- Lives in Play: Autobiography and Biography on the Feminist Stage by Ryan Claycomb
In Lives in Play, Ryan Claycomb brings together feminist theory and critical considerations of narrative and performativity to examine feminist auto/biographical performances. While existing criticism pits performative concepts of identity in opposition to the idea of the live, performing body as a guarantor of selfhood, Claycomb asserts that feminist auto/biographical performances mobilize this dialectic both to critique ontological notions of identity and to enact a feminist politics of visibility. Claycomb focuses on performances from the late 1960s through the 1990s, in the United States and the United Kingdom. By staging women’s auto/biography, these performances engage second-wave feminist principles: the autobiographical performances that Claycomb analyses simultaneously enact and exceed the second-wave slogan, the personal is political, while the biographical performances participate in second-wave feminism’s recovery of women’s history. Claycomb situates these feminist performances as part of a larger humanist project.
Claycomb’s volume is divided into two parts. The first focuses on autobiographical performance, which Claycomb conceptualizes as a laboratory for the potentials and pitfalls of performativity and a limit case for poststructural understandings of authorship. The first chapter examines feminist performance art at the height of the culture wars, including pieces by Kate Bornstein and Bobby Baker. Claycomb dutifully rehearses some well-established arguments about the political potential of performativity in performance. He highlights the ways in which feminist autobiographical performance art of the 1990s throws performativity into relief in order to deconstruct patriarchal notions of gender and sexuality.
Claycomb’s second chapter considers the limits of performativity for autobiographical feminist performance, which conflates the body and the self even as it emphasizes a performative understanding of identity. Claycomb traces this trend in feminist autobiographical performance from early feminist performance art through the work of Karen Finley and Holly Hughes to that of Susan Miller and Terry Galloway, which also stages disability. In these performances, Claycomb argues, the material presence of the performer’s body functions as a guarantor of the truth of her lived [End Page 122] experience, valorizing and politicizing it. Yet, at the same time, Claycomb sees this materialist approach as emphasizing a critical standpoint that impedes an inter-subjective mutuality. While Claycomb argues that community is instantiated in performance, he posits a genetic concept of mutuality as a precursor to community. In addition, his analysis of disabled women’s bodies in performance flirts with biological and cognitive theories of identity. What his argument gains from these detours is unclear. This turn toward biological determinism goes against the grain of so much feminist thought, which seeks to undo the notion that biology is destiny.
Having discussed essential notions of an embodied self in feminist performance, Claycomb risks (from a post-structuralist perspective) another tricky manoeuvre, in his next chapter, by reading Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis as a theatrical autobiography. Claycomb challenges the notion that an autobiographical reading of Kane’s play closes off interpretation; rather, using the narratological concept of the implied author, he asserts that “4.48 Psychosis is both autobiography and not autobiography, both particular to the life of Sarah Kane and simultaneously a collage of references, intertexts, personas, and sites of a broader identification” (101). Claycomb challenges strict post-structuralist effacements of the author in that they “prevent women generally, and Kane specifically, from writing themselves back into history” (105). For Claycomb, reading 4.48 Psychosis as an autobiography repositions the mental anguish represented therein as material and specific rather than abstract and universalized. In addition, an autobiographical reading genders the critique of medical discourse that the play advances and offers women’s anger as a form of resistance.
The second half of the book focuses on biographical performance. Claycomb identifies the ways in which feminist biographical performance stages biography, while avoiding grand (wo)man narratives and other patriarchal aspects of more traditional biography. The fourth chapter analyses feminist biographical performances as works that construct histories in the service of feminist...