BMCR 2002.04.27

The Troubling Play of Gender: The Phaedra Dramas of Tsvetaeva, Yourcenar, and H. D

Maria Stadter Fox, The troubling play of gender : the Phaedra dramas of Tsvetaeva, Yourcenar, and H.D.. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2001. 217 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 1575910357

Between 1927 and 1939, three women writers wrote plays using the cycle of Greek myths involving Ariadne, Hippolytus, Phaedra, and Theseus. Marina Tsvetaeva published Ariadna and Fedra as the first two installments of a trilogy about Theseus and his loves; H. D. produced a revision of Euripides’ Hippolytus, Hippolytus Temporizes; Marguerite Yourcenar published Ariane et l’aventurier in 1939 and a substantially revised version in 1963 with the new title Qui n’a pas son Minotaure? These dramas, which are really plays-to-be-read, all examine female subjectivity and authority.

Chapter 1, “Troubled Performances of Gender” presents an introduction to these three modernist writers and their relationship to Euripides as well as a discussion of the connection between gender and genre. Fox’s methodology relies on Judith Butler’s model of gender which emphasizes its exteriority, contingency and historicity. If, as Fox puts it, “one substitutes ‘genre’ for ‘gender’ in her definition of gender, one can begin to conceptualize literary genre not as a type but as a practice or performance, whose stylized acts must be repeated in order to be interpreted” (24). She argues that tragedy and gender are both open to subversion and reads the plays by all three authors as troubled performances of gender and genre. Fox connects this with the fact that all three women were physically and intellectually displaced and were, for significant periods of their creative lives, expatriates—like their characters Ariadne and Phaedra—and, moreover, were here writing in a genre, drama, that was not their “native” one of poetry.

Chapter 2, “Marina Tsvetaeva: Language and the Labyrinth of Letters”, discusses the Russian poet’s treatment of female speech and writing through her play Fedra. Situating her reading in terms of the vibrant Russian classical tradition (Annensky, Merezhkovsky, Ivanov and others), Tsvetaeva’s denial of the poet’s nationality (“Orpheus bursts nationality”), and her hostility to theater (“Theater I always feel as violence. Theater—the destruction of my solitude with the Hero, solitude with the Poet, solitude with the Dream—the third play in a love rendezvous” 48), Fox concentrates on the image of the labyrinth in Fedra. The play presents a labyrinth of language and dislocated people, whose events are “unraveled” and given an apparently rational explanation by Theseus; Phaedra, however, has no Ariadne to help her out of the maze. Fox’s discussion is solidly grounded in the texts, and her readings are sensitive to the polyphony and complexity characteristic of Tsvetaeva’s work. It is only a pity that the Susquehanna University Press didn’t print her poems in cyrillic.

Chapter 3, “Marguerite Yourcenar: Negotiating a Feminine Authorial Self”, discusses a writer who, unlike Tsvetaeva, did not connect poetic authority with the feminine, but more with the masculine, and yet who, in her plays and paratexts at least, was able to give voice to feminine subjectivities. For Yourcenar, the question was “how can a woman write and remain a woman?” (78). Fox discerns monologic and dialogic works in her oeuvre, the latter giving more prominence to female characters and feminine voices. The chapter also outlines the development of Qui n’a pas son Minotaure? and we are given many instances of Yourcenar’s rewriting of the traditional stories about Theseus and Ariadne. The play has political references and the myth is expanded into an allegory of the human condition: who doesn’t have his (or, presumably, her) Minotaur?

Chapter 4, “H. D.’s Hippolytus Temporizes: Temporizing with Gender”, begins with a telling contrast between H.D. and T.S. Eliot: she treats Euripides as already an “ultra-modern” writer, rather than a source to be re-invented for a modern audience. H. D. had a long interest in the story of Phaedra and Hippolytus, and Hippolytus Temporizes is the most substantial manifestation of this engagement. In this drama, she replaces Euripides’ polarity of speech and silence with the dynamics of naming and identity, and the main issue becomes not keeping honor intact, but saving the self from fragmentation. Fox offers a detailed discussion of the play and its divergences from the tradition, bringing out the complex beauties of H. D.’s poetry. This is probably the best segment of the entire book and takes us neatly back to the discussion of destabilization of gender performance with which it opened.

The book ends with a short concluding chapter, in which Fox attempts to draw the three oeuvres together. Notes and a copious biography follow. Although it occasionally gives the impression of a certain “choppiness” in structure and argumentation, this is a stimulating and sensitive study which will be of interest to classicists, comparatists, and those concerned with feminist poetics, poetic subjectivity, and the reinscription of texts. The treatment of the relationship between gender and genre could well serve as a case study in the classroom. Above all it constitutes a valuable contribution to the recovery of works that demonstrate women’s participation in the classical tradition, works that have been systematically marginalized. If, as Fox herself points out early on, Gilbert Highet’s work on the subject “exemplifies the erasure of women” from the classical tradition (33), then her own study exemplifies how this can be corrected.