At its best, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s work engages with large questions of philosophy and politics and explores the complex pressure of history on the present without ever losing sight of the individual humanity of the characters. Along with fellow playwright Caryl Churchill, with whom (for reasons of both politics and gender) her name is often paired, Wertenbaker has become recognized as one of the most important women writing for the contemporary British stage.

It is interesting to note Wertenbaker’s role as a translator and adapter, and her complex relationship with her source materials. Since the mid-1980’s, she has adapted a variety of works for the contemporary English stage. These include most notably classical Greek tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides and the modern French works of Anouilh (who himself became most famous for his World War II adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone). Even many of her original plays find their basis in earlier works of literature and drama. Our Country’s Good takes its story from Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker (itself not simply an “original” work of fiction but an imaginative interpretation of real historical events), and The Love of the Nightingale is based on ancient Greek myth. Expanding still further the range of her source materials, The Ash Girl is a fanciful retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale. In each case, though, Wertenbaker has not simply created yet another more-or-less faithful translation of an original text. New characters are often added, old ones developed in new directions, and plot events altered to suit thematic development. Her adaptations must be acknowledged as true re-seeings, intended to give insight into the problems of here and now through an examination of those existing in other places and times. While her subjects and strategies have continued to evolve, Wertenbaker’s concerns with dislocation, exile, the power of language, and the nature of the theater itself continue to be central to her work, whether original pieces or adaptations.

New Anatomies

The focus of Wertenbaker’s plays is often a woman who has been radically dislocated from the culture into which she was born. This preoccupation is evident in Wertenbaker’s first published play, New Anatomies, which dramatizes the life of Isabelle Eberhardt, a French woman who, in the early part of the twentieth century, disguised herself as an Arab man and lived among the Algerians as Si Mahmoud. The movement of the narrative between France and Algeria allows Wertenbaker not only to explore the cultural difference within the specific context of colonization but also to examine the relations between men and women as reproducing the colonial relations between imperial center and colony. By disguising herself as a man, Eberhardt appears to escape the constraints imposed on women by European ideals of femininity, and although she achieves a certain kind of freedom through her disguise, she faces tremendous physical risks, which eventually lead to her death.

Her disguise as an Arab man raises important questions about the European “exoticization” of non-Western cultures, which the play explores in a scene set in a Parisian salon catering to a lesbian clientele. The women in the salon regard Eberhardt with fascination, as if she has overthrown the social constraints that doubly marginalize them as women and lesbians. One of the women, Verda Miles, is fascinated by Eberhardt’s non-Western, male clothes. This fascination implies a relationship between the women of the salon and men from countries that Europe has colonized, as if the sexuality of each group not only is exoticized but also disrupts the conventional codes of gender: French lesbians appear as masculine, while Algerian men appear as feminine.

Miles’s identification of Eberhardt’s clothes as costume raises the possibility of gender as a performative act that can be altered by the individual refusing to play the socially sanctioned role appropriate to his or her sex. Eberhardt denies this position by stating that she is not “costumed’ as a man and that these are her clothes. Her distinction makes clear that within the space of the salon, gender is theatricalized so that a woman dressing as a man emphasizes gender as the construct. In contrast, Eberhardt, traveling in Algeria, is received as a man, not as a woman in male attire.

The Grace of Mary Traverse

Like Isabelle Eberhardt, Mary Traverse, the central character in The Grace of Mary Traverse, attempts to escape the limitations imposed by the social codes of femininity and class. Mary is born into a life of privilege in eighteenth century London, where, as a young woman, her only acceptable option is to become the wife of a socially prominent man. The play opens with her father teaching her to make conversation in such a way that she provides opportunities for a man to display his brilliance. By nature a curious young woman who is unsuited to the passive role assigned to women, Mary asks the family’s housekeeper, Mrs. Temptwell, to take her into the streets so that she might see life. Quickly, she realizes that the streets of London are brimming with a vitality that, although often violent, is more attractive to her than her life within her father’s home. The world outside the home, however, is masculine and decidedly hostile toward women. One of her first experiences in the streets of London is witnessing Lord Gordon raping a young woman by first raising her skirts with his sword and then sexually violating her. (Men’s violence against women as a demonstration of their power is explored again by Wertenbaker in two later plays, Our Country’s Good and The Love of the Nightingale.)

Unlike Isabelle Eberhardt, who disguises herself as a man to escape the constraints of European womanhood, Mary Traverse does not disguise herself but rather models her behavior after that of men, demanding, for example, sexual satisfaction from a male prostitute. The social milieu of eighteenth century London cannot accommodate this woman who behaves as a man. Disowned by her father and unmarried, she can support herself only by becoming a prostitute. Once outside her father’s home, Mary becomes acutely aware of the intersection of gender and class, particularly in terms of social privilege. The society is hierarchical, with upper-class men, regardless of whether they are worthy, enjoying power, while working-class women, who are at the bottom end of the social strata, are powerless. Without a radical restructuring of the world, Mary realizes that, as a woman, she will never enjoy the prerogatives of men, and therefore she sets out to refashion the world by politicizing the working class. Her attempt is a tragic failure, ending with the Gordon Riots, in which hundreds of people die.

The Grace of Mary Traverse, like New Anatomies, deals with a woman’s attempt to break the constraints of gender, an image for the larger endeavor of creating a new world in which individuals are free. In The Grace of Mary Traverse, Wertenbaker begins to address the problematic nature of this endeavor. While Mary is the agent of change, her motives for wanting change are not altruistic but are apparently motivated by her own desire for power. The problem raised by the...

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