all ate key lime pie till
the dawn’s early light.
Five: This is the sound of a wolf inside a female body.
Two: No one can push her around now. Her gut turned green and
the roots of her hair are on fire.
Three: This is the sound of a lizard inside a male body.
Two: She has a different view on life now. In her view finder, the
pictures clip along in color.
Four: This is the sound of a symphony inside a human head.
Two: Life is short, she said. I know what’s important to me now.
Three and Five (in unison): This is the sound of drums inside a human heart.
Two: Fewlula drives a convertible. Her trunk is full of past events.
The future rides under the hood.
One: This is the beat of a dance inside the human feet. (Terry,
Schmidman & Kimberlain, 1992, Sound Fields, 44–45)

The Omaha Magic Theatre (OMT) is a theatre run by women, an organization dedicated to a live theatre which
batters and brings down restrictive artistic and intellectual barriers. The group’s artistic statement reads, in

[Our goal is] To push the boundaries of what has previously been recognized as theatre to new limits.
It is our intent to present the freshest text, directorial, performer and visual art images and clearest
musical voice in an integrated performance form.

We engage audiences to feel, reflect, dream and disagree very actively, but always as audience
while we do the performing. Our productions are as abstract as life itself. Our works do not have plots
which are resolved by the end. In this way the art reflects real life…Because we—the creators of the
work—perform the work, the level of commitment is great. This makes for a more compelling theatre
experience that engages the audience on a deeper level. (Omaha Magic Theatre, 1992)

Such a call for an artistically experimental, aesthetically committed and people-oriented theatre connects the
OMT with many women’s theatre groups that share similar goals. Yet few women’s theatres can boast such
longevity. Founded in Omaha, Nebraska in 1968 by Jo Ann Schmidman, the OMT boasts 24 continuous
years of women creating and producing original, non-traditional plays. Schmidman and Megan Terry
(playwright in residence since 1972) have created, directed, and acted in scores of shows, ranging from
issue plays (like Goona, Goona on domestic abuse or Kegger on teens and alcohol) to conceptual pieces
(Sea of Forms physically encompasses the audience in a multi-media experience). Schmidman, Terry and
Sora Kimberlain (who joined the organization in 1981) have increasingly produced shows of text-based
performance art, combining sensory response and philosophical probing. To those of us familiar with
women’s theatre, this combination of group work, multiple art forms, and social awareness is recognizable
As the women of the OMT have carved out this artistic domain, they have made collaboration the soul of
their work. Group work can be messy, sprawling, intense. Yet in the next few pages I will suggest how
collaboration at the OMT is considered and methodological; how it provides a sophisticated foundation for
the artistic territory these women occupy. In the first epigraph above, the three women of the OMT describe
their commitment to a shared and multi-dimensional collaboration; in the second—an excerpt from Sound
Fields—they display the product of such collaboration, a text of many voices working through a redefinition
of theatre and self.
The OMT has depended on the collaborative efforts of its members for almost all of its 24 years. Megan
Terry has most often been credited as the writer; yet many of the plays which bear her name have grown out
of workshops and discussions with Schmidman, Kimberlain, and other members of the company. And as a
reflection of this interaction, the plays created at the OMT increasingly credit multiple authors and multiple
input. As several scholars have documented, the methodology of play construction has varied. During the
generation of Family Talk, Terry conferred with audience members and family counselors, she then wrote a
series of scenes, and the company went through intense workshops for months, analyzing and developing
this initial material. Eventually, Schmidman structured the play for performance (see Babnich, 1988,
305–309). On the way to producing American King’s English for Queens, the group gathered humanists and
language experts for extended discussion before they compiled their script about sexist language (see
Zivanovic, 1989, 213). With three of the group’s most recent shows, Terry, Schmidman, and Kimberlain
have committed themselves to their most intense collaboration. Beginning with Body Leaks (1990), and
continuing with Sound Fields (1992) and Belches on Couches (1994), the group’s three main women have
made their collaboration a lengthy, equally-shared endeavor. With the period from conception to production
well over a year, the three have been producing a theatre of shared ideas, shared effort, and shared
“author”ity. They move from initial journal writing and exploratory workshops to a tentative scripting of the
text; they workshop the ever-transforming script while imagining the visual dimensions of the play; and
they share their work by all acting in boisterous productions with after-performance audience discussions.2

2 For a detailed description of the collaborative process which culminated in Sound Fields, see my essay “Collaboration
in the eartland.”

Collaborative theatre is frequently undervalued, often ignored. The work of the American collectives of
the 1960s (like the Open Theatre and the Living Theatre) are most frequently viewed as relics of an
outdated, politically naive era. And with a few exceptions (like Mabou Mimes or the Wooster Group) critics
and audiences still prefer to recognize an American theatre of individual effort. The groups which have been
prominent on the London alternative theatre circuit have often not lasted long and are remembered more for
outstanding individuals than group cohesion. Ironically, even at a time when many literary theorists have
argued that the concept of the author is romantically misguided, a modern construct by which we have
chosen to give unity to texts, understanding of anti-authorial collaborative art is still limited.3 It remains
difficult to understand and value theatre by groups. I would like to offer a path for such understanding by
analyzing the vision of knowledge and self that undergirds such theatre. The commitment many, like the
women of the OMT, have to collaborative theatre reflects a comprehensive (though rarely articulated) view
of human nature and social interaction.
Collaboration at the OMT acts out a belief in knowledge as conversation, as a continual process of
negotiation. Knowledge is not a bundle of truths to be professed or retrieved but a system of observations
and interpretations being continually developed and constructed by individuals and groups. As philosopher
Richard Rorty puts it, conversation should be “the ultimate context within which knowledge is to be
understood” (1979, 389). Writing to explain Rorty’s concept as it relates to collaboration, Kenneth Bruffee

We establish knowledge or justify belief collaboratively by challenging each other’s biases and
presuppositions; by negotiating collectively toward new paradigms of perception, thought, feeling,
and expression; and by joining larger, more experienced communities of knowledgeable peers through
assenting to those communities’ interests, values, language, and paradigms of perception and thought.
(1984, 646)

In effect, a truly shared collaboration models “how knowledge is generated, how it changes and grows”
(Bruffee, 1984, 647).4 In the collaborative theatre it has developed over the years, the OMT has conducted
such conversation in a pattern of joint work Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford call “dialogic collaboration.” In
such egalitarian collaboration, participants “value the creative tension inherent in multivoiced and
multivalent ventures.” Such work is also, regularly, “deeply subversive” and “predominantly feminine”
(1990, 133).5 The group work which has led to theatre like Sound Fields, is, in sum, a methodology of
theatre which privileges the group and its conversation, thereby mirroring a world where what we know is
what we uncover together. This dialogic process is itself a threat since it challenges traditional, hierarchical
paths of authority.
There is a wild side to such epistemological assumptions—a territory the OMT has been quick to claim.
Bruffee, Ede, Lunsford, and their colleagues in rhetoric and composition studies are generally working in
the realm of academic and professional writing where collaboration is most commonly used to reach a goal

3 Useful summaries of this paradoxical situation (where theorists argue that the author is no more than a useful
construction and where collaborative work is simultaneously devalued) can be found in Lunsford and Ede (1990,
76–93) and Gere (1987, 58–76).
4 See Clark (1990) for further elaboration on the concept that “we communicate neither to represent reality nor to transmit

it, but to constitute it” (1).

5 Ede and Lunsford (1990) contrast such collaboration to a more traditional model of collaboration they call

“hierarchical”; it is rigid, goal-driven, and, typically, male.


or internalize a standard.6 The boundary-tampering work at the OMT fits a radically different profile,
however. Instead of establishing consensus or solutions in their collaborative work, the women of the OMT
are exploring the unsanctioned, trailblazing paths in the territory Rorty valorizes as “abnormal discourse.”
The products of abnormal discourse, according to Rorty, range from “nonsense to intellectual revolution”
(1979, 320).
For the OMT, the wilds of such discourse result in a play like Body Leaks. In this play, a thematic focus
on self-censorship generated a concatenation of scenes to challenge standard patterns of theatrical narrative
and character; endless conversation led to expanded inter-connections of dance, music, and text; standard
assumptions about gender and politics proved inoperable. The result is a play which challenges artistic,
intellectual, and social perceptions and undermines the efforts of any audience member to relax. The OMT
offers a theatre where knowledge is a product constructed and negotiated in community. When Schmidman
labels the group’s work “educational” she is stressing the give-and-take implied in such negotiation. She
complains that the long “laboratory process” at the theatre is undervalued; what she senses is a resistance to
the radical vision of knowledge her theatre is based on (1992).
This belief in the relativity of knowledge implies a particular view of the self also key in the collaboration
of the OMT. Just as knowledge is presumed to be a negotiated concept in the collaborative process at the
OMT, so too is the self so centrally involved acknowledged to be socially constituted, an amalgam of
experience, opportunity, education, and language. In rejecting the single author, in committing their funds
and energies to products bearing multiple names, the OMT has embraced a process in which the creative
individual is indivisible from her community. There is no single author, thus no “authority.” As a result,
there is also nothing as easy as an individual character in the plays. Terry suggests that “the audience can
supply” any constructions of individuality needed (Terry, 1988, 246); and indeed, the plays necessitate such
efforts. In Body Leaks, for example, where there are no stable characters, each actor takes on a series of
guises, roles, and postures (seemingly disconnected). For the audience, this necessitates, as Terry suggests,
an active (and, she hopes, invigorating) involvement. But just as there is no consistent character or
individual creator in this theatre world, there is also no sanctified interpretation of the actors’ roles and
authors’ worlds, only a range of response to be negotiated by the range of selves in the audience.
The recent productions of the OMT have frustrated many audience members because the women, through
their collaboration, have so uncompromisingly renounced traditions of authority and interpretation. The
result is a theatre which is a process of intense community. Creating art collaboratively, Terry, Schmidman,
and Kimberlain are making a big, wild “claim.”

Performing Territory: Beyond Words

Voice over (Five): Psst audience: Even numbered chairs turn right,
Four (ad lib): That’s two, four, six turn this way.
Voice over (Five): Odd numbers face left.
Four (ad lib): Three, five, seven’s…nothing’s hard, you’ll just have to figure it out…
this is a very important moment of the piece, called inner-audience

6 Even in their discussion of “dialogic collaboration,” Ede and Lunsford only begin to explore the potential wildness of

women’s collaboration. See also Le Fevre (1987) who offers a solid philosophical and theoretical background for the
study of writing in social contexts.

involvement…if you don’t know the person next to you, kind of look
that person in the eyes…eyeball to eyeball…that’s right, turn and look…
(Terry, Schmidman & Kimberlain, 1990, 16–17)

About one third of the way into Body Leaks, the audience members are confronted with this request that
they take the intimate step of looking directly at the person sitting next to them. The request for
participation has been met by audiences with various mixtures of elation, embarrassment, hesitation,
compliance, glee, and hostility. With such a transgression of standard performance boundaries, the OMT
joins many others who seek to refigure theatrical performance. Yet for the OMT, the joint efforts of
collaboration which have led up to the performance also direct the interactive delivery of that negotiable
product to the audience. In performance, the artistic melding of three creators leads to a theatre in which the
mediums of language, sound, image, light, and movement are brought together for the audience to make
meaning. The text is still the dominant medium through which communication takes place, yet it is not
offered as an independent icon of linguistic brilliance. To detail the interplay of elements in OMT
performance, I will describe one brief segment of Sound Fields. In making theatre performance a complete
intellectual and sensory experience, the OMT actively challenges its audience, extending its foundation in
conversation and dialogue.
The opening of the play immediately establishes a commitment to a theatre beyond text. On its own, the
language of the opening moments is accessible, seemingly simplistic, consisting of a series of clever lines,
connected only by their playful, political mood. Here is the spoken text of the play’s first five minutes:

One: Human beings evolved from garbage thrown out of a disabled spaceship from
another galaxy.
Four: Viruses are a higher intelligence—they can transport themselves from one host to
another without the use of oil.
Six: Music is inevitable.
Three: Your mind lives as much in one cell of your ankle as it does in your big head.
One: Tarzan and Einstein are the same person.
Two: Cheetah passed her S.A.T’s but David Duke didn’t.
Four: Several boys came to shovel the walk
They rang the bell at 10am, 12pm, 2pm, and 4pm.
Each shoveled the same walk
only the 10 am shoveler got paid.
Three: The puppy people take a big bite of lava.
Their teeth have never been whiter.
Four: Who am I?
(Terry, Schmidman & Kimberlain, 1991, 1–2)

Such jokes are complicated, however, by their many-dimensioned performance context, taking shape long
before the first word is uttered. Before an actor even appears on stage, the audience (of about 100) has an
extended look at the stage space, unveiled by either a proscenium or curtain; there is no apparatus to hide
the mechanisms of sound, light, projection, costume, or music. In the intimate space of the OMT theatre,

with its curved ceiling recesses and white brick walls, the audience is exposed to all that makes this theatre.
This is theatre at a human level and the audience is invited to take part.7
When the performance begins, house lights dim to magnify the set, positioned in an ample corner of the
large theatre. A huge screen at least 25 feet long runs across one wall at the back, on it are two compelling
and competing slide projections, the first of dreamy white clouds against a brilliant blue sky and the second
with the head of a raven somewhat menacing through its profiled midnight head and neon yellow beak. The
other wall behind the stage space is exposed brick, bathed in blue light, a huge space for several keyboards,
also serving as a hanging place for various props. Three six-foot high plexiglass and white metal pyramids
dominate the back half of the stage. They point to a long, low plexiglass water trough at the front of the
stage, just a few feet from the front row. On the periphery of the performance space, encircling this sleek,
abstract set, are the light boards and slide projectors the actors will manipulate during the performance.
Positioned around the stage space and on the plexiglass forms are various props, costumes, and musical
instruments used during the performance.
While from its entrance the audience has been greeted with recordings of natural sounds, that sound
becomes a focal point only when the lights go down. The first crisp sounds of birds, whales, and running
water are played against the motions of four of the actors entering, one by one, in a series of frantic, hesitant
stomping movements; they circle the stage, playing, searching, finally lining up at stage front with backs to
audience, now making their own animal-like sounds, accompanied by some dissonant string, wind, and
vocal music. Each actor appears in simple loose garb, some completely in white, some sporting one or two
colors, most with bold swatches of pink, orange, blue, and green. The dress is abstract and timeless; it is
coordinated at the same time it remains individual. As a final prelude to delivering the opening lines, the
four actors grab their backs, signalling to the audience that the “jokes” they are about to deliver originate in
the spine; they are merely transmitting a language they do not fully understand. The actors never laugh.
Neither did the audience at the performance I attended. Encompassed by the rich environment of sound,
light, color, music, and movement, the jokes are transformed, contextualized. They can no longer be taken
only as the comic one-liners they mimic.
After the jokes are delivered, a threatening music builds, the line of actors evaporates, and a fifth actor
appears clutching one of the wild spears. Then, all the actors grab spears and move cautiously about the
stage, on the lookout, as the audience listens to the final line in this segment: “who am I?” Throughout this
entire opening sequence, the actors transmit high energy. Yet their connections to one another remain
tentative; although they make some motions in unison and often operate in parallel fashion, they also
collapse in moments of confusion and loss. An audience making its way through this material for the first
time is similarly confused about its connections to the piece. In fact, the most significant product of all the
vigorous, choreographed movement, the abstract set, and the disconcerting jokes, is to unsettle viewer
expectation. Yet crucially, the uncertainty which often defines action on and response off the stage
underlines a connection between audience and actors. On stage, one group operates as a group working
through its disjunctions; off stage another group attempts, without rehearsal, to tap into the community. As
the performance continues on with this collection of multiple dimensions, an ongoing goal of the OMT is
getting the audience to accept its part in the performance community.
It describing the opening scene of Sound Fields, I have focused on the method of presentation, on the
push toward group conveyed by the acting, on the synthesis of various sensual responses demanded by the

7 I am describing the performance of Sound Fields at its premiere in January of 1992 at the OMT’s newly acquired

(second) stage space in Omaha, Nebraska. When the OMT takes its shows on tour, the space may change, but the
attempt to bring the audience into the complex process remains strong.

simultaneous and competing presence of word, song, light, image, and movement. Yet this framework for
reception is also meant to carry the weight of ideas. As five members of the company discussed this opening
segment in workshop eight months prior to the opening of Sound Fields, they revealed the depth of thought
behind the abstract opening. Calling this one of their “jokes my spine told me” segments, they discussed its
multivalent meanings: to listen to one’s spine might be to claim one’s physical self; to listen to the spine
might be to listen to the stored up wisdom of the ages; to listen to the spine might be to trust one’s body.
The comic tone might allow for challenging statements not welcome as serious comments; for the audience
to laugh might be to enable release from burdens. The discussion was long and often heated. Many of the
participants’ interpretations of the scene were conflicting. Yet out of the disagreements, the group was able
to build a consensus about how to translate the material into performance. I, as observer of hours of such
intense discussion, was left with three important impressions about the performance of this play: 1) the text
is significant, but only as one part of a performance which is as sensory as it is linguistic, 2) the total effect
of the performance grows out the ways ideas can be connected to their translation into the movements,
lights, and images on stage, 3) most importantly, there is a commitment to a messiness of ideas that cannot
be reduced or simplified. The whole made from these parts is demanding at the same time it is rewarding;
its elusiveness seems necessary.8
The claims the OMT makes on performance are not unique. They are, however, sincere and meticulous.
The women succeed in creating an environment in which the audience can participate, understand the reach
of its own territory by making new connections.
Capitalizing on Women’s Territory

Two: I looked down a long corridor. Each door had

a label on it. The first door read “Women’s
Room.” The next door said “Men’s Room.”
(casaba begins) The third door was labelled
“Men’s and Women’s Room.” (casaba
intensifies) The last door said “Video Room—
Slash and Rape showing. Previews for next
week, Karen Finley and Jesse Helms starring
in The Chocolate Wimp, followed by The
Denver Yams vs the S & L Assholes.!”
(Four crosses with pole, parachute guys
dangling from it and makes fighter plane
sounds.) Overhead: “Be Careful—Take a
Risk Darling”
Two (moves into candlelight, in Then there was one more door I hadn’t seen. I
confidence, to audience): open it. (FIVE launches flying saucers)
There’s a seven-story mouth—wide open! It’s
Pat Robertson! (backs toward wall) I back up
and Yell—“Annie Winkle! Fire! Holly

8 The details of this discussion come from a workshop held May 9, 1991 in the OMT theatre at 1417 Farnam Street, Omaha.

Hughes! Fire! Tim Miller! Fire! Rachel

Rosenthal! Fire! John Fleck! Fire! (Body
Leaks, 11–12)

The tension between maintaining artistic integrity and ensuring financial stability is a given for most
alternative theatres and theatre groups. Yet theatre by women threatens an additional difference which
makes funding even less steady and supporters less forthcoming. In her bold discussion of American
funding for women in the arts, Peggy Phelan contends, “It would be a mistake to think that women are
powerful presences in these debates about money. We are still peripheral to the main tension at the heart of
them: the assurance of male visibility—which is to say, the assurance of male paternity and sexual potency
that underlies paternity” (138). What this outsider status means for the OMT is that the very artistic and
performative territory, which the women claim, threatens their ability to attract support. As a result,
ensuring the company’s financial existence is another process of unending construction and creative
collaboration. Complaining that her efforts to corral funding are more intense than ever, Schmidman
confirms the ongoing battle a theatre of difference must take on (1992). Like other American theatre artists
under fire for their anti-establishment art (Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, and John Fleck, whose
names appear in Body Leaks, are at the heart of a national debate about what kinds of theatre the National
Endowment for the Arts should fund) the women at the OMT claim their territory at a financial “price.”
In these times of a sluggish and faltering global economy, theatres around the world have been increasingly
aggressive to survive. Many have had to compromise their art. In the US, Great Britain, and Canada it is
standard practice now for theatres to depend on corporate sponsors. And even governmental funding, which
had shrunk sizably in this country and Great Britain, has come attached to increasing ideological constraints.
For example, in this country, artists accepting money from the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) had
for a time to offer written assurances that any funded work would not be obscene. The most insidious result
of such ideological pressure has not been official censorship so much as an unofficial self-censorship which
has muted some artists (see Phelan, 1991, 136–137).9
While they have not compromised their artistic integrity, the OMT has had to devote increasing energy to
the pursuit of money. Compared to other theatres, the OMT remains admirably healthy: years of careful
financial management have resulted in a monetary stability rare in avant-garde theatre. Support for the
theatre continues not only from government agencies like the NEA, the Nebraska Arts Council, and United
Arts of Omaha, but also from corporate sponsors and individuals. Terry, Schmidman, and Kimberlain have
also consciously maintained a small-scale, non-corporate structure, avoiding what Terry identifies as the
predictable recent collapse of many male-run theatres:

The reason that, to my mind, there have been so many theaters failing was that they were forced by
certain funding structures to mimic the whole model of the corporate world—have a board of
directors, a whole batch of people who just did the business side, a whole batch who did the artistic
side, extreme compartmentalization, perhaps like you sometimes think of compartmentalization in the
universities. The structure got top heavy and when the funding started to shrink they couldn’t figure

9 It is much more than coincidence that the OMT’s Body Leaks is about self-censorship. Feeling the pressure to tow the

line as artists, Terry, Schmidman, and Kimberlain created a play which shows clearly how self-censorship affects all
lives, not just those of artists.

out how to continue the artistic stuff; they had been so long in the corporate world going to three
martini lunches and having cocktail parties for supporters. (Schmidman, Terry & Kimberlain, 1991)

Yet in spite of such vigilance and insight, Schmidman reports an increasing challenge in keeping her
company afloat. Her search for support is never-ending and increasingly discouraging. Of a recent day
spent approaching several businesspeople about her “company,” she reports that her requests for funding are
often thwarted by a single-minded focus on profit:

What I am hearing when I go to these businesses (and much as I hate to I have to) is we give our
money to other business guys who have clubs because they are giving us business and their clubs are
this non-profit thing they do. The business guys no longer care about what the organization is doing.
The reason they give money is because these guys are good customers…It’s distorted. I can’t go in
and talk about artistic quality—it’s not looked at anymore. Other things are counted. (1992)

As the arts become increasingly commodified, she explains, the segment of the population committed to
non-traditional art is diminishing: “There used to be a larger segment of the population that believed in
culture, for the sake of the good life…Just because a community has a symphony, an opera, a ballet, and a
playhouse, doesn’t mean it’s got culture” (Schmidman, 1992).
While her fight for funding goes on, leaving her less and less of her time for art, while the company must
spend more and more of its time on the road raising extra income, Schmidman remains an idealist. Forced
by a state arts agency to present a more “realistic” budget, she complied only on paper, noting that her
dreams of funding are much more real. Yet she notes, it’s a harsh world for such dreamers—“There are
fewer and fewer idealists who want to make something beautiful that will change the world” (Schmidman,
1992). But against the odds, the dreamers at the OMT continue to make their ideals come to life: their
budget (the arts-council-approvable one) continues to grow by 10–15% annually; they have just opened a
second stage in downtown Omaha;10 and they have just financed and published a photographic collection to
promote the theatre of many experimental theatre artists (Schmidman, Kimberlain, Terry, 1992). They also
take extraordinary measures to keep their theatre affordable. They only just raised ticket prices to $10, but
to ensure that anyone who wants to can attend, they give away about one fifth of their tickets each night
(Schmidman, Terry & Kimberlain, 1991). In their gutsy way, the women of the OMT are capitalizing on
their uncompromising art, stubbornly measuring profit in their own way.

Geographic Territory: Space and Place

THREE and SIX join ONE at tub. SIX forces their heads under water and speaks.
Six: I've never told anyone this before because as you'll see modern people find it
hard to believe in the worlds I come from. My mother was the Missouri River.

10In converting a women’s clothing store into a performance space twice the size of their first stage, the group has
sought to make art, not money. In the first eight months of 1992, they have used this second space only for the one-
month run of Sound Fields.

Three: (up for air Before she was the Missouri River she was the Goddess who created the ice age.
as SIX submerges): My brothers and sisters are the Great Lakes.
One (up for air My mother fell in love with my father, a wild horse. Now at the time of this deep
as THREE submerges): and passionate love she was married to another God, a very stern and moral,
upright, righteous fellow named Moses (SIX and THREE up for air). When
Moses found out my Mother had fallen in love with a wild horse, and who could
blame her, he became very angry (SIX and THREE submerge again). (Pounds
floor for earthquake sound) He caused thunder bolts to come onto the plains. He
caused an earthquake to change the course of the Mississippi River. (THREE
comes up)
Three (joins quake sound): He had aimed at my mother the Missouri, but his anger was so great, his arms
shook and knocked his aim off a couple of longitudes. (ONE comes up) (Terry,
Schmidman & Kimberlain, 1991, 6)

In these opening lines from the longest single narrative of Sound Fields, the authors map out an expansive
geographic territory. With their theatre located less than a mile from the Missouri River, they have
borrowed its seemingly endless length (2700 miles), its power over the land it has flattened and enriched, to
engage the audience in a mythic, comic—indeed wild—narrative. That narrative of adventure, giant-sized
places, and fun is in many respects their own. Their choice to work out of the American Midwest positions
their work differently from that of comparable American theatre groups who work out of massive
metropolitan centers with sizable theatrical communities. In the relative isolation of Omaha, the OMT can
take their multi-media performance and develop it in the context of the particular world they inhabit. To
claim the Midwest as theatrical territory is somewhat daring. To succeed in the claim as the OMT has done
is a wild victory.
The vast, rich expanses of the Midwest are not glamorous. But the endless horizons and enduring,
dependable sameness engender a potent art. Fiction writer Michael Martone captures the essence easily
missed by those looking for a flashy natural world or hyper-sophisticated cities:

I think of it [the Midwest] more as a web of tissue, a membrane, a skin. And the way I feel about the
Midwest is the way my skin feels and the way I feel my own skin—in layers and broad stripes and
shades, in planes and in the periphery. The Midwest as hide, an organ of sense and not power, delicate
and course at the same time. The Midwest transmits in fields and waves. It is the place of sense. It
sometimes differentiates heat and cold, pain and pleasure, but most often registers the constant
bombardment, the monotonous feel of feeling. Living here on the great flat plain teaches you a soft
touch, since sensation arrives in huge sheets, stretches tight, layer upon layer, another kind of flood…
The Midwestern landscape is abstract and our response to the geology of the region might be similar
to our response to the contemporary walls of paint in the museums. We are forced to live in our eyes,
in the outposts of our consciousness, the borders of our being. (32–33)

Both Terry and Schmidman have claimed the artistic territory of the Midwest in ways that similarly point to
the big, encompassing, and sensual creativity it allows. Terry notes that the possibilities for theatre in
Omaha are wide open, in contrast to the New York theatre scene where the “commercial theatre work isn’t
good”; she finds herself always eager to get back to Omaha (Babnich, 1988, 309). To Schmidman, the
Midwest is, most basically, “freedom.” The vastness can allow for deviance from the norm, the wide open
spaces encourage big ideas and unusual execution of them. Because it is what she calls “river country” it
impresses a unique sense of place: “I am very connected—I think we [the women of the OMT] all are—to
clean air; you know the river, it’s different than an ocean. It is not a lake either. This is river land. There is
something incredibly expansive about this area. And about the people that live here. The extremes of
temperature, I believe, allow extremes of creation.” She sums up the artistic fertility in saying, “Our sources
are purer; mine [my sources] are thought, air—real basic, first-generation stuff, not transformed through
other people’s visions” (1992).
In his book-long meditation on postmodern theatre, Johannes Birringer implies that the city is the only
workable site for contemporary theatre. Everything about the OMT—from its choice to locate in a modest
city surrounded by vast expanses of farmland to its artistic focus on connecting with the natural world—denies
his assumption. Sound Fields, the latest play to grow out of the Midwestern geography of the OMT, is
about the crucial need to recognize and register the “fields and waves” this “place of sense” transmits. The
authors’ point is that saving our world and ourselves depends on such awareness. Around the world, much
theatre by women is on a small scale, developed out of local talent and needs, primarily serving,
challenging, and entertaining its local audience! This rootedness should not be read as a sign of parochial
vision or limited art. On the contrary, the OMT and these other theatres stand as examples of a theatre
firmly rooted in their locale, recognizing that by maintaining a human scale they best serve the world. The
river country of the American Midwest has a wildness that belies its seemingly sedate facade.

Adding it all up: The Territory of a Theatre by Wild Women

All (sing): Attention, attention To Prevention:

To throw off your pain
Get vain—get vain,
Get vain
About your brain.
In the main
You can beat the rain
If you say
“I love you” to your brain.
You can drown shame,
Raise depression to elation,
Give yourself the ultimate vacation.
So get off your posterior,
You’re no longer inferior,

Indulge yourself on your interior. It’s all right—you have the right To show your might.
(Terry, Schmidman & Kimberlain, 1990, 45)

In this song which marks the celebratory ending of Body Leaks, the actors all join in claiming the territory
of their female selves. In performance, the song gives a strong sense of an ending to a play marked by its
seemingly endless and often tense negotiations over image, sensation, and meaning; and in the notable
definition of this ending the performers cast the wildness of their performance out to the audience members.
This is not a unique moment in the work of the OMT, but one which is representative of the group’s
dedication to carving out a territory of their own. It is a territory of community and collaboration, grounded
in a belief that we have control over the construction of our selves, our values, and our world. It is a territory
of disciplinary integration where in performance the text is one part of a complete sensory experience
completed together with an audience. It is a territory where idealism remains uncompromised, financially
supported by inventive bargaining for capital. It is a territory of rivers, free space, and primary materials. It
is a territory where women can be wild and be themselves. While the OMT has never been a theatre only by
or for women, it stakes it claim as outsiders who can easily redefine traditional theatre because it was never


Babnich, Judith. (1988) Megan Terry and Family Talk. The Centennial Review, 32, 296–311.
Birringer, Johannes. (1991) Theatre, Theory, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana UP.
Bruffee, Kenneth. (1984) Collaborative Learning and the “Conversation of Mankind.” College English, 46, 635–652.
Carlson, Susan. (forthcoming) Collaboration in the Heartland: The Omaha Magic Theatre Shaping a Theatre for the
1990s. In Feminist Theatres for Social Change. Eds. Tracy Davis, Susan Bennett & Kathleen Davis.
Clark, Gregory. (1990) Dialogue, Dialectic and Conversation: A Social Perspective on the Function of Writing.
Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP.
Ede, Lisa and Andrea Lunsford. (1990) Singular Texts/Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing.
Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP.
Gere, Anne Ruggles. (1987) Writing Groups: History, Theory, and Implications. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP.
LeFevre, Karen Burke. (1987) Invention as a Social Act. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP.
Martone, Michael. (1988) The Flatness. In A Place of Sense: Essays in Search of the Midwest, ed. Martone, pp. 29–33.
Iowa City, Iowa: U of Iowa P.
Omaha Magic Theatre. (1992) What We Do: Artistic Statement.
Phelan, Peggy. (1991) Money Talks, Again. TDR 35, 131–141.
Rorty, Richard. (1979) Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton UP.
Schmidman, Jo Ann. (1992) Interview, Omaha Nebraska.
Schmidman, Jo Ann, Megan Terry & Sora Kimberlain. (1991) Interview, Omaha, Nebraska.
Schmidman, Jo Ann, Sora Kimberlain & Megan Terry. (1992) Right Brain Vacation Photos: New Plays and Production
Photographs 1972–1992. Omaha: Omaha Magic Theatre.
Terry, Megan. (1988) Interview. In In their own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights, ed. David Savran,
pp. 240–256. New York: Theatre Communications Group.

Terry, Megan, Jo Ann Schmidman & Sora Kimberlaim. (1990) Body Leaks.
——. (1992) Sound Fields: Are we Hear.
Zivanovic, Judith. (1989) The Rhetorical and Political Foundations of Women’s Collaborative Theatre. In Themes in
Drama, vol 11: Women in Theatre,ed. James Redmond, pp. 209–219. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

SUSAN CARLSON is a Professor of English at Iowa State University where she teaches drama,
contemporary British literature and women’s literature. She has published Women of Grace: Henry
James’s Plays and the Comedy of Manners and Women and Comedy: Rewriting the British Theatrical
Tradition and has most recently been writing on collaboration in the theatre and on the cultural context
in which theatre is evaluated.

Figure 1 Sound Fields: We are Hear. Photo: Megan Kerry


Figure 2 Body Leaks. Photo: Megan Kerry

Songs of the Twentieth Century: The Plays of Ludmila
Béatrice Picon-Vallin Translated by Catherine Dale

Banned under Brezhnev, Ludmila Petrushevskaya’s plays are disturbing. The force of her Songs of the
Twentieth Century lies in the urgency of the cry it emits within the context of the 1980s. Following in
the tradition of Gogol and Vampilov, she conducts her plots on the level of Soviet everyday life at its
most banal, whilst contriving to create suspense and a sense of the uncanny in an extreme
concentration of time and space. Her novels and plays are similar in that they both demand from their
reader-spectator the most attentive hearing, for it is primarily through language that their hybrid
characters are completely and subtly defined. The corruption and turgidity of the often breathless
discourse, compressed by the violence of everyday life, reveal the disordered state of society and the
degradation of human relationships between families, couples, generations and groups. Her work is a
tragicomic dramaturgy which resounds with lucidity and cruelty, but also with the compassion that is
still awaited from its producer.
KEY WORDS U.S.S.R—censorship—prose—society—fantasy—tragicomedy—infralanguage.

‘My place of work is the public square, the street, the beach…With the people…That’s where I work. Even
if it is uncomfortable…But I am a poet all the same, I see each one of you. I share in your pain.’1
In the U.S.S.R. where totalitarianism has proved an equal burden in the social and private lives of men
and women alike and has worn them down to precisely the same degree, a specifically female mode of
discourse has only been able to emerge following the complete regeneration of individual discourse, a
discourse of resistance against the type of Orwellian ‘Newspeak’, in which the most realistic observations
and the most fanciful figments of the imagination may be combined, and the different genres and stylistic
levels that the stereotyped, cliché-ridden language of authority seeks to keep strictly apart may be mixed.
Any specifically female concerns have given way therefore to the need for a more general consideration of
the plight of civil society in which everyone is plunged in the same bloodbath and is a prey to the same
daily problems and unscrupulous conduct. In the theatre, this resistance appears all the more pronounced
since the written word that may be reverently stored away in some secret drawer or deep recess of the
human memory, or circulated clandestinely by the underground press (samizdat), must, in order to achieve

1 Unpublished remark by Ludmila Petrushevskaya. Cited in Maya Turovskaya, Pamyati tekushchego mgnoveniya
(Memories of the Moment Past), (Moscow, Sov. Pisatel’, 1987), 164.

theatrical existence, be boldly embodied on stage before a voracious and acquiescent public who are all the
more eager to comply since they know that this free and vibrant truth has had to slip through the net of the
Brezhnevian censor in order for it to enjoy any degree of success or to exist at all within the domain of the
avant-garde, a domain that is frequently activated by amateur companies whose performance may
sometimes be the only one a play will receive and of which the public may be informed only by word of
Petrushevskaya’s works have played a full and leading role in this resistance. Although she has been
writing for more than twenty years, it was not until 1988 and 1989 that two collections of her works finally
appeared in print.3 The first, Immortal Love (Bessmertnaya lyubov’), contains short stories, and the second,
Songs of the Twentieth Century (Pesni XX veka), is a collection of plays. This later collection was followed,
at the end of 1989, by a further volume which returns to some of the earlier ‘songs’ whilst including several
previously unpublished ones too, and, like its predecessor, it bears the title of one of the plays it contains:
Three Girls in Blue (Tri devushki v golubom).4 Banned under Brezhnev, Petrushkevskaya’s work was
nevertheless performed in a few scattered locations,5 the first professional theatre to stage one of her plays
being the Norsooteatr in Tallinn, which presented Cinzano in Estonian translantion in 1978. In 1980 Love was
produced almost simultaneously by Raĭkhengauz, Kamenskaya and Artsybachev in three of Moscow’s
professional theatres: the Theatre of the Miniature, the Ermolova and the Taganka respectively.
Since the beginning of the 1980s Petrushevskaya has been acknowledged—albeit with certain
reservations regarding the disturbing immanence of her themes and modes of speech—in Soviet theatrical
circles for the force and originality of her writing, observed at random from the few sporadic performances
and publications of her work. Although published, her plays were nevertheless still found disturbing in
1989, since those in The Dark Room (Temnaya komnata) cycle which discuss death and capital punishment,
and occur at the end of Songs of the Twentieth Century, came close to being censored by the editorial board
as too melancholy, too hard…

From Prose to Theatre

If Petrushevskaya’s characters often appear to be women spanning three generations in age, it is because she
perceives daily ‘survival’ to lie in their hands. Her principal concern, however, is to give voice to the
muffled cry of all those who, regardless of background, age or sex, endure a life in which need and
violence are the daily lot of a society in which the elderly and the very young are the most ill-treated and
deprived members. Old people and children are thus frequently generic to her plays. Her concern to give
expression to every member of society on the basis of a sympathetic and attentive hearing, gives rise to a

2 For example, in November 1981, on the eve of the 64th anniversary of the October Revolution, two short plays, Songs

of the Twentieth Century and The Glass of Water, were performed in an overcrowded room whilst the march past and
enforced cheers were being rehearsed for the following day in nearby Red Square (see Beatrice Picon-Vallin, “Lettre de
Moscou”, L’Annuel du théâtre, 1981–82 season (L’Aire Théâtrale-Les Fédérés, 1982).
3 Some bibliographical information: prior to 1988 a few short stories appeared in journals such as Avrora, Druzhba

narodov and Novyi mir. Love was published in Teatr in 1979; finally, a collection of works published in collaboration with
Viktor Slavkin in 1983 contained two of her plays, Music Lessons and The Stair Well. In addition to these two books, a
further collection was published in Biblioteka ogonëk, no. 48 (1990).
4 This play was produced in 1983 by Mark Zakharov at the Lenkom Theatre in Moscow after a two-year battle against

the censors.
5 See the examples in notes 2 and 17.

lucid and uncompromising style, described by some as cruel even, in which the cries of aborted, unborn
children punctuate the dialogue.6
A journalist by training, Petrushevskaya began writing short stories in the mid-1960s and came to theatre
almost by chance, as a result of a commission from the Moscow Art Theatre. A close link between these
two genres which, in her hands, complete and resemble one another, soon appeared, however, and she
conceived one of her stories, Building a Life (Ustroit’ zhizn’), as a sequel to her play Cinzano through the
continuation of the life of one of its characters, Pasha.7 Petrushevskaya’s output of plays and short stories is
supported by a more marginal one of stories and plays for children, poems, and two film scripts—the
remarkable Tale of Tales and The Overcoat by Gogol—written for, and in collaboration with her friend, the
renowed Soviet film director Yuri Norstein.8 Occasionally she moves from a type of story that she classifies
as a ‘monologue’9 to the theatrical monologue, to text recited by a single character alone on stage or in the
presence of a largely silent interlocutor. In one and the same breath she passes from the interior to the
theatrical monologue or dialogue, perceiving the latter as a much freer form. Nevertheless, a common
feature of everything she writes is brevity. The stories are aften very short and the plays in a single act. This
brevity is not the result of an inability on her part to master extended forms, however, since she has already
written two “full” plays: Three Girls in Blue, a two-act comedy in eight scenes, and The Moscow Choir
(Moskovskiĭ khor), staged in 1988 at the Moscow Art Theatre. The truth is that a woman does not have time
to write ‘at length’: Petrushevskaya writes on the hoof, in between her family’s illnesses, sometimes in a
single night, quickly and fluently. There is a sense of urgency about what she has to say, a sense of urgency
about a woman’s time that passes so quickly…Perhaps she will write a novel, but not yet…This degree of
brevity corresponds to the logic of her poetics, in fact, for it absorbs and concentrates the expansiveness of
Romantic writing.
Behind the wish to give voice to all her characters, the different forms of expression assigned to each one
are significant: Petrushevskaya’s drama may be defined as one of contrast, on the one hand, with the
mechanical, ideological discourse that is grafted onto an experience of life that reveals itself at every turn,
and Western drama, on the other, in that it is rooted in the Russian tradition of Gogol, Erdman and
Vampilov, which, unlike that of Chekhov, did not succeed in implanting itself in the West. Within the
context of this strong tradition, Petrushevskaya’s work constitutes a radical departure, and her point of view
as a Soviet woman is apparent in her choice of themes and motives, her way of combining these and of
constructing the language of her characters. Although her plays create a feeling of the chaos that pervades
the unbearable routine of everyday life, she nevertheless entitles them ‘songs’: originating in heard and
spoken discourse, these ‘songs’, in which all intimacy and introspection is forcibly constrained by the social
aspect, constitute the minor key chants that underlie the xtriumphant hymns, and the corruption and
turgidity of their frequently poetic or droll, free and inventive language speaks volumes about the social
entropy and moral bankruptcy of the so-called communist system.

6 See Smirnova’s Birthday in Tri devushki v golubom (Three Girls in Blue), (Moscow, Iskusstvo, 1989), 137.
7 Published in Sintaksis, no. 30 (Paris, 1991).
8 Norstein has made several rare but great films. The Overcoat is in preparation. Petrushevskaya also wrote the scripts

for I Will Buy You a Wife and Silver Spoons, directed by Ilyukhin.
9 The Rumanian writer Gabriela Adamesteanu has published similar interior monologues expressing the woman’s point

of view in a volume of stories entitled Vara-primavara (Bucharest, 1989).


The Dramaturgy of the Cry

The primary concern of playwrights belonging to the movement known in Russia as the ‘new wave’—a
rather indistinctly defined movement that emerged in the 1970s and embraced Petrushevskaya—was to oust
the ‘positive hero’ from the stage and replace him with the ordinary victims of the system, not the dissidents
condemned for their anti-Soviet opinions, but the outcasts of that great communist Utopia who are the real
products of the system and contrast so strongly with the stereotyped models of socialist realism (the exploits
of Stakhanov can now be seen as pure fiction, a media invention of Stalinist propaganda). Amongst the
dramatists of this ‘new wave’, such as Aleksandr Galin, Viktor Slavkin and Nina Sadur, who place their
work outside the domain of politics in order to address the ‘human factor’, according to an expression made
fashionable by Gorbachev in the early days of perestroika, Petrushevskaya stands apart. It is undoubtedly
she who, with the greatest degree of skill and accuracy and the most acute powers of observation, reveals
the decaying state of human relationships between couples, families, neighbours, different generations and
social groups, in the brief fragments she occasionally places together. Grandmothers’ Blues (Babul’ya
Blyuz) is thus composed of five smaller plays, and Columbina’s Appartment (Kvartira Kolombiny) and The
Dark Room (Temnaya komnata) of four. This method of fragmentary construction is effected either at the
moment of writing itself or, alternatively, after the event, Thus, Cinzano, subtitled Italian Vermouth without
Interval, and Smirnova’s Birthday (Den’ rozhdeniya Smirnovoy), written four years apart in 1973 and 1977,
constitute the two acts of the same play, and are performed by different characters, first the men and then
the women who are connected with them in some way. In 1990 she wrote The Wedding Night or the 37th
May (Brachnaya noch’) as the sequel to one of her earliest plays, Love (Lyubov’) (1974).
In her work Petrushevskaya attempts to capture the breathless speech of people trapped and rejected by
the breaking up of family structures, exiled in remote districts on the outskirts of town, in a tumbledown
dacha with a leaking roof as in Three Girls in Blue, or a flat in no man’s land, furnished only with a torn bus
seat, where the three down-and-outs in Cinzano gorge themselves on this imported liquor stumbled upon in
the corner shop in a stroke of luck that smacks of both a miracle and the ineptitudes of the distribution
network. She depicts humanity in a state of permanent anxiety, constantly hurrying in pursuit of a wretched
three roubles, a bottle of strong drink, or a mohair sweater (a rare luxury to be found on the black market in
the 1970s), a nation thrown into confusion by a dull nervousness and the stress created by want, a society
broken and exhausted by more than sixty years of striving in vain for ‘a radiant future’. This perpetual
struggle merely results in survival or drinking. The greatest happiness imaginable is that of a breathing
space:10 insoluble daily problems spill over into professional life, its worries and joys alike; work is just one
way of scraping a living, an epiphenomenon, and in Three Girls in Blue the specialization of one of the
characters in rare languages (such as Gaelic) appears all the more absurd within the context of the situation
in which the young woman finds herself. In her private life she is caught up by the maelstrom of need for
everyday items, from an appartment to a pair of boots, food, medicines, a coffin or a passport…And
without any time or space to herself, she can only steal a few moments in which to dream or to imagine
herself as a woman, so that when she does succeed in appearing seductive, it is often in spite or herself.
All Petrushevskaya’s plays present a shrewd description of the disorder and irregularity of a society
plagued by a total lack of professional conscience, an aversion to work, problems with supplies, hospitals
and housing, turbulence in the mixture of social classes, chronic alcoholism, and family difficulties created
by marriage crises, women abandoned by their husbands, children deserted by their fathers, and conflicts
between three generations living cooped up in one room. They expose, moreover, the consequences of the

10 Cited in an interview with Petrushevskaya in Art Press, no. 135 (Paris, April 1989).

formal emancipation of women in a world of chronic shortages and outdated taboos, a society which has not
given any thought to sexuality or birth control, and which still carries out abortions by repeated and brutal
curetting without anaesthetic. ‘Women prove to be that half of humanity of whom life has taken the greatest
toll’, writes Turovskaya.11 Life? Survival more like, each woman struggling to bring up her only child as
best she can, for the reality of raising a child is not an act of heroism, but a readily admitted sentence of
‘penal servitude’. As for the men folk, they frequently desert and choose the way of vodka. If
Petrushevskaya’s description of the male race is not entirely flattering, her view of women is no less
unkind. Her lucid observation of a dejected, paradoxical and enslaved matriarchy does not imply and
hatred, however, for Petrushevskaya loves her characters, who still remain, in the words of one of them,
‘men (in the sense of mankind)’, in spite of their extreme negation of humanity.
All the ‘social’ content in this observation is aimed at the ‘colloidal state’.12 It is impossible to categorize
her plays as ‘problem plays’ or ‘moral theatre’, as certain critics have attempted to do. For although
Petrushevskaya was one of the first writers to lift the veil in public on the underworld of the Soviet system,
she does not in any way seek to portray real people or present a sociological study. Her work for the theatre
goes beyond the framework of a simple ‘drama of everyday life’.
The three cousins in Three Girls in Blue represent the ironic and ‘degraded’ (in the Kantorian sense) echo
of Chekhov’s three sisters. Just as Masha shocked the contemporaries of Chekhov by drinking and taking
snuff, the behaviour of the characters in Petrushevskaya’s play scandalized certain conservative critics in
the 1980s: in particular, the lover of Ira, one of the girls in blue, offers proof of his love by building her a
private lavatory close to the dacha since the rest of the family refuse to allow her to use theirs. But, beyond
this similarity, it is as though, in Three Girls in Blue, the characters of The Three Sisters have been ravaged
body and soul by the wars, revolutions, massed events, concentration camps and exterminations of the
twentieth century. Trailing behind each of Petrushevskaya’s women is a whole tribe of noisy, rancorous,
shabby relations, and a child whom they desperately try to push to the fore in an attempt to shield, protect
and keep it safe with their meagre resources or other complex strategies, as in the short story Svoy krug. The
relationship that receives the greatest priority in Petrushevskaya’s work, unlike that of Chekhov (from
which she nevertheless borrows the recurrent image of the abandoned home), is that of the reciprocal
relationship between mother and child, regardless of age, and with particular emphasis on the mother-daughter
relationship. A child is not seen primarily as a source of hope, moreover, but as a burden, a cause of
anxiety, worry and pain. The themes of procreation and motherhood are fundamental to the play; animal
maternity (the mother cat with her kitten, lost then found, forms a leitmotiv throughout Three Girls in Blue)
and motherhood that is accepted passively or entered into solely for the purpose of claiming child benefit
connects the characters with their relatives, friends and acquaintances in a solid chain of interlocking misery
that is somehow overcome.
If Petrushevskaya situates her dramas within the context of the harsh realities of Soviet daily life, and
makes the problems of motherhood, in the widest sense of the word, the central theme of her work, four
‘rules’ enable her to focus her observations and analyses and create a sense of suspense out of which the most
agonizing and bizarre events may arise.

11 Turovskaya, op. cit., 174.

12 Ibid., 172.

Concentration of Time and Place, Enigma and Language

Petrushevskaya’s plays are concentrated, or, rather, taut like a coiled spring, in structure as a result of the
contraction of time and space. Time is always circumscribed. An extreme example of this contraction
occurs in Love where the entire duration of married life is compressed into a single hour, a mere half
evening, in which a pair of young newly-weds, returning home from the sinister wedding palace after a
meal in a restaurant, find themselves once more in their lodgings, the room that the girl shares with her
mother. Following a discussion in which they reveal their profound disagreement, they decide to get
divorced, but the unexpected return of the mother, who has gone back on her word to leave them alone on
their wedding night at least, brings about a reconciliation of the couple, and, reunited, she drives them from
her home.
A corollary of this rule regarding time is a rule of place. The reduced space in which the plays are set
corresponds not only to the restricted nature of the stage itself, but also to the reality of the housing crisis in
Moscow. Petrushevskaya seeks to emphasize this lack of space and the feeling of complete disorientation it
brings. In Music Lessons (Uroki muzyki), for example, a grandmother is turned out of her room by her
grandson who, on returning from the army, establishes himself in his parents’ home with his girlfriend.
They set up a campbed in the kitchen for the old lady, which is, she claims, the ‘last stop before the
cemetery’. The plays swarm with characters, either literally or merely by allusion, living in overcrowded
housing, and create an impression of a stifling world in which ‘there is never any room’.13 Time and place
thus constitute the threads of a daily life so constricted that there is no escape.
The third “rule” concerns the paradoxical structure of Petrushevskaya’s plays. Based on a plurality of
dramatic motifs, they present their themes in the manner of a detective story, now concealing, now
revealing the facts like an accordion folding in and out, as motifs come into view then disappear out of sight
again. The audience is forced to ask questions, to try to solve the enigmas, and Petrushevskaya plays on the
reversal of situations in order to create a sense of suspense. On the surface, nothing appears to happen. The
characters simply exist, chat or, as in Cinzano, drink, or seem to be concerned only with drinking. The
underlying and skilful arrangement of hidden dramatic motifs forces the latter to the surface of the dialogue
from time to time in the most extraordinary ways, however, for beneath this surface lie the most horrific
truths. Thus, certain succinct, incisive, enigmatic or totally absurd remarks made by Pasha cut across the
sombre yet humorous tales of debts and drinking in Cinzano. These remarks concern his mother, her illness,
her stay in hospital, and the flowers he wants to buy for her. The number of a death certificate found in her
pocket is taken for a sum of money, and amidst the delirium of the conversation dulled by alcohol and the
confusion of the three men forced to face up to their own lives as much as to the death of their mother, they
realize that she is in the mortuary, that Pasha is drinking the money intended to pay for the funeral, and that
‘the most important thing is not to think about it’…
Finally, Petrushevskaya manipulates language like a goldsmith, shaping the bubbling sub-language of
liquid gold that springs up on every street corner and in every kitchen, in spite of or perhaps thanks to the rolling
of this molten liquid to which the dead language of authority forces her to submit. This creative elaboration
of everyday speech distinguishes her work from the simple tape-recording of conversations to which certain
Soviet critics sought to reduce it at first sight.

13 Three Girls in Blue in Tri devushki v golubom, 169.


Dialogue as Action
Dialogue is the most important form of action in Petrushevskaya’s work. She has claimed that, however
poor her sight may be, her sense of hearing is, on the other hand, extremely acute,14 and she demands the
same acuity of hearing on the part of her audience. Pared down by the daily violence to which her
characters are subjected, and the ‘rules’ of dramatic writing, the language of her dialogues becomes at once
comic and cruel, poetic and terse. And it is through their manner of speaking, their abuse of syntax, their
inventive vocabulary and bold combinations, that Petrushevskaya’s hybrid characters are wholly revealed.
The cast lists of her plays indicate only the first name (Cinzano), followed occasionally by the age of the
character (Three Girls in Blue), and only rarely do they give their surname or profession, sometimes
designating a character by their initials alone. Within the context of these neutral scenarios, it is the use of
language that individualizes Petrushevskaya’s characters. All the action takes place within this language
which is littered throughout with foreign words originating from capitalist countries, and figures denoting
loans, purchases, barters and thefts, all of which express an ever eager but never satisfied need to consume.
Her language is full of incorrectly accented words, errors in pronunciation, abbreviations, ungrammatical
acronyms and monstruous constructions. Through her rejection of accepted norms and the manipulation of
slang expressions, spoken language acquires a bizarre quality that throws it into a state of utter turmoil.
Indeed, in matters of language Petrushevskaya fully appreciates the creative abilities of children, old people
and alcoholics, who are without doubt her preferred characters.
It is through language, moreover, that the social identity, standard of education, and profession of a
character are revealed, and this question of identity is the first enigma that the audience must solve. The
sordid world that passes before them is not one composed of tramps and drunkards, but of scientific
researchers, or bureaucrats recently returned from England, of a whole cross-section of society that forms a
kind of mediocre ‘semi-intelligentsia’ whose material, moral, cultural and sexual misery may occasionally
be glimpsed by the audience. Finally, it is through language that, as Vladimir Nabokov observed of Gogol,
an ‘orgy of secondary characters’15 permeates the already overcrowded spaces. In spite of the dislocation of
family bonds, each one of Petrushevskaya’s characters exists within a tangled wed of family ties, and her
use of language serves to bring these endless chains of humanity to life. Thus, in Isolation Unit
(Izolirovannyĭ boks) the breathless monologues of the two terminally ill women evoke the myriads of
characters who appear in their own individual dramas, but who nevertheless remain invisible to the

The Surpassing of Everyday Life

Petrushevskaya’s plays are located within the Slavonic tradition of the fantastic established by Gogol, which
the author reinterprets in an entirely personal way. She elicits laughter through comedy of situation, word
and gesture in order to set her audience at ease, and then, when they are off their guard, she seeks to move
them, to make them cry. Her treatment of time, space and language, her piecing together of dramatic motifs
in the manner of a detective story, and her preference for the celebration as the moment in which to
assemble her characters on stage—a celebration held amidst poverty, a shabby affair from the start, that
only serves to intensify the feelings of loneliness and exclusion—all concentrate everyday life to such a

14 This claim was made during a discussion organized to mark the publication of Songs of the Twentieth Century in

March 1989 at the Meridian Palace of Culture in Moscow.

15 Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol (Connecticut, New Directions, 1944), 48.

degree that it appears not as a naturalistic, medical or sociological vision, but as a tragic metaphor of the
human condition, Soviet or otherwise. This surpassing of daily routine is achieved also by the regulation of
the chaos and spoken delivery of her plays by means of refrains or the repetition of words, phrases, themes
or voices, as in the case of the offstage voice of the little boy reciting short fairy-tales, almost counting
rhymes, such as those of the flying octopus, the winged wolf, and the moon that could fly faster than the
birds, in Three Girls in Blue, or the ringing of a small bell, the resonant gestures of ‘silent scenes’, or the
sudden appearance of strange characters. Rhythmicized in this way, suffering is turned to music in these
‘songs of the twentieth century’.
The introduction of the absurd is a logical consequence of this method of construction. At the end of
Music Lessons, huge swings descend from the flies, swaying to and from above the furniture in the
Kozlov’s council flat. Their son Kolia’s two ‘fiancées’, Nadia and Nina, whom the Kozlovs have rejected, are
sitting on the swings, the one with her mothers’ child, the other with her own, which has been born without
head in an attempt to abort it. The movement of these swings, increased by Kolia’s pushing, lends
Petrushevskaya’s work a metaphorical status; and in her most recent plays, the absurd is no longer the
consequence, but the point of departure for her work, which enables her to intensify relationships and
dialogues from the outset.

A Theatre of Challenges
The full force of Petrushevskaya’s theatrical writing lies in its urgency: she seeks to challenge her audience
directly. The repeated exclamations, such as ‘Come off it!’ or ‘Are you crazy?’, with which the characters
constantly interrupt one another are, in fact, addressed to the audience, and people may often be heard
squirming uncomfortably in their seats or leaving the auditorium during a performance in which they
cannot bear the open and frank presentation of a reality that borders on a nightmare. (These were indeed the
reactions of a considerable number of people at the first performances of Three Girls in Blue at the Lenkom
Theatre in Moscow.) Such direct and personal challenges cause each member of the audience to suddenly
recognize themselves, on stage, or to identify individual feelings with a particular attitude or turn of phrase.
In The Moscow Choir, for example, far from simply unbolting the statue of Stalin, Petrushevskaya questions
the audience on the possibility of destroying the Stalin element hidden away inside each one of them. Her
apparent indifference and neutrality in the face of the ‘inhuman’ behaviour of her characters, induced by the
perplexing daily situations in which they are enmeshed, is simply an expression of the interest and love she
bears for each one of them, down to the least significant. Beyond this degree of detachment,
Petrushevskaya’s plays may lay claim to a moral, but absolutely not a moralising role within a society
whose foundations have been well and truly shaken; she makes her stand or exercises forgiveness on the
grounds of understanding alone and not through any sense of anger or indignation.
When Petrushevskaya’s theatrical work finally emerged from the secret drawers of confidentiality,16 it
thus presented a variety of problems to the public. The critics too experienced certain difficulties, and, in
accordance with the view of the Brezhnevian censor, a number of them reproached her with an excessively
pessimistic vision of life, dismissing her work merely as a denunciation of the social defects of the regime, a
dissident testimony, a sociological document.
Her work finally proved problematic to producers, whom Petrushevskaya distrusts to the point of not
hesitating to ‘ban’ certain performances herself. For how should the producer stage these plays in which the

16Music Lessons was written in 1973. Death Penalty (1976), The Glass of Water (1978) and Isolation Unit (1978–80)
were all performed in The Dark Room cycle at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1991.

real world of want, greyness and misery is transformed into the world of the theatre, richly peopled with
characters and details, a world whose structure seems to lie at the very crossroads of the theatrical and the
romantic? How may a producer find his own place within a drama in which the author, a concerned and
compassionate demiurge, follows her everyday characters and their acquaintances step by step through each
painful and unavoidable experience? Few producers have really known how to respond to these
questions,17 in spite of numerous attempts in theatre and television during more than seven years in Russia
and elsewhere (Germany, Poland, America, Bulgaria, Finland, Italy, Great Britain, France, The
Netherlands, etc.).
Condemned by the conservative press at its first performances as a collection of neo-realist, even
naturalist, ‘tittle-tattle’ plays in which the characters are completely lacking in ideals, Petrushevskaya’s
work in fact to the surgeon’s knife, presents a clear, and bold razor-sharp picture of human relationships in
the throes of extreme distress, and questions in Three Girls in Blue, how existence is possible in an
unbearable world that cannot be transcended.
In the Russia of 1991 where Petrushevskaya was acknowledged definitively as a writer and playwright to
the extent that the journal Russkoe bogatsvo devoted its entire third issue to her, her work for the theatre is
surpassed in absurdity, tragi-comedy and cruelty only by life itself, by the daily apocalypse that the people
are forced to undergo as they witness the rapid disintegration of social structures and living conditions
around them. Petrushevskaya’s plays no longer represent that powerful truth that suddenly burst into the
open, stamping out the endemically false discourse of the ‘stagnation’ years or the early days of
perestroika. In the face of the violence and social instability and this life ‘on the edge of the precipice’ that
the Russian politicians seek to describe, Petrushevskaya’s plays have not escaped the crisis that has affected
the theatre worldwide, for, in a period in which the floodgates of free speech have opened to reveal an
overwhelming wealth of unbearable evidence, an attentive hearing of the text alone is no longer sufficient
for her plays to make any impression on an audience, when theatre bills are now more concerned with
satisfying the public’s demand for entertainment and amusement. An inventive production that turns to
reality the strange visions, images and rhythms of Petrushevskaya’s plays in the most ‘pared down’ of ways
still remains to be created, so powerfully do her plays reveal the despair, the chaos and absurdity of a world
in which the characters flounder about without hope or future. Such a production would not only be
inventive but light-hearted too, in the manner envisaged in 1987 by Anatoly Vasilyev, who has not yet
produced any of her work: ‘If I were to produce a play by her one day, it would be performed in such a way
that she herself would laugh all the way through. Her works are alltoo frequently made into dull, heavy
affairs, whereas they should be performed gaily. With tears, but gaily’.18
Translation of bibliographic notes on Beatrice Picon-Vallin:

Béatrice PICON-VALLIN is Director of Research at the CNRS, the Research Laboratory into
Performing Arts. She specialises in modern theatre and in particular Slavic theatre. Her major works are:
Le Théâtre juif sovietique pendant les années 20 (L’Age d’Homme 1973); Meyerhold, Les Voies de la
création théâtrale, Vol. 17 (Editions du CNRS, 1990); Introduction, Preface and Notes for Vol. IV

17 Some of the most interesting productions have included Viktyuk’s staging of Music Lessons at the Moscow

University Theatre in 1978 and Kozak’s production of Cinzano at the Chelovek Theatre-Studio in Moscow in 1987.
Kozak’s production scored a huge success at both the Munich and the Parma Festivals in 1988 and 1989, and has also
toured a number of foreign circuits (Paris, 1990).
18 Cited in an interview with Viktor Slavkin in Damas (Yugoslavia, 13 October 1987).

Ecrits sur le théâtre (1936–40) by V.Meyerhold (Lausanne, L’Age d’Homme, 1992, in 4 volumes); a
number of articles and studies in specialist reviews: Théâtre/Public; Art press; Travail théâtral; L’Art
du théâtre; Cahiers théâtre Louvain; L’Avant-scène Opéra: Teatr; Moskovskij nabljudatel’; Comedie-
Française; Les Cahiers; etc. She has also published another work on L.Petrushevskaya “Amère
revanche des corps à l’Est” in Le Corps en jeu (a collected anthology, Paris CNRS Editions, 1993).
Bloody Hard Work: Women in Nontraditional Work in
Peta Tait
Lecturer in Drama, School of Arts, University of New South Wales

Women in nonperformance and nontraditional areas of work in theatre believe their achievements are
due to hard work, tenacity and determined effort. This study of 80 women in Sydney theatre reveals
deliberate enterprise in their work although as women, they receive only minimal support and
recognition for their abilities. While they are often initially attracted to working in theatre by a belief
in its social and political significance, the women who maintain positive attitudes to their work are
more likely to have experienced a childhood attraction to theatre. Women will put up with inequities
based on gender divisions, difficult working conditions, inadequate pay and low status in their field of
work because they love theatre.
KEY WORDS Women, theatre work, nontraditional employment.

Disclosing Talent

Women work with dedication in nonperformance and nontraditional areas of theatre. Yet paradoxically they
receive very few indications of support and encouragement from their colleagues. Nearly all the 80 women
taking part in my qualitative research study of women in Sydney theatre describe their own individual effort
and hard work as the main reason for their achievements.1 Whether they are working in technical,
administrative or artistic fields—mainstream or fringe—these women conveyed the same purposeful
commitment to their work and indicate that their own individual effort is the principal reason for their

1 A total of 350 four-page questionnaires were sent out to Sydney theatres, agents, unions, organisations and women
working in theatre. 80 women (23%) responded: 52 from mainstream theatre, 13 from fringe, 12 from community, and
3 from experimental. Some respondents did not complete the second part of the questionnaire, which involved writing
answers to 12 open statements; there was an average of 10% blank responses on these written responses. The
questionnaire asked women to specify their category of work: 16% of responses were technical (e.g. stage management,
lighting/sound technicians, costume, set construction); 50% of responses were artistic (e.g. playwrights, directors,
lighting/sound/set/costume designers); 34% of responses were administrative (e.g. publicists, front of house, managers,
administrators). The second stage of the research involved more in-depth interviews with 17 women. A telephone
survey of 16 Sydney theatres in June 1991 indicated that there were 275 women (56%) employed in nonperformance
areas of work in these theatres at that time.

achievements. These women are highly committed to theatre although their attitudes to their work are often
expressed in emotional language which reflects conflicting feelings and considerable ambivalence about the
personal and professional rewards which are to be gained from their work. Notwithstanding these
reservations about the conditions of work, they continue to value theatre because of what they identify as
its unique power to communicate heightened emotional states, and conceptual ideas and abstract meanings,
to an audience.
My research study has a feminist orientation which seeks to find out what it means to be a woman
working in Australian theatre in the 1990s, given that there is now a sizeable group of women working
professionally in nonperformance areas.2 I wanted to investigate the motivation of this group of women and
look at how they view their work and achievements. I was aware that some areas of theatre work such as
directing and writing (artistic) seem to attract a considerable number of women, but promote very few,
whereas other areas like publicity and marketing (administrative) have a predominance of women while
technical fields appear to still be dominated by men.
Theatre is both a workplace which employs women and the site for the production of the art. Women’s
hard work and effort within theatre raises a number of issues connected to women’s traditional gender role
as the nurturer of artists and art rather than as the artist, and the lack of recognition given to women’s work
in society as a whole. The 1992 Parliamentary enquiry into the status of Australian women found that:

Much of the concern regarding recognition has to do, not just with the way in which women are
recognised but, what they are recognised for. Women from all walks of life expressed frustration at being
either utterly invisible or recognised for all the wrong reasons.”3

The collaborative nature of theatre means that the way women’s work is recognised within theatre is
significant, since the contribution of nonperformance areas of work to the whole production is often relatively
imperceptible to an audience and the outside community. Recognition for work in these fields is accorded
by those who work in the profession, so that the support and encouragement of colleagues is crucial to
advancement. There is an inherent danger that women’s contribution to theatre will be overlooked in ways
which perpetuate women’s traditional gender positions, since most women in this study do not volunteer the
information that their colleagues give them support and encouragement. Where women’s work in
nonperformance areas of theatre is still seen as auxilliary to the main artistic enterprise, their effort is doubly
invisible because of the nature of the work and continuing divisions based on gender roles.
The reasons given by these women for their achievements in a wide variety of different occupations
contained overwhelming similarities and suggested that they understand their endeavour in theatre to be
difficult and to some extent burdensome. As part of my research, I asked the women to finish the statements,
“My achievements in theatre are due to…”. Twenty nine out of the 80 women replied, “…hard work” or “…
very (bloody) hard work”. This is not simply a statement of the time commitment of long hours as indicated
elsewhere in this research, because their extended comments confirm that the experience of work can be

2 Jayaratne, T.E. “The Value of Quantitative Methodology for Feminist Research” in Bowles G. & Klein R.D. (1983)
Theories of Women’s Studies. Routledge & Kegan Paul: London. I am using a feminist approach which utilises the
quantitative results of this study to inform the qualitative responses. This research looks at women’s perceptions of their
work and I justify this focus on women, with the expressed intention of increasing awareness of women’s presence and
contribution in theatre.
3 The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia (1992) Half Way to Equal. Report of the Inquiry into Equal

Opportunity and Equal Status for Women in Australia. Australian Government Publishing Service: Canberra. p. 21.

perceived as unpleasant and not a gratifying process. Phrases such as “plodding on”, “slogging it” or “doing
lots of homework” are used together with notions of being tenacious and single-minded about their goals.
These responses also convey their ambition, which offers an underlying reason for women accepting such
difficult work conditions. Since most of these women have changed direction at some point in their
careers—some quite markedly from careers such as in teaching or welfare—and others must supplement
their income, this group of women do have comparative experience of work outside theatre which qualifies
their comments. These statements about hard work are not being made in isolation. Nevertheless these
women have chosen to work in nonperformance (nontraditional) areas of theatre.
This unequivocal agreement amongst their responses on work prompted me to try to establish whether
these women believe their effort is justified. Are these women being fully recognised within
nonperformance areas of work in Australian theatre and being given opportunities for continuing
professional advancement? Women in this study say their biggest difficulty is getting work, and some
women identify this as connected to issues of gender inequities in the workplace. I was surprised at the
vehement opinions expressed about the perpetuation of gender stereotypes in theatre both onstage and
offstage because I thought that the increased presence of women in nonperformance work in recent years
would have changed workplace expectations of women derived form traditional gender roles. One woman
from my research study who works in administration indicated that women are:

…replacing traditional stereotypes with modern ones in equal ignorance of the issues and

Women taking part in this study express frustration at the low level of opportunities for women in the
artistic categories of nonperformance (nontraditional) work outside low-budget productions. What then,
motivates some women to continue to make this kind of commitment to their work, when they do not
believe they are currently being given adequate work opportunities?
The attitudes of these women can be aligned with liberal democratic beliefs which assert that
opportunities and choices are available to anyone in Australian society who is prepared to work hard.
However, the assumption that these women believe their work-related choices are “gender-neutral” is
undermined by their responses in another part of this research.4 Women in administration believe they
compete equally with men for the same work, while women in artistic and technical fields believe they have
to be better than men to get work. This pressure to work harder than men for access to the same jobs is also
substantiated by research on women working in Australian film production.5
From this study most women believe their level of achievement is determined by their preparedness to
work, and, as women, they must be prepared to work harder than men. A handful of women did indicate
that in conjunction with their own effort their workplace provided an environment which was conducive to
their achievement, but this is not the same as receiving specific support and encouragement from colleagues
for the development of their careers. Only one woman indicated that men and women had given her support
as a woman, and she valued this encouragement. Overall, the women in this study indicate that they are

4 Pringle, R. & Watson, S. “Fathers, Brothers, Mates: The Fraternal State in Australia”. In Watson, S. (1990) Playing
the State. Allen & Unwin: Australia. p. 230.
5 Ryan, P.Eliot, M. & Appleton, G. (1983) Women in Australian Film Production. Women’s Film Fund: Australia. p. 4.

“Some women feel that they have to work much harder and longer than men, be more highly skilled and maintain
consistently higher quality of output in order to gain the same degree of credibility, prestige and reputation as men in
comparable situations.”

responsible for their own achievements and cannot depend on other people to assist them with their long-
term goals and ambitions.
All nonperformance areas of work require specialised skills and talents, from publicity through to set
construction, and there is a strong correlation between access to resources and large budgets and the
involvement of theatre professionals from all different fields who are recognised for their skills in their
particular field. Thus:

“…resources mean people, very skilled people, the best in the business.”6

Only seven women in this study—across artistic, administrative and technical fields—made a specific
reference to talent as a reason for their achievements in conjunction with their individual capacity to work; a
further three mentioned ability. While most women clearly define their work ethic, they barely acknowledge
any special aptitude or personal knack they bring to their work. (Is this reticence about acknowledging their
talent and ability restricted to Australian women in nonperformance areas of theatre, or is it more
widespread?) The extent to which perceptions of talent and ability are dependent on the direct
acknowledgement of other people is relevant here. In their investigation of research studies into perceptions
of women’s self-confidence, Veronica Nieva and Barbara Gutek conclude:

“Women tend to underestimate their abilities when no clear information is given them regarding their
abilities, before an unfamiliar task…When clear feedback is provided, however, there are no sex
differences in reported levels of self-confidence…”7

The low number of women in this study who specify their own talent and ability as a factor in their
achievement seems to be directly related to their perception that colleagues do not support or encourage
them. Since more women acknowledged having personal qualities such as honesty, originality, intelligence
or creativity—attributes that people in their lives outside theatre would recognise and commend them
for—it must be assumed that perceptions of ability and talent in relation to work need to be reinforced by
colleagues who work in theatre.
Clare Burton summarises studies of gender-specific attitudes to men and women’s efforts in work:

“Men and women tend to rate men’s work more highly than women’s, and men’s performance on
tasks more highly than women’s identical performance…good female performance is perceived as
due to effort and good male performance as due to ability.”8

As she suggests, if women’s achievements continue to be principally linked to effort, this is a major
obstacle to their advancement in the workplace. Where function and achievement in the workplace are
attributed to effort it remains the work of that individual woman in isolation and can be considered a
temporary behaviour and no indication of that woman’s potential in the future. Alternatively, where men are
identified as having ability they are given an advantage over women in the workplace. Men and women may

6 Seymour, D. “Box of Tricks” in Todd, S. (1984) Women and Theatre, Faber & Faber: London.
7 Nieva, V. & Gutek, B. (1982) Women and Work. Praeger: New York. p. 100.
8 Burton, C. (1991) The Promise And The Price. Allen & Unwin: Australia. p. 18.

both have to work hard, but if men are perceived by other men and women to have ability and women are
not, then they will not be equally recognized for their hard work. Instead, preference will go to men who are
perceived to be developing their talent and gifts. Women in theatre who identify their achievements as due
more to hard work than ability reflect the hegemonic values surrounding gendered behaviour in the
If the dominant ideology in society reinforces men’s capacity to do the work, it also allows them to be
judged to have ability because they are men. Thus:

“It is not possible to speak of the fortunes of individual women without reference to the structure of
relationships between men and women in our society.”9

Women’s work in theatre is dependent on forms of peer assessment, but no matter how hard they work there
are structural factors in place which will counteract the results of their effort. Only 17 per cent of women in
this study said they are involved in determining artistic policy. Decision-making in theatre is still largely
male-dominated, which has significant implications if the continuing perception is that men have more
ability than women. Under these circumstances, evaluation of the work of a woman or her ability and talent
as either good or inadequate invariably reflects a gendered subjectivity.
Undoubtedly there is a link between the acquisition of skill and achievements in determining women’s
ongoing professional advancement in artistic and technical fields. But only two women nominated skill as
contributing to their achievements. Similarly there was a noticeable absence of references to training in
their explanations of achievement, although some opportunities to train must have been relevant to the initial
decision to work in theatre and the majority of these women have tertiary qualifications. Obviously there is
a link between the acquisition of skills in a particular field and hard work. Women are having to develop
their record of achievement at the same time as they acquire skills in their area of work. The existence of
differing perceptions of men’s and women’s ability becomes particularly important in this process of
acquiring skills and opportunities for advancement. After all the recognition of ability would seem to be a
major consideration in the provision of ongoing opportunities in theatre. If women’s work in theatre is being
judged while they are still learning the skills of their particular field, and they are not recognised for their ability
as men are, then they will not be allowed the liberty to make mistakes or to learn by trial and error in the
same way as men. It will be harder for women to continue to gain work if they are not seen to be competent
as knowing what to do from the outset. For this reason, women cannot afford to be seen to be learning the
job while they work in the same way as men and will not be given continuing opportunities because they do
not have the protection of colleagues who value and nurture them for their talent rather than their hard
Judging by their overall responses, women in this study would place more value on their capacity to work
with other people than on perceptions of ability or skills. Some explain how they are “able to respond well
to all people”. Professional contacts are important, and responses to an earlier question indicate that the
crucial factor is the opportunity to work. These women imply that they adopt a conciliatory attitude to
colleagues and this capacity to get along with other people, supported by their hard work and personal
qualities, determine their professional achievements and advancement. This appears to be closer to the
attributes of women’s traditional gender roles than the demands arising from professional commitments in a
wide range of differing types of work in theatre. Theatre is, after all, a collaborative enterprise, and women

9 lbid. p. 14.

are disadvantaged in their continuing access to work if the expectations arising from gender roles position
them in the supportive, understanding and nurturing role but do not give back the same degree of support
and encouragement.
Interestingly, a quarter of the women stated specified that they were invited to join their current position,
and this applies noticeably to the area of administrative work, where it need not be applicable. This is
obviously derived from the contractual and project-based nature of theatre work in the artistic categories.
Yet it indicates that theatre is not an open field of opportunities, and under these circumstances considerable
power is accorded to the decision makers in theatre. A comparative research study into the career paths of
successful men and women concluded:

“Women may be moved ahead more randomly than men because it is difficult for those evaluating
them to determine their performance:…Thus the wrong women may be moving ahead for the wrong
reasons, such as attractiveness, personality, and loyalty, while the more capable women are left

This pattern of inviting people to work denotes problems around gender inequity which are specific to the
arts, not just theatre practice, and must be addressed from within by the people involved in the industry.
Women in technical and artistic fields of work accept they must work harder to compete with men and
this provides them with an incentive to keep working harder despite some less than satisfactory outcomes.
This explains why women attribute their achievements to hard work, while if they cannot fulfil their
expectations, they may frequently believe that they did not have the same creative ability as men. The
journalist Geraldine Doogue, who works in radio and television, commented:

“As women start to edge closer to genuine power, there is considerable resistance among the poeple
who currently hold power…”11

The frustration of some women about the perceived lack of options available to women for decision making
outside low-budget productions in theatre cannot be changed through hard work if the practice of gender
power relations are not confronted at the same time. The existence of such gender power relations may
mean only certain women who conform to conciliatory sets of behaviours will be accepted within theatre.
Women may be working hard in areas of theatre work which are resistant to their advancement.
While professional contacts are important for gaining work, as I indicated earlier, women in this study do
not attribute their achievements to other people.12 Although half the women were initially influenced by a
teacher or a family member to undertake a career in theatre, such influences are not identified as
subsequently contributing to their achievements. This presents a composite picture of women in
nonperformance areas of work who are fiercely independent and show enormous strength of purpose and

10 Larwood, L. & Gattiker, U. “A comparison of the Career Paths Used by Successful Women and Men”, in Gutek, B. &
Larwood, L. (1987) Women’s Career Development. Sage Publications: Newbury Park. p. 154.
11 The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia (1992) Op cit. p. 166. Geraldine Doogue speaking about women

taking positions on corporate boards.

12 A significant number of women (17) also indicated that no one had influenced them in their choice of career either by

not answering that particular question or by stating that it was entirely their responsibility.

determination. This corresponds with the qualities evident in studies of women who are high achievers
working in other areas of employment:

“All the women…had a strong sense of purpose or mission which provided them with direction.”13

Women in this study exhibit a sense of purpose in their lives and deliberate enterprise in their work despite
receiving minimal support and encouragement. There is a dedicated professional attitude to the workplace
across all three categories of theatre work, technical, administrative and artistic.

Working in the Contradictions

In this study, 41 per cent of women said they were initially attracted to their work because of the political
and social significance of theatre.14 Their responses indicated an idealistic belief that theatre would offer
meaningful work which was perceived to have an impact on the society. Again these responses correspond
to the responses of women who have achieved recognition in fields outside theatre:

“Many of the women interviewed believed in this power of the individual to make a difference in the
world and their choice of work often reflected this belief.”15

Admittedly some of these women in nonperformance work indicated a childhood interest in theatre, but
principally they were attracted to theatre as an art form because it could increase our understanding of
social interaction and broaden the cultural base.
Only a handful of women—mainly directors or writers—responded that they continued to work in theatre
in a way that can be linked with this earlier response about being attracted to the political and social
significance of theatre. As one woman explained:

“Despite the pretty poor conditions, because it still energises and interests me, I still see it as an
effective tool for social change.”

One playwright described herself as a “cultural activist”, which confirms some sense of purpose and
ongoing connection with an earlier attraction to theatre as a process of social change. Another woman
stayed with a theatre because of “its policy of selecting new plays with social relevance”. Their responses were
best summed up with the statement:

“Because I believe in the power of theatre to reach people and involve people like no other medium.”

13 Szirom, T. (1991) Striking Success: Australian Women Talk About Success. Allen & Unwin: Australia. p. 49. “These
visions often exhibit the nurturing role which women perform so well, their inclination towards negotiation and peace
and their belief that change will come about through working together with others.”
14 In response to question 12:41% of women in this study were attracted to the social and political significance of

theatre; 29% of all respondents were following a childhood dream of working in theatre; 21% of respondents came to
work in theatre by chance; 5% were attracted by the excitement; 4% were blank responses.
15 Szirom, T. Op. cit. p. 47.

It is clear that this small group of women continue to be motivated by this idealism and a belief in the
importance of theatre as a reflection of social and cultural experience and as a vehicle for social change.
Their responses imply a strong belief in the purpose of theatre.
The majority of the women who were initially attracted to the social and political significance of theatre
do not continue to work in theatre because of this belief. The reasons given by these women for staying in
theatre are at variance with the expressions of their initial belief, and for some this represents a
disillusionment with the abstract ideals surrounding theatre and the possibilities for gaining personal
satisfaction from working towards such ideals. For others this represents a more realistic appraisal of the
personal gains which can be derived from working in theatre. On the whole, women gave subjective
responses determined by their disposition, predilection and personal interests as to why they continue
working in theatre.
Women’s single-minded pursuit of careers in theatre—given the reportedly poor work conditions, long
hours, low pay and limited promotion opportunities—would need to be fuelled by some perception of
reward. Over a quarter of respondents finished the statement “I stayed working in theatre…” with “I enjoy
it” or “like it” or “love it”, “it’s fun/exciting” or “I’m personally suited to working in theatre”. Also: “It
suits me more than an office job” or “I feel driven to it”. These are positive emotional responses to work
and can be correlated with their childhood aspirations (over half of these women had previously stated that
they dreamed of going onstage at an early age).16 Others indicated that they are committed to the creative
process within theatre, with comments ranging from “it’s a beautiful explorable art form” to “theatre should
become part of everyone’s life”. Similarly it was perceived as allowing them to express themselves
“creatively”. These women like, enjoy or love their involvement in either the technical, administrative or
artistic areas because their work is associated with theatre, an art form they enjoy.
In contrast to these positive attitudes, almost as many women continue to work in theatre despite being
unhappy about their circumstances. This group of women also uses emotional language, but they seem to be
referring to their direct, specific experience of work rather than expressing their feelings about theatre
generally. The responses of at least 10 women suggested they felt compelled to continue working in theatre
despite considerable misgivings and doubts. Several explained as follows: “…because I’m mad.” One
mentioned that it was only possible because of earnings from film and television. Some said that they keep
on hoping that it will get better for women in the future. These women seemed to be suggesting that they
could not leave and used words like “lethal drug” and similar phrases to suggest that working in theatre was
addictive. Some explained they could not do anything else as effectively. It is interesting to note that these
these responses were also framed to convey their personal feelings.
A further seven women expressed a definite preference for leaving their theatre work or hesitancy about
staying in theatre work. Some of their reasons were inadequate pay/remuneration and advancement
opportunities for senior women administrators. One woman explained:

“I can’t stand the bad pay, the gay (male) mafia, the job insecurity and the lack of a career path any

Another said: “I work part-time in theatre and on my own terms only I will not be ripped off any more.”
Significantly most of these women were in technical or administrative fields of work. While women in these
areas are more likely to have come to work in theatre by chance, it is notable that these are the areas that are

16 Twelve out of 18 women who say they love, enjoy or like theatre had childhood dreams of going onstage.

least visibly contributing to the production process. Ironically there is often more opportunity for women to
find permanent or stable employment in these areas than in artistic fields.
The women in this study who indicated that they continue working in theatre because they love it
counterbalance a group who are disillusioned with theatre and think about their work negatively. The
experience of working in nonperformance areas of theatre has certainly modified the idealistic perceptions
initially held by some women, so that they have developed a more pragmatic and, perhaps, realistic view of
theatre work. The women who still continue to glorify their own association with theatre are more likely to
have experienced a childhood attraction to theatre, while others who are critical about the personal gains
from working in theatre are more likely to have come to theatre by chance or to have initially been
motivated by a belief in the social and political significance of theatre.

“I Like Theatre…”
Women in this study still appreciate the effect of theatre and surprisingly few indicated that they hold
negative attitudes towards theatre despite expressions of dissatisfaction with their experience of work. I
asked them to finish the statement “I like theatre…” with reference to the finished theatre performance. I
was able to group the responses as follows: the enjoyment of ideas conveyed in theatre; heightened
experienced states achieved when watching theatre; the delights of being backstage as the theatre production
is realised; and pleasure derived from the escapism or fantasy found in theatre.17 There does not seem to be
any correlation between the reason for their initial attraction to working in theatre and their liking for theatre
The women who found the content of theatre in some way challenging and who consider that theatre
provides opportunities for learning and self-development were in the majority. At a personal level these
women are stimulated and challenged by theatre work. These responses indicate they believe theatre “has the
power to change people while enlightening them” or offers insight “when it’s fresh innovative-alive-
energized-well presented-thought through-real” or reveals “absurdities in society”. Theatre “educates”,
“amuses, confronts” and “stimulates the audience to further thought”. As one woman explained:

“It makes me think about people—their different realities in their different moralities—a microcosm
of society.”

For many of the women working in adminstrative and technical areas the ideas in theatre are personally
satisfying and culturally significant.
However, women working in the artistic areas are more likely to value theatre when it is experienced at a
profound level. Their comments included words and phrases such as “touched”, “nourishment of the soul”,
“passion”, and “a sacred event” leading to “higher awareness”.

“It often conveys the images that hold those rare moments of poetry and truth that nourish the soul.”
“…when the lights go down, I always expect a miracle.”
“…because of its creative capacity to tap inner resources of the mind.”
“…as a pathway to higher awareness.”

17 Responses to the open statement “I like theatre…”: 24 women conveyed an enjoyment of ideas in theatre; 19
experienced heightened states when watching theatre; 16 liked being backstage as the theatre production is realised; 8
found pleasure in the escapism or fantasy of theatre; 4 women don’t like theatre; 9 were blank.

One woman explained she liked theatre:

“…because its expression is illusion and magic qualities—you can create atmosphere that is not
possible in any other medium.”

Two women mentioned the smell; three, the “magic” of theatre; and four, the special nature of the
communication between the performer and the audience. While these women are clearly responding to the
effect that theatre has on them from the position of the spectator, it also means that the ideal of what they
want to experience from theatre goes beyond a cognitive and intellectual response. These women seek a felt
response—a heightened sensitivity to intuitive states of mind.
Another sizeable group of women compromising a larger number of women working in technical fields
specified their liking of theatre in terms of creativity and its fulfilment and the expression of their creative
energy through the finished process. They described feelings of anticipation and excitement especially
around opening night. They indicated that theatre appeals because it is not predictable or routine and remains
unconventional and dangerous. One woman explained:

“…before the audience arrives the set crackling and ready for action, the actors adrenalising, the crew
on its mark—it’s very like the upswing before an orgasm.”

These women are expressing their enjoyment of realising the goal from the process of making theatre,
rather than perceptions of its effect as a finished product making sense of the world for others and the
audience. This is a personal response arising out of their experience backstage that again indicates a felt
response of heightened emotion and, at times, physical sensations.
The descriptions from women that encompass fantasy and escapism suggest they want theatre to provide
the outlet for states of mind removed from everyday reality. While this is not a large group of responses, it
does represent a significant set of comments, because “anything may happen” and they valued theatre for its
“escapism” or its “fantasy” and its imagined realms and spaces, exploring dreams. One woman explained:

“…it offers me a world of illusion that is more truthful more real than reality itself.”

These responses are akin to heightened emotional states, but they consciously seek an element of escapism.
What is surprising, perhaps, about this category of responses is that women who work behind scenes should
actually admit to liking theatre for reasons of fantasy or escapism at all. They are, after all, completely
involved with the process of creating that fantasy and understand the mechanics of how the illusions of
theatre are created. This understanding obviously does not detract from their personal enjoyment or ability
to lose themselves in the illusions. It appears that despite their involvement in the making of theatre, some
women can still be captivated by the experience of being a spectator to that theatre.
Woman work “bloody hard” to achieve in their field of work in nonperformance (nontraditional) areas of
theatre. They acknowledge the emotional and intellectual rewards derived from theatre as an art form, and
this does provide some women with a level of personal satisfaction which encourages them to want to
continue working in theatre. Many women, however, are sited in the contradictions brought about by their
emotional responses to conditions which are probably the result of the continuation of gender inequities in
theatre work. Their attitudes towards their work in theatre are not necessarily rational and run counter to
their experience of theatre itself. As one woman said:

“My love for it is greater than my hate.”

The great majority of women in nonperformance areas of work indicate they like theatre, although not as
many say they like or love working in theatre. Since the responses to the art form and work are framed in
emotional language, it is important to interrogate the paradigm of social power and control in theatre.
Traditional gender roles have demanded that women remain obligated to social/familial commitments
without expecting recognition for their effort or hard work. Are women being expected to duplicate these
patterns of behaviour for the sake of theatre as an art form, while they themselves believe that if they work
harder than men they can achieve the same recognition as men? Certainly “bloody hard work” by itself is
not going to bring about the recognition of women’s ability, and may in the end only serve to reinforce the
entrenched misconceptions of women as always capable of doing the hard work but not being the creative
geniuses. Women need to speak loudly about their own creative talent for their work and widely acclaim
other women for their creative abilities and promise.

Peta Tait is a playwright and lecturer in drama at the School of Arts, St George Campus, University of
New South Wales. She is author of Original Women’s Theatre and Converging Realities! Feminism in
Australian Theatre. The report on this research study into women in nontraditional areas of work is
Women Behind Scenes.
Mother Tongue: Colonized Bodies and Performing Cultures
Susan Bennett

This essays presents and reads Mother Tongue, a theatre and performance work by Calgary-based
writers/performers Cheryl L’Hirondelle and Alexandria Patience. Mother Tongue explores the history
and genealogy of the two women and the implications of this for their participation in contemporary
Canada. Patience, who emigrated to Canada from Scotland, and L’Hirondelle, a Metis woman born in
northern Alberta, map the similarities and differences of their particular experiences and ask their
audiences to engage with questions of racial identity and cultural pluralism. Bennett reads this work in
the context of a federally and provincially promoted “Canadian multiculturalism” and suggests that
Mother Tongue both points to the dangers of government-envisioned multiculturalism and to the
possibility of less fixed notions of cultural diversity.
KEY WORDS Canadian culture multiculturalism identity theatre and performance
the beginning: language, a living body we enter at birth, sustains and contains us. it does not stand in
place of anything else, it does not replace the bodies around us. placental, our flat land, our sea, it is
both place (where we are situated) and body (that contains us), that body of language we speak, our
mothertongue. it bears us as we are born in it, into cognition (Marlatt, 1984)

place (where we are situated)1

Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The spring of 1992. Maenad, the city’s first and only women’s theatre collective,
presents as the final show of its third season at the Pumphouse Theatre, Mother Tongue, announced as
collaborative theatre and performance art created and performed by Cheryl L’Hirondelle and Alexandria
Patience. Concurrent with the three-week theatre run, Mother Tongue is also “an exhibition of artifacts from
the process of its creation. Assemblage, video and found objects, among others, will be on exhibit at
TRUCK: an artist-run centre” (from the programme). Two weeks after the theatre run has closed, Mother
Tongue reemerges as performance art (cutting loose its label of “collaborative theatre”) at TRUCK. This
performance version plays only once, on a Saturday afternoon.

1I am grateful to Cheryl L’Hirondelle and Alexandria Patience for their willingness to talk about their work with me
and for the provision of photo documentation.

Figure 1 Alexandria Patience and Cheryl L’Hirondelle Mother Tongue at the Pumphouse Theatre Photograph by David

Mother Tongue is inspired by the autobiographies of the two writers/performers. L’Hirondelle was born
in northern Alberta; she is Métis. Patience grew up in Scotland and emigrated to Canada some fifteen years
ago. Their co-creation of the multiform Mother Tongue facilitates a reading of their “mothertongues,” but it
is a reading which is always in tension with notions of self and nationality. Elsewhere L’Hirondelle has
written: “Being Métis, the difficult thing I find is working against becoming somebody’s archaelogical dig.
People want the goods, the gems. My heritage is Cree, Iroquois, Saulteaux, German, Polish and French and
Scottish, but I’m a Métis woman. Yet I have to tell the entire history”.2 And, for Patience, there is the task
of giving voice and image to Scotland, for British history has long been an English-conceived and owned
history. In Mother Tongue, Patience positions her own exile on a continuum of Scottish emigration, a
journey that has been undertaken both willingly and unwillingly by Scottish people from the earliest
European settlement of what was to be constructed as “Canada”:

Alex: The country is darkened by the smoke of the burnings and in one year 54
emigrant ships sailed from the western sea lochs.
Cheryl (as Countess of Sutherland): Some of our people are wantonly leaving the
Highlands for the western hemisphere when recruits for our standing army and

2 This is taken from “Vision of Community: Native Women Making Theatre” by Amethyst First Rider, L’Hirondelle

and Robin Melting Tallow. This piece will be included in the forthcoming Feminists, Theatres, Social Change, edited
by myself, Tracy C.Davis and Kathleen Foreman.
103 103

militia are hard to find. In one year, 58,000 people have left Britain for Canada
Alex: The cost of the voyage is high and the ships are crowded and so rotten that we are
able to pick away its timbers with our finger nails. Surviving smallpox, dysentery,
cholera. Finally there is no food, no water; only deaths and the promise of this
magical tree we will find in Nova Scotia…
Cheryl: …that will supply fuel, soap and sugar. Magical maple.3

Magical maple, the emblem of Canada borne on its national flag. Yet for Mother Tongue the performance
site of Canada inscribes cultural difference which was historically outlawed in favour of nation, itself a
concept and practice created and dispensed by the same colonial powers which erased the speaking of
Gaelic in nineteenth-century Scotland and (still) the right of the Scottish people to self-government.
Simultaneous with the inscribed past, this site is the contemporary nation which supposes post-colonial
status and which has in more recent years concerned itself with a redefinition of the nation as a more
inclusive and equitable “Canada.” Indeed, contemporary Canadian culture, particularly as advertised and
promoted by the federal and provincial governments, prides itself on a commitment to multiculturalism. In
fact this “multiculturalism” is a crucial agent in its contemporary self-definition: unlike its more powerful
neighbour to the south, Canada does not apparently demand homogeneity of its population but asks instead
that all Canadians celebrate their own and others’ cultural diversity. Yet we must remember the dangers
Graham Huggan points to in an “unconsidered multiculturalism (mis)appropriated for the purposes of
enforced assimilation rather than for promulgation of cultural diversity (1989; 127). With that in mind, it
seems peculiarly Canadian to parade the multicultural ideal with such zeal (and, frankly, with substantial
funding), but I account for this as surely part of a global trend which is fascinated with the cultural
production of the “other.” Trinh Minh-Ha reminds us:

Things often look as though they have radically changed; whereas they have just taken on opposite
appearances, as they so often do, to shuffle the cards and set people on a side track. The move from
obnoxious exteriority to obtrusive interiority, the race for the so-called hidden values of a person or a
culture, has given rise to a form of legitimized (but unacknowledged as such) voyeurism and subtle
arrogance—namely, the pretence to see into or to own the others’ minds, whose knowledge these
others cannot, supposedly, have themselves; and the need to define, hence confine, providing them
thereby with a standard of self-evaluation on which they necessarily depend (1991; 66).

In their creation of Mother Tongue, L’Hirondelle and Patience challenge the hegemonic practice of
“obtrusive interiority” and (re)claim ownership of the complex of body, place and language. Moveover, the
self-consciously different forms of Mother Tongue challenge the evaluative and restrictive categories of

3 The Mother Tongue script (as performed at the Pumphouse Theatre) is available through the Alberta Playwrights

Network or from L’Hirondelle and Patience, c/o Maenad Productions, Box 4642, Station C, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
T2T 5P1 All quotations are taken from that text.
This excerpt is an adaptation of correspondence between the Countess of Sutherland and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Further background may be useful: the infamous Sutherlands, powerful landowners of three-quarters of a million acres
of Scotland, cleared tenants and their subsistence farms in favour of the more profitable sheep. Moreover, the speaking
of Gaelic was outlawed in favour of the

specific art forms (theatre, performance, art) as they are used to define and contain the “others” of
multiculturalism (for multiculturalism is ultimately always about the mainstream’s Other). Through an
exploration of body, place and language as constituted by Mother Tongue, I hope here to explore the
questions the performers ask of the possibilities of nation and self as well as the spaces open to them as
(Canadian) women giving voice to their own stories.

that body of language we speak

Both L’Hirondelle and Patience interrogate language in Mother Tongue through personal narratives and
oral histories specific to their own cultural experience. It is immediately telling that Patience seems to own a
larger repertoire. Always marginalized and little known outside its own geographic boundaries,4 Scottish
culture has an extensive history of production and celebration in resistance to a London-generated
homogeneity. Patience recounts the local legends and family history of her hometown “at present called
Fraserburgh” (because here, as elsewhere, the naming of territory has been the prerogative of the colonizer).
For L’Hirondelle, the Métis heritage is altogether more difficult to know:

I had no choice. My parents left it up to us kids, “do what you want, be who you want.” Although they
gave me the option, the choice, I had none.
I was trying to sleep one night and a woman came to me. She was wearing a dress, much like the
one I’m wearing, only blue, and she very sharply told me she wanted “strawberries, I want
strawberries!” and so, in my sleepy stupor, I got her some. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t strawberry
season, and that I had none in my fridge, as it is of no consequence that I was alone in my apartment. I
got her strawberries! She started visiting me more and more often, always demanding strawberries as
she arrived. And the more I saw her, the more I realised she looked familiar, like she was related to
me. A cross between my Aunties: Teresa, Celeste and Dolores. As time passed, she not only
demanded strawberries, but began to tell me things to remember: lesson, remedies, sayings and
secrets about life in general and my body in particular. I had no choice with this woman, I couldn’t
shake her, nor did I try.

“Choice” is often at stake in Mother Tongue. Patience introduces one of her stories “[t]here are as many
slight variations on this story as there are families in that town because, as with any spoken story the teller
focuses on what they want telling.” The unstable oral history is a “tactical strategy in the decolonizing
process” (Katrak; 1989, 173), but it is not a strategy that has been (or, yet, is) always available. At one
startling moment in Mother Tongue, L’Hirondelle tapes over her mouth with a large “X,” a physical
representation of the denial of sanction by “Canada” to tell her story except perhaps at those prescribed
moments when she becomes the object of someone’s dig, of someone’s “obtrusive interiority.” Slight
variations in the telling of a tale are repositioned as a site of luxury and L’Hirondelle’s body signifies its
Other, a mainstream culture that outlaws her story; she is silent/silenced. We recognize why her stories are

King’s English. This early nineteenth-history was reclaimed in dramatic form for British audiences in 7:84 (Scotland)’s
The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil. Originally produced in 1973, Methuen (London) published “the
definitive edition” of the play in 1991. It was also produced on BBC television in the “Play for Today” series.
4 Patience tells in the theatre verion of Mother Tongue of her search for and final discovery of a National Geographic

issue on Scotland as a sort of definitive recognition that the country does, indeed, have its own, distinct culture.
103 105

harder to tell. In place of giving voice, she passes to each audience member a small piece of paper. On each
is written:

In the words of Carl Jung, the psychologist, the Métis “were a question mark addressed to the world”
and because they were prevented from communicating their answer, they have been dependent on the
world’s answer (Redbird 1980, 5–6).

If Patience has more access to her stories, she nonetheless confronts an unstable language in which they could
be told:

My great-grandmother. Shetland Islands. Gaelic speaker.

Crofter Fisher.
My grandmother. Shetland Islands. Gaelic speaker.
Crofter Fisher.
My grannie. The Black Isle. Avochie speaker. Fisher.
My mother. Brocher. Doric speaker. Fisher.

She reads self as a shifting identity, dependent on community and on the ability to effect translation. She
tells of the conflict as a child in speaking Doric with her family and English with her friends—and her
constant sensitivity to one community’s conception of the other. And Canada as site of performance does
not resolve the language tension; she has (again) to learn the English language:

Canadian voice. [Take the mirror out of the case and look at yourself.] Mirror. Mirror. Mear-ror.
Mear-or. Mearr. Mear. I look at myself in the mear.

“Mirror” with a Canadian accent sounds as “mear” and it is a notoriously effective way of separating the
immigrant English-speaker from the Canadian born. But it is an obviously pointed choice of example.
Patience sees herself (her self) as she translates through language to another identity: the Scot made English
made Canadian, but who, asks Mother Tongue, can that be?
The most loaded, both literally and metaphorically, of Mother Tongue’s props are the barrage of
suitcases, bags and boxes used on stage. They constitute obviously and somewhat wryly the performers’
cultural baggage. Their contents, along with projected images (primarily family photographs which are also
displayed in the theatre foyer), refer to the women’s genealogy. As such they literalize what Michel
Foucault has identified as a mode of resistance: “Genealogy, as an analysis of descent, is thus situated
within the articulation of the body and history. Its task is to expose a body totally imprinted by history and
the process of history’s destruction of the body” (1977; 148, my emphasis). In this way the artefacts of past
function to recover the past for the present in these two women’s lives. The theatre version of Mother
Tongue is, indeed, an enactment of that genealogy and it is an event which encourages audience knowledge
and participation. Spectators are allowed an “interiority” but one that is controlled by the performers and
dependent on our (performers and audience) agreement to community. That, in short, is the territory at stake.
At the opening of the show, spectators are brought into the theatre from outside by a piper; at the
intermission they are led through the backstage area by the performers to the foyer where tea awaits all; at
the end of the show, spectators join performers outside where they build and light a fire. The programme
charges the audience member to “join us at the end of the performance in a gathering/ Ceilidh. Your
participation is important to us.” This is not an entirely unproblematic offer of community. At moments in

Figure 2 Alexandria Patience and Cheryl L’Hirondelle Mother Tongue at the Pumphouse Theatre Photograph by David
performance, when the security of stage-auditorium separation is transgressed, spectators are jolted into
responsibility for the construction of identity positions. L’Hirondelle asks, for example: “I am Métis; who
are you?” We are reminded, too, of the oppression of the Métis in their own country, Canada, and our
complicity in “history’s” failure to acknowledge their crucial role in the forming of nation. But, for the most
part, stories are shared, as are points of connection and of difference to the performers, and this is finally a
literal co-creation as all mingle around the fire at the end of the evening. If we compare the stories of
L’Hirondelle and Patience and then compare with our own, the effect is to explode dualities of identity
(Canadian/non-Canadian; white/non-white) into multiple fragments of complexity and richness. The focus
of our celebration is a heterogeneity which no longer relies on a mainstream/Other regime for its existence.

body (that contains us)

In the later “performance” version of Mother Tongue, at TRUCK, the dynamic is very different. The
dislocation of theatrical codes and the back-channelling of language in preference of “performance art”
establishes another mode of engagement. Here the primary and privileged signifier is precisely the “foreign”
body. As Johannes Birringer recently puts it,

As a form of cultural production, the textlessness of performance art generally shifts critical attention
toward the visual, or toward the perceived relationship between body, space, sound, light and objects.
This attention to the visual construction of the performances, and the functional relationships between
103 107

Figure 3 Alexandria Patience and Cheryl L’Hirondelle in front of a photography of L’Hirondelle’s grandmother, Rose
Delima L’Hirondelle Photograph by David Scollard.

the manipulation or display of the body, and the manipulation of space, must be considered crucial in
terms of the historical trajectory of performance art (1991; 221).

This trajectory is undoubtedly useful to the Mother Tongue project. In its theatre version, difference is, as I
have suggested, articulated primarily through language encoded by patterns of speech. Patience tells her
stories in Doric as well as English (Scottish-English, Canadian-English, King’s/Queen’s English);
L’Hirondelle spoke of the problem of representing Métis in the world through a reference to urbanized
Native Canadians as “apples”—red on the outside but white on the inside. She then asked the audience what
kind of fruit a Métis—white on the outside, but red on the inside—might be, and in many ways this question
bridges into the performance version. We are undoubtedly more aware of racial identities constructed out of
visual apprehension but when the “foreign” body appears as white, spectatorial focalization is not as
self-consciously troubled. The performance Mother Tongue foregrounds a cultural commodification of the
female body and what Lenora Champagne has identified as the “under-the-skin experience of oppression.”5
The relationship of perception to prejudice and fear is at once signalled and reframed.

5 In her introduction to Out from Under: texts by women performance artists (New York: Theatre Communications

Group, 1990), she writes: “Beneath the powerful writing [of the performce artists] is the under-the-skin experience of
oppression for being “other”—a Jew, a black, a lesbian, and always, a woman” (x).

Upon entry to the large gallery space, the spectator confronts its division into many small and
irregularly-shaped spaces by temporary walls and suspended sheets which extend to a height of 10 or 12
feet. The spectator is informed that s/he can choose any place from which to view the performance: exterior
walls are “safe” and the ladders (some propped up against some of the fixed walls and others freestanding
between particular spaces) may be used. When L’Hirondelle and Patience enter and move through the space,
they are bound by a long rope. At times, they both occupy the same section of the gallery; at other times,
they are in separate areas, the rope running underneath one of the dividing sheets. Their manipulation of
space in this performance effects the kind of revision that Huggan names as specifically post-colonial:6
“[where] he or she acquires the freedom to engage in a series of ‘territorial disputes’ which implicitly or
explicitly acknowledge the relativity of modes of spatial (and, by extension, cultural) perception” (1989;
128). In the configuration of territory in the TRUCK space, the viewer is immediately and always aware of
the act of viewing. Visibility of the performers’ bodies may or may not be possible. The spectator must take
responsibility to wait until the performer comes into view or to move to a different location. Those who
chose to climb the ladders (and it was interesting that only male spectators had made this choice) had the
ability to oversee all spaces and to utilize flashlights left atop of ladders to “shed light” on the performance.
In either case, choice (here the prerogative of audience) explicitly confronts a spectatorial desire to fetishize
and consume the performing body; the taking on of a “superior” viewing position is surely a particularly
obvious marking of that voyeuristic pose. John Ellis (albeit in the context of the cinema spectator) notes that
“[v]oyeurism implies the consent of the object watched, as well as…the complicity of an anonymous
crowd” (1982; 88). Here, then, there might have been consent, but there was no community. The division
into small spaces prevented the audience combining as a single group in the way that the theatre version
both demanded and celebrated. This relationship was refashioned as complicity in the objectification of the
performing body. Nonetheless, the recycling of images, properties and textual fragments of the theatre
Mother Tongue reasserted the cultural specific context of the performers’ actions and reminded the audience
of the hegemony of perceived “whiteness” as marker of cultural power.
The suitcases and other baggage reappeared in the performance Mother Tongue and this time contained
paint which the performers used first to map their bodies on the suspended sheets and then to paint
themselves. These spatial and corporeal traces of self signified the necessarily persistent struggle they
encounter in occupying cultural space. Moreover the reappearance of these particular props reminded those
spectators who had aleady seen the theatre Mother Tongue that cultural baggage is not an optional extra; it
must be carried everywhere and, as the spatial construction foregrounded, it occupies too much territory and
necessarily limits the actions of its bearers.
The second version of Mother Tongue, then, rewrites the contract of the first. We can celebrate our plural
identity positions but we can only do so in recognition of the colonialism which is in our history and in our
present. We are also asked to recognize our motivations in consuming the other as art and to question the
production-reception logic of different representational strategies. Again Trinh Minh-Ha:

The question is…not that of merely “correcting” the images whites have of non-whites, nor of
reacting to the colonial territorial mind by simply reversing the situation and setting up an opposition
that at best, will hold up a mirror to the Master’s activities and preoccupations…The question, rather,
is that of tracking down and exposing the Voice of Power and Censorship whenever and in whichever

6 In his article, Huggan explores the map topos in Canadian and Australian post-colonial literature. Nonetheless the
more literal mapping of both environment and body in Mother Tongue seems to me another manifestation of the
“‘disidentification’ from the procedures of colonialism” that post-colonial cultural production attempts.
103 109

side it appears. Essential difference allows those who rely on it to rest reassuringly on its gamut of
fixed notions. Any mutation in identity, in essence, in regularity, and even in physical place poses a
problem, if not a threat, in terms of classification and control. If you can’t locate the other, how are
you to locate your-self? (1991, 72–3)

Mother Tongue performs such mutations. The space the multiformed work creates is one where we can only
be less fixed in our thinking about our own and others’ mothertongue.


Birringer, Johannes (1991). Theatre, Theory, Postmodernism. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Ellis, John (1982). Visible Fictions London: Routledge, Kegan & Paul.
Foucault, Michel (1977). Nietzche, Genealogy, History, language, counter-memory, practice, edited by Donald
F.Bouchard. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
Huggan, Graham (1989). Decolonizing the Map: Post-Colonialism, Post-Structuralism and the Cartographic
Connection. ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 20 (4), 115–131.
Katrak, Ketu H. (1989). Decolonizing Culture: Toward a Theory for Postcolonial Women’s Texts. Modern Fiction
Studies 35 (1), 157–179.
Marlatt, Daphne (1984). Musing with mothertongue. Touch to my Tongue. Edmonton: Longspoon Press.
Minh-Ha, Trinh T. (1991). When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics. London:
Redbird, Duke (1980). We Are Métis. Willowdale, Ontario: Ontario Métis and Non-Status Indian Association.

SUSAN BENNETT is an Associate Professor in The Department of English at the University of

Calgary. She is the author of Theatre Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception (Routledge
1990), Shifting Shakespeare: (Dis)Articulating the Past as Contemporary Performance (Routledge
1995) and is currently co-editing a book on feminist theatre and social change.
Women’s Theatre in Italy
Susan Bassnett

KEY WORD: Archetype

Traditionally, the greatest strength of the Italian theatre has never come from its playwrights. From the
Renaissance onwards, there have been a few writers who have contributed plays to the Italian repertoire,
writers such as Machiavelli, Bibbiena, Isabella Andreini, Goldoni, Alfieri, Pirandello, D’Annunzio, Ugo
Betti and Dario Fo, but there is nothing comparable to the body of dramatic writing existing in most other
European languages.
There are a number of explanations as to why this should have been the case for so long, and why, in fact
there is still so little playwriting in Italy today. Reducing those explanations to the lowest common
denominator, what becomes apparent is that the history of the Italian theatre is both a history of
improvisation, an anti-text theatre, and a history of music. In the Renaissance, the great Italian companies of
players whose work was known throughout Europe worked not from lengthy, scripted plays but from
sketchy scenarii, to which each actor would bring his or her own well developed stock in trade repertoire
and playing conventions. The ability of Italian actors to improvise, a quality much admired abroad as well
as at home, meant that greater status came to be attached to the actor’s capacity for unscripted playing than
to the careful following of a predetermined text. The early manuals on acting give instructions on how to
perform stock roles, on how to create particular characters and particular moods but without the mainstay of
a written text.
In the nineteenth century, when Italy was full of small local touring companies, the common complaint was
that most of the literary talent and almost all the money available went into lyric opera. The principal theatre
writers produced opera libretti, not plays, and when the great international touring companies began to travel
extensively with stars such as Adelaide Ristori and Eleonora Duse, what was very apparent was the lack of
a repertoire of native Italian plays. The need to extend the repertoire and to create a tradition of Italian
drama inspired the ill-fated collaboration between Duse and Gabriele D’Annunzio, and some thirty years
later it was also a principal motive behind Pirandello’s attempt to set up an Italian Art Theatre in 1925.
Today the situation is not so very much different, despite the development of a number of excellent
regional companies and the emergence of several internationally known directors (many of whom,
however, still prefer to work in opera). There were no followers of Pirandello, and his plays did not inspire
another generation to go on writing. The old system of the mattatore, the star actor around whom the rest of

the company had to collect, often serving as little more than props, still lingers on and has by no means been
eliminated, despite decades of effort and good intentions. What has happened, however, is that the Italian
theatre has expanded to take on board another anti-text tradition, a development that has mainly taken place
in the 1970s and 1980s.
The impact of the Living Theatre and spin-off groups in the 1960s in Italy cannot be underestimated.
Dozens of small theatre groups began to emerge in the period immediately following the student unrest of
1968, and when Eugenio Barba, founder of the seminal Odin Teatret and himself an Italian, coined the term
‘Third Theatre’ to describe the companies of players whose performance work and daily life are
inextricably linked in a non-commerical relationship, nowhere else in Europe had that phenomenon taken so
strong a hold. There are probably more experimental theatre centres in Italy today than in any other
European country, and the number of alternative theatre festivals, street performances and impromptu
theatrical events, is very large indeed. But what there is not, is a body of dramatic writing, and the new trend
for Third Theatre groups has exacerbated the existing anti-text tradition, creating a new set of reasons for
avoiding the playscript. With such a situation prevailing in the theatre overall, it is not therefore surprising
that there should be very little in the way of playwriting by women. The Italian women’s movement, which
emerged with great strength in the early 1970s, resulted in a wealth of writing and translating. Women’s centres
were set up throughout Italy, women’s bookshops flourished, and in Rome, for a time in the mid-1970s
there was a women’s theatre, La Maddalena, and a women’s newspaper. I have analysed at some length the
growth of the Italian women’s movement (see S.Bassnett, Feminist Experiences: The Women’s Movement
in Four Cultures, Allen and Unwin, 1986) and its particular characteristics, but what is clear is that the main
body of writing by women has been in the field of prose fiction and theoretical works, not in drama. Indeed,
it is probably true to say that most Italian feminists would think more readily of the names of English
women playwrights, such as Caryl Churchill or Pam Gems, than of any Italian equivalents. Dacia Maraini
has written plays, but is far better known for her novels and stories; Franca Rame, probably best known of
all Italian women theatre practitioners internationally, has always been associated as the other half of the
Dario Fo-Franca Rame team in Italy rather than as a playwright of separate standing. Moreover, much of the
Fo-Rame work clearly derives from the improvisation tradition and the texts are often little more than scenarii
for the two performers to use as a base from which to work in very precise political situations. The starting
point for their work is always the context, and in this respect they may be seen as part of the tradition of
agit-prop theatre.
Some of Franca Rame’s one woman pieces and some of Dacia Maraini’s plays have been translated into
English. In selecting a text for this journal, I therefore decided to bring to the attention of readers outside
Italy a piece which is in many ways absolutely typical of the best of Italian women’s theatre work in the
1980s. Demeter Beneath the Sand is a two hander, which uses a series of archetypal characters to explore
the culture of women and to relate the present day realities to female life to ancient myths. It relies heavily
on the acting skills of the two performers, and is typically Italian in assuming that performers will indeed
have considerable technical ability to augment the basic framework provided by the play itself. The work of
the Milan based Teatro del Sole is well known and widely respected, and both Serena Sartori and Renata
Coluccini are highly experienced performers. The play is inspired by a range of literary depictions of the five
mythical protagonists, but the final script is the work of both player-writers.
Susan Bassnett
Demeter Beneath the Sand
written and performed by SERENA SARTORI and RENATA COLUCCINI of the

The play is performed by two women, S and R. Both use a sequence of gestures that become
meaningful signs when related to the playing space and the elements of the performance.


—Sand, as earth, as primordial element, as mother. Sand signifies time, born out of the erosion of the
ages, like eternity. Sand because in many ancient traditons and religions (and sometimes in contemporary
ones too) if the first born child was female she was buried alive “beneath the sand”.
—Water, as original liquid, as amniotic fluid, as water of life, as the unconscious.
—Blood, because it is linked to female nature, blood as childbirth, menstruation, wound, suicide and

THE COLOURS are: white, red, and black, the colours of the ancient myth of motherhood, the
colours of the phases of the moon.
COSTUMES: clothing is like a change of skin, a transformation: it enables one to enter into or be
possessed by a character or a memory. The everyday characters wear neutral, timeless white, the
mythical characters wear ancestral black.
PROPS: all reminders of a female world—a rocking chair, a vase, a pair of scissors, a mirror, paint,
fans, razor blades, washing hung around…
MUSIC: the musicality of women’s voices; singing, weeping, laughter, screams and whispering.
THE SPACE: the action takes place in a stylized room in Hades, the ancient Greek Hell. It is a
woman’s room, full of sheets and washing. The two women have been condemned to “eternal Sunday
afternoons”, where time hangs uselessly and feeling is almost blotted out. Their punishment compels
them to relive fragmented memories, to reincarnate female archetypes, experiencing boredom,
playfulness, affection and tragedy. Through great traumas and through trivia, the two souls try together
to break the white world that forces them into an almost childlike state. And behind the whiteness,
underneath the sand, they discover their roots, the link with memory which they experience in flashes.
The words of these ‘memories’ are taken from classical and modern texts.


DEMETER: the Earth Mother, from the myth of Demeter and Persephone. Text written by Serena

PHAEDRA: the conversation with Hippolytus prior to his suicide. Based on Giannis Ritsos FOUR
LITTLE POEMS and Marguerite Yourcenar’s FEUX.
HECUBA: as she buries Polydorus, her last surviving son. Inspired by Aeschylus’ THE TROJAN
WOMEN and Christa Wolf’s CASSANDRA. Text written by Serena Sartori.
CLYTEMNESTRA: after she has killed Agammemnon, Clytemnestra addresses the Chorus. One
Clytemnestra is an avenging mother, the other is a lover. Based on Aeschylus ORESTEIA and
Marguerite Yourcenar’s FEUX.
PENTHESILEA: the final clash between the Amazon and Achilles. Text by F.Von Kleist.

White sheets are hung around to make a room. Old and new sheets are hanging alongside an assortment of
women’s white clothes. There is one exit at the rear, on the left hand side. Sand on the floor. In one corner
there is a neoclassic vase made of white plastic with a black and white radio resting on top of it. A white
rocking chair is covered with a white embroidered blanket. In one front corner is a white teapot and two
white cups.
A figure is standing against the light, wrapped in a black mackintosh, holding a white rake in its hand.
Female voices suddenly begin to whisper from the radio, and the figure in black begins to move, raking
the sand slowly round. Memories are hidden in this sand.
A second figure in black enters, with a wheelbarrow, which she pushes to the centre of the stage where
she unloads more sand, spreads it around, then exits. She comes back, uncovers the rocking chair, exits again.
The whispers grow into wails, then into shrieks and music.
THE WHISPERING Here they are,…look at them…Just look at them…Here they are…those women
VOICES with no memories in them…now they’ll have to remember our stories…
They’re flitting from one memory to another, one to another, with their false
pearls and frowsy feathers…Look at them…they’re coming…sand…sand…
memories—dancing on the memories means dancing on the sand…
The first figure has been raking the sand until she finishes her task, then she
stretches out her hand towards the exit, takes hold of an arm and drags R. onto
the stage. R. is dressed in white, more or less in evening dress, with white tennis
R: looks round, sizes up the room, controls herself: the time has come! She moves to
the exit, extending her hand and slowly pulls on S. also dressed in white. S. is wearing
lace and frills, rather like an oriental doll, with white make-up. S. tries to turn
back. She is stunned.
The two women move slowly round, facing each other as though each were
looking in a mirror. Then both stare out through space astonished by what they
see. S. sits down on the rocking chair. R. turns off the radio and then starts to play
upstage with a pearl necklace. The slow sound of the rocking chair and the rattle
of the pearls assume a rhythm in time.
S: is bored, she hums. R. is irritated, goes back to the radio, turns it on again. Loud
music comes from the radio, completely unexpectedly, possibly a samba. S.
continues to rock in the chair totally absorbed in her own thoughts, while R. is
taken over by the new rhythm and begins to dance, slowly at first, them more

wildly, as she forgets where she is and goes into a trance. Becoming possessed she
falls down, gets up again. S. interrupts her by turning off the radio.
S: Not yet, it’s too soon. Wait. You’re always in such a rush. Me, I wish time needed
even more time, because I certainly do. When this wave of remembering starts I
never want it to happen, and then when it stops I wish it didn’t have to end. But it
goes on, starting and stopping, starting and stopping. You know, sometimes I think
I haven’t actually chosen this time, these seconds, minutes, hours, days, months,
years, centuries, thousands of years, tens of thousands of years, thousands of
thousands of years, 7525, 7526, 3515 and so on…
R: (stands quite still, suddenly, lifts her hands to her forehead, as though provoking
someone in game)
S: Nooo, I don’t want this, I don’t, and besides, you know I never guess right.
R: (doesn’t move a muscle, she is trying to win the game telepathically)
S: (giving in) 715?
R: No…it’s between one and 10.
S: 11…no, I mean, 10.
R: Between 1 and 9.
S: 8.
R: 1 and 8.
S: 3
R: 3 and 8.
S: 6.
R: 3 and 6.
S: 4.
R: 4 and 6.
R: That’s right!
S: Why five?
R: Five because there were five of us in our family before father went blind. (As she
says this, she folds the sheet that was covering the chairs. They look at each other,
playfully.) There was my father, me, my sister, yes…her…and my two brothers
who died. Shhhh!
(They both look round as though they can hear voices and sounds in the air
that are trying to stop them talking. R. continues. S. is gradually taken over by
this memory, and as the other woman speaks she starts to undress, removing the
childish white garment to reveal a long, tragic black gown. Her face, gestures,
expression all change too. S. is becoming the Mother, her body relives the rape
and loss of her daughter, Persephone. Mother and daughter, dual aspects of a
single essential being, theirs is the first great female separation. )
I remember when we were young and we were playing one evening and
someone in the heat of the dance had the idea that we should put on each other’s
clothes, the boys should wear our clothes and we girls should wear theirs. I such a
strange sense of fulfilment and peculiar freedom when I changed clothes…My
mother’s dress. I remember that. It was a lovely yellow dress, my mother was

wearing it yesterday, it had been left on a chair…all the light and silence in the
room were gathered into that dress…My mother…my mother…my mother…
S: My daughter (S. now transformed lives out the scene)
R: My mother (moves to S.)
S: My daughter.
R: (as though she wants to push S. even deeper into her trance, make her touch
bottom). When mother came home she found the house deserted, the doors were
torn off their hinges, the windows hanging open, the clothes torn to shreds…and
all…all was shrouded in silence…
S: My daughter. My daughter. She’s my daughter! Give her back to me! (Shouting)
My daughter, the other half to myself! The daughter I longed for, the daughter I
loved, created by me. The daughter I was myself before I became mother! Stolen
from me! My golden haired spring, the ripe corn of my harvest. I want her back!
Now (Shouting) Gone! Stolen! Why? for some dark desire of violence, a hyacinth
of deceit. Where are the divine laws now? I want to scream, but I cannot. Because
losing you, I have lost the sound of my own voice, my mirror, my rainbow. My
little girl, without you I can do nothing but claw at the ice that holds me back from
your smile. Life of my death, death of my life, life of my death…
(rocking herself, clutching her own pain, like a helpless child, while R. dresses
her in white again, slowly, affection ately. Both women gradually return to their
rhythmical gestures of daily boredom, one rocking in the chair, the other raking
sand. Music. A time of emptiness. Small women’s things—S. finds some nail
varnish hidden in the sand and starts to paint her nails. R. studies her skin
carefully, then they play flirting games with fans made of feathers. Their gestures
must be carefully timed and performed on a very small scale. )
R: (touching her face, muttering) I’ve stopped dying my hair, my face is full of
wrinkles, deep wrinkles, lines around my eyes. There are hairs around my mouth. I
no longer gaze into mirrors. It is as though another being were alive inside me, I no
longer look into mirrors.
S: (as though looking into a mirror, full of dreams and desires. She is trying to
provoke R.) Tell me, tell me your desire, now.
R: (reluctantly) Right now?
S: Yes, now, right you. Your foremost desire.
R: I…would like to love and be loved by a man close to me.
S: What?
R: Love and be loved by a man close to me. What about you?
S: I would like to be somewhere, I don’t know where, I have no idea what it might be
like, I only know I want to go there now.
R: (irritated). I don’t understand a word of this.
S: I want to go somewhere, but I don’t know where it is, I don’t even know how to get
there, but I know the place exists and I know it’s wonderful and I want to go there
right away. Now.
R: I simply don’t understand how you can want to go somewhere when you don’t
know what it’s like. You don’t know where it is.

S: I don’t know what it’s like, but I do know it’s there, I know it’s there and I want to
go and see it now, only I don’t know how to get to it. It’s a marvellous place…
R: (more annoyed than ever, contradicting her in a loud voice). You know what you
really want? You want everything made easy for you, beds of roses and silver
S: I don’t want beds of roses at all. The grass is never greener on the other side of the
R: You said it.
S: Oh, I said it, did I?
R: Yes.
S: Yes.
R: Yes.
S: Yes.
R: Yes.
S: No. No. I didn’t…ever since I was a little girl they always told me the grass was
never greener in anyone else’s garden, but I didn’t care. All I wanted was grass to
grow in my own garden, even though I didn’t have one, but I did have a balcony
and a lot of flower pots and I used to look and see if anything special was growing
out there.
R: Did it?
S: No.
R: You see. I wanted beds of roses too.
S: And silver spoons?
R: Yes.
S: Did you ever get any?
R: No. (Pause. Boredom creeps in again. The two women swiftly change tack). Right.
Let’s have a test.
S: A test! Alright. (She puts on her white clothes again)
R: But let’s not do the ‘are you good mothers’ one.
S: No.
R: Let’s do the ‘are you normal women, are you frigid or do you have a strong sex
drive’ one. Who’s going to start?
S: Mmmm…ink, pink, pen and ink…who made that dreadful stink. (she counts
herself out)
R: Right. You’re sitting on a fantastic beach, with a girl friend who just won’t leave
because she never wants to leave and she can’t ever bring herself to leave. Then all
of a sudden he appears. Amazingly handsome. He looks you right in the eyes and
says ‘Kiss me here’
S: Here where? (The two women play with double meanings)
R: Right here.
S: Oh, I see…kisses right THERE.
R: So what do you do? Do you: A) say no. B) tell your girl friend to turn round a
minute. C) Agree right away.
S: Not B…not C either…B…no, wait…
R: B or C?

S: C…C! No…B…no…it’ll have to be C. Yes, right, C.

R: OK. A) You say no—you score 2836 points…you’re normal. B) Tell your girl
friend to turn round a minute—you score 71 points…you’re frigid. C) You do it
there and then—you score one point…you’re a tart.
S: A tart? Me? (she laughs) Next question: you’re alone on a desert island. Then he
arrives, and he’s magnificent, a superb specimen, much better looking than the
other one was, with curly golden hair all damp with salt water, and a muscular
chest and suntanned legs covered in fine golden hairs, and he’s all gleaming with
sweat, he’s just been hunting or fishing, something or other, but he’s come back. He
gazes into your eyes and then he says: “Woman, I’ve only got five minutes, just
five minutes. Say you’ll be mine.” But there’s a problem—you’ve only got one big
bed and there’s sand in it. What do you do? (Whilst S. goes on with her tale, becoming
more and more caught up by the sensuality of it, R. finds a letter in the sand.) A)
you waste some time and shake the sand out of the sheets; B) you go ahead and
actually change the sheets; C) you just throw yourself into bed with him sand and
all, into his arms and you roll around together until you lose yourselves in each
other, until five minutes becomes eternity and eternity no more than five minutes
and everything…
R: (interrupting) I must speak to Hippolytus.
S: What, now?
R: Yes. I must.
S: But why now? Leave him alone, he’s only fifteen years old.
R: Nearly sixteen. Will you do my introduction? (She hands a letter to S.)
S: (turns on the tape recorder from which there will shortly come an incessant
croaking of frogs, and begins to read the letter which is written in large red
handwriting. She turns to R).
Her astonishment at the sight of Hippolytus is that of a voyager. She detests
him, yet she is bringing him up. She is jealous of his arrows, or rather of his
victims. She is drunk with the taste of impossibility. Faced with Hippolytus’
indifference, she does as the sun does when it clashes with crystal and becomes a
spectrum. She no longer inhabits her own body except to inhabit her own hell. He
owes her nothing but death. She is torn with unquenchable agonies.
R: (with her back to the audience, finds an old severely cut black lace jacket under the
sand. She undresses and puts it on. R is transformed, hardened, into Phaedra with
a bitter expression. She takes a lipstick and a mirror out of the sand and plays with
the reflected light for a minute. She catches the eyes of a member of the audience
in the mirror, then begins her speech to Hippolytus, addressing that member of the
audience. S. at stage rear listens, caught up in the memory. She lights a candle
that she takes out of the sand. Everything Phaedra says must be marked somehow
by S’s gestures)
I have summoned you. I don’t know where to begin. I am waiting for night to
fall, when the shadows will lengthen in the park and creep into the houses, and I
shall hide my face and my hands and my words which are still unformed, still
lingering…words which I do not know and which I fear…It was different in
Athens, I felt at home there. You were still awkward then, so dreadfully shy and

yet so very kind. Here you are the lord, with your dogs and your slaves and the
statues of your gods. This house is full of your shadow. The house is a body, I
touch it, it touches me, it throws itself upon me, especially when night comes.
Flames from the torches lick at my thighs, they linger with subtle shuddering
behind my left ear, they bite my nipples. Their saliva glistens, it burns me,
restores me, brands me. I no longer know where to conceal myself. The house is a
body, it is your body and yet it is also mine. I no longer know where to look. Faces,
hands, hair, mirrors, walls are all spattered with blood. I am the sole thing on
which the blood leaves no trace, because I am completely soaked in blood, within
and without. (R paints her lips dark red, letting the lipstick slip down her neck
onto her chest, tracing a line of blood) No, I cannot regret either you or my
destiny. I cannot endure this pretence. I cannot endure these spring evenings. The
vapours rise out of the earth, they condense, press upon you softly, flesh upon
flesh. Can you hear the frogs down in the lake? They are half crazed, they too
must know something. It is night already. Darkness has descended. I can no
longer see your face. So much the better! In the shadows, I can guess at your
contempt, your outrage. What a fool I am to remember this. Whoever suffered
deeply knows the way to revenge. Night has come with such bitterness. Go now,
go and wash away the dust and sweat from your hunting triumphs. Oh, yes
tonight, like every night, I long to join you in your bathing, washing you with my
own hands. If only you were aware of my hands…Go, go now, because I can no
longer endure the outrage of your silence. Go, because faced with your coldness I
must do as the sun does, when it clashes with crystal and becomes a spectrum. (R.
collapses onto a chair and takes off her jacket) My confession is ended…I have
thrown it at his feet.
S: (playing ironically with the candle) Ghossstsss, murderssss, for ssssex, sssex,
sssuicides, murdersss. Listen, don’t you think I pronounce my Ss well? Ess, ghost,
sex, murders. Look, the flame is moving…
(R. goes across to her, interrupts her with a savage slap. S. is stunned, touches
her cheek, then takes off her jacket threateningly. R. and S. confront each other,
aggressively at first, in a sequence of brutal, fighting movements. They pretend to
shoot one another, then their aggression turns into a wild game, as they shriek
and yell and make battle noises, throw handfuls of sand at each other in great
clouds. S. starts to laugh while imitating the sound of a machine gun, A. lets out a
piercing scream, falls to the ground and lies motionless. Silence. S. looks at her
appalled, is overcome with guilt, covers her face with sand like a tragic mask.
Then she takes R.’s body, lifts it up in her arms and looks towards the rear of the
stage, answering an invisible questioner. The game has become a memory, the
memory of Hecuba holding the dead body of her son Polydorus.
S: (speaks in a harsh whisper) I? But how could I possibly have this absurd game? I,
dead before my own death, burying the children to whom I gave birth, the men I
loved. I, who know only how to weep and mourn, crying unheard words to the
wind. How can I possibly prevent this cruel game? I, who am still afraid of the
sound of my own voice, who does not know how to say that between killing and
dying there is perhaps…perhaps…a third way…living…living.

(Then she lays down the body and falls across it, exhausted. Silence. Slowly,
R’s hand begins to move over S’s body, tickling her. S. tries to resist, then
gradually comes out of the memory, until the two women start playing and
laughing. They stop abruptly and sit motionless, bent forward, hands hiding their
faces, whispering ):
They’re coming? Can you hear them?
R: No, nobody’s coming.
S: I tell you they’re coming.
R: No, they aren’t…
S: They are, I can hear them. (She moves upstage, shouting) Get away, go on, get
R: (interrupting her violently) No, not now!
(crosses to front of stage, sits down. S. who seems to be coming out of a trance,
slowly crosses to join her. S. sits down and rests her head on R’s shoulder. A few
moments of empty tenderness )
Would you like a cup of tea?
S: (looks knowingly at R. then at the teapot) Tea! Of course, tea!
(The tea is poured with ritual gestures. Blood flows out of the teapot into the two
cups, filling them to the brim. R. puts her cup down on the sand. Suddenly, the two
women both start to get ready for a meeting with a lover. S. sits in the rocking
chair, R. sits beside her. S. dips her fingers in the cup and paints her face with the
blood-red liquid. R. puts on one black stocking, then another, which is laddered,
so she takes if off again. )
R: No what?
S: No, let me do it.
R: (turns round, slaps S’s leg) You? Not a chance, I’ll do it myself.
S: I’ll do it, because I know, I feel it.
R: I feel it too.
S: …and don’t touch me, it gets on my nerves.
(The argument intensifies, to the point where the two women literally have hold
of one another by the hair. Then they abruptly break off the fight and each falls
back into her own train of thought. R. moves further away, sits down near the
radio and starts to cut up a man’s jacket with a pair of scissors. S. shaves her legs
with a razor. A shudder runs through them both, their bodies change. )
This is my husband.
(S. studies the razor, muttering. Both women are remember ing Clytmnestra.
When they speak, their words mesh together into a single whole comprising two
separate experiences )
R: I killed him. They talked about rivers of blood, but in fact he hardly bled at all. I
bled more than that when I brought son into the world
( throws the jacket to S. )
S: I killed him, I struck him twice. He uttered two groans as he died. (to the audience)
Now you condemm me to be hated by the citizens, despised by all the people. You
condemn me!…

R: If I’d had the courage, I would have killed myself before he came back, so that I
would not have to see in his eyes the disappointment of finding my beauty gone.
He came back, he barely glanced at me, but he was still beautiful, like a bull
instead of like a god.
S: You condemn me, and you can find nothing to say against him, the man who
sacrificed his own daughter before he went away, sacrificed her like lamb. His
daughter! Ahh! She was my daughter! Beloved, painful fruit of my womb! My
daughter! And for what! For a wind from Thracia to help him to his war!
( throws the razor away from her )
R: A sort of gigantic idol, consumed by the caresses of Eastern women, spattered with
mud from the trenches. There isn’t a woman among you who wouldn’t have dreamed
of taking my place just for one night!
S: Me! You condemn me! You’re a cruel judge if you only consider the blows I
struck and what I did and forget the part he played.
R: I wanted to force him to look me in the face at least in the moment of his death.
Look me in the face.
S: (shrieks) A-a-ga-memnon!
(R. throws the cup of blood against the sheet at the rear of the stage. The
scream and the gesture are so violent that both women remain stunned, silenced,
immobile for a few seconds, as the red stain spreads across the sheet. Then S.
begins to swat invisible insects in the air. She hits herself, harder. R. does the same, )
Oh! Oh! Oh!
R: Oh! Oh! Look!
S: Look how many there are. The place is alive with them. Ah! There are still
thousands of the things. Did you notice, they’re all trying to die near you, no, wait,
the ones dying near you are the males and the ones near me are the females, the
R: (ironically) How can you tell if they’re mothers?
S: Look at them. Their bellies are full of blood on which to feed their young.
(As she says this, she starts provocatively to sing a lullaby, miming the
movements of a pregnant woman. R. goes over to the vase, moves the radio, bends
down, puts her hands in the water then wets her face, arms and hair. Then she
crosses to the chair, combing her hair with her hands. Her rhythms create the
sense of a sacrificial rite that is about to begin with the singing of the lullaby. Behind
her, S. covers her face and body with a black shawl and crosses to stage centre,
singing all the time. She slowly pulls out (gives birth to?) a naked, white doll from
beneath the shawl, and places it on the sand. She caresses it, still shrouded in the
shawl. The radio gives a sudden burst of sound, female voices screaming. The
lullaby breaks off in a violent gesture. This is the moment of Medea killing her
children. S. carries out her ritual action, then despairs, tears at herself, buries the
child, reaches out for understanding of the horror of what she has done, performs
a dance of life and death. Her hands and gestures speak for her. Her face is still
covered by the shawl. The voices recede, all that can be heard is a weak cry
coming from R., whose mouth is stained with blood. S. lets the shawl drop slowly,
looks at her in puzzlement, then makes a strange sound; the two women start

another game, using funny voices. The topic of conver sation is the making of a
cake, a ‘chocolate log’. This should be a lively game, full of double meanings, like
two little girls playing on a Sunday afternoon.)
R: What do we need?
S: Let’s see…Is there any flour?
R: There you are! (throws sand onto the shawl on the ground)
S: Sugar?
R: There you are!
S: Milk?
R: Here it is. Powdered milk!
S: Chocolate?
R: No…We don’t have any chocolate.
S: No chocolate? It’ll be a pretty revolting chocolate log then.
R: But I’m really hungry.
S: (offended) Then eat.
R: I’m hungry…
S: (shouting) Eat…
(A shudder again passed through them, breaking into the game. Eating evokes
memories. R. goes into another dark trance. She takes an X-ray plate from the
sand, her voice rattling in her throat. S. undresses her down to her slip, then
holds the X-ray plate against her. It is like a suit of armour that exposes her
heart and her bones, a symbol of absolute nakedness. This is Penthesilea, the
woman warrior who, in her search for absolute love and absolute freedom
underwent a macabre rite and ate the body of her beloved, Achilles. R’s voice
cracks into raucous whispers, the fragments of her confession seem to be dragged
out of her. S. cowers down, appalled, and tries to hide)
R: I…I…Achilles. I…I, Penthesilea, I who from henceforth will no longer have a
name, I went forward to meet the young man who loved me and whom I loved, I
hurried in the passion of my youthful feelings, with the horror of battle and the
burning desire to possess him. I came, and with my bow in my hand and all the
strength of madness, I pulled back the bow until the two ends met and let fly. My
arrow struck him in the neck. The wretched man fell, with my long arrow sticking
through his throat. He staggered up choking, and fell again, he pulled himself up
once more and fled. But I was already calling to my hounds, and the whole pack
fell upon him, they fell upon him as though he were a bitch in the heart of the
pack, and one tore at his throat and another tore at his chest. And he, drenched in
his own blood, touched my sweet face and said: “Penthesilea, my bride, why have
you done this to me? This is not the day of feasting you promised me.” But I had
torn off his breastplate, and sunk my teeth into his white breast, competing with the
hounds. His blood ran from my mouth and hands, and I kissed him to death. I
kissed him to death (she collapses)
S: (slowly, watching her). How many women there are who hang round their loved
one’s neck and say they love him so much they could eat him. But then they realise
they’ve had so much they can’t stomach any more. She was not like that. She did it

R: (after a long pause, gradually coming round, getting up again and starting to
collect some of the things, trying to tidy up). Right, that’s it. It’s all over.
S: Over? How can it be over? It’s too early.
R: It’s over. All over and done with. (turns away, she is in a hurry now).
S: (despairingly) No, look, it can’t be over. It isn’t over for me. (She rummages in the
sand, picking up objects). It can’t be over, I’m still searching for it…It can’t be, I
have to find it…I need to find it…
(S. becomes increasingly upset at R’s determination. R. starts to leave, S.
rushes over to the radio in the hope that she can be granted more time by the
music. Sounds of hoarse women’s laughter come from the radio, which goes on
and on, eventually driving S. off the stage once she has tidied up and set
everything back in order, ready for it all to start again.)

Susan Bassnett is Professor of Comparative Literature and Director of the Centre for British and
Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Warwick. She has published extensively in theatre
and women’s studies. Books in these areas include two studies of Luigi Pirandello (Macmillan, 1983;
Methuen 1989), Magdalena: Women’s Experimental Theatre (Berg, 1989) and jointly with John
Stokes and Michael Booth, The Actress in Her Time: Bernhardt, Terry, Duse (Cambridge University
Press, 1988). Her most recent books are Shakespeare: The Elizabethan Plays (Macmillan, 1993),
Comparative Literature: A critical introduction (Blackwell, 1993) and with Jennifer Lorch,
Pirandello: Documents of the Theatre (Harwood Academic Publishers). She has translated plays,
novels and poety from Italian, Spanish, French and Polish, and also writes poetry. Together with
Tracy Davis, she is editor of the Routledge Theatre and Gender series.

A Dead Woman On Holiday 42 The Dark Room 79, 81, 82, 83, 85, 86, 86
Any Woman Can 58 Declaration of the Rights of Man 48
l’Amazone de la Revolution 16, 17, 20 Death on Lesbos 60
Amazons 22 Demeter Beneath the Sand 109, 112
D’Annunzio G. 109 Desire by Design 60
Antony & Cleopatra 5, 8, 13 Drill Hall 60
Arts Council iii, 61 Doogue G. 93
Dry Rot 53
Barba E. 111 Duse E. 109
Baylis L. 2 The Dybbuk 41, 43
Body Leaks 64, 67, 70
Brezhnev L. 78, 79 Elles étaient citoyennes 16, 17, 19
Brook P. 2 Enragés 22
The Beauty Myth 9 Erdman N. 80
Building A Life 80
Fabien M. 17–27
‘Canada’ 103, 106, 106 Final Solution 41
Castledine A. 3 Des Françaises 16, 17, 25, 25
Le Chant de Retour 48–53 Frankenstein 61
Channel Islands 41
Chekhov A. 81, 82, 83 Gay Sweatshop 58
Colombina’s Apartment 81 Germany 41, 41
Christie A. 4 Glass Ceiling iii
Churchill C. 12, 111 Goethe Institute 3
Cinderella, The Real True Story 60 Ghandi M. 29–35
Cinzano 81, 84, 85 Gems P. 111
Cleopatra 5 Gogol N. 80, 85
City Limits Magazine 2 Goona, Goona 64
Cixous H. 8, 29, 32, 33, 35, 37
Conference of Women Theatre Directors and Her Aching Heart 60
Administrators iii, 3 Horniman A. 2
Hall P. 2


L’Histoire terrible mais inachevée de Norodom Sihanouk, Regional Arts Association iii
roi du Cambodge 29 Rame F. 111
Reveillon M. 17, 20–27
Immortal Love 79 Ristori A. 109
L’Indiade 32 Robespierre M. de 48
Isolation Unit 85 Royal Court Theatre 57

Jewish, Jews 40, 41, 41 Sea of Forms 64

Songs of the Twentieth Century 79
Kaut-Howson H. 3 Steinem G. 2
Kantor (ian) T. 82 Shakespeare W. 4, 5, 8, 57
Kegger 64 Shelley M. 61
Kelly J. 3 Sound Fields: Are We Hear 61, 65, 66, 68, 69, 70
Klarsfeld S. 37 Sihanouk N. 29–35

Lang J. 4 Tale of Tales 80

Lepeu M. 17–27 Theresa 37, 40, 41, 42
London Arts Board 61 Three Girls In Blue 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 85, 86, 86
Littlewood J. 2, 53 Toubon J. 4

Mabou Mimes 65 Williamson J. 12

Madonna 12, 12, 14, 15 Woolf N. 9
Maraini D. 111 Wooster Group 65
Métis 99
Mnouchkine A. 3, 29 Year Zero/L’Année Zero 42, 45
Monroe M. 12
The Moscow Choir 80, 86
Mother Tongue 99, 103, 104, 104, 108
Music Lessons 83

Nabakov V. 85
National Endowment for the Arts 70
National Theatre 2, 2
Nazis 24, 25, 37
Nebraska Arts Council 70
Nietzche F. 51
Nuremberg Laws 37, 40
Nuremberg Trials 42

Observer newspaper 2
Ooh, Missus! 55, 58
Orange Tree Theatre 2
Oval House Theatre 60
The Overcoat 80

Portrait of Dora 29
Pirandello L. 109

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Benedetti, J. (1988) Stanislavski , London: Methuen

Granville-Barker, H. (1934) Shakespeare’s dramatic art. In A Companion to Shakespeare Studies , edited by
H.Granville-Barker and G.B.Harrison, p. 84 . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Johnston, D. (1970) Policy in theatre. Hibernia , 16 , 16
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