Can drama be feminist?

By Sarah Weston

In the study of arts-based subjects, the tendency might be to apply theories (“isms”) to pieces of art as a kind of critique, as a way of approaching a text, etc, from a certain perspective, in order to write a convincing essay.

For example, I remember being asked to write an essay by choosing a play, and choosing two critical theories to critique it with. Although I think it is more insightful to approach a playtext with the broadness of a political or social context, trying to interpret anything I could find in Aphra Behn’s The Rover as “socialist feminist” is not very helpful.

First, “isms” are being treated homogeneously, as if they are all equal and can be applied equally, depending on which one suits which play better. It is removing them from their purpose as a constant social/political/economic critique of our own society, and instead being a way to understand a piece of art better.

The theories themselves are not criticised, and not understood as things that are alive and need to be practically applied in reality: socialist feminism becomes a critical tool to be used alongside psychoanalysis, or post-colonialism, or Foucault.

Without even getting into the political problems with this, I think it also misses how great political art works.

A piece of drama that is considered socialist feminist does not arise out of examining the writings of socialist feminists. It arises out of the real life problems facing women of that time. The writer has potentially read feminist literature, but that influences in so far as it gives her the perspective to view the world in a certain way, not provide a rule book to her playwrighting. If we were to watch a play that made clever little references to feminist theory, demonstrating how well read the author was in feminist literature, we would find it too self-conscious, and not interesting as drama, as it would no longer be about real people.

So there are two issues here: how useful is it to study already existing texts as feminist, and how do we create new work that is feminist? Yes, plays should be analysed within a political framework, and they can be used to demonstrate our ideas. But numerous practitioners have identified this as problematic.

Plays tend to be dramas of psychology, and are concerned with the relations of individuals, rather than wider society. This is obviously not true of every piece of theatre, but I think it is more referring to how audiences view plays.

Practitioners such as Brecht were concerned with audience viewing drama onstage as something separate to their own lives, and only true of the characters on stage. A play is feminist because of the conflicts and relations of characters on stage, but this only matters if the ideas go further than the playtext, otherwise it is not a feminist play, it is a play about the characters.

On the other hand, when it comes to creating new work, there is a danger of practitioners becoming overly concerned with making it political. Didactic plays that hammer a message into the audience are some of the most boring and awful things to watch, and I think leave the viewer just as passive.

If someone does want to use feminist theory as starting point to creating new work I think it is more interesting to look to what we already have within drama itself.

Take ideas of performativity. Judith Butler wrote extensively on this matter, particularly gender performativity. In very basic terms, performativity is about how language and other actions construct, consolidate and regulate us to perform behaviours. Butler takes this further to demonstrate that gender is performative. Gender is rehearsed like a script, and we are the actors that make the script a reality through repetition of the language and actions.

If we take these ideas into the rehearsal room, we are already within our median of performance. If we look at gender as performance, non-conscious performance regulated by society as a whole, what happens if we enter the very conscious performance space of a rehearsal room, or a theatre? How can we layer these different ideas of performativity? When are we performing and not performing anymore? Who becomes audience?

The difference here is that we are not pushing theoretical ideas into a play, but we are developing them, we are going deeper into them, they become practice.

Of course you cannot create every feminist piece about performativity, I am using it to exemplify how theory into practice comes from a different way of thinking about it.

You could have a play that ticks all the right boxes politically, makes excellent socialist feminist arguments, but reads like a manifesto and leaves you with no real feeling. There is no aesthetic response to this. You might as well read the literature it came from instead.

Practical demonstration of theory in performance is much more complex than this: it cannot just be about reciting the right lines. It needs deep exploration of an idea in all matter of manifestations. How do you show this idea physically, musically, silently? What tools have we got: have we used our whole body, have we used the whole space, have we maximised on our relationship with the audience?

If we are looking at previously written texts, it is not just about how they demonstrate the lives of women at the time, but how can the ideas resonate now? Are they still alive? Can we re-invent them?

Studying drama theory and practice with feminism has to be approached like any form of materialism: it must be constantly renewed and reinterpreted.

• Sarah is a Drama with Philosophy graduate who is currently working as co-creator, writer and performer in emerging theatre company blueDragonfly Productions.

Originally published in Women’s Fightback paper June 2012.

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About womensfightback17

Women’s Fightback is a socialist feminist paper and blog produced by members and supporters of the socialist group Workers' Liberty. Workers’ Liberty is a revolutionary socialist organisation fighting as part of the labour and student movements, and in campaigns, for a socialist alternative to capitalism, based on common ownership and democracy.

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