Sickness and Sexuality: Feminism and the Female Body in Age of Arousal and Chronic
Scott, Shelley, Theatre Research in Canada
A close comparison between two of Linda Griffiths's most recent plays, Chronic and Age of Arousal, yields a surprisingly rich, inter-textual exploration of the relationship between feminism, female sexuality, and a certain medical conceptualization of the female body. In my 2000 review of Griffiths's plays, I noted that "[Griffiths] is fascinated with the epic, with larger-than-life characters that allow us to grapple with their relevance to our lives" (Scott 84). Her characters are always struggling to have some larger significance, each within her own context; she "draws connections between the particularities of her character's situation and its larger resonances and implications" (Scott 88). Griffiths acknowledges this common thread when she explains, "My concentration on the sexual lives of women in Age of Arousal is part of a continuing exploration of the relationship between sex, politics and emotions" ("Flagrantly" 137).
The exploration in Chronic and Age of Arousal is rooted in an intense preoccupation with the female body as a site of social conflict, beginning with the spectre of sickness and its etiology, whether somatic, psychological, or social. In the nineteenth century of Age of Arousal, women are socially defined by their "natural" reproductive role, which, it is believed, makes them vulnerable on many levels and susceptible to nervous conditions and diseases. In the twenty-first century of Chronic, the central female character is well aware of this historical dismissal of a woman's right to understand her own body and the denigration of her perspective, and she thus feels entitled to demand a biological rather than a psychological explanation for her mysterious ailment. In both contexts, the meaning of the personal experience is inextricably social. As Rebecca Hyman has argued in reference to the feminist response to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), "the rhetoric surrounding nervous disease cannot be detached from larger debates about the modern self (189). The notion of a modern self, particularly the self as expressed and experienced physically, leads in both plays to a seemingly contradictory pairing: the power of illness and the power of sexual agency. It is the task of this paper to bring these two strands together and to examine the larger social implications of what Griffiths seems to be working through with her characters. Through the example of Chronic and Age of Arousal, these two threads--female incapacity and female sexual power--are considered as potential obstacles to the possibility of alliances between women.
Chronic, which premiered in Toronto at the Factory Theatre in January of 2003, and Age of Arousal, which premiered in Calgary at the Alberta Theatre Projects playRites Festival in February 2007, would not appear to have much in common. (1) However, Griffiths's plays all tend to have certain points of comparison, particular thematic elements that run through her whole body of work. For example, in his introduction to Chronic, Jerry Wasserman compares it to the play before, Alien Creature, in 1999. While Wasserman cautions, "I don't want to push these parallels too hard," he notes that "[a] long with the virtuoso writing that characterizes all her plays appear certain common structural and thematic qualities." For example, "her central figure is almost always a woman engaged in a struggle for power" (iii). In Chronic and Age of Arousal, the central characters in each play, Petra and Rhoda, are single women in their mid-thirties, engaged in white-collar professions dominated by men--in Rhoda's nineteenth-century context, the secretarial world, and in our own, the high tech realm of computer programming. Their struggle for economic independence, in a non-traditional field and in a changing social climate, is key to both plays.
Chronic is set in an unnamed urban centre that one might assume to be Toronto, particularly given the centrality of that city to the high tech "dot com" phenomenon of the 1990s. …