Research Proposal: Feminist Drama and Performance Timberlake Wertenbaker

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Timberlake

Feminist Drama: Two Plays by Timberlake Wertenbaker

Theatrical performance, beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing through the twentieth and into our current era, has been at the forefront of social and political change. This has been arguably true of the art from during other epochs of human history, but has been most noticeable in the modern age. Issues of class, race, sexuality, and gender were first truly explicitly dealt with in plays such as Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House and Ghosts, George Aiken's stage adaptaion of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, and other examples of nineteenth and early twentieth century realism such as Strindberg's Miss Julie and even, to a degree, the more serious works of Anton Chekov. The change in style and theme of these theatrical scripts both reflected and helped to perpetuate the ongoing social changes throughout this time period, including to a large degree the reshaping of identity that occurred in modern society at large, but especially in the subjugated and/or minority subclasses.

For the entirety of Western civilization, the female members of the species have comprised one such sub-class. This issue has been recognized in greater or lesser degrees since at least the time of the ancient Greeks; one of the clearest and earliest examples of a (quasi) feminist text is Aristophanes' Lysistrata, in which women use their sexuality to end a pointless war. Though the themes and plot of the play are not exactly progressively feminine by today's standards, even this Old Comedy makes clear the injustice and illogic inherent to a highly patriarchal system. Various other figures in history and drama have also contributed to the bucking of the male dominated power system, but it was not until modern drama that the issue of feminine identity was truly addressed.

The Beginnings of Feminist Drama

Aphra Behn is the first known female playwright in the English language, but despite the social and economic boundaries this proved her capable of crossing, her Restoration-era scripts such as The Rover and The City Heiress did little to truly redefine the role or identity of women in her society. The Mexican author Sor Juana showed an early grasp not only of the colonial and ethnic experience and its influence on identity, but also on the parallels that these situations had to the issue of gender. In one of her short loas, preceding a larger work entitled The Divine Narcissus, America is embodied as a female somewhat caught between the warring (and masculine) figures of Occident, an Indian male, and Zeal, a Spanish male, and eventually won over by the calm and compassionate reasoning of Christianity (a Spanish female) (Case 42). The female as an object of control is made explicit in America's plight, though the questions of agency and identity are confused somewhat by Christianity's entrance.

This confusion of identity, however, has been a hallmark of feminist drama even in its most concrete forms. It is, in fact, central to the issue of feminist theory (as well as many other branches of criticism dealing with marginalization and postcolonialism). Ibsen's A Doll's House does not offer a clear judgment of its protagonist, Nora, and her decision to leave her family and make her own life. What the play does is highlight the difficulty and uncertainty of such a possibility for the female, and this uncertainty persists in feminist drama and literature.

The issue of identity and the uncertainty of attaining it are also essential to modern drama as a whole, and not just to works with overtly or explicitly feminist themes. This is not to suggest that modern theatre has developed in tandem with feminist ideologies. As Fortier points out, "like much materialist theory and unlike, for instance, much phenomenology and post-structuralism, feminine theory is directly and predominantly political. Its purpose is to struggle against the oppression of women as women" (Fortier 108). This is in many ways a gross oversimplification of the aim and process of feminist drama, but Fortier's definition does have its merits. It provides the very basic framework within which feminist drama is operating; i.e. feminist drama operates under the assumption that women are being oppressed as women, consciously or otherwise, and that they oughtn't to be. Most feminist drama, however, attempts to move beyond the mere assertion of these blithe (and by now rater pedantic and even trite and cliche) truisms and delves into the possibility of a female existence and identity that is not only un-oppressed, but that is also independently and freely expressed.

Finding the Second Sex

In her seminal 1949 work The Second Sex, philosopher and critic Simone de Beauvoir examines the question of female identity and the phenomenology of gender at great length. In her book, she critiques many other constructions of gender identity, including contemporary theories that, while showing a definite progression from the unadulterated patriarchy from whence they came, fail to grasp the issue in clear enough terms to be truly progressive. The title of the book itself explicitly references the secondary status given to the issue of female identity and gender studies as a whole, which colors most if not all of the scholarship occurring along such lines. Beauvoir notes that this is still defining the female from a masculine perspective.

Beauvoir makes this especially explicit in her treatment of the psychoanalytical theory. After describing the liberation that this new perspective gave in its reduction (though not elimination) of biological constraints on gender, Beauvoir engages in a long discussion with freud's theory on feminine development and self-awareness, concluding that "The two essential objections that may be raised against this view derive from the fact that Freud based it upon a masculine model... All psychoanalysts systematically reject the idea of choice and the correlated concept of value, and therein lies the intrinsic weakness of the system" (Beauvoir). That is, Baeuvoir sees the psychoanalytical approach as reducing not simply the biology of gender, but even the very humanity of choice -- especially for female-identified individuals.

Reclaiming such choice in the process of making identity, then, becomes the goal of feminist theory and of feminist texts. Beauvoir asserts her attempt to "place woman in a world of values and give her behavior a dimension of liberty. I believe that she has the power to choose between the assertion of her transcendence and her alienation as object" (Beauvoir). This sentiment can be echoed even in the early stirrings of feminist drama, even before the genre or indeed the phrase had been fully conceived. August Strindberg's Miss Julie is not strictly a piece of feminist drama; he refers to the heroine as a "half-woman" and "man-hater" (Strindberg 93). But in his preface to the play Strindberg notes the multiplicity of perspective and motive that he attempted to employ in defining and guiding the rather unsympathetic title character, from the "passionate character of her mother" to "her menstruation" and "her association with animals" and ultimately ("of course") "the passion of the sexually inflamed man" (Strindberg 92).

This quite explicitly demonstrates the conflict found in feminine texts, and perhaps particularly in feminist drama which has the added layer of conscious scripted performance overlaid on the subconscious, automatic, and always-already present performance of gender. Even while attempting to create a more well rounded and complexly motivated female character, Strindberg finds himself (without apparently realizing it) working within a construct that defines femininity in terms of its relationship to and/or resemblance/disfigurement of masculinity. This construct reflects the fundamental oppression of women in a patriarchal society; as Fortier puts it, "if most cultural work has been given over to men, it follows that most prominent cultural work is invested in a masculine perspective...patriarchal culture is seen as the exchange of cultural material -- often involving representations of women -- within an exclusively male social economy (Fortier 109-10). Without female practitioners and predominantly female audiences, the female perspective simply isn't.

Modern Feminist Drama

Strindberg's own masculinity, then, might be one of the major reasons that he was unable to create a female character with true agency and complexity while retaining full status as a woman. In addition, such a concept was not culturally viable. Though there were exceptions, not until the twentieth century were women truly able to seek out careers and livelihoods in a field of their choosing. Even (perhaps especially) writing was closed to them, and the economic constraints necessarily limited the perspective presented in the culture. Feminist theory and texts have not dealt with a purely ideological issue, but also with the very real attendant practicalities.

Themes of economics and political and social agency are common and even essential to feminist drama. Again, this is clearly visible in A Doll's House; even though this was the creation of a male author in a highly patriarchal society, the practicalities of life as a woman in such a system from the fundamental basis for the plot of the play. More recent feminine dramatic texts, however, more closely relate such practicalities with the inner struggle… [END OF PREVIEW]

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