Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Cross-Gender Casting as Feminist Interventions in the Staging of Early Modern Plays

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Cross-Gender Casting as Feminist Interventions in the Staging of Early Modern Plays

Article excerpt

'Activism: the policy of active participation or engagement in a particular sphere of activity; spec. the use of vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change ' ("Activism")

Since the amphitheatres of classical antiquity, theatre has been a site of cultural exchange--an historically contingent locus for reflecting, interrogating, subverting and reaffirming hegemonic social structures. Even in the 21st-century economy of mass-media and microtechnology, live theatre continues to exert a powerful influence over the social and political landscape, not only in terms of its reciprocal relationship with new visual media such as television, cinema and the virtual universe, but as a productive and re-productive creative institution in its own right. To the extent that theatre is a central locus of cultural exchange in a postmodern multi-faceted arena of ideas and interactions, it is not only a valuable tool for holding "as 'twere, the mirror up to nature" (Shakespeare, Ham 3.2.23), but also for intervening in and effecting social change. It is no surprise, therefore, that feminists have begun to turn to the theatre as a means of demystifying received notions of gender binarisms and challenging the male caretakers of our cultural heritage. In reviving Renaissance canonical texts in particular, feminist activism in modern British theatrical institutions is well-positioned not only to interrogate the misogyny immanent in the works themselves, but also to expose the ideological structures that continue to collude with these values on the contemporary stage and in society in general.

From the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, feminist scholars have been vocal in their commitment to eschewing "the linear absolutes of the male tradition" and promoting instead a "newly visible world of female culture" (Showalter 28). (2) Elizabeth Schafer, for instance, has reclaimed from the margins of theatre history the work of eight contemporary directors, giving "prominence to the[...] women's own words" to demonstrate their "proficiency, even excellence" and to "evok[e] a remix of different songs, different voices, different music" (1-2). On the other side of the feminist fence, writers such as Coppelia Kahn, for instance, were arguing for the re-evaluation of Shakespeare as a proto-feminist, contending that the Roman plays in particular "articulate a critique of the ideology of gender on which the Renaissance understanding of Rome was based" (Roman Shakespeare 1). Valid though these approaches may be, merely promoting a "female culture" runs the risk of reinforcing the hegemony of the "male tradition" and colluding with the patriarchal enforcement of gender essentialism. Arguing for a feminist reading of Renaissance writers, meanwhile, occludes historical difference. The fostering of female talent in the form of theatre groups such as Split Britches ("an exemplary lesbian feminist theatre company" which "experiments with gender roles" (Goodman 140)), (3) and Gay Sweatshop ("a mixed company of lesbians and gay men" which constitutes one of the "most influential 'feminist' theatre companies" in terms of what it has contributed to the "development of lesbian theatre as a genre" (Goodman 73)), obviously has its place, and is an important channel for women playwrights, directors and actors. However, due to their innovation in both form and content, it is both easy and expedient for the male establishment to marginalize the activities of feminist dramatists and relegate them to the fringe of mainstream theatre. As Colin Chambers, then literary manager at the RSC, (4) remarked in an interview in 1986:

"There are roughly two positions inside the company. One is that we must in some way encourage women to be represented, but that they must go through exactly the same process of selection or competition or whatever as everybody else, i.e., the men. The other is that this process is precisely the process that excludes them. …

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