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As Beauvoir said, these plays tend to deal with restoring a sense of value and choice to a world that has been largely stripped of these features by modern critical, literary, and dramatic trends. Character is created with a greater sense of agency in these plays, and identity -- especially feminine identity -- ironically emerges as more of an actively created and self-determined construct through its interactions within and agsint societal demands. Due to the economic constraints on women until the last century (and arguably even today, though to a lesser degree), the feminine identity and perspective is still being created, and is not yet ready to give way to postmodern meaninglessness. It emerges as an economic and political force that embodies this sense of agency in its determinative powers.
The Works of Wertenbaker
Many of modern playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker's plays deal explicitly with the issues of feminist drama. In constructing feminist dramatic texts, Wertenbaker has the obvious advantage over Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg of actually being female, as well the fact that she was born jut a few short years after World War II and thus grew up in a world where identity -- especially along gender lines and other demarcations of marginalization -- was in a state of explicit and near-constant redefinition. But although it would be disingenuous and naive to completely ignore such personal and historical information, her texts also stand on their own.
Feminist texts, dramatic or otherwise, are often read and/or judged with the assumed perspective of the (feminine) author, which in and of itself relegates such texts to a secondary and subjugated status; a minority perspective not as equally indicative of or relevant to its cultural underpinning as non-feminist (or male-authored) works. Wertenbaker's plays are as susceptible to such (mis)readings as any other text, but an examination of the texts themselves reveals a much more profound reshaping of feminine identity (Sullivan). Not all of her works are primarily or even tangentially concerned with this issue, insofar as it can be escaped, but "are particularly pertinent to materialist critiques of culture" which at once has implications specific to feminist theory and broader issues. (Sullivan 141) Through all of Wertenbaker's works, an essentially inclusive and humanistic perspective is apparent, which matches the attempt to define femininity and feminine identity not as a separate construct in opposition or contrast to masculinity, but as an equally viable and necessary perspective.
The Grace of Mary Traverse
One of Wertenbaker's most explicitly feminist texts is The Grace of Mary Traverse, which was first produced in London in 1985. The play follows the title character as she attempts "to perfect, then escape and replace, the particular kind of subjectivity society prescribes for her" (Dahl 150). Specifically, it traces her descent from a well brought up young lady in London to a prostitute, madam, and even revolutionary in the streets and halls of that same city. At every turn, though Mary's choices are quite obviously and explicitly limited by the male world that surrounds her, she also displays a complete sense of agency in her quest for knowledge and experience. Both the aspects of patriarchal control and this agency on the part of Mary Traverse herself mark this play as a decidedly feminist piece of dramatic text, as the plot is quite overtly and consciously about a young woman's search for identity on her own terms.
The play also makes sure that this plot -- which seems to consciously mimic Dickens in some of its turns and is very nearly an example of a female-center bildungsroman -- includes a redefinition of individualistic, and not just feminine, perspective. Mary states the purpose of her own journey not in terms of the self, and how she is perceived by the world and allowed to negotiate with society, but rather as an attempt on her part to "know how to love this world" (Wertenbaker 130). This is perhaps the most explicit reference to this perspective in the play, but it is apparent throughout. A major issue of the feminine crisis, related to but distinct from the issue of self-identity, is the confusion of perspective. That is, in part due to the lack of a concrete sense of female identity, the female perspective can have difficulty in understanding and connecting to a world that does not operate along the same terms. The plot shows Mary traveling through many different levels and sections of London society not simply in an attempt to define her role within it, but rather in an attempt to gain access to it; enough of a connection to engage in the free-flowing dialogue that is the (largely illusory, in life and in the play) advantage of masculinity in a patriarchal socio-political system.
Wertenbaker's examination of the feminine issue in this play goes deeper than mere plot, however. Mary's actions (and those that occur to her) are, of course, the basis for all interpretations and readings of the play, but to view The Grace of Mary Traverse as a simple allegorical tale following one woman's struggle to shape her identity is foolishly overly simplistic. Though her journey is emblematic and symbolic of the feminine struggle, it also engages in a dialogue with modern political and social thought in defining the role of the individual. Mary's journey is as much a one of carving out an externally realized identity as it is about forming an internal sense of self. At the beginning of the play, Mary is entirely focused on the external. She delivers a monologue to an empty chair with her father standing behind her, her identity dependent on the absent individual she is addressing and the watchful gaze of Giles Traverse. The subject of the monologue, too, is wholly concerned with perception of the external: "You were telling me how we are to know nature. Do we dare look at it directly, or do we trust an artist's imitation" (Wertenbaker 7). It is obvious that this speech is not actually engaging for Mary, but her role and identity has been constructed to deal in such banal externalities. Her self-discovery is as much about mapping her internal world as it is about expanding her external one.
The Female Individual
The issue of individuality is central to the issue of feminine identity. It is in fact, to some ways of thinking, the defining characteristic of feminism, in asserting that women face the same and even harsher struggles in regards to defining their individuality within the constraints of a culture and society as do men. In this regard, Dahl notes that The Grace of Mary Traverse "represented social and political relations in a way that recalled Louis Althusser's analysis of how ideology shapes individual subjectivity (Dahl 150). That is, it is not only the creation of the feminine in the social and political patriarchy that exists in the world at large and specifically and minutely in the world of the play that this text deals with, but the difficulty in the free formation of any sense of identity at all in a world with such a strict hierarchical structure. This is an essential part of the feminist underpinnings of this play.
Simone de Beauvoir had demonstrated the essence of this argument nearly forty years before this play appeared on te London stage. In her chapter of The Second Sex concerned with the historical view, she notes that:
the very concept of personal possession can be comprehensible only with reference to the original condition of the existent. For it to appear, there must have been at first an inclination in the subject to think of himself as basically individual, to assert the autonomy and separateness of his existence.
This again raises the issue of economics and possession as means of identification within society.
As much as Mary's journey can be seen as a struggle for identity, it is also quite clearly struggle for basic and practical independence. Her decision to whore herself out to others, and later to whore others out, is not borne (at least not solely) of an extreme moral degradation or any prurient obsession. Instead, Mary is finding a way to make the economics of her life work. This is reflected in her father's choice of words when "he would incorporate her fully, but she rejects him. Her father tells her she has become 'accountable'" (Dahl 156; Wertenbaker 122). This word implies the economic and practical realities of an independent life, and Mary's realization and acceptance of her own "accountability" form the beginning of her realization of her own sense of identity. She has carved out both a personality and a place in and perspective on society that are uniquely her own, untied by the fetters of the patriarchal society she must deal in. Her circumvention of certain attitudes and practices within that society allowed her to come back to it and dwell within it on entirely her own terms -- the very goal of feminism.…[continue]
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