Gender and performance are merely another metaphor for the unknown

‘Gender’ and ‘performance’ are both terms that are being defined and redefined constantly. Talking about them collectively broadens the scope of definition. This then suggests that they are indeed ‘merely another metaphor for the unknown’. If there is no clear definition that may be challenged then it is correct to mark that term as unknown. Lizbeth Goodman (1993) writes that ‘the most difficult thing about writing on feminist theatres is reaching a definition, or set of definitions, of the term ‘feminist’ with which both theorists and practitioners might agree.

The subject matter that is feminism is just a small category within the term gender. When we speak of gender the immediate response, from most, is to think about roles of men and women throughout history. This is a valid and popular talking point and therefore must be considered. Fiona Shaw challenged the typical role of women within ‘classical’ theatre and literature when she played Shakespeare’s, King Richard the II at the National Theatre. This is a typical gender challenging production where she says she wanted: ‘if not a female Richard, then a genderless one’.

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When looking at gender and performance together one must take what gender issues arise from a particular performance and investigate them separate to a fixed idea of gender. Gender is too sparse to have a rigid impression or constant opinion, as Colin Counsell and Laurie Wolff (2001) write ‘Owing to the obvious consonance between gender and sexual identity, which negotiate some of the same political structures, feminist theory and queer theory or theories of sexual dissidence have been placed together in this one, large section.

These are just but a few sub-sections of the more modern word ‘gender’. Where as traditionally this word is held a scientific title of what sex an animal is (male or female), it now suggests other cultural topics such as sexual identity and sexual preference. ‘Gender and theatre/performance’ is not a new subject and rather an old one with fixed and perhaps false views that hold unwritten rules concerning what is socially acceptable. The traditional attempts to explore gender and its properties usually end in comedy.

Pantomime offers men as women and women as men every year but is never serious about suggesting the subject is anything else but a tool for laughter. Elaborate costumes and stereotype appearances hide the topic from reality. It becomes fantastical and probably should do as pantomime is a show of fantasy but then theatre as a convention should then also give a serious alternative to an issue of growing importance to society. Judith Butler (1990) says that drag ‘… effectively mocks both the expressive model of gender and the notion of a true gender identity’.

Its feminism predominantly that has started this war against these unwritten laws of theatre but since then more and more gender groups have begun to stake their claim as writers but also as talented performers. Butler (1990) suggest the majority live in a world where ‘disciplinary production of gender effects a false stabilization of gender in the interests of the heterosexual construction and regulation of sexuality within a reproductive domain. ‘ This indicates that if reproduction were possible and popular in other ways than traditional heterosexual way then society would take a different stance on gender.

This again shows a sense of unknowingness and mere speculation. Performance and theatre would do well to speculate also. Another ‘unknown’ that can be investigated through theatre is religion. Ever since the beginning of religion, whatever that may have been it is clear that to communicate religious feelings such as faith, performance is a powerful tool. It is only then to be expected that Christianity follow suit with theatre: the most important and powerful figures throughout history in both theses areas are men.

Jesus and his disciples were not all men by accident; the culture of the times dictates it. Societies of past times may have lived their lives strictly in line with this religion. If this is so, it is clear why women were not valued as equal citizens. The bible had played a huge part in what societies of the Western World think and say. The bible can and has been read with a view to put down other genders; homosexuals, people of transgender, people of different faith and people of ‘different’ cultures all have been affected by the once Western view of white male supremacy.

This view is certainly not extinct and variations and similar situations are seen all over the world. It’s no surprise then that theatre has also grown with many of these rules behind its thinking. It is only relatively recently that people have found that there is evidence to suggest that the almighty God may be a woman or else sexless. Modern performances of religious and more accurately Christian performance seem to have still not attempted to challenge the definite rules that gender and performance hold.

Steven Berkoff’s Messiah, Scenes from a Crucifixion was written, directed and in part performed by Berkoff himself. This was on the face of it a re-written and updated version of the bible’s story of Jesus’ crucifixion. The cast was twelve strong, eleven men and one woman. It can be argued that this is clearly because the only significant female character in the bible story was indeed Mary, Jesus’ mother. The performance was then true to most theatre and stuck to stereotypes of gender that inadvertently made the performance a gender-based talking point.

Images of Mary the weeping mother held by the strong and protecting Joseph is something that is now expected when showing this story. It perhaps would be interesting to see an emotionally blank Mary holding a distraught Joseph. Later images of Jesus and his disciples were very interesting as Berkoff portrayed them as being a group of men together resembling a gang of ‘lads’. A challenge of the religion’s maleness was clearly seen here, Jesus being the leader of men was strong, vibrant and all knowing, stubborn.

His disciples like sheep flocking round him begging for attention and praise, a constant fight for recognition. They did their jobs for him with up most effort but once achieved expected to also ‘play hard’. The next vision of a female in the performance was a woman prostitute. She came on, was ordered by Jesus to cry and clean his feet with her tears. She would then become be forgiven and blessed by him, this act as a performance was degrading to her character and yet erotic. The character playing Judas argued with Jesus that the ‘whore did not deserve blessing’ and was therefore an insignificant being to themselves.

This was and still is a view held by most people, Luce Irigaray (1977) marks this as ‘the logic of sameness’, Counsell and Wolf quite rightly agree and say ‘such systems typically deploy Woman symbolically as Man’s “other”,’ The questions whether Berkoff by changing the roles of gender or pushing boundaries of gender rules would degrade or make a mockery of this so legendary story. It would, perhaps, seem inaccurate but also fitting, as religion should be an eternal subject that follows and is influenced by popular culture, the same as theatre.

The only other image of Woman or even femininity is where Mary gives a soliloquy about the pureness of virginity and how Jesus would be ‘pure’ because she was untouched. She then moves on to describe the explicitness of when God came to her and impregnated her with Jesus. This is the only three visions/images of Woman: A mother, a virginal woman and a prostitute and Irigaray (1977) suggest ‘The characteristics of (so-called) feminine sexuality derive from them… ‘ Berkhoff has used, consequently, old but very much living opinions of women, by living it is meant that an opinion is forced on us whether we are aware of it or not.

One can have a view contrary to these socially enforced stereotypes but nevertheless will still see and recognise feminine sexuality in any of those three sub-titles. This way of performing expresses a fear of gender and its unknown. Performance of this kind is perhaps a metaphor for the known. Writers must begin to take the risk and explore what is ostensibly fixed just as Shaw done with Richard II. Philosophers such as Rene Descartes are exploring gender and since the late 1960s and 1970s politicians have been made aware and have even changed laws on the basis of gender research.

This must be something then that theatre must really consider. ‘Gender is a citing of the symbolic law’ (Nelson, Freadman and Anderson 2001). Somewhere, if gender as a subject is changing, the ‘symbolic law’ must change first and the theatre is the perfect avenue for this change to occur. Cane and Abel by an up and coming Theatre Company played on an Arts on tour production at Hull University Scarborough Campus. A small scale performance compared to Berkoff’s West End style production. The title suggests the similarity in religion but actually the similarities run deeper.

The idea of how we see people especially regarding their gender is more common in theatre than, I think the theatre’s constitution would like to think. This performance of farce and rather dark humour told the story of the bible’s Cane and Abel with a Freudian twist of sexual attraction between mother and sons. Again, like Messiah, there were scenes of the mothering woman but what came with this performance was the added story of Cane’s jealousy towards his brother because of all the mothering attention he got.

He brought violence towards his brother but despite constant opportunity he held himself back from inflicting such acts on his mother. Perhaps this is the shared beliefs of most of society now that a male boy does not hurt his mother but perhaps also it is a more primal opinion of life. It sis often suggested that the male sibling will feel a sense of ownership towards its mother and therefore look to protect her at even the torrid of times. The act of sex is something that is unknown to a stranger; a stranger does not know how or whether the next person has sex. To reveal this in performance is revealing an unknown of the character.

Cane and Abel’s mother has a scene in the performance where she begins to masturbate, this may be a moment in life when a persons’ gender is really experienced. Butler (1994) argues ‘gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self,’ She did so by tickling herself and with a feather, unsurprisingly a typical metaphor for femininity. The feather in its delicacy and soft touch has also the function of keeping an animal warm.

To continue to depict this performance by finding standard gendered impressions would be wrong and instead it is more useful to compare the two male characters as subjects of their gender. Cane was the elder and therefore looked up to by his younger brother Abel. He was abrasive and quite hyperactive. He craved attention and would use violence when uneasy about a given situation. Abel was the quiet one he would receive more physical love than his from his mother and then. consequentially, more violence from Cane. He like Cane thrived on attention but would prefer it from his brother. Both brothers were sensitive to change.

Performance of these two characters together offered an unknown for the performers. They would act and react with each other with similar profiles in mind. From this gender would be expressed unconsciously. This does suggest that indeed performance can be a metaphor for the unknown. One cannot be sure whether what is noticed by oneself will also be noticed by his/her neighbour. Cane and Abel may and probably were seen by many as ‘macho’ and ‘camp’ respectively. This is possibly a narrow view but altogether valid as the culture we live in today only offers groups for people to be put in.

That is also the consistent when reviewing a performance by individuals. Typically in this case the men playing these roles will be put into a particular critical grouping, contradictorily, like the way I have summarised their characters. The gender aspect will be vital in this grouping. Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, is a play that can and has indeed attempted to combine performance and gender and ask questions of the unknown. A contemporary look on Woman that an audience cannot ignore and has to acknowledge but then it may be argued that all theatre should not have to ask these questions.

That is true and theatre must by diverse and celebrate traditional theatre as it grows but watching clichi?? d performances of very old views on gender is something that must be reviewed as valuable but also outdated performance. Gender is something that is inherent in all theatre whether it is gender specific or not. Characters should be explored with changeable genders but also and more importantly with a more relaxed view on stereotypical views on ‘male and female’. Feminist theatres, contemporary drag acts and some gay and lesbian theatre have produced different and exciting theatre concerning gender.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be just the struggling genders that attempt this. It is clear that performance and gender can be a metaphor for the unknown but it is also very clear that performance and gender can both be constants that can only be metaphors for what is known by all. The latter will soon be realised as unimaginable and basic. Helene Cixous (1975) also senses change: ‘Nothing allows us to rule out possibilities of radical transformation of behaviours, mentalities, roles, political economy – whose effects on libidinal economy are unthinkable – today. ‘