- Lives in Play: Autobiography and Biography on the Feminist Stage by Ryan Claycomb
Ryan Claycomb’s Lives in Play: Autobiography and Biography on the Feminist Stage devotes itself to auto/biography during second-wave feminism and through the first decade of the twenty-first century. The book ambitiously covers a broad spectrum of topics by speaking critically about staged stories that represent and contest concepts of “authorship and political presence” (203). Throughout the text, Claycomb successfully interrogates rhetorical and persuasive performance tactics used to disrupt gender categories and norms. Readers will find beautiful descriptions [End Page 138] of theatre’s most provocative feminist performances constructed from personal and controversial stories of artists who brought narratives into the political domains of real-life in a manner of their choosing, while provoking questions of identity and the link of the historical to the body. Claycomb’s strong analysis of performance constructions, productions, and contents through the lens of self-authored and reclaimed identities makes this book a valuable text to anyone interested in life writing and performance studies.
The text ably mixes retrospective and current scholarship and is organized in two sections of three chapters each. The first half of the book is devoted to autobiography and the second half to biography. While all of the chapters read as independent essays, Claycomb manages to maneuver them into cohesion through an overarching argument that performing life stories “reveal[s] real life as performative” (2). Given the sheer volume of theory around performances of the self and others, it is difficult to effectively articulate multiple lines of inquiry in feminist autobiography and biography in one book. Yet, Claycomb is diligent in navigating the diverse terrain of feminist writing by drawing on criticism and its implications in the body politic. He pulls from Roselee Goldberg, Deirdre Heddon, Rebecca Schneider, Judith Butler, and others. He sweeps through and judiciously cites multiple performance pieces with brief descriptions or longer case studies. In the autobiographical section, he devotes a full chapter to Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, which some critics contentiously called “a suicide note” (92-93).
The three chapters on autobiography are situated around questions of authenticity, agency, and presence. Claycomb lays out a parallel track between feminist and queer performances which often cross paths in illuminating autobiography. He skillfully describes the ways in which performance artists such as Bobby Baker, Kate Bornstein, and Orlan have used performativity “to establish gender, sex, and sexuality as constructions of discourse” (55).
In the biography chapters, Claycomb argues “the act of biography is itself a performance” given “the degree to which women’s lives in history are already deeply mediated and textualized, even prior to the mediation of textualization of playwriting” (138). These metatheatrical experiments that represent “the lives of women who were in the business of constructing representations” highlight rhetorical and political aims” of playwrights (139). Cited examples include Carolyn Gage’s Last Reading of Charlotte Cushman (who is incorrectly identified as an eighteenth-century instead of a nineteenth-century actress) (139), April De Angelis’s Playhouse Creatures, Maria Irene Fornes’s The Summer in Gossensass, and others. The biographies represent both lives and “the roles that writing and performance played in shaping these lives within the public sphere” (140). In this last section of the book, Claycomb also incorporates an important analysis of performance possibilities for gender and race (e.g., Timberlake Wertenbaker’s New Anatomies and Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus) and of disability and pain. [End Page 139]
Ultimately, Claycomb skillfully argues that the two aims of life writing and performance central to notions of identity are located in the tangible body and “subject to the flows of cultural discourse” in autobiography (56), and explicates pluralistic approaches and the many tactics and tensions at work in biography. Claycomb claims a performance experience is always embedded in history, whether reaching to a past and archiving it in the body to understand how “disparate bodies function dialectically” across time (205), or whether situated in the...