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  • Dispublics:Popular Yet Political Spectatorship in Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad and Erin Shields's If We Were Birds
  • Kailin Wright (bio)

An onstage chorus of murdered women calls for action as they shout "And now we call / to you to you" in the final moments of Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad: The Play (2007).1 Erin Shields's If We Were Birds (2008) similarly ends with a plea for revenge as "you" echoes violently throughout the theatre: "You you you you / you you you you / YOU YOU YOU YOU."2 These choruses of disenfranchised women address the audience and model strategies for how the offstage "you" can strive for positive political change. Performed within one year of each other at mainstream theatres in Canada, Atwood's and Shields's plays offer feminist adaptations of Greek myths from the female characters' perspectives.3 These plays illuminate the central paradox of political adaptations: they inevitably reinscribe the very source material they seek to undermine. In this way, political adaptations like The Penelopiad and If We Were Birds simultaneously identify with and against source material, because they perform an extended retelling of a narrative while challenging its political significance.4 I argue [End Page 213] that political adaptations perform what Michel Pêcheux and José Esteban Muñoz term disidentification by at once identifying with and against a dominant source narrative. Political adaptations address a specific "you," or audience member, who at once aligns with and against the canonical source narrative, thereby disidentifying with the sources' normative ideologies. In this way the spectators form a specific type of public—a dispublic—that can disidentify with and transform dominant narratives. A dispublic participates in normative culture, but challenges facets of its popular ideologies from within; the concept of a dispublic, as a result, applies to audiences beyond political adaptation and accounts for the increasingly political nature of popular performances today. The conclusions of The Penelopiad and If We Were Birds capture their ultimate political message: the plays confront the audience as a dispublic with potential to participate in real-world change. Using two feminist adaptations of Greek mythology and their audience demographics as case studies, this essay examines how mainstream theatre can engage a politically conscious audience, or dispublic, in order to transform the cultural imaginary.

Adaptation is a popular method of storytelling that is, as Linda Hutcheon explains, "the norm, not the exception."5 Adaptation is also a leading strategy of popular, yet political theatre, with plays like Timberlake Wertenbaker's The Love of the Nightingale (1988), which offers what Nursen Gömceli describes as a "radical feminist" adaptation of a Greek myth, that premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Company's The Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon.6 Ellen McLaughlin's Iphigenia and Other Daughters (1995) presents a feminist adaptation of Greek mythology (the Oresteia legends) that addresses "the margins of the epic," but finds its home on the mainstage: it premiered at New York City's Classic Stage Company.7 Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses (1996) reformulates Ovid's version; in 2002 her adaptation, and its feminist aesthetic, was performed on Broadway to critical acclaim.8 These popular feminist productions reflect Janet Brown's assertions that performance is "a political gesture, not merely a psychological or spiritual one," because "all performance … is public and therefore political in nature, impacting the larger society."9 Mainstage adaptations of canonical narratives in plays by Atwood, McLaughlin, Shields, Wertenbaker, Zimmerman, and others are simultaneously popular and political; and these are only examples of feminist adaptations of Greek myth. One need look no further than Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical Hamilton (2015) to see how political adaptations can shape an audience into a politically engaged dispublic. Hamilton, as Lyra Monteiro says, "challenges" the [End Page 214] "exclusive" versions of history that focus on white men in order to "create a world in which women's voices are no longer silenced and Black Lives Matter."10 Hamilton disidentifies with dominant narratives of America's past, and in doing so invites the audience to disidentify with exclusionary history.11 While these plays demonstrate the political nature of mainstream performance, I examine the type of spectator they address and...


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pp. 213-234
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