Moving Women Centre Stage: Structures of Feminist-Tragic Feeling

Elaine Aston 1
  • 1 Lancaster University, Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts, Lancaster, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Elaine Aston
  • Corresponding author
  • Lancaster University, Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts, Lancaster, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
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  • Elaine Aston is Professor of Contemporary Performance at Lancaster University, UK. Her monographs include Caryl Churchill (1997/ 2001/ 2010); Feminism and Theatre (1995); Feminist Theatre Practice (1999); Feminist Views on the English Stage (2003); Performance Practice and Process: Contemporary [Women] Practitioners (2008, with Geraldine Harris); A Good Night Out for the Girls (2013, with Geraldine Harris); and Royal Court: International (2015, with Mark O’Thomas). She is the co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights (2000, with Janelle Reinelt); Feminist Futures: Theatre, Performance, Theory (2006, with Geraldine Harris); Staging International Feminisms (2007, with Sue-Ellen Case); and The Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill (2009, with Elin Diamond). She has served as Senior Editor of Theatre Research International and is currently a Vice President of IFTR.
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Abstract

In September 2015, Vicky Featherstone, Artistic Director of London’s Royal Court Theatre, was widely reported in the British press as commenting on the lack of female roles equivalent in stature to the tragic figures of Shakespeare’s Lear and Hamlet, or Miller’s Willy Loman. Her observation that audiences are more “comfortable” with a “male narrative” sparked considerable debate. My article engages with and develops this debate by turning a feminist gaze on two plays in Featherstone’s Royal Court repertoire: Penelope Skinner’s Linda and Zinnie Harris’s How to Hold Your Breath, both of which premiered in 2015. Mapping feminist thinking on to Raymond Williams’s reflections on “modern tragedy,” I conceive of a feminist-tragic feeling as crossing the divide between the political and the tragic. Formally, I argue this encourages a move away from the generically-bound categorisation of tragedy with its attendant definitions and theories, and makes it possible to think in more expansive, fluid, genre-crossing ways of what Rita Felski terms a “tragic sensibility.” Ultimately, through close readings of Linda and How to Hold Your Breath, I argue how each structures a feminist-tragic feeling for a world in which Western privilege has repeatedly failed to democratise.

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  • Billington, Michael. “Magnetic Maxine Peake is Bedevilled in Morality Play.” Review of How to Hold Your Breath, by Zinnie Harris. The Guardian, 11 Feb. 2015, www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/feb/11/how-to-hold-your-breath-review-maxine-peake-royal-court-theatre.

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  • Evans, Lloyd. “Yet More State-Funded Misanthropy.” Review of How to Hold Your Breath, by Zinnie Harris. The Spectator, 21 Feb. 2015, www.spectator.co.uk/2015/02/how-to-hold-your-breath-royal-court-review-yet-more-state-funded-misanthropy/.

  • Felski, Rita, ed. Rethinking Tragedy. The Johns Hopkins UP, 2008.

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  • Royal Court Theatre. “In Conversation with Zinnie Harris.” YouTube, post-show discussion with Zinnie Harris about How to Hold Your Breath, led by Royal Court Artistic Director, Vicky Featherstone, 6 March 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xcqbugfmgy4.

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  • Tripney, Natasha. “We Still Need More ‘Willy Loman’ Roles for Women.” The Stage, 10 Dec. 2015, www.thestage.co.uk/opinion/2015/natasha-tripney-we-still-need-more-willy-loman-roles-for-women/.

  • Wiegand, Chris. Interview with Maxine Peake. The Guardian, 4 Feb. 2015, www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/feb/04/maxine-peake-henry-v-hamlet-how-to-hold-your-breath.

  • Williams, Raymond. Modern Tragedy. Revised edition, Verso, 1979.

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The peer-reviewed journal focuses on issues in contemporary Anglophone dramatic literature and theatre performance. It renegotiates the understanding of contemporary aesthetics of drama and theatre by treating dramatic texts of the last fifty years. JCDE publishes essays that engage in close readings of plays and also touch upon historical, political, formal, theoretical and methodological aspects of contemporary drama, theatre and performance.

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