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Seeing Things: literature and the visual

Peter Vernon

The Seen and the Off-Scene: Staging Gender, Race and Sexuality

Elisabeth Sakellaridou

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1Vision has dominated the development of human thought, art and culture for many centuries. Ocularcentrism has been the most striking characteristic of many periods of western civilization. This long-term trust in vision was seriously attacked by a great number of French theorists in the mid-and late 20th century. From the earlier philosophical quest of Merleau-Ponty, the poetic mediations of Bachelard and the surrealist visions of Bataille to the poststructuralist analyses of Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan and Baudrillard, vision was scrutinized either to simply reveal its subjectivity, partiality and instability - in other words its fallibility as a mode of perception - or, worse, to disclose its intimate relationship with desire and fantasy and, therefore, its direct link with power, control and manipulation. Although the French critique of ocularcentrism appeared at first as an out-and-out accusation of the treacheries and vagaries of vision, it also concealed, to a high degree, a secret fascination with the eye, which led to a rising interest in the function and cultural implications of new technological visual aids (or extensions to vision) like the telescope and the microscope and later photography and the cinema and more recently television and the computer screen.

2In his comprehensive study Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (1993) Martin Jay rightly concludes that "the power of visuality has certainly survived the attack" (594); and not only that: it has actually come out victorious and enriched in its new understanding of indeterminacy and plurality. What started as a disparagement of the faculty of seeing as a trustworthy means of contact with the world eventually turned into a serious analysis of the new technologies of vision - namely photography and cinema. This discussion, in its turn, foregrounded the current critique of postmodern visual culture. The development of an interdisciplinary film theory (materialist psychosemiotics) and the experiments of a mainly politicized avant-garde cinema have been the most productive effects of the French theorists' mistrust of vision.

3Other forms of spectacle benefited from the prolific studies on the textuality of the image, as much as its disruptive powers over the narrative and its seductiveness on the spectator. The theatre, due to the ephemeral nature of the performance and the indeterminacy of the audience, was much slower in creating updated stage theories of its own. As a consequence, the impact of recent film studies on the modern stage has been tremendous. Artaud's advocacy, earlier in the century, to abandon the dramatic text and turn to performance practice1 soon found ample support and justification in the new studies on visual representation, which focused on the screen but also made frequent reference to other visual arts, painting in particular. The new sensitization to the act/art of seeing thus became a fundamental factor for the staging and reception of the performance/spectacle. Soon theatre theorists and practitioners entered the field of debate and added their own insights and experiences to the developing theory of the gaze.

  • 1 Artaud was himself fascinated with the image and closely involved with the experiments of early cin (...)

4As Stanton Garner claims in his book Bodied Spaces : Phenomenology and Performance in Contemporary Drama (1994), Samuel Beckett, whose theatrical experiments introduced new concepts about the use of the "empty space" of the stage and the function of its properties, had a keen sense of phenomenological perception - mainly vision. This meant a sense of materially meaningful visuality (teeming with physicality, motion, corporeality) that would work in parallel or contradiction to, or in replacement of, the (spoken) dramatic text. The work of Beckett, closely informed by avant-garde cinema and the multiple potentials of the image, marked a departure from the conventional fictional and verbocentric aspects of drama and opened the way to a more iconocentric stage and to the notions of performativity and spectatorship. Beckett was not a theorist but he left a rich legacy on the maleable visuality of the stage - its ability to reify mental landscapes - in his minutely scored theatre texts and through his numerous model productions of his plays, for theatre practitioners to reflect and experiment further.1

5Equally sensitized to the powers of vision was the theatre of Bertolt Brecht, the other great influential figure for the development of twentieth-century theatre. Brecht, the only major modern dramatist who has also theorized systematically on the uses of the stage, was especially interested in the physical presence and deportment of the actor on stage and the active role of the spectator as the co-producer of the meaning of the spectacle. Gamer rightly discusses Brecht's theatre as exemplary of phenomenological sensory perception - primarily visual. What is more, many of Brecht's theatrical techniques are based on his fascination and personal involvement with avant-garde cinema.

6Both the Artaudian/Beckettian and the Brechtian theatrical modes have developed - though seemingly working from opposite ideological/philosophical premises - an anti-realist aesthetic of stage representation, largely based on the manipulation of the image, which holds the power of "presencing" through performance other "realities" - mental and psychic in the case of Beckett, social in the case of Brecht - which remained hidden in mainstream realist theatre.

7The newly discovered possibilities for bringing on stage what would normally stay off-scene intrigued younger progressive theatre practitioners, who were interested in promoting a revolutionary theatre of some sort - one that would challenge society on its conservative or repressive institutional premises or that would launch a direct attack on totalitarian political or economic structures. Feminist theatre, which made a forceful appearance in the 1970s, when experimental and political theatre had already developed fairly sophisticated disruptive methods of performance, was quick in borrowing such modes of representation that could suitably adapt to their political agenda of "making visible" gender difference within the full range of ethnic, social and sexual specificity. Three plays written at different times and by three ethnically and culturally different women playwrights - Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine (1979), Hélène Cixous's Portrait of Dora (1976), Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964) - and the performance practices of the American feminist group Split Britches in the 1980s will be briefly examined in order to demonstrate the processes of effecting visibility for issues of gender and sexuality that were kept "off-scene" in mainstream western patriarchal theatre. It will be shown that an amalgamation of disparate loans from a variety of sources - avant-garde cinema and film theory on the one hand, experimental and Brechtian theatre on the other - has rendered a powerful, new, disruptive, highly spectacular and corporeal, theatre aesthetic of a strong political resonance. This theatre has managed to reposition the spectator and relocate the gaze that produces and receives the spectacle, thus also confirming the cultural/ideological monitoring of visibility.

8Caryl Churchill, a genuine offspring of the British socialist theatre of the 1970s, based her feminist theatre on the British version of Brechtian "epic" theatre, although later she enriched her form with other postmodernist theoretical and artistic models of representation, as her more recent plays A Mouthful of Birds (1986) and Skriker (1994) particularly show. Cloud Nine, her first great stage success, is an excellent example of a militant feminist play which launches a stern critique of western colonial patriarchy, following the recognizable patterns of Brechtian theory. The play has a clear political agenda that puts up its ambitious banners for the liberation of three different "oppressed" or "colonized" groups: blacks, women and homosexuals. The conceit of "oppression as colonization" is forced upon all three heterogeneous groups for the sake of an all-sweeping triple liberation of gender, race and sexuality. However, the text soon reveals the primary concerns of its author (a white heterosexual woman's identity) in its second part, where the black element disappears unaccountably while the gay/lesbian motif dissolves into loose surrealist fantasies. Thus the play loses its original dialectical grip which had forestalled a multiple materialist critique in its first part. It is this first part that shows Churchill at her best, in a masterful use of Brechtian techniques for the creation of an effective feminist critical idiom - one of devastating irony, humour and subversiveness.

9Churchill's Brechtian influence is more than obvious in the dramatic structure (episodic narrative, gestic scenes, character fragmentation, crispy dialogue and disruptive songs) but it is even more central in the stage realization which is strongly based on visual effects. The dramatist's most striking stage device in gender and race cross-casting, which entails ample use of transvestism and masquerade. Through such performance strategies the corporeality of the actor and the materiality of costume and their signification are emphasized in opposition to the fictionality of character, so that the artificial construction of gender is exposed together with the arbitrariness of compulsive heterosexuality and the white racial hegemony.

10Churchill skilfully adapts Brecht's theatrical modes of the class critique into a gestic critique of other psycho-social parameters, whose long invisibility had created complex forms of unequal distribution of power and oppression unnoticed by Marxist criticism. The visibility Churchill strives for is not only a metaphorical discursive term but it holds a strong material stage presence, which reveals a keen awareness of the recent theoretical interest in the field of visuality and the growing paradigm of performativity through the extensions of vision into the spec (tac) ular and the fantastic.

  • 2 The case history of Dora attracted the attention of feminist criticism early on. Diacritics devoted (...)

11Cixous's French origin and her personal training in psychoanalysis form a totally different cultural setting, which is fully reflected in the formal structure and the thematic perspective of her work. Her play Portrait of Dora is a double feminist response to western phallocentric culture because on the one hand it constitutes the reply of a female psychoanalyst to Freud's controversial case history of Dora2 and on the other hand it is the answer of a female playwright to the androcentric world of the theatre, a place she had stopped visiting because it felt "like going to [her] own funeral" (Cixous, 1977, 133).

  • 3 It should be noted that Portrait of Dora was first conceived as a radio play.

12In her brief manifesto on the theatre "Aller à la mer" (1977), actually a theoretical companion piece to Portrait of Dora, she calls attention to the female voice that must be heard. Her emphatic insistence on the orality/aurality of women's theatre3 suggests a peculiar denial of the fundamentally visual nature of theatre, a kind of ocularphobia, shared by the majority of her contemporary French thinkers. Like them Cixous made a conscious turn to the adoration of textuality and she became one of the most enthusiastic exponents of "écriture feminine," a thesis on which she expounded in her other ground-breaking feminist essay "The Laugh of the Medusa" (1976). The vocality of Portrait of Dora can, therefore, be naturally linked with Cixous's basic theoretical premise on female textuality and narrativity - a concept that can equally evoke echoes from the narratives heard on the psychoanalytic couch. The central image of the play is certainly that of a psychoanalytic session, with Dora confronting Freud and the audience, and the great master of psychoanalysis sitting with his back turned to the spectators. Cixous's primary interest in the auditory effect of her play is also manifested in the meticulous attention she pays to the quality of the voices heard and the detailed auditory stage directions she has inserted in her text.

13The floating nature of her characters and the systematic accentuation of vocality in the play create the deceptive impression that the characters - with the exception of Dora and Freud - may not even have a real stage presence; that they may only exist through their voices. However, this is not true. There are elements in the play concerning its staging which imply that not only has visuality not been neglected but that it actually forms the backbone of the provisional mise-en-scène. Cixous's text provides stage directions which suggest familiarity with complex performative practices, like a split stage, parallel action and flash-backs - an aesthetic that points to the multiple spatio-temporal functions of montage in avant-garde cinema. But there are also four instances in the play where the stage directions call for a direct cinematic implementation. Two of them concern a series of three still shots on film, variations on Rafael's Sistine Madonna, which are projected on stage twice. The other two concern the projection on screen of the incident at the lake, a keyimage in the Dora case, once at the beginning of the play and a second time (with several modifications) when Freud narrates his dream.

14All these cinematic interventions are used as subversive devices which undercut the surface narrative of the play and they help visualize on stage aspects of gender and sexuality which were forced to obscurity through the male practice of psychoanalysis and theatre. The skilful way in which Cixous autonomizes the image and uses it to complement, supplement or contradict the dramatic diction and the ease with which she can play the theatrical and cinematic image against each other can be plausible reminders of the impressive effects of the "new wave" French cinema and the progressive circle of the Cahiers du Cinéma on French intellectuals in the decade of the 1970s. The political films of Jean-Luc Godard and other directors of the same group, the growing interest of the Cahiers in the Brechtian aesthetic of alienation and the developing French film theory formed, no doubt, the immediate cultural and artistic milieu within which Cixous and her director, Simone Benmussa, collaborated for the production of the former's play. Of course the aesthetic patterns of the mise-en-scène, if seen separately from the politics, are also traceable in Beckett’s stage practices and may owe part of their inspiration to him. Whatever the case, the Cixous-Benmussa collaboration yielded a striking combination of representational modes. Of these, the practices of psychoanalysis or other discourses of deconstructive origin were clearly prioritised - not surprisingly, given Cixous's own primary interests - while other influences of a clearer Marxist orientation and commitment (like visual representational modes of the French avant-garde cinema or of the Brechtian political theatre) remained, understandably, rather unacknowledged.

15Her theoretical essay "Aller à la Mer" shows more openly Cixous's ideological and operational contradictions: "If the stage is woman, it will mean ridding this space of theatricality. She will want to be a body-presence; it will therefore be necessary to work at exploding everything that makes for 'staginess', going beyond the confines of the stage, lessening our dependency on the visual and stressing the auditory learning to attune all our ears, especially those that are sensitive to the pulse of the unconscious" Cixous, 1977, 134). Despite this striking theatrical/theoretical fallacy, it is mainly her marginalized (in her theoretical discourse) but vital (in her theatrical practice) visual tactics that fortify the subversive targets of Cixous's theatrical text and make it an outstanding example of the new feminist visuality. What Cixous theoretically intended as an orchestration of voices (Dora's, Freud's, Mr B's, Mr K's and Mrs K's) becomes on stage a confrontation of desiring bodies and a field of crossing gazes, where the determined adolescent female gaze of Dora forestalls new ways of looking at such patriarchally loaded images as motherhood and female sexuality. Under Dora's persistent gaze the central image of Mrs K, the icon of patriarchal femininity, changes meaning and angle of perception.

16About ten years earlier, during the period of the 1960s, Adrienne Kennedy, an innovative black American woman dramatist, wrote a series of amazing one-act plays, in which she exposes the schizophrenic situation of the black self in American culture. Kennedy's work was part of the avant-garde and experimental theatre of the sixties, bearing traits of both Artaudian physicality and Brechtian alienation. Both influences point to a highly visual theatre, where the image becomes a much richer bearer of conflicting meaning - misery, pain, suffering, confusion - than the fragmented and contradictory narratives transmitted through the more conventional verbal/vocal mode.

17Especially her short play Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964) exhibits an extraordinary phenomenological knowledge of the stage, which permits her to arrange the empty stage space and the bodies and objects inhabiting it according to new perceptual (basically visual) modes that would best fit her analysis of gender, race, culture and power. A continuous alternation and shifting of masks, drapes and other props (a mirror and a statue of Queen Victoria) as much as constant changes of colour (black and white) and lighting help create vivid spatio-temporal displacements of a strong visual effect. Another innovative strategy is the multiple splitting of the central character, Sarah, who is represented on stage by five different actors, standing for various aspects of her cultural identity. Thus Sarah can appear in conversation with other sides of herself, as the actors adopt a Brechtian style of acting that permits them to demonstrate their designated historical roles (Queen Victoria, the Duchess of Hapsburg, Jesus, Patrice Lumumba) while their presence as performers aligns them with the leading actress playing Sarah herself (the Negro-Sarah). This constellation of five performers playing the character of Sarah is a strong iconic metaphor of Sarah's inner fragmentation, her multiple culture split, which is externally perceived as a pathological state, that of schizophrenia.

18References to mental illness abound in the play. Sarah is placed under observation by two other, presumably "sane" characters - her boyfriend and her landlady - who comment on the inconsistency of her stories. However, the dramatist destabilizes their own gaze by presenting them as possible inmates of a mental asylum, thus invalidating their "objective" judgement. The transpersonal and pervasive image of lunacy relativizes human perception in the play and casts doubt on any posing authority or value system. Kennedy further subverts institutional power and deconstructs authority by ironically conceding to the presumably insane Sarah the rights and tasks of a stage director, arranging her room/space and its selected objects at will and deciding over her assumed roles in full authorial responsibility.

19Through this strong stage metaphor Kennedy manages to expose all the repressive methods of the American culture's institutional apparatuses while using the medium of vision and (in) visibility in both their immediate theatrical function and their metaphorical social signification. Kennedy's original theatrical idiom interestingly anticipated, cross-culturally, aspects of Foucauldian and Deleuzian thought, so central in the development of contemporary French theory.

  • 4 Sue-Ellen Case has collected seven of the performance texts of the group in the volume Split Britch (...)

20The performances of the feminist theatre group Split Britches at the WOW Café in New York during the 1980s stretch the visual quality of the feminist theatre aesthetic to the extreme ends of grotesque spec (tac) ularization.4 Informed mainly by the new discourse on female representation in and out of patriarchy, developed by psychoanalytic feminism and feminist film studies (for instance Joan Riviere, Laura Mulvey, Luce Irigaray, Mary Ann Doane and Teresa de Lauretis) they invented a highly spectacular mode of representing and questioning gender and sexuality, based on striking cross-dressing that is taken to the borders of the ridiculous. Masquerade and camp (what Irigaray would call a double game of mimesis) and an alienated acting style are their main techniques through which they try to free the female subject from all misleading simulations of femininity inherited from an all-pervasive patriarchal domination in the visual arts and media. As theorists on female subjectivity and representation have also expounded (especially Sue-Ellen Case and Teresa de Lauretis), Split Britches have created a new theatrical space for women to (re) present their existence through and for their own gaze exclusively.

  • 5 Alisa Solomon's recent book Re-Dressing the Canon : Essays on Theatre and Gender (1997) is a good c (...)

21This new stage optics (like the new feminist cinema) caused all the obscured "spaces-off" and the "off-scenes" of a white, male heterosexual culture to move to the centre of the stage. Spectacular and grotesque transvestism became the most effective visual effect of gay and lesbian performance practice and developed into a new dynamic queer theory expanding upon the premises of contemporary film theory and contributing its own insights on sexuality and sociality to already existing theories of the gaze, simulation and performativity. Gay/lesbian performance theory has also triggered a revisionist reading of classical theatre by casting a fresh critical glance at the subversive function of the very old theatrical convention of cross-dressing.5 Gay/lesbian perspectival ocularcentrism is making its dynamic claim to a central position in postmodem visual culture through a gradual expansion of the application of their theory in other fields of inquiry.

22The four samples of feminist theatre I have briefly discussed can by no means form a homogeneous group. They each stand for different aspects of the feminist inquiry and they often have clashing priorities and tactical preferences. Churchill foregrounds a social materialist perspective, where the class structure dominates the analysis of gender, race and sexuality while psychic issues are played down. By contrast, Cixous chooses to be blind to the sensitivities of Marxist analysis for the sake of the essences of the female psyche and sexuality which she juxtaposes to a (questionably) classless patriarchy. Kennedy launches a more balanced psychosocial critique of the paranoid situation of the Black-American woman, where specific gender problems recede before the more central parameters of race and ethnicity. Split Britches focus on the lesbian subject as the only social position possible for women outside the patriarchal structure and they intentionally suppress other differentiating parameters of gender.

  • 6 In the domain of feminist studies we could mention Peggy Phelan's Unmarked : The Politics of Perfor (...)

23In their strategic, heterogeneous inclusions and exclusions all these feminist theatres play freely with the possibilities of visibility and what all share in their dissenting polyphony is a full awareness of contemporary theory's ambiguous position towards vision and visuality6 - a modified ocularphobia which is also a joyous fascination with the eye's ability/power to kill, resurrect and metamorphose according to its own abysmal desires and so to control and manipulate the gaze of the other to any political effect.


Works cited

Bernheimer, Charles, ed, 1985. In Dora's Case. New York: Columbia UP.

Case, Sue-Ellen, 1996. Split Britches: Lesbian Practice/Feminist Performance. London and New York : Routledge.

Cixous, Hélène, 1976. "The Laugh of the Medusa". Signs, Summer 1976. First published as "Le Rire de la Méduse" in L'Arc (1975).

–, 1979. Portrait of Dora. In Benmussa Directs. London: John Calder.

–, 1995. "Aller à la Mer". In Twentieth Century Theatre: A Sourcebook. Ed. Richard Drain. London and New York: Routledge. Also published in Modern Drama 27.4 (1984). First published in Le Monde, 1977.

Churchill, Caryl, 1985. Cloud Nine. In Churchill, Plays: One. London and New York: Methuen.

Garner, Stanton B. Jr., 1994. Bodied Spaces: Phenomenology and Performance in Contemporary Drama. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP.

Diacritics. Special issue on the case of Dora. 12. 4 (Fall 1983).

Jay, Martin, 1993. Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London : U of California P.

Kennedy, Adrienne, 1998. Funnyhouse of a Negro. In Adrienne Kennedy in One Act. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P.

Phelan, Peggy, 1993. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. Londonand New York: Routlegde.

Solomon, Alisa, 1997. Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on Theater and Gender. London and New York: Routledge.


1 Artaud was himself fascinated with the image and closely involved with the experiments of early cinema.

2 The case history of Dora attracted the attention of feminist criticism early on. Diacritics devoted a special issue to the Dora case (12. 4, Fall 1983) and another collection of essays on the same issue, In Dora’s Case, ed. Charles Benheimer, appeared two years later (1985).

3 It should be noted that Portrait of Dora was first conceived as a radio play.

4 Sue-Ellen Case has collected seven of the performance texts of the group in the volume Split Britches: Lesbian Practice/Feminist Performance. Information about the politics and aesthetics of Split Britches can also be obtained from the recent writings of feminist critics Sue-Elle Case, Jill Dolan and Teresa de Lauretis.

5 Alisa Solomon's recent book Re-Dressing the Canon : Essays on Theatre and Gender (1997) is a good case in point. Split Britches' review show Belle Reprieve, based on Tennessee Williams's play A Streetcar Named Desire and its celebrated cinematic version is also a good example.

6 In the domain of feminist studies we could mention Peggy Phelan's Unmarked : The Politics of Performance (1993).


Professor of English and Comparative Drama at the Aristotle University, Thassaloniki, Greece. She has recently coedited (Dis) Placing Classical Greek Theatre.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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