- Split Britches: Lesbian Practice/Feminist Performance
In her introduction to Split Britches: lesbian practice/feminist performance, Sue-Ellen Case notes that “[m]ore than any other group, Split Britches has set the stage of lesbian and feminist performance in the United States during the last fifteen years” (1). Case, an early follower of Split Britches who has become an aficionado of the company, tackles the formidable task of organizing and commenting upon productions by a company whose work is based upon disrupting categories and defying boundaries. This volume brings together seven representative texts by Split Britches—Lois Weaver, Peggy Shaw, and Deb Margolin—along with Case’s critical and historical introduction. Case frames Split Britches, Beauty and the Beast, Upwardly Mobile Home, Little Women, Belle Reprieve, Lesbians Who Kill, and Lust and Comfort with a materialist feminist critique of the company’s work and an account of their collaborative creative process and their involvement with Women’s One World (WOW) Café. [End Page 136]
Case maintains that “[w]hile lesbian theory is beginning to distinguish itself from feminism, it also remains allied with it in retaining gender as the primary category of oppression and disruption” (13). Case herself bridges key issues of lesbian practice and feminist performance, pointing to problems of lesbian/feminist practice in order to “extend a single feminist critique across difference” (12) rather than wedge “difference” into unyielding personal and political positions. Most valuable to Case’s argument is her ability to make astute connections from playtext to playtext, noting similarities and differences between the plays while placing the script within an over-arching social, political, and artistic context.
From its founding in 1980 until the present, Split Britches has presented vital lesbian-feminist theatre. By mixing and matching genres and performance styles, the company formulates a representational space that allows them full expression as lesbians, as women, and as feminists. A lesbian context is clearly articulated in the performances by, and off-stage relationship of, Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver. Since Deb Margolin is heterosexual and Jewish, much of her performative work contributes to dismantling gender assumptions not from a lesbian perspective but from an ethnic one, while her playwriting—according to Lynda Hart—comprises “some of the most enduring, passionate, complicated lesbian language of our time” [Hart, “Queerer Than Thou: Being and Deb Margolin,” by Lynda Hart and Peggy Phelan, Theatre Journal 47, no. 2 (May 1995): 273].
Seeing the plays in print reinforces the notion that the scripts are truly performative “playtexts.” The non-linear plays are semi-musicals, but rather than include the music for each play, the written texts offer suggestions for songs that might command the same mood as the song used originally. In Upwardly Mobile Home, the script suggests the characters “sing and tap dance to the tune of a Broadway musical in the style of “America” from West Side Story” (101) and in Beauty and the Beast, the Beast “talks a song in the style of Peggy Lee’s ‘Is That All There Is’” (85). The way the texts are formulated reminds us that Split Britches is collaborative in the most ideal sense, and that the authors of the scripts do not desire an authoritative hand in how their plays are conceived by another producing organization. It is tempting to conclude that this type of collaborative theatre exemplifies an early feminist ideal. But while Margolin, Weaver, and Shaw are successful at collaboration, their feminism is not overtly didactic. Split Britches crosses boundaries between queer and feminist performance and by doing so, highlights the inherent tension in these categories.
In its fifteen year history, Split Britches has built a reputation for innovative performance techniques. Not only does the company appropriate styles meant to support heterosexual culture—vaudeville, burlesque, and the strip-tease, for example—but they turn those styles into expressions of lesbian and feminist representation. The content of their work meshes with their stylistic choices of performance by reimaging and restaging various aspects of women’s lives...