- Female Performance, Performativity, and Playwriting
The late nineteenth and early twentieth century witnessed an undeniable increase in women’s cultural work of all kinds. Women contributed to modern, avant-garde, and political performance and writing, exploited to the full the opportunities offered by a burgeoning popular culture of celebrity, and sought a more established place in the commercial theater. That many women did this work is becoming ever clearer, but the story of how they did it is still being told. Each of the works discussed below makes a significant contribution to that history.
Vicky Unruh’s Performing Women and Modern Literary Culture in Latin America focuses on the 1920s and 1930s, and on women’s strategies for achieving literary standing and success in a cultural climate that relegated them to the status of muse and the role of poetisa (a female artist: lyrical, passionless, self-abnegating). One of the strengths here is Unruh’s adept [End Page 166] handling of a wide range of authors from across Latin America—including Brazil, often left standing alone in the literary criticism of the region. The figures given extensive treatment here include Argentina’s Alfonsina Storni, Victoria Ocampo, and Norah Lange; Mexico’s Nellie Campobello and Antonieta Rivas Mercado; Cuba’s Mariblanca Sabas Alomá and Ofelia Rodríguez Acosta; Peru’s Magda Portal and María Wiesse; and Brazil’s Patrícia Galvão. This is in many ways a highly diverse group, but Unruh locates a common thread in the women’s use of performance and performativity to gain access to literary circles and to audiences. As Unruh observes, “the performing woman as portrayed in Latin American literary culture of the time offered a bridge from representations of women as art objects or catalysts to their conception as cultural actors” (16). Performance was more central to women’s lives at this time and place: recitation, dance, tableaux vivants, and singing were more commonly part of early education. Alfonsina Storni, Argentina’s first woman of letters not adjunct to a man, traveled as a child with a theater company.
Storni’s reimagining of Shakespeare in Cimbelina en 1900 y pico—a farce of gender hybridity and construction—has characters emerging from a giant book (books frequently appear as significant objects in her major plays). The piece is typical in its joking emphasis on ideas of cultural construction. Storni’s works often feature “an estrangement of ordinary things” (49), as in Polixena y la cocinerita, in which a kitchen maid recounts, while cooking, the unwelcome advances of her employer’s son, switching at times into a recitation of the lines of the self-sacrificing Polixena from Euripides’ play Hecuba (she is a real poetisa type). Objects such as knives and cucumbers take on a kind of life in response to the maid’s verbal incantations. This heightened sense of performativity, which points up the artificial nature of women’s roles, appears in the works of the other writers and performers as well: in Victoria Ocampo’s testimonios, with their staged conversations and strong narrative personae; in Norah Lange’s outrageous discursos, satiric performances for the Martín Fierro group; and in Rivas Mercado’s notion of the “performing...