The First Feminist (Slut Shaming) Revenge Drama, or, Agency
(this post contains some plot spoilers, but seeing as the play is over 400 years old, so if you don’t know yet that Bruce Willis is a ghost, you’re a little behind… oh sorry, wrong story?)
Barry Kyle, the director of The Maids’ Tragedy, since first offering me the part of Evadne, has pitched this role and this play to me as the First Feminist Revenge Drama. I know Barry has an interest in gender equity (heck, Barry has an interest in everything), and I also know he is catering to my particular interest in creating art that questions, embodies and creates identity. But this play presents some interesting challenges for being considered Feminist. Let us consider.
What does it mean for a play to be Feminist?*
(*Capital F means I’m talking about the Feminist movement. Lower case f means I’m talking about the general idea of gender equity.)
A quick Google search yields lots of academic papers about the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s and the (relative) surge of performances of plays written by women – from uncovering unsung Restoration writers such as Aphra Behn to new work from playwrights the like of Caryl Churchill and Sarah Kane.
Interestingly, most definitions I could quickly find mentioned that the content of many of these plays depicted the oppression of women in a patriarchal world, not depicting a framework demonstrating the alternative to patriarchy by giving women agency. So, one might argue, isn’t a Feminist play really just like any other? A play written from a patriarchal paradigm (no matter the gender of the author) unconsciously places women in roles of oppression, and a Feminist one consciously does so to illustrate a point. Then again, one might argue that in art, intent is the most important ingredient, and furthermore that plays from women’s perspectives are inherently different in ways not called out by these online references.
But, for the purposes of my exploration, I’m interested in the idea that perhaps what makes a feminist* play is the production. And I think this because of the particularly challenging case of The Maids’ Tragedy. I play the character of Evadne, a socialite who has just been placed in a sham marriage to cover up her love affair as the King’s mistress. PLOT SPOILER: She ends up killing the King.
You could argue that this play is Feminist and/or feminist because you could argue that the protagonist is a woman, and that she breaks a cycle of abuse and/or oppression because she kills the King, presumably a symbol of her oppression.
However, the reasons this play, and Evadne’s story, are not any sort of F/feminist are many:
- It is written by two men.
- All female parts would have been played by boys at the time of its first production (1619)
- You can argue the protagonist is a man (Melantius), not Evadne.
- Evadne’s fault is having had (and enjoyed) premarital sex.
- You could argue she kills the king:
- because she is physically and verbally abused and coerced into doing so.
- because he has deflowered her, which is, oh my god, SO TERRIBLE.
- to maintain the honor of her brother (man).
- to obtain the love/acceptance/forgiveness of her husband (man). Via his semen, poetically called “the beams of your forgiveness.” Seriously.
- And once it is all said and done, she kills herself because she has no reason left to live once deflowered and rejected.
What power she does have, is all sexual. I would argue it takes a modern audience to even consider a woman’s sexuality as power, whereas in the good ol’ days, I don’t imagine she would have been a very sympathetic character. When she is called a “whore,” people probably agreed (will they still?).
One idea that has been floated to me is that she is powerful because she knows how to please (or withhold pleasure from) men. It is seen in this exchange:
King: Why, thou dissemblest, and it is in me to punish thee.
Evadne: Why, it is in me then, not to love you, which will more afflict your body than your punishment can mine.
This is not the same thing as sexual agency, which is the choice to give or receive sexual pleasure based on what I (the woman) want, which does not mean disregarding what a sexual partner wants – it means valuing both desires.
This scenario disregards the woman’s ability to take action with any other type of influence other than her Lysistrata sexual veto power. And it totally ignores the fact that women truly have power and agency in many ways: through talent, humor, money, rhetoric, expression, emotion, friendship, and violence, to name a few.
But what is especially interesting to me in the playing of this character is that the discussion of the play as F/feminist has become less and less important over time, and has even hindered the playing of the text as it is actually written. A purely F/feminist reading of the script leaves out the human element – the possibility of love. The truth of being broken through abuse. The reality that sexual desire is messy and certainly not political. The feeling of not knowing who you are; looking inside and seeing nothing, and hating even that. Heartbreak.
These are real things that real people, myself included, experience.
And to me, being a feminist means inhabiting a woman who is all colors of human – including the compliant, powerless, and un-Feminist traits. Whether those traits are inherent or socially created, they are still within modern women, and a modern production with a modern Evadne must embrace them. And it’s what the production of this play seeks to do.
Come see the show and let me know what you think.
-Brenan Dwyer, Evadne