D.H. Lawrence and the Battle of the Sexes

Jessica Grose 04, English 171, Brown University, Autumn 2003

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In an essay entitled "The Theatre", D.H Lawrence spends a great deal of his textual space discussing the relationship between men and women as he observes it among the "peasants" of a small Italian town. He uses battle imagery and language to describe the clashing of the sexes, with words like "triumph, "terrorizing", and "liberation":

So the women triumph. They sit down below in the theatre, their perfectly dressed hair gleaming, their backs very straight, their heads carried tensely. They are not very noticeable. They seem held in reserve. They are just as tense and stiff as the men are slack and abandoned. Some strange will holds the women taut. They seem like weapons, dangerous. There is nothing charming nor winning about them; at the best a full prolific maternity, at the worst a yellow, poisonous bitterness of the flesh that is like a narcotic. But they are too strong for the men. The male spirit, which would subdue the immediate flesh to some conscious or social purpose, is overthrown. The woman in her maternity is the law-giver, the supreme authority. The authority of the man, in work, in public affairs, is something trivial in comparison. The pathetic ignominy of the village male is complete on sunday afternoon, on his great day of liberation, when he is accompanied home, drunk but sinister, by the erect, unswerving, slightly cowed woman. His drunken terrorizing is only pitiable, she is so obviously the more constant power.

Later on in the essay, Lawrence describes the great male and female characters of the stage - an obvious contrast to the lowly peasant men and women discussed earlier:

Why are the women so bad at playing this part in real life, this Ophelia-Gretchen role? Why are they so unwilling to go mad and die for our sakes? They do it regularly on the stage...But perhaps, after all, we write the plays. What a villain I am, what a black-browed, passionate, ruthless, masculine villain I am to the leading lady on the stage; and on the other hand, dear heart, what a hero, what a fount of chivalrous generosity and faith! I am anything but a dull and law-abiding citizen. I am a Galahad, full of purity and spirituality, I am the lancelot of valour and lust; I fold my hands, or I cock my hat on one side, as the case may be: I am myself. Only I am not a respectable citizen, not that in this hour of my glory and my escape.


1. Though this essay is called "The Theatre", Lawrence spends much of it comparing gender roles in real life. What does this say about Lawrence's concept of gender? Does he think gender is performative or innate?

2. When D.H. Lawrence is describing the Ophelia-Gretchen character, is he being facetious? Do you think he wants the women in his life to "go mad and die for our sakes"?

3. Lawrence uses a images of death and decay to describe the relationships between Italian men and women in "The Theatre" (i.e. the "yellow, poisonous bitterness of the flesh that is like a narcotic" of the women; the "slack and abandoned" posture of the men). Does Lawrence believe that men and women destroy each other through marriage?

4. Throughout the essay, the only plays Lawrence discusses are tragedies. Is this connected to his feelings on male/female relationships?

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Last modified 26 October 2003