Katie Paterson is a final year Drama and Theatre Arts student at the University of Birmingham. She has frequently pondered the relationship between performance and performer, through essays and practice. Her interests include acting, directing and arguing about Shakespeare, all the while trying to politely smash the patriarchy.
An exploration of the objectification of the female body in performance and its presentation in relation to existing social structures
In looking at the work of theatre made by and about women, this essay will seek to establish ‘conventions of stage stereotyping’ women as sexual objects defined by their relation to the patriarchal structures mother, wife, and whore, and how these mirror the roles available to women in society. Theoretical texts by Elaine Aston, Julie Holledge and Elizabeth Howe, supported by others, will be applied to two case studies: Playhouse Creatures by April De Angelis, a bourgeois-historical feminist fictionalisation of the first English actresses, and Masterpieces by Sarah Daniels, a radical feminist analysis of pornography and the sexual objectification of women. Through the use of these case studies I will analyse the ways in which feminist theatre practice of this kind has challenged conventions of female representation, particularly focusing on the dehumanising effect of objectification, and assess the effectiveness of the work in challenging established gender norms.
In her essay examining the status of women in theatre, Julie Holledge describes a 1911 meeting of a particular suffrage group (unidentified by Holledge), in which the resolution ‘that ‘The stage conception of women is conventional and inadequate’ was passed unanimously’, and links it to the Equity Sub-Committee in the 1970s picketing London theatres ‘to raise awareness about the clichéd representations of women as mothers, whores and wives’. These examples show a consistent dissatisfaction within (unconnected) women’s movements at the limitations of female representation on stage, and in particular the male-centric interpretation of women’s experiences. Woman is conventionally represented as a character in man’s narrative, existing only in relation to him, rather than as an individual with a full lived experience. Holledge explains this phenomenon quite simply via Elizabeth Robins; ‘[t]he stage career of an actress was inextricably involved in the fact that she was a woman and that those who were masters of the theatre were men’ (Robins, 1932: 28-9).’
The ‘masters of the theatre’ were men because, with few exceptions, the masters of public life were men. Male-centric entertainment in a male-centric society is inevitable. Bassnett-McGuire identifies the dual convention of theatrical representation, confirming the socially inferior position of women, ‘relegating women to secondary or subservient roles and objectifying women to an idealised, passive, sexually available ‘art object’, denying not only their right to be equally significant but rendering them less than human. This convention of marginalising their experiences except in relation to men, and objectifying them to the point of dehumanisation, serves to maintain heteropatriarchal norms.
In establishing this convention, Bassnett-McGuire identifies the need for feminist theatre practice to challenge not only the representation of women in conventional theatre but the form of conventional theatre itself, by disrupting the linear-narrative form of the ‘well-made play’, which, she argues, is inherently masculine, for ‘such linearity is not part of the female experience’. Masterpieces is a formalist challenge to conventional ‘masculinist’ theatre. The use of direct address, a non-chronological narrative and ‘[b]reaking the naturalistic fourth wall by multiplying the fictional spaces in the main playing space’ presents the ideas and characters directly to the audience, rather than burying them in a conventionally structured, realist narrative. This is done to limit the autonomy of the audience in interpreting the play, rather than offering the play for objective analysis. In other words, the audience is not at liberty to contest the detrimental effect of pornography on society and its treatment of women.
The formalist challenge presented by Playhouse Creatures is less didactic, but relates to the cyclical concept of female experience Bassnett-McGuire alludes to. Its opening and closing scenes take place in a ‘Netherworld’ outside the confines of a linear world, where Doll and Nell discuss their experiences and choices, while the play’s main action happens in the middle. This implies a never-ending cycle, in which the events of the play are repeated endlessly. The audience is invited to reflect as much as to follow the narrative and character progression. The cyclical form is more consistent with the female experience of life as a series of events and cycles, as opposed to the masculine linearity of set up, climax, and denouement.
The absence of men in Playhouse Creatures is significant, as it centralises the experiences of women, denying the audience a male protagonist to define the female characters. Aston reminds us that the setting of Playhouse Creatures is immediately preceded by ‘those ‘stages’ in theatre history when women did not have bodies at all: when the male actor mimed the ‘feminine’’. The introduction of the actress therefore provided a unique opportunity to redefine the representation of the female body onstage. Considering Aston’s contextual framework, the ‘Breeches’ scene that begins Act 2 takes on a new significance. The issue of shares – the actresses’ entitlement to share in the profits of the theatre company that employs them and to which they are financially valuable – is recurrent, but it is most firmly expressed by Nell and Mrs Marshall while they are dressed as men, playing heroines that, according to Kirsten Pullen, ‘did make bold choices and enjoyed some masculine privilege’. Following this scene, once the women have made their claim to shares dressed as men, they are successful. This inversion of the preceding convention i.e. women performing as men rather than men performing women, is the ultimate demonstration of competence, proving that the actresses have earned their place on the stage.
Both Mrs Betterton and Mrs Marshall express frustration at the roles available to them as women, Mrs Betterton longing for the male roles she used to play illegally, because the female roles lack the fullness and vitality of the men. De Angelis creates a unique character in a woman who acted before ‘actresses’ officially existed, and therefore before she could be relegated to a secondary, less human, one dimensional character. Her frustration stems from the limitations placed on female characters, allowed to exist only in relation to the male protagonists, and the lack of any self-defining characteristics. Mrs Marshall makes the point explicitly that the women are only free to play objects of male imagination or consciousness;
‘Free. To play a faithful wife or an unfaithful wife. A whore, a mistress. We play at being what we are. Where’s the freedom in that?’
This highlights how the limited roles on offer are defined by women’s sexual status in relation to men, while the concept of performing ‘what we are’ reiterates the expectation that the actress not only play characters that exist for the benefit of male characters. The imaginary world of the stage could, if theatre makers were so inclined, provide a space for the actresses to play something more than the limited, male centred roles available to them in life. Instead, they repeat their limited roles. Playing characters that exist on the periphery of male experience, primarily as sexual objects, reinforces the perception of the women playing these roles as perpetually sexual.
The issue of presumptive sexual availability is essential to analysis of this subject and of the two case studies. The actress is a woman occupying public space, which, Holledge notes, affords her a level of autonomy and independence not available to the majority of women. The actress has ownership of her body, power over the audience and the ability to make people listen and respond to her. Milling notes that the emergence of the actress prompted some alarm, ‘[c]oncerns about the appearance of these bold speaking women might not have been so great if their voices had not carried so far.’ The power and reach of the actress was a challenge to patriarchal control that could only be rectified by removing the autonomy of the actress. By presuming that any woman who occupies public space with her body is perpetually sexually available, the autonomy of the woman is undermined. She is allowed to exist in public, but only so long as she fulfils the expectation of availability.
Inevitably, the expectation of sexual availability combined with the process of dehumanisation leads to toxic attitudes, which facilitate abuse. The issue of sexual violence is widely explored by strands of feminist theatre practice, confronting the audience with their complicity in the dehumanisation of women that results in them being harmed. Playhouse Creatures features numerous scenes that reference rape; both Mrs Marshall and Mrs Farley perform ‘despoiled’ speeches, and Mrs Marshall quite casually says to Doll, ‘[g]ive us a rip…I get taken against my will in the second half’. This normalised response is illuminated by Howe, who argues that rape provided a means for titillation without granting sexual agency to the woman, ‘[r]ape became a way of giving the purest, most virginal heroine a sexual quality…to exploit sexually the new female presence in the theatre’. This analysis gives greater significance to the prevalence of these scenes in Playhouse Creatures, particularly as they contrast with the experiences of Mrs Marshall and Mrs Farley offstage: onstage, rape makes them simultaneously sexual and virginal, there for the consumption of the audience. Offstage, they have consensual sex with powerful men (The Earl of Oxford and King Charles II), and for this they are both driven from the public sphere.
In the first scene of Masterpieces, the women, Rowena, Jennifer and Yvonne are confronted by their husbands telling rape jokes, and laugh at them with decreasing enthusiasm. This first scene is referenced in Rowena’s final speech, after the harrowing description of the ‘snuff film’; ‘I don’t want anything to do with men who have knives or whips or men who look at photos of women tied and bound, or men who say relax and enjoy it. Or men who tell misogynist jokes.’ Her last line is damning, equating the men who trivialise rape with those who commit the most despicable acts of sexual violence; all are participants in the systematic dehumanisation of women that pornography and objectification constitute.
An interesting point of comparison arises between the two case studies on the issue of what is actually shown to the audience as part of a feminist analysis of objectification. Playhouse Creatures requires two of the actresses performing the piece to ‘bare a breast each’. There appears to be a tension in requiring female nudity (only female) in the performance of a play that is to a large extent about the effects of sexualising actresses. De Angelis makes a statement about the Restoration theatre’s commodification of the female body and use of actresses as sexual objects, but in doing so requires self-objectification from the actresses realising her play. This may be seen as a confrontational device to emphasise the objectification faced by the characters, or as a de-sexualised action because baring only one breast in solidarity with a raped woman hardly invites arousal. However, this contrasts with the deliberate lack of any pornographic or sexually explicit visual imagery in Masterpieces, where ‘[i]n an attempt to instruct rather than arouse, pornography, the very subject of the play, is strictly withheld from the viewer’. In Masterpieces the oppressed female body is always represented verbally, through the description of the snuff film, the monologues of the various female characters, and the discomfort expressed by Rowena and Yvonne at the pornographic magazines Yvonne has confiscated from her students.
The plays represent two extremes of feminist thought in relation to the sexualisation of the female body; the censorship of removing the sexualised woman as an image, or the reclaiming of power over the body with non-sexualised nudity. It is not possible to state that one approach has been more effective than the other in challenging the conventional, limited and highly sexualised presentation of the female body onstage. The most significant aspect of these case studies is the experimental element with form, diverging from conventional narrative to allow the voices and experiences of women to come through, reclaiming female identity from definition in relation to man.
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