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July 24, 2008

A Feminist Farce or a Farce About Feminism? Kenneth Minogue decides that farce is the natural genre for capturing ideology: The Female of the Species - Joanna Murray-Smith

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Joanna Murray-Smith's The Female of the Species
directed by Roger Michell
Vaudeville Theatre, London
10th July - 4th October 2008

To every human experience there corresponds its appropriate literary genre. Anything to do with death usually involves tragedy, and the natural form of romance is comedy. But what is the literary genre that might capture the passions of modern ideologists? It must surely be farce. Here are people promising us salvation, but from the outside, it merely seems that the lunatics have taken over the pulpits.

Yet I can't think of many notable ideological farces. Chaplin's Great Dictator got a lot of mileage from Nazism. Ninotcha was terrific on communism, but it was more comedy than farce. Of all the versions of dotty ideology, feminism offers the greatest handle on absurdity, because the gap between "nature" on the one hand and "doctrine" on the other is at its most conspicuously unstable. The attempt to construct a world out of one half of the human race is as realistic as the Zen image of "one hand clapping".

But Joanna Murray-Smith has made a notable success of the ideological farce in her The Female of the Species at the Vaudeville in the Strand. She may have achieved this in spite of herself - she still claims to be a feminist - but she certainly knows how to parody.

The Female of the Species was apparently suggested by an occasion when Germaine Greer was - what shall we say? - "taken hostage" by an enraged feminist for about twenty four hours.

About these events I know nothing, but they seem to have led to a notable breach between the play's author and Ms Greer, who is much the brightest feminist around, but also herself teeters on the edge of absurdity because she has strong opinions on every subject there is.

Ms Greer has, apparently, refused to have anything to do with this work. Indeed, she has responded by calling its author "an insane reactionary", which Ms Murray-Smith admits was hurtful, since she is herself the product of a left-wing Melbourne family. Her noble credentials were being rubbished. This is clearly a milieu where you must be able to take the rough with the smooth.

The Female of the Species is full of good lines. At its centre is a feminist celebrity called Margot Mason currently suffering a bad case of writer's block. Into her isolated house comes a deranged student with a gun and a grievance. Indeed, many grievances, all of which she traces back to the lunatic opinions of Ms Mason. Her mother took feminist doctrine seriously enough to jump under a train clutching a copy of The Cerebral Vagina, one of Ms Mason's early works.

Worse: Margot Mason had earlier encountered the student in a class she taught, and declared that the enraged student had no talent. At the centre of the farce is a gun, which changes hands, as weapons will in farces, and this eventually drives the student to cry out in rage: "This is my hostage situation, not yours".

In the course of a set of unlikely events, characters express a variety of standpoints that exhibit most of the basic elements of the feminist mind-set. Margot Mason's daughter had chosen to live the domesticity her mother so despises, and is being driven mad by it. Her son-in-law is so keen to please his wife that she despises him. A macho taxi driver has similarly failed to find happiness in metrosexual accommodation to the Women's Movement, and finally this gallery of voices culminates in Margot's publisher, who has come out of the closet and but that's quite enough plot, in a play that is basically a sequence of eccentric characters talking like stand-up comedians and colliding with each others' prejudices.

Eileen Atkins is both dignified and acerbic and holds the play together. She is described as "drunk on her own charisma" by her young tormenter. That might perhaps link the play to Germaine Greer, but as one critic plausibly had it, the cap would fit Polly Toynbee and no doubt other absurd figures.

The student kidnapper is played by Anna Maxwell Martin who almost makes the mood oscillations required of a madwoman plausible. The son in law (Paul Chahidi) is a decent man ("No one makes value judgements any more") whose virtues are alienating him from his wife, a successful study in being a bore without being boring. Indeed, the whole cast respond inventively to the verbal exuberance.

Poor Margot is tormented all the way through by her critics quoting one or other of the dottier pronouncements she has made - "self control is female Viagra", for example, or her sneers at "bourgeois notions of heaving bosom literature".

"I do care about the world, and it's so exhausting", she cries, and ideological self-pity could hardly be more concisely expressed. The Female of the Species lacks the lunatic coherence found in the characters of great farce, but it is marvellous entertainment, and it turns absurdity into a kind of discovery procedure.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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Feminism is another deviant ideology. I'm tempted to ignore it until it goes away but for the huge damage it is doing. The tide is slowly turning, however, and this play is part of that process. Frau Goebbels poisoned her own children and I daresay that Harriet Harm-man is doing the same right now. 'Tis pity she is poisoning so many other womens' children at the same time.

Posted by: David Cann at August 7, 2008 10:42 PM
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