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Self-Presentation on Stage and Page in the Memoirs of Russian Women Performers Maude F. Meisel Those of us who work with autobiographical w ritings would doubtless agree that the greatest initial difficulty in theorizing about the genre is defining it, and, because it can be understood to include so many different kinds of w riting , formulations about it are often easy to contradict. In 1984 Domna Stanton surveyed previous attempts to define the role played by gender in w riting autobiography and argued that they were all in some way unsatisfactory. In their introduction to Women, Autobiography, Theory, Smith and Watson extended the survey through the mid-1990s and assessed important contributions to the study of women's autobiography made using psychology, French feminisms, the new historicism, postmodernism, multiculturalism, postcolonialism , theories of heteroglossia, cultural studies, personal response criticism , queer theory, and theories of the bodyl Some approaches embrace a variously defined totality of women's life texts; others see the field in terms of a complexity of subgenres defined by such characteristics as race or ethnicity, social status and/or historical time period. In keeping with the approach of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, among others, who suggests (in writing about African-American women's autobiographies) that particular aspects of autobiography are more usefully considered in identifying and working with specific integrated subgenres, I would like to pursue Stanton's question of how women's autobiography is different from men's by examining the body of Russian performers' memoirs. In this subgenre, the autobiographers' profession foregrounds the issue of self-presentation in their texts and enhances the possibilities of illuminating Stanton's question as posed by Nancy Miller in relation to French feminist writers: "what conventions govern the production of a female self as theater? H ow does a woman writer perform on the stage of her text?"2 The question of the performance of self takes us to the very heart of the interaction between gender and genre in autobiography. 1 This section concludes by suggesting that "the real legacy of the last twenty years in women's autobiographical theorizing has been the emergence of a heterogeneous welter of conflicting positions about subjectivity and the autobiographical" (Smith and Watson, "Introduction," 37). 2 Miller, Subject to Change, 49. Mapping the Feminine: Russian Women and Cultural Difference. Hilde Hoogenboom, Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy, and Irina Reyfman, eds. Bloomington, IN: Siavica Publishers, 2008, 151-66. 152 MAUDE F. MEISEL In focusing on performers' memoirs as the best way to approach this task, we find that the Russian sample has several advantages. First of all, there is a very strong tradition of performers' memoirs in Russian, especially for actors and dancers, and the subgenre has been consistently popular since it first appeared in the mid-nineteenth century3 By the last quarter of the nineteenth century in Russia, it had become almost obligatory for any actor of statureand many others besides- to produce memoirs. In the early 1970s, the Leningrad State Institute of Theatre, Music and Cinematography compiled a manuscript bibliography of over 1,500 theatrical memoirs (books and short essays) published in Russia or the Soviet Union since the mid-nineteenth century4 And this total could conceivably be doubled by including unpublished memoirs and those published abroad. Secondly, and more importantly, many of the formal or thematic distinctions tha t have been observed between male and female autobiography in general do not apply within this sample. Instead , male and female Russian performer-autobiographers share interests, training, culture, a public sphere of activity, equivocal social status, and attitudes toward their work, as well as narrative structure, thematic motifs, and a single literary model. A background of such consistency is helpful for the task of identifying the particularities of self-presentation that are truly fundamental to the autobiographies of women in public life. Characterized by such a wide-ranging list of commonalities, a gender distinction emerges within Russian performers' autobiographies neither in the choice of events to recount nor in the formal aspects of their writing, but in the connections they make between the presentation of themselves as stage performers and the presentation of themselves as autobiographers. The enhanced need of women performer-autobiographers to demonstrate their professionalism results in gendered conceptions of the relationship between their performing and writing selves and between these two types of performancethe one on stage, the other on the page. Thus, an examination of issues related to gender and self-presentation in this type of autobiography becomes a fruitful instance of...


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