- Women and Embodied Mythmaking in Irish Theatre by Shonagh Hill
It has been thirty years since the release of the first three volumes of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing and the ensuing controversy sparked by series editor Seamus Deane's near-total exclusion of Irish women from his de facto canon of Irish literature.1 Though feminist criticism in Irish Studies by no means began in 1991 or in response to Field Day, the anthology and its shortcomings highlighted the pressing need to recover and properly consider the contributions of women to Irish art, literature, and culture. Numerous scholars over the past three decades have made significant contributions to that effort, but the work is by no means done. Thus, Shonagh Hill finds herself in good and welcome company with her own contribution to this body of scholarship, Women and Embodied Mythmaking in Irish Theatre, from the Cambridge University Press. Hill posits her book as a complete reimagining of the historical narrative surrounding women and female embodiment in Irish theater. In the end, I do not think that the book accomplishes anything quite that revolutionary, but it does draw intriguing connections between texts and performances from the last twelve decades, offering new perspectives on the ways Irish women have experienced and resisted the dominant historical narratives of Irish identity from the Revival to the present.
Hill's stated goal is to create "a new paradigm, the genealogy, as a means of remodelling our understanding of the development of Irish theatre" (2). Citing philosopher Alison Stone, Hill explains that this conception of genealogy "is not concerned with origins, purity and bloodlines, but rather advocates a coalitional politics whereby 'women are connected together in complex and variable ways, through historical chains of partially and multiply overlapping interpretations of femininity'" (2).2 Through this model, Hill seeks to establish continuities between women's perspectives and experiences that cut across—but do not ignore—historical and cultural contexts.
As the title indicates, Hill focuses her analysis on female bodies, both in their textual representation by female authors and their physical manifestation onstage by female performers. Through an interconnected series of close readings stretching from the Revival to the twenty-first century, Hill traces the tradition of "embodied mythmaking" through which Irish female authors and performers "explicitly engage in the process of breaking and creating links in the chains of reinterpretation of myths of femininity" (24). In practice, this means [End Page 375] that Hill does not follow a strictly chronological path in her analysis, but instead seeks to establish "lines of confluence" between selected texts and performances, seeking "to uncover the hidden veins of resistance and revolution embodied in their mythmaking" (3). Hill posits this as a means of resistance to masculine narratives of linear history, arguing that the connections uncovered through her analysis "speak across the silences and create a (non-essentialist) body of work" (3).
The structure of the book somewhat undermines this effort to subvert linear narrative, though. In terms of scope, the book confines itself to the Revival and afterwards, with a first chapter that focuses entirely on Revival figures before introducing more recent authors in chapters 2 and onward. Taken by itself, chapter 1 is an excellent piece of scholarly analysis: Hill identifies a tradition of Irish women using their physical presence onstage to both evoke and disrupt iconic depictions of Irish femininity, a tradition she traces from the tableaux vivants staged by the Inghinidhe na hÈireann in 1901 (27), through Maud Gonne's performance as the titular character of Kathleen ni Houlihan in 1902,3 and eventually to Eva Gore-Booth's The Triumph of Maeve (54-62).4 In the context of the book as a whole, though, this chapter uncritically positions the Revival as an originating moment for Irish identity, at least as it has been understood and represented in the decades since. Hill's subsequent chapters, either explicitly through the configurations of sources they engage or implicitly through their very position as subsequent chapters, seem to reaffirm this...