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  • Lives in Play: Autobiography and Biography on the Feminist Stage by Ryan Claycomb
  • Jenn Stephenson (bio)
Ryan Claycomb. Lives in Play: Autobiography and Biography on the Feminist Stage. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2012. 261pp. ISBN 978-047211-8403, $55.00.

For auto/biographical performance, one strand of its genealogy—of its own autobiographical originating myth if you will—connects the birth of the genre [End Page 407] to the popular slogan of second wave feminism: “The personal is political.” Harnessing activist weight to the presentation of everyday stories, this ethos opened the door to the enactment of life stories from across a diverse range of previously marginalized groups. As Deirdre Heddon notes in Autobiography and Performance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), the vast majority of autobiographical performances are uniquely concerned with the tension between revealing and creating identity—a project that has been dominantly taken up by women, gay, lesbian, and transgendered individuals, and performers from visible minorities. In his book Lives in Play: Autobiography and Biography on the Feminist Stage, Ryan Claycomb sifts this corpus of performed life stories to return the focus of autobiography to its feminist roots. Attention is directed on a surface level to plays where the subject matter is explicitly feminist, staging central political demands like equality of opportunity and freedom from sexual harassment; but more potently, Claycomb also moves beyond content to consider how these plays express feminist approaches in their dramaturgical structure.

The central concern of the book tackles the tricky but rich ontological crux at the heart of performed autobiography (and to a lesser extent performed biography) arising out of their categorization as subtypes in the larger genre of Theatre of the Real. Marrying the material of a historically real person to the necessarily fictionalizing frame of theatrical performance highlights an ineluctable tension between the actual foundations of auto/biography and the performative practice, which invokes self-reflexive fluidity about the creation of that foundation. Claycomb describes the relation of the performed to the real in this way: “[These] forms of staged life writing reveal a persistent, politicized inquiry into how gender roles are constituted, shaped, and presented through performance. This line of thinking specifically interrogates a critical tension between staged women’s lives as either radically performative or reliably referential, between the performer as either constructed through discourse or as a politically potent speaking subject” (2).

Chapter 1 examines performances by autobiographical artists Kate Bornstein, Carmelita Tropicana, and Bobby Baker, which apply contradictory or unstable narratives to autobiographical performance to illustrate that self-hood is itself performative. These artists are “performing real life precisely to reveal real life as performative” (2). Claycomb draws out the reflexive pattern common to this kind of self-performance where the blended staging of an actual live speaking body splits attention between its stable referentiality and its fluid performativity. Together these elements generate a feedback loop on the audience-community, compelling us to see the effect as both representation of a state of affairs and also mediation on how that state of [End Page 408] affairs comes to be. In this way, autobiographical performance demonstrates its activist tendencies.

Posing this same challenge to self-referential biographical feminist plays—plays about performance, plays about actresses, plays about reading and rehearsals—Claycomb identifies a failure or short circuit in the audience up-take. Through three elegant case studies (Hélène Cixous’s Portrait of Dora, April De Angelis’s Playhouse Creatures, and Maria Irene Fornes’s The Summer in Gossensass), he lucidly demonstrates the operations of inward-looking metatheatricality. It is this metatheatricality that attempts to forge connections from one historically grounded world inside the play to our own contemporary concerns: “These plays also gesture outwardly to their audiences, offering them safe spaces for imagining gendered transgression while also seeking to persuade them to import these performances into the world beyond the stage” (147). And yet, as Claycomb observes in his conclusion to this section, the framing of biography as performance also dissipates this potential effect, as the plays “only rarely [turn] outward toward the audiences whose lives they hope to affect” (172).

In the book’s persistent examination of how the real is intertwined...