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Jenny Douglas (University of Rochester)
Samuel Beckett and Marina Carr: Theatricality, Performativity, and Gender

    In 2002, a special issue of SubStance focused on defining theatricality, both as a concept unto itself and in relation to the categories of performance and performativity. Josette Féral, the editor of the issue, presents her definition of theatricality as a series of cleavages involving an act of recognition by the spectator. The first cleavage involves separating the event from its everyday surroundings; the second involves opposing reality and fiction; the third occurs within the actor and involves the tension between instinctive and symbolic behavior. Féral’s definition, and several others within the issue, focuses on theatricality and performativity as disjunctions or gaps within a signifying system and within one’s perception of an environment. Eli Rozik’s article, for example, further explains the tension within the actor as the “coexistence of elements in the same human body serving as both producer of signs and material medium of images” (120). Rozik’s explanation here, couched within a definition of theatricality that centers around acting, also evokes theories of performativity—specifically, the ways in which gender is performatively constituted.

    My paper will bring this dialogue on theatricality and performativity to bear on a few of Beckett’s plays (Not I and Happy Days) and will discuss his work in relation to a contemporary Irish playwright, Marina Carr. I believe Beckett’s plays open a performative space because of the unusual physical situations of his characters and the subsequent disjunction between body and voice. If the text of a play is usually inscribed onto the body of the actor, then what happens if the actor’s body is absent or severely truncated? I want to bring a discussion of performativity back to the theatre, in contrast to J.L. Austin’s original intentions, and in keeping with Derrida’s notion of the iterability of all performances. By examining moments of performativity within Beckett’s plays, I want to see how gender, and especially female gender, is performatively constructed.

    In addition to discussing some of Beckett’s work, I also want to bring the dialogue of theatricality and performativity to a few of Marina Carr’s plays (Portia Coughlin, By the Bog of Cats). Carr writes with some of Beckett’s dark, wry humor, but her plays are historically and linguistically situated in the Irish midlands. Her female protagonists often represent the conflict between transgressive female desires/bodies and the patriarchal structure of family and Christianity. While Beckett’s plays are less historically contextualized, I believe that his use of the stage as performative space (or perhaps theatrical space in Féral’s definition) foreshadows and even enables Carr’s depiction of female gender and sexuality. Beckett’s jarring depictions of female bodies, like the disembodied mouth in Not I and Winnie’s slow sinking in Happy Days, highlight the tension between the female body and the female voice, between signs inscribed onto the body and language coming from it. Carr’s plays, likewise, enact this tension between female sexual desire and female speech, thus perfoming gender through the female body.

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