Heroines of page and stage

(Above) Clytemnestra from “The Oresteia” by Aeschylus. The stories of heroines from
Latin American literature and ancient Greek theatre were celebrated in conjunction with
Women’s History Month, observed annually every March in the U.S.

Photo via Pixabay

(Above) Clytemnestra from “The Oresteia” by Aeschylus. The stories of heroines from Latin American literature and ancient Greek theatre were celebrated in conjunction with Women’s History Month, observed annually every March in the U.S.

Demi Guillory, Reporter

On March 14, a group of students and faculty recognized female legends in literature and drama. In an empowering discussion, Dr. Elaine Brooks and Kalo Gow examined the roles of female characters and how they were able to break free of centuries-old patriarchal restrictions.

Brooks, a Spanish professor at UNO for more than 30 years, shared stories of heroines from Latin American literature. She began by introducing the work of Simone de Beauvoir. The heroines in de Beauvoir’s works refuse to succumb to the life that has long been ascribed to them. In her book “The Second Sex,” de Beauvoir explained her heroines are driven by “madness.”  

“When women are confined in the space that represents traditional gender roles, they often go mad,” she wrote. Her heroines are self-described “rebels,” fully understanding that power lies completely in the hands of their male counterparts, and that they are doomed to lives of enslavement.

Brooks has observed that a female hero’s quest for “inner self-fulfillment” revolves around the notion of space: how to escape, how to experience and how to conserve it.

“The first stage is leaving a space, leaving the garden of dependency in which the female hero has been kept hidden away to guard her virginity,” Brooks said.

Brooks references one character who successfully finds the freedom and the “unlimited possibility” she’s longed for: Sofia from Alejo Carpentier’s novel “El Siglo de las Luces.” The English-translated title is “Explosion in a Cathedral.”

“Like many heroines from the past,” Brooks wrote, “Sofia is orphaned, along with her brother Carlos and cousin Esteban. Sofia feels alienated from the world by her grief and longing to see a world she fears.”

In the novel, Victor Hughes represents a historic figure who strips Sofia of her virginity and “launches her into the world,” Brooks explained. In this new world, Sofia becomes an “active agent, conscious of her newly acquired masculine traits of independence, courage, and greatness of heart.” She transforms herself from merely an object to a subject when she takes it upon herself to save the thousands of people living under Victor’s dictatorship.

Brooks has written many translations of Latin American works and spent a lot of time writing over spring break. “I didn’t expect to write so much, but I did,” she said. She also said that she is “excited” about what she could do in the future “in regard to the female hero and the quest.”

The second half of the discussion was devoted to heroines in drama. “With a subject as big as female heroines, I had no idea where to start, so I started at the beginning — ancient Greek theatre,” said Gow, a first-year assistant professor of film and theatre at UNO.

In her humorously inspiring “dumbed-down Hollywood version of a lecture,” Gow referred to two popular heroines in Greek theatre —  Antigone and Clytemnestra. Antigone, the title character in a play by Sophocles, is regarded as one of the “most powerful heroines in theatrical history… by men,” Gow concluded to an amused audience.

She led her discussion with controversial questions: “Can we claim a character as a true heroine when she is essentially holding up an inherently misogynistic platform? What about Clytemnestra, who’s often described as a villain? Can we overlook just a [smidgen] of murder, call her a heroine for railing against her society and her abusive husband?”

Gow theatrically compared the females’ tales of  “woes, for if a heroine is to rise, she must suffer, she must suffer extravagantly.” Through her lively and detailed comparisons, Gow explains that both characters are heroines in their own right despite the extremities of their differences. Clytemnestra is a woman, as Gow described, who “essentially defines every role that society put upon the women of that time period.” Yes, the murder of her own husband can be seen as villainous, but Gow explained she has her reasons.

“(Clytemnestra) has suffered greatly because of [Agamemnon’s] war with Troy and his sacrifice of their eldest daughter,” Gow said. “She doesn’t hide from what she’s done.”

Meanwhile, Antigone is often regarded as the “good girl,” who is condemned and punished severely for rejecting the king’s laws in favor of God’s laws.

Gow’s thought-provoking questions ended the hour-long lecture.

“Who do you see as the greater heroine? Who do we choose to admire and call a heroine, and why?”