Voicing abuse/voicing gender
D'Monté, R. (2006) Voicing abuse/voicing gender. In: Wallace, C. , ed. (2006) Monologues: Theatre, Performance, Subjectivity. Prague: Littereraria Pragensia Books, pp. 208-231. ISBN 97880730865001
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Publisher's URL: http://litteraria.ff.cuni.cz/books/monologues.html
Confessional memoirs have become increasingly popular during the few decades, and it is interesting to note that this phenomenon has also occurred on the stage. This has been spurred through the use of the theatrical monologue, which creates an intimacy with the audience, and one that, during the 1990s, became increasingly experiential. Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues (1996) was originally staged as an off-off-Broadway show which went on to global success, fuelled by the supposedly liberatory possibilities of the female voice and celebrity endorsement. Based on interviews by Ensler with over 200 women, the monologues celebrate the vagina as a site of female empowerment, whilst contradictorily describing actions of abuse perpetuated by men. The audience is encouraged to purge their feelings about their bodies (and about patriarchy) in a collective cathartic process. Whilst this play has engendered a political campaign to stop violence against women, a number of criticisms have been levelled against it; for example, it has been suggested that Ensler has appropriated the voices of her interviewees for entertainment, and that the play perpetuates the view of women as victims. It is certainly a play that focuses on female violence for a primarily female audience. In contrast, Claire Dowie’s Adult Child/Dead Child (Finborough, London, 1987) and Sarah Kane’s Crave (Traverse, Edinburgh, 1998) and 4.48 Psychosis (Royal Court, London, 2000) engage with the notion of abuse, but in a more sophisticated and theatrically stimulating way. Dowie’s play utilizes the voice of a mentally disturbed adolescent, who conjures up an imaginary friend, Benji, as a reaction to an abusive childhood. Dowie specifically states that the play had been written without gender in mind, allowing directors to take full opportunity of the elasticity of power dynamics between individuals and within social structures. Here, the language and staging become optimum rather than the subject matter. Sarah Kane takes this even further in her plays, Crave and 4.48 Psychosis, which went some way to a reconsideration of her work as engaging with language rather than simply, as some critics had originally thought, shock tactics. Both plays experiment with multiple-strand narratives and intertextuality, which adds to the richness of the ‘voices’ being heard. Whilst Crave indicates identity through letters – A, B, C and M – these stand for archetypes (Author/Abuser, Boy, Child, Mother). Whereas the speakers in The Vagina Monologues present their material as biographical or autobiographical, here the speeches connect with issues wider than that of a male/female dichotomy. In 4.48 Psychosis, it is in fact the mind/body dichotomy that is under interrogation. Viewed by some critics as Kane’s ‘suicide note’, before she killed herself in 1999, its use of four unidentified, and ungendered, voices becomes ‘a way of making language attempt to express the boundaries between reality, fantasy and different mental states’ (Graham Saunders). This is not to suggest that Ensler’s sincere attempt to represent and denounce male violence against women is wrong-headed. However, her play presents a universal female voice, which – if shouted loudly enough – creates a superficial sisterhood amongst audience and performer. Dowie and Kane, on the other hand, strip away gender as an element that is, if not redundant, at least reductive as a means of dissecting issues of abuse.
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