- Five Empresses: Court Life in Eighteenth-Century Russia
A collection of eleven essays exploring questions of autobiography, identity, and performance, this volume is the most recent addition to Manchester's "Women, theatre and performance" series—designed, as the editors describe in their Foreword, for "academics, students at all levels, teachers and practitioners, as well as the interested enthusiast who wishes simply to 'fill in the blanks' where women have been hitherto 'hidden' in theatre histories." Certainly there is a wide range of work here, exploring how identity is formed and negotiated through a variety of autobiographical performances both on and off the stage. Subjects are taken from many different cultural specificities, as well as from different historical periods. The editors suggest that "much autobiographical work by theatre women [is] an attempt to re-insert themselves, not as individuals, but as part of a constructed 'group identity' or community, into a theatre history, a cultural moment or a performance space, from which they—as women—have been rendered 'absent' or 'disappeared'" (4). This remains an important project for theatre studies, since the contributions of women are still under-researched and under-represented. For specialists in biography and autobiography, however, the turn to three-dimensional renditions in live performance that this book suggests perhaps offers new perspectives and an added complexity that may test the theoretical assumptions more usually brought to bear on print text materials.
Editors Maggie Gale and Viv Gardner arrange their collection into three distinct sections. The first, "Telling tales: autobiographical strategies," investigates "the interrelatedness of the creative self, creative output and subject formation" (5). Its three essays address two American playwrights (Susan Glaspell, Adrienne Kennedy), and women whom author Gardner describes as "the three nobodies"—"three little-known autobiographical works by late [End Page 495] nineteenth- and early twentieth-century [English] provincial women performers" (10). Especially interesting in this section is Nicola Shaughnessy's examination of Glaspell's drama, looking at the authorial voice "redistributed among a chorus of performers and dramatis personae; consequently, the impression of an originating self that is conventionally supposed to stand behind, mediate and control the text's generation of meaning is also subject to dispersal and dissolution" (40). Working through French feminist theory, Shaughnessy effectively explores what she contextualizes as the absent subject.
Part II—"The professional/confessional self"—outlines "the interrelatedness of, and the tension between, the professional and public dimension of women's work in theatre and the confessional interior self" (5–6). With essays on nineteenth-century dramatic writer Emma Robinson, early twentieth-century actresses Lena Ashwell and Tilly Wedekind, and contemporary stand-up artist Claire Dowie, this section provides a cross-historical perspective where the performance of gender, in the theatre and elsewhere, promotes a concerted effort to claim a professional place for these different women's theatrical work. In Ashwell's case, as Gale suggests, autobiographical writings were a key strategy in "creating and controlling her own projected identity as a professional, socially conscientious, spiritually driven and multidimensional woman of the theatre" (121). Or, as Gabriele Griffin argues in her reading of Dowie's gender ambiguous performances, "the key point [is] that identity is fundamentally a social phenomenon, deriving its significance from the meaning it has within social interaction, a meaning which is constructed, reinforced and sustained through that sociality" (167). It is in this way that the fundamental "liveness" of performance makes explicit the production-reception contract vital to any presentation of auto/biography.
The book's final section addresses "auto/biography, identity and performance" in contemporary productions including performance and visual art, Latina theatre, lesbian performance, and the one-woman shows of Bobby Baker. Here, Caridad Svich's "Latina theatre and performance: acts of exposure" serves as an introduction to a number of Latina women working in theatre, suggesting that they are "Latinas al borde, not of a nervous breakdown, but of a long-brewing revolution where borders are dismantled and redefined for the next and the following waves of writers that...