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ELH 67.4 (2000) 1011-1034

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In the Shadow of the Glen: Gender, Nationalism, and "A Woman Only"

Rob Doggett

All nations depend on powerful constructions of gender. Despite many nationalists' ideological investment in the idea of popular unity, nations have historically amounted to the sanctioned institutionalization of gender difference. No nation in the world gives women and men the same access to the rights and resources of the nation-state. Rather than expressing the flowering into time of the organic essence of a timeless people, nations are contested systems of cultural representation that limit and legitimize peoples' access to the resources of the nation-state. Yet, with the notable exception of Frantz Fanon, male theorists have seldom felt moved to explore how nationalism is implicated in gender power. As a result, as Cynthia Enloe remarks, nationalisms have "typically sprung from masculinized memory, masculinized humiliation and masculinized hope." 1

Anne McClintock's commentary in Imperial Leather provides a useful starting point for an examination of John Synge's In the Shadow of the Glen (1903/4) in the context of gender and Irish nationalism. Although this play is frequently analyzed from a feminist theoretical perspective and although "the nationalist" reaction to the play's initial staging is invariably mentioned, critics rarely link gender and nationalism in their discussions of the work. This is due in part to the fact that any linkage of the two would seem naively superficial. The prudish nationalist responses to the play are well known, and at least one quote from Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Féin and self-appointed guardian of Irish morality, is offered in nearly every study of the play that includes Irish nationalism. I will not be an exception: "Mr. Synge--or else his play has no meaning--places Norah [sic] Burke before us as a type--'a personification of an average'--and Norah Burke is a lie. It is not by staging a lie that we can serve Ireland or exalt Art." 2 From a contemporary standpoint, our reaction to these claims of service to Ireland and the exaltation of art is often a dismissive, patronizing wave of the hand. This was the same audience that, four years later, purportedly rioted when the word "shift" was mentioned during The Playboy of the [End Page 1011] Western World, so it is not surprising that Nora's rejection of married life was greeted with hostility. 3 Nationalism demanded plays that worked to counter the stereotypical "stage Irishman" who had been a stock character on the English stage for well over two centuries, plays that showed, as Lady Gregory, W. B. Yeats, and Edward Martyn wrote in 1897, "that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and easy sentiment, as it has been represented, but the home of an ancient idealism," and, perhaps most importantly, that presented an image of the noble Irish peasant woman, characters such as Yeats's oft-celebrated Cathleen ni Houlihan, who embodied an untarnished and heroic Irish ethos. 4 Synge's play, which offered a cantankerous old man playing dead to test the fidelity of his wife, a spineless would-be suitor, a silver-tongued tramp, and an intractable wife, fit none of these criteria. In retrospect, so the argument goes, nationalist protest was inevitable.

A second factor contributing to the critical separation of gender and nationalism on more than a superficial level involves the construction of patriarchy within feminist readings of the play. To take two fairly recent examples, both Jane Duke Elkins and Anthony Roche read Nora as a woman in transition, moving in a liminal space between the patriarchal household and the external world. My use of the definite article is intentional, for both critics tend to assume a homogeneous, "Victorian" patriarchy, a domestic world of "social conventions of 'proper' female behavior" that is equally applicable to rural Ireland, Victorian England, or Ibsen's Norway. 5 As Roche states: "In this household that may appear rustic and remote, its bourgeois origins are manifested in the punishment which the husband visits upon his wife: showing...


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