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Comparative Literature Studies 40.1 (2003) 54-71

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Queering The Stage:
Critical Displacement in the Theater of Else Lasker-schüler and Mae West

Gail Finney

Women have participated in the creation of theater in the West at least since the tenth-century Saxon noblewoman Hrotsvitha von Gandersheim wrote a half dozen religious dramas in Latin while overseeing the regional convent. Later examples, to mention only a few, include the highly successful Aphra Behn in seventeenth-century England, the British Susanna Centlivre and Hannah Cowley in the eighteenth-century, Friederike Caroline Neuber and Luise Gottsched in eighteenth-century Germany, and Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, writing in the nineteenth-century in what was to become Austria. But in the case of female playwrights, the challenges typically associated with the transition from page to stage were compounded by their gender, since they generally lacked the social authority and economic power of men. Publishing their plays was often even more difficult, since unreliable or non-existent copyright laws made their work easier for others to pirate and stage once it had been circulated in print. Hence much of what women created for the stage in the past has been lost or exists in unstable form, and the majority of European and American women writing for the stage before 1900 have been forgotten.

To give a concrete illustration of this situation: Susanne Kord's groundbreaking study of German-language women dramatists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries discusses the work of fifty playwrights and unearths more than 300 women writers of some 2000 plays. 1 Yet prior to the appearance of Kord's book, at most a handful of these playwrights would have been known to the average Germanist. Not until the twentieth century did European and American women playwrights begin with any regularity to see their plays published and produced in public. [End Page 54]

Especially considering women's long-standing marginal role in the theater, it is not surprising that twentieth-century female playwrights often write against the grain, breaking with conventions on which Western theater had been based for two millennia. In many cases, therefore, the work of women playwrights does not accord with the expectations of audiences and critics. Useful in this connection is the well-known concept of a "horizon of expectations" as formulated by Hans Robert Jauss's aesthetics of reception, or the culturally determined cluster of expectations brought to the work of art by a hypothetical recipient at a particular moment in history. 2 The gap between the critical horizon of expectations and authorial realization frequently shapes aesthetic judgments, and can in the case of drama bring about a process that I would like to call critical displacement: the critic, confronted with unsettling or unpleasant subject matter or unconventional, unanticipated techniques, deliberately misinterprets or detours around these disturbing elements and substitutes less provocative or offensive ones.

Since the majority of both playwrights and critics in the early twentieth century are male, critical displacement is often inflected by gender. Encountering features he has not expected from a female playwright, the critic might for instance substitute a more tolerable generic designation or interpretation for the one the play confronts him with, or divert negative attention from a controversial element in a play or from an entire play by attacking a less disturbing element in the play or a less scandalous work by the same playwright. Although strategies of critical displacement are of course present in the reception of male writers, the process of critical displacement can be more evident when the playwright under review is female, since taboo subjects are all the more shocking when treated by women.

Readers familiar with Freudian dream interpretation will be struck by the similarity of critical displacement to the process Freud terms displacement (Verschiebung), one of the key mechanisms—alongside condensation, considerations of representability, and secondary revision—of the dream-work. Freud believed that elements from the latent content of dreams which might be disturbing are displaced, or substituted, in the manifest content by less significant, even...


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