Revising The Antiphon, Restaging Trauma; or, Where Sexual Politics Meet Textual History
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Revising The Antiphon, Restaging Trauma; or, Where Sexual Politics Meet Textual History1

Although it is less widely read than her classic novel, Nightwood (1936), we might consider Djuna Barnes's 1958 play The Antiphon—with its baroque language, its fraught relation to autobiography, and its bizarre and challenging anachronism—the most 'Barnesian' of the author's texts. Of all the works in Barnes's oeuvre, The Antiphon has suffered the most from the charges of difficulty and unreadability—and in this case unperformability—that have marked her critical reception. For certain feminist critics, such apparent "difficulties" have been recast in part as editorial issues: these critics read the play's obscurities as problems caused by cuts at the hands of Edwin Muir and, above all, T. S. Eliot. In what was, to date, the only published study of the play's revision history, Lynda Curry concludes by proposing that if three hundred-odd lines (removed from the final edition) could be reinserted, "the original Antiphon would emerge as the beautifully coherent and poignant tragedy that its author had envisioned."2 This fantasy is problematic not just because it relies on theoretically questionable and practically unsustainable notions of authorial intention and textual integrity, but also, in its conflation of coherence, affect, and aesthetic pleasure, misses the point of why The Antiphon is such a remarkable play. As Barnes's last major work, and her fullest engagement with the complexities of a traumatic sexual experience we can reasonably imagine as broadly autobiographical, The Antiphon's obscurities and opacities are powerfully connected to its theme. In what follows I want to consider how the changes made during the play's [End Page 125] revisions need not be viewed with regret, but in fact produce a shift in emphasis that captures the performative nature of remembering trauma. I also want to consider the limitations of a feminist discourse surrounding the sexual and textual corpus, according to which Eliot and Muir, like The Antiphon's abusive father, are cast as powerful violators of a vulnerable and pure body.

The Antiphon is a three-act tragedy in blank verse detailing the sinister reunion of the Hobbs family. While the play is not without moments of dark humour—occasioned in part for this reader by linguistic excesses as richly camp as "Curbing the waspish bodkins of her eyes / Spurring the fornication of the mint"—it is Barnes's most singularly bleak work.3 The family reunite in Burley Hall, the ruined ancestral home of the mother, Augusta, and a former college of chantry priests, situated in the fictional English town of Beewick.4 The family have been brought together by one son, Jeremy (disguised as "Jack Blow, coachman,") who acts part court-jester, part advocate, as he restages the childhood abuses suffered in an unorthodox, polygynous, and probably incestuous family home not unlike the one depicted in Barnes's 1928 novel Ryder and in her own biographies.5 It emerges that Miranda, now middle-aged, has been abused by her father, Titus, and raped by "a travelling cockney thrice [her] age" at Titus's arrangement and with Augusta's acquiescence (SW, 186). Augusta has been repeatedly wounded by her late husband's dalliances, and is angry not only with Titus, but also with his deceased mother, Victoria, and, less reasonably, with Miranda too. The other Hobbs sons, Elisha and Dudley, are unsympathetic characters who function in the play as a critique of capitalist excess and philistinism: they have also been abused by Titus but harbor equal resentments towards both Augusta and Miranda. The collective witnessing of the past takes place in front of Jonathan, Augusta's uncle, a genteel and apparently kindly old man who still lives in Burley Hall.

The Antiphon's journey from first incarnation to published play was a long and difficult one. Barnes was returning to a form with which, alongside poetry, journalism, and short stories, she had begun her career in the teens. With the exception of two unpublished three-act plays, Ann Portuguise (undated) and Biography of Julie von Bartmann (1924), her earlier experiments with drama had been one-act works written, as others have noted, in...