Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Isabelle, a Man from Algeria: A Response to Verna A. Foster*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Isabelle, a Man from Algeria: A Response to Verna A. Foster*

Article excerpt

I advise you to take your own life [...] to prevent biographers from taking it in theirs.

Letter from Henry Adams to Henry James1

Verna A. Foster's choice of Wertenbaker's New Anatomies to study the aesthetic and ethical impUcations of historical drama is apt: her reading dissects the play's structure and economy and scrutinizes the drama's embodiment of a historical figure, Isabelle Eberhardt. Foster appUes Freddie Rokem's idea that historical drama has a pecuUar "double or even triple time register [...]: the time of the events and the time the play was written and in some cases also [...] the later time when it was performed" (Foster 109; Rokem 19). The social and poUtical understandings associated with these different layers may cause cognitive dissonance, confusion or misapprehension on the part of audiences.

In New Anatomies, Foster identifies a documentary source time (turn of the century Algeria under French colonial rule), an authorial production time (the late 1970s era of feminism reflected by Wertenbaker's interest in Eberhardt's "cross-dressing and its relation to the formation of sexual, gendered, and also religious and national identity" [109]) - and finally, a reception time ("at the beginning of the twenty-first century" when audiences have a "quite different perspective on and fascination with relations between Westerners and Arabs" [109]), "a post-9/11 world" (113). New Anatomies with its feminist concerns may seem somewhat 'outmoded' to contemporary audiences, Foster notes, but her larger point is that history plays, as a genre, are "particularly vulnerable" to changing contexts of reception (114). When, in addition, the play's historical moment is embodied in an individual figure, the playwright's selection of "formative experiences in her protagonist's life" (115) involve aesthetic choices that have ethical implications which concern both the reception of the work and "the dramatist's respect for the documentary record" (116). Foster argues that Wertenbaker "distorts Eberhardt's life in a way that her audience will not be able to evaluate, as they might in the case of a well-known historical figure" (123), the irony being that Wertenbaker' s play is "a critique of just such forms of exploitative reconstruction" (123). In this response, we will broaden the context of the discussion of the aesthetic and ethical uses of documentary sources in art works about biographical figures, while keeping the focus on Eberhardt. We will examine how her particular life story raises issues around life /art relationships, performance theory, and the use of poetic license in historical documentation.

In "Reinventing Isabelle Eberhardt," Foster raises issues as specific to historical drama that are largely generalizable to history and (auto-) biography in the postcolonial era. What happens on stage with its attendant aesthetic and ethical dimensions is emblematic of how we live our 'unstaged' lives. Performativity is a thread that runs through our contemporary understandings of history, politics, language and subjectivity.2 Foster is wary of the free hand Wertenbaker exercised in shaping Eberhardt's life - a free hand Wertenbaker herself recognizes: "When I am asked where my plays come from, I am always stuck for an answer. There are so many sources, a mishmash of autobiography, obsession, chance encounters, reading and conversations" (vii). Wertenbaker "was intrigued by the mental liberation in the simple physical act of cross-dressing" - a theory looked at below - and became fascinated by Eberhardt (vii). Equally fascinating is how those who write about Eberhardt end up linking their own autobiographies with hers - by appropriation, documentation, identification, critique, apology, parody, and reinvention. In stumbUng upon the fault Unes running through the landscapes of gender formation, artistic inspiration, reUgious faith and cultural difference, Eberhardt manages to draw others after her onto this unstable terrain. …

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