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Susquehanna University Press

     

 

The Troubling Play of Gender
ISBN 1-57591-035-7
The Phaedra Dramas of Tsvetaeva, Yourcenar, and H.D. MARIA STADTER FOX

In this study based on close readings of the texts in Russian, French, and English, Maria Stadter Fox demonstrates that Marina Tsvetaeva, Marguerite Yourcenar, and H.D. address the problems of female authority and authorship by reworking the myths of Phaedra, Ariadne, Hippolytus, and Theseus in plays intended for reading rather than performance. By rewriting Greek tragedy they enact their own displacement within a masculine literary tradition and also struggle to define themselves as women writers.

Although these three modernist writers were not primarily playwrights, as expatriates they were interested in the Euripidean theme of women in exile: each independently chose to rewrite Euripides' Hippolytus, a play in which the protagonist is a woman in exile whose speech, writing, and passion are deeply problematic. Each author approaches the Euripidean material in a different way: Tsvetaeva focuses on gender in language, Yourcenar explores the gendering of a self, and H.D. performs the undoing of gendered oppositions.

Beginning with a discussion of the genre of tragedy and the reception of Euripides, Fox explores the literary and performative possibilities of the play written for readers, and finally suggests how transgression of gender and genre expectations operate in the modern rewritings.

After examining Tsvetaeva's notions of the poet's constant linguistic exile, Fox brings out, through a close reading of Fedra, the representation of female speech as tragically futile. Her study is supported by comparison with lyric poems by Tsvetaeva and tragedies on the classical model written by contemporary Russians.

Yourcenar distanced herself from a feminine identity in order to create an authoritative writing self. In her novels, she rarely offers room for feminine subjects. In contrast, Fox shows, Yourcenar allowed female characters in Qui n'a pas son Minotaure? and her other plays to speak as subjects in their own right. Appreciation of these feminine voices also enables Fox to recognize the feminine voice introduced through "paratexts" even in Yourcenar's novels, suggesting how Yourcenar possibly resolved what she saw as the problem of female authorship.

Fox demonstrates that H.D. in Hippolytus Temporizes took a different approach from either of these two writers. Her play dismantles the binary categories which usually structure tragedy, and instead builds on the problems of naming, identity, and lyric subjectivity.

The plays illustrate not only differences between the authors, but also some common strategies in their practice of classicism and Modernism. The plays situate themselves within a Hellenizing tradition, specifically within the reception of Euripides as a "feminized" poet, in order to present female characters as selves rather than figures of alterity . Furthermore, the authors chose to write in a semi- or anti-theatrical form as a deliberate transgression of both gender and genre. While neither plays nor authors offer a positive solution to the problems of female authority, a resolution may be found in the common movement toward the dissolution of an established and binding power: for example, all three writers turn to the figure of Hippolytus in an attempt to dissolve the bonds of convention, language, and the body.