“Top Girls celebrating the Bottomed Out Phallus: a Dialogue between Judith Butler and Jacques Lacan on Caryl Churchill’s Play”
In keeping with the project of the “Theatre, Performance, Philosophy” conference, this paper proposes to revive a conversation between the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and the American scholar Judith Butler, based on their most influential texts. Such potentially agonistic dialogue will centre on the first act of a 1982 play by the feminist British playwright Caryl Churchill: Top Girls.
The strikingly all-feminine cast of the play actually questions a traditional distribution of gender roles that, at first sight, seems to echo the Lacanian “sexuation formulas.” This topological tool, devised mostly throughout the psychoanalyst’s later seminars, can be construed as a logical representation (normalisation?) of what has historically, socially and politically been commonplace: a differentiation of the “masculine” and the “feminine” around the “phallus,” a complex psychoanalytical entity which this paper will try to approach.
Top Girls presents the audience with women telling stories of oppression, refusing to “be” the phallus, rejecting the “masquerade,” the “performative production of a sexual ontology” denounced by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble (1990). As a result, the feminist (and proto-feminist) heroines subvert the heterosexual matrix and gender binaries in a festive opening scene celebrating Marlene’s professional success.
Lacan’s and Butler’s antagonistic positions regarding the status of sexual difference, and above all of representation, become all the more fruitful in a theatrical context. Embodying women who refuse the performative can indeed become problematic for actresses. In the end, what are these “top girls” really celebrating? What is this festive excess, this concert of voices sometimes speaking and singing at the same time, this staging of the eating, drinking, vomiting body pointing at? Could the philosophical concepts of “phallogocentrism,” or “ontology” ultimately be criticised not only for their lack of relevance when it comes to gender, but more radically, for being imaginary constructs faced with the “Real” that Churchill’s theatre reveals?
Julien Alliot is a doctoral candidate in English Literature at the Sorbonne (Université Paris IV). Holder of the Agrégation of English and a Masters in English literature from the Sorbonne, he currently teaches preparatory classes for admission to the French Grandes Écoles (Lycée Raspail, Paris). He is a member of the Labos LAPS (Laboratoire des Arts et Philosophies de la Scène) and VALE (Voix Anglophones : Littérature et Esthétique, Université Paris-IV- Sorbonne). His thesis tries to articulate the multiplicity of theoretical works (be they philosophical, sociological, anthropological, psychoanalytical) on the phenomenon of festivals and parties with their contemporary aesthetic representation. Focusing on the British contemporary stage (from Beckett onwards) and film, it explores the modalities of a new sort of mimesis, applied to a subject faced with a multitude of crises in the post-war era. Between excess and lack, between vibrancy and anxiety, a new form of celebration, a “paradoxical party”, is shown to emerge.