"I am underneath and oxygen is running out": Suicide as Genetically Inherited or as the Melancholy Identification with the Suicidal Mother in Alice Birch's Anatomy of a Suicide


Suicide in the Anglo-European dramas has always been perceived not only as a site where moral, psychological or social-political crises are thrown into relief, but has predominantly featured as a critical juncture where the aporetic tensions and ties between the private and the public, the personal and the political, the individual and the state/family surface. This essay takes as its focal point one of the most recent plays in this trend, Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide (2017), which ponders the question of gendered perpetuity of suicide as a potentially inherited or contagious phenomenon through its depiction of three generations of suicidal women. The foremost task posed to any critical exploration of the play is to explain how this transmission recurs in the play across three generations. There are two principal conceptual approaches that broach this dilemma: the genetic-biological and the phenomenological. This essay undertakes an exploration of the psycho-dynamics of the various acts of suicide depicted in the play by gauging these two approaches against one another. Accordingly, the essay investigates how a suicidal identity is constructed in the play by treating suicide as much an ambiguous gesture or a human act of intentionality and free will as a pathology. To this end, we will develop a nuanced theoretical framework by drawing on the recent phenomenological approaches to the question of suicide in conjunction with various aspects of Julia Kristeva’s conceptualisation of melancholic depression, Nancy Chodorow’s theory of mother-identification, and Cathy Caruth’s conception of trauma as a performative and intergenerationally transmissible phenomenon.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.