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Theatre and Feminist Aesthetics. (Book Reviews).

Karen Laughlin and Catherine Schuler. Theatre and Feminist Aesthetics. Associated University Presses. 1995. 331 pages. Cloth $45.00.

The book attempts to understand feminist aesthetics as part of the plurality of contemporary feminist voices and as an articulation of a broad range of cross-border positions in drama and theatre. The book offers issues and viewpoints ranging from purely theoretical and pedagogical to some very practical and pragmatic situations in the theatre, involving plays written and performed by women. The political intersection of feminism and theatre is not to introduce any new canon of "feminine," feminist," or "matriarchal" aesthetics but is to challenge the monolithic and traditional patriarchal notions of diegesis and mimesis through disruption and subversion. In doing so the book does not attempt to find a final definition for feminist aesthetics but desires to explore how feminist ends might be served.

Theatre and Feminist Aesthetics speaks through gaps and silences, cracks and spaces, applying oppositional strategies and raising questions about the much trusted male dominated articulation of drama and theatre aesthetics. When scanned, the very title and the cover page, like the book itself, foreground a reasonable coalition of politics, postmodernism, performance, arts, aesthetics, and women playwrights from diverse cultures. In the fifteen chapters of the book, the editors attempt to put together the traditionally less heard and mostly silenced feminist voices for the purpose of participating in the continual dialogue and self-critique. With an almost semiological view about productivity, the book focuses on the intertextual elements about the sender-receiver relationship and the multiplicity of meanings emerging out of such a relationship. It simultaneously invites a dynamic range of readers including teachers, directors, practicing dramatists, designers, theatricalists, and technicians from different ra ce, class, gender, and national backgrounds. The list of contents, notes on contributors, editors' comments on the front and back flap, endnotes to each essay, references traceable from the index, the summarizing background to each author and her his essay in shape of an introduction are some of the prominent features to help readers focus on the major concerns of the book which are also highlighted through the subtitle of the introduction: "Why Feminist Aesthetics?"

With a short background study about German and French feminist explorers and with a special reference to Rita Felski' s Beyond Feminist Aesthetics and her argument about dismissal of a pure feminist aesthetics, Theatre and Feminist Aesthetics acknowledges theatre as a directorial as well as a spectatorial sign which is a part of the ideological and "'social technology."' Playing upon the dynamics of Reception Theory, particularly of female audiences and the problems related to cultural attitudes, the book extends an argument for new interpretations. Though alive to the issue of economic factors which significantly control the aesthetic autonomy in contemporary postmodern times, the book takes a two-dimensional stance about raising absent voices and suggesting possible alternatives. The attempt echoes Terry Eagleton' s proposal to transform the traditional aesthetics of the theatre in a phallocentric society and to reshape both the product as well as the process of our aesthetic sensibility.

One of the most salient features of the book is that in a very limited space of 331 pages, the editors have successfully compiled a cultural diversity of female voices which ranges from Caribbean to Australian issues, and from Canadian to Indian concerns. Thus, the complexity of feminist re-workings highlights theatre and aesthetics as a strongly collaborative art form. Feminist aesthetics is understood not in terms of "fixed artistic 'texts"' but as "an entire range of practices on all levels of theatre." Most of the essayists in this critical anthology refer back to traditional feminist ideology for inspiration and experimentation and base their arguments around famous quotations by Helene Cixous, Marilyn Frye, Rita Felski, Linda Alcoff, Laura Mulvey and so on. Writing or reading about, or going to theatre becomes, above all, as Helene Cixous says, "a political gesture, with a view to changing."

Referring to the Quebec experience, chapter one traces the politics of reality through women's ontologically invisible and paradoxically inferior presence in the history of Western Theatre. Savona suggests avant garde strategies to reject "director" as a sign of male presence. She also highlights the importance of non-linearity, self-reflexivity, and reversal or doubling of gender roles. Chapter two foregrounds the contemporary British situation about politicization of sexuality, supporting the idea of a new women's theatre. With a socialist-feminist approach, Caryl Churchill has been discussed at length in the light of institutional legitimation. Complex interaction of class and gender positions and the ambiguity about the notions of feminist representations and female spectatorship lead to the idea of linking "personal" with "political" in order to promote the Women's Theatre Group. In Chapter three, a possibility of drama other than Eugene O'Neill's reveals the cracks in the concept of the traditional Amer ican Drama. Based on her personal experience of writing a dissertation project, Schroeder favors pluralism in approaching the texts. The idea of an autonomous woman and search for a female form are taken as modes for resisting oppression. Modifying Brechtian strategies for feminist ends, the essayist justifies variety as strength and pluralism as health because strict conformity might result in hegemonic designs even in feminism. In chapter four, Jenkins floats the idea of gynocratic feminist perspective in the light of Native American spiritual and anti-oppressive principles. The attempt to deconstruct the male "hero" paves the way for voicing womanhood against the colonial strategies of violence. Focusing further on the U.S. experience, and talking of theatre and theory in the light of historical configuration, Gillespie quickly rehashes the development of theatre in terms of the discouragement faced by women since Aristotle's times. Almost until the late 19th century, the woman was "kept ... in her place." From women in theatre to theatre in feminism, the essayist traces various remarkable historical shifts.

Chapters six, seven, and eight in the book talk about the experiences and struggles of Russian women in the face of both autocracy and the dominant materialist aesthetic of Symbolism and Romanticism, and of the attempts by women of color from Guadeloupe and Martinique to distance themselves from the conventional Western models of dramatic forms. These essays promote a political mandate with their liberal, materialist, or radical connotations. In chapter eight, Greeley's analysis of Martha Boesing's experimenting with rituals particularly ritualizes "the mundane" and celebrates the creation of new dramatic forms through a "vortex" and its cyclic and repetitive movement, "spiraling" a new aesthetic "upward and outward." Chapters nine and ten take up the question of multi-layered oppression related to black aesthetics in the theatre. The feminization of the DuBoisian idea of "double consciousness" and the political stance of essential feminism to eradicate the ideology of domination embody black feminist aesthet ics. An analysis of Lorraine Hansberry' s A Raisin in the Sun signifies the importance of media in drama and theatre.

These chapters also consider the following issues: how the Australian experience of a lesbian aesthetic disrupts the theatrical as well as the psychic space; how the English experiences of gender-specific prejudices for an actress and for a female director serve to devalue the artistry of the female performer and, thus, to highlight the "aesthetics of marginality"; reflections over a male director's problematizing position in choosing to stage a feminist work; and attempts to develop alternative models for feminist scenography in order to deobjectify the female body. Issues related to the theatre's visual language to inscribe power in gender relations and the ironical awareness of the male director's cultural position inside and outside the theatre in the last two chapters are of special interest as are the debates over power relations which these representations contribute.

Though the strengths of Theatre and Feminist Aesthetics far outweigh its weaknesses, it could be a matter of some interest to examine gaps within the gaps and spaces within the spaces talked about in the book. Although the book is a feminist enterprise with sixteen women who playfully share their authorial, critical, and editorial skills, Theatre and Feminist Aesthetics produces just one male perspective expressed by Harry J. Elam, Jr. in chapter fourteen. The book also does not address the issues related to the politics of behind the scene theatrical and technical devices like make-up artists, set designers, sound and light controllers, and so forth. Repetition of some ideas in various chapters may be taken as a point of reiteration, but they also create a certain sense of monotony.

Over all, the book is a valuable contribution towards opening new spaces where diversity can be affirmed. For a student of theatre in general, and that of the feminist theatre in particular, Theatre and Feminist Aesthetics is a helpful guide for research into feminist multiplicity as a form of art. Both the editors, Karen Laughlin and Catherine Schuler, deserve credit for making an effort to feminize the history of theatre, aesthetics, performances and practice, while leaving the central question raised in the beginning of the book inconclusive even at the end: "What shape(s) might an aesthetics grounded in the politics of feminism take -- on the stage in the process of theatrical production.. .?" With this question in their minds and with no chapter in the book termed as "Conclusion," Theatre and Feminist Aesthetics keeps the readers' interest as dynamic as the theme and technique of the book itself.
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Author:Anwar, Waseem
Publication:Studies in the Humanities
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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