Laura Mulvey, a British feminist film theorist, was best known for her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, written in 1973 and published in 1975. Mulvey used the theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan to argue that classical Hollywood cinema put the spectator (or audience) in a masculine subject position, with the figure of the woman on screen as the object of desire. She observed that in fine art, female figures appear to be sculpted or painted in such a way as to please or shock the “male gaze.” In the plays we have read, the bodies of key female characters are often seen as objects to be observed, put on display, and sometimes even touched by the likes of both acquaintances and strangers. Many of these characters succumb to being a spectacle to others such as Yeliena in “Uncle Vanya”, Ranyevskaia in “The Cherry Orchard”, and the Venus Hottentot in “Venus” , while the remaining resist, some such characters being Hedda in “Hedda Gabler”, Julie in “Miss Julie”, Helen in “Machinals”, Mrs. Wright in “Trifles, Nora of “A Doll’s House”, Lulu in “Miss Lulu Bett”, Joan in “St. Joan”, and Monique “Big Mo” Matthews in “Fires in the Mirror”.
The idea of succumbing to being a spectacle is also demonstrated in both of Anton Chekhov’s plays. In “Uncle Vanya” the professor’s beautiful wife, Yeliena fascinates all the major characters of the play, (including her step-daughter Sonia) causing them to abandon their duties and fall into idleness:
ASTROV. Everything ought to be beautiful about a human being: face, clothes, soul and thoughts. …She’s beautiful, there’s no denying that, but … she does nothing but eat, sleep, go for walks, charm us all by her beauty … nothing else. She has no responsibilities, other people work for her. … Isn’t that so? And an idle life can’t be virtuous. (Chekhov, 210).
Yeliena succumbs to her status as a spectacle and lives a life of idleness, only ending when her husband decides that they must leave and sell the estate. Once it is clear that they will part, Astrov again remarks on Yeliena’s idleness, stating that “all of us here, who’d been working and running around and trying to create something, we all had to drop everything and occupy ourselves wholly with you and your husband’s gout. You two infected all of us with your indolence” (240). He states that if she were to stay, the “devastation would have been immense” (240).
In “The Cherry Orchard”, the protagonist Ranyevskaia is kind and generous, and she is well loved by not only her family, but also by the maids and servants as well as Lopakhin, a business-man. Lopakhin says that she has done many kind things for him, “[My father] hit me in the face and made my nose bleed. … [Ranyevskaia] brought me in and took me to the washstand in this very room (…) ‘Don’t cry little peasant’, she said, ‘it’ll be better before you’re old enough to get married'” (Chekhov, 333). He also comments on her “irresistible eyes”. Whenever in grief, Ranyevskaia tends to “flee” from the situation. However, in the end when Lopakhin ultimately ends up buying the cherry orchard, Ranyevskaia has to return to her lover whom caused her much hardship. She cannot escape her fate.
Few of the characters in these plays succumb so easily or are depicted so well as being a “spectacle” as that of the Venus Hottentot, in “Venus” by Susan Lori Parks. In this play, Venus is literally “put on display” for the likes of many due to her body shape. She agrees to be part of a man’s act (a freak show, as it turns out to be) in England because he promises her gold, and considers the trip a “vacation. Two years of work take half the take. Come back here rich” (Parks, 17). She is put on display for people to stare at and touch her. When she is not exhibited in a freak show, she is a display for the likes of medical professionals to study her body proportions. She lives her life as a spectacle and ultimately dies as one, her probable cause of death being pneumonia, as stated by the Negro Ressurectionist, “Exposure iz what killed her, nothing on and our cold weather. 23 days in a row it rained. Thuh doctor says she drank too much. It was the cold I think” (3). Her death is not regarded as much more than a disappointment to the audience, even by the Venus herself, “But I regret to inform you that thuh Venus Hottentot iz dead. There wont b inny show tuhnite” (7).
In some of the plays, the only way of resisting being put on display is by such drastic measures as suicide. This is evident in Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” and August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie”. In “Hedda Gabler”, Hedda is a display for the Tesman family because of her aristocratic background, as Aunt Julle points out in Act 1, “The way she was used to having things in the General’s time. Do you remember her riding along the road with her father? In that long black habit? And with a feather in her hat?” (Ibsen, 168). Due to this background, Hedda is unable to adjust to her marriage with the less well-off Jö rgen. She is discontent and because of this she responds by being unpredictable and manipulative of those around her. No one seems to note the unhappiness of their marriage, and their Aunt Julle insists that they have a child, and she and Jorgen often note that Hedda has gained weight, hinting at a possible pregnancy:
TESMAN. Yes, but have you noticed how well and bonny she looks? I declare she’s filled out beautifully on the trip.
HEDDA. [moves irritably]. Oh, do you have to … !
Hedda denies that she is pregnant and withdraws when Aunt Julle attempts to kiss her head. In addition to this, she is “gazed at” by all the men in the play (who, more or less all fall in love with her) because of her beauty. She resists being a spectacle by manipulating those around her, however when she is the one being manipulated by Judge Brack, she is at his mercy. Her only way resist being at his mercy is by her own tragic suicide.
In “Miss Julie” by August Strindberg, Miss Julie is considered crazy because she led her fiancé to break up with her after she attempted to “train” him. She flirts often with Jean, her father’s servant, despite his warnings that people would watch them and gossip. She later asks Jean to take her out to the lake and, when they return, the peasants dance around the kitchen and sing a dirty song about the two of them, implying that they have had sex:
JULIE. I know the people, and I love them, just as they love me. Let them come, and you’ll see. JEAN. No, Miss Julie, they don’t love you. They take your food and spit at your back. Believe me. Listen to me – can’t you hear what they are singing? – No, don’t pay any attention to it!
JULIE. [Listening] What is it they are singing?
JEAN. Oh, something scurrilous. About you and me.
JULIE. How infamous! They ought to be ashamed! And the treachery of it!
JEAN. The mob is always cowardly. And in such a fight as this there is nothing to do but run away. (Strindberg, 14).
Julie’s reputation is on display for all the peasants and townsfolk. They realize that it is impossible to stay at the manor they currently live in, and Jean, after a few failed ideas, suggests that Julie must flee. After Julie feels defeated and is afraid to bring shame to her father, she is at Jean’s mercy and he convinces her that suicide is her only way out. She obeys him.
Some women resist being a spectacle to the point where it leads to murder. This is evident in Sophie Treadwell’s “Machinal” and Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles”. In “Machinal”, Helen Jones is a spectacle to her mother, her husband, her coworkers, and eventually the court. Her coworkers seem to watch her every move and constantly reprimand her for coming in late or not working efficiently. She is under there gaze because they are aware of her relationship with the boss, Mr. Jones:
TELEPHONE GIRL. Ain’t it all set?
YOUNG WOMAN. What?
TELEPHONE GIRL. You and Mr. J.
STENOGRAPHER. You and the big chief.
ADDING CLERK. You and the big cheese. (Barlow, 184)
Her mother treats her like a child and doesn’t understand her feelings. When she tries to talk to her, her mother just carries on about daily chores and the like. Her husband treats her almost like a doll, propping her up on his lap and kissing her, “[He puts her on his knee.] That’s the girlie. [He bends her head down, and kisses her along the back of her neck.] Like that? [She tries to get to her feet.] Say- Stay there! (…) You got to learn to relax, little girl” (197). and insists on seeing her undress, even though she protests. Even when she bears a child she is dissatisfied, but no one can comprehend why. The doctor’s and nurses just watch her and try to diagnose her but they do not understand. Her dislike of her routine life leads her to have an affair, and when that ends the only way she can escape is by murdering her husband. When she is on trial, she is constantly under the gaze of the jury and the reporters. During her execution she is watched by the reporters for fixing her hair, but even before her moment of death she tries to resist being under their gaze by yelling “Somebody”, a phrase she yelled earlier in the play when she just wanted to be let alone.
In “Trifles”, Mrs. Wright (formerly Minnie Foster) was a spectacle for all the guys because she was pretty and a great singer. When she married Mr. Wright, he took away her singing and treated her as his “possession”. He even went as far as to kill her canary, which seemed to lead to her murder of him:
MRS. PETERS. Wouldn’t they just laugh! Getting all stirred up over a little thing like a – dead canary. As if that could have anything to do with – with – wouldn’t they laugh! (Barlow, 85)
She is to be a spectacle in the court as well, under the gaze of the men who will judge her, with only the women knowing her motives.
Other characters choose to resist being a spectacle by leaving in search of their own independence. This is shown in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” and in “Miss Lulu Bett” by Zona Gale. In Act Three of “A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen, the protagonist Nora performs a dance called the tarantella at a costume party. When the party is over, her husband Torvald begins his perverse sexual advances toward Nora:
NORA. Don’t look at me like that, Torvald!
HELMER. Can’t I look at my most treasured possession? At all this loveliness that’s mine and mine alone, completely and utterly mine.
NORA. You mustn’t talk to me like that tonight.
HELMER. (…) Whenever I’m out at a party with you…do you know why I never talk to you very much? (…) It’s because I’m pretending we are secretly in love, secretly engaged and nobody suspects there is anything between us. (…)
NORA. Go away, Torvald! Please leave me alone I won’t have it.
HELMER. What’s this? It’s just your little game isn’t it, my little Nora. Won’t! Won’t! Am I not your husband…? (Ibsen, 69-70)
He regards her as his possession, like the young girl he first acquired years ago. He treats her as a “spectacle”, but she resists his advances. It is at this moment that Nora begins to realize that, in addition to her tarantella, she has been putting on a show throughout her entire marriage. She has pretended to be someone she is not in order to fulfill the role that Torvald, her father, and society have expected of her. After Torvald reads the letter from Krogstad exposing Nora’s deception and forgery, he reacts harshly and selfishly. His reaction is the final catalyst for Nora’s awakening:
NORA. (…) When you had got over your fright – and you weren’t concerned about me but only about what might happen to you – and when all danger was past, you acted as though nothing had happened. I was your little sky-lark again, your little doll, exactly as before; except you would have to protect it twice as carefully as before, now that it had shown itself to be so weak and fragile. Torvald, that was the moment I realized that for eight years I’d been living with a stranger, and had borne him three children… (84)
She decides that she can no longer live under his oppression, and she walks out on both her husband and her children so that she may find independence, and no longer be a spectacle for anyone.
In “Miss Lulu Bett”, Lulu lives with her sister, Ina, and takes care of her family. Lulu is often under the gaze of men who are attracted to her for her looks, but more importantly for her cooking. She finally lands the attention of Ninian, her brother in law’s (Dwight) brother, who likes her for more than her cooking. There are married quickly and move out of her sister’s house. However, she returns after finding out that Ninian had another wife elsewhere. Dwight insists that she not tell anyone what happened, since she will be the spectacle of the town anyway for returning without her husband. In the end she leaves the household to find her independence, she wants to “see out of my own eyes. For the first time in my life” (Barlow, 161). She even refuses to live with Neil Cornish, a neighbor who had also admired her.
Some women choose to resist being a spectacle by simply being strong women. This is demonstrated in “Fires in the Mirror” by Anna Deavere Smith and “St. Joan” By George Bernard Shaw. In “Saint Joan”, Joan is a young country girl who is brave and confident filled with valor and faith. Her direct nature as well as her short hair and soldier like clothes make her a spectacle among the people. She is judged as incapable of defeating the English, and is considered crazy for believing that God speaks directly to her. In spite of the criticism she receives, she remains true to the direction of the visions and faithful to God. Even when she is captured and put on trial, her honesty, faith, and common sense make the judges look ridiculous:
JOAN. (…) Why do you leave me in the hands of the English? I should be in the hands of the Church. And why must I be chained by the feet to a log of wood? Are you afraid I will fly away? (Shaw, 132)
When Joan is burned at the stake, the executioner reports that Joan’s “heart would not burn; but everything that was left is at the bottom of the river” (149). This shows that Joan’s purity and goodness will never be forgotten, as indicated in the fact that she becomes a martyr and is made a saint.
In “Fires in the Mirror”, Smith interviews a young woman named Monique “Big Mo” Matthews. Mo is a female rapper who speaks out against the male rappers who gaze at women and the women who allow themselves to be made spectacles by the men. She criticizes other female rappers who rely on selling or “pimping the body to get play” (Smith, 35). She states that she’s tired of her friends “just acceptin’ that they considered to be a ho” (37). She wants to convey the image of a strong African American woman who can resist that culture and resist the “male gaze” by just being a strong woman. The idea of women being treated as a “spectacle” is a recurring theme in all of the above plays. Whether women resist it in various ways, or succumb to it, it is a dominant factor in much of literary history.
Chekhov, Anton. “The Cherry Orchard ” Plays. Eds. Robert Baldick, Betty Radice, C.A. Jones. New Zealand: Penguin, 1951. 331-399.
Chekhov, Anton. “Uncle Vania ” Plays. Eds. Robert Baldick, Betty Radice, C.A. Jones. New Zealand: Penguin, 1954. 185-247.
Gale, Zona. “Miss Lulu Bett” Plays By American Women. Ed. Judith E. Barlow. New York: Applause, 1981, 1985. 87-161.
Glaspell, Susan. “Trifles” Plays By American Women. Ed. Judith E. Barlow. New York: Applause, 1981, 1985. 70-86.
Ibsen, Henrik. “A Doll’s House ” Four Major Plays. Ed. James McFarlane. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961. 1-89.
Ibsen, Henrik. “Hedda Gabler ” Four Major Plays. Ed. James McFarlane. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966. 165-265.
Parks, Suzan-Lori. Venus. New York: TCG, 1997.
Shaw, Bernard. Saint Joan. New York: Penguin, 2003.
Smith, Anna Deavere. Fires in the Mirror. New York: Anchor, 1993.
Strindberg, August. Miss Julie. New York: Dover, 1992.
Treadwell, Sophie. “Machinal” Plays By American Women. Ed. Judith E. Barlow. New York: Applause, 1981, 1985. 171-255.