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  • A Menopausal Gentleman: The Solo Performances of Peggy Shaw
  • Rebecca Ormiston
A Menopausal Gentleman: The Solo Performances of Peggy Shaw. By Peggy Shaw. Edited by Jill Dolan. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011. Cloth $65.00, Paper $26.95. 178 pages.

A Menopausal Gentleman: The Solo Performances of Peggy Shaw encompasses the intimate, wry, queer, and musically punctuated performance texts of Peggy Shaw, the iconic butch lesbian performance artist and co-creator of Split Britches. The collection includes four of Shaw's full-length scripts, written and performed between 1997-2008. Also included in the book are three of Shaw's monologues, written for Split Britches's full-length performances (Upwardly Mobile Home and It's a Small House and We Lived in it Always), a comprehensive introduction by Jill Dolan, and an interview with Shaw.

A Menopausal Gentleman stands as the first published collection of Shaw's writing, and it explores the complexity of Shaw's gender-bending performances, her protective brand of love, and her adamant refusal to let others speak for her. Shaw argues, "I'm performing as myself. Part of how I take care of people is that they don't have to be anything except how they are" (1). Her declaration for inclusivity echoes throughout A Menopausal Gentleman, resisting efforts to reduce her onstage personality solely to male impersonation. Conversely, her argument implies that gender remains a fluid, deeply personal endeavor; to adhere to rigid gender roles amounts to an incomplete posturing of personhood.

The scripts included (You're Just Like My Father, Menopausal Gentleman, To My Chagrin, and Must—The Inside Story) chiefly tackle the complexity of remaining a gentleman while the female body ages and continually investigate the questions: "Who is Peggy Shaw? What contributes to her performances? Who or what shapes her identity?" For Shaw, performance and life tread a thin line, converge, and spill over.

As a performer, Shaw moves and speaks effortlessly, but her writing reveals the difficulty of such work. In Menopausal Gentleman, Shaw declares: "An older woman being a gentleman is not funny" (84). Each script encompasses Shaw's fascination with mortality and the ways in which her own mortality collides with her energetic stage presence and her robust desire. Dolan's thorough introduction explores this tension at length, providing multiple critical lenses for spectators to receive Shaw's work, and cataloguing the first three scripts in A Menopausal Gentleman as a trilogy of masculinity, concluding with an "elegiac" piece on loss and aging, Must—The Inside Story (32).

Dolan's introduction contextualizes Shaw's writing with useful biographical information, as Shaw's scripts often shift between anecdotes from her adolescence [End Page 153] during the 1940s and 1950s, and musings on aging, death, art, and love while performing throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Keeping Shaw's longevity in mind, Dolan also describes Shaw's charismatic persona and technical skill as a performer and traces Shaw's formidable oeuvre from her theatrical debut in the drag troupe Hot Peaches to her work with Split Britches. Dolan argues that Shaw's female masculinity and her work in Split Britches made a significant impact on postmodern performance and working-class theatre, thereby recuperating a "butch-femme style" (16).

The introduction and scripts feature a complex web of influences for Shaw: Shaw's working-class, Irish-immigrant background; her heterosexual marriage prior to coming out as a lesbian; her complicated role as a butch lesbian during the rise of second-wave feminism; and other experiences of survival as a queer artist. Shaw similarly acknowledges the individuals who assisted in her self-fashioning. In Shaw's preface to the collection, an essay titled, "On Being a Solo Artist: No Such Thing," Shaw writes: "I am a solo artist and, by virtue of that, a collaborator—/ 'I would be nothing without you.'/ Well, I would be something, but not all that I could be" (39). With playful, elusive language, Shaw reveals how personal surety requires an endless shifting through collaboration. Comfortable working in contradictions, Shaw makes a compelling case for acknowledging others' roles in shaping and ultimately co-creating her theatrical aesthetic, her female masculinity, and her idealistic worldview...


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pp. 153-155
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