Formal Parody and the Metamorphosis of the Audience in Timberlake Wertenbaker's the Love of the Nightingale

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Recent feminist theory of the theater has turned out for scrutiny every aspect of the dramatic experience, whether from the perspective of production or performance or viewing. Particular attention has been given to the last of these, for spectator or audience theory has particularly powerful implications for feminist theater. According to Lizbeth Goodman, a changing relationship, with the audience influences every other aspect, production and performance alike, of feminist theater:

The making of feminist theatre is informed by the role of the audience in so far as practitioners have conceptualized a new audience for their theatre (in the significant shift in gender, or assumed gender, of the spectator).... Yet feminist theatre is not only received and interpreted, but also influenced by its audience. It does not merely preach to the converted,' but challenges traditional images and ideas, and may thereby `convert' some members of its audience by redirecting their views on (or ways of viewing) representation of women in culture. (233)(1)

In the effort to define this reciprocal dynamic, Goodman focuses closely on contemporary working practices, stressing that "[a] theory based on ideas of interpretation and reception without reference to working practices would fall short of the needs of the theatre itself, while a discussion of theatre practice alone would have only a limited value in on-going theoretical debate" (234). Her recent book, openly reflecting the suspicions of academic criticism expressed by many of the women she interviewed for her study, warns against overvaluing "literary and formal criticism" in judging the merits of a play or production, and asserts that an emerging feminist poetics of drama must accommodate "other considerations" than the conventional academic ones that have controlled the evaluations -- hence the reviews, hence the very survival -- of these productions and their companies.

The approach to handling the audience/stage dynamic, however, is as varied as the playwrights and performers who come to it. While the agitprop origins of contemporary feminist theatre might be the fundamental drive behind developing a new, more active type of audience, some playwrights, perhaps those emerging from a more traditional theatrical or an academic upbringing, are finding ways of exploiting, through feminism-informed revisionary procedures, the most ancient conventions of drama.

Timberlake Wertenbaker's The Love of the Nightingale (1988), a "remake" of the ancient Procne and Philomele myth, is a feminist play that shines under the light of such analysis. For it achieves, through a parodic rehandling of an ancient story and of the ancient dramatic form of the Greek tragedy, precisely the renewal of an active audience dynamic that Goodman and others have proposed as central to the feminist project in the theater. Parody permeates this play, from the handling of the chorus to the handling of the tragic ending. But the primary target of Wertenbaker's formal parody is not so much the structure of Greek tragedy per se, but rather the str-ucturing of the contemporary theatrical experience.

To put it another way, the focus of Wertenbaker's tampering with the conventional structures of Greek tragedy is ultimately the audience that is watching her own play. What The Love of the Nightingale is finally about is personal responsibility, and through its slightly distorted mirroring of an ancient myth of sexual violence and of an ancient dramatic form as well, the play explores the responsibility an audience has for the real existence of the kind of sexual violence the ancient myth portrays.

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The function of literary parody has recently enjoyed a thorough reconsideration, from critics of post-modem literature particularly. Linda Hutcheon, most notably, has described postmodern parody as "a kind of contesting `revision' or rereading of the past that both confirms and subverts the power of the representation of history" (226),(2) and in this process of re-vision she locates the creative, rather than simply de (con) structive, potential of parody in any period in which it appears. …