- Making a SpectacleMotherhood in Contemporary British Theatre and Performance
Maternal subjectivity and embodiment have consolidated as central themes in late-twentieth-century British drama and performance art and have continued to occupy an important position in the early years of the third millennium, appearing regularly in text-based theatre, radio drama, and live art and performance installation. In theatre, to give an example, the works featuring mothers or mothers-to-be cover a multitude of genres and approaches, from revivals of classics to foreign plays in translation and new writing for the stage. The trope of the maternal appears recurrently in works authored by both male and female artists, as well as in collaborative practice, and often appears alongside the investigation of other issues. For the purposes of this essay, I focus on plays and performances that center on a dedicated rather than incidental examination of mothers, motherhood, and mothering and that address the complex biological, emotional, political, and financial circumstances of maternity in the contemporary world.
The range of work to be discussed deliberately brings together a number of approaches, as the essay wishes to negotiate the boundaries between theatre and live art. Glass Body: Reflecting on Becoming Transparent (2006) and My Glass Body (2007), by Anna Furse (belonging to the latter category); Once We Were Mothers (2004), by Lisa Evans; and Colder than Here (2005), by Laura Wade (belonging to the former) are united by their investigation of a long-standing [End Page 161] concerted effort on the part of the protagonists to carry out some sort of parental function, either in the present, past, or future. In this selection of plays and performances, the desire for becoming a biological mother sits alongside the trials and tribulations of practicing motherhood, and alongside the disruption of the maternal process (due to loss or bereavement) that gives way to grief and memory. In other words, the essay maps out the desire for connectivity in accord with a “matrixial” economy as theorized by Bracha Ettinger and charts the (fluid) shifts from maternal presence to maternal absence.
My reading of the positions and alternatives offered in the pieces discussed proposes an examination of the maternal as a venture targeting mainly the future, alongside the maternal as a form of day-to-day investment of labor situated in the present and the maternal as an encounter between different subjects (modeled on the psychoanalytic “I” and “non-I”) that takes place beyond the here and now and that can include the past. In parallel with the above positions, and as a common denominator, I also wish to situate the treatment of the maternal in terms of the Butlerian performative—considering the maternal as “a kind of doing, an incessant activity performed” and as a “practice of improvisation”1—and to argue that the representation of mothering and of the desire for motherhood is often located in a discourse that spectacularizes the maternal body. Positioning the maternal as spectacle immediately suggests the existence of an external agent witnessing the performance and the prevalence of a certain power derived from the observant gaze. The essay acknowledges the loss of agency associated with being looked at; however, it also emphasizes the celebration of the maternal subject’s desire to unleash its performative potential as a platform for consolidating or reclaiming agency. In this sense, I am not talking about the feminist empowerment associated with the female gaze (as a subversive reappropriation of Laura Mulvey’s concept of the voyeuristic “male gaze”) or about the Oedipal or phallic gaze, but paraphrase Bracha Ettinger’s less oppositional concept of the “matrixial gaze” that opens up a space for connection and coexistence: the “matrixial borderspace” of transsubjectivity in which non-relating entities come into a mutually transforming relationship.2
I am also indebted to Ettinger for the terms “resonance,” “overlay,” and “interweave,” with which she titles her 2009 solo art exhibition at the Freud Museum in London. Like Ettinger, who emphasizes the ways in which her art practice resonates with the Freudian space of memory and migration, I wish to signal the convergences between an amazing body of work by women artists that deals with the...