Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it. Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’

ALICE I hate my body. Caryl Churchill, Vinegar Tom

Hélène Cixous’s ‘The Laugh of the Medusa,’ the controversial manifesto of l’écriture feminine, opens forcefully: ‘I shall speak about women’s writing: about what it will do.’1 Revolutionary myth as much as practice, ‘feminine writing’ celebrates the libidinal multivalence of a woman’s body and imagines a uniquely female writing that disrupts, mimics, exceeds, and dismantles what is known in feminist discourse as the patriarchal symbolic.2 Since the 1975/76 publication of The laugh of the Medusa,’ Cixous has been accused of ahistorical essentialism, of conceptualizing a female body-scene that keeps off-stage political and material differences within and between genders.3 For Caryl Churchill, who began writing professionally in the activist climate of the postBrecht British fringe and the socialist debate in the women’s movement, Cixous’s scorn for empirical gender categories would probably be repugnant.4 Churchill’s own work of the mid-1970s (Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Vinegar Tom, Cloud Nine) places historical contradiction, class ideology, and sexual politics at the center of action and rhetoric. Alice of Vinegar Tom (see above epigraph) hates her body because in the play’s fictional seventeenth-century village, where poverty and terror are displaced into misogynist scapegoating, her body is materially and sexually abused, her desire inexpressible.