- Absent Mother/Present Mothe:Wertenbaker’s Credible Witness and Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul
Mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation (perhaps one should say submitting to a transformation) the full result of which one cannot know in advance.—Judith Butler, Precarious Life
Paradoxically, on stage a mother’s absence can turn into a type of presence and vice versa. Maternal absence signifies powerfully as part of performance, in part because it allows for a surrogacy and a transferal.1 Moreover, as Elaine Aston shows in her discussion of performance about the loss of mothers, absence opens a space for memory and representation.2 This may be the reason that it is difficult to stage maternal presence and that, on stage, present mother figures often border on being complex monsters. There is already too much “there” to welcome the overdetermined nature of a mother-as-presence instead of absence. Think of Clytemnestra, Hecuba, Medea, Volumnia, Queen Margaret, even Lady Macbeth or Mother Courage. This article considers how the figure of the mother is present even when she has been absented from the play, as in Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul (1999), and pairs that concept with the troubling absent space around a mother figure when she is present on stage, as in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Credible Witness (2001).
Central to the insight that emerges from my chosen pairing is how the absence and presence of mother figures in these plays interact with notions of emplacement or displacement, home or exile. As politically minded authors, Kushner and Wertenbaker regularly employ epic dramatic structures that link family stories to the large forces of intellectual debate around social movements and international relations, including the heritage of colonialism. Written close in time to each other, the two plays capture the shifting Anglo-American interaction with the wider world in a way that speaks to the revivified sense of dislocation produced by an increased awareness of global terrorism in the twenty-first century and the ever more pressing [End Page 61] need to reconfigure international relations. With their highly theatrical uses of absence and presence, Homebody/Kabul and Credible Witness link the geopolitical and the maternal in ways that mobilize notions of otherness developed in contemporary cultural theory and envision how connection and autonomy can coexist in personal and national identity.
Homebody/Kabul concerns a British family who travels through Afghanistan trying to find their disappeared mother and instead return to England bringing an educated Afghani woman with them, saving her from the suffering imposed by living under the Taliban. Credible Witness depicts the crisis over a surge of refugees seeking asylum in Britain at the start of the twenty-first century, when events related to immigrant detention centers were in the news (as they are again now). The play centers on a mother and son escaping political persecution in Macedonia and struggling in exile. Both plays premiered just prior to September 11, 2001, though both take on dimensional readings in light of the traumas of that day, because of how Kushner represents the politics of Afghanistan and how Wertenbaker depicts a Western indifference to the histories of political conflict in the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Because in these plays the geopolitical and the maternal intersect in the wake of personal and global loss, this article provides a theoretical foundation for reading them through theories about motherhood and theories about historical understandings of the self, society, violence, and mourning.
While the plays share several thematic links and both emplot the relationship of mothers and children on a quest to find each other, the playwrights invert their use of maternal presence and absence. In Kushner’s play, an epic monologue performed by Homebody dominates the first twenty-one pages of the play.3 This seems like an onslaught of maternal presence, except that beyond being designated a “homebody,” the character is not initially presented with focus on her maternal role. Perhaps the word homebody, describing someone who stays at home, or prefers staying at home, calls out motherhood on some levels of signification—a mother is a woman whose body was your home. But the term homebody more commonly...