Holding the middle ground

Inventing Herself: claiming a feminist intellectual heritage

Elaine Showalter<em> Picador, 384pp,

When Elaine Showalter published A Literature of Their Own in 1977, it was a revelation and a celebration all in one. In her characteristically fluent prose, she suggested that British women's writing in the 19th and 20th centuries (her bookends were the Brontes and Doris Lessing) had been systematically sidelined, obscured and trivialised. Now here was Showalter, an American academic at the forefront of the new wave of "women's studies", showing us not only why those muffled voices mattered, but how they connected to one another to create, if not exactly a lineage, certainly a web of influence and sympathy.

It was perhaps inevitable that Showalter's work would lose some of its glamour after that high point. In the 1980s, the intellectual beacon in women's studies passed from the Americans with their biographical bias to the intricate linguistic and psychoanalytical teasings of French feminists such as Julia Kristeva.

Increasingly, the work of Anglo-American academic feminists seemed naive, dull and slightly beside the point. In The Female Malady (1985), for instance, Showalter was more interested in showing how historical circumstances had consistently conspired to label intelligent or independent women as mad than she was in trying to understand how Lacan was once again making Freud respectable.

Inventing Herself continues in what has now become recognisably the Showalter way of writing about women: low on theory, high on history. Her aim is to recover and realign the life and works of those women writers who have proved an inspiration during her 40-year career as a feminist academic. In this sense, she is offering a necessary corrective to the pervasive effects of F R Leavis's The Great Tradition (1948), which was responsible for so many good women dropping out of sight. Thus Inventing Herself starts with the mother of all feminists, Mary Wollstonecraft; works its way through Margaret Fuller and Charlotte Perkins Gilman; swerves back to the UK for Vera Brittain and Germaine Greer; and then nips over to France for Simone de Beauvoir.

Why Showalter has decided to choose some women and leave out others is never quite clear. She suggests in her introduction, in a phrase that would not sound out of place in Cosmopolitan magazine, that this is a book "about women with a passionate attitude to living"; she then lists a whole range of people, including Mother Teresa and Margaret Thatcher, who are automatically disqualified. Confusingly, however, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Princess Diana are all judged to demonstrate the right degree of passion, and are rewarded with a place in the "feminist intellectual heritage" of the book's subtitle.

Inventing Herself is constructed as a series of mini-biographies. Some subjects, such as Margaret Fuller, get a whole chapter to themselves. Others, such as Naomi Wolf, are given only three pages. But the themes stay the same. What comes up again and again is the old problem that stymies women still: how to live an autonomous creative and intellectual life without giving up the satisfactions of sexual love and motherhood. The outcomes that emerge are quirky and sometimes full of pain. There is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's proposal of the kitchenless flat (apartments would be built around a central restaurant in order to spare women the chore of cooking, an idea that has recently taken off in New York City). And then there is Eleanor Marx, who killed herself in 1898 because, despite all the progressive talk at the Men's and Women's Club, she never found a way of having an equal relationship with her husband, the appalling Edward Aveling.

Showalter has necessarily depended on secondary sources, biographies mostly, to put this book together. Her method is to take what she wants from a life - the emblematic conflicts, the occasional happy solutions - and to make them repeat or amplify the experience of her other subjects (she is, after all, trying to build up a "heritage"). As a result, the whole enterprise has a synthetic feel, as if the grit and gumption of all those different lives had been thrown away, leaving homogenised pap of the lowest common order. Despite Showalter insisting in her introduction that she was not going to include Marie Curie, Inventing Herself none the less reads like one of those "Heroines of History" books that used to be given out as prizes to serious-minded little girls.

This is a shame, because Showalter continues to write with a fluency that puts virtually every other American academic to shame. And her prose style is not merely a matter of incidental pleasure. For nearly 25 years, she has provided a pathway between the dense discourses of academic feminist studies and the commercial market, which supplies the reading needs of Everywoman. During the 1980s and 1990s, these two markets became increasingly separated, with the result that writing by and about women has been either parochially intense or journalistically banal. Showalter's example shows that it is still possible to hold a middle, and higher, ground.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the people who make Tony Blair sweat

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.