Playing at Lives: Life Writing and Contemporary Feminist Drama

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2003-11-12

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Amidst the trends of confessional narratives and theories of gender performativity that took root in the 90s, the feminist maxim "the personal is political" is no longer sufficient to account for the complexities of women's lives transformed into life-stories and live performances. Given the push to recover silenced women, and the more complex discourse that governs both feminist art and criticism, it is not surprising that feminist life-writing has found many of its richest realizations in performance. On the feminist stage, history, narrative, bodies, voice, identity and community all converge in three related dramatic forms that we can group under the heading of "life-writing": autobiographical performance, biographical plays and staged oral histories.

In this study, I take a look at these forms and argue that each one offers both theoretical obstacles and political possibilities to the feminist playwrights and performers who use them.  By placing narratives of real lives within the context of performance, these artists point out the degree to which gender, identity, and history are socially constructed performances and are subject to the manipulations of power.  And by highlighting the gender biases embedded in these performative notions, they are then able to revise and reconstruct them within a new framework, one that resists hegemonic power and acknowledges difference.

In three chapters, I examine how feminist playwrights and performers use body, voice, community and history to create potent rhetoric out of women's life narratives.  In the chapter on autobiographical performance, I argue that narratives of the self in performance deconstruct notions of selfhood as a way of avoiding essentialism and establishing female agency.  At the same time, however, these narratives rely on historical referentiality and an essentialism of the self to reinforce their efficacy.  The chapter on biographical drama asserts that feminist playwrights respond to the imperative to reclaim lost feminist lives, but must do so in ways that subvert the objectifying impulses of life writing.  Finally, the oral history chapter shows that the communal subjectivity established in these plays generates feminist notions of community in its performance, even as it advocates for such community among its audiences.

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