- Restaging Feminisms by Elaine Aston
In Restaging Feminisms, Elaine Aston chronicles the relationship between a collection of recent case studies in feminist theatre and ongoing feminist campaigns. In so doing, she revisits the three dominant feminist discourses of the 1970s—liberal, radical, and socialist—and traces their development and influence within current political struggles under neoliberal patriarchy. The issues raised by the plays within her study range from challenging liberal feminism’s focus on seeking equality before the law, through ending sexual harassment within the theatre industry and recovering diverse herstories within the historical record, to forecasting global ecological destruction. While focused on British theatre and society, Aston’s study positions local developments within international contexts, mapping the resonance of the plays’ concerns with feminist politics in other Western nations. With the resurgence of scholarly and popular interest in struggles against sexism, racism, and other intersectional oppressions, Aston offers a timely review of how theatre and performance can contribute to “more socially progressive [feminist] futures” (108).
The “restaging” invoked in the monograph’s title references both the way performance strategies “recycle, reclaim or renew” earlier feminist “dynamics,” and a “re-encounter with the tripartite modelling of liberal, radical and socialist feminisms” through which they are articulated (3). Following the model laid out by Sue-Ellen Case and Jill Dolan in their landmark 1988 publications, Aston devotes a chapter to each of these discourses in turn. She begins by examining the discourse’s historical trajectory before revealing its contemporary reinvention within detailed performance analyses of two recent theatrical case studies. According to Aston, increasing inequality, precipitated by the 2007–08 global financial crisis and exacerbated by austerity measures, has led to a growing recognition of what [End Page 599] Beatrix Campbell terms the “neopatriarchal and neoliberal matrix” (qtd. on 5). This, coupled with the “Weinstein watershed” of 2017, the impact of which reverberated globally, has led to a renewal of feminist activism, this time with a commitment to intersectionality (108).
Chapter 2 begins with an examination of the popular mainstream liberal feminism that Aston argues has been co-opted by postfeminism and is better characterized as a strategy rather than a movement. Each of the case studies in this chapter—Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling (2018) and Nina Raine’s Consent (2017)—thus “problematises liberal-feminist legacies and strategies” (9). Wade’s satire inverts popular tropes with its protagonist Judy retreating from modern life into a fantasy of a 1950s housewife whose empowered choice to return to the home playfully critiques the “neoliberal mystique,” in which such freedom conceals the “il-liberal and patriarchal power relations [that] remain firmly in place” (40). Raine, in contrast, dramatizes how the justice system continues to fail women by shaming rape victims on the witness stand and upholding patriarchal values. In both examples, Aston draws attention to the limitations of a liberal feminist strategy that aims to increase women’s access to powerful institutions, while maintaining patriarchal power relations. Having established these limitations, she then turns her focus to the “more socially transformative” radical and socialist feminisms, respectively (54).
In chapter 3, Aston highlights contemporary radical feminist collectivity within David Greig’s adaptation of Aeschylus’s The Suppliant Women (2016) and Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s all-female Emilia (2018), while examining their production contexts in light of the #MeToo movement. The Suppliant Women attracted criticism for relying upon the unpaid labor of thirty female chorus members and boycotts due to allegations of sexual harassment against the director. Nevertheless, Aston finds a critique of patriachalism in the show’s “ideas-affections” (64) that stage the collectivity of women’s voices in judicial petitioning and popular protest to call for women to increase their socially democratic power by acting together. In Malcolm’s play, Aston finds explicit radical feminist strategies in the reclaiming of the herstory of Renaissance poet Emilia Bassano that exemplifies the power of women acting together in narrative and in the all-female creative team. Epitomizing “feminist unruliness and disobedience” (77), Emilia joyfully disavows genre conventions and celebrates the commonality of anti-patriarchal struggle through the...