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  • Holly Hughes Performing: Self-Invention and Body Talk
  • Lynda Hall
Holly Hughes, Clit Notes: A Sapphic Sampler. New York: Grove Press, 1996

Holly Hughes, one of the most acclaimed and popular contemporary performance artists and playwrights, publishes five of her works in Clit Notes: A Sapphic Sampler, including: “The Well of Horniness,” “The Lady Dick,” “Dress Suits To Hire,” “World Without End,” and “Clit Notes.” She also includes extensive autobiographical material detailing her artistic process while commenting critically on her family and the sociocultural milieu which informs her work, such as the collaborative feminist performance community at Women’s One World Cafe (WOW) in New York City. In this review, I focus on the two performance pieces I have seen, “World Without End” and “Clit Notes,” which exemplify her active interventions into cultural norms.

Self-creating within complex representational frames, Hughes uses parody and satire in her incisive critiques of misogyny and heterosexual hegemony. Self-creation and sociocultural critique are the thematic axes on which I address her book/performances. While her stage directions indicate “the performer,” her frequent references to her art as self-writing and self-invention invite the spectator/reader to conflate self and performer. There is no evidence to date that anyone else has performed either of the two pieces I address here. In discussing her work, I have simply used “Hughes” throughout.

Describing the sociohistorical changes which impact her experience as an artist, Hughes states that “visibility is the dyke mantra du jour.... When I came out in 1973 we fretted about the Male Gaze, how it could swallow us whole. Now we’re complaining that folks aren’t looking hard enough” (“Headless Dyke” 7). While visibility is liberating and promotes a lesbian sense of self-presence and desire for the artist and potentially for the spectator, visibility also invites and produces societal discipline and censure. In 1990, along with three other artists, Hughes was defunded by the NEA, creating a notoriety which precedes her wherever she performs.

In her Introduction to Clit Notes, Hughes addresses the NEA and the controversy that “swirled around public funding of art that addresses the body, especially the body that’s either queer, female, of color, or some combination of those” (19). The equation of “homosexuality with obscenity” by Congress made the risks of performance evident, as her works confront homophobia. Her art allows her to create and define her selves, providing the space “to talk back” (19).

The immediacy and materiality of the writer/performer’s body and voice on stage facilitate talking back and contesting cultural conventions by acting out subjectivity in relation to history, memory, and desire. Performance by definition suggests repetition, and through repetition, the possibility to pose questions, to play the same scenes and roles differently, and to re-member, re-view, re-shape, re-mark, and re-invent the past. The elaborate stage directions in Clit Notes enable the reader to imagine Hughes’ actions and body during performance. According to Hughes, she hopes her efforts will inspire others to exercise agency and rewrite their stories. Readers and spectators may realize that “they can be the heroine, that they can create their own plot rather than go on living inside the standard narrative” (9). Rewriting and revising old myths and fairy tales strategically, as Hughes does, is a way of interrogating diverse patriarchal, heterosexist imperatives and narrative plots. She concludes “Clit Notes” by inciting the audience to “start acting out our own plots” (212) of resistance. Hughes indicates that very early in life she resisted women’s harmful constrictive scripts of passivity and silence, and their designated female role as object of male desire. As a child she felt “I didn’t want to be a princess,” and she sardonically and subversively inquired: “What if I’d rather be eaten than rescued?” (10).

Writing/Performing: Creative Self-Invention

The autobiographical nature of Hughes’ writings and performances blurs traditional distinctions between the “real” and representation. Her performances and theoretical discourse suggest that, for her, life and art exist in a continuous relationship. Discussing “World Without End,” Hughes says: “The work’s real personal, real autobiographical” (Schneider 180). Refusing to evacuate the subject position, she fluidly...

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