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  • Troubling Gender on Stage and with the Critics
  • April De Angelis (bio)

What is a woman? Is she, as Judith Butler asserts, a being that the repeated performance of gender has congealed into something that bears a fictional resemblance to an essence?1 Or is it more helpful to think of "woman" as a "real" being upon whom certain experiences are enforced: limited access to executive posts, an increased likelihood of experiencing domestic and sexual violence, a disproportionate share of domestic and child-caring tasks. Liberal essentialist feminism demanded an equal representation of women legally, socially, and politically, while deconstructionists critiqued this demand as entrenching the "construct" of woman in patriarchal society, arguing that equality could never be "won" for women, since the very construction of woman was predicated on a male/female binary that would by its very nature construct woman in relation to man, a grammatical gesture that left her always other, secondary, less—in psychoanalytic terms, castrated. How, the deconstructionists continue, is it possible to invest in a category of "woman," since it stresses the similarities between women at the expense of their differences? How are the life choices of an educated, liberal, white, Western woman comparable to those of women of color living in poverty with no access to education, health care, or basic human rights? I raise these questions, because they touch upon the topic of contemporary women playwrights.

If I ask you to imagine such a being, she will, in all likelihood, be white, educated, and urban. Perhaps she will be young. There is a lot of positive feeling about the fact that a new crop of young women writers are coming to the fore, having "found their voice" in a British theatre culture that, since the 1980s, has allowed women a platform in the New Writing theatres of urban capitals. No one can doubt that there was an absence of women writers before the arrival of Caryl Churchill and others, and Churchill has even been granted entry to the canon of greatness, floating somewhere beneath Pinter. But are the celebrations of such "advances" premature? Why hasn't the illusive 50 percent of produced plays by women ever been reached? Why has the 20 percent figure stuck so stubbornly? What is stopping us? Further, there is still only Churchill who is taken seriously as a great writer. She is alone. Is it because, as the anti-essentialists argue, equality is not achievable for women as writers or anything else, because to be a "woman" is to be "not a man," and so to be one without the [End Page 557] phallic power of language to validate them as men are validated? If it is not possible for anyone to escape representation in language, what should the strategy of beings gendered as women be?

First, it is not to write an article that plays into a fantasy of "the progress of women in the arts," along with the usual liberal myths of "we have come so far—we still have so far to go." Enough. Butler proposes subversive gestures. We can trouble gender, we can shake it. One way I would like to do this is to suggest that, instead of acknowledging a spurious "essential female identity" in a writer and seeing every play by a woman as an advance, we need to look at each play text in terms of the gender trouble it proposes. Whether the playwright is male, female, or transgendered should not be a consideration; rather, the issue is how the play represents gender. Let us junk the gender of the writer and read the play instead. Reading a play in text or performance through the lens of gender is in itself a subversive gesture in a critical culture that fails miserably to do so.

Take Lucy Prebble's Enron (2009), unanimously commended by the critics as an excoriating excavation of the financial system by "a young woman writer." How does gender figure? There was one representation of a woman that was more than a walk-on part (the others in tight skirts did dance numbers). This "executive" was the usual castrating bitch who, in turn, gets castrated for sucking up...


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