Thursday, February 04, 2010

Peter Stallybrass, Transvestism and the 'body beneath'

Peter Stallybrass, Transvestism and the ‘body beneath’; Speculating on the boy actor.

…Renaissance spectator is required to speculate upon a boy actor who undresses, and thus to speculate upon the relation between the boy actor the woman he plays. This speculation depends upon a cultural fantasy of sight, but a fantasy, I shall argue, that plays back and forth between sexual difference as a site of indeterminacy (the undoing of any stable or given difference) and sexual difference (and sexuality itself) as the production of contradictory fixations (fixations articulated through a fetishistic attention to particular parts of an actual boy actor). (64)

At the same time, bed scenes foreground the body: the body which is either literally or symbolically about to be exposed. And here we come to a peculiar problem. The consensus of recent scholars on Renaissance transvestism has been that it is self-consciously staged mainly, or only, in comedy. Lisa Jardine, in her important work on the boy actor to which I am deeply indebted, states what has now become a commonplace: / the eroticism of the boy player is invoked in the drama whenever it is openly alluded to: on the whole this means in comedy, where role-playing and disguise is part of the genre. In tragedy, the willing suspension of disbelief does customarily extend, I think, to the taking of the female parts by boy players; taken for granted, it is not alluded. (Jardine 1983: 23) / But in bed scene after bed scene in Renaissance tragedy, we begin to witness an undressing or we are asked to see or to imagine an undressed (or partially undressed) body within the bed. What is it we are being asked to see? (65)

On the Renaissance stage, actual boys played seeming ‘boys’ who were ‘revealed’ to be women—Ganymede as Rosalind, Cesario as Viola. But on the Restoration stage, women played boys who were revealed to be women. And they were often revealed as women by the exposure of their breasts. / In fact, the commonest technique for the revelation of the ‘woman beneath’ after the Restoration was the removal of a wig, whereupon the female actor’s ‘true’ hair would be seen. … Sexual difference may, in this case, seem essentially prosthetic: the addition (or subtraction) or detachable (or growable/cuttable) parts. (66)

St. Paul: ‘Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair it is a glory to her’ (I Corinthians 11.14-15). From Prynne’s perspective, the problem is precisely that ‘nature’ doesn’t seem to have taught its lesson thoroughly enough. Cavalier men flaunt their long hair (and, from 1641, were to ridicule their opponents as ‘Roundheads’, in reference to their close-cropped hair). (66)

But there can be little doubt that such stagings of the female actor’s breasts were usually constituted for the arousal of the heterosexual male spectator. (A more extended discussion of this point would look at the significant position of the Restoration theatre in the construction of the ‘heterosexual male spectator’.) According to Colley Cibber, the very presence of female actors upon the stage helped to constitute a new audience (or rather new spectators) .. (67)

…the threat to replace women with boy actors is not imagined as a general loss but as a loss to the male spectator alone. The female spectator, on the contrary, is imagined as running wild after the ‘Youth in Petticoats’. The boy actor is thus depicted as particularly alluring to women, a possibility that has been addressed by Stephen Orgel (1989b: 8). (68)

…recent criticism has been particularly concerned with the ‘part’ that the boy actor has which is not in his part. (I would want to suggest, incidentally, that that part has been peculiarly distorted [and enlarged] by being thought of as a ‘phallus’, as if a boy’s small parts weren’t peculiarly—and interestingly—at variance with the symbolic weight of THE phallus.) (68)

Did boy actors wear false breasts? … Or did boys use tight lacing to gather up their flesh so as to create a cleavage, or were they simply flat-chested, or…? (68)

…title pages of Beaumont and Fletcher’s Philaster (1620)and Sir William Lower’s The Enchanted Lovers (1658), both of which depict women with fully exposed breasts… (69)

Some play quartos, then, draw attention to the specifications of women’s bodies in ways which would be extremely difficult (if not impossible) to represent upon the stage. (70)

…the boy actor’s ‘female body’ is most commonly the object of attention in tragedy and tragi-comedy. There, we are asked not to imagine the boy actor as he is dressed up, but literally to gaze at him whilst he undresses. / This staging of the undressing boy is particularly striking in death scenes and bed scenes which draw attention to the boy actor’s ‘breast’ … But even more striking is the way in which Shakespeare in both Antony and Cleopatra and Cymbeline changes his sources so as to stage the boy’s breast. In Plutarch, Cleopatra attaches an asp to her arm. Shakespeare retains this, but only after she has already placed an asp upon her breast. (70-71)

In the printed text of Shakespeare’s The Shrew in 1623, the boy is named as ‘Bartholomew my Page’ (Ind. I. 103) and yet, in changing into the clothes of a woman, he is entirely subsumed into her role. … This transformation is carefully erased by a modern editor like Brian Morris, who emends the stage direction to read ‘Enter [PAGE as a] lady’ and changes the speech prefixes to read ‘Page’ (Morris 1981: 168). In the Folio The Shrew, we are thus presented with a wild oscillation between contradictory positions: the plot of the induction demands that we remain aware of Bartholomew, replacing him with ‘Lady’. (74-75)

Calvin, in his sermons on Deuteronomy, if he sometimes thinks of clothes as manifesting sexual difference, equally thinks of them as creating difference: ‘God intended to shew us that every bodies attyring fo themselves ought to be such, as there may be difference betweene men and women’ (1583: 773, my emphasis). Similarly, Prynne thinks of women who ‘mimic’ masculinity as ‘hermaphrodited and transformed into men’ (1628: 171) and of male actors ‘metamorphosed into women on the Stage’ (1633: 171). (76)

The interplay between clothing and undressing on the Renaissance stage organized gender around a process of fetishizing, which is conceived both as a process of fixation and as indeterminable. If the Renaissance stage demands that we ‘see’ particular body parts (the breast, the penis, the naked body), it also reveals that such fixations are inevitably unstable. The actor is both boy and woman, and he/she embodies the fact that sexual fixations are not the product of any categorical fixity of gender. Indeed, all attempts to fix gender are necessarily prosthetic: that is, they suggest the attempt to supply an imagined deficiency by the exchange of male clothes for female clothes or of female clothes for male clothes; by displacement from male to female space or from female to male space; by the replacement of male with female tasks or of female with male tasks. But all elaboration of the prosthesis which will supply the ‘deficiency’ can secure no essence. On the contrary, they suggest that gender itself is a fetish , the production of an identity through the fixation upon specific ‘parts’. The imagined ‘truth’ of gender which a post-Renaissance culture would later construct is dependant upon the disavowal of the fetishism of gender, the disavowal of gender as fetish. In its place, it would put a fantasied biology of the ‘real’. (77)


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