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Behind the Scenes of Sexual/Textual Politics in Angela Carter’s “Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Michelle Ryan-Sautour


En 1992 dans un entretien donné à Lorna Sage, Angela Carter évoque l’idée de Shakespeare comme idéologie culturelle (“cultural ideology”). En effet, le discours fictionnel d’Angela Carter est riche en références politiques, et les mots et motifs de Shakespeare se manifestent sous des formes diverses dans son oeuvre, preuve de ce que Julie Sanders identifie comme étant “the afterlife”, c’est-à-dire de l’évolution du mot Shakespearien depuis son texte d’origine (Sanders 2006, 121). Cette évolution est mise en valeur dans “Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1985). La nouvelle place le personnage marginal du jeune page (“Indian boy”) au centre du texte où il/elle est transformé en un hermaphrodite avec toute l’ambiguïté sexuelle que cela implique. Il/Elle se présente comme étant un “hermaphrodie verus” et son monologue constitue une sorte d’“ouverture” pour une exploration intertextuelle qui propose une réflexion non seulement sur les implications du masque Shakespearien, mais aussi sur les limites de la scène théâtrale en rapport avec la fiction. Une ouverture (“overture”) a pour objectif d’ouvrir et de présenter, et la musique de scène (“Incidental music”) accompagne une pièce de théâtre pour combler des blancs éventuels. Dans cette nouvelle, les mots de Carter proposent d’ouvrir et de combler des blancs de manière à engager le lecteur dans les multiples couches de discours sexuel/politique chargées d’affect qui au cours des siècles sont devenues indissociables des textes de Shakespeare.

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Angela Carter
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‘We dearly love the Bard, sir’ – Lizzie, Nights at the Circus
(Carter, 1984: 53).

  • 1 “Jean Baudrillard’s highly influential theory of simulacra suggests that in the postmodern era man (...)

1As Julie Sanders observes, the Shakespearean word makes up the “solid vertebrae to Carter’s allusive body of work” (Sanders 2006, 110) where images of Ophelia, Hamlet, King Lear etc. abound, attesting to an intertextual celebration of what Sanders calls the complex “afterlife” of the Shakespearean text (Sanders 2006, 121). Carter’s appropriation of Shakespeare is often one of carnivalesque frolic, confirming her irreverent qualification of the English playwright as “intellectual bubble-gum” (Sage 1992) and the necessity of dethroning his texts from their position of intellectual cult: “there's still the shadow of Leavis, we still feel we have to take it seriously.” (Sage 1992, 186). In her 1991 novel, Wise Children, for example, Shakespeare’s word is revisited through the narrative of Dora and Nora, twin vaudeville stars who live at 49 Bard Road, (my emphasis) Brixton, London on “the bastard side of Old Father Thames” (Carter 1991, 1). They travel to Hollywood to shoot “The Dream,” that is a version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which is qualified in the novel as “a masterpiece of kitsch” (Carter 1991, 111). However, the reversal of high and low culture apparent throughout the novel is not of the postmodern empty sort, as Julie Sanders notes1, but rather reveals a keen awareness of the inherent militancy of the Shakespearean text, as this “bubble-gum,” according to Carter, can also “foment revolutions” (Sage 1992, 186). In a 1992 interview with Lorna Sage, Angela Carter discusses “the idea of Shakespeare as a cultural ideology” (Sage 1992, 185), and comments on the inherent political dimension of the plays:

I tend to agree that his politics were diabolical. I think I know the sort of person he was, the sort of wet war-hating liberal who was all gung-ho for the Falklands, who in taking sides would have said, you know, it’s a sorry business, but once we have embarked on it … signed William Shakespeare, Highgate Village. That sort of intellectual dishonesty seems to me to reek from all the political aspects of the plays, but the plays themselves add up to something else. You can play them any way you want. It must be obvious that I really like Shakespeare. (Sage 1992, 186-187)

2Carter’s fiction indeed displays an obvious appreciation for Shakespeare – his work is brought to the surface in her fiction in a process Sage qualifies as a restoration of Shakespeare “to his pre-canonised self” (Sage 1994a, 53). As Sanders notes, Carter wanted to return Shakespeare to the people, “Carter saw the pre-canonised Shakespeare as a champion of popular culture and of illiterate and semi-literate communities. In her view, the Victorians who sanctified him had much to answer for. She lamented the academic narrowness with which his works were hedged” (Sanders 2001, 38).

3This is particularly evident in Carter’s earlier appropriation of Shakespeare in “Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Carter 1985). Carter has indeed expressed a particular affection for the play – “I like A Midsummer Night’s Dream almost beyond reason, because it’s beautiful and funny and camp – and glamourous, and cynical.” (Sage 1992, 187) – and the piece foregrounds a reflection on one of Carter’s favorite motifs: performance and play-acting. “For Carter, Shakespeare was a metonym for theatre, and theatre was something she accorded a deep value to in life as in art” Sanders observes (Sanders 2001, 56). In this particular work, Carter plays upon the genre of the short story to set the stage upon which Shakespeare’s marginal figure, the “Indian boy,” is drawn to the center and transformed into the sexually ambiguous figure of “The Golden Herm.” He/she is a “hermaphrodie verus” according to the character, whose dramatic monologue appears as the “overture” for a “behind the scenes” humoristic parody of the fairy world of Shakespeare’s play. The queen of the fairies, Titania, is described as a buxomed giantess, and the weather is poor as a result of Oberon’s (the king of the fairies) fury at not having the “Indian boy,” that is the boy Titania adopts after the death of a close friend. The Indian Boy, that is “The Herm” in Carter’s version, has a cold. The poor fairies’ wings are water logged, and they are unable to fly properly. Puck is described as a sex fiend, and the text is infused with an explicit eroticism. The human “lovers” of the original play, Hermia/Lysander and Helena/Demetrius, are strikingly absent upon this narrative “stage” where a narrator with omniscient characteristics comments on staging and the setting. The characteristics of short narrative indeed blur with the theatre of romantic comedy in this piece. The overt allusion to Mendelssohn’s music to the play (opus 21/61) in the story’s title further complicates the question of genre, as music is added to Carter’s intertextual field. An overture is intended to open and introduce, and “incidental music” accompanies and fills in the gaps of a theatrical work. In this article, I will comment on the manner in which Carter’s words, as music to a play, come forth to “open” and “fill in the gaps.” I will first concentrate on the manner in which the text questions the ontology of the fictional stage in its intertextual relationship to theatre and music. I will then proceed to explore how affect in the text interpellates the reader and heightens his/her interaction with Carter’s staging of Shakespeare’s word. I will conclude by studying the transfer of the theatre metaphor to the stage of reading as performance, thus indicating how reading pragmatics in relation to Carter’s text can be suggestive of a certain form of political agency.

Artifice and the stage of intertextual questioning

4The stage of exploration, as is characteristic of many of Carter’s shorter texts, indeed wavers on the borders of the short story genre. Paratextually, the title of the text places it on the edges of the fictional “stage” as “Overture and Incidental Music” frames the theatrical work rather than providing its center. The final words of the story correspond to the rising of the curtain and the beginning of the play, “The orchestra has laid down its instruments. The curtain rises. The play begins.”(96), and all preceding discourse is thus implicitly placed outside the boundaries of the stage. According to Linden Peach the paratext indeed sets up an ambiguous intertextual status for the text – “Carter is really saying that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is predicated on an absence.” (Peach 146) – for its implied intention is not so much to revise A Midsummer Night’s Dream but rather to change the way we interact with Shakespeare’s text.

5The narrator’s overt references to the staging of the play, in relation to Mendelssohn’s famous music, is indeed suggestive of a complex intertextual relationship, as it simultaneously points to the play and its cultural adjuncts. Mendelssohn’s famous opus 21 (1826), the opening music to Ein Sommernachtstraum, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, later followed by the incidental music (Opus 61) to the play, including the famous “Wedding March” (1843) is paratextually highlighted as the structural principle of Carter’s exploration of the cultural genealogy of Shakespeare’s word, that is the associations that have become entangled with his texts throughout the centuries. The narrator’s comments foreground, for example, how the representation of the wood has been influenced by previous interpretations:

No the wood we have just described is that of nineteenth-century nostalgia, which disinfected the wood, cleansing it of the grave, hideous and elemental beings with which the superstition of an earlier age had filled it. Or, rather, denaturing, castrating these beings until they came to look just as they do in those photographs of fairy folk that so enraptured Conan Doyle. It is Mendelssohn’s wood. (89)

6Such commentary questions processes of “castration” that have occurred throughout the years, processes that attenuate the sexual and political thrust of the plays to suit, according to Sanders, societal concepts of propriety: “Carter has in her sights the hijacking of Shakespeare and his texts by high cultural forces. In her account this move was promulgated by the Victorians, who bowdlerized Shakespeare, censored him, and tidied his playtexts up for public consumption in accordance with the repressed, and repressive morality of their age.” (Sanders 2006, 114). In reference to Carter’s irreverent hailing of Max Reinhardt’s 1935 film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Wise Children (Carter 1991), Lorna Sage comments on another means by which the play has been subjected to cultural appropriation through the example of Hollywood. In her reference to Hollywood as a “dream factory” she indeed suggests that the metaphor of “dream” be applied to all productions of Shakespeare’s word as a form of artifice:

Hollywood is the dream-factory, and so fits her purposes by demonstrating with complete literalness that the ‘stuff. . . dreams are made on’ is material, paint and pasteboard and dry ice. Shakespeare’s wood, Hollywood, the narrative forests that branch out on Carter’s pages, are of the nature of artifice, they come to us out of history. It’s that mysterious provenance (‘Father Time has many children’ someone pointed out in Nights at the Circus) that Wise Children tracks down to its lair across the generations. (Sage 1992, 193)

7“Overture and Incidental Music” indeed seeks to lay bare the genealogy of discourse which “across the generations” has become implicitly associated with Shakespeare’s work.

  • 2 Julie Sanders has commented on the influence of Brecht, notably in this alternation between illusi (...)

8The specific focus in the piece is on the fairy world, and more particularly on the Indian Boy, a minor, voiceless, figure in the original text, who is drawn to the center through the first person narration of the opening line. “Call me the Golden Herm” he says in an obvious echo of Melville’s “Call me Ishmael,” thus placing the narrator’s identity at the heart of the story. The piece, however, with a structure loosely based on the idea of music, in many cases does not resemble a story at all, as there is no real plot but rather a discontinuous spattering of vaguely connected scenes and commentary concerning the fairies and their wood. The reader is led to alternate between two narrators, the Golden Herm (“And I am called, the Golden Herm, for I am gold all over; (86)) and a more “omniscient,” didactic narrator, characterized as a director, whose comments on the “script” and “setting” set up an alienation effect suggestive of Brechtian theatre,2 “This wood is, of course, nowhere near Athens; the script is a positive maze of false leads. The wood is really located somewhere in the English midlands.”(87) Affect and intellectual estrangement often coexist uneasily on this textual stage where illusion is intermittently subordinated to social commentary.

9“The Golden Herm’s” narrative, punctuated by didactic references to the staging of the play on the part of the narrator, indeed fosters discontinuity, and heightens the ambiguous ontological status of this discursive “theatre” (as it is the fictional representation of a play before the play begins). The reader is ironically invited to perceive a “veracious” quality in this fiction that, in being outside the illusion of the theatrical stage, suggests a complex intertwining of art and life with political implications. The questioning of fictional illusion is enhanced by various reflections on character identity. The Golden Herm speculates on his/her existence, “To all this, in order to preserve my complicated integrity, I present a façade of passive opposition. I am here. I am.”(86) The Herm’s identity is further questioned as he is displaced, removed from his origins, as Titania is not his natural parent: “My Aunt Titania. Not, I should assure you, my natural aunt, no blood bond, no knot of the umbilical in the connection.’”(85) The narrator also explores the intertextual identity of Puck, “Puck loves hokey-pokey and peek-a-boo. He has relations all over the place – In Iceland, the puki, the Devonshire pixy; the spook of the Low Countries are all his next of kin and not one of them is up to any good. That Puck!”(89) This quandary of identity is enhanced by commentaries on the existence of the fairies in relation to the reader:

Just as your shadow can grow big and then shrink to almost nothing, and then swell up, again, so can these shadows, these insubstantial bubbles of the earth, these ‘beings’ to whom the verb, ‘to be’, may not be properly applied, since, in our sense, they are not. They cannot be; they cannot cast their own shadows, for who has seen the shadow of a shadow? Their existences are necessarily moot – do you believe in fairies? (91)

10The question directly addressed to the reader typifies the manner in which he/she is invited onto this stage of ambiguous ontological status to reflect upon the contours of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. One is left to wonder if this discussion concerns the fairies’ status as characters, as concepts, or as beings of an actual magical world contiguous with our own. This is a universe of mutability, of shifting perspective and illusion, as the changing size of the fairies suggests, “But all of them can grow BIG! Then shrink down to… the size of dots, of less than dots, again. Every last one of them is of such elastic – since incorporeal – substance.”(92) The result is an effect of multiple, mutable, fictional layers that seek to explore the limits of the “dream” represented in the play, a process intensified by the various means by which the text interpellates the reader.

Affect and the stage of reader interpellation

  • 3 My emphasis.

11The text indeed reads as an invitation to the reader. The imperative form of the first line of the Herm’s dramatic monologue draws the reader to the stage, “Call me the Golden Herm,” and is reiterated throughout much of the text with “See me shine!”(86) and “Take a look. I’m not shy. Impressive, huh?”(86). The oral dimension of the “huh” in this last example, seeks out a response, and indeed underlines the receiver’s involvement. Numerous questions are asked to the reader, “Besides, is a child to be stolen? Or given? Or taken? Or sold in bondage, dammit? Are these blonde English fairies the agents of proto-colonialism?”(86) And the description of the Herm’s genitals typifies the intimacy with which the reader is drawn in, creating a sense of physical presence which suggests a reflection on the gap between the fictional stage, and the materiality of bodies that characterizes the theatre, “This elegantly retractable appendage, here … is not the tribade’s well-developed clit, but the veritable reproductive erectile tissue, while the velvet-lipped and deliciously closable aperture below it is, I assure you, a viable avenue of the other gender. So there.”(86) The deictics of “This” and “here” indicate a visual invitation to view the Herm’s sexual organs, which in combination with the “you” and colloquial dimension of “so there,” implies an obvious inroad for the reader. This consistent use of “you” and “we” appears throughout the text in the narrator/director’s discourse as well as in the Golden Herm’s. This is especially evident in passages devoted to overt discursive questioning of the wood as the setting of the play, “You will come home refreshed, with your pockets full of nuts, your hands full of wildflowers and the cast feather of a bird in your cap. That forest is haunted; this wood is enchanted.”3(88) With the use of “that” and “this” in addition to “you” the narrator also underlines the close presence of the reader in relation to the story space. An isotopy of observation and touching in a later passage accentuates this involvement, “And if you did chance to spy him/her, you would think the little yellow idol was a talisman dropped from a gypsy pocket […] Yet, if you picked up the beautiful object and held it on the palm of your hand, you would feel how warm it was […] And, if you watched long enough, you would see the golden sequins of the eyelids move.”(90-91) (The hermaphrodite is often portrayed as the size of a tiny talisman.) The text is indeed saturated with appeals to the senses, setting up a field of affect that explores the gap between text and the physical presence that characterizes the theatre.

12The dominance of sexual affect further amplifies the involvement of the reader on a more intimate level. The characterization of the Indian boy as a hermaphrodite of varying proportions, along with sexually explicit description undeniably infuses Oberon’s wanting of the child in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with an erotic charge.

she [Titania] blames it all on Uncle Oberon, whose huff expresses itself in thunder and he makes it rain when he abuses himself, which it would seem he must do almost all the time, thinking of me, the while, no doubt. Of ME!
For Oberon is passing fell and wrath
Because that she, as her attendant hath
A lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king;
She never had so sweet a changeling;
And jealous Oberon would have the child (86)

13The word “have,” taken directly from the play, indeed resonates with sensuality in this new context. This sexual resonance interpellates the reader on a more primitive level. Sexual explicitness questions the reader’s threshold of sexual propriety and makes of his/her own experiences of the original text an arena for reflection. As Julie Sanders suggests, this fairy world is indeed characterized by more complex forces of identity than first meets the eye, “Carter re-reads Dream from a feminist and postcolonial perspective and strives to reinsert a darker magic and sexuality.”(Sanders 2006, 117). A bawdy sexuality infuses these configurations with a vulgarity that encourages the reader to participate in the dethroning of the Shakespearean word. Puck’s “phallic orientation”(90) appears recurrently throughout the text in the multiple references to his “buggery, and his undinism and his frotteurism and his scopophilia”(90). His ejaculations are characterized as “cuckoo spit” – “Have you seen fairy sperm? We mortals call it, cuckoo spit.”(90) – and his genitals are given a description that recalls that of the hermaphrodite in its explicitness, “Nesting in his luxuriant pubic curls, that gleam with the deep-fried gloss of the woodcarvings of Grinling Gibbons, see his testicles, wrinkled ripe as medlars.”(89)

14Sexual affect is in turn intertwined with a questioning of the body as signifier, and the performance of sexual identity as a fluid, dynamic phenomenon. The reader is drawn away from the more basic male/female binary, often highlighted as a dominant in the original play, and invited to enter a theatre that releases sexual identity into more ambiguous configurations of desire. Oberon desires the Hermaphrodite, who in turn desires no-one, as a being inherently complete:

What does the Herm want?
The Herm wants to know what ‘want’ means.
‘I am unfamiliar with the concept of desire. I am the unique and perfect, paradigmatic Herm, provoking on all sides desire yet myself transcendent, the unmoved mover, the still eye of the tempest, exemplary and self-sufficient, the beginning and the end.’
Titania, despairing of the Herm’s male aspect, inserted a tentative forefinger in the female orifice. The Herm felt bored. (95)

  • 4 One could indeed deal in depth with the body as signifier in this passage, and link these question (...)

15Oberon masturbates and desires the Herm. Puck is in turn characterized as a sex fiend who also desires the Herm, and rapes mandrakes in consolation for his unrequited love, “The Puck, tormented for the lack of the Herm, pulled up a mandrake and sunk his prodigious tool in the cleft of the reluctant root, which shrieked mournfully but to no avail as old shaggylugs had his way with it.”(94) This field of speculation, the reach of which is too vast to be fully examined here4, is further complicated by the aforementioned theme of mutability in relation to Puck as, after a long process of thinking about the “equipment” he would need to have intercourse with the Herm, he transforms himself into the object of his desire, and in turn is desired by Oberon:

The Puck, too, yearning and thwarted as he was, found himself helplessly turning himself into the thing he longed for, and, under the faintly twitching oak leaves, became yellow, metallic, double-sexed and extravagantly precious looking. There the Puck stood on one leg, the living image of the Herm, and glittered.
Oberon saw him.
Oberon stooped down and picked up the Puck and stood him, a simulated Yogic tree, on his palm. A misty look came into Oberon’s eyes. The Puck knew he had no option but to go through with it.(96)

16The implicit consummation of this unexpected sexual configuration is punctuated by the Herm’s sneeze, “ATISHOO!”(96), a sneeze which jars the narrative from beginning to end, as if to remind the reader of the humorous carnival of parody that predominates throughout the piece.

17The process of interpellation, as suggested by the typographical force of the sneeze (the use of capitals and an exclamation point) is, in fact, accentuated by the more subtle, but equally intense, form of affect evident in punctuation and the isolated word. As Denise Riley has remarked, punctuation is one of the most obvious displays of affect in a text:

Just to glance at punctuation: the exclamation mark, a direct annotation of tone, is uninteresting because it is blatant, but other markers which are not such overt signals of emotion still quietly operate as such – the arch or the sarcastic apostrophes or ‘scare quotes’ to highlight a vexing word […] the punch or triumphant colon, the theatrical hesitancy of the dash, the demurring bracket which may hedge its bets, the self-important or nagging italicisation. (Riley 2000, 3)

18The excess of exclamation points, colons, ellipses, and italics, points out the need to perceive each of Carter’s words as parody, each word resonating in relation to previous cultural contexts and meanings. A profusion of punctuation thus also cloaks Carter’s text with irony, teasing the reader to seek out hidden emphasis, as is evident in The Herm’s description of Titania, “Tit-tit-tit-omania boxed me up in a trunk she bought from the Army and Navy Stores, labelled it ‘Wanted on Voyage’ (oh yes, indeed!) and shipped me here. Here! to – ATISHOO – catch my death of cold in this dripping bastard wood. Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain!”(85) The shifts in register (“bastard”), as well as playful anachronisms (“Army and Navy Stores”), amplify the process of interpellation in the passage. The repetition of the colloquial “tit” – in its irreverent referral to Titania’s large breasts in Carter’s version of the character, the play on the concept of desire with the inverted commas around “wanted,” the colloquial aside “oh yes, indeed!” set apart by brackets, the dashes’ breaks in the line, in combination with the onomatopoeic quality of the sneeze emphasized by capitals, the typographic repetition of the word “rain,” and all of this punctuated by various exclamation marks, enhances the pull behind the Carterian word.

19This typographical representation of affect, in combination with the discontinuity in tense, in register, intertext, and speculative discourse, varying degrees of humor and even the breaks in the visual organization of the page, tend to undermine the coherency of Carter’s word and render it suspect, tripping up the reader in his/her contact with the text as he/she is led to draw connections, link up the various intellectual hints, and perceive a self-conscious reiteration that suggests a theatricality on the level of language. The use of inverted commas to present the word “boy” at the beginning of the text underlines the manner in which each word is more than it seems, as if wearing a mask, in an ironic gesture that points to multiple contexts well beyond Carter’s text. The first few lines typify the invitation to decipher that prevails as a result:

My mother bore me in the Southern wild but, ‘she, being mortal, of that boy did die,’ as my Aunt Titania says, though ‘boy’ in the circumstances is pushing it, a bit, she’s censoring me, there, she’s rendering me unambiguous in order to get the casting director out of a tight spot. For ‘boy’ is correct, as far as it goes, but insufficient. Nor is the sweet South in the least wild, oh, dear, no! It is the lovely land where the lemon trees grow, multiplied far beyond the utmost reaches of your stultified Europocentric imaginations.(85)

20The direct quotation of Shakespeare’s play in relation with the inverted commas, places the reader in a position to revise his/her perception of this minor character of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The reader is thus urged to explore the meaning of the word “boy” along with the discourse on “Europocentric imagination,” to recognize that this is a textual stage intended to open ideas and reach into the genealogy of not only text, but individual words. The affect suggested by typographical insistence is therefore closely intertwined with the affect of political intention, that is the impression of authorial intent that appears to lie behind the interpellating force of the text.

Reading as political performance

21The text, in foregrounding such varying forms and levels of interpellation, draws the reader into a theatre of exchange that, according to Malgorzata Sugiera’s work, resembles Polish director, Tadeusz Kantor’s, “Theater of Calculated Emotions” which plays upon the affect of intertext to influence the audience’s response through, for example, the use of music:

A very important part was played by sound motifs. They were always well-known and popular (as a sentimental waltz in The Dead Class or a very moving Christmas carol and a partisan’s song from World War II in Wielopole, Wielopole). These served as a trigger for the audience’s emotions, activating their memories. Unless this was done, the audience was not able to respond to the more complex, condensed visual motifs, and to clothe them in their own private details and subjective feelings.(Sugiera 2002, 9)

22The exploitation of the cultural resonance of art forms intensifies the audience’s participation in the performance. The use of affect in music suggested by Tadeusz Kantor’s techniques is echoed most obviously by Carter’s use of Mendelssohn, as the juxtaposition of its romantic suggestiveness with a sexually charged fictional theatre of ideas dominated by masturbation and forms of intersexual eroticism fosters a jarring effect in reading pragmatics. Carter’s fiction lays bare the affect that lies behind the intertextual utterance on many different levels. Virginie Magnat also highlights an emphasis on spectator involvement in the work of contemporary directors such as Artaud, Stanislavski, Chaikin, Blau, and Grotowski, in their confidence in the “revelatory power,” of the theatre as “an affirming, rebellious force that (re)activates human creative potentialities” (Magnat 10). Magnat, in reference to the American director and playwright, Joseph Chaikin, underlines the collective dimension of the theatrical experience, “For Chaikin, the quality of presence and perception, which I have suggested as being the essential characteristic of theatricality, manifests itself as a tangible “dynamic silence” experienced by both performer and spectator, who are “joined to each other by forces [...]: unanswerable questions to do with being alive at all” (1970, 12). “Overture and Incidental Music” echoes this process in a textual way as it openly displays the “nostalgia for anonymity” (Sage 1994, 2) that underlies much of Carter’s fiction. Its self-conscious foregrounding of the intertextual saturation of our cultural productions opens up “unanswerable questions” concerning both sexual and textual identity to both author and reader.

23This process hinges on the politics of “imposture” that is the dynamics of reading pragmatics Jean-Jacques Lecercle identifies as being at the heart of the reading contract as a form of counter-interpellation, that is a complex process of positioning of author and reader in relation to what Louis Althusser identifies as the “always-already” of language (Lecercle 166). In theoretical dialogue with the work of Judith Butler, his description of the staging of speech acts resonates in relation to Carter’s staging of the Shakespearean word as a form of cultural reiteration in flux:

Thesis 6 draws the second consequence of that consequence. It is the thesis of metalepsis, according to which the retroactive temporality of the always-already projects the speaker as fictive origin of the speech act. This is how Butler defines iterability: it is ‘the operation of that metalepsis by which the subject who ‘cites’ the performative is temporarily produced as the belated and fictive origin of the performative itself.’ That this thesis is central to the ALTER model [Lecercle’s model of reading pragmatics] has already been suggested, either explicitly or implicitly through the use of terms like ‘fantasy’, ‘ghost’ or ‘pantomime of actors’. Interpellated subjects are fictions, actors-at-an-actant-place. The Scene of Interpellation is a scene indeed, where roles are acted out. (Lecercle 166-167)

24According to Lercercle, literature serves as the ultimate stage upon which this scene of interpellation can be enacted, “What I am suggesting is that the business of literature, the meta-characteristic which turns what at first sight is merely a family resemblance […] into the defining character of a set or species is its capacity to stage the process of interpellation.” (Lecercle 186). Such a stage is apparent in “Overture and Incidental Music” where the “ghost” of Angela Carter appears intermittently throughout the text in the didactic pull of the narrator’s comments, and in the overall discontinuity and political thrust of sexual connotation. The reader is led to ascribe an identity to Carter as the “fictive origin” of this stage of discursive play where theatrical metaphor and intertext intertwine with affect in the theatre of reading, “where roles are acted out,” where reader and author interact with the multiple guises of the Shakespearean word.

25The piece is indeed suggestive of what Lecercle highlights as being an essential aspect of Butler’s theory, that is the insurrectionary possibilities of reiteration, “Recontextualisation breaks the chain of authority, it allows the interpellated subject to be displaced, if ever so slightly, from the place ascribed by interpellation.”(Lecercle 167). Carter’s staging hints at a performance that can work in “counter-hegemonic ways’ (Lecercle quoting Butler 167). One can indeed speculate that after having read “Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that the words and characters might acquire a different resonance, be it through the infusion of the characters with a sexual affect simply alluded to in the play, or the creation of an aura of “suspicion,” or irony around the Shakespearean word, in relation to “boy,” for example, or “king.” Denise Riley has commented on irony as a form of self-conscious, staged provisionality, “Irony as self-scrutiny is above all conscious of its own provisionality; this is what it stages, and especially in the conspicuous provisionality of the categories of social being. Self-reflecting identities will happily know themselves to be tentative, as irony eyes them finely from different angles and holds them up to the light between its fingertips” (Riley 165). In the movement of concept and affect, and through multiple degrees of irony, Carter’s text opens the Shakespearean word up to the light of the reader’s curiosity, in a hopeful gesture towards what Janelle Reinelt identifies in relation to staged performance, as “palpable possibilities for unanticipated signification” (Reinelt 213). As Lorna Stage once said of “Overture and Incidental Music, “Going ‘behind’ the text you free up the future, patch [Shakespeare] into the quilt of writing once again” (Sage 1994a 46).

Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, New York: Routledge, 1997.

Carter, Angela. Nothing Sacred, London: Virago, 1982.

---. “Notes From the Front Line,” On Gender and Writing, ed. Michelene Wandor, London: Pandora Press, 1983.

---. Nights at the Circus, 1984, New York: Penguin, 1986.

---. Saints and Strangers. New York: Penguin, 1985.

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1 “Jean Baudrillard’s highly influential theory of simulacra suggests that in the postmodern era many objects and ideas, aesthetic, cultural, and architectural, are effectively ‘hyperreal’, mere simulacra and simulations of the traditions from which they evolve (see also Malpas 121). In recognizing the fragmentation of Shakespeare into a series of evacuated cultural icons in the modern era, Carter appears to endorse Baudrillardian theory and yet for her this endless reworking of Shakespearean material was not necessarily devoid of political content. In fact, she registered considerable political and cultural force at play in the seemingly tireless reinvention of Shakespearean texts and language in a global context.” (Sanders 2002, 111)

2 Julie Sanders has commented on the influence of Brecht, notably in this alternation between illusion and distanciation as being typical of modern theatre, “Her methodologies were again shaped by contemporary dramatic practice. Parallel to the interest in intercultural performance cited earlier, the 1960s and subsequent decades witnessed a Brechtian-inspired determination to politicize and defamiliarize the conventions of mainstream British theatre. Chief exponents of this theatrical agenda included several playwrights who looked directly to early modern drama for inspiration and influence: Edward Bond and Howard Barker, among others […] They also recognized early modern drama’s capacity to mobilize realism and artifice in a series of complex shifts and modulations within a single production or performance […] As Benedict Nightingale has noted, ‘[t]he Elizabethans and Jacobeans in particular ask you to suspend disbelief in the existence of titanic feelings and absolute values’ (qtd. in Saunders 18). Carter seems to have recognized something very similar to contemporary theatre practitioners in this respect.” (Sanders 2006, 116)

3 My emphasis.

4 One could indeed deal in depth with the body as signifier in this passage, and link these questions with the theory of Judith Butler, for example, to fully explore Carter’s use of the Hermaphrodite as a tool for questioning sexual identity.

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Michelle Ryan-Sautour, “Behind the Scenes of Sexual/Textual Politics in Angela Carter’s “Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream””, Journal of The Short Story in English, 51, autumn 2008, 109-122.

Référence électronique

Michelle Ryan-Sautour, « Behind the Scenes of Sexual/Textual Politics in Angela Carter’s “Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream” »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 51 | Autumn 2008, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2010, consulté le 28 novembre 2021. URL :

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Michelle Ryan-Sautour

Michelle Ryan-Sautour is a lecturer at the University of Angers, France and author of a doctoral thesis entitled, “Le Jeu didactique et l'effet sur le lecteur dans The Passion of New Eve (1977) et Nights at the Circus (1984) d'Angela Carter.” (Didactic games and their effect on the reader in Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve (1977) and Nights at the Circus (1984)). As a member of the CRILA team at the University of Angers, she participates actively in the group’s research on themes such as the implicit in the short story, and she has contributed to the group’s publication on metatextuality in Angela Carter’s short stories. She has also published a number of articles about Angela Carter’s work in Etudes britanniques contemporaines. She is currently working on a project concerning reading pragmatics and power in Angela Carter’s short fiction.

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