- Performance and Femininity in Eighteenth-Century German Women's Writing: The Impossible Act
Over the last several decades scholarly efforts to draw attention to women's writings and their contribution to the German literary tradition have resulted in the publication of multivolume collections of works by authors such as Therese Huber, Caroline Auguste Fischer, and Friederike Helene Unger as well as in significant new scholarship ranging from biographies of women writers to the exploration of female authors' challenges to social and political discourses.
Wendy Arons takes up the latter project in her book Performance and Femininity in Eighteenth-Century German Women's Writing: The Impossible Act, in which she investigates how eighteenth-century German women writers challenged the social discourse of ideal femininity by employing the theater and the notion of performance "as an activity and an abstract idea" (2) in their literary works. Arons's study expands on the works of German scholars who have examined the ways in which eighteenth-century women sought to transcend the boundary between the public and private spheres. She lays the foundation for her analysis by retracing the development of "antitheatrical subjectivity" (4), which she defines as the notion that the individual, and woman in particular, is "naturally" sincere, naive, and authentic, a concept associated with the Enlightenment's growing middle class. Antitheatricality, she argues, emerged alongside bourgeois culture's increasing desire to distinguish itself and its values from those of the aristocratic class of the Baroque and early modern periods.
Arons opens her study with a focus on the impact of mid- to late-eighteenth-century gender debates and theater reforms that presented the image of ideal femininity as "naturally" antitheatrical. She briefly addresses the evolution of gender debates within the German context, a subject explored more extensively by Claudia Honegger in Die Ordnung der Geschlechter (1991), and concentrates specifically on Rousseau's concept of ideal womanhood embodied by his literary figure Sophie. Arons convincingly argues that Rousseau's image of the naive, sincere woman had a profound impact on how German social theorists and female authors conceptualized and defined ideal femininity. Characteristics such as passivity, virtue, and emotionality became synonymous with femininity and were used by German intellectuals in order to justify women's exclusion from the traditionally masculine public sphere.
Yet Arons distances herself from the "separate spheres" approach to eighteenth-century literature by rejecting the assertion that women were entirely absent [End Page 128] from the public sphere and instead suggests that women's pursuit of writing and theatrical performance on stage made them participants in the public sphere; female authors used the theatrical public realm in order to explore feminine subjectivity at a time when bourgeois society privileged an image of ideal femininity that was antitheatrical and private.
Arons employs an interdisciplinary approach to reconstruct not only the context within which women wrote but also the means by which they reaffirmed and contested dominant social views of ideal femininity. She draws on Judith Butler's theory of "gender subjectivity" and "performed acts" (5) and Joan Riviere's concept of "femininity as masquerade" (6) to demonstrate female authors' awareness of antitheatrical femininity as constructed and performed, and the consequent insights constitute Arons's most significant contribution.
Arons chooses to investigate a handful of works by female authors in which theater and performance figure prominently in the lives of their female characters: Sophie La Roche's epistolary novel The History of Lady von Sternheim (1771); Karoline Schulze-Kummerfeld's memoirs "The Whole History of My Life" and "True History of My Theatrical Life" (written 1782 and 1793 respectively and first published posthumously); Marianne Ehrmann's epistolary novel Amalie: A True Story in Letters (1788); Elise Bürger's story "Aglaja" (1799); Friederike Helene Unger's Melanie, the Foundling (1804); and finally Sophie Mereau's "Marie" (1798) and "Flight to the City" (written 1796, published 1806). Arons reads each of these works as revealing the paradox of the antitheatrical, sincere female subject in the personal lives and practices of the authors and...