FEATURES:Crossing the Ancient Stage
University of California, Santa Cruz
Performance has been the subject of increasing interest in many different fields, including anthropology, psychology, sociology, linguistics, gender studies, and cultural theory. This interest reflects a focus on acts rather than essences, on the self as constructed in social interactions rather than determined by biology, on social interactions as complex negotiations between role-playing and improvisation.
Performance is not an obvious concept; this term comprises very different phenomena, each of them a site of diverse and contested meanings. Because it involves a wider range of human behavior than writing and reading, the study of performance displaces logocentrism. Because of its communal dimension, performance cannot be understood apart from its social context. The materiality and physicality of performance, which depends on the body of the performer, locates it in a particular time and place. Yet every particular example of performance reflects assumptions--about the physical body, psychology, social and political relations. As Joseph Roach says, 'When an actor takes his place on a stage, even in the most apparently trivial vehicle, and his audience begins to respond to his performance, together they constitute the complex values of a culture with an intensity that less immediate transactions cannot rival' (11). The economy and intensity of performance make it an excellent focus for study.
Considering performance seems especially useful to the study of ancient Mediterranean societies, in which social and cultural transactions took place 'face to face' (even if there were many faces present). Ancient rhetorical theory makes clear the importance of oral and gestural components in the 'presentation of self in everyday life' (GoffmanÕs term) and the conveying of meaning. In an important sense ancient texts are scripts for performance rather than 'literature.' Given the widespread practice of reading aloud even in isolation, scripts for performance include nondramatic texts such as letters and historical documents. Reading only the written traces of ancient performance texts is like analyzing a film from the screenplay or an opera from the libretto. In order to comprehend them fully, contemporary readers need to configure the full range of performance possibilities--visual, aural, musical, architectural--as well as their social setting and ideological context.
The performance of gender is a particular but highly charged aspect of performance. Judith Butler and others argue that gender is not a category fixed by 'nature' but one continually constructed performatively in social interactions. In the immortal words of RuPaul, 'We are born naked. Everything else is drag.' Analyzing various kinds of cross-gender performance is a way to test this hypothesis.
Cross-gender performance raises a number of different issues. A few of them are
1.Context and purpose (social, artistic). For example, cross-gender performance in rites of passage differs from its use in clubs. Or does it? An analysis of gender performance at an APA meeting (an occasion which combines some elements of both of these) would be most interesting. In this gathering (Section 18, Sutton South, New York Hilton and Towers Hotel, 11 a.m. 28 December 1996), for example, I see what appear to be a number of females in male drag, but no obvious example of males in female drag. As with many ancient documents, the absence of sufficient context for ancient cross- gender performance creates interpretive difficulties (and opportunities).
2. Psychology. What is the effect of cross-gender performance on the performers and audience? Plato feared that performing female roles in Athenian drama damaged both: 'Those we are educating to become good men ought not, since they are men, to play the parts of women, young or old. They should not imitate a woman quarrelling with her husband, blaspheming against heaven, boasting and swollen in her own conceit, or grieving and wailing over misfortunes. Still less should they impersonate a woman who is sick, in love, or in labor' (Republic 395d). Twentieth-century readers influenced by Freud will want to consider the eros of performance, asking whether cross-gender performance changes erotic interactions both onstage and between audience and performers.
3. Ideology. Does cross-gender performance maintain the dominant masculinist hegemony, by depicting the genders as different and unequal? Theater theorist Sue-Ellen Case argues that female roles in Athenian drama 'are fantasies of ÔWomanÕ as ÔotherÕ than man, as disruptions of a patriarchal society and illustrative of its fear and loathing of the female parts' (15), arguing that contemporary female performers should avoid these roles. Or does it destabilize accepted categories? Here we must beware of imposing our own ideologies: whereas we may seen gender performance as expanding the binary options of masculine and feminine, Maud Gleason has shown how Roman discussions of gender performance aimed to help males avoid effeminate behavior.
4. Artistry. What constitutes an effective cross-gender performance? In her provocative reading of Plato's cave as a theater, Luce Irigaray rejects *mimesis*, which she sees as an attempt to maintain a stable and monolithic Truth, in favor of 'mimicry.' In mimicry multiple, excessive representations undo the monolith, and 'ideas of essence, truth, and origin become continually displaced onto questions of material relations and operations' (Diamond 65). IrigarayÕs distinction between mimesis and mimicry may be compared to the contemporary distinction between 'passing' and 'drag.' Charles Ludlam, a great cross-gender artist, described his art as 'real acting in drag' saying 'YouÕre looked down on if you feel becoming a woman is something to be attained. To defiantly do that and say women are worthwhile creatures, and to put my whole soul and being into creating this woman . . . and to take myself seriously in the face of ridicule was the highest statement' (19). We might compare academic males willing to take on the personal voice and other dangerous appurtenances of femininity. Drag, with its exaggeration, illusion-breaking, and separation between performer and role, may seem more 'alternative' than passing. Yet generalizations are tricky: drag performance is often reactionary, supporting male hegemony via caricatures of women (drag queens donÕt portray women dressed in blue jeans and Reeboks).
5. Methodology. Contemporary examples of cross-gender performance from avant-garde theater pieces by companies such as Split Britches and Bloolips to popular films such as The Crying Game, Priscilla of the Desert, and The Birdcage, offer tempting possibilities for analogy with ancient cross-gender performance. Here, because we are have a much wider sample of performance available to us, the differences in genre, style, and ideology are easily apparent. But how comparable are these performances to those in quite different social contexts? And in performance distinguishing between style and meaning is often difficult. (This is the opposite problem from that of having too little context.) In the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, for example, the use of drag can be read symbolically, as a figure for vulnerability, or technically, as a demonstration of the acting ability of straight actors such as Patrick Swayze.
Finally, any analysis of cross-gender performance is a reading. In his brand new book Jeffrey Henderson argues that there are no examples of ancient dramatists calling attention to the artificiality of cross-gender performance: 'male and female characters are at all times understood to be respectively men and women' (17). Really? In *The Bacchae*? Or, even more explicitly, in the KinsmanÕs inadequate gender performance in *Thesmophoriazusae*, when the 'real' women, played by males, disrobe the 'fake' woman, played by a male, trying to find his phallus, played by a stuffed sock?
As a contribution to this large topic, this panel offers readings of the forms, functions, meanings and effects of male performance of female roles in four different theatrical contexts.
Judith Butler, 'Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: an Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,' in Sue-Ellen Case, ed., Performing Feminism: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990): 270-82.
Sue-Ellen Case, Feminism and Theatre (New York: Routledge, 1988)
Elin Diamond, 'Mimesis, Mimicry, and the "True-Real,"' Modern Drama 32 (1989): 58-72
Maud W. Gleason, Making Men: Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995)
Erving Goffman, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Anchor, 1959)
Jeffrey Henderson, Three Plays by Aristophanes: Staging Women (New York: Routledge, 1996)
Charles Ludlam, 'Charles Ludlam: in his own words,' Theatre Week, March 2-8, 1992, 12-20
Joseph R. Roach, The Player's Passion: Studies in the Science of Acting (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1993)
University of California, Santa Cruz
(Mary-Kay Gamel has directed several adaptations of Greek tragedies.)