Literature and Theatre

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The joys of literature and the return of the dead
Nicholas Royle

This chapter offers a critical exploration of Cixous’s Dream I Tell You, alongside Jacques Derrida’s ‘Fichus’, in order to clarify an understanding of ‘dream’ in Cixous’s writings. Dream I Tell You is not a work of fiction, but rather a kind of twilight book of ‘limbo things’ – a seemingly haphazard collection of ‘innocent’ dream-transcriptions, accompanied by a densely poetic and suggestive critical foreword (‘Avertissements’). The chapter shifts from a discussion of Freud (described by Cixous as ‘the Shakespeare of the night’), to her conception of literature as the ‘daughter of Dream’, and finally to Shakespeare’s own work. Particular attention is given to the importance of Antony and Cleopatra (especially Cleopatra’s dream of Antony back from the dead) in Cixous’s writing and poetic thinking. This is illustrated through a reading of the early text ‘Sorties’ (1975) and more recent writings on the subject of ‘Los’, such as Abstracts and Brief Chronicles of the Time (2013) and the companion volume Death Shall Be Dethroned (2014). Dreams bring ‘joys the diurnal world never gives’, above all when they restore to us, alive again, loved ones who have died: the chapter foregrounds the strange and powerful effects of revenance and resurrection in Cixous’s work.

in Hélène Cixous
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Nicholas Royle

How does one finish a book about Hélène Cixous, a writer who is endlessly concerned with open ends, with what she calls ‘the book I don’t write’, and with the conviction that, quite apart from the living, ‘no dead person has ever said their last word’? ‘All wards’ is a neologistic formulation suggested by Cixous as a way of thinking about both writing and life. Exploration of the phrase leads to a discussion of ‘lingophobia’ (‘fear of language’ as well as ‘fear of the tongue’) and the ‘unidentifiable literary object’ (ULO), a term that, it is suggested, describes as well as any other the kind of texts she writes. At stake here is a distinction between realism and what Cixous calls ‘realistizing’. This chapter focuses on the concept of character (the subject of her remarkable early essay ‘The Character of “Character”’) and also explores the figure of the ULO in the context of Nicholas Royle’s An English Guide to Birdwatching and Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House, as well as Shakespeare.

in Hélène Cixous

This book writes a performance history of Antony and Cleopatra from 1606 to 2018. After considering the particular challenges Shakespeare’s script offers any actors, directors or designers who stage it, the book looks in detail at Antony and Cleopatra on the Jacobean stage and then at Dryden’s All for Love (the play that replaced Shakespeare’s from the Restoration to 1849). Fast-forwarding across a number of Victorian adaptations and early twentieth century English productions, it arrives at 1953, when, directed by Glen Byam Shaw at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre with Peggy Ashcroft as Cleopatra and Michael Redgrave as Antony, the play’s modern performance history begins. Thereafter, chapters offer in-depth analyses of fifteen productions by (among others) the Royal Shakespeare Company, Citizens’ Theatre Glasgow, Northern Broadsides, Berliner Ensemble and Toneelgroep Amsterdam in five countries and three languages. Combining close readings of theatre records – promptbooks, stage managers’ reports, costume bibles, reviews – with deep historical contextualisation, it sees how, and what, this play has meant each time it has brought its thoughts on power, race, masculinity, regime change, exoticism, love, dotage and delinquency into alignment with a new present. It ends seeing Shakespeare’s black Cleopatra restored to the English stage. Tragedy, comedy, history, farce: this book demonstrates that in performance Antony and Cleopatra is all four.

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Nicholas Royle

This chapter is an extended meditation on the beauty and polyphonic possibilities of the English word ‘away’, specifically in terms of how it enables a critical reading and appreciation of Cixous’s writing as escaping, in flight, going ‘away’, as text – but also as sound or music. This involves a detailed reading of Cixous’s ‘Writing Blind’ and Kafka’s ‘The Departure’, as well as extended discussion of how ‘away’ works in Shakespeare (especially Antony and Cleopatra), Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Stevens’s The Man with the Blue Guitar. A critical close reading of Paul de Man on Keats’s ode discloses a new emphasis on the haunting inscription of ‘away’ in the poem. This leads back to a further encounter with ‘dream in literature’, wherein the writings of Cixous, Shakespeare and Keats sound together in the figure of the nightingale.

in Hélène Cixous
Peter Hall, Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, 1987
Carol Chillington Rutter

Casting Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins as his star couple, using an uncut text (taken not from any modern edition of Antony and Cleopatra but from the 1623 Folio), and referring to Harley Granville-Barker’s 1930 Prefaces to Shakespeare as his principal critical source, Peter Hall eschewed the orientalism of every production of the play on the English stage since 1953 to make this a very English Antony and Cleopatra, not least in his all-white casting, his near-religious attention to the text and his ‘iambic fundamentalist’ demands for the ‘correct’ speaking of the verse. Some reviewers heard the ‘true sound of Shakespeare’ in Hall’s large-scale production; others thought Hall’s ‘sumptuous nostalgia for the grand style’ lost something vital to Shakespeare – the rough, the raw, the immediate. All agreed that Dench and Hopkins gave performances of such ‘searing, wounded intimacy’ that they would ‘take you by the throat even played on a windy day on a Brighton pier’.

in Antony and Cleopatra
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The Citizens’ Theatre (Glasgow), 1972, and Northern Broadsides (Halifax), 1995
Carol Chillington Rutter

Taking a cue from Cleopatra’s nightmare vision of being taken captive to Rome where the ‘quick comedians’ will ‘stage’ her, some ‘squeaking … boy’ making a travesty of her ‘greatness’, this chapter looks first at the burlesque tradition from F. C. Burnand to the Carry On films of remaking Antony and Cleopatra as farce. Then it looks in detail at two straight but seriously unconventional British productions that reframed the play’s meaning by staging alternative interpretations to those currently on offer at the Royal Shakespeare Company. At the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, Giles Havergal drew on the theatre’s history, location and popular appeal to make a radical adaptation of Shakespeare’s script that used only seven actors and cross-cast Jonathan Kent as Cleopatra in what reviewers called the ‘Zulu’ Antony and Cleopatra. In Halifax, Barrie Rutter continued his campaign to claim Shakespeare for the Northern voice, opening Northern Broadsides’ production with a burlesque scene played by a ‘squeaking’ Cleopatra that gave way to a serious staging in modern dress whose most celebrated quality was the electrifying delivery of Shakespeare’s writing.

in Antony and Cleopatra
Taking the measure of Antony and Cleopatra, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1972, 1978, 1982
Carol Chillington Rutter

Opening with a question about the scale of Shakespeare’s play, this chapter looks at three seminal productions of Antony and Cleopatra at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre: in 1972 Trevor Nunn (with Janet Suzman and Richard Johnson as his principals) scaled it to epic proportions; in 1978 Peter Brook re-sized it around Glenda Jackson and Alan Howard for intimacy; in 1982 Adrian Noble made it a chamber play, putting Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon on a postage-stamp-sized stage that nevertheless imagined a space ‘past the size of dreaming’. Each of these productions is contextualised to its cultural moment: the anti-Vietnam student protest and women’s liberation movements in 1972; the reassigning of global politics to the domestic in 1978; the challenging of institutional policies in 1982.

in Antony and Cleopatra
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Through everything
Nicholas Royle

This chapter discusses the singular beauty and strangeness of Cixous’s writings as a kind of perpetual disruption of the machines of academic professionalisation and enclosure. Her passion is for the edifying strangeness of dreams. Her writings show a constant interest in the relations between dreams and literature, dreams and the supernatural, dreams and secrets, dreams and the more than or other than human. Her work is often about traumatic experiences or events, but there is always also the power of joy and laughter. She writes ‘escaping texts’. Her writing cuts free of all conventional terms, such as ‘critical essay’, ‘creative writing’, ‘novel’, ‘autobiography’, ‘theory’, ‘post-theory’. Readers are invited to go down into a Cixous text in the same way that they might go down into the illuminated darkness of a painting by Rembrandt.

in Hélène Cixous
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Take time
Nicholas Royle

This chapter takes the openings of four of Cixous’s books (Manhattan, Hyperdream, Love Itself in the Letter-Box and Eve Escapes) as the basis for a discussion of the unconventional, experimental, even violent nature of her writing. Particular emphasis is given to the question of time and the speed of life: as Derrida more than once remarked, ‘Life will have been so short’. In what ways is this future anterior (‘will have’) perhaps especially characteristic of the contemporary world? Cixous’s work helps us think about the extent to which, as Mark Currie puts it in About Time: Narrative, Fiction and the Philosophy of Time, ‘the present is experienced in a mode of anticipation’. How might writing best engage what Currie calls ‘this anticipatory mode of being’? In quite different ways, both Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida highlight an uncanny sense of speed in Cixous’s work. The chapter develops their work in order to suggest how deeply Cixous’s writing resonates in a time of climate change, mass species extinction and escalating dependence on teletechnologies.

in Hélène Cixous
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From the axe to giving birth
Nicholas Royle

This chapter focuses on Cixous’s Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, launching off from Kafka’s celebrated remark about the need for books ‘to be the axe for the frozen sea inside us’. It starts, as Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing starts, with the ‘H’ at the beginning of Hélène Cixous’s name, pronounced ‘ash’, i.e. ‘hache’ in French, or axe. It explores the relations between writing and trauma in terms of the notion of signature, elaborating on the view of Jacques Derrida (following Jean Genet) that ‘the signature is a wound and there is no other origin of the work of art’. This in turn leads to a discussion of écriture féminine, bisexuality and, finally, the complex and multiple figurations of ‘giving birth’ in the context of Cixous’s work. Through a discussion of Plato’s Theaetetus and philosophy as ‘maieutics’, the chapter proposes the neologistic portmanteau term maiopic writing, which combines ‘giving birth’ with what Cixous calls ‘writing blind’.

in Hélène Cixous