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Reviewed by:
  • Autobiography and Performance: Performing Selves
  • Dorothy Chansky (bio)
Autobiography and Performance: Performing Selves. By Deirdre Heddon. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008; xi + 218 pp. $90.95 cloth, $28.95 paper.

Deirdre Heddon strategizes like an ace debater, anticipating and addressing resistant reactions, theoretical as well as knee-jerk, to the multifaceted genre she skillfully parses in Autobiography and Performance. True to the goals of the series in which the book appears, Theatre and Performance Practices, Heddon's text offers both a history and an assessment of the significance of a category of contemporary performance. "The work of autobiographical performance," not all of which is either confessional or solo, is, she explains, "to explore (question, reveal) the relationship between [italics in original] the personal and the political, engaging with and theorizing the discursive construction of [End Page 187] selves and experience. The personal has political purchase when its place in history and culture is examined, when its ontology is dissected rather than taken as a given [ . . . ]" (162).

Audience presence at autobiographical performance is what creates public value, but Heddon's concern for audience is accompanied by a refusal of naïve ideas about efficacy and liveness. She notes that spectators can feel isolated and lonely at live events; communitas is not a guaranteed effect. Liveness, she argues, is a tool that requires skillful deployment in a context that includes understanding of market and marketplace, since "[m]ost performances exist as commodities" (169). Also, she locates contemporary autobiographical performance in the context of a "glut of mass-mediated confessional opportunities—'reality tv' shows, chat shows, internet chat rooms, blogs, etc." (17), which puts pressure on performance pieces to prove their mettle as meaningful political interventions. Heddon recognizes the therapeutic value of creating autobiographical work, but she is less interested in individual healing than in how these shows provide alternative narratives and thereby alternative ways of seeing, thinking, and acting.

The book's case studies are British, Scottish, and American and include the work of well-known artists as well as some amateur projects. They are clustered under rubrics of place, history, ethics, and politics of self, although virtually all the pieces are concerned with some facet of all the rubrics. For example, Kim Ima's The Interlude, which premiered in 2004 at La Mama (not La "Mamas" [64]), emerged from Ima's experience (politics of self) with a father who was silent about his World War II (history) interment in a US camp for Japanese Americans (place). The Interlude makes no attempt to construct a coherent narrative of "what really happened." Rather, it honors the effects of trauma both during and after the interment, foregrounding the legitimacy of silence and the incoherency resulting from traumatic experience. It shares a chapter with readings of Robbie McCauley's Sally's Rape (first performed in 1989) and Lisa Kron's 2.5 Minute Ride (premiered in 1996) (interestingly, all pieces by American women, and all subject to questions about the ethics of telling others' stories). Each piece troubles ideas of closure through disclosure. (Psychoanalytic theory about trauma undergirds the chapter.) Heddon recognizes that stories don't only "unburden"; they may "contribute to further oppression" by offering discourses that can be appropriated for "other (often unforeseen) purposes" (60). While she doesn't offer examples of such cooptation, her acknowledging the problem strengthens her position as a writer who takes seriously possible skeptics in her readership.

For her discussion of performance pieces in which physical location figures self, Heddon coins the neologism "autopographic" to signify the simultaneous writing of self and place. Here, as elsewhere in the study, seeing depends "on where you are standing, when and for what purpose" (91). Mike Pearson's Bubbling Tom (2000) featured the then 50-year-old anthropologist leading a walking tour of places from his childhood in Hibaldstow, England, and inviting audience interruptions. The final stop was contested terrain, as spectators disagreed as to the exact spot where the eponymous brook yielded its putative magic effects. No place, in other words, is "written" by just one person, just as no person comes to selfhood in the absence of enabling (or disabling) publicly available narratives.

For readers who have...


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pp. 187-189
Launched on MUSE
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