The Gaze of the Caged Woman

Sexuality and Performance in Selected Beckett Plays

by Ila Ahlawat (Author)
©2018 Monographs XII, 202 Pages


This book investigates the themes of female entrapment and the feminine gaze, and explores how they function as theatrical metaphors in Samuel Beckett’s later plays. It offers a novel perspective on love between Beckettian women, interrogating the trope of bodily sickness and its manifestations on the stage, and analysing how this relates to queer drives in women. Ambitious and thought-provoking, the book engages with the work of a range of theorists on psychoanalysis, feminism, sexuality, voyeurism and theatricality. The arguments presented here will be of interest to specialists in modernism and postmodernism, theatre, and gender studies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Inside the Mounds, Urns and Bins: Living the Other Way
  • Chapter 2: Of Pathless Wanderings and Mothers and Daughters
  • Chapter 3: Drowning the Memory of the Father
  • Chapter 4: Voicing the Self from Darkness
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

← viii | ix →


I would like to thank the academics in my life who have guided me and encouraged me in my scholarly endeavours, specifically Professor Rana Nayar (Panjab University), Professor Van Ikin (University of Western Australia), Professor Aden Evens (Dartmouth College), Professor Neelima Luthra (University of Delhi) and many other teachers in my life who have taught me the power of critical thought and the charm of art.

Above all, and most of all, I would like to thank my family: my parents, Premraj and Kamla Ahlawat, and my brother, Sahil Ahlawat who have always placed me and my happiness above everything else in their lives. This statement is to acknowledge the struggles and sacrifices of my parents, the doting care of my brother and how their love has fostered in me the strength and determination to defy societal conventions and pursue my passions. I am especially grateful to my father whose humanity, kindness and conviction will always serve as very high ideals for me. ← ix | x →

← x | xi →

List of Abbreviations

DCWComplete Dramatic Works

← xi | xii →

← xii | 1 →


… the eyes widen to a stare and begin to feast

SAMUEL BECKETT, Words and Music

The disconnected Word, the pervasive Name of the Father, and the motionless Law all become manifest in the patriarchal gaze that, in the very terms that Foucault conjectures in his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, serves to reinforce absolute surveillance and discipline. According to Sigmund Freud, the specular gaze is anal and obsessive, and conceals a sadistic will to power. This obsessive love for looking, which he calls Scopophilia, is essentially an active foray into the vicissitudes of erotic impulses. The subject of this study, Samuel Beckett has been accused by many feminist critics of reinforcing gender hierarchies by adopting the standard formulation of women being subject to the pervasive, disempowering gaze of the audience and the fellow male actors.

But, what if the ‘gazed-at’ also defiantly returns the gaze? What if the paranoia of being a victim of surreptitious vigilance wields a reactionary, unyielding, refractory effect on the spectator/onlooker? What if, in a very similar fashion that Laura Mulvey envisions (Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema), the dichotomy of “woman-as-image” and “Man-as-bearer-of-the-look” is inverted, so much so that the sexual impact of the performing woman transports the play, as it were, and quite literally, I contend, onto a “no-man’s land outside its own time and space” (Mulvey, III: 11).

In relation to her studies of film, Mulvey has posited the idea of the camera as the metaphor for rape, an advancement on Jeremy Bentham’s notion of ‘Panopticism’ that Foucault has elaborately discussed in his landmark book on the conception and propagation of the state of imprisonment and the all-seeing gaze that works in conjunction with it while positing his tenets on visual surveillance in Discipline and Punish, which relies on ← 1 | 2 → a vertical pervasion of surveillance, and acts as a prelude to the violence and violation that rape entails. Basically, this concept tries to instil a fear psychosis, a feeling of being surveyed and being prone to judgement and reprimand in the head of the surveyed. Mulvey further adds in her above-mentioned book that a woman in the film, then, serves as the spectacle displaying extra-diegetic tendencies. These anarchist tendencies, I argue, resist, or in the least, subvert the violative tendencies of the camera. I mean to import the idea on to Beckett’s theatre and discuss the dynamics of spectacle-spectator relationship and try placing the theatre audience in the role of the camera. The anarchic tendencies can be clearly traced in the case of Beckettian women as well, theatrical impulses that tend to subvert the fixation of the audience on the excitement and the ‘difference’ they derive from the stage, oblivious of the “temporal Syncopation of the theatre medium” (Jameson, ‘Gertrude Stein and parts of Speech’ in The Modernist Papers 17: 349) and that, according to Frederick Jameson, is the lot of the spectators who, to their astounding disadvantage, are always a little ahead or little behind the action on stage. This work seeks to interrogate the subtle, nuanced power reversal enacted by Beckettian women, and how it actually does not stimulate the audience but benumbs it into a passive reception of their semantic assaults, irreverent silences and fiercely penetrating feminine gazes.

Mulvey has argued how woman, as a meaning, retains itself primarily “as a memory which oscillates between memory of maternal plenitude and memory of lack” (Mulvey 6). Beckett’s theatre, especially the later plays in discussion here, seems to traverse that compartmentalized space of spectator-subject, omniscient creator-constructed image, capitalized desire – ‘spacio-sexual amnesia’ (as I prefer to call it), and instead chooses to unbury the woman unconscious. He places her at the junction where imagined, suppressed, peripheral memories displace the mainstream conscious space of the masculine signifiers. His women relive their memories, imagine them anew, rejoice in their artistic permanence, grieve in their ever-lasting pain and hurt. Beckett’s usage of woman-memory and the (un)conscious as a theatre trope for feminist subversion, a reimagining of the Freudian notion of lack may be sensed from an excerpt from one of his texts written in 1946, ← 2 | 3 →

Memories are killing. So you must not think of certain things, or those that are dear to you, or rather you must think of them, for if you don’t there is the danger of finding them, in your mind, little by little. (Beckett, The Expelled 9)

This research project seeks to deal with the problematics of confinement and concealment, and therefore dissidence, a queering of the feminine in the female characters in Samuel Beckett’s later corpus. The purpose of this study is to interrogate the dialectics of closure and vague associations, immobility and fluid sexuality and metamorphosis, suffering and subjective emancipation that play upon the dramatic superstructure of several Beckettian plays wherein women are shown in an entrapped state. The plays in focus would be Endgame, Happy Days, All That Fall, Embers, Play, Eh Joe, Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby with characters such as Nell, Winnie, Mrs Rooney, Miss Fitt, Ada, Addie, Woman1, Woman2, the Mouth, May, her mother, Woman, her voice, et al under the purview of a critical examination of their state and the vagaries of entrapment either literally or symbolically.

Mulvey, along with a few other theorists working on the ‘apparatus theory’ produced during the 1970s, emphasized how the spectator was mostly an ideological effect, hooked to the screen (in our case, the stage), as it were, for the irresistible economy of desire it perpetrates. Christian Metz, one such theorist, significantly asserted,


XII, 202
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
Gender and Sexuality Studies Beckettian theatre Voyeurism Female Narcissism Entrapment and Darkness
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2018. XII, 202 pp.

Biographical notes

Ila Ahlawat (Author)

Ila Ahlawat is currently teaching at University of Windsor in Canada, having previously been a postdoctoral researcher with the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University, Budapest. She has published in the areas of feminism, intertextuality and media studies.


Title: The Gaze of the Caged Woman
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216 pages