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Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis and Shakespearean Comedy.

Staging the Gaxe moves between the paradoxes of visio dei in Nicolas of Cusa and the tortuous relay of look and gaze in Lacan. Between these poles Barbara Freedman sketches a history of Renaissance perspective, offers a theory of theater, and performs a series of close readings of Shakespeare. Brilliant, learned, and ambitious, this book would be a tour de force if its skeptical, recursive method did not so often threaten to undermine its achievements.

Staging the Gaze opens with a dazzling interpretation of Durer's print of the perspective artist and his model, in which Freedman shows how the insistent binarisms (male/female, observer/observed, culture/nature) of the work undermine and reframe themselves. An epitome of Cusanus, read as a precursor of deconstruction, follows; then, drawing on Cassirer, Panofsky, Joan Kelly Gadol and Ernest Gilman, Freedman traces the development of perspective theory to its culmination in Alberti, who constructs a metaphysics of vision while suppressing its relativist foundations. That other meaning of "perspective" -- optical tricks, anamorphic illusions -- remains as the shadow side of Renaissance optics and prefigures the visual metaphors of poststructrualism. Freedman is aware that distinction between historical periods is called for, and tries to make it through a visual analysis of three prints (two early modern, one by M. C. Escher) that play with the conventions of perspective. But after too brief discussion she abandons the attempt because "the prominent play of blind spots within these pictures is finally less important than the blind spots at work in the process of comparing them" (46).

Freedman's theory of theater as the exchange of "a fractured gaze" between performer and spectator will take some time to sort out. Drawing on a generation of fruitful avant-garde (now orthodox) film theory, Freedman constructs a rich, provocative theory of theater-as-misrecognition. But she can seem unaware of anything beyond that theory. "Fractured reciprocity" works exceptionally well for Swan Lake Minnesota in which a performance artist completes a mock-striptease by confronting the audience with a mirror in which their own voyeuristic gaze is returned. It works well for those many moments in Shakespearean comedy in which what S. L. Bethell called the "dual consciousness" of actor and role is foregrounded, and for what Robert Weimann calls the platea mode of downstage direct audience address. It applies, too, to nearly all avant-garde or confrontational forms of theater since Brecht. That's a lot. But there's no use pretending that all theater is based on the disjunctive return of the gaze. All theories work within domains, and, as dramatic theory catches up with post-1968 film theories concerning the gaze, the look and related matters, it won't be helpful to repeat the film theorists' universalizing claims and sectarian exclusions.

Staging the Gaze also offers a series of methodologically agile close readings of A Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night. Freedman's strategy is to avoid the stance of mastery by deploying several theoretical approaches in sequence, showing how each supplements but cannot wholly dispel the blind spots and indeterminacies of the others:

Each chapter casts Renaissance theater, psychoanalysis and critical theory in a dramatic interplay of reciprocally reflecting gazes ... the result is a series of agons, or contests, in which feminism, deconstruction, cultural materialism, and psychoanalysis confront, accuse, and displace one another. No one discourse is the "master here, and no one object, such as Shakespearean comedy, is the primary text that" the others are recruited to explain (4).

Staging the Gaze is often witty and adroit in setting these methodologies in play (in doing the postmodernists in different voices, so to speak), and in tracing the Moebius-like recursions in Shake-spearean comedies that make them plausible precursors of the post-modern. But the plan requires no more than tentative engagement with any one of the methods used. They--that is, her temporarily adopted methods--suffer from her lack of commitment to them. The contests or agons are brief and the outcome known. Each reading is designed to be superseded in a few pages or paragraphs, and they telegraph their destiny through a critical vocabulary--"games," "traps," "frame-ups," "shell game" --that slides, much too often, from the ludic or dialogic to the simply devaluative. Then there is the opposite pitfall: while the readings themselves are presented as ephemeral, the theories animating them are taken too seriously, arranging themselves, at times, in a respectful litany, a procession of hypostatized methodologies, as in the extract cited above (for another example, see 152). The current impasse in theory is not due, however, to a failure to apply all theories at once, however, as Freedman's example might suggest: it is rather that theory has to a certain extent replaced history and criticism. As Freedman says at one point, in apparent approbation, "we hollow out literary texts and fill them with theory to keep them alive" (228).

There are costs to replacing texts with theory. It is possible to lose touch with readers and audiences beyond the theoretical community, and with one's own responses, discredited as untheoretical. Something like this happens in Freedman's treatment of The Taming of the Shrew. Her discussion of the relation between the staging of forced binary choices and gender oppression is effective; her review of film theory is relevant; her invocation of Althusserian interpellation to gloss the "hailing" of Christopher Sly is funny and apt. Her recourse to feminist performance art speaks tellingly to the play's deployment and reversal of the male gaze. But there is a startling insularity and theoretical coerciveness in such comments as these: "The Taming of the Shrew is a trap. Even those who proclaim the unlimited semiotic pleasure of the text must agree that this is not a pleasurable text" (122). The play "maddens us with contradictory experiences"; "forces us" to choose (127); we "cannot help but observe" (139); it "cannot fail to disturb" (144). (Actually, The Taming of the Shrew seems more vulnerable to the criticism that it doesn't compel enough attention to its "traps" and double binds, leaving so many readers, directors, and audiences free to construe it and enjoy it as a relatively straightforward celebration of abuse.) The aporias Freedman notices are present in the text, but following their fractured logic so intently risks losing touch with the reception history of the play, and with the disturbing but important fact that unselfconscious, untheoretical pleasure is part of that history.

In another instance of theoretical sequestration Staging the Gaze opens with these words: "What do we mean when we say that someone or something is theatrical? We mean that such a person is aware that she is seen, reflects that awareness, and so deflects our look." There is much to ponder here, of course, but the definition of theatricality is not the one in common use. Cheerfully vatic, Freedman can sound, at times, merely unaware of her distance from the obvious.

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Author:Donaldson, Peter S.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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