more women's comedic art as social revolution continued

Though comic women have existed since the days of Baubo, (a mythic figure of sexual humour, who painted her body to suggest a face, with breasts as eyes and the pubic area as the mouth), they have largely been neglected. This book[1] highlights the contribution of women from different periods in time, relating the stories of five women who have created revolutionary forms of comic performance.


The artists Isabella Andreini, (16th-century commedia dell'arte performer), Caterina Biancolelli (17th-century French improviser), Franca Rame, (20th-century Italian playwright), Deb Margolin and Kimberly Dark (contemporary performance artists) are the subjects of this study, which looks at the historical and practical ways in which women's humour serves as social commentary.


In the introduction, Radulescu declares her “intention is to reveal certain aspects of women's creation of humour and to delineate the ways in which they subvert and destabilise – at the level of performance – the status quo."


The American performers discussed in the book, though with no obvious link to the tradition of the commedia dell'arte, share a subversive and carnivalesque humour that challenges traditional gender roles. They bring female voices to centre stage, raising questions about their condition in society.

Interviews with the artists in the last chapter show them as champions of feminist comic activism.


When the author asked playwright and activist Joan Lipkin what she thought about treating troubling subjects with humour, she commented “It is often necessary, laughter lives next to tears. Humour can be a form of psychic survival for both marginalised people as well as individuals. Despite certain social mores, sometimes the more desperate the circumstances, the more humour is needed, often the humour of the absurd”. (p.223)


Lipkin also believes breaking taboos sensitises audiences to a variety of difficult life issues and situations (such as issues of income inequality, the immigrant experience or personal stories) as well as offering a vision of a more tolerant world. She maintains comedy is a force for social and political transformation. This has to do with sharing a vocabulary or an experience as well as the physical and psychic need for release. Comedy can become a point of reference that unifies and energises people.


Radulescu wants to avoid looking through the lens of any one feminist theory which is why she thinks the examples of artists she gives “are ultimately stronger voices than any amount of feminist criticism as they speak for themselves...performance artists incite us to also think of that which is similar in our own experience, to rethink our own modes of thinking, and mostly, as they make is laugh, make each of us in the audience feel bolder about confronting what is wrong in our lives or in the world.” (p. 18)


Deb Margolin speaks of the magic and revolutionary power that can emerge from improvisation: “It creates communities and utopias of joyfulness and freedom from pain even as it often emerges from pain. It is a multi-layered creation as it simultaneously draws from experience, subverts definitions and stereotypes, reveals the cultural construction of gender, merges theory with practice” (p. 232)


The notion of creating work which authentically merges theory with practice is one which appeals to me and something I want to produce in my work.


Margolin believes women's performance as social revolution implies a courageous gesture of putting one's body on the line, of embodying ideas that defies the exclusion of (especially women's) bodies from public space. It lives and emerges from the body and in the moment.


Margolin's play, “Good Morning Anita Hill It’s Ginni Thomas I Just Wanted To Reach Across the Airwaves and the Years and Ask You To Consider Something I Would Love You To Consider an Apology Sometime and Some Full Explanation of Why You Did What You Did With My Husband So Give It Some Thought and Certainly Pray About This and Come To Understand Why You Did What You Did Okay Have a Good Day.”


It’s a story about the experience of Anita Hill, at a particular point in time, but it’s also the story of all women who don't feel their voices have been heard, challenging the notion of women as passive objects.


Jill Dolan's work informs Radulescu’s approach when dealing with aspects of women's performative humour as a catalyst for social justice and gender equality. Radulescu, like Dolan, has always “connected performance and the possibility for something better in the world” and believes that “live performance provides a place where people come together, embodied and passionate, to share experiences of meaning making and imagination that can describe or capture fleeting intimations of a better world.” (p.17)


In referring to the women performers speaking of their experiences. Dolan states “To see women onstage, alone, telling stories is still, for me, a political moment, on I can't (or won't) take for granted”. (p.1)


 Radulescu’s book is both a historical study as well as a theoretical study of how female humour initiates social change, and how it is cathartically rewarding and empowering for women both in the theatre as well as in society at large. This book focuses on a particular type of female performer who produces a kind of humour which dispels the sadness of other women by it's sense of shared experience. Radulescu believes the more specific and personal the story, the more authentically an audience can connect.


The author was fascinated by a type of female artist who was very revolutionary in the 16th century and continues today in the form of many women stand-up comics and performance artists. I can't help but wonder what happened in the gap between the 16th century performers and the present day.





[1] Radulescu, D. (2011) Women's Comedic Art as Social Revolution: Five Performers and the Lessons of Their Subversive Humor