Staging the Modern Self

Dr Sos Eltis, BNC’s Vice Principal and Tutorial Fellow in English Literature, on how modern drama and Oscar Wilde still echo in our society today

Dr Sos Eltis has spent much of her career at Oxford, from reading English Literature as an undergraduate at Christ Church to a doctorate at St John’s and St Hilda’s, and being a fellow at Brasenose for the last two decades.

Her research has continually tracked subversive, boundary-breaking literature. Her thesis was on the plays of Oscar Wilde, which she argued were anarchist, socialist and feminist, and she has continued to focus on Wilde, and also Victorian, Edwardian and contemporary theatre, which is full of surprises.

One of her current fascinations, for instance, is early 20th-century feminist and suffragette theatre by writers like Elizabeth Robins and Cicely Hamilton. It’s little known today, but women’s theatre thrived in the form of ‘suffrage plays’ which were printed in protest newspapers and performed at meetings. Dr Eltis explains: ‘I’m fascinated by ideas of the body, ideas of the self, how they fit with political protest and identity, and notions of what constitutes a coherent identity. What is a true or natural woman?’

Juggling her research and teaching with her duties as Vice Principal keeps Dr Eltis very busy. During her three-year term as Vice Principal she has supported securing a living wage for all college staff as well as an in-college counsellor for students and an ethical investment policy. ‘You know ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, where he talks about measuring his life out in coffee spoons?,’ she asks, looking around her office filled with books, papers and a bubble machine some students gave her, which she likes to look at when her brain gets tired. ‘Well, I feel slightly like I’ve measured my life out in committee meetings.’ She is keen to pursue what is currently ‘a giant amorphous project’ about concepts of identity between 1880 and 1930 and how they relate to representations of character on stage. ‘Lots has been done on the novel in that period,’ she notes, ‘on memory, consciousness, mind and sexuality in relation to narrative style in writers like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. But relatively little has been done on theatre.’

Dr Eltis thinks we can map developments in our understanding of human beings through fin de siècle and modernist theatre, as well as studying how individuals responded to early socialism and notions of value human value within social and economic structures. The plays of George Bernard Shaw, often viewed today as a rather barren theatre of ideas, are an obvious example, she says, explaining how he daringly experimented on stage with what was then the very latest cutting edge technology – cars and planes - and how this affects the way people think and alters human identity. ‘There’s been relatively little attention paid to looking at the way he stages states of mind,’ says Eltis. ‘There’s a lot more you can do to look at his notions of what drives human beings and how to understand them.’

The plays of this period are full of resonance 100 years on, now we are again facing technological challenges and the loosening of duty and family ties. ‘There were huge fears in the 1890s about where the human race was going,’ says Eltis. ‘Today my students were born just before the turn of this century – so often the anxieties of 100 years ago parallel the anxieties we’re experiencing now.’

Her research also illuminates Noel Coward’s plays – on the surface merely about manners, but in another reading, anthropological detective works based on a dark vision of human drives and desires - a view of human nature that made him a great admirer of mid-twentieth-century anthropological theories that human beings are descended from cannibalistic killer apes and fundamentally driven towards domination, hierarchy and pleasure in destruction.

Eltis herself was, she recalls, ‘horribly self conscious and useless as an actress,’ but she did enjoy directing. For many years she has been a university representative on the Oxford Playhouse board, senior member of the Oxford University Dramatic Society, and goes to the theatre whenever she can. With limited time for theatre trips to London, you can often spot her watching National Theatre Live productions at the Phoenix cinema in Jericho, when she’s not cycling, running or rowing ‘to stay sane’. She lives in Oxford with her husband, the novelist Mark Haddon, and their children.

Dr Eltis is working on a book about Oscar Wilde, who she sees as a ‘midwife to modernism – he’s embedded in Victorian structures but also sends them up. He opens up the ground for a lot of writers that come after.’ Her favourite Wilde play has to be The Importance of Being Earnest. Interest in Wilde – and this play – has never diminished, she says. ‘With school students who apply, every year there’s at least one who’s absolutely in love with Oscar Wilde.’ She adds: ‘I feel a need for Oscar Wilde right now. The humour, but also it’s about the rights of the individual to not be judged. He’s cynical about power and authority. In our time, he’s very good company. A sane voice.’

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