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Stigmata Introduction

Stigmata Introduction

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Published by carolyn6302
Introduction to Carolyn Gage's play Stigmata.
Introduction to Carolyn Gage's play Stigmata.

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: carolyn6302 on Jun 16, 2013
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04/01/2014

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Copyright 2013 Carolyn Gage
Introduction to
Stigmata
In a global environment of rising fundamentalism, it is timely to ask, “Whatdoes it take for a woman to keep her sexuality and ambition alive in arepressive, patriarchal culture of female self-abnegation?’
Stigmata
, based on the Inquisition records of a 17
th
century lesbian nun,explores the answers to this question. Benedetta Carlini, a young Italianwoman raised with masculine expectations, exploits her theatrical abilitiesto convince the other nuns and her priest that she is channeling the voicesand spirits of a variety of saints, manifesting stigmata and other miracles.Elected abbess on the strength of these miracles, she moves swiftly toimpose rules of austerity on the convent, effectively stripping her rivals of their class privilege and consolidating her power.Finally, in her hubris, Benedetta goes too far, seducing one of the younger nuns by impersonating a male angel named “Splenditello.” Her victim,awakened to her sexuality with an ecstatic experience, realizes later thatshe has been a victim of fraud… or has she?Benedetta aggressively rejects the culture of confession, abasement, anddeprivation that is expected of the women in their patriarchally prescribedroles. Is she perpetrating fraud or creatively manipulating the system toretain her authenticity?
Stigmata
challenges audience with a larger-than-life, female heroine fromthe pages of history—asking us to examine our own collaborations andaccommodations in a culture that still expects women to sabotageourselves and betray our truths.One of the hallmarks of late-stage recovery from childhood trauma is theability to tolerate contradiction, to hold simultaneously in consciousness twoconflicting ideas. The landscape of trauma appears to be black-and-white,a world of good and evil, predators and prey. As the survivor recovers, shebegins to discern the areas of gray—perhaps the victim status of her perpetrators, coexisting with their role as perpetrators. Compassion is the
 
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compass for navigating the gray, and with compassion can come a deeper awareness of one’s own internal contradictions and an acceptance of them.Lesbian culture has barely begun to emerge from the trauma of the closet.We have been burned at the stake, banished to convents, locked up inmental asylums for “erotomania,” excommunicated, drummed out of themilitary in disgrace, disinherited, fired, evicted, arrested in our own bars,raped at the police stations. We have been denied our right to legalprotections, denied the sanctity of our committed relationships. We havelost custody of our children. Our literary heritage has been fraught withvampiric homewreckers, predatory school mistresses, lonely spinsters, andmonstrously insatiable sex addicts. In these narratives, the “happy ending”has usually entailed our death—frequently by our own hand.Cultures recover from traumatic silence and secrecy in stages that aresimilar to those experienced by individual survivors. Just as survivorsraised in abusive environments pass through a stage of casting off the falseidentities imposed on them by their perpetrators, so a culture emergingfrom repression casts off the false stereotypes and paradigms of thatoppression. Contemporary lesbian culture has embraced new archetypesof lesbians as heroines, as rescuers of women, as visionary leaders andartists and activists. The world that has historically scapegoated us isthrown into sudden relief, with its brutal history of misogyny and patriarchalcontrol over women’s bodies. The narratives have become reversed as thelesbian lover is depicted as the agent of sanity and healthy sexuality. Thisis cause for celebration, just as it is for the survivor on her way toreclaiming her identity.And, just as with the survivor, there is a further stageof evolution, where this emerging identity becomes robust enough toincorporate contradiction—where lesbian central characters can be bothvictim and perpetrator, and where we can bear to examine, up-close, thedamage—the internalized oppression from surviving a homophobic world—and how this can still manifest in our post-recovery culture.
Stigmata
is a play about late-stage cultural recovery. It is about a womanwho is both courageous in her resistance and shocking in her perpetration.She finds ingenious ways to keep alive both her ambition and her sexualityin the stultifyingly repressed environment of a 17
th
-century, Italian convent,where neither are allowed and where self-abasement and self-denial arethe order of the day. And, simultaneously resisting and acting out the
 
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internalized misogyny of her conditioning, she perpetrates against a sister nun and inmate.What are we to make of her? The townspeople believe her to be a saint.The Inquisition has branded her a demon. Obviously, she is neither, butcan we accept her as both victim and perpetrator?Benedetta Carlini’s story is documented in Judith Brown’s book
Immodest  Acts
. In her book, Brown cites the court records from the Inquisition, whereCarlini’s victim testifies about these “immodest acts.” Some have beentempted to assume that this woman had been Carlini’s partner in aconsenting lesbian relationship, but that, called before the Inquisition, shechose to save herself by betraying her lover, insisting that she had beenthe victim of deception and manipulation.That might be a plausible theory, except that this witness’ testimony is soconsistent with contemporary narratives by victims of sexual predators. Shedescribes in vivid detail an escalating campaign of sexual harassment andentrapment by Carlini, a campaign designed to convince her that theperpetrations were, in fact, the will of God.Carlini, however, was far more than a perpetrator. The trial records includeextensive documentation of behaviors that used to be labeled “hystericalbehavior,” but which trauma therapists today might diagnose as ComplexPost-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a syndrome associated with child sexualabuse. Carlini’s adeptness at successfully assuming the personae of Jesus, St. Catherine of Siena, and the male angel named “Splenditello”point to a possible history of dissociative identity disorders, another syndrome associated with child sexual abuse. In describing her near-deathexperience, Carlini claimed to have seen her father in Purgatory, beggingher forgiveness. This, along with the fact she perpetrated in a malepersona, caught my attention. Was the historical Benedetta Carlini asurvivor of paternal incest?Carlini’s spiritual community was not an enclosed order. The Abbess whofounded it appeared to be an enlightened woman with feminist ideals. Iamplified these themes in the play, and I used the death of the Abbess asthe turning point for Carlini’s character. Without this powerful mentor and“enlightened witness” to her abuse and to her genius, Carlini resorts toincreasingly desperate and manipulative tactics in order to retain her 

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