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  • Playing House:Staging Experiments About Women in Domestic Space
  • Ann M. Shanahan (bio)

The relationship between women and the houses they inhabit has been repeatedly explored in literature and drama, where the house operates as a complex, often contradictory referent for women’s social position. The principal location of women’s lives through history, a house represents, on the one hand, a space of restrictions and limitation; and on the other, a creative domain. In drama, playwrights have used the setting of a house to inform conflicts surrounding women’s freedom, and have manipulated spatial dramaturgy to enrich these subjects. As ongoing experiments in the performance of gender, I am staging a series of workshops in the large mansion that houses the Women’s Studies and Gender Studies (WSGS) Program1 and the Gannon Center for Women and Leadership at my university. These include a workshop of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House with undergraduate student actors and a full production of Maria Irene Fornes’s Fefu and Her Friends, with faculty from several departments cast in the eight female roles. Both plays concern a house in relation to central female characters, and in both, this relationship is intricately connected to the play’s action and its significance. With these projects, I set out to explore the potential of staging in domestic architecture to amplify conflicts concerning women and houses in the plays. I have found, in fact, that staging in a house goes further, to reveal previously obscure dramaturgical aspects of the plays, the dynamics of which, in turn, suggest further explorations in feminist performance-based research, both academic and pedagogical. Potential extensions of these experiments include the use of live performance as a methodology for research on gender for disciplines beyond theatre, such as history and anthropology, and as means of pedagogical innovation and community-building across disciplines.

Women and Houses in Literature

For centuries, houses have figured large in writing by and about women. This usage became particularly pronounced at the end of the nineteenth century, when the historical restriction of women to the domestic realm was about to change. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf uses the metaphor of a house both to advocate for female autonomy within domestic space, and to mark that space as a repressive container of female creativity. Woolf illustrates the significance of the domestic space for women in the following passage:

the resources of the English language would be much put to the stretch, and whole flights of words would need to wing their way illegitimately into existence before a woman could say what happens when she goes into a room…. One has only to go into any room in any street for the whole of that extremely complex force of femininity to fly in one’s face. How should it be otherwise? For women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their creative force. (87)

The same consideration of domestic walls as a site of creativity and repressed authority is explored by other female writers of the same period. In “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1888), Charlotte [End Page 129] Perkins Gillman tells the story of a woman who merges with decorative features of the house that has become her prison.2 Edith Wharton (herself a decorator and designer of houses3) less directly applies the metaphor in The House of Mirth. Here, the house serves as an abstract symbol for a transitional time in fashionable New York society for women at the end of the nineteenth century.4 Wharton’s memoirs refers to her own life as an artist as secret rooms—an “inner house”:

I have sometimes thought a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall through which everyone passes in and out and the drawing room where one receives formal visits … but beyond that, far beyond, there are other rooms, the handles of whose doors are never turned, no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holiest of holies, the soul sits and waits for...


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