Neela Vaswani

On “Dumb Show”

I first read Titus Andronicus as a seventeen-year-old, sneaking pilfered wine and Newports in the crawl space of my parents’ house. As a simmering teen wreathed in menthol smoke, cobwebs, and Pink Panther insulation, Lavinia’s plight enraged and validated me. I saw myself in her.

Over the next decade she kept cropping up—a Jeopardy clue, a Christopher Street drag show, a Halloween costume. But when she appeared twenty years later in my American Studies dissertation on in-betweenness and identity, it startled me. I was staring at my knuckles above the keyboard, thinking how much hands say about a person, who she is and how she’s lived. And Lavinia appeared. She entered, page left, and wouldn’t leave—and I didn’t want her to.

“Essay” comes from the French essayer, “to try.” I find that very moving. You can experiment in an essay. You can be free. I was interested in breaking the proverbial fourth wall of theater, but on paper. I wanted to change the story arc of a long-established, inviolate yet violated Shakespearean character. I wanted to keep Lavinia company. To see how different, or not, a woman of the sixteenth century was from a woman of the twenty-first. I was also, in truth, trying to find a sneaky way to meet the objective standards of a dissertation and still use my voice creatively. Maybe sneakiness is what brought Lavinia back to me. Maybe I will forever associate her with taboo and crawl spaces.

Making form itself a tool in an academic endeavor felt right for my dissertation. And the essay—beautiful in-between creature that it is, accommodating and quirky and hybrid—seemed the right way to suture the gaps between the scholarly and emotional, the past and present, the personal and political, Lavinia and me.