Woman Defines Herself: (Re)claiming Identity by Re-Visioning Theater and Revisiting History

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Sharon Friedman, ed., FEMINIST THEATRICAL REVISIONS OF CLASSIC WORKS: CRITICAL ESSAYS. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2009. 290p. bibl. index, pap., $45.00, ISBN 978-0786434251.

Lisa M. Anderson, BLACK FEMINISM IN CONTEMPORARY DRAMA. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008. 152p. notes, bibl. index. $35.00, ISBN 978-0252032288.

Purnur Ucar-Ozbirinci, PLAYS BY WOMEN ABOUT WOMEN PlAY WRITERS: HOW WOMEN CREATE MYTHS ABOUT THEMSELVES. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2009. 288p. bibl. index. $109.95, ISBN 978-0773447080.

Milly S. Barranger, UNFRIENDLY WITNESSES: GENDER, THEATER, AND FILM IN THE MCCARTHY ERA. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008. 224p. notes, bibl. index, pap., $37.50, ISBN 978-0809328765.

Women have been the subjects of theatrical works for centuries, from Euripides Medea to Nora in Ibsen's A Doll House. Yet these characters until recently have been subject almost entirely to a male perspective. The works under review examine woman as she defines herself, her stories, and her history on the stage and on the stand. One of the authors quotes the statement by Helene Cixous that "[w]oman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing. ... Woman must put herself into the text--as into the world and into history--by her own movement" (Purnur Ucar-Ozbirinci, Plays by Women about Women Play Writers, p. 99). These works all ask, in some way, where a woman's voice is in theater, and what the feminist story is.

The authors of first three texts under review in this essay discuss theatrical productions that use various techniques to "jar" the audience into seeing anew. Most commonly noted by each is a technique called Verfremdung-seffekt, often shortened to "V-effekt," meaning to make strange or to alienate. Brecht used the V-effekt to distance the audience from his characters so that die characters might be considered in a more critical and political context. "In Brechtian terms," writes editor Sharon Friedman in her introduction to feminist Theatrical Revisions of Classic Works, "these distancing devices make the familiar strange, drawing our attention to ideology encoded in the plot, language, and structures of the dramatic or literary text as well as in performance" (p. 2). Most of the contributors to Friedman's collection mention Brecht's techniques as they analyze productions of feminist performance in the context of myth, race, and history. The fourth text under review examines historical accounts of women in theater and film who came under investigation during the McCarthy era. They were identified at the time as "unfriendly witnesses," while their male counterparts "walked the corridors of power as cooperative or friendly witnesses" (p. xiv). Milly S. Barranger asks why: What happened that left so many of these women silent, while the men interrogated went on to produce and publish drama and memoirs about their own experiences of the events?

The essays in Feminist Theatrical Revisions of Classic Works are masterfully edited by Sharon Friedman, who points out the significance of the word revision, or revision, meaning "to see and see again." To Friedman, "revision" represents more accurately than "adapt" what the feminist productions examined in these essays really do. How appropriate, then, for the words reclaim, reshape, and represent to appear throughout the essays. And what better place is there to explore the (re)visioning of female identity than the stage? Performance is where the personal is made political and the private becomes public.

Friedman gives the reader a brief introduction to the intermingling of feminism and postmodern theater. During the 1960s, theater sought to redefine itself in all of its relationships: between audience and actor, between playwright and director, and between the times and the theory. The ideas of collective consciousness and individualism were beginning to be explored and questioned. …