Woman's Theatrical Space (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)
By Hanna Scolnicov
Reviewed by Theodora Carlile
Integral Liberal Arts Program
Saint Mary's College
Moraga, California 94575
This work takes a new look at the use of space in the Western theatre tradition, but it is not merely a book on the scenic or spatial as one of several elements of theatrical practice. Its author claims more: that the analysis of this particular element can replace analysis of plot or character as a means to approach the philosophical underpinnings of a work. Starting from an examination of the theatrical space of Aeschylus' Agamemnon (clearly her most compelling and ground breaking discussion) Scolnicov follows the path of an evolving theatre practice and the parallel evolution of cultural values. She examines in particular a selection of plays where the spatial arrangement is such that 'the abstract conception of woman's place in society finds concrete expression in the spatial relations materialized on stage...' (p.8) It is a formidable undertaking but succeeds in providing an exciting and until now largely uncharted approach. The work should be of great interest to theatre practitioners as well as to theatre scholars and those engaged in the study of ideologies of gender.
Scolnicov starts from the well-accepted premise that from Greek times to the modern era woman has been associated and even identified with interior space, most particularly the home, while man has been associated with the out-of-doors and indeed the world at large. Even more, because man has been free to roam at large and become an active agent in the world, he has been understood as being 'of time,' while woman confined within the walls of the house to a life of relative inactivity has been understood to be specifically 'of space.' In the ancient Greek world the distinction between oikos (the household) and polis (the city and all its concerns) was of course very much a division of gender. This truism of spatial iconography opens the potential for an analysis of drama which diverges from the study of plot, character, or imagery into an analysis of theatrical space itself.
For Scolnicov's argument it is crucial to make two distinctions: the distinction between theatre space and theatrical space and the further distinction of theatrical space into the 'space within' and the 'space without.' While, for the author, theatre space is the pre-existent architecture and decor of the performance site, theatrical space, which is 'new for every performance,' is the space created by the drama, its particular spatial universe and, as such, it is one 'in which every element...[is subordinate]...to the total effect or design' (p.3). Theatrical space is composed, in turn, of the space within and the space without. The space within is quite simply the 'seen space,' that which is visible to the audience, while the space without is the unseen but conceptually present space offstage. Scolnicov emphasizes that these spaces are coextensive with, but carry different connotations from, on-stage and off-stage. Together they refer to the total 'universe' realized in production.
With these terms in hand the author turns her attention to her first analysis, that of the Agamemnon. Any reader or viewer of the Agamemnon cannot miss the brooding, fearful emphasis placed upon the closed doors of the palace which forms the backdrop for the action, and on the insidious mysteries which those doors enclose. Modern productions can evoke but perhaps never reduplicate the horror of that facade for its original audience. While many have been struck by the explosive gender conflict at the core of this drama and indeed of the trilogy as a whole, Hanna Scolnicov locates that gender tension precisely in its spatial configuration.
She points out that it was with Aeschylus that the use of scenery in Western theatre began and in particular that the tradition of a highly charged spatial identification with gender takes roots. In the earliest of extant drama the locale is unspecified open country, or an area located in the open air near a shrine or altar. By the time of the Oresteia this scenic convention has been modified. Here we find the first conclusive evidence of Aeschylus' great 'scenic intuition.' The skene is now incorporated into the very fabric of the drama. It represents the palace of Agamemnon and the domestic residence whose mistress was his wife, Clytemnestra. Thus the theatrical space is rendered on a stage with a clearly drawn scenic demarcation between two realms, the indoors and the outdoors; the 'space without' is the threshold of the palace, the very intersection of oikos and polis and by extension the meeting place of man and woman. The 'space within,' the interior of the palace, is the unseen but ever present domain of woman. 'The whole action of the Agamemnon,' according to Scolnicov, 'revolves around the question of how, and on what terms, Agamemnon will be allowed to enter his palace, as well as if, and how, he will ever exit again' (p. 13). Thus an analysis of the spatial dynamic, being as it is at the structural heart of the play, allows for an analysis of its ideological base.
Scolnicov goes on to trace the development of theatrical space through classical antiquity, the Renaissance, and up to our own times. Aeschylus' scenic innovation, the skene used as facade of a stage house, its doors leading to the female domain of the interior, becomes increasingly conventionalized in classical theatre. The house or palace front is invoked with great regularity by Sophocles and Euripides, both of whom were adept at 'making the most of its symbolic spatial relations'(p.26); it is exploited or inverted for its comic and anarchic effects by Aristophanes; it is hardened into scenic convention in New Comedy; and finally it is reduplicated and amplified in the stages and dramas of Renaissance theatre.
Scolnicov's chapter on Aristophanes' Lysistrata , 'Reversing gender roles,' is a particularly strong example of the powers inherent in her method of spatial analysis. In this drama Aristophanes has the skene represent the walls of the Acropolis. Thus the spatial juxtaposition of the within and the without is transposed. Interestingly it is a play where the gender roles are likewise reversed. Here the women usurp both the political/military leadership and the outdoor space, relegating their mates to household management and the more confined indoor space associated with that societal role. By placing the action not on the threshold of an interior, but on the threshold of the inner city, the sacred space of the polis, while at the same time keeping the theatrical 'space without' in the hands of women, 'Aristophanes hit on a direct, spatial means of expressing the change in the relation between the genders' (p.30).
By the time of Plautus the stage city is a theatrical representation of the topography of the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, the right parodos leading to seaside and agora, the left parodos to the country. The skene by now is equipped with three doors representing three distinct households fronted by a city street. Here the identification of woman and house, not only as a cultural entity but as a body, is codified in the theatrical space. As Scolnicov indicates, on the Roman stage the set is further eroticized, the house becoming a female body which allows for a male game of 'duplicity and doors' (p. 42).
Renaissance theatre, taking its cue from the highly interpretive drawings of classical stages by the sixteenth century Italian architect, Sebastiano Serlio, both reduplicates and alters that stage. A wide variety of Renaissance drama from Commedia dell' arte to Opera, from Moliere's School for Wives to Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, depend for their effects on a spatial and scenic tradition inherited from classical antiquity. What was innovative even in these classical spaces was a new taste for both realism and ornamentation. With that taste came the introduction of windows above the doors in the three stage domiciles. Expanding the classical tradition, if the house itself is eroticized and codified as woman, the window becomes an alternative and illicit means of communications between the sexes, a conduit of flirtation and provocation impossible at the door, which remains under the scrutiny and control of patriarchal authority. And while the house persists as the locus of woman, woman is now imprisoned by her space, not merely identified with it.
Yet though there is an evolution of values, the symbolism and dynamics remain. Developing as they do from the original model, these stages continue to function as the meeting place of the genders. In tracing this development the author is able to meet her claim of the power of spatial analysis to access the particular 'Weltanschauung expressed by the play' (p.2).
It was the Renaissance, of course, which saw a change from outdoor to indoor theatre and, with it, an abandonment of the classical theatre space for a new convention. This new convention allows for interior as well as exterior settings and for plays where the set is undefined or changes from scene to scene. With the project of 'focusing on those forms of theatre in which the spatial relations of within and without are conventionally paired, directly or indirectly with the outdoors and the indoors,' Scolnicov moves to examine plays where the 'polarity of within/without with outdoors/indoors is reversed' (p.6). With the predominance of such settings now representing the drawing room of the house, the drama of gender shifts from a depiction of man's penetration of the female domain to the depiction of the escape of woman from its confines.
The discussions which treat these forms of theatre, however, are neither as focused nor as innovative as those in earlier chapters of the book. Several of the analyses, that of the spatial symbolism in Ibsen's drawing room settings, for example, are all too obvious. Others shed an intriguing light, but fail to articulate, with regard to a particular play, the theatrical space as an expression of attitudes toward woman. In the discussion of Pinter's stage sets ('Constructed rooms'), for example, very compelling observations on naturalism versus abstractionism and moralism versus nihilism in his dramas are interrupted by what almost feels like a pro forma necessity to return to spatial considerations. Certainly such considerations remain of great interest, but the centrality ascribed to them is not compelling.
The earlier discussions are strongest because they deal with theatrical forms descending in a direct line from Aeschylus. More hybrid settings lack the simplicity and immediate tension implicit in the classical cityscape. In her chapter entitled 'The woman in the window,' Scolnicov discusses an wide variety of window scenes in Renaissance theatre. She finds the same dynamics at work in the window scenes of such plays as Romeo and Juliet, and Much Ado About Nothing, as in those with a classical setting, a dynamic based upon the identification of the house with the idea of woman. Persuasive to an extent, this analysis fails, ultimately, to allow for an interpretation revealing the full richness of these scenes as they relate to issues of gender. What is largely ignored is the pastoral bias which informs them and the complexity which such a divergent motif brings to the conventional classical theatrical form. In pastoral the outdoors is the site of an ideal natural world, one where the individual, be that individual male or female, is free from the fetters of the city. Thus the interior/exterior dichotomy is not so much a division of gender as a representation of nature versus art or the erotic versus the conventional. This is not to say that Scolnicov is unaware of or insensitive to such complexity, but rather that her thesis in this instance denies her the opportunity to explore its ramifications and thus to an extent weakens rather than strengthens her discussions.
Nonetheless, because the classical dynamic remains powerful and perhaps predominant, Scolnicov's carefully researched work provides an excellent account of theatrical space and its potential as an expression of changing attitudes towards women. With impressive insight she traces the beginnings of the significance of theatrical space to its roots in Aeschylus and with thorough scholarship chronicles its evolution in Western theatre to its eventual deconstruction in our own time.
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