This essay was written as the final paper for the class THEA 60C: Development of the Theater Arts Twentieth Century, one of the core required classes for the Theater major and you have to take two of the 60 series classes for the theater minor which is what I'm doing. The 60 series is a necessary evil with the theater major really. I had a really awesome professor for this class, Peter Mostkoff. The prompt was extremely open and really said to find some aspect of theater theory that interests you, find resources, use one or more of the class texts and write about it. So I did that. I really like the open prompts more than specific questions to explore... so here is the result and I really did a lot of research for this one, comparative to my normal amount of research for theater class papers.

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Masculinity, Femininity and the Theatrical Form

    The semiotics of traditional theatrical form reinforce an oppressive patriarchal system. The physical body becomes the catalyst by which gender is assigned and expected. This emphasis on the body is amplified in the theater. Simone Benmussa’s play The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs, adapted from the short story by George Moore, deals with issues of femininity and masculinity and how these are portrayed within the theater as well as how theater is formed by the traditional patriarchal gaze. This play also deals with issues of class and how class status is intrinsically tied to gender, gender performance and sexuality. Through the example of this play it is seen that a form of theater which creates and maintains the woman as subject rather than object (as Sue-Ellen Case proposes) cannot be truly realized until the performative nature and many issues inherent in masculinity are acknowledged and processed. Here also is an excellent case study of how the politics of the theater are deeply rooted in body politics and gender essentialism. All of these factors contribute to the play’s overall complexity in matters surrounding and pertaining to the performative nature of masculinity and the manner in which masculinities are brought forth on stage and how that differs from femininity on stage.

    One of the central themes of theatrical form is identity and the catalyst by which identity is formed is the body. In using the body as the site of formation of individual identity, women are “uniquely identified with their anatomy” and specifically the parts of their anatomy that differ from that of men (Callaghan 30). Because women are thus defined by their relation to men through the reality of their bodies, the bodies of men tend to go unexamined. Sue-Ellen Case argues that a new theatrical form which would eliminate the traditional patriarchal power would explore, among other things “new discoveries about gender” (143). The manner in which this is explores clearly utilizes the word “gender” to be equivalent to “female or feminine gender”. Thus the fact that men have gender also and that women have also had a role (not the defining role, but a role nonetheless) in defining what gender (and by “gender” I mean here the social institution of gender) is as well as what it can and cannot be. The question of gender and anatomical sex, how they relate and why they relate is explicitly central to the play The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs. Because the protagonist is an individual who lives as a man yet possesses the anatomy of a woman, that protagonist becomes the focus of a play and, one could say, both the object and the subject of the play. Had Albert Nobbs possessed the traditional anatomy of a man (i.e. a penis and testes rather than ovaries and a clitoris), he may never have been a character worthy of presence, let alone focus within a theatrical piece. However, by virtue of Albert’s anatomical sex and it’s apparent inconsistency with his gender performance, he becomes a theatrical spectacle in much the same way that a woman in traditional theater becomes a spectacle and a study by virtue of her body and it’s difference from the male body. Thus, though Albert appears on stage as a man, he is in fact made into an object of investigation and a phenomenon to be viewed in much the same way as a woman would. As the play opens, it appears to be a rather mundane biopic of a poor man’s life, but the moment when the narrator, George Moore, announces that “... when he died, we learnt that Albert was a woman” the entire play changes context. The statement does not imply that it was discovered that Albert expressed a female gender but that Albert possessed female genitals, that Albert is dead, and that the previous revelation was not reached until after Albert had died. So it is established within the context of the play that the role of the male is not in question here, per se, but the fact that it can be executed by a person whose body does not conform to that of what has been socially agreed upon as male that is in fact under scrutiny.

    The question of Albert’s sexuality, the manner in which this is tied to his gender, and the intricate relationship between masculinity and sexuality are all prominent themes of the play. Ayako Kano states that “Acting like a woman does not come naturally. It has to be taught, learned, rehearsed, and repeated...” (3). While the fact that femininity is not an innate quality of persons who are born ‘female’, by singling this gender out as performative serves only to naturalize the other gender: male/masculine. So, what ‘makes’ Albert a man? One could easily assess that Albert is a man by virtue of his not being a woman; that is, because Albert does not fulfill the social role of the woman does he become a man by default? Dympna Callaghan write that “femininity [has been] defined in and as a relation to masculinity”, so might not masculinity also recursively be defined as an opposition to that which is feminine (51) ? At the moment in which the action of the play begins, Albert’s only vested interest in living as a man is financial. He wears men’s clothes so that he can hold a man’s job and thus receive livable wages. Beyond this, he does not fulfill the heterosexual, providing male role. Hence the question of what a man is comes to the front lines of the play’s subtext. Because Albert is supposedly a woman who is appropriating the male role the question arise of “disentangling masculinity’s normative association with sexual and cultural power” (Gardiner 23). On the other hand, because Albert is portrayed as a man who retains a view of his own sexuality based on his anatomy, he is not a sexual threat to society necessarily. However, because of Albert’s unique position, any sexual or romantic venture which he makes is an inherent threat to heteronormativity. For whatever reason, Albert is apparently attracted to men and would dream of marrying a man if not for his social role as a man himself. However, given that he is read as a man, Albert searches for a lifetime companion in a woman. His attempts to court Helen are unsuccessful, however, because she finds his lack of hypermasculine sexual aggression to be abnormal and thus undesirable. If it were not made explicit to the reader that Albert Nobbs is in fact a ‘woman’, his preoccupation with decorating a home and simply finding a lifetime female companion rather than a wife would come across as highly effeminate and it could generally be recognized that as a man, Albert Nobbs is a homosexual man. The text blatantly ignores this aspect of Albert’s identity and rather emphasizes his identity as a woman. The fact is that to recognize and acknowledge Albert as a man is to give validity to the identity of homosexual men. Patrick Hopkins concludes that this kind of acknowledgment “translates into a threat to what constitutes a man’s sense of self”, or of masculinity itself (113). So masculinity itself is staged, it is performed, learned and practiced. That is, while femininity has been defined and analyzed in opposition and reference to masculinity, masculine identity is not natural. A person is not born masculine, it is also a practice which is learned. Albert did not simply put on male clothing and become a man, or take off women’s clothes and become a man. Albert still identifies himself as a woman though he lives as a man. The text’s inability to confront or to put forth the true concerns around Albert’s masculine identity is typical of a general feeling of “genderphobia”, that is, fear of truly discussing gender as a multifaceted institution and not simply the femininity of women and the masculinity of men but rather the many manifestations of these traits among different peoples (Halberstam 344).

    The equation of a gender role with class status and of financial integrity is vital to the understanding of the text of The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs. Albert clearly states to Hubert Page that the reason that he (Albert) first began to live as a man was because he could receive better payment for services rendered as a waiter and butler than as a maid or waitress. Hubert Page tells Albert that he is living as a man not only to escape an abusive husband but implies that he has found a kind of freedom in working to support himself. The work that Hubert performs, manual maintenance, is seen strictly as a male profession and one which Hubert could not have pursued were he living as a woman. Advancement in the Albert and Hubert’s world involves ‘stepping into the trousers’ and out of the ‘the petticoats.’ The fact, however, that Hubert and Albert can attain this advancement (humble though it is) without having what is considered proper male genitalia, that is, without being biologically male, speaks to the importance placed on the social role of gender. Thus “Whatever sexual difference might exist on the biological level, gender difference is a cultural and social construct that may be understood as ‘performance’ ” and in this way Hubert and Albert are able to achieve a small amount of status through putting on the performance of masculinity and of maleness (Kano 3). Although both Albert and Hubert remain in the confines of the working class, through their association with the masculine role they are each able to achieve some advancement beyond what they would if they returned to their female roles. So the “automatic association” of masculinity and power strictly with men is not only shown as a societal phenomenon but its roots in biological essentialism are limiting and must be recognized and deconstructed in order to attain a theatrical base from which feminine theater can be constructed (Gardiner 23).

    Through the example of The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs the roots of patriarchal institutionalization and naturalization of the masculine becomes apparent. Men on stage are created and masculinity is performed but because this is invisiblized and valorized, the dominant paradigm of patriarchy continues to be perpetrated. It is not merely the establishment of a binary division between male and female experience, subjectivity, and biology which must be undermined in order to achieve this theater of feminism, but also the assignment of value to the male experience and the negative connotations attached to the feminine. Sexist oppression is not a simple matter, especially when subtleties of male femininity and female masculinity are brought under scrutiny.


This page last updated July 26th, 2002

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