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Reviewed by:
  • Feminist Theatre and Theory
  • Janet E. Gardner
Feminist Theatre and Theory. Edited by Helene Keyssar. New Casebooks. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996; pp. ix + 288. $39.95 cloth, $17.95 paper.

What exactly is “feminist theatre”? What is the relationship of such theatre to feminist theory? Are certain types of theatrical composition or dramaturgy more appropriate than others to promote feminist understanding in an audience? And what might any of this mean in the daily lives of women and men? These are some of the central questions addressed by the essays in this new collection of writings on feminism and theatre. From the enormous output of recent feminist theatre and drama criticism, Helene Keyssar has brought together twelve substantial essays, which represent a variety of theoretical stances and critical approaches.

One of the central questions in the book is the value of realism as an appropriate vehicle for feminist drama. Janelle Reinelt’s well-known “Beyond Brecht: Britain’s New Feminist Drama” discusses the “[f]eminist transformation of Brechtian techniques” (46) in works by Caryl Churchill and Claire Luckham, among others, and suggests that such appropriation of method is especially useful for socialist-feminist works. Tracy C. Davis reaches a similar conclusion in her comparison of two plays about violence against women and women’s reactions to this violence. Praising Sarah Daniels’s Masterpieces for being “episodic, asequential, multiply cast, [and] employ[ing] direct address, and many localities . . . [which are] all experimental/Brechtian devices that promote objectivity” (145), Davis argues that “unless form and content converge, [End Page 388] conventional dramaturgy can perpetuate and replicate the ideology of domination” (138).

However, Reinelt and Davis’s position is not the only one to be found in feminist theatre writing nor in this volume. Increasingly, feminist theatre scholars (Keyssar among them) have come to believe that progressive, even radical, content can, in fact, be presented in traditional, realist theatre (and, likewise, that radical form does not necessarily lead to radical content). Jeanie Forte and Patricia R. Schroeder both take the position that feminist authors do (and should) take advantage of existing theatrical structures and that, in Schroeder’s words, “a modified realism can be an appropriate and powerful vehicle for staging feminist issues” (164). The emphasis here on production and reception demonstrates one of this casebook’s great strengths—its consistent attention to the theatrical as well as the textual aspects of the dramas discussed. As Loren Kruger, citing Michele Barrett, reminds us: “we cannot assume that an avowedly feminist work will necessarily be a feminist event” (54).

Another major thread running through the volume is the issue of polyvocality and the interest among some female playwrights and feminist critics in staging the multiple, sometimes conflicting, voices to be heard in feminist debates. In her own essay in this collection, Keyssar applies Bakhtin’s concepts of dialogism and heteroglossia to a range of dramatic texts in order to explicate her assertion that polyphony is central to both feminist theory and feminist theatre. This interest in multiple voices is picked up in Karen Cronacher’s “Unmasking the Minstrel Mask’s Black Magic in Ntozake Shange’s spell #7.” Cronacher shows here how Shange’s choreopoem dramatizes multiple voices—historical and contemporary—and helps to resist the attempts of (white) history to totalize “the African-American experience.” While I am not certain that either of these articles convinces me of the necessity of polyvocality to feminist expression, the centrality of this idea in contemporary debates is beyond question.

The book’s focus is on the Anglo-American tradition, but wider inclusion in the discourse is suggested in the final three essays: Yvonne Yarbaro-Bejarano’s “Chicana’s Experience in Collective Theater: Ideology and Form”; Judith Graves Miller’s “Contemporary Women’s Voices in French Theatre”; and Haiping Yan’s “Male Ideology and Female Identity: Images of Women in Four Modern Chinese Historical Plays.” Yarbaro-Bejarano and Miller’s articles essentially report on the state of female and feminist practice in their respective contemporary theatrical communities. Yan’s, on the other hand, discusses representations of women in historical dramas by male authors and traces “an interesting process in which the Chinese...

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pp. 388-389
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