The Female Subject

Part 2.1 of Drama in English from Singapore and Malaysia

Chitra Sankaran, PhD, Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore

Adapted from Post-Colonial Literatures in English, ed. Rajeev S. Patke, 1998, by George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, NUS, 1998-99.

Would it be a sufficient explanation of the play's success to say that it is an entirely 'home-grown' product written, produced, staged and directed by Singaporeans and Malaysians? To answer 'yes' would appear to miss one of the most fundamental sources of its appeal and power. The story and experience of the play are very much the story and experience of the main character, Emily. It tells of the construction of her subjectivity as a woman in the teeth of the challenges she encounters all along the way. The audience see her presented to them as 'a girl alone', abandoned by her mother after her father's death, and coming with frightening suddenness at the age of fourteen, 'before my breasts were grown', into 'a house of women who hated me before they knew my name', to 'be married to a man twice my age'. They are then made privy to an entire spectrum of manipulative stratagems that she resorts to in tenaciously clawing her way to become, triumphantly, 'the Mistress of Emerald Hill'. Eventually, though, she loses out on the relationships which mattered the most - her favourite son hangs himself rather than 'do everything that I want you to do', and her husband, 'when he was dying... refused to see his wife'.

Leow, Puay Tin, the first actress to play the role of Emily, has remarked that the character of Emily 'is popular because she is credible - many can identify with her' (Emily, 1989, p.91). It is not just Singaporeans who identify with Emily. An Australian theatregoer exclaimed after watching a performance, 'That's my grandmother! That's her all right!'; and Edinburgh theatregoers hailed Emily in the streets with affection and sympathy. Evidently, something about Emily's character evinces a shared response to a feminine experience of the human condition.

The issue of universality touches upon one of the central debates in feminist discourse: 'How universal is a woman's plight?' Many theorists have noted that the universal 'I' which occupies an unassailable subject-position at the centre of Western discourse is apparently sexless, transcendental, epistemic and ahistorical, and yet, paradoxically, it can become political, rooted in history, and limited in its scope when the 'he' denoted implicitly beneath the universal 'I' in discourse is changed to a 'she' (Betty Flowers, for instance, discusses this with regard to Adrienne Rich's poetry). In the light of this debate, the fact that Emily has evinced widespread appeal raises many interesting questions about the nature of the female subject.

One area where the female subject has had a chance to be re-inscribed is in the area of post-colonial narrative. This has come about partly due to the questions raised by twentieth century theory about the status of historical narratives and their claims to objectivity. Post-colonial theorists too have actively taken up this area of investigation. The process by which imperial history was assembled on the basis of select facts and from Eurocentric perspectives has come under intense scrutiny. Post-colonial historiography sets up an active counter-discourse to imperial accounts. These in turn differ from original native and indigenous accounts that were in existence prior to the period of imperial contact and had been dismissed by European scholars as myths or legends.

Post-colonial historiography interrogates imperial history and its narrative principles by showing how they are ideological constructs and intentional texts constructed for specific purposes. This revisioning of history has led to the retrieval and reclamation of the histories of hitherto marginalised people. This has enabled the reinstatement of interest groups that had been considered either too marginal or who were voiceless in relation to the centre. The recuperation of the histories of women falls squarely within this category. The methods by which 'the story (or stories) of woman' are 'written back' into history vary.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, discussing the status of the 'twice colonised' subject dominated by patriarchy and imperialism (the subaltern, who has no access to cultural imperialism, and hence to hegemonic discourse, and hence inhabits 'a space of difference'), observes that the subaltern is so voiceless that the only way she seems to be able to convey a message is through her suicide. Emily's situation is not so extreme. But the condition of subalternity does apply to her, and it is through her attempt to speak and voice her experience that she joins with other forms of resistance to her double colonisation. The play is in the form of a gigantic monologue. Emily is the only character we see on stage. All the other characters are constructed for us through Emily's words. This invests Emily with a power rarely within the reach of women. The power of naming, as feminists persistently note, has always remained firmly within Adam's domain. By appropriating speech, Emily seems to be retrieving her subject-positioning here.

A number of post-colonial plays undertake the task of refiguring and centring gender roles/identities and of expressing through performance a multiplicity of feminisms. This is accomplished in a variety of ways, for instance by deconstructing gender-specific constructions endorsed by imperial history, or by foregrounding women in traditionally male-centred cultures. Another way is by reverting to the modes of indigenous theatre. One such mode is that of 'raconteuring', the telling of tales on stage. The storyteller's presentational style and format challenges the naturalistic conventions of western theatre. Furthermore, it gives an impression of spontaneity and immediacy to the performance.

The distinction made by the structuralist Emile Benveniste between discours and histoire is useful here. Whereas written history (a form of histoire) suggests that meaning is fixed in language, story-telling (a form of discours) foregrounds utterance to create meanings that are changeable. Gilbert and Tompkins, in Post-Colonial Drama, discuss how story telling and performance art found in indigenous theatres have ' no knowledge of the fourth wall, that metaphor for the separation of communication and art which renders art meaningless and useless' (1996, p.127). In Emily, the absence of the fourth-wall is immediately noticeable. Within a page or two after the beginning of Act 1 we have Emily breaching the wall. We are told, 'Emily raises her eyes and for the first time addresses the audience directly' (Emily, p.14). This is far from being an isolated incident. Emily's flashbacks, which are part of her attempt to explain herself to the audience, become as important to the performance as characters in dialogic plays.

Another way in which Emily departs from western norms is by avoiding a fixed diachronic sequencing of events. She juxtaposes, elides and overlays different time frames. We witness her son Richard's birthday-party prior to his departure to England, in the next line we are told that he has been away for two years. Emily can regress to her childhood days or to her young 'bridal' days, all in the space of a few lines. This technique effectively reinforces the fluidity of time and facilitates the synchronic and intertextual apprehensions of events in her life. Thus Emily seems to emerge, through the foregrounding of the various techniques we have touched upon, as trans-cultural, as approximating to the status of some kind of universal subject, but also one rooted firmly within the domain of hegemonic discourse and vested with Adam's 'power of naming'. Does the play then manage to create before us 'a truly re-inscribed female subject?'

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