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Janelle Reinelt


Janelle Reinelt


On Suicide: A Reappraisal


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I will consider and critically reassess the strong objections of second wave feminists to representations of women's suicides as counter-productive of personal agency and as undermining and colluding with various stereotypes about women's mental health. From Pam Gem's Dusa Fish Stas and Vi to Marsha Norman's ‘Night Mother , feminist critics expressed concern and sometimes outright condemnation of such representations. When we think about women's writing or use phrases such as “written on/with the body,” what are we saying about the death inscription? From a position in postfeminism some twenty years later, I want to ask what it was about suicide that seemed so destructive of women's agency, and to ask if it looks the same to us today.

Besides the issue of representation and writing, I also want to address the question of famous women who committed suicide. In the past few years, depictions of Virgina Woolf and Sylvia Plath in major films ( The Years and Sylvia ) have led to debates about both the representation of these artists's suicides and also the actual exemplar of the artist/writer who chooses suicide. Sarah Kane's early death can also be seen in this light. Arguably, criticism and interpretation of Kane has tended to either bracket her suicide as irrelevant to her artistic oeuvre, or else inform the approach to that work. Both paths have seemed problematic, and I think part of the issue is that we have an insufficient analysis of the relationship between self-destruction and creativity, affirmation of self through writing and acts of self-annihilation. Now that women suicide bombers are also in the news, this topic needs a fresh approach. Is suicide a definitive mode of autobiography? If self-fashoning includes death, is there a paradoxical agency in self-destruction?

Finally, there is also a pedagogical question about how to teach young women about writers who committed suicide, about suicide as a possible ethico-political choice, and as a great tragedy nonetheless. How does one run a responsible writers' workshop on these topics? There are risks to approaching suicide at all, since we know many adolescent women struggle with self-destructive behaviors and impulses. How can we guide and inspire such young women without flinching from the fact of the choices women writers have sometimes made to end their own lives? What is appropriate pedagogy concerning the issue of suicide and writing?




Janelle Reinelt is Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Professor of Drama at University of California, Irvine. She is the current President of the International Federation of Theatre Research and co-editor with Brian Singleton of the book series International Performance and Culture with Palgrave/Macmillan. Her books include Cambridge Campanion to Modern British Women Playwrights , with Elaine Aston; After Brecht: British Epic Theatre ; Crucibles of Crisis ; and Critical Theory and Performance with Joseph Roach. She is a former editor of Theatre Journal.


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