Before she was a writer of novels, memoirs, travel books, and political commentary, Mary McCarthy was a theater critic. As a young writer, she turned her brilliant mind and her practiced book reviewer's eye on the contemporary stage, beginning with a series in The Nation in 1936 and moving on in 1937 to her long-running monthly "Theater Chronicle" in Partisan Review. In her introduction to her collected Theatre Chronicles, McCarthy recalls,
All my habits of mind were bourgeois, my fellow editors used to tell me. They were always afraid that I was going to do something, in real life or in print, that would "disgrace Partisan Review"; this was a fear that worried me even more than it did them. I used to come down to the office on Saturdays (I worked for a publisher during the week) and listen to the men argue, in the inner room, beyond the partition, pounding the table and waving their arms in the air. Once a month, late at night, after the dishes were done, I would write my "Theatre Chronicle," hoping not to sound bourgeois and give the Communists ammunition. (ix-x)
The passage contains a great deal of irony; the year this collection was published also saw the publication of The Group, which, in the words of Robert Lowell, aroused a "roar," a "forest fire" of "praise and abuse" that seemed to indicate that the novel was most emphatically not bourgeois (qtd. in Brightman 481). In fact, the success of the theater reviews themselves was enough to dispel the image of the bourgeois housewife McCarthy evokes here. This passage, however, is infused not only with irony but also with fear, both that she could be so easily typed by others and that her own "habits of mind" might make her, indeed, typical.
These fears of being typed and of being a type are complicated by the fact that McCarthy's own brand of insight was largely based on her ability to see others as types, as illustrated in the passage above. She describes the PR editors "pounding the table and waving their arms in the air," typical of their time, gender, class, occupation. She sees them as acting out a version of themselves, and she presents herself as acting out their version of her, cleaning dishes after the evening meal. Having aspired to the stage herself until her actor husband and others discouraged her, and having become instead a theater critic, Mary McCarthy was a vigilant observer of performance wherever she found it, and she found it everywhere.
Early on, McCarthy seems to have been persuaded that performance is mock action, separable from real action. For example, McCarthy felt that Ben Hecht's To Quito and Back was an abrupt departure from his previous plays, and in her December 1937 review she wrote, "I am not sure whether Mr. Hecht was wearing a transformation or had actually undergone one" (3). In her 1940 review of two plays by William Saroyan she wrote, "Saroyan as a public figure does an impersonation of Saroyan, but as a writer he plays straight" (47). McCarthy never lost the conviction that literature could be true or false, and she was still ready to fight about it in 1979 when she inspired a lawsuit by saying on The Dick Cavett Show that "every word she [Lillian Hellman] writes is a lie, including `and' and `the'" (qtd. in Kiernan 673). However, lies, impersonations, performances outside of art were another matter entirely, and the question of whether performance is indeed separable from real action seems to have become a source of anxiety for McCarthy; she confronted this anxiety in her fiction.
This intense and honest confrontation with the problem of performance and its relation to identity has been treated by most scholars and critics of her work simply as a particularly scathing brand of satire. The criticism of McCarthy's fiction that does not focus on its autobiographical elements nearly always focuses on her satire, which is frequently compared with knives and blades. Paul Schlueter describes her "sharp, ruthless satiric touch" (62) as characteristic of the "Modern American Bitch," and claims that "The best term to describe her particular approach to writing ... is dissection" (55). Some comment favorably on her satire: Louis Auchincloss discusses her "satirical art" (176), and Charles I. Glicksberg refers to "her power of satiric deflation" (187). However, most describe her satire negatively: Dwight Macdonald wrote, "You begin to feel sorry for her poor characters ... She doesn't love them ... she has just contempt" (qtd. in Gelderman 170); Jonathan Baumbach claims that McCarthy finds her characters "sterile and absurd" and "feel[s] superior" to them (9); Elaine Showalter notes that Pauline Kael saw McCarthy's satire as "betraying other women" (347); Lillian S. Robinson uses the words "detached and clinical" and "alienated" in describing some of McCarthy's writing (390). A few have problematized McCarthy's particular kind of satire, especially D. J. Enright in his Conspirators and Poets and Dawn Trouard in her "Mary McCarthy's Dilemma: The Double Bind of Satiric Elitism," but still limit their analyses to this one aspect of the fiction. The exclusive and persistent focus on satire and autobiography in McCarthy's work may have obscured other approaches to date, which may in part account for the dearth of more recent work on the fiction.
I argue that we should read Mary McCarthy's fiction not as the harsh satire of an author who can find nothing in common with her pathetic characters, as past critics have done, but as the shockingly intimate process of coming to terms with the conviction that all action, and therefore one's very self, is performance. McCarthy focuses on individual characters who recognize those around them as typical; these insightful few wonder if they, too, are perceived by others as types, wonder if they are, in fact, types, and wonder if they can possibly escape being types. This last question is answered somewhat affirmatively in the early novels and resoundingly negatively in the later ones, but lurking in all is the reluctant recognition that one can never completely escape typicality because all of one's actions are simply repetitions, performances of acts that pre-exist the self.
The link between performance on stage and off has been theorized by Derrida. In their introduction to Performativity and Performance, Andrew Parker and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick differentiate between Derrida's formulation and those against which he argued: "Where Austin, then, seemed intent on separating the actor's citational practices from ordinary speech-act performances, Derrida regarded both as structured by a generalized iterability, a pervasive theatricality common to stage and world alike" (4). This "pervasive theatricality" is a cause for concern in McCarthy's fiction, and Judith Butler outlines its implications for the individual, applying Derrida's idea of iterability to the formation of identity and the possibility of agency. Butler argues that "the subject is a consequence of certain rule-governed discourses that govern the intelligible invocation of identity," and, further, that "The rules that govern intelligible identity ... operate through repetition." She emphasizes that the subject is constituted, but not determined, by these rules: "The subject is not determined by the rules through which it is generated because signification is not a founding act, but rather a regulated process of repetition." Because the subject is not determined by discourse, agency is still possible: …