- Auto/biography and Identity: Women, Theatre and Performance
The last fifteen years have seen the growth of an extensive and impressive body of scholarship related to the genre of autobiography and specifically to the challenges presented by women's autobiographical writing from the nineteenth century to the present. One of the advantages of exploring the autobiographical writings of women performers and artists, particularly historically, [End Page 122] is both the quantity of material available and the fact that these are often the only documents available to us in gaining insights into their professional practices as well as their lives. However, what plagues such an exercise is the inevitable problem of dealing with autobiographical documents or artefacts – namely the tension between treating them as reliable sources, on the one hand, and knowing that they are framed and informed by a wide range of factors and are ultimately as subject to the processes of selection, editorial intervention, and failings of memory as is any creative or fictional work, on the other.
Editors Maggie Gale and Viv Gardner outline some of these challenges in their introduction to this collection of essays (the second volume in the series Women, Theatre and Performance), citing key figures and works in these debates. So, too, their contributions to the volume – Gale's essay on Lena Ashwell's "auto/biographical negotiations of the professional self" (99) and Gardner's essay on the "autobiographical strategies of Alma Ellerslie, Kitty Marion and Ina Rozant" (10)– engage in useful and complex ways with the problematic genre of autobiography, in addition to the challenges of undertaking archival work, as they demonstrate how these figures "inserted" themselves into theatre history.
A reader might come away from this collection with the impression that the editors had a much clearer idea than the other contributors of what the intersection between the critical/theoretical literature on autobiography and the wide range of relevant writings and visual work by women performers might usefully produce. As a result, the essays are uneven in terms of the extent to which they interrogate or even negotiate the critical issues surrounding autobiographical sources, at times simply using the topic as a point of departure for analyses that treat personal narratives and memoirs as transparent, without accounting for the methodological implications of the conclusions they draw or the evidence they use. The introductory chapter anticipates this to some degree by claiming that "[t]his volume has a broad remit and offers essays which directly address issues in autobiography and autobiographic writing, and others which look at wider problematics of identity and the female performer" (1). It is in this idea of the more broadly defined uses of personal narratives, storytelling, and the use of the first person by female performers and artists that the value of this collection resides.
While the collection is structured thematically, the range of time periods, national contexts, and genres assembled here underscores the rich variety of work by women performers whose contributions have been un- or under-doc-umented. The historical scope of the essays ranges from Emma Robinson in the nineteenth century (Susan Croft); to actresses and managers in the early twentieth century (Gale, Gardner, Nicola Shaughnessy); to contemporary solo performers, such as Claire Dowie (Gabriele Griffin), Bobby Baker (Catherine McLean-Hopkins), and Cherrie Moraga and Alina Troyano (Caridad Svich). The media under examination also vary, from the conventional form of published [End Page 123] memoirs (Bella Merlin on Tilly Wedekind) to a more experimental, visual approach to the genre of autobiography in the work of Adrienne Kennedy (Elaine Aston), as well as to the audiotaped walks of artist Janet Cardiff and the installations/exhibits of Tracy Emin (Jen Harvie). The focus on personal narratives also offers a way of reframing more familiar performance genres: Deirdre Heddon discusses the collaborative lesbian production Fingerlicks as "community autobiography" (217).
Equally various, but in a less productive way, are the styles and critical approaches taken in these papers, and this reinforces the unevenness of...