- Violence Against Women in Early Modern Performance: Invisible Acts
What does it mean to enjoy witnessing forced sex and the death of female characters onstage, and how much have our attitudes about such spectatorship changed over the past 400 years? These are the important questions driving Kim Solga's book, and she engages them with passion, thoughtfulness, and a bold ethical desire for change. She brings her training in performance theory to bear upon the early modern playscripts, contemporary contexts, and certain (post) modern productions of Titus Andronicus, A Woman Killed With Kindness, The Duchess of Malfi, and The Changeling, arguing for less rapture in the presence of raptus, and an end to silence (or clapping) as complicit consent.
When I mentioned the main title of this book to a colleague, he deemed it unfortunate and offputting. But perhaps that forthrightly familiar, unpromisingly negative formulation captures precisely the current version of the dilemma explored in Solga's thesis-driven book: often, in our desire for entertainment, or even the intellectually deep and new, we blinker ourselves from the horror in plain sight—or from what, in the case of these plays, is not so plainly "in/visible." Drawing on Lacanian, Brechtian and feminist models to chart a "double optics" that both reveals and obscures gendered violence, Solga argues that performance should unmask what stage representations have conventionally made all too acceptable—even when they are apparently sympathetic to the plight of victimized women. [End Page 683]
Solga's introductory chapter, "Encounters with the Missing: From the Invisible Act to In/visible Acts" elaborates the sustained focus and approach she will practice in the four case studies that follow. Throughout, she calls attention to the contrast between obvious records of what we would call rape, domestic violence, torture, and murder, and the ways in which early modern theatrical representation (and legal codes and conduct books) often veil or obscure those actions against women, be it through renaming (i.e. calling beatings or the encouragement of self-starvation "reasonable correction"), representational strategies of distancing or ambiguous witnessing (what do The Changeling's Jasperino and Alsemero actually see when they spy on De Flores and Beatrice Joanna in the garden?), or not representing the events at all (offstage rapes and killings; the agonizing pain unrecorded in some Protestant martyrologies or in Phillip Stubbes's account of the virtuous death of his wife Katherine). Solga emphasizes the ways in which these representational strategies encourage "spectatorial percepticide," which she hopes to contest by revealing "the possibility of audience witness" (141) through "politically committed scholarship" that discloses both historical cover-ups and new performance choices.
Given Solga's focus upon the theatrical viewer's active role in shaping what we perceive, it seems incumbent upon this reviewer—likewise watching from a comfortable space another woman's laborious (textual) performance, undertaken under specific social (here, professional) constraints—to acknowledge this unequal power dynamic and its consequentiality. Rather than mimic the Joycean image of the artist paring his fingernails invisibly above and outside the text, then, I report my personal witnessing as such, with the goal not of "correction" but of suggestion that might lead to future enrichment, for both author and readers. However, like Solga acknowledging the disparity between her own positive reactions to radical production choices and the lukewarm responses of most audience members, I realize that suggestions may fall on deaf ears and be belated or thwarted by publishing protocols. It is nevertheless the most useful witnessing I can ethically provide—the announced goal of Solga's writing demanding a response in kind.
The great strength of this book resides in its willingness to draw on and link sophisticated scholarship from several domains. In particular, Solga connects recent historicist work on gender with various forms of theory (especially Lacanian-informed work in performance studies) and with actual theatrical work. She attends to hermeneutic ambiguity and emphasizes the experience and representation of trauma, ghosts, erasure, and witnessing. Calling attention to what has often been overlooked and underexamined, Solga produces...