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In February 1997 a conference entitled ‘Women give voice to women’ brought together scholars from Britain, Europe and the USA to investigate the relationship between feminist theory and practice on the French stage. The starting point for our discussions was to determine how far French women playwrights of the last thirty years have contributed to remoulding what Marcelle Marini referred to as the ‘socio-symbolic space’. We wanted to explore what was new, in theatrical, political and social terms, in the large number of plays and productions by women during this period. A second question was: how useful is French feminist theory as an aid to the illumination of this work?
My aim is to explore what kind of lesbian subjectivity is brought to life in Monique Wittig's play Le Voyage sans fin, and to what extent it fits in with Wittig's project as a whole. Is it consistent with the representational strategies at work in her fiction?
In both the play and the film of Marguerite Duras's India Song no verbal exchange is seen to take place on stage or in camera shot and all the dialogue emanates from disembodied voices which reverberate across the filmic or theatrical imagery. The verbal text is woven into a complex, orchestrated soundscape of instrumental music, songs, non-verbal cries and utterances, screams of pain and wretchedness, sound of street shouting, and screeches of exotic birds and animals. These elements together become a score functioning alongside the visual text. In this essay, I want to focus on the composition and the ‘enactment’ of the sound script of India Song and consider the way in which it functions as a stratum of eloquent signifying systems in the performance of this rich and poetic text. My concern will be with the ‘composite’ text of novel/play/ film and the way in which sound is evoked across the spectrum of reader, spectator and auditor, though my intention is not to suggest that the written text, the film and the play performance are interchangeable. I shall refer to the published text, Duras's own 1974 film version, and Theatr Clwyd's performance directed by Annie Castledine and Anabel Arden in 1993.
Marguerite Duras developed a theatrical form that both staged a severing of the woman's body/ presence from discourse/subjectivity, and gave expression to the distressed source of the woman's voice beyond discourse. This form of theatre appeals to the spectator who is willing to become involved in its uncovering of possible meanings of female identity through a meticulously orchestrated, slow, rhythm-based and essentially uncomfortable sifting and dredging of the processes of memory and desire. In exploring this terrain, Duras went some way toward realizing Irigaray's feminist project of ‘playing with mimesis’, whereby the woman resubmits herself to ideas about her self that are elaborated in/by a masculine logic, in order to uncover the place of her exploitation by discourse.
Ina Césaire and Simone Schwarz-Bart are among the most arresting Frenchwomen writing plays today. They are not, however, among the most studied, nor are they of ‘La Metropole’. One cannot even count them among the myriad ‘French women playwrights’, bom in Algiers, Oran, Cairo, or St. Petersburg, who now make Paris their home. Césaire and Schwarz-Bart are Antillean, Frenchwomen of colour, at this point in their lives returned from Paris to their respective islands—Martinique and Guadeloupe—after prolonged stays in the French capital, because, as Ina Césaire relates, life in Paris has simply become ‘trop méchanic’.
Contemporary women's theatre in France provides a rich corpus of plays that explore the social and psychological significance of food. Little wonder, given the deep, universal ties between women, particularly mothers, and food. As the anthropologist Carole Counihan explains:
Food is a particularly important concern and symbol for females in all cultures. Women have universal responsibility for food preparation and consumption … They are defined as nurturers and carry out this role principally throughfeeding. In addition, women themselves are food for their children during pregnancy and lactation, intensifying their identification with food and its relevance as symbol … Western women also use food as symbol of self.
In her essay, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, Hélène Cixous talks about bisexuality and writing. Feminist writing may be said to be truly bisexual not in the sense which does away with sexual difference thereby producing neutrality, but in the sense that male and female are both omnipresent, exchanging, intermingling, enriching each other. Freed from the constraints of conventional binary opposition, male and female are able to unite, divide, multiply in an almost endless expansion of possibilities. The celebration of difference which does not divide, which is at the heart of sexual pleasure, transfusing and transforming the whole living being, will be found in women's writing, since women's songs spring from a body which denies castration. I use the future tense, since in the same essay Cixous declares that these songs use the future tense, since these songs have not yet been written, that women must liberate themselves from the dominance of the phallus, of men's language, in order to give voice to thensensuality, their sexuality, in all its complexity; to speak in the language which existed before patriarchal dominance, the fore-language which has a multiplicity of tongues. To sing a woman's song, in the language of the body, which rejects the law of the castrating father, telling of a total sexual pleasure knowing no guilt, no boundaries, is a courageous act in a world which has invented the direst forms of punishment for such transgression.
The Lebanese-French playwright Andrée Chedid begins her play, Le Montreur (1967), with a song sung by ‘une—ou plusieurs—voix’. As the voice becomes voices become voice, the song addresses the audience saying, ‘Ce soir, ce soir, ce soir, amis, / Le Sire Montreur nous dévoilera: / L'unité et la pluralité des choses!’ Like the image of many voices among one voice, the trope of the ‘unity and plurality of things’ is arguably Chedid's vision of human consciousness—a consciousness that is both one and many; a consciousness that is embedded in a relationship with the other, which is figured as a connectedness that makes society. In Les Nombres (1965) and Bérénice d'Egypte (1962), through her writing and use of theatrical space and sound, Chedid constructs a unique vision of consciousness—configured as a vital empathy with the multitudes. She centres her revolutionary vision of consciousness on her women characters, who, by interacting with ‘the multitudes’ (le peuple, la foule, les nombres) open the possibility that human connectedness can make consciousness multiple and thereby transcends the dichotomies of self and other.
Much critical engagement with the work of Hélène Cixous has tended to foreground her early writings and the discourses of écriture féminine, whilst overlooking the importance of theatre to the development of her aesthetics. This continued focus has contributed to a perception of her work as divided into distinct, chronologically or generically defined sets and has consequently hampered the exploration of common threads and evolving representations of issues central to her work. This study aims to identify a consistent concern behind Cixous's strategic use of the theatrical form: the desire to construct and project representations of poetic identity, a theme which I will argue has become increasingly explicit in her work in the theatre, and which is essential to a reading of Cixous's writings as a coherent body of work. After a brief contextualization of the representation of the poet figure in her early theatre, I will focus on her most recent plays: Voile noire voile blanche (Black sail white sail, 1988), La Ville par jure ou le réveil des Erinyes (The Perjured City or the Awakening of the Erinyes) and L'Histoire (qu'on ne connaîtra jamais) (The Story (which we will never know)), both published in 1994. This play constitutes an explicit staging of the scène de l'écriture.
In their plays, Yourcenar, Sarraute and Duras repeatedly portray women who oppose men, sometimes violently. Drawing on several examples, this paper aims to define a typology of female characters by analysing the double theme of violence and revolt. Some women find themselves imprisoned both by men and by their epoch; all they can do is to submit to the system put in place by society, against which they struggle in vain for freedom. After an initial submission to the rules of society, they are impelled towards a more or less successful revolt and this allows them to find fulfilment through rebellion. In the case of Yourcenar, woman resists as best she can; despite everything, her happiness is found in revolt and especially, perhaps, in revenge. In the case of Sarraute, the emergence and development of the Sarrautian ‘tropism’ becomes both an act of affirmation for the female character and an act of struggle against the other, the male. Woman, for Duras, is hi a position of quasi-imprisonment by two psychic spaces which occupy her totally: both violence and revolt are expressed through the body, its behaviour and its sexual pleasure. But there is also a contained violence, already filtered by an attempt, sometimes vain, to express it through words. However, many of the lines spoken by these women demonstrate a clear self-awareness through violence which is either contained or which can explode in a bid for freedom.
In Nathalie Sarraute's Ici (1995), the textual voice is attacked for using ‘on’ instead of ‘je’, and masculine agreements instead of feminine. That voice, in characteristic Sarrautean fashion, justifies its practice with the words: ‘N'est-on pas tous pareils?’, explaining that ‘C'est pour faire participer, pour mettre tout le monde “dans le coup”’. At the level of the tropisms, those movements at the very edge of consciousness which Sarraute has made the foundation and substance of all her writing, we are, she claims, all alike: ‘sur un plan précis, à un niveau égale-ment précis, nous nous ressemblons tous’, irrespective of sex, creed or colour. Sarraute's interest is attached to
ce qui est propre à tous, à quelque chose qui me paraît exister absolument chez tout le monde, qui n'est pas propre aux femmes, pas propre aux hommes, pas propre aux Noirs, aux Blancs, aux Jaunes … J'essaie de saisir quelque chose qui me parait d'ordre général.
Nathalie Sarraute has written six plays over a period of some fifteen years (1967–82). Her latest play, Pour un oui ou pour un non, was first performed in 1982. Given their relative success, however, one is forced to wonder why she has not continued to write for the theatre (though, since 1982, she has published four major works of narrative, Enfance, Tu ne t'aimes pas, Ici and Ouvrez). When I put this question to Nathalie Sarraute in October 1996, at the Institut Français in London, she replied that she had ‘found more amusing things to do’. Her failure to answer the question directly perhaps suggests an unawareness of the real answer, at least at conscious levels. The theatre, an inescapably physical medium, which requires the bodily presence of men and women as gendered beings, was, in fact, never really suited to a writer who continually takes refuge from the physical and even the sexual, hi words. It seems plausible, then, to conjecture that Sarraute gave up writing for the theatre, because her radio plays had, by reason of their success, been translated onto the stage, and the author did not know how to deal with a medium that privileged the physical as opposed to the emotional and psychological dimensions of human relationships which had been her territory since Tropismes. The frequently impersonal voices of her fiction work well on radio, but less so on a live stage, upon which the actors are physically as well as audibly present: ‘Le person-nage de théâtre’, says Alain Robbe-Grillet, ‘est en scène, c'est sa première qualité: il est là.’ In Sarraute's theatre, however, this physical presence is no more than a kind of contingency, wholly superfluous to the action. The characters find themselves together for no particular reason and they hardly ever interact physically. The very lack of stage directions, which the author justifies on the grounds of textual purity, is itself indicative of an absence of movement, the main signifier of physical presence. Textual purity depends for Sarraute on words alone.