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Women in French Studies ODE TO THE HEROINE: MARGUERITE YOURCENAR'S DRAMATIC VOICE Gay Smith Wesleyan University. Middletown CT With the world and the artist's life in crisis. Marguerite Yourcenar turned to drama, that mode of expression predicated on crisis. Like so many European artists, Yourcenar found herself dispossessed by the Second World War. Belgian by birth, French by language and culture, Yourcenar came to the United States in 1940. Then thirty-eight years old, she had thought to visit New York and Connecticut for several months until the war ended, but in fact she lived most of her remaining forty-seven years writing on an island off the coast of Maine. She accepted the support and care of her American companion, Grace Frick, later a teachingjob at Sarah Lawrence, and eventually American citizenship. Now known principally as a novelist and the first woman member of the French Academy. Marguerite Yourcenar is not generally acclaimed as a dramatist, avantgarde or otherwise. She wrote only six plays, two in the early 1930s, three and a revision ofan earlier one during World War II, and her last during the Vietnam War. But in the 1930s and 40s Yourcenar did participate in avant-garde theatre experiments, as demonstrated in her monologues, plays and essays. ' And from a feminist perspective, Yourcenar the dramatist deconstructs traditional heroes and heroines in the advance guard oftwentieth century feminist theatre practitioners. Like the surrealists, Yourcenar makes images appear and disappear in the arbitrary fashion of dream-like sequence. Influenced by her predecessor and Belgian compatriot, Maurice Maeterlinck, Yourcenar makes use of silence and stasis. Along with other avant-garde artists, she disregards realism and psychology as the means of delineating character, experimenting instead with more depersonalized instincts and will power in deconstructed myths. Yourcenar shared with contemporary avant-garde artists of the 1930s a passion for spectacle, for ballet, music-hall, film, the circus, and Japanese No drama. Her 13 Women in French Studies first play (1931), a short one-act based on a medieval tale, owes its structure and tone to the Japanese No, as the playwright points out in a later preface. A film sequence appears first in the novel A Coin in Nine Hands (1934) and then the play adaptation Render Unto Caesar (1971), in which a fading film star sits in a darkened movie theatre watching herself on the screen, while a stranger next to her makes love to her without realizing she is the actress he fantasizes making love to. In Fires (1936), Yourcenar creates a modern version of how the poet Sappho might commit suicide — as a circus trapeze artist who deliberately misses the trapeze bar. Inspired by Cocteau, Yourcenar incorporates objects and references from modem times, in an almost post-modem manner. Classical figures might wear sunglasses or traverse a battlefield of armored tanks. Yourcenar would continue this avantgarde technique in plays based on classical legends. In Electra (1943), a reinterpretation of Electra's and Orestes's murder of Clytemnestra, for example, the queen arrives at an ancient hut wearing modem high heels and a rustling silk dress. For almost four decades, from Fires published in 1936 to her last dramatic work Render Unto Caesar in 1971, Yourcenar experimented with the monologue as a conveyance of drives and desires, a cluster ofmemories and actions in syncopation. Yourcenar is less interested in the traits of characterization, psychological or otherwise, than the being behind those traits. She explains what she means in an essay on Virginia Woolf, contemporary with Fires, which she wrote to accompany her translation of Waves (1937). She observes that the major novels of the nineteenth century deal especially with biography of "character," whereas Woolfs novels focus on the biography of "being" (l'être): ...of entities infinitely more subtle and secret than the circumstances of their life, or their moral personality. The notion ofcharacters is not absent in Virginia Woolfs work, but they have the effect of light masks, half humoresque, placed on the bias over the faces of these personages: they caricature the being, in the fashion of external clothing ("Une Femme étincelante et timide," Essais 493). The distinction Yourcenar makes about Woolfs characters applies to her own...


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