Last week I saw Boston University’s production of Lady Hamlet by Sarah Schulman, directed by Ilana Brownstein. The play is a farcical examination of gender roles via the lives of two actresses who both want to play the role of Hamlet on Broadway. One Actress, Margot Stayden Burns, believes that Hamlet is a woman, merely donning man’s clothes in order to have the ability to express her-self free from female patriarchal gender norms. Her Inspiration, an older actress Helene de Montpelier finds this idea repulsive and instead believes that Hamlet is a man, which any woman should have the right to play just as young people can play old people, peaceful people can play murderers, etc. The two battle it out for the role at first with sly plots then with words, then swords. In the end it is Helene’s lover that gets the role of Hamlet, the two changed divas turn it over to her when she says that her dream Hamlet would be not a man, not a woman, but a person. Hamlet would be simply Hamlet, a human being.
I found the play both hysterically funny and incredibly interesting. The play discusses how we universalize to the white male norm. The default western person is a white man, or at least a man. Now that we have a black president has the race changed? I don’t think so, but possibly. As a female playwright, I find that I am able to write men sometimes better than women, interesting given the fact that I am a woman myself. Is this because I am used to seeing male protagonists? Being forced to empathize and personalize to men? These are some of the questions that the play provoked in me. A ‘human’ Hamlet we could surely all identify with, man and woman. Or could none of us identify with them? Could we believe and relate to a genderless character? Would we constantly be trying to label them because we weren’t given their identity? I don’t know. It is an interesting question. Could I write genderless characters? There are certainly many people that identify as gender queer, as both genders or as neither. I myself believe that gender is a societal construct that is not necessarily tied to sex. I believe that there are masculine and feminine energies, which combine and balance in different ways within each individual. So why do I feel the need to label the characters that I write one way or the other? Am I taking for granted societal norms with which I don’t necessarily agree and thereby re-enforcing them? I think I write gendered characters in part because our perceived gender makes up so much of our experience. If I were to not label a character as a gender, I would be leaving out a vast part of their back-story, of how they are viewed and brought up in the world. Or if I didn’t give them a gender it would be a huge choice that the audience would attach significance to. If they have no gender that gives them a whole different back-story of not belonging in our culture. Perhaps this only applies to realism however. Or maybe I could write a play in which none of the characters have gender, thereby setting that reality as a part of the world, the scene on which action can happen, rather than having the whole play be about gender. Do our notions of gender make us identify with one sex or the other and not with the human experience? Would there be less violence and misunderstanding between the genders if we were all forced to identify with a human norm? What would that look like? I feel that these are interesting and on-going questions.
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