Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What I'm working on right now

Next Friday morning I'm giving a paper at a conference. I sent off the suggestion to a panel just on a whim--to a fellow academic I knew some time ago but haven't been in touch with for some time.

The title of the paper is "Women Writing Women: Herstory in American Drama."

The subject is three plays, each written by a woman, about three famous American women; the larger, more general topic is biography, gender and American drama. The plays are Alison's Room by Susan Glaspell, Alice in Bed by Susan Sontag, and Charm by Kathleen Cahill. As I said, I proposed this paper on a whim, actually just after seeing Charm here in Big D, and really with an interest to doing something in American dramatic literature again.

But funny connections have emerged as I work on these three plays, which will weave into my discussion and, hopefully, into a longer article.

Alison's Room is the Pulitzer Prize play by Susan Glaspell, possibly the first great women playwright in America. You may never have heard of her because she was a contemporary and friend of Eugene O'Neill, and his fame overshadowed hers. But they were the two playwrights first produced by the Provincetown Players, and nowadays Glaspell is often "known" for that. She was, however, also a journalist, short story writer and novelist, and in fact wrote in most genres with an impressive career. Alison's Room is her "biography" of Emily Dickinson, and takes up the subject of Dickinson's legacy as a woman, as much as a poet.


Alice in Bed by Susan Sontag is a freely imagined biography of Alice James, the sister of William and Henry, who was an invalid almost all her life, until breast cancer killed her at 43. Sontag, of course, is best known as an intellectual and writer of philosophy and critique on many topics, but this is her sole play.

Charm by Cahill is about Margaret Fuller, again a kind of imagined biography of the woman who wrote Woman in the Nineteenth Century, the first American document on feminism and a colleague of the New England transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau.

All three women--Dickinson, James, and Fuller--lived in approximately the same period, the middle 19th century. All three playwrights--Glaspell, Sontag, and Cahill--take a less-than-documentary look at their subject matter.

But the major things I realized in starting this project are these:
  • these "imagined" biographies are the only ones I could find by women about famous American women: meaning published, produced, award-winning, "known" beyond a small circle;
  • all of the more famous or successfully produced biographies of American women are written by male playwrights;
  • film offers more biographies--again, written almost entirely by men--and is a more successful venue.
Why? I think--and this is part of my discussion in the paper to come--because famous women are not famous for the same action-oriented, active things men are famous for. Women are neither presidents nor generals, inventors nor explorers, public speakers nor society transformers... and yes, I know that is an inaccurate as well as sweeping generality. When women are famous for the things I've mentioned, it is often in a woman-dominated sphere or for a woman-friendly topic (like birth control) that is somewhat controversial and has little "action" (i.e., violence, fighting, or car chases) associated with it.

And in considering those women who do these things, their biography is most often directed to their personal lives: as mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, or women who give up love, or lose love through their ambitions. Who sacrifice for their family, or who sacrifice their family to their ambition/art/cause.

This is not the focus of male biographies--a fact which is not new.

But I am also curious about the attitude these female playwrights take toward their subjects: Glaspell toward Dickinson, Sontag toward James, Cahill toward Fuller.

Oh, and Sontag includes an "Alice" teaparty where James has tea with Fuller and Dickinson... that's one of those weird coincidences I had forgotten about when I proposed the paper. It is a kind of Mad Hatter meeting among these three American women.

In any case, I am hoping this continues to give me insights into my work with French actresses and the men who "imagined" them.

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