A Visible Oppression: Joanne Akalaitis's Staging of John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore

Citation metadata

Author: Cheryl Black
Editors: Thomas J. Schoenberg and Pamela T. Northrup
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,231 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

[(essay date 1995) In the following essay, Black discusses director Joanne Akalaitis's 1992 New York staging of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, which emphasized themes of sexual politics, domestic violence, and transgressive female desire.]

In April 1992, theatre director JoAnne Akalaitis presented to the New York Shakespeare Festival audience a postmodern pastiche composed of the text of John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, the visual imagery of surrealist art, and the iconography of fascist Italy. To this chronologically and geographically displaced mise-en-scène, Akalaitis added a sprinkling of baroque eroticism, Times Square sleaze, and locker-room graffiti. In the leading roles of Giovanni and Annabella, John Ford's incestuous lovers, Akalaitis cast contemporary cinema icons Val Kilmer (The Doors) and Jeanne Tripplehorn (Basic Instinct).1

Although Akalaitis was essentially faithful to Ford's written text,2 her mise-en-scène presented an interpretation that accentuated sexual and reproductive politics, bringing to the surface implicit themes of domestic violence and transgressive female desire. Appropriating text and imagery from various sources, she created a collage in performance that captured the dynamics of gender relationships within our cultural institutions, revealing both the dominating forces and women's resistance to such forces.

This production, which marked Akalaitis's directorial debut as Artistic Director of the New York Shakespeare Festival (NYSF), was an event of great interest to the New York theatre community and of great significance to Akalaitis's career. Her appointment as artistic director (in August 1991) had not been a popular one; many considered Akalaitis too avant-garde, too controversial, too "downtown." Twenty months later (in March 1993), Akalaitis's troubled tenure ended with a summary and very public dismissal by the Shakespeare Festival's board of directors.3 The circumstances in which Akalaitis's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore was staged give her interpretation a particular historical significance, as well as a certain grim irony.

Akalaitis's choice of John Ford's drama was a bold one, as the controversy surrounding her work stemmed primarily from her postmodern re-visioning of classic texts. Throughout the 1980s, Akalaitis was frequently attacked by both critics and playwrights for her geographic and chronological displacement of such works as Samuel Beckett's Endgame and Shakespeare's Cymbeline. Also controversial were Akalaitis's commitment to feminism and her alleged sympathy for the Palestinians. In her staging of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, Akalaitis combined postmodern aesthetics with overtly feminist ideology, exposing herself to opposition on both artistic and political grounds. In fact, although several reviewers dismissed Akalaitis's visual and textual juxtapositions as avant-garde trickery,4 several important critics admired the look and sound of the production.5 Writers were nearly universal, however, in their objection to the ideological content, insisting that a feminist reading was not supported by the text. As John Simon declared, "the play is about incest and other passions in a Parma gone lawless, not the oppression of women."6 Even those critics who admired the imagination and power of Akalaitis's staging expressed concern that the director was "wrongheaded and reductive to make this great seventeenth-century classic...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420085064