Hypatia 18.3 (2003) 242-245
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The "Weak" Subject: On Modernity, Eros and Women's Playwriting. By Serena Anderlini-D'Onofrio. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1998.
A book entitled The "Weak" Subject that promises in the dust jacket to draw upon the work of Luce Irigaray in order to develop a theory of "labial mimesis" discernable in women's playwriting appears to be throwing down a challenge to anyone interested in feminist analysis of culture. Indeed, Serena Anderlini-D'Onofrio's book has much about it that is fresh, provocative, and developmental. [End Page 242] Unfortunately however, the book is not clear about its direction: whether it wishes to be a work of developmental theory, or whether it wishes to focus upon analyses of plays, their contexts and histories. The book is divided into four sections. The strongest by far are the analyses of the plays: they make a strong case for identifying the structure that Anderlini-D'Onofrio terms "labial mimesis." Unfortunately the first section, "Theoria," which aims to outline this concept philosophically, is compacted, muddled, and not integrated with the rest of the text. Thus, the overall effect of the book is that it has much potential which is not realized. The reader is persuaded that there is evidence that women playwrights have often structured women's relationships distinctively enough to warrant developed feminist exploration. On the other hand, the work to justify the terminology developed (from the notion of the "weak" subject itself to "labial mimesis" and other terms) is neither clear nor persuasive.
I will attend briefly to sections two to four before returning to the more problematic aspect of the book. Section two, "Her/'Story,'" offers a history of women's engagement with theatre. Concentrating mainly on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this is set in a social and political context, thus offering a dynamic political reading as it traces modes of representation of women and of relationships between women in plays. The geographical remit is wide, from the U. S. A to Europe. Case studies, of plays such as Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, are outlined. The potential for political readings of plays by women, such as Susan Glaspell's Trifles and Zona Gale's Miss Lulu Bett is clear and persuasive. The conclusion to the section is that the representation of strong relationships of female duos in these plays (in contradistinction from the lone women or subordinate women in plays by men) indicates a "labial eros" at work.
Section three concerns the work of Lillian Hellman. The Children's Hour, TheLittle Foxes, and Toys in the Attic are all afforded close readings, further developing the notion of the "two-in-one" female figure. Again, Hellman's work is read against its political background: not only positioning Hellman's socialism, but also her strategies and politics as a woman and as Jewish in mid-twentieth-century U. S. A. The effects of this on the texts of her plays are demonstrated.
The final section of the book argues that the theatre of the absurd, usually placed in opposition to realism, can instead be read from a feminist standpoint as a continuum of realism. While the hero-antihero distinction can be proposed within a phallic economy, in a labial economy the female duo and resultant "labial eros" is represented by women playwrights, who adapt dramatic conventions to suit their requirements. The plays under consideration here include Doris Lessing's Play with aTiger, Marguerite Duras's Le Shaga, and three plays by Natalia Ginzburg. The readings are again set against a political background, including a brief account of the Italian women's movement for the section on Ginzburg. The pattern discerned here is that "the European women who write [End Page 243] within the convention of the absurd focus on a labial duo whose interactive space is inhabited by a phallic symbol" (286).
While these analyses are useful, it is disappointing that they confine themselves to the text of the plays, with the political potential of direction not explored...