Sitwell Beyond the Semiotic: Gender, Race, and Empire in Facade

Marsha Bryant, University of Florida
Vol. 26, No. 2 (Fall 2007), 243-267

This essay discusses a notoriously opaque modernist text and performance piece by engaging with its imperialist contexts. A combination of chamber music and spoken poetry created in collaboration with Sir William Walton, Facade: An Entertainment has puzzled audiences and critics since its first production in 1922. Noting that the most fruitful readings of this piece in recent years have made use of Julia Kristeva’s distinction between semiotic and symbolic discourse, the essay argues that in order to make sense of the poem’s most nonsubversive elements, especially its depictions of women, we must shift our critical locus from the unconscious to the national imaginary. Doing so requires acknowledging the many moments in which Sitwell makes use of racist stereotypes and practices prominent in early twentieth-century Britain, ranging from hypersexualized Hottentots to decadent Chinese women. The essay concludes that, neither outrightly subversive nor conservative in its treatment of these figures, the poems in Facade parody the Empire’s efficacy at the same time that they reinforce the racial stereotypes that helped to maintain it. The essay opens a new avenue of interpretation for Sitwell’s work, even as it reminds us that neither literary experimentation nor female authorship guarantees progressive politics. In this way, the article also makes an important contribution to the current efforts of literary scholars specializing in many periods and regions to grapple with the relationship between aesthetics and politics.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]