Exam Reading – Offstage Space and Female Discourse

I turned to drama this week and was consistently intrigued by the off-stage action occurring in many of the plays I read. Here I want to think specifically about the intersections between John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and some of the ideas posed by Luce Irigaray in This Sex Which Is Not One.

Webster’s Duchess is a play all about secrets, hidden knowledge, and covert intimacy – the Duchess’ secret marriage to Antonio and then her concealed pregnancy (up to the time her body begins to betray her secret and show the signs of it), along with the various relationships between master and servant (the Duchess and Putana in particular) where the servants function as confidant or even filter for the master’s actions. But I want to focus on the lying-in scene. The Duchess’ first childbirth is the only one given “performance time” (it actually takes place during a scene played out, the other births are simply related after the fact), but her actual labor takes place offstage and throughout the scene the stage directions indicate screams “from the Duchess’ chamber.” But even as the lying-in occurs offstage, it becomes a moment of strict containment of the stage space itself. Under the pretense of robbery, the Duchess orders everyone be confined to their rooms while she is in labor and even has all the keys sent to her chamber to guarantee this confinement. This is only the first of several scenes in the play when various people are confined to their chambers yet, like the later moments, the attempt to contain the stage space fails. In the lying-in scene Antonio and Bosola both wander the stage, for enough time to have an entire scene’s worth of dialogue exchanged between them. This excess on the “public” space of the stage (and by “public” here I mean simply in front of the audience) occurs during a most private event for the Duchess, the birth of her child happening offstage.

Thinking about this scene in Irigaray’s terms, then, it seems that the offstage moment becomes “meaningful” only through the “excess.” In other words, the audience is only privy to the Duchess’s child labor because of the characters on stage during it, but those characters have breached the Duchess’ enforced containment in their presence on the stage. The Duchess’ screams during this scene coming from offstage would potentially be incomprehensible, were it not for the information Antonio and Bosola pass along to the audience through their dialogue. The childbirth occurring in this scene, then, is only recognizable as such through the mouths of Antonio and Bosola as they interpret the screams from the Duchess’ chamber. The play here between the two frameworks of discursive exchange (the Duchess and Antonio/Bosola) seems to demonstrate Irigaray’s distinction between the universal and female discourses. As Irigaray explains, when the “woman-thing speaks,” it is “unending, potent and impotent owing to its resistance to the countable…it is, in its physical reality, determined by friction between two infinitely neighboring entities – dynamics of the near and not of the proper” (Irigaray 111). In Duchess, it’s possible that a version of this female discourse is represented by the lying-in scene, in both the offstage action of the actual child birth and the screaming of the Duchess heard on stage, translated through Antonio and Bosola. The offstage action becomes that “interruption” of the female, the “jamming of the theoretical machinery itself” (Irigaray 78). Occurring outside the bounds of the stage play and performance, the offstage moment in this play sets up a model for thinking about offstage moments in general as disruptive to the meaningful system of actions taking place within the comprehensible limits of the stage.

Continuing with the connection between Irigaray and Duchess specifically, though, I want to also briefly consider the way some of these same ideas might work in 5.3, when Antonio visits the graveyard and there’s an echo from the Duchess’ tomb. Echo actually becomes a character written into the scene by Webster even as Antonio and Delio discuss the echo from the grave on the stage space. Again, the Echo becomes “meaningful” only through Antonio and Delio’s translation of it for the audience. In fact, here, Echo isn’t even functional without Antonio and Delio because they must speak in order for it to “respond.” Whether or not Echo would have been represented on stage as a bodied character – maybe a zombified-Duchess? – we can’t know, but the suggestion here is that this echo is coming from offstage. This again positions a kind of female discourse in an offstage space.

Problematically, though, Irigary also described the female discourse as follows: “hers are contradictory words, somewhat mad from the standpoint of reason, inaudible for whoever listens to them with ready-made grids, with a fully elaborated code in hand” (Irigaray 29). This statement suggests that even as characters like Antonio, Bosola, and Delio are translating the Duchess’ (and Echo’s) offstage noise for us in the audience, we are not actually hearing or comprehending the true implications of her noise. The “ready-made grids” that filter the Duchess’ noise through the male characters and out to the audience may be getting it wrong, may not even be truly “hearing” or “listening” to the Duchess’ sound. It would be interesting to think about the way some of these same questions and ideas function in a play like Shakespeare’s All’s Well, with a character like Helen who has a lot of stage time (even soliloquies – the dramatic form meant to be most transparent) but whose actions remain opaque to the audience throughout the entire play. Could All’s Well be modeling a complete breakdown of any attempt to discern female discourse as Irigaray defines it?

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