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Reviewed by:
  • Women, Modernism, and Performance
  • Andrew Sofer (bio)
Penny Farfan . Women, Modernism, and PerformanceCambridge University Press. xi, 182. US $75.00

This enlightening study examines the intersection of modernism and feminism in the work of Elizabeth Robins, Ellen Terry, Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, Edith Craig, Radclyffe Hall, and Isadora Duncan. For Penny Farfan, these artists comprise a 'feminist-modernist counter-public sphere' whose artist-intellectuals used theatre to explore new, transformative identities that could potentially transcend gender stereotypes and flout compulsory heterosexuality. Attempts to reconcile modernist artistry and feminist commitment fuelled ambivalence towards immediate precursors, however, for by pushing the envelope of acceptable female self-expression, each artist hit ideological and artistic barriers against which her successors, in turn, rebelled. Farfan's 'relay structure' connecting feminist artists is, therefore, less one of collaboration and coalition than of appropriation and critique.

A key precursor is Henrik Ibsen, and it is Hedda Gabler (rather than A Doll's House) that constitutes 'one of the definitive texts of feminist modernism.' Farfan's first case study charts playwright-actress Elizabeth Robins's relationship to Ibsen in the wake of playing Hedda in London in 1891. Farfan reads Robins's suffragist play Votes for Women! (1907) as a feminist critique of Ibsenite individualism, albeit one that sacrifices the very complexity of female characterization that had first drawn Robins, as an ambitious actress, to Ibsen's plays. Robins thus models what Farfan sees as 'an unresolved tension' between feminist vision and (male-derived) modernist practice.

Given actress Ellen Terry's importance for modernists like Woolf, how are we to interpret her stated distaste for Ibsen's 'foolish women'? Farfan recuperates Terry's antipathy by arguing that Terry found in Shakespeare's great comic heroines a 'transcendent idealism' more appropriate to a nascent [End Page 355] feminist vision than Ibsen's 'tragic realism.' Farfan shrewdly observes that Terry's lectures on Shakespeare rewrote her own performances for feminist-modernist ends. Moreover, Terry's controversially feminine Lady Macbeth '[contributed] to the challenging of contemporary gender ideology that made Ibsen's work so provocatively disturbing.'

Farfan's revisionist consideration of Terry leads her to Virginia Woolf, for whom the stage came to exemplify an androgynous creativity to which Terry herself pointed the way. Woolf's play Freshwater depicts Terry as a proto-Bloomsbury androgyne who implicitly rejects patriarchal authority. Recasting Terry in her own (embryonic) ideal image, 'Woolf represented Terry as historical proof of the necessity and value of her own feminist-modernist literary innovations.' Farfan's second Woolf chapter argues that Woolf's novel Between the Acts transcends the limitations of Terry's material stage presence by recasting 'the notion of feminist-modernist writing as a performative act.' Given this 'performative' reading of Woolf's fiction, Farfan's tantalizing discussion of Woolf's extraordinary blackface impersonation of an Abyssinian dignitary during the 1910 Dreadnought Hoax - what today might be called site-specific theatre - deserves more space.

Farfan's most theoretically ambitious chapter, 'Staging the Ob/scene,' claims that the very category of obscenity made modernist sexualities visible (as in the famous trial surrounding the notoriously 'lesbian' novel The Well of Loneliness). Djuna Barnes's one-act play The Dove (1923) redefines the truly 'obscene,' not as unspoken lesbian desire, but as the male representational frame itself - in this case, a literal frame canvas kept offstage (ob-scaena) until the play's climactic gunshot, which both parodies and literalizes Hedda Gabler's gender and sexual politics. But whereas Barnes and Ibsen depicted a patriarchal thwarting of women's sexual and creative autonomy, actress Edith Craig's impersonation of French painter Rosa Bonheur (in Craig's suffrage project A Pageant of Great Women) 'enacted [Craig's] sexual and cultural dissidence as a lesbian-feminist artist on the theatrical and political stage.' While holding female sexuality at arm's length, British suffragism tacitly staged and liberated sexual concerns.

Farfan's final chapter analyses how Duncan, strangled by a scarf caught in the wheels of her Bugatti, became 'an icon of the tragic female artist.' Deconstructing the Duncan mythos, Farfan cautions against interpreting Duncan's death as suicidal wish-fulfilment (surely a Plathological reading). Instead, Duncan must be reclaimed as...


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pp. 355-356
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