(Dis)embodied Meat, Cyborgs, and a Brain on a Hard Drive: The Posthuman Bodies in William Gibson’s Neuromancer


888628.jpgIn the novel Neuromancer by William Gibson, the body is described as merely meat.  Meat is something to be overcome or modified via technology.  In terms of addiction, meat is disposable.  Or it is mere a plaything.  According to Claudia Springer, “The word ‘meat’ is widely used to refer to the human body in cyberpunk texts.  Meat typically carries a negative connotation in cyberpunk … It is an insult to be called meat in these texts, and to be meat is to be vulnerable” (qtd. in Chilcoat 170).  Meat is nothing more than flesh and blood, and while it has its uses, it is vulnerable to disease and death.  The mind, not the body, is praised as the ultimate creation in this cyberpunk novel.

In a posthuman world of high technology, Gibson presents a variety of bodies in flux; bodies that crave and desire, bodies that cease to function, and bodies that are prisons for the mind.  Neuromancer is a novel filled with posthuman bodies, including the characters of Case, Molly, and Dixie.  With this in mind, the paper asks the complex question of how the posthuman body is produced, shaped, and examined in William Gibson’s Neuromancer.  Posthuman bodies in this literary representation play out the potential implications of humans and their relationship with technology, allowing the readers to understand the various possibilities of posthumanism.  Case is a critique of the disavowal of embodiment, as he desires to be a cybernetic being while trapped in his flesh by his addiction to drugs.  The cyborg body of Molly is a place where sex is currency, allowing the character to modify her body to gain more money and agency.  And Dixie is the result of a thought process that claims a disembodied brain will be the ultimate in immortality; his character proves that immortality is an existential hell as a brain on a hard drive.  In order to understand these characters and their place in posthuman literature, an examination of the world of science fiction and the subgenre of cyberpunk will explored.  If we are to understand Gibson’s novel, our reading must be based on the novel’s place in the larger context of literature, in general, and science fiction, in particular.

SF: Science Fiction

Science fiction is a genre open to exploration of all possible futures.  It is a testing ground for authors to understand the implications of technology and work out its breakdowns.  Science fiction is also the genre that explores how the human body interacts with various forms of technology. According to Scott Bukatman, “[T]he body already operates as an interface between mind and experience, but in contemporary SF … the body is also narrated as a site of exploration and transfiguration, through which an interface with an electronically-based postmodern experience is inscribed” (“Postcards” 343).  Science fiction (SF), as Bukatman suggests, is one of the few genres that can fruitfully explore the body’s connection to technology, the interface between body and experience, between being and doing.  From Mary Shelley to H.G. Wells, SF has looked at how technology can improve the human body or be a troublesome element in human evolution.  SF has actively changed the way people look at space, the future, and technology.  Cyberpunk—a subgenre of SF—is in particular concerned with technology and the body.


Cyberpunk emerged in the 1980s with the star of the movement being William Gibson.  Cyber was used to denote the subgenre’s obsession with computers and technology, while punk was taken from the popular underground music that drew rebellious teens into trashy dance clubs.  As Istvan Csicsery-Ronay states in his article “Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism,” “‘Cyber/punk’— [is] the ideal postmodern couple: a machine philosophy that can create the world in its own image and a self-mutilating freedom, that is that image snarling back” (270).  The image presents a strange combination; imagine Billy Idol at the keyboard of an Apple II.  Some claim that only Gibson’s work really formed the cornerstone of the cyberpunk literary movement, with Neuromancer being his crowning achievement.  In Technophobia!: Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology, Daniel Dinello writes, “Neuromancer—which won the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards—helped invent the language of the future and sparked the cyberpunk movement” (159).  For a brief, shining moment, cyberpunk was the cool new subgenre, but with the forward movement of technology, it faded.  By the 1990s other SF subgenres took its place.

Science fiction and its subgenres often address the future of technology.  Cyberpunk, according to Csicsery-Ronay, “has going for it is a rich thesaurus of metaphors linking the organic and the electronic” (274).  Neuromancer is an example of this as people jack into computers using electronic nodes, and many characters are seen with some form of technology modifying their body, i.e. Molly’s razorgirl fingernails.  Csicsery-Ronay goes on to say, “Cyberpunk is fundamentally ambivalent about the breakdown of the distinctions between human and machine, between personal consciousness and machine consciousness” (275).  This ambivalence can be seen in the way Case describes the matrix, calling it a “consensual hallucination” or the character of Dixie, a human brain on a hard drive (Gibson 5).  Where the mind and the computer meet is a space that is unknown and could be imagined as exhilarating or dangerous.

In this way, cyberpunk couples well with posthumanism.  This subgenre of SF asks questions concerning the place of the human body in the realm of technology.  As Dinello explains,

Reflecting the dawn of a new posthuman era of ubiquitous, autonomous, and intimate technology, cyberpunk articulated an intoxicating, liberating, and frightening vision of artificial intelligence, genetic manipulation, electronic and biological viruses, and brain-computer interface implants.  With amoral anti-heroes entangled in secret webs of power, cyberpunk dramatized the challenge of posthuman survival in the face of global corporate control, omniscient surveillance, and technological onslaught. (159)

Much like the best fiction, Gibson’s novel tapped into a world that could be a possible future.  The globalization of corporations, the surveillance state, and the constant distractions of technology have all come to pass and much more as predicted by Gibson.  The modern reader is not unfamiliar with Case’s fast-paced technological realm; it is a mirror that reflects our postmodern capitalist world filled with Google and Facebook.

The individual self and technology collapse together in cyberpunk and in Neuromancer in particular.  This collapse gestures at the theory of the posthuman.  As Bukatman summarizes, “The posthuman solar system is a comic-book world of infinite possibilities and cyborg multiplicities, defined in and through the technologies that now construct our experiences and therefore our selves” (“Postcards” 355).  Both cyberpunk and posthumanism meditate on the mingling of the human and technology; cyberpunk looks at a fictional future to understand the present, while posthumanist theory considers the present and its effect on the future.

The site of Bukatman’s “infinite possibilities and cyborg multiplicities” is the body, whether human or something else.  Neuromancer shows characters with a pink prosthetic limb, razors for fingernails, and clones.  In the novel, the main character refers to his body as meat.  This gory image signals the separation of the body (meat) from the conscious mind.  As Stephen Dougherty in his article “The Biopolitics of the Killer Virus Novel” notes, “[T]he meat-body trope is best understood as part of an ascetic strategy of bodily disavowal in cyberpunk” (6).  Gibson moves away from embodiment and the previous connectedness of mind and body and into a realm of disembodied minds and meat prisons.  Bodies are clay to be molded to one’s desires.  Bodies are used and cast away, but bodies are still the focus, even without the physical form present.  Even a disembodied character such as Dixie is exceptional because of his lack of body.  The line between body and mind is blurred by technology and the modification of the body.

The posthumanist idea of the body is present and center in Gibson’s novel.  Bodies are the masses, lights in the matrix, while individual bodies are used and wasted.  As Timo Siivonen states in “Cyborgs and Generic Oxymorons: The Body and Technology in William Gibson’s Cyberspace Trilogy,” “Traditional notions of the human body as a discrete and clearly delineated unit dissolve and the focus shifts to aspects that posit the body in relation to its environment and other bodies.  What is important is the ‘connectedness’ of the body and the subject” (227).  In the multicultural mega-capitalist world of Neuromancer, few individuals seem to exist.  People are bought and sold.  Case does not notice people on the streets but rather fields of data and business being done.  Everything becomes technology, and people become faceless.

In Neuromancer, the natural world is seen through a lens of technology.  Claire Sponsler, in her article “Cyberpunk and the Dilemmas of Postmodern Narrative: The Example of William Gibson,” notes, “[T]he natural world … is refigured as technological, cybernetic, and machinelike.  Trees, sky, plants, animals, even humans are identified, described, and apprehended only through the language and images of technology, which provides the dominant paradigm for the mediation of reality” (628).  The opening line of the novel, “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” signals this breakdown of the natural into the technological (Gibson 3).  Case, the main character, sees the world as if he were inside a computer program.  Case’s only point of reference is the matrix.

Case: Meat vs. Matrix

In many ways, Case is a standard character of the cyberpunk SF subgenre.  In her article “(En)gendering Artificial Intelligence in Cyberspace,” Sabine Heuser describes the average cyberpunk main character as “a young white male versed in the hard-boiled lingo of the hacker underworld…  [H]e lives for the very exploration of cyberspace, the matrix, the latest final frontier” (131).  This is also how one could describe the character of Case.  He is a middle class white male with an addiction to drugs and cyberspace.

Case, a “cyberspace cowboy,” desires to jack back into the matrix—using electrodes that attach to his head to enter cyberspace—when we first meet the character in Chiba City.  He experiences jacking in as a form of addiction.  He craves it.  Gibson writes, “[Case had] operated on an almost permanent adrenaline high, a byproduct of youth and proficiency, jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix” (5).  What Case yearns for is to be a disembodied consciousness surfing a proto-Internet.  His ultimate fantasy, something he dreams about at night, is to be beyond his body.  He longs to be disembodied.  This is an extreme form of techno-fetishism or “technolust,” to borrow a term from Wired magazine (qtd. in Fernbach 234).  According to Urban Dictionary, technolust is defined as “[t]he constant desire to have the newest, flashiest, fastest, shiniest gadget available” (“Technolust”).  William Gibson predicted modern technolust, and he did it decades before the rise of smart phones and the high connectivity of the Internet.

The character of Case sees his body as independent from his mind.  He wishes to become a posthuman body.  N. Katherine Hayles, in How We Became Posthuman, describes the posthuman as an environment where “there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals” (3).  The boundaries between human and machine are blurred in the posthuman.  Once Case achieves his goal of jacking back into the matrix, he leaves his human body and moves into a computer, making him into a machine with a human mind.  But what frustrates Case is that the human meat remains; the separation from his body is never fully complete.  His meat prison demands food and shelter, and it functions like any other body, which includes the need to urinate.  Case considers these basic functions as distractions from his prized matrix.  He wants to escape his meat body.

Case’s desire to leave his human body is coupled with his technolust to become part of cyberspace.  As Hayles explains, “Existing in the nonmaterial space of computer simulation, cyberspace defines a regime of representation within which pattern is the essential reality, presence an optical illusion” (36).  To put it another way, Case wishes to trade his body of genetically coded DNA for the non-body of an information-coded avatar.  He even goes about his day, replacing real life with the matrix: “Because, in some weird and very approximate way, it was like a run in the matrix.  Get just wasted enough, find yourself in some desperate but strangely arbitrary kind of trouble, and it was possible to see Ninsei as a field of data, the way the matrix had once reminded him of proteins liking to distinguish cell specialties” (Gibson 16).  High on drugs, walking through the streets and back ways of Chiba City, Case cannot help but connect his physical experience to that of the matrix.  He has replaced the proteins he once imagined with data fields, connecting natural life and the matrix in his mind.

Technolust is not the only thing that plagues Case.  He is also physically addicted to drugs.  “Case washed down the night’s first pill with a double espresso.  It was a flat pink octagon, a potent species of Brazilian dex” (Gibson 7).  Designer drugs fill the pages of Neuromancer.  Although it may seem like a contradiction, Case is clearly addicted to these substances on top of his technolust.  Addiction is defined by Oxford’s Concise Medical Dictionary as

[A] state of dependence produced either by the habitual taking of drugs or by regularly engaging in certain activities (e.g. gambling). People can develop physical and psychological symptoms of dependence, which include a strong desire to take the substance or exercise the behavior … social and mental preoccupation with substance use or the given behaviour, and persistent use despite harmful consequences. (“Addiction”)

Case can never match the excitement of the first dose, whether it is a drug or the matrix.  His technolust is an addiction, a fetishism of technology.  Case even has the personality of an addict.  He is selfish, untrustworthy, and paranoid.  His mind may be addicted to cyberspace, but his meat body is chasing the high of powerful drugs.

Drugs may take Case’s mind off his loss of the matrix in the beginning of the novel, but the drugs do not last for long and he returns to his technolust for the matrix.  In “Transcendence Through Detournement in William Gibson’s Neuromancer,” Glenn Grant explains, “[D]rugs cannot duplicate the disembodiment of cyberspace, which is the freedom [Case] craves; the encumbrance of ‘the meat,’ his ‘case’ of flesh, leaves him with only his self-loathing.  Death is the last remaining escape hatch” (41-42).  Case’s ultimate desire is release from his body and therefore from his technolust and addiction to drugs.

Case wants to become an avatar in the matrix, a disembodied entity inside a computer.  He lives for “the bodiless exultation of cyberspace” (Gibson 6).  This desire for bodiless-ness is akin to death.  In his article “The Posthuman Future of Man: Anthropocentrism and the Other of Technology in Anglo-American Science Fiction,” Ralph Pordnik explains, “[Case] wishes to return to a previous state of inanimateness, of perfection in death or nonexistence.  He seeks a final unity with the other of the machine, with the transparent ideality and entirety it connotes” (151).  Pordnik suggests that Case’s wish to be disembodies is the same as wanting to die.  Case wants not to be in the matrix but to become it.  No one in the novel reaches this point, although the disembodied Dixie is the closest.  Pordnik seems to suggest that Case basically wants to be a disembodied mind, much like the artificial intelligence units Wintermute and Neuromancer.  There is one flaw in this argument: Case decides to go back to his body and not remain on the beach with Linda Lee, a construct created by the artificial intelligence Neuromancer.  Case could have stayed jacked in, letting his physical body waste away, but he finishes the mission of merging Wintermute and Neuromancer.

However, Pordnik is correct that Case is suicidal at the beginning of the novel.  As Molly explains to him, “You’re suicidal, Case.  The model gives you a month on the outside” (Gibson 29).  Molly is referencing a computer model based on Case’s behavior.  Without the matrix, Case is barely able to live.  As an addict, he does not do well with withdrawal.  Wintermute, via Armitage, has Case’s blood and liver replaced, making him “incapable of getting off on amphetamine or cocaine” (Gibson 36).  Case can no longer replace his technolust for the matrix with drugs and nearly goes insane for the week that he has to wait before he can jack back into the matrix.  “Seven days and he’d jack in.  If he closed his eyes now, he’d see the matrix” (Gibson 37).  Case is so engulfed by his technolust that he even relates having sex with Molly to the matrix, “[H]is orgasm flaring blue in a timeless space, a vastness like the matrix, where the faces of shredded and blown away down hurricane corridors, and her inner thighs were strong and wet against his hips” (Gibson 33).  Case only has the matrix on his mind.

Case as a character appears to be a warning for Gibson’s readers: beware the technolust.  Case’s addictions and desire to be disembodied are a response to the high connectivity of his environment in Gibson’s posthuman future.  As Dinello states,

The rejection of the body and the addiction to cyberspace … reflect the corruption of natural sensory perception and real experience in this posthuman world.  As cyberspace provides a powerful alternative to the natural environment, the technology of ‘simstim’—simulated stimulation—provides an alternative to living life, to feeling anything authentic. (160)

Case does not experience the world for himself but through his connection to Molly with the simstim.  He does not function well in the real world but he navigates cyberspace like an expert.  Case needs another person’s body—Molly’s—to experience the real world outside of the matrix.

The lack of connection between humans, embodied or otherwise, is a core theme in Neuromancer.  Many of the characters are plugged into their own little world, without much care for others.  As Dinello points out, “Neuromancer’s posthuman future abandons human-to-human connection.  Personal relationships and emotional involvement must be avoided because no one can be trusted.  Paranoia, selfishness, greed, and a lack of empathy afflict most people.  This state of human alienation is reflected in the addiction to cyberspace, simstims, and bionics” (161).  Humans no longer seem to understand one another.  Even the act of sex, which is the closest two people can be together physically, is not intimate but mechanical in Neuromancer.  This posthuman world does not seem like a pleasant future and Case’s desire to escape into the matrix or drugs is how he tries to cope with his feelings of desperation.  Case is surrounded by people but still seems alone.

Molly: Surrender Gender and Kill

The character of Molly is an example of what Donna Haraway calls a cyborg.  According to Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” “A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (291).  Molly fits this description well as her organic body is technologically modified in many ways.  Her hands are altered, as Gibson writes, “She held out her hands, palms up, the white fingers slightly spread, and with a barely audible click, ten double-edged, four-centimeter scalpel blades slid from their housings beneath the burgundy nails” (25).  And her eyes have “glasses … surgically inset, sealing her sockets” (Gibson 24).  Molly’s modified body allows her to channel her desire to fight into a paying job, as an employee of Wintermute.  She uses her body as a weapon.

Molly is a hired assassin and a former prostitute, with her razors allowing her to charge top dollar for her services.  Molly is a killer cyborg, “the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism” (Haraway 293).  Molly is seen as a killer.  Even sex for her is aggressive and violent.  Gibson writes, “She slid down around him and his back arched convulsively.  She rode him that way, impaling herself, slipping down on him again and again” (33, my emphasis).  Despite being a woman and gendered female, Molly’s sexuality is replaced with violence.  As Haraway declares, “The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world” (292).  Molly’s gender is removed for most of the Gibson’s novel.  Her one moment of sex is described in violent terms, as being impaled.  For other characters in the novel, Molly is a tool to be wielded; her personality and gender are disregarded.

Molly’s body is often not her own.  Besides denying any gender and creating an androgynous character, Molly is also seen as barely human.  As Melissa Colleen Stevenson writes in her article, “Trying to Plug In: Posthuman Cyborgs and the Search for Connection,” “Humanity, much like gender, is a doing, not a being” (101).  Gibson erases Molly’s gender and humanity; she is seen as an assassin above all, not as a human being.  “Her clothes were black, the heels of black boots deep in the temperfoam [bed]…  The silver lenses seemed to grow from smooth pale skin above her cheekbones, framed by dark hair cut in a rough shag” (Gibson 24).  Jason Haslam[1] has noted Molly’s resemblance to another famous cyberpunk character, Trinity from The Matrix series.  Both women are counterparts for the male protagonist.  Ross Farnell notes the tendency to create characters—Trinity and Molly—who adhere to “old ‘norms’ in new digital clothes” (qtd. in Haslam 94).  Despite her function as a cyborg, Molly, like her fellow cyborg Trinity, is cast as the female love interest, downplaying her role as an individual.  Both women are sex objects for the male main characters while actual gender or sexual preferences are ignored.  Molly is part of a long line of science fiction female characters that are denied their ability to be feminine.[2]

As Molly tells Case, “I do hurt people sometimes, Case.  I guess it’s just the way I’m wired” (Gibson 23).  Molly does not seem to question her nature as a killer cyborg.  She uses her modified body as a weapon.  Molly’s body is also a surrogate body for Case when he plugs in to the simstim system.  Case has a low opinion of using the simstim, calling it “a gratuitous multiplication of flesh input” (Gibson 55).  Case is already disgusted with his own flesh, but in order to complete the mission, he jacks into Molly’s body using the simstim.  Case describes the experience as jarring, “The abrupt jolt into other flesh” (Gibson 56).  Everything that Molly feels, including injuries, passes through the simstim into Case’s nervous system.  Molly becomes an avatar in the real world for Case.  Molly and Case blur boundaries between self and other, male and female, and technology and bodies.

Molly’s body, as a modified cyborg body, is a mix of organic and artificial.  This blending results in what Sponsler calls, “a decentering of the human subject … the hallmark of the postmodern condition” (631).  In the postmodern cyberpunk world of Neuromancer, bodies are no longer mere markers of gender or self.  Modified bodies dissolve the binaries previously in place, and decenter the self in a world of cyborgs and posthuman bodies.  Sponsler explains, “Identity in this world is cast onto the surface of the body, but where the body can be so readily redesigned and customized, conventional notions of individuality and selfhood become meaningless” (632).  With the simstim, one’s identity is indistinct from another’s as identities and selves collapse in on each other.  As Sponsler notes, “[O]ne’s own experiences are no longer just one’s own and offer no mechanism for self-determination or self-definition” (633).  With the example of Molly and Case sharing a body, where does Molly as an individual person end and where does Case as body-observer begin?  The novel is not clear about this.  When Case is inside Molly’s body, he feels the same physical sensations as Molly.  With the simstim, the only boundary between Molly and Case is the physicality of bodies in space.

The character of Molly, as a cyborg, functions as a prosthesis in multiple ways.  She acts an extension for Case into the real world when they are breaking into places.  Molly is a double-prostheses as her own human body is modified, as discussed above.  The erasure of her gender and identity create a character that is more machine than human being.  Her ability to kill gives her some freedom but she is still used by Wintermute and Armitage.  In all of these ways, Molly is a blank slate, a figure to be modified and manipulated.  She is an appendage of a larger body, the Wintermute construct.  She has been programed to achieve Wintermute’s goal and nearly dies in the process.  Molly lives for the thrill of the kill, and any attributes her character may possess beyond that seem immaterial to both the characters and William Gibson.

Dixie: No Body, No Problem?

Disembodiment may be the goal for the character of Case, but it is reality for Dixie Flatline.  Dixie is a brain on a hard drive that Molly steals from Sense/Net.  As Dinello notes, “Despite the flesh-trashing in Gibson’s work, permanent disembodiment often comes off as unpleasant…  In Neuromancer, Dixie Flatline exists only as a personality pattern stored as data within a computer” (160).  Dixie is no longer a person; he is a brain pattern on a hard drive.  His human body was flat lined when he attempted to run some risky software.  He used to be McCoy Pauly but he is now “the Lazarus of cyberspace,” Dixie Flatline (Gibson 78).  Dixie is an immortal now, but he does not seem to think that is a good thing.  Grant suggests that it is not: “Experience leaves permanent memory-traces which define personality.  If unchangeable, this means a kind of static immortality … without any means of growth, escape, freedom” (47).  In other words, Dixie may live forever, but he will never change or grow.  Immortality is a static, bodiless existence in Neuromancer, a world where one is are no longer human.  This sounds more like a nightmare than a dream.

Dixie, as a disembodied personality, has no human ties or needs.  He no longer lives in his meat body unlike Case.  As Pordnik points out, “The biological brain, copied into the computer system of files, is no longer in need of its original medium or material framework… mind has been separated from body, unfastening all its former ties to physical embodiment” (149).  Dixie is a downloaded consciousness, an uncanny resemblance of a human being.  His laugh is unsettling and haunting to Case’s ears.  The image of a disembodied self is uncomfortable to Case and the reader because Dixie is not really human, not anymore.  The man Case once knew is gone; the Dixie construct is merely an echo of that man.

Dixie, as a brain downloaded onto a computer, is the ultimate avatar for the matrix.  He is the culmination of humankind’s desire for immortality, something scientists have strived for as a way of overcoming the defects of the human body.  Pordnik explains, “The unifying vision of the human brain or mind as part of a simulated, virtual reality world, gaining the ultimate privilege of immortality, has finally taken over the reins” (149).  Dixie is the disembodied posthuman.  He is a series of patterns on a screen.  He seems to have transcended his human body.  As Hayles notes, “The contrast between the body’s limitations and cyberspace’s power highlights the advantage of pattern over presence” (36).  If Dixie is the ultimate desire of the posthuman, why does he want to be erased?  Dixie asks Case for one favor: “‘Do me a favor, boy.’ ‘What’s that, Dix?’ ‘This scam of yours, when it’s over, you erase this goddamn thing’” (106).

Part of what makes people human is their ability to adapt and change.  Dixie can no longer do that, as Grant suggests, because he is now a static figure on a hard drive.

Having achieved the goal of immortality on a hard drive, Dixie is unhappy with his state of being.  He may have cast off what P. Chad Barnett calls, “burdensome wetware” for a new, digital being, but he does not want to be the Lazarus of cyberspace after he helps Case with their mission (qtd. in Haslam 93).  All the markers that denote a human are missing from Dixie because he does not have a body to mark.   As Sponsler notes, “Even death, that one event beyond all others that we might assume would put its signature on the individual, does not serve to define human identity” (633).  In death, Dixie is not allowed to die.  His body is gone but his mind is stuck on a hard drive.  He is even less of a human being than the AI units as Dixie does not have freedom of movement or influence beyond cyberspace.

Dixie is a memory, but in the world of SF, as Bukatman points out, memory is a commodity.  Bukatman writes, “In an era of bodily transformation, change, and dissolution, the mere (and ahistorical) fact of physical existence is no longer a guarantor of truth or selfhood” (Terminal 248-49).  Without a physical body, Dixie’s existence is in question.  He has no control over his physical hard drive; Molly must break into Sense/Net to steal it, and Case must access the drive in order to talk to Dixie.  Dixie as a construct has no input on the physical world if he is not plugged into a computer.   He has no agency if he has no body to have agency over.

The construct formally known as McCoy is merely a pattern that can be erased without his consent or knowledge.  He is a series of ones and zeros, much like a sequence of DNA.  As Sponlser points out, “In the world of cyberpunk, as the science of genetics has already suggested to us, humans are but machines directed by coded messages unknowable to consciousness, and another person’s memory tapes can be played by anyone’s machine” (634).  Dixie could be mobile and exist beyond his hard drive if he had a robot body but Gibson does not include that in his novel.  Instead, Dixie aids Case on his mission to unite Wintermute and Neuromancer and then Dixie is erased.  Without a physical body to protect and hold his memories, Dixie will dissolve into cyberspace, leaving no trace.

The artificial intelligence units echo Dixie in many ways.  All are disembodied minds on a drive, the only difference being that Dixie’s patterns were once held inside an organic casing, a human body.  The line between human and machine is once again blurred when it comes to the AIs and Dixie.  As Sponsler notes,

[T]he narrative makes quite clear that AIs are far more than mere machines and in fact operate in ways that are coded as strikingly human.  They take on human appearance and exhibit what seem to be human desires and motivations…  [E]ntities like Wintermute and Neuromancer, though artificial intelligences, aspire to be free, autonomous individuals complete with personalities (635).

Wintermute and Neuromancer desire to be actual beings, while Dixie, who was once a flesh and blood human, desires that his patterns cease.  The AIs appear to be more human without ever having a body than Dixie is since Case knew the human that this brain on a hard drive was once.

Brain Sex and Gender

Much of the emphasis of Neuromancer is embodiment or disembodiment.  The disembodiment or modified bodies of the characters raise the question of gender markers on a body that is no longer present.  When speaking of cyberpunk cinema and the new millennium, Michelle Chilcoat states, “[T]he projected obsolescence of the body also implied the loss of biological matter, traditionally viewed as the immovable or fixed material upon which to construct gender differences and inscribe male privilege.  The dislocation of the body created anxiety…” (156).  Case disregards his meat body but remains gendered as male even when he is inside Molly’s body via the simstim system.  Without his body, he should lose all labels and his gender should be in question, but Gibson does not raise this point.  Donna Haraway and Judith Butler, among others, have noted the construction of gender.  Judith Butler points out, without a body “there will be no way to understand ‘gender’ as a cultural construct which is imposed upon the surface of matter, understood either as ‘the body’ or its given sex” (qtd. in Chilcoat 158).  The brain, despite what some may think, does not have a sex; it is not wired as male or female.

Some scientists—beginning with Anne Moir and David Jessel’s Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Men and Women—desire to make the brain fit into the gender binary that is already a social construct, not a biological one.  These brain sex studies seek to adhere to gender binaries when examining the functions of the brain.  As Chilcoat explains, “Cyberpunk cinema [and literature] and brain sex studies intersect on … conservative grounds largely out of anxiety over the shift from the industrial to the information age with its lure of disembodied experience” (157).  Characters in Neuromancer move beyond their bodies, notable Case and Dixie.  Both of these characters have male body—we are meant to assume—but that does not make their brains male.  Dixie remains male in the story despite being a disembodied brain on a hard drive.  Case explores the world through Molly’s body, but does not leave his maleness behind with his body.

Even as a disembodied brain, the mind may picture itself as gendered one way or the other.  As Timo Siivonven notes, “In discarding the body, the rational mind produces a new meaning to the system of sexual difference embedded in the body.  Here the body is a representation which may be molded, if necessary, into any form—also into a form with no more gender” (238).  A physical body may have gendered plumbing but a brain has not such appendages.  Dixie, for example, remains a male character because his disembodied brain thinks of itself as male.

Gender is a complex topic that deserves its own lengthy essay.  However, it is important to note not just the female character’s relationship to gender but the male characters as well.  Molly sells her body as a weapon or a meat puppet and this part of the novel is currently not fully addressed in the scholarship.  The gender construct falls apart when reader against changeable posthuman bodies.


Bodies, as shown above, are the locus of the novel Neuromancer.  The SF subgenre of cyberpunk is a way of addressing these bodies in flux.  The role of the body effects every character whether they are imprisoned by their body like Case, a modified body like Molly, or a disembodied brain like Dixie.  Gibson creates the character of Dixie to counter Case and show what disembodiment would really be, a static, unchanging hell.  Dixie is a warning to Case that says be careful what you wish for.  On the other hand, Molly lives for the excitement of violence.  She is a cyborg killer and proud of it.  She has modified her body in order to survive the postmodern capitalist world, where she was once a prostitute.  Molly, unlike Case, lives in her body.  She even shares it with Case on occasion, during sex and using the simstim.  Molly is the main character who enjoys the world of the flesh, even if she has to modify her own body to accomplish her goals as a cyborg and killer.

Case and others may want to overcome their meat bodies but even when this is achieved, the result is a creepy echo of a human on a hard drive.  More technology does not equal more happiness, as Gibson shows his readers.  Technological advances may be outpacing the ability of the human to cope with said technology.  Modern readers may recognize Gibson’s highly technical and capitalist world as our own but are we ready to give up our bodies to live forever on a hard drive?  Gibson spins out this question using Dixie as an example of the horror of living a disembodied life.  However much Case may dislike his meat body, living without a body is seen as a horrible existence.

Reading Gibson’s novel with the focus on posthuman bodies helps the reader understand their own embodiment as well as their body’s relationship to technology.  Although a modern computer user is not physically jacked into the matrix, there is a growing distance between the body and the mind.  Hayles shock at the idea of downloading the human brain onto a computer may one day be real but we must realize that this form of life is not really living.  However much society may shame our bodies, we exist without these cases of flesh and bone, for better or worse.  Our very status as human beings is at stake if technology reaches the point that a person becomes merely flickering patterns on a screen.

Works Cited

“Addiction.”  Oxford Concise Medical Dictionary.  9th  ed.  2015.  Oxford Reference. Web.  16 Apr. 2016.

Bukatman, Scott.  “Postcards from the Posthuman Solar System (Cartes du système solaire posthumain).”  Science Fiction Studies 18.3 (1991): 343-57.  JSTOR.  Web.  3 Feb. 2016.

——-.  Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction.  Durham: Duke UP, 1993.  Print.

Chilcoat, Michelle.  “Brain Sex, Cyberpunk Cinema, Feminism, and the Dis/Location of Heterosexuality.”  NWSA Journal 16.2 (2004): 156-76.  JSTOR.  Web.  12 Mar. 2016.

Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan.  “Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism.”  Mississippi Review 16.2 (1988): 266-78.  JSTOR.  Web.  3 Feb. 2016.

Dinello, Daniel.  Technophobia!: Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology.  Austin: U of Texas P, 2005.  Print.

Dougherty, Stephen.  “The Biopolitics of the Killer Virus Novel.”  Cultural Critique 48.1 (2001): 1-29.  JSTOR.  Web.  2 Mar. 2016.

Fernbach, Amanda.  “The Fetishization of Masculinity in Science Fiction: The Cyborg and the Console Cowboy.”  Science Fiction Studies 27.2 (2000): 234-55.  JSTOR.  Web.  2 Mar. 2016.

Gibson, William.  Neuromancer.  New York: Ace Books, 1984.  Print.

Grant, Glenn.  “Transcendence Through Detournement in William Gibson’s Neuromancer.”  Science Fiction Studies 17.1 (1990): 41-49.  JSTOR.  Web.  10 Apr. 2016.

Haraway, Donna.  “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.”  The Cybercultures Reader. Ed. David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy.  London: Routledge, 2000.  Print.

Haslam, Jason.  “Coded Discourse: Romancing the (Electronic) Shadow in The Matrix.”  College Literature 32.3 (2005): 92-115.  JSTOR.  Web.  2 Mar. 2016.

Hayles, N. Katherine.  How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.  Print.

Heuser, Sabine.  “(En)gendering Artificial Intelligence in Cyberspace.”  The Yearbook of English Studies 37.2 (2007): 129-45.  JSTOR.  Web.  12 Mar. 2016.

Pordzik, Ralph.  “The Posthuman Future of Man: Anthropocentrism and the Other of Technology in Anglo-American Science Fiction.”  Utopian Studies 23.1 (2012): 142-61.  Academic Search Premier.  Web. 4 Mar. 2016.

Siivonen, Timo.  “Cyborgs and Generic Oxymorons: The Body and Technology in William Gibson’s Cyberspace Trilogy.”  Science Fiction Studies 23.2 (1996): 227-44.  JSTOR.  Web.  2 Mar. 2016.

Sponsler, Claire.  “Cyberpunk and the Dilemmas of Postmodern Narrative: The Example of William Gibson.”  Contemporary Literature 33.4 (1992): 625-44.  JSTOR.  Web.  2 Mar. 2016.

Stevenson, Melissa Colleen.  “Trying to Plug In: Posthuman Cyborgs and the Search for Connection.”  Science Fiction Studies 34.1 (2007): 87-105.  JSTOR.  Web.  2 Mar. 2016.

“Technolust.”  Urban Dictionary.  Urban Dictionary, 2016.  Web.  1 May 2016.

[1] Haslam explores The Matrix series and the desire to whitewash science fiction characters.

[2] Besides Trinity from The Matrix, another prime example is Ripley from Alien or Sarah Conner from The Terminator.  All are strong characters, but their genders are erased.


“The woman plays to-day”: The First English Actresses

When William Shakespeare penned, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players,” could he have imagined both sexes acting on the stage.[1]  In his day, all actors on the English stage were men; all roles—despite being male or female—were played by men and young boys.  During the reign of Elizabeth I, no woman is known to have graced the public stage.  It was not until the restoration of the Stuart family to the throne, the crowning of King Charles II, did the first actresses of Britain make their debut.  This is the tale of the first women to take the public stage in England.


King Charles II of Great Britain

The British were late to the trend of female actors sweeping the Continent more than one hundred years before the rule of Charles II in 1660.  The notion of female actors may stem from the Renaissance, as new ideas flowed from Italy, beginning in the fourteenth century.  The first performance that would influence European stages took place in September of 1568, as the Cardinal of Ferrara entertained Henry II, the king of France, and his wife, Catherine de Medici.  Lasting several days, “its principal feature was a tragic comedy performed by Italian actors and actresses,” marking the first time a woman took the stage in France.[2]  It was not long before a French woman became an actress.  Marie Vernier appeared in the early seventeenth century, which resulted in “the establishment of a regular theater, the first one in France, managed by her husband and herself.”[3]  French actresses would later bring mixed responses when they performed in England.

It should be noted that two factors prevent the pinpointing of a singular woman who paved the way to the English stage.  The first is the fact that news and information did not travel as far and wide as it does now, the knowledge of events was limited by space, time, and—possibly—secrecy.  The other factor that muddles the case results when defining the exact moment women became actresses.  Did the first woman to perform on a stage, private or public, become the first English actress?  Do the entertainments at the royal court, known to feature women—often ladies of noble standing—count as acting or performing?  To resolve both of these complex factors, the few women mentioned below all helped to legitimize the profession of the actress.

Actress George Anne Bellamy wrote in her autobiography, “Theatrical revolutions are as frequent, and owe their rise to the same principles, as those in the political world. —Pique, resentment, ambition, or interest, which ever motive happens to preponderate, brings them about.”[4]  The revolution of female actors legally allowed on London stages fulfills her description.  History has offered two reasons for King Charles II’s granting of  the charter that ended the tradition of young men dressing in women’s clothing to play female roles on the stage.  Robert Cohen explains, “Charles’s reasoning was remarkably curious: it was to prevent the ‘immorality’ of men playing ‘scurrilous’ roles in women’s costume.”[5]  The official reason given was the charter would quell the remaining Puritan unrest by appealing to their objection of male actors dressing up in women’s clothes.  As Rosamond Gilder observed, the more rational motivation is “he took steps to provide for his own and incidentally for [his subjects] amusement by the ordering and regulation of the stage.”[6]  Despite the reasons, the charter ushered in a new era of the English theatre, the Restoration.

The appearance of female actors “made possible the use of female sexuality not simply as discourse but as genuine spectacle, and playwrights and theater managers were quick to take advantage of this new opportunity,” explains Jean I. Marsden.[7]  As with any novelty, interest of the public was piqued, and veteran, as well as novice audiences, queued up to see this new “spectacle” of the London stage.  Playwrights wrote works that exploited the new actresses or catered to the curious audiences.  Men now had a physical reason to see a play, as they gazed at real women in roles both new and old.  Cibber Colley—actor, theater manager, and playwright—commented in his autobiography, “the additional Objects then of real, beautiful Women, could not but draw a proportion of new Admirers to the Theatre.”[8]  Not only men benefited; women also gained a fresh connection to the stage as they watched women like themselves triumph, suffer, or outwit—such could inspire the female audience.  Some plays were also used as cautionary tales aimed directly at the female viewers, both blatant and subtle.

However, old reputations continued to cling to both the stage and the career of acting.  As McPherson points out, “[P]layhouses throughout the eighteenth century retained their stigma as protean, morally suspect locales, associated with prostitution, sexual license, and public disorder.”[9]  It was not uncommon for men about town to visit the dressing rooms after the stage current fell.  Actors were placed at the bottom of the social ladder, in the same category as vagabonds, beggars, and streetwalkers. Frances M. Kavenik provides some insight as to why actors would endure this: “Though they were virtually indentured servants, liable to fines for nonperformance … actors could make good money compared with that payable at comparable ‘trades.’”[10]

For female actors, acting was tantamount to prostitution in the eyes of reformers.  Until the Victorian era, British women often conformed to the social norm of commitment to their feminine duties, such as cooking, raising the children, and caring for her husband.  Her presence in society was usually chaperoned by a respectable male, while her knowledge of and expose to the world remained in check.  This was the general idea of a woman’s place and vocation, but many women rightfully needed more and rebelled, to the horror of ruling class men and women.  By stepping on the stage, women became part of society, out in the open for every eye to see.  The art of acting extended this sensation as she bared herself in a drama or invited the audience to laugh in a comedy.  By acting, a woman sold her emotions, not just a view of her (clothed) body to the paying spectators.

In lieu of the backlash from some of the British public, notably men of the Church, perhaps the introduction of actresses was overdue.  Many countries on the Continent had already established mixed male and female troupes a century before the British Restoration.  To quote the legendary Dr. Samuel Johnson, “The stage but echoes back the public voice. / The drama’s laws the drama’s patrons give, / For we, who live to please, must please to live.”[11]  If the “public voice” had been only negative, the trend would have faded out.  Clearly the majority of London enjoyed the new phenomena of real women on stage.

The tools of acting—the voice and the body—have always been present, “but in the relatively small, thrust stage theaters of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, [the actor] could use facial expressions or even the eyes more advantageously than in later, larger theaters.”[12]  This intimate space meant the audience could see the actors in detail, the thrust form of the stage placing the action closer to the seating than other types of stage.  The acting of the Restoration would have been more detailed than before but likely far from the form of natural acting of recent eras.  The Restoration stage seems to have favored beauty above talent.  “Female actors were often chosen as much for their physical attributes, such as good legs to titillate the audience in ‘breeches parts,’ as for their acting.  They also had to be multitalented in ways that male actors did not,” such as singing and dancing.[13]

Historically, the first British woman to perform for a private, paying audience took place at a performance conducted in secret, during the closure of all playhouses in the Commonwealth period.  “By edict of Parliament, the theaters were closed in 1642, such entertainments being anathema to the Puritan government”[14] but this did not stop plays and performances from taking place.  During the Commonwealth, “well-to-do patrons of the theatrical profession hosted secretive performances in their own homes to which only trusted friends were invited.”[15]  Such shows were illegal, so other legal restrictions were happily ignored as well, including “the law that forbade women from acting.”[16]

The most significant performance presented in such private establishments was the 1656 “spectacle” designed by Sir William Davenant, The Siege of Rhodes.[17]  Taking place at Rutland House, this production was the debut of Mrs. Edward Coleman, one of the first native English actress.  She was known as “a highly respectable married woman” who played the leading female role, Ianthe, “on a small stage in [Davenant’s] stately home in front of paying guests.”[18]

Mrs. Edward Coleman’s debut occurred four years before the homecoming of King Charles II, who had spent his exiled years in France.  Charles II was, like many monarchs before him, a fan of the theatre.  Combining these two elements, Martha Fletcher Bellinger remarks, “[I]t was natural, upon the return of the court, that French influence should be felt, particularly in the theater.”[19]  Soon after his homecoming in 1660, “one of Charles II’s first public acts … was to issue two royal patents meant to give their owners exclusive rights to put on theatrical performances in London.”[20] These two troupes were the King’s Company managed by dramatist Thomas Killigrew and the Duke’s Company under the charge of Sir William Davenant, the same man who staged The Siege of Rhodes, with Mrs. Coleman.  The playhouses of London were once again in business.

The same year as the Restoration of King Charles II, a reworked revival of Shakespeare’s Othello played at Vere Street in London, along with a new prologue written by Thomas Jordan.  On December 8, 1660, Jordan’s addition, entitled “A Prologue, to introduce the first Woman that came to act on the Stage, in the Tragedy called the Moor of Venice” began:

I came, unknown to any of the rest,

To tell the news; I saw the lady drest:

The woman plays to-day; mistake me not,

No man in gown, or page in petticoat;[21]

A woman—not a man dressed as a woman—acted the role of Desdemona.  Historians suggest that the actress in question was likely Margaret Hughes.  Either Jordan was unaware of Mrs. Coleman’s earlier performance or he simply avoided the topic.

There is strong evidence that Margaret Hughes was England’s first public actress.  Her career as an actress was short but vital, her backstage life as notorious as any modern performer.  Part of the company of actors managed by Thomas Killigrew, Dr. John Doran ranks her first among the list of important actresses of the Restoration.[22]  Having originated the female version of the role of Desdemona in Othello, she was said to “own” the role.  Samuel Pepys considered Hughes, “A mighty pretty woman and seems, but is not, modest.”[23]  She was thought more for her beauty than her talent as an actress.

After only thirteen years on the boards, Hughes retired in 1673, and quit the City for “a magnificent country house in Hammersmith,” a mistress of Prince Rupert, cousin of King Charles II.[24]  She soon gave birth to a daughter, Ruperta, beloved by her royal father.  Margaret Hughes was revived over three hundred years after her death as a role in the stage play by Jeffrey Hatcher, Stage Beauty, later a film of the same name in 2004, which tells the story of her groundbreaking performance in 1660. [25]

Female actors “came to the profession by various means, usually from fairly respectable families who had fallen on hard times, though Nell Gwyn was a barmaid turned orange girl, operating a concession in the theater.”[26]  Like Margaret Hughes, Ellen “Nell” Gwyn was a member of Killigrew’s troupe, the King’s Company.  “Nell was the crown of them all, winning hearts throughout her jubilant career, beginning in her early girlhood … and ending in her womanhood with that of the king.”[27]  Nell first appeared on stage in 1664 in Sir Robert Howard’s play Indian Emperor; she was only fifteen or seventeen years old.  Though she is remembered in history as King Charles II’s “Protestant whore,” many theatergoers celebrated Nell Gwyn for her roles in comedies.  Samuel Pepys praised her witty comic ability and when she was absent from the stage for the 1667 theatre season, he pitied “the loss of her at the King’s” theatre company.[28]

By 1670, Gwyn’s name no longer appeared in any playbills.  The same year she gave birth to her first son, Charles Beauclere, who was later given the title of Duke of St. Albans by his father, the King.[29]  The descendents of Nell Gwyn carried on the title of Duke into at least the late 1880s.  The orange girl-turned-actress, King’s mistress, and comic jewel of London died in November 1687 of “a fit of apoplexy.”[30]  With her sense of humor and public love, Nell Gwyn was Britain’s first comedic actress.

At least one female actor is known to have avoided the stigma of the acting profession; in fact, her dignity and chastity was hailed throughout London.  Known as the “Romantick Virgin,” Anne Bracegirdle debuted in 1688.[31]  Like other actresses, she was praised for qualities other than her acting.  As Cibber Colley phrased it, “Tho’ she might be said to have been the Universal Passion, and under the highest Temptations, her Constancy in resisting them served but to increase the number of her Admirers.”[32]  Women also admired her virtue, for example, poet Sarah Fyge Egerton celebrated the actress in an ode.  Egerton also saw Bracegirdle’s “virginity as a sign of independence” as she survived and thrived outside the institutions of marriage that had always restricted the mobility of women.  [33]In a time when everyone gossiped about the sexual relations of actors, Bracegirdle became the premiere example of a virtuous actress, a role model for the women of England.

Though attention usually went to Anne Bracegirdle’s chaste nature, she was a dedicated and hard-working actor.  In a career of only nineteen years, she “played some eighty roles” as well as possessed an “impressive soprano voice” that she utilized in “the occasional musical part.”[34]  Her reputation and ability helped give credence to the rise of the female actor.

As male actors could no longer play women, many women, either for their talent or their beauty, quickly filled a vacuum of available roles.  Both Mrs. Coleman and Margaret Hughes laid the groundwork for women to enter into acting, while others rounded out the new field.  Soon other women were listed in playbills, the most notable being Elizabeth Barry, sisters Rebecca and Anne Marshall, and Mrs. Knipp, of the King’s Company; the Duke’s Company featuring Mrs. Davenport, Mrs. Davies, Mrs. Saunderson, and Mrs. Long.

By the eighteenth century, women had a foot in the theatre door.  “The late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were blessed with a long line of male and female actors who became famous, became powerful, became rich,” and eventually respectable professionals.[35]  In the nineteenth century, actresses like Sarah Bernhardt was an international celebrity, known as “the Divine Sarah,” she even made early films when the technology first emerged.  If not for the pioneering of Coleman, Hughes, Gwyn, and Bracegirdle, Sarah Bernhardt may never have reached such celebrity status, if she would have been allowed to act at all.


Sarah Bernhardt

Author Rosamond Gilder suggests that theatre was the perfect venue to display the genius of women.  “Women have risen to greater heights of achievement as actresses than in any other art.”[36]  Writing her book Enter the Actress in 1931, she examined the role of women in the theatre throughout history but also prophesized the future for women of both the stage and screen.  The rise of women in society actually lags their rise in the theatre; Sarah Bernhardt may have been called “Divine,” but she still could not vote like her male colleagues.


Meryl Streep

Female achievement in theatre lagged behind their progress in society as a whole.  Women’s suffrage came after a long battle of words and science, all to convince the population that women were not defective males.  Actresses today have all the freedoms of their male counterparts.  Shakespeare’s world stage now has both men and women players internationally taking part in the art of the theatre and society.  If not for Margaret Hughes or Nell Gwyn, no one would know about Meryl Streep or Angelina Jolie.


Work Cited

[1]William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7.  www.enotes.com/shakespeare-quotes

[2] Helena Modjeska. “Women and the Stage.” The World’s Congress of Representative Women, Ed. May Wright Sewall, (New York: Rand, McNally & Co., 1894), 164-173.

[3] Ibid., 168

[4] Felicity Nussbaum. “‘Real, Beautiful Women’: Actresses and The Rival Queens.” (Duke University Press, 2008.), 138-158. Qtd. George Anne Bellamy, An Apology for the Life (1786).

[5] Robert Cohen. Theatre. 7th ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2006.), 205.

[6] Rosamond Gilder. Enter the Actress: The First Woman in the Theatre. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.), 144.

[7] Jean I. Marsden, Fatal Desire: Women, Sexuality, and the English Stage, 1660-1720 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.), 3.

[8] Felicity Nussbaum. “‘Real, Beautiful Women.’” 138.  Qtd. Colley’s Apology.

[9] Heather McPherson. “Theatrical Riots and Cultural Politics in Eighteenth-Century London.” Eighteenth Century: Theory & Interpretation (Texas Tech University Press) 43, no. 3, 236-252

[10] Frances M. Kavenik, British Drama, 1660-1779: A Critical History (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.), 18.

[11] Ibid., 1

[12] Ibid., 18

[13] Ibid., 18-9

[14] Ibid., 4

[15] Don Gillan. “Leading Ladies.” http://www.stagebeauty.net.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Martha Fletcher Bellinger, A Short History of the Theatre (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1927), 249-59.

[18] Don Gillan. “Leading Ladies.”

[19] Martha Fletcher Bellinger, A Short History of the Theatre.

[20] Frances M. Kavenik, British Drama, 1660-1779, 4.

[21] James Henry Leigh Hunt. The Town: Its Memorable Characters and Events. St Paul’s to St James’s. (London: Unit Library Ltd, 1903.)

[22] John Doran. “Their Majesties’ servants”: or Annals of the English stage, from Thomas Betterton to Edmund Kean. (New York: W. J. Widdleton, Publishers, 1865.), 58.

[23] Ibid., 58.

[24] Rosamond Gilder. Enter the Actress. 168.

[25] Jeffery Hatcher, Stage Beauty, 2004. *His Hellfire Club adaptation is currently in production. Watch with a bottle of Jameson Irish whiskey…

[26] Frances M. Kavenik, British Drama, 1660-1779, 17.

[27] John Doran. “Their Majesties’ servants.” 61.

[28] Ibid., 63

[29] Ibid., 64

[30] Ibid., 65

[31] James Peck. “‘Albion’s ‘Chaste Lucrece’: Chastity, Resistance, and the Glorious Revolution in the Career of Anne Bracegirdle.” Theatre Survey 45, no. 1 (May 2004): 89-113.

[32] Ibid., 90.  Qtd. Colley’s Apology.

[33] Ibid., 90.

[34] Ibid., 89.

[35] Frances M. Kavenik, British Drama, 1660-1779, 17.

[36] Rosamond Gilder. Enter the Actress. xv.

The Playboy Riots: A Challenge to the Imagined Community of Ireland

Early in the twentieth century, the Abbey Theatre was founded in Dublin, Ireland.  The Abbey was brought about by the combined efforts of the Irish National Dramatic Society and the Irish National Theatre Society (INTS).  William Butler Yeats was the first president of the INTS.  The Abbey was sponsored by the English heiress Annie Horniman, “who ‘detested all things Irish’ but was fond of Yeats” (Frazier).  Horniman bought the Hibernian Theatre of Varieties and Mechanics’ Institute on Abbey Street, Dublin, and “let it rent free and fully refurbished to the INTS” (Frazier).  The Abbey Theatre opened in 1904.  The theater was conceived as the first national Irish theatre, where questions of importance to the Irish could be raised and acted out.

The Abbey Theatre was part of the larger Irish Revival.  As Bruce McConachie explains, “Several groups looked to a revival of one or several aspects of Irish culture—its mythic heroes, hardy peasants, Catholic tradition, or its Gaelic language—as the key to eventual national independence” (292).  The independence of Ireland was at stake at the Abbey.  Irish writers and dramatists sought to break away from their imperial bondage by expressing what they believed was the core of Irish culture.  Yeats called for a return of the Muses back to Ireland (Hirsch 1120).  The nation craved literature and drama that was distinctly Irish.

2017-02-25_iri_28840825_I2In January 1907, the Abbey Theatre mounted the first production of John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World.  The play sought to fulfill the promise of the Irish National theatre by creating “an authentic expression of Irish life, myth, poetry, and history” (Leeney).  However, for the audiences of the Abbey, Playboy did not portray what they thought it meant to be Irish.  The performance of Synge’s play led to riots that lasted throughout its brief run.  As Neil Blackadder notes, the actors often could not be heard, the play would be stopped to restore order, and many people in the crowd were arrested (69).  The people of Dublin were outraged.  One Irish citizen called out Synge’s play as “‘a deliberate attack on the national character’” (qtd. in McConachie 296).  The very heart of the Irish national character, the Irish peasant, was at stake for the Playboy rioters.  Synge’s play had criticized the life and image of the Irish peasant, and the Irish middle class people of Dublin would not stand for it.

The Playboy of the Western World features the character Christy Mahon, who arrives at a tavern in County Mayo, in western Ireland, and explains to the locals that he has just killed his father.  The villagers do not turn Christy over to the “peelers,” the English police, but instead they celebrate Christy’s “act of rebellion against an oppressor” and praise him (McConachie 293).  The villagers welcome Christy, and he becomes part of their community.  According to McConachie, however, “[C]omedy turn[s] to grotesquerie at the start of Act 3” (293).  Christy’s “dead” father enters the same tavern in County Mayo, injured but alive.  “Christy’s heroic killing of his father, his youthful rebellion against authoritarian tradition, abruptly lost its glamor” (McConachie 293).  Christy then strives to win back the villagers and a local girl by trying to kill his father again.  It is then that the villagers turn on Christy, tie him up, and “vengefully [torture] him” (McConachie 293).  Christy’s father then returns from the dead for a second time.  Synge’s play ends in “a comic reconciliation between father and son” (McConachie 295).  This is what caused the audiences of the Abbey Theatre to riot in January 1907.

The audiences of Synge’s play felt their national character had been violated.  The playwright had questioned with the character of Christy Mahon, the holiness of the Irish peasant, a modern foundation of Irish culture.  As Edward Hirsch notes,

[M]ost Irish writers had a common belief in a single undifferentiated entity called ‘the peasants.’  This process of turning the peasants into a single figure of literary art … may be termed the ‘aestheticizing’ of the Irish country people.  Such aestheticizing takes place whenever a complex historical group of people is necessarily simplified by being collapsed into one entity, ‘the folk’ (1117).

Despite the reality that the Irish countryside was filled with a diverse population, the writers of Ireland created a myth of the Irish rural “folk.”  Writers made “the peasant a spiritual figure, the living embodiment of the ‘Celtic’ imagination, a ‘natural’ aristocrat” (Hirsch 1119-20).  This image of the noble Irish peasant was at stake when the audiences of the Abbey Theatre participated in the so-called “Playboy riots.”

The “Playboy riots” were more than a reaction to Synge’s play; they were an attempt to defend the Irish nation.  As Benedict R. Anderson writes in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, “[A] fundamental change was taking place in modes of apprehending the world, which, more than anything else, made it possible to ‘think’ the nation” (22).  Despite centuries of oppression by the imperial British, the Irish held on to an “Ireland” that was their own.  As part of this imagined community, they imagined a pre-industrial, pre-Christian nation that lived in myths and lyrical ballads.  The people of Ireland idealized the noble peasant “and by defining [the peasants] as the essence of an ancient, dignified Irish culture—the Revivalists were specifically countering the English stereotype” (Hirsch 1120).  This English stereotype, often called “Paddy,” was a subhuman creature. The “Paddy” character was “a comic, quaint, drunken Irish buffoon” (Hirsch 1119).  The Irish hoped to reclaim their national identity, to move away from the English image of “Paddy” and toward the noble Irish peasant.

The audiences of the Abbey Theatre, the rioting Dubliners, felt attacked.  As Hirsch explains, “[T]he recurrent objection to … to Synge’s work … was that, in Daniel Corkery’s summary charge, the ‘plays were not Irish plays inasmuch as they misrepresented the Irish peasant’” (1126).  To misrepresent the Irish peasant, the image of Irish national identity, was to misrepresent the Irish themselves.  This misrepresentation led the Irish audience to “call into question one’s own essential Irish identity” (Hirsch 1126).  Synge’s play challenged what it meant to be Irish.

However, there was another element at stake in the “Playboy riots.”  The founders of the Irish National Theatre Society were, strictly speaking, not truly Irish.  Synge, Yeats, and Lady Augusta Gregory were all Anglo-Irish, descended from English citizens who were transplanted to Ireland.  And like many of their fellow Englishmen, the Anglo-Irish were often Protestant.  Hirsch clarifies this conflict by noting, “[T]he Catholic audience for [the] new modern literature could easily feel betrayed by Anglo-Irish Protestant writers who had a significantly different structure of feelings about Irish life” (1125).  Hirsch goes on to explain, “For the Catholic middle class…the Irish country people functioned as … the source of all authentic Irish life” (1125).  These Anglo-Irish Protestant writers were not a part of Ireland’s imagined community.

In the eyes of the mainly Catholic audiences of the Abbey, the founders of the theatre could not know what it truly meant to be Irish.  As Lucy McDiarmid notes, “The writers associated with the Abbey have long been classes as a Protestant elite who were not ‘an integral part of the culture they sought to develop and foster’” (28).  How could these “Protestant elite” know what an Irish peasant’s life consisted of; and how much was at stake for the Playboy audience when that same peasant was questioned?  Synge wrote about the Irish peasant without connecting to the soul of Irish national identity.  Gregory Castle explains, “Synge combined a Romantic temperament, and its attendant glamorization of the West of Ireland, with a sense of detachment … to produce a sensitive and astute observer, but one whose Anglo-Irish affiliations constantly threatened to alienate him from the very culture into which he desired entry” (267).  The struggles of the Irish working- and middle-classes had created a bond over the development of Irish history.  However, as an Anglo-Irish man, Synge was a part of the elite other, neither fully Irish nor fully English.  The Anglo-Irish writers who sought to express Ireland were always caught in this liminal space; they did not completely belong to either nation.

Despite this status as other, the Anglo-Irish did not shy away from envisioning a new, wholly Irish nation.  Yeats wrote, “‘We three,’” speaking of himself, Synge, and Lady Gregory, “‘have conceived an Ireland that will remain imaginary more powerfully than we have conceived ourselves’” (qtd. in Castle 267).  Yeats and others sought to create an imagined Irish nation that encompassed both Anglo-Irish and Irish citizens.  Yeats wanted a mythic Ireland, an Ireland of folks and legends, an Ireland that lived in the mind.  Such an Ireland would bond every citizen of Ireland together.  Anderson speaks of such a nation, stating, “It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (6).  In other words, one Irishman may not personally know another Irishman but because they believe in the same imagined Ireland, they recognize each other as Irish.

Yeats imagined Ireland would be rooted in a pagan, pre-Christian time.  This would cross religious boundaries and create an imagined Celtic Ireland.  Seamus Deane notes, “Once the Irish Revival had … established that this Celtic spirit was Protestant as well as Catholic, a form of Protestant dissent that repudiated the modern world just as much as Catholic loyalty to ancient forms had resisted it, the cultural version of the solidarity of the Irish national community was complete” (125).  This stand of anti-modernity created a link between Catholic and Protestant, a shared dislike of the present.  The act of reaching back in time to find stories to tell in the present lead to the creation of the national Irish theatre movement and the founding of the Abbey Theatre.

The rioters at the Abbey only responded to the surface of what bothered them.  The deeper cause of the riots was hidden in their collective memory, their shared Ireland.  Perhaps, Synge’s observations and questions about the Irish peasant needed to be stated in order to stir the minds of the audiences so they too would begin to question the myths of their nation.  Soon, the nation of Ireland would face new challenges and new divisions would be set in motion.  In time, the physical nation of Ireland would be split, but the imagined Irish nation would still live on.


Work Cited

Anderson, Benedict R. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 3rd ed. London: Verso, 2006. Print.

Blackadder, Neil. Performing Opposition: Modern Theater and the Scandalized Audience. Westport: Praeger, 2003. Print.

Castle, Gregory. “Staging Ethnography: John M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World and the Problem of Cultural Translation.” Theatre Journal 49.3 (1997): 265-86. JSTOR. Web. 10 Nov. 2012.

Deane, Seamus. “The Production of Cultural Space in Irish Writing.” boundary 2 21.3 (1994): 117-44. JSTOR. Web. 22 Nov. 2012.

Frazier, Adrian. “Abbey Theatre.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance. Ed. Dennis Kennedy. 2012. N. pag. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance. Web. 10 Nov. 2012.

Hirsch, Edward. “The Imaginary Irish Peasant.” PMLA 106.5 (1991): 1116-33. JSTOR. Web. 10 Nov. 2012.

Leeney, Cathy A. “National theater movement, Ireland.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance. Ed. Dennis Kennedy. 2012. N. pag. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance. Web. 10 Nov. 2012.

McConachie, Bruce. “Case Study: The Playboy riots: Nationalism in the Irish theatre.” Theatre Histories: An Introduction. Ed. Phillip B. Zarrilli, Bruce McConachie, Gary Jay Williams, and Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. 292-98. Print.

McDiarmid, Lucy. “Augusta Gregory, Bernard Shaw, and the Shewing-Up of Dublin Castle.” PMLA 109.1 (1994): 26-44. JSTOR. Web. 22 Nov. 2012.