Plays by women, subjects for nonproduction : the erasure of women playwrights

Sourile, Darlene. (1994). Plays by women, subjects for nonproduction : the erasure of women playwrights PhD Thesis, School of English, Media Studies and Art Historys, The University of Queensland.

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Author Sourile, Darlene.
Thesis Title Plays by women, subjects for nonproduction : the erasure of women playwrights
School, Centre or Institute School of English, Media Studies and Art Historys
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 1994
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Assoc. Prof. Carole Ferrier
Dr. Veronica Kelly
Dr. Jon Stratton
Total pages 381
Language eng
Subjects 2005 Literary Studies
Formatted abstract

Women playwrights have been erased; and it is my thesis that erasure is one of the most powerful yet least visible tools of dominance in the intertextual field of discourse, since its product is manufactured absence—not just of difference, but of dialogue with a difference that demands an end to dominance. In this field of textuality where representation shapes our perception and belief systems, absence by its very nature is something one might not notice in the formation of dominant social paradigms. Yet erasure in representation reflects a way of thinking which leaves traces in language that we can detect and question. I feel it is important that we become fluent readers—not victims— of erasure, by studying its methodologies and philosophical structures, and the politics of those who use it, so that when we critigue dominance we do not mimic it, nor embody it, but instead transform it by our very practice. 

The work of tracing erasure has led me to ask questions about the structures of representation itself; how has it been controlled to produce the authority of tradition such that some subjects have been promoted while others are excluded; and what effect has this had in the construction and maintenance of "naturalised" ideologies (e.g. women don't write plays)? During the course of my investigation, I will argue that the absence of women playwrights and their plays from representation within the canon of great western drama is neither due to nonexistence nor to "bad" writing. Instead it can be traced to erasure, an historical process of what amounts to nonreception—sustained negative reception coupled with anthological exclusion—where prejudice and the power to support it has resulted in the exclusion of plays by women from the discursive formation of Knowledge, even when they meet publication standards, achieve public success, and manage to win a few distinguished awards, I will show that the nonreception of "women's plays" can be traced to gender biased critical practices derived from Aristotelian rules, logic and interpretations of "Nature" that have privileged masculinist experiences. Here dominance has been justified by bias built into the structural principles of institutional standards, or what Derrida refers to as Law, in effect creating a (hu)man discourse. However, the erasure of prominent award-winning women playwrights—who have presumably fulfilled dramatic criteria—is more startling evidence of nonreception in this system of critical judgement, exposing dominance as an exclusionary move beyond the support of accepted institutional standards. The persistence of such dominance—despite ongoing ideological critiques of institutionalised patriarchy by women artists  and feminist theorists, and despite subsequent changes in legislation—indicates what Bryan Turner refers to as "patrism", or dominance based on mental prejudice, discrimination and "paternalistic beliefs about the inferiority of women", in The Body and Society. In this climate, women's response to erasure has also been subject to nonreception in the form of reductionism, a lack of serious dialogue, and the negative representation of feminists as "whinging, bra-burning man-haters". Although feminism has engaged in a diverse theoretical and political analysis of social dominance involving gender, race, class and sexuality, the reductionist representation of these critiques as "women's equality" and "women's issues" has historically shifted the problem onto women's shoulders; a marginalising tactic that both limits dialogue and resists feminist criticism of the gender and socioeconomic power structures which affect everyone. Thus we can read the evidence of erasure as a politics of power as dominance or might is right, where exclusion operates with and without the support of institutional standards, by those who have used "power over" as control of representation—and not merely "objective" standards for assessing literature—to preserve a dominant presence through the erasure of texts, the repression of dialogue, and the resistance to critique via marginalisation; all practices in discourse that (re)produce and sustain the dominance of particular worldviews over others. 

The philosophical structures of erasure as justified dominance can be detected by reading deconstructively through the historical interposing of an academic "can(y)on" separating human and woman. In this "dramatic" gap, successful plays by women have been excluded from the canon, represented directly or indirectly as "women's plays" (domestic, trivial, sentimental), while plays by men, regardless of topic, are not commonly known as "men's plays in a men's discourse" but are represented as universal in a human discourse. This representation is a false notion of universality as it excludes the dialogue and texts of women. It also masks what I see as the limiting perception of a core binary opposite between Man and Woman that has been overshadowed by gender bias to produce a (hu)man/woman dichotomy. This dichotomy is supported by Aristotelian logic in the construction of meaning and knowledge. His law of non-contradiction and the identity principle assures that the (hu)man drama discourse is not only dependent upon socially constructed opposites such as male/reason/public and female/emotion/domestic, but also the exclusion of them from defined spaces to avoid contradiction in the construction and preservation of identity. Therefore in the language of reviews, anthologies and literary criticism, I have traced the (op)position of the female artist/theorist and her plays as sites of contradiction and hence subjects for nonproduction in the (hu)man discourse; along with the marginalisation of her texts as "women's" or "feminist", as if to be dealt with only by a women's discourse. This leaves her caught in an impossible position between the definitions of two seemingly opposite discourses, where, as Derrida says about Women's Studies in the University, her success in one is her risk of failure in the other. However, these discourses are not opposite but oppositional, and erasure is indicative of a (hu)man discourse that not only excludes contradiction, but does not receive nor dialogue with critiques from "others" perceived as inferior opposites—a belief system resulting in male dominance that is evident across the various economic, racial and political spectrums. Thus the standards and prejudices which erased women's texts from the (hu)man discourse meant that women had to mobilise separately as a strategy to gain strength for the articulation of a critique of social dominance, as well as to express and read difference in a more receptive environment. Nevertheless, the name and location of these critiques, texts, and dialogues as "women's" studies in a separate discourse within the academy has become the marginalisation of pluralism that Spivak refers to as the "last bastion of democracy", resulting in a continuing lack of reception and dialogue with men. 

In reading the evidence of erasure as exclusion from "objective" structures that supposedly represent the dramatic field, my practice of deconstruction and philosophy of poststructuralist feminism are informed by an intersection of discourses that critique objectivity and articulate the limitations of structures. These discourses in various ways emphasise interconnectedness, or what I call field theory, including feminism as a critique of the interrelatedness of gender and power structures; poststructuralist theories of representation where the intertextuality of language problematises the notion of "real" experience reflected in "literary" representation; and quantum physics by way of analogy where as Louise Crossley says, "relationship and not object is the central metaphor". Field thinking offers a perception shift that includes light as particle but sees the wave; includes either/or but allows the "and"; includes structure but depends on the margin; metaphors that give up the opposition to locate the third value of a nonAristotelian logic which Ulmer in Applied Grammatoloqy refers to as "the excluded middle way". I have used poststructuralist theories, therefore, to unravel the simple binary oppositional logic of traditional critical assumptions and good/bad judgement strategies that have erased women and others from the (hu)man discourse; however, as Barbara Johnson writes in A World of Difference, deconstruction does not necessarily operate "in a simple, binary, or antagonistic way". My practice then has been not only to find and redefine the erased plays of women, or to argue that erasure is only due to men, but to inhabit the structures of both discourses as a bridge of dialogue within my text; reading difference, sameness, and traces of erasure. In this deconstructive reading I see not men's and women's issues, subjects or discourses, but rather seek a "beyond gender" approach to position that acknowledges the experience of difference, without using it as a platform from which to exercise power through critical judgements that deny the experience or imagination of others. 

The social construction of male and female as opposite humans, built upon the "essence" of opposite sex, theoretically can be undone and the gender gulf bridged, but to wear away false opposites requires long term production and dialogue in the intertextual field of discourse. Although as Madonne Miner points out in Radical Teacher, Women's Studies needs to achieve a wider audience in the academy, the risk is to incorporate, challenge and transform within the established structure and practices of the institution, rather than mimic the essentialist gender principles and power politics of "authoritative" experience that underlie the canon. I submit that to achieve transformative dialogue with men, it will be necessary to integrate the "oppositional" texts of women into a full human discourse that values feedback rather than erasure, and as such would look different precisely because of a dedication to constant examination and self-reflexivity versus protecting itself from critique. Here the marginal can be repoliticised by reading why they have been erased, not just as "bad writing" or "nagging" sites of contradiction to be excluded from a (hu)man discourse, but rather as women artists/theorists who employ the strategy of contradiction. These texts can be included as useful critiques of dominant dramatic and social structures in that, as subjects for production, they can perform the cultural work of increasing the collective awareness of dominance by (re)presenting problematic social contradictions, theorising different definitions of reality and power, and/or utilising innovative styles of dramatic construction. However, altering the power structures of the (hu)man discourse to achieve a full human discourse will require more than logical argument, inclusion via separatism, or equality legislation to address mental belief systems about the inferiority of women, and hence the low motivation of men to read and study, and dialogue with women. The additional challenge here is the erasure of erasure that requires a paradigm shift in oppositional thinking, expanding beyond the definition of power as dominance and, as director Pam Brighton suggests in Women and Theatre, "of reviving and reconstituting whatever is left of our abilities to combine rather than to compete". In addition to altering hierarchical structures, there must also be a mental and emotional growing up that evolves beyond dominance as the historical reaction to difference—a way of thinking reflected by erasure and socioeconomic structures that produce and reproduce dominant ideologies which colonise human imagination and social practices. As Alice Jardine suggests, though it seems impossible, we need to "rethink difference without aggression or defensiveness, or it will continue to think us". Foucault wrote that it is necessary "to give up loving that which dominates and exploits us, power"; yet the largely unreceived suggestion from many feminist theorists is not to give up power but to transform its definition and resulting socioeconomic ideologies, from dominance over others and hierarchy, to strength with cooperation and equal participation. Such an attitudinal change within discourse can be reflected in a radical textuality that is not afraid to encourage dialogue and embrace contradiction in the continual process of transformation; where shared power can be defined within the worldview of an interconnected field, where the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Perhaps then a reimagining can be represented of male and female, not on opposite sides of a canyon, but as different yet similar bridges across the same river. 

Keyword Women dramatists -- History and criticism
Sexism in literature

Document type: Thesis
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