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Lives in Play

Autobiography and Biography on the Feminist Stage

Ryan Claycomb

Publication Year: 2012

Lives in Play explores the centrality of life narratives to women's drama and performance from the 1970s to the present moment. In the early days of second-wave feminism, the slogan was "The personal is the political." These autobiographical and biographical "true stories" have the political impact of the real and have also helped a range of feminists tease out the more complicated aspects of gender, sex, and sexuality in a Western culture that now imagines itself to be "postfeminist." The book covers a broad range of texts and performances, from performance artists like Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, and Bobby Baker to playwrights like Suzan-Lori Parks, Maria Irene Fornes, and Sarah Kane. The book examines biography and autobiography together to link their narrative tactics and theatrical approaches and show the persistent and important uses of life writing strategies for theater artists committed to advancing women's rights and remaking women's representations. Lives in Play argues that these writers and artists have not only responded to the vibrant conversations in feminist theory but also have anticipated and advanced these ideas, theorizing gender onstage for specific ends. Ryan Claycomb demonstrates how these performances work through tensions between performative identity and the essentialized body, between the truth value of life stories and the constructed nature of gender and narrative alike, and between writing and performing as modes of feminist representation. The book will appeal to scholars in performance studies, women's studies, and literature, including those in the growing field of auto/biography studies.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-viii

In the spring of 1998, performance artist Karen Finley stood on the steps of the Supreme Court after arguments for National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley et al. and told the world that Senator Jesse Helms had been sexually harassing her through his political attacks on her and other artists— Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, and John Fleck—now known as the NEA Four...


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pp. ix-x

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Introduction: Lives in Play

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pp. 1-24

Over the last decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, performances that draw their material from the lives of real women have been very near the center of feminist theatrical practice. A broad range of reasons can be mustered to explain the phenomenon, many of which start...

I. Autobiography: The Body and Self in Performance

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1. Performative Lives, Performed Selves: Autobiography in Feminist Performance

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pp. 27-54

If any art form, theatrical or otherwise, might be said to be the proving grounds for a performative approach to identity, performance art is the obvious first choice. Although performance art itself is a nebulous genre—a loosely bound set of artistic practices that assembles the art object from the actions of the live performing body—the binding focus on...

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2. Autobiography and the Rhetoric of the Embodied Self

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pp. 55-90

While over the last two decades, theories of performativity dominated the academic discourse of gender (and to a lesser extent that of theatrical performance), feminist performers have been reluctant to embrace the concept quite so thoroughly. In the previous chapter, we have seen the ways in...

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3. The Autobiographical Play and the Death of the Playwright: Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis

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pp. 91-114

When Paula Vogel’s play How I Learned to Drive opened in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1999, the playwright celebrated a homecoming. Hailing from the same suburban Maryland town in which her play is set, Vogel had just won the Pulitzer Prize for the play; her longtime collaborator, Molly Smith, had just been named artistic director at Arena Stage; and...

II. Biography: Staging Women's Lives

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4. Staging Women's Lives, Staging Feminist Performances

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pp. 117-137

In the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol, a visitor can stroll along a parade of great men, admiring the busts, standing figures, and horsed figures carved in Italian marble and other polished chunks of stone. The parade marches on in traditional style until it reaches the suffragists, a memorial to Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan...

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5. A Life in the (Meta)Theater: Writing/Rehearsing/Acting Out

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pp. 138-172

Inherent in a wide variety of feminist biography plays, as the previous chapter argues, is the notion that the act of biography is itself a performance— a performance that is scrutinized alongside the acts and performances of these plays’ purported subjects. This phenomenon calls attention to, among other things, the degree to which women’s lives in history...

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6. Performing Race and the Object of Biography

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pp. 173-200

The corpus of staged feminist autobiography and biography admittedly has been, like the body of feminist drama in general over the last decades of the twentieth century, a largely white affair. Typically, the texts and performances that comprise this corpus, like many of the plays examined in the previous two chapters, have consistently taken a protective, nonconfrontational...

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Conclusion: Performing Global Lives

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pp. 201-214

In November 2009, a working group convened at the annual conference of the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR) on the subject of contemporary women playwrights. Tasked with advocating for the work of contemporary female playwrights of the previous twenty years, participants brought together a rich assemblage of playwrights, from established...


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pp. 215-238


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pp. 239-250


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pp. 251-261

E-ISBN-13: 9780472028535
E-ISBN-10: 0472028537
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472118403
Print-ISBN-10: 0472118404

Page Count: 264
Illustrations: 1 B&W figure
Publication Year: 2012