2.1   Theoretical concepts: autobiographical, queer, political.

If I were to put descriptive key words next to Neptune, they would be: ‘autobiographical’, ‘queer’, ‘political’. I would hesitate for a moment to put ‘documentary’ there as well but after reading on what ‘documentary’ stands for in current theatre studies debates, I doubt that it would be fitting (that is an issue I will address mainly in Chapter 3).


The order of those words, as well as the interconnections between them are important for my idea of Neptune. The list starts with ‘autobiographical’ since everything I wrote comes from my own autobiography, and every other aspect of the play should be perceived through this autobiographical lens. ‘Queercomes second, as the idea of queer focus for this work came well before even choosing a specific topic and made me prepared ‘to queer’ any narrative I would choose in the end. Finally, ‘political’ is included as a notion that combines autobiographical and queer in the play, as I believe that I am calling this play ‘political precisely because of the mix of the two previously mentioned aspects.

Next, I will focus on debates around each of these concepts individually.



Roland Barthes proclaimed ‘the death of the author’ in 1967 in the midst of a French revolt. Barthes stated that ‘the author’ came to replace the figure of narrator, storyteller, and gradually replaced concept of mediation with notions of ownership and authorship. He believed that the focus should be shifted from the writer onto the reader instead: texts consist of embodiments “drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader” (Barthes 1977, 148). In Audience as Performer: The Changing Role of Theatre Audiences in the Twenty-First Century, Caroline Heim contributes to Barthes’ idea by writing that “audience responses actually contribute to, inform and alter the onstage performance” (Heim 2016, 2).


In her book Performance of Authorial Presence and Absence: The Author Dies Hard, Silvija  Jestrovic, reflecting on Barthes’ theory, states that “no matter how delegated, participatory, or unpredictable, performances still unfold within the contours of scenario its author premeditated” (Jestrovic 2020, 19). Which means that even though, according to Barthes, author disappears in the reader, the scenario of this disappearance is still orchestrated by them. Jestrovic argues that “the author, broadly speaking, emerges as the entity that embodies the work, establishing a semantic identity through which the work takes its place within a wider cultural context” (Jestrovic 2020, 39), and advocates that from Barthes’ death of the author - the author should be resurrected as a performative figure. She suggests that the “resurrection of the author in text and performance is only possible through adaptation. The process confronts the author as a historical figure with the author as a fictional figure” (Jestrovic 2020, 114). This approach is close to me personally, and I believe it to be reflective of what I tried to achieve by writing and performing my own autobiographical play: I wanted to become both a historical and a fictional figure. I am being a historical figure by virtue of accounting for the events that took place in reality and describing my role in these events. I am being a fictional character since everything I am describing is a product of my memory which is subjective and cannot be completely accurate. I further fictionalize myself by giving the character who I am performing a different name – MC, and by multiplying myself, creating another character – V, who becomes a representation of my memory of myself. In Neptune, I essentially wanted to experiment with impossibility of objective truth in an autobiographical narrative and with unreliability and fragmented quality of memories. And yet, I also wanted to write about real events that happened to a real person because I thought that it would give more weight to the story and make its core message more meaningful.


Reflecting on meaningfulness of authorial presence, Jestrovic gives a few interesting examples in her book. On the example of Marina Abramović’ MOMA exhibition The Artist is Present, she shows that the author is always simultaneously present and absent, and that the sense of authorial presence is often shaped by the past, originated from a constructed emotional memory - Jestrovic argues that the artist is “ephemeral, and, moreover, disposable and replaceable” (Jestrovic 2020, 145). On the meaningfulness of presence and absence, Jestrovic gives examples of two Chinese political activists and artists: Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei. Both were at some point arrested and made to disappear, however, Ai Weiwei managed to get released due to massive public outcry. Jestrovic quotes Ai Weiwei’s statement from Never Sorry documentary: “if you don’t act, the danger becomes stronger”, and adds that without performing arts of dissident citizenship, without making your presence as an artist known, the fear grows and all protesting voices disappear (Jestrovic 2020, 179). That is why detailed documentation of all political conflicts Weiwei has had with the Chinese government is crucial. This example resonated with me especially strongly, since I do personally understand both Ai WeiWei’s phrase and the sentiment Jestrovic expressed to back it up. Moreover, for me, the authorial presence, my own authorial presence in this case, is especially important as an expression of my political views and existence. Those are precisely the reasons why I chose to write this play in the first place, and why I chose autobiographical method to do so.


Speaking of a correlation between personal autobiography and authorship, I want to bring up two opposing theories by literary critics Paul de Man and Alexandr Lotman. For the Belgian theorist Paul de Man, an author has no biography. He describes his concept of ‘defacement’ as following: “can we not suggest that the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life and that whatever the writer does is in fact governed by the technical demands of self-portraiture?” (de Man 1984, 69). Russian theorist Alexandr Lotman, on the other hand, believed that life itself could be analyzed as aesthetic phenomena. Which not only opposes the idea of an author having no biography but suggests that everything including authorial fiction becomes author’s biography. To back up this claim, he gives examples of Russian aristocracy of the 19th century, focusing on one particular case of famous Russian poet Alexandr Pushkin, and how his actual life resembled and repeated his writings (specifically, an episode where Pushkin dies after a duel with Dantes, the same way his character Eugene Onegin dies in the play of the same name). Lotman writes: “It is precisely because life of theatre differs from everyday existence that the view of life as spectacle gave man new possibilities for behavior” (Lotman 1976, 56). Out of those two theories, I would definitely side with Lotman, as I believe that in an autobiographical narrative the actual facts about an author cannot and should not be erased, as that, in my opinion, would defy a purpose of an autobiography.


Another theory that I find thought-provoking is Jacque Derrida’s notion of ‘otobiography’, where ‘auto’ is replaced with Greek ‘oto’ – ear. The notion of otobiography implies that in “writing/performing self, I cannot be distanced from The Other – the ear is the organ through which I gets the sense of The Other and vice versa” (Derrida 1988, 3). This theory, essentially, brings me back to Barthes with his idea of author disappearing in the reader. However, here the relationship between the two is more balanced, and serve more as a symbol of co-creation.

As autobiographical aspect is particularly important for my play, I will continue its exploration in the next section, putting it in the context of queer theory.



This section will be split into sub-parts, as the subject of queer studies is very extensive, and for my project I only wanted to focus on some specific aspects of it, such as: queer nostalgia, queer autobiography, and queer reading. Before discussing the aforementioned aspects, I think it is important to get back to the origins of queer theory and the word ‘queer’ itself in order to look at the debates surrounding its necessity and implications in contemporary theatre discourse.


What is ‘queer’, and do contemporary scholars and artists still need this term?

Theatre practitioner and researcher Conrad Alexandrowicz starts his book Acting Queer by wondering why he is even writing this book at all, in 2020, in the age when so many positive steps towards queer rights have already been made (Alexandrowicz 2020, 1). I, personally, found it a triggering question, considering my own background and general implications of who it might be addressed to. However, before I started mentally protesting, Alexandrowicz justified his writing in a similar way I would: firstly, when we talk of achieved equality we can only talk of the European Union, and so called ‘West’ in general, and, secondly, “history shows time and again how easy it is for a dominant culture to fall back into normativity in its default mode, which puts pretty much every part of the world in the same precarious position” (Alexandrowicz 2020, 7).


The question of ‘who needs more queer studies-related works’ seems to be prominent among practitioners. For example, British playwright Andrew Good, while describing his experience hosting a discussion event on the topic of queer theatre and wondering if he was going to be seen as queer enough, asks: “Is ‘queer’ an idea that is now exhausted?” He then reports that he had received a positive answer to this question from a left-field cabaret and live art group in 2011: “For them, queer could only refer backwards, to a cis\male-dominated scene rendered inert by nostalgia and its own unexamined orthodoxies”. (Good 2018, 192) Even though, Good himself does not necessarily agree with that, he also expresses certain concerns around the issue of interpretation of the word ‘queer’. With the rise of queer theory, according to Good, ‘queer’ stopped being something “we actively did, but something that we applied to the actions of others” (Good 2018, 196). That felt like erasure of queer life style to him, and made it into something being enjoyed and toyed with by ‘the outsiders’.


Another aspect of this argument on extensive inclusivity of the word ‘queer’ is that it affects certain categories of LGBT-community directly. American academic Judith (Jack) Halberstam notes that “there is considerable antipathy between gays and lesbians and transsexuals, and the term ‘queer’ has not managed to bridge the divide” (Halberstam 1998, 144). And Alexandrovwicz alludes to broad array of critics who think that “umbrella term ‘queer’ can dilute or even erase certain specificity of gays and lesbians” (Alexandrowicz 2020, 22). Although, I can understand and partially relate to such arguments, I am personally extremely grateful for the introduction of the word ‘queer’ and normalization of its use. Even though it might indeed dilute some individual characteristics of certain sexualities and gender identities, it possesses, in my opinion, the power to unite and unify LGBTQ+ community. It seems that the desire to be united is more prevalent in regions where the fight for basic rights is still ongoing, since there is always more power in collective rather than in individual – which makes me assume that the arguments against the use of ‘queer’ term come from places and situations where people are comfortable enough to start differentiating themselves from collective structures. In my position and in my place of origin, however, the word ‘queer’ is a blessing as it unites us, protects us with a term that the so-called ‘outsiders’ do not understand fully, and gives flexibility by covering different aspects of sexuality and gender identity. As such, I always refer to myself as ‘queer’ rather than ‘bisexual’ since I believe this term to be more encompassing and appropriate.


Speaking of what the word ‘queer’ entails beyond its use in the LGBTQ+ community, Good states that its notion has transformed significantly, “now being inclusive of everything opposed to the ‘norm’” (Good 2018, 192). Queering the Non/Human book editors, scholars Noreen Giffiney and Myra J. Hird, expand on this argument by implying that “‘queer’ is an identity category, political positionality, methodological framework, and system of knowledge production” (Giffiney and Hird 2008, 4). And David Savran brings the argument more into the plain of theatre studies by suggesting that ‘queer’ remains “a provocative way for thinking about the intersection between certain theatrical forms and certain sexual subjects” (Savran 2003, 58). All those points are reflective of the broadness of the term not just inside the community but in relation to other areas and methodologies, which makes it increasingly harder to define with more and more fresh arguments being introduced on a regular basis.


Before moving onto specific aspects of ‘queerness’, I would like to briefly go back to some of the most well-known origins of queer theory. Here, I am talking, of course, of Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble. Summary of its main points that later influenced the whole field go as follows: gender and sexuality are relational categories; binary definitions tie us to understanding one through the other; gender and sexuality are not innate essences, but social constructions that can be contested and redefined (Butler 1990). For Butler, gender and sexuality are not internal qualities, they are discursive, defined by discrimination and reinforced by repetition: they are social constructs, not natural, but political qualities (Butler 1990, 124).


Scholar Tiina Rosenberg discusses Butler’s approach to queer studies, stating that "Judith Butler urged scholars to be ‘critically queer’, to take upon themselves a systematic disobedience towards traditional identities", and noting that for Butler “the concept of queer was not to be defined” (Rosenberg 2016, 70). Rosenberg herself believes that ‘queer’ could be synonymous with ‘anti-normal’ (Rosenberg 2016, 70). Which brings me back to Good’s statement that ‘queer’ is the opposite of ‘norm’. As much as I would like to disagree with that and proclaim that ‘queer’ should be synonymous with ‘norm’, I have to admit that the world is, perhaps, not quite there yet. With that said, and after defining classical notions of ‘queerness’ (formulated by Butler) and touching upon current debates challenging those notions, I would like to move on to specific aspects of queer studies.


Queer autobiography

Scholar Alyson Campbell believes that for queer-identifying artists and academics, “there is always autobiography mixed with the work one chooses to do” (Campbell 2019, 177). Jill Dolan furthers this argument by proposing the following explanation to this phenomenon: autobiographical solo-performance’s monologue structure offers room to address difficult social truths and allows LGBTQ people to explore their similarities to one another, as well as their differences. Dolan believes that "the form enables the performer to testify to his or her personal experience and asks spectators to witness the performer’s life publicly"(Dolan 2010, 43). She continues by giving an example of the whole generation of LGBTQ performers who generated work that only they could perform. Those works were tied to their authors and could not be reproduced without them. However, those works are still valuable as they document and archive LGBTQ experiences and insights (Dolan 2010, 47).


Strangely, I never thought of autobiographical aspects in all of the queer theatre I have consumed over the years. Neither have I thought of my own determination to present my queer story as autobiographical. However, by coming across those points made by Campbell and Donal, I see how a personal experience can be intrinsic to queer narrative – with its desire to reach out and find someone who would sympathize through direct expression of vulnerability. The idea is (at least the way I see it) - through your own story to send a message to whoever needs to hear it: you are not alone, I have been through the same, we will be alright. And the autobiographical narrative is, in my opinion, the most effective way to bring this message across.


Queer nostalgia

Queer nostalgia is yet another notion I have never thought of until I started working on this project. My play relies heavily on memories and the sense of nostalgia evoked by them, so it was very enlightening to know how this notion is perceived in queer theory and what the correlations between the two are.


Cambridge English Dictionary defines nostalgia as “a feeling of pleasure and also slight sadness when you think about things that happened in the past”. This definition uses the word ‘past’ referring to nostalgia as a feeling of something no longer existing. It also uses an interesting mixture of feelings of sadness and pleasure, which I believe to be reflective of its queer implementations. Queer nostalgia is essentially a look back into historical or personal queer past, but a look back full of sad fondness. There is a tendency in queer art, especially in films, to romanticize the past by beautifying the struggle and restrictions it portrays. A good example of that is a critically acclaimed Todd Haynes’ film Carol (2015) depicting a secret relationship between two lesbian women in the 50s. The inability to be together due to politics of the time is shown as a beautiful and tragic love story, creating a sense of longing for the times where love was forbidden and, therefore, must have been poetic. Perhaps, this glorifying of the lack of basic rights is what makes certain artists and critics express quite negative opinions on the whole idea of queer nostalgia, believing that it can serve as anti-queer force: Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Taylor Mac, for example, explicitly equates nostalgia with violence (Jacobs 2016, 1).


However, the majority of critics think that the use of nostalgia in queer narratives can serve as a positive force. Professor Sean Edgecomb suggests that when queered, “nostalgia can become less about a romantic longing for the past and ‘more political’, taking stock of the society at hand and inspiring action” (Edgecomb 2019, 25). Scholar Gilad Padva sees nostalgia as a tool to reconcile past and present, especially when it comes to important events in queer history, to which young queer people can get no access (Padva 2014). And researcher Momin Rahman believes that queer nostalgia is useful “because it does not adhere to binary standards, but seeks to find intersectional space that exists ‘between political and social cultures’” (Rahman 2010, 947). In these arguments, I am definitely on the positive side of nostalgia, agreeing that if used correctly, it can indeed be a powerful tool to make the audience relate and be more included in the narrative.


Queer readings: shame and sublimity

In her seminal work Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Eve Kosovsky Segdwick introduced such ideas (as title suggests) as ‘paranoid reading’ and ‘reparative reading’ in relation to a broader term of ‘queer reading’ (Kosovsky Segdwick 2003). I like the explanation and extension of this theory by scholar Tiina Rosenberg, where she states that queer is currently at the nexus of culture, just as non-queer has been, which means that queer has the potential to be present in all works of art. Rosenberg believes that “queer readings may be applied to any media or pop culture product, without the interpreter needing to cite queer as a prominent element in such work” (Rosenberg 2016, 121).


I somehow often compare the idea of ‘paranoid reading’ to the idea of ‘queer shame’. Queer scholar J. Jack Halberstam, among others, has written a lot about gay shame, coming from an early childhood experience of sexual shame that has to be reclaimed and reinterpreted in adulthood, by a queer adult armed with theoretical knowledge about their sexuality that can transform past experiences of rejection and isolation into love and sense of community (Halberstam 2005, 63). Famous theorist Sara Ahmed further argues that “by witnessing what is shameful about the past, the nation can ‘live up to’ the ideals that secure its identity or being in the present” (Ahmed 2004, 109). Which makes me think that even in so-called ‘queer shame’ critics see a lot of potential for positive change, and that brings me to the aspect I always thought of as positive already: reparative reading.


In similar way I associate ‘paranoid reading’ with ‘queer shame’, I associate ‘reparative reading’ with ‘queer sublimity’, which scholar Brett Farmer defines as “the transcendence of a limiting heteronormative materiality and the sublime reconstruction, at least in a fantasy, of a more capacious, kinder, queerer world” (Farmer 2005, 170). I really like this idea of creating a kinder world through a manner of interpretation, and that idea, retrospectively, perhaps, influenced me the most in writing my play.



My whole thesis is dedicated to notions of ‘political’ in personal narratives and in my work in particular, and I will be coming back to those notions in the following chapters as well, so here I will only focus on one specific aspect: political theatre and the issue of representation.


First of all, what can be understood as political theatre or performance? Professor Lynette Hunter sees a distinction between making political theatre and making theatre politically (Hunter 2013, 3). According to Hunter, to make political performances means to convey significant political meaning and perspective in a performance, critiquing and challenging certainties of governance; and making performance politically means more than just to challenge, but to change modes of politics by offering radical alternatives through active performativity. Hunter seems quite optimistic regarding the results ‘making theatre politically’ can achieve: she believes that the act of making performance politically can not only “critiques the civic structure that underlines liberal capitalism and provides the grounds for neoliberalism, and challenges the economic, sexual, and ethnic privilege that defines the form of democracies that exist all over the world”. (Hunter 2013, 4) Schlossman considers the term ‘political theatre’ too broad, and sides against the category of ‘political theatre’ in general because it means that some theatre is not political, and he among other critics believes that “all performance is political since it exists within human society and culture and because it always communicates as ideological position” (Schlossman 2002, 27). He alternatively suggests to refer to performance that consciously seeks to provoke specific changes in policies or social conditions as “politically engaged performance or as overtly political performance” (Schlossman 2002, 27). Furthering on the notion of ‘politically engaged performance’, theatre critic Florian Malzacher proclaims that we need to create “politically engaged theatre… where things are real and not real at the same time. Where we can observe ourselves from the outside whilst also being a part of the performance” (Malzacher 2015, 30).


This argument on realness and self-search in politically engaged performance brings me to the question of representation, since in order to identify with something, something should be presented, or rather represented on stage or on paper, in my view. Schlossman specifically underlines the correlation between politics of representation and art and politics debates: “feminism, queer theory, neo-Marxism, cultural studies all see performance as an inherently political activity. Contemporary critical theorists view representation as producing – not merely reflecting – social reality through the context of culture” (Schlossman 2002, 4).


Speaking of culture, Shalson proposes that theatre productions provide valuable platforms for responding to ongoing political and cultural situations, and stage opposition to perceived injustices. She believes that theatre can be inspired by protest, and extend conversation even after the initial response disappears from the news, thus continuing the conversation on representation and widening it beyond the original scope (Shalson 2017, 5). Underlining the importance of certain spaces and areas in relation to the effectiveness of political representation, performance artist Holly Hughes states that “the Rights at least consider art as an agent of change, and the Left see it as a commodity. This sentiment arises in the contexts where the freedom of expression is taken for granted” (Shalson 2017, 25). And Professor Christopher Balme adds that “where there is censorship, there is a deep conviction about the political potency of the theatrical gathering” (Balme 2014, 16).


Touching upon the idea that the Left see political art as commodity and assuming that it has to do with capitalism as all discussions on consumerism do, it is important to cover the opposite side of the argument (by opposite I mean the one that centers around representation of political identity being ineffective as a political statement), which has been more dominant in the current discourse, at least in the West.


In the introduction to Performance, Identity, and the Neo-Political Subject collection of essays, editors Matthew Causey and Fintan Walsh pose a question: “What if understanding theatre and performance in terms of socio-culturally prescribed identity formations restricts its social, cultural, and political potential?” (Causey and Walsh 2013, 1) They elaborate on this question by stating that in the academic circles there is emergence of a strong sense that “identity-based struggles are politically-limited, and that a different type of grounded, collective action is in order” (Causey and Walsh 2013, 2). They also add that neoliberal culture absorbed any agency that politicized identities once had, and capitalism cultivates fracturing of identity for its own purpose. Causey and Walsh mention that such critics as Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek, and Jacque Ranciére are highly dubious that identity-based politics can have transformative effect with a capitalist context, with Badiou going as far as to propose the need to find expressions of humanity that go beyond identity politics (Causey and Walsh 2013, 4). Ranciére also believes that art is not political through explicit representation, but by contributing to a distribution of the sensible (Ranciére 2010, 140). Political philosopher Todd May elaborates on Ranciére’s position by stating that “identity of a political actor in itself is not politically relevant, but the presupposition of equality in play is” (May 2009, 12).


Reading all those arguments I, time and again, come back to the thought that they might indeed be relevant for a supposedly more advanced Western society. However, in countries like Russia, we cannot seriously talk about commodification of political identity, since the opposite process is taking place. Thus, I believe that even though such arguments are valid, they are not particularly applicable in my case, or in the case of my project. I think that conditions and circumstances are extremely important for effectiveness of politics of representation, with its central questions of what is being presented, where, and by whom? Those are the questions I have been thinking about throughout my writing and staging process, and will be coming back to them later in subsequent chapters.



2.2  Personal narrative in dramaturgy as political statement: influences to the form.