In order to elucidate the functioning of pain in these two plays, I am employing my own synthesis of magical realism, translating this literary genre to theatre, and feminism, specifically feminist theatre practice. I call this hybrid, ‘magical feminism’, and it lies within the ‘sphere of disturbance’ that Aston proposes. Feminist theory’s aim of ‘decolonising’ cultural representations of women and revealing the ideology embedded in realism is fulfilled through the language of magical realism. As Faris states:
Magical feminism, as a hybrid of magical realism and feminism, operates as a language within a larger form that is feminism. Magical feminism is not a curative or a placebo to smooth over pain and tie it up nicely with some fanciful theatrical techniques. Here, you will find no ‘take once a day’ magical pill to solve all problems. Instead, magical feminism draws our gaze closer to the inconsistencies, the ugliness, the deformities and the pain, and encourages us to get right in and take a good look. It is important to understand, in the consideration of magical realism as a feminist discourse, that the ‘magical’ components of magical realism are used to flaunt the limitations of language and its ability to represent reality. The magic or supernatural acts as tool of defamiliarisation, foregrounding those cultural ‘norms’ that are so deeply embedded that we are no longer aware of them, but that continue to perpetuate the marginalisation of women. In magical feminism, ‘ontological disruption serves the purpose of political and cultural disruption: magic is often given as a cultural corrective, requiring readers to scrutinise accepted realistic conventions of causality, materiality, motivation’ (Zamora & Faris, 1995:3). By supplementing dramatic realism with magical elements, it is not a fantasy world that is created, but rather an opportunity to expand upon the parameters of reality, and generate a sphere of disturbance. This, as I will go on to be demonstrated, does not always have a positive outcome, but it does create a rupture that brings to light those mechanisms that have generated the pain in the first place. In both examples, that mechanism is specifically a patriarchal hegemony that has inscripted itself upon the bodies of the female characters in both literal and non-literal ways, made visible through the magical feminist gaze. The magical feminist takes this space of disturbance as her starting point and does not obsess over her symptoms, but rather attempts to reveal the environments that have precipitated them. Magical feminism, then, is one strategy that can be employed by feminist dramatic practitioners to achieve decolonisation of the female subject.
I have chosen two female playwrights, Maria Irene Fornes and Lally Katz, to elucidate how magical feminism functions as a tool to draw attention to the oft-unrecognised modes of thought that perpetuate the marginalisation of women. It is the ambiguity of their writing, the co-existence of plural worldhoods, the complex and contradictory female characters and the overwhelming presence of paradoxical pain that leads me to draw these two plays together, despite these plays having been written nearly thirty years apart.
Fefu and Her Friends by Maria Irene Fornes is a play that is fast approaching the thirtieth anniversary of its first performance as an off-off Broadway show, and is now considered an avant-garde, sometime feminist classic (Farfan 1997; Moroff 1996; Geis 1993). The play, set in the 1930’s in New England, sees eight educated, mostly middle-class, women uniting over a weekend to arrange a presentation regarding education. Fefu is the hostess of the weekend and it is her ‘constant pain’, residing in some unknowable part of herself, along with the physical yet hallucinatory pain of the wheel chair bound Julia, which is the focus of this play. All eight women manifest pain (emotional, physical, spiritual, and/or political) in some way or another. The play begins with the women arriving at Fefu’s home. They are all known to each other in one way or another, and share connections such as past intimate relationships, or being old university friends. Fefu begins by declaring her distrust of women and her preference for male company, thus setting up a startling juxtaposition to the events unfolding around her. She remains on edge throughout the women’s arrival, acting up to the women who do not know her well, being intentionally provocative with her big, bold statements, wielding her husband’s gun with alarming casualness. As the play unfolds, it is apparent that the uniting of eight women in this way is the drama and action of the play, as they all struggle to come to terms with their ‘female-ness’ in a patriarchal system. As the women’s relationships play out in Fefu’s home, Julia and Fefu push one another ever closer to facing their fear of and inability to be ‘embodied’ as women, and this ultimately leads to Julia’s death.
Along with this classic play I have chosen a very new play, The Eisteddfod, by Lally Katz, performed for the first time at the independent theatre venue, The Store Room in North Fitzroy, Melbourne, Australia, in June and July of 2004, and most recently in 2005 at the New York Fringe Festival. This is the story of a brother and sister, Abolone and Gerture who are both in their thirties yet locked in a half-life between childhood and adulthood after the violent death of their parents in a tree pruning accident. The brother and sister work towards a performance of Macbeth for the local Eisteddfod, an undertaking Abolone has made unsuccessful attempts at winning since childhood. He now invites his sister to participate, in an attempt to draw her back from a parallel world in which she is an imaginary schoolteacher, and a place she is spending more and more time, to the exclusion of Abolone. It is Gerture’s pain that forms the centre of this narrative and it is through her pain that she is able to undertake the redemptive act that ultimately frees her from their claustrophobic bedroom and Abolone’s control. The events of this play all exist in a highly tenuous relationship to reality as the siblings play out ‘scenes’ as they wish or imagine their lives may have happened. But these are characters whose lives have never actually ‘happened’. They build worlds within worlds, manufacturing a space of destruction and desire, but without any tangible counterpart in the real world. Abolone plays Gerture’s abusive boyfriend, Ian. Gerture plays ‘Mother’ to the needy Abolone, and they play their parents for one another to imagine, or even remember, how their parent’s relationship may have looked. Over the course of the play, Gerture disappears further into her own imaginary ‘school’ world, leaving the despairing and dominant Abolone behind. It is the Eisteddfod that he uses as a ruse to draw her back to him, but it becomes apparent that Gerture has outgrown the imaginary worlds played out in their shared bedroom. As yet, as with all of Katz’s writing, it remains unpublished.
To begin with, a magical feminist reading of both plays interprets the instances of pain as literal events. In so doing, paradoxically and disturbingly, both plays encourage ambiguous readings. This is the level at which magical feminism operates. Magical feminism permits the rendering of the empirically impossible, possible. Neither allegory nor metaphor theory are applicable to understanding these plays. In fact, ‘Fornes specifically denies the use of allegory’ (Moroff 1996:46). Both writers are encouraging the reading and watching of the events as literal and as a result ambiguity is a necessary and desired side effect. This is because, as Hegerfeldt notes in relation to magic realism, in magical feminism, ‘The dual function of redeeming different world views whilst simultaneously deconstructing all claims to universal validity’ permits all sorts of fictions to become ‘real’ on the level of text or performance, and at the same time, through the use of meta-theatrical strategies and the transgression of dramatic techniques, doubt is cast on the reliability of the text (Hegerfeldt 2002: 65). For example, much has been made of the fractured identities of the characters in Fefu, their damaged psyches, and the always absent yet ever present male characters (Geis 1993; Farfan 1997). What I am attempting to show is something more complicated and far simpler. Events are what they are. We don’t need to interpret the character of the wheel chair bound Julia as suffering from a Freudian hysterical condition in which she is visited by wild hallucinations in the form of male judges. Julia is wheel-chair bound because she is, whether the doctors can find anything wrong or not, and she is visited by actual judges, seen or unseen, who actually make her believe she is a failure because she is a woman, and threaten her life.
As such, what magical feminism does through its absolute literalisation of the word (making metaphor real in other words), defamiliarisation and employment of meta-theatricality, is to draw pain to the surface of reality. It gives abstract notions of pain form and in such a way provides this pain with a space in which it can be enacted, identified, explored, even if not resolved. In addition to this, the desired outcome of these techniques is to challenge audience expectations and engagement through the strange treatment of language and the spatio-temporal axis of the theatrical event. This is essential to the magical feminist intention, for
All of the women in Fefu with the exception of Emma articulate their pain in one way or another and these ‘various struggles to inhabit this ‘female’ space account for almost all the dramatic and narrative action’ (Morof,1996:37). Of great interest to the magical feminist practice is why all this has come to pass. What are the conditions that have generated this state of affairs? Why is this woman, indeed why are all the women, in pain? Besides the obvious examples of Fefu and Julia’s pain, there is the nightmarish pain of Cindy’s dreams in which she is the victim of male power through torture and ‘cure’; Christina’s reticence and denial of intimacy with her female friends; the painful ending of a relationship between Paula and Cecilia; and finally, Sue’s recounting of the pain inflicted as punishment upon three women with whom she attended university, ‘punished for their honesty as well as for their creative and intellectual efforts’ (Moroff 1996:53).
For a magical feminist interpretation of these plays, what is important is the notion of the dominant hegemonies as constructions, fictions that can be re-written and divested of their power.
An aspect of the feminist intent is ‘…to uncover ideological meanings that otherwise go unnoticed and continue to perpetuate cultural assumptions that are oppressive to women and other disenfranchised social groups’ (Dolan 1988: 17). As Faris explains of magical realism:
The theatricality, the very fiction of the world that characters inhabit, is constantly brought to light in Fefu and her Friends. The sphere of disturbance that is the theatre of magical feminism is a site for reinscription, a space generated between the fiction of reality and the fiction of the theatrical event. As the character of Emma states in Fefu, ‘Life is theatre. Theatre is Life. If we’re showing what life is, can be, we must do theatre. It’s not acting. It’s being. It’s springing forth with the powers of the spirit. It’s breathing’ (Fornes 1992: 22). In this statement, Emma is claiming theatre for the women of the play, as a space for demonstrating the potential new realities that can be generated through the capacities of the imagination. The act of the women uniting over the weekend (all of them suffering in one way or another from the painful effects of patriarchy), indeed their presence alone, as Moroff describes it, is enough to reinscribe the reality in which they live. ‘In the theatre, Emma suggests, time as we know it collapses: refiguring the present within theatre is as productive as living the present outside theatre…Their presences alone can show what ‘can be’ (Moroff, 1996: 42).
Fornes embraces this employment of the meta-theatrical and the reinscription of space in the second act of this play (Moroff 1996). In this act, four scenes are presented simultaneously in four different spaces to an audience that is divided into four groups. Each scene is repeated four times as the audience moves from one space to another. The effect of this is that the audience reunites for act three having witnessed four different versions of the play. Meaning cannot remain static in this constantly shifting environment, nor can the audience remain passive in the meaning making process. The audience becomes complicit in generating meaning and in witnessing the scenes taking place. As Moroff reminds us, their presences alone, that of the audience in this instance, shows what can be. Without the compliance of the audience there would be no witness. The audience is responsible for the resultant and multiple stories that play out. Multiple realities (or multiple fictions) exist at once, disallowing the seamless closure of the dominant systems of representation of realism.
This juxtaposition of seemingly paradoxical worlds is central to the functioning of magical feminism in Katz’s writing. In The Eisteddfod, Katz revels in the use of the meta-theatrical, juxtaposing the play world and the real world to complicate the meaning making process for the audience. She regularly includes herself, as the writer into the action of the play. In fact, The Eisteddfod begins and ends with her voice. In a pre-recorded segment she welcomes the audience.
LALLY PUPPET. Abolone, I’m Lally Katz.
LALLY PUPPET. Look, if you don’t know, then it’s probably best we don’t go into it tonight. Now why the long face Abolone?
ABOLONE. I can’t make her come back.
LALLY PUPPET. I think it’s my fault. I’ve been so busy waitressing. It’s just so hard to stay financially afloat in London. But I’ve neglected you guys and there’s no excuse for that. I do feel really terrible. Do you think I’m a bad person Abolone? Let me hug you.
Further disrupting the mimesis of realism, in The Eisteddfod Gerture and her brother role-play many different situations, drawing attention to the cultural constructed-ness of these roles. Gerture is down trodden wife, abused and unloved girlfriend, bullied sister, rape victim and in the eisteddfod itself, Lady Macbeth. She plays these fictions with absolute conviction, embodying them completely as she does, but with the awareness that what she is playing is yet another fictional manifestation of a possible reality. All these roles are defined in relationship to her view of men, but in the way she picks and up discards these role-plays (in the end completely discarding all these relationships) she is enacting the possibilities of re-inscription of her subjectivity, and the ultimate rejection of the male codes of her culture. She carries the awareness of her colonisation by unrelenting external forces. Katz draws attention to this awareness.
ABOLONE. Then you’ve already lost. You’re occupied already.
GERTURE. I am. I’m colonised.
ABOLONE. Do you like it? They can rape you anytime. They can pull your knickers over your head and fuck you just like that. And there’s nobody there to stop them. They can spank you down in your kitchen. They smatter batter over your kitchen. Do you like that?
GERTURE. Well I’ll escape to the hills. I’ll live in the long grass.
ABOLONE. They will hunt you down. And pummel you in the dirt. They might cut you up. Why shouldn’t they? They know you’re scared.
GERTURE. They would stop if I was crying.
ABOLONE. No they wouldn’t. They would just go harder and harder. They like it when the natives cry. It reaffirms their victory.
GERTURE. Why do they want to win so bad?
ABOLONE. So they don’t have to be losers. Because if they don’t keep you down then it is only a matter of time before you come into their houses and start rearranging their furniture. And maybe throwing out their old couch.
In Fefu and her Friends, Fefu and Julia both achieve a release from their pain. Fefu, in shooting her husband’s gun, now loaded with real bullets rather than blanks, creates the environment in which Julia dies (although ambiguously the gun is not shot at Julia). This seemingly unreal death generates a very real change for Julia from life to death and the much-desired release from her madness. For Fefu, perhaps, although there are many possible fictions for her as the play finishes on this event, it is the beginning of her awakening from one fiction to another, a liberating act that has freed Julia and herself. According to Moroff, ‘Julia has given up the right to act, to be an agent, so Fefu has been forced to take on the entire burden of the actor’s role…Fefu’s violence, then, might provide space for a different kind of female subject, one not reduced to the object Julia was reduced to, one not bonded to male discourse’ (Moroff 1996:55). Less-optimistically, this ending can be considered a complete transformation to the male-identified world Fefu has been seeking since the beginning of the play, a way to feel safe from the fictitious subjectivity of being a woman, but a further contribution to herself as object. For Gerture, an alignment with the fictitious madness of Lady Macbeth releases her from her half-life, for it is Gerture, not Abolone whom wins the Eisteddfod and the much-coveted one-way ticket to Moscow that is the prize.
Ultimately, it is the ambiguous endings of both plays, as it has been the ambiguous and multiple worldhoods throughout that lend them their strength. Meaning is never conclusive or static, an ambiguity that is productive in its ability to undermine the fixed and dominant patriarchal systems of representation. For both writers, there is a conscious commitment to turn reality into an out and out fiction to capture and re-inscribe the paradoxical and painful experience of living as a woman in patriarchal culture. Theatre, as Emma knows so well, is life, or at least an indispensable instrument in trying to understand and represent reality.
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Elaine Aston and George Savona (1991). Theatre as Sign-System: A Semiotics of Text and Performance (London: Routledge)
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Lally Katz (2004). The Eisteddfod (Unpublished)
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Lois Zamora & Wendy Faris, eds. (1995). Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community(London: Duke University Press)