Rebecca Gilman's Blue Surge, first produced in 2001 (and published by Faber and Faber in the same year), was a bit shocking when it first opened to enthusiastic audiences at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. It is, after all, a play about prostitutes, and it utilizes full frontal male nudity in the first scene. However, audience interest in the play stemmed more from the fact that Gilman is a local Chicago playwright, and her plays are known for their cutting-edge social commentary. Blue Surge is no exception.
The overall theme of this play is the wide gap between the people of upper-class society, with their wealth and seemingly easy lives of opportunities, and the people of the lower, working classes, with their economic and educational limits (at least in Gilman's portrayal). This gap is dramatized through the interactions of a vice-squad policeman and his interest in two women. His live-in girlfriend comes from the privileged class. She is an art student and lives off a trust fund inherited from her grandfather. The young woman with whom the policeman would like to begin a new relationship is a massage-parlor prostitute, whose only ambition is to make enough money to retire by the time she is thirty.
The title Blue Surge reflects a mixture of sadness, poverty, desire, and misunderstanding, other motifs that run through the play. There is mention in the play of a piece by the jazz master Duke Ellington called "Blue Serge." The protagonist, Curt, hears the title and thinks it is "Blue Surge," because he finds the music rather dark and melancholic. When Curt tells his prostitute friend, Sandy, about this misunderstanding, relating that blue serge is really a type of material used to make men's suits, Sandy imagines that perhaps the songwriter felt sad because he could not afford a suit. Thus, Gilman uses the misunderstood title of the jazz piece to pinpoint one of the messages of the play, a play in which her characters have particular longings that are difficult for them to fulfill. As Gilman portrays it, the main hindrance for those who are left wanting in their desires is poverty, and the creators of that poverty are the rich.
Rebecca Gilman was born in Trussville, Alabama, in 1965 and studied at Middlebury College in Vermont. Later, she returned to her home state and gained her undergraduate degree from Birmingham Southern College. Then she attended the University of Virginia, majoring in English, because she thought she might be interested in teaching. However, she soon discovered that her real passion was writing. After receiving her master's degree at Virginia, she fought hard and eventually made it into the prestigious writers' program at the University of Iowa, where she earned an MFA in playwriting.
Her writing began with a play she wrote when she was only eighteen years old, about a group of disgruntled employees in a doughnut shop who suffocate their boss in a vat of dough. Many of her early plays were never produced. To support her writing in those early years, Gilman took on various clerical positions, never believing that she could make a living at playwriting.
Gilman wrote several plays before her first successful play, Spinning into Butter (1999), which probes the nature of the racism that lurks behind the mask of liberalism worn by her characters. The play received a Joseph Jefferson Award for best new play and the Roger L. Stevens Award from the Kennedy Center Fund for new American plays. Time magazine included this play on its list of best new plays for 1999.
The Glory of Living (1996) was Gilman's next big hit, earning another Joseph Jefferson Award as well as the Evening Standard (London) award for most promising playwright and the British George Devine Award. Gilman was the first American ever to receive either of these honors. The play is based on a true incident in which a young bride becomes an accomplice in her husband's serial killing. The Glory of Living, which was first staged in 1996 in Chicago, gained more attention and acclaim in 1999 when it traveled to London. In 2002, it was named one of Time magazine's best plays and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Gilman's Boy Gets Girl, about a man who stalks a woman, was produced in 2001. Then came Blue Surge. It was followed by The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, which premiered in London in 2004. The play deals with a young female artist who must confront debilitating fears and eventually admits herself to psychiatric care. The young woman ends up feigning schizophrenia in an effort to convince her doctors that she is the famed baseball player Darryl Strawberry.
Gilman has been referred to as one of the most sought-after playwrights in the United States. Her plays have been called provocative and edgy. She is one of the few playwrights in America who do not shy away from taking on social issues in order to make their audiences think. Gilman once said that at the beginning of her writing career, she was afraid of voicing her opinions through her works. With repeated success, however, that has all changed.
Scene 1 of the first act opens in a massage parlor located in a midsize city in the Midwest. Sandy, the masseuse, enters with Curt. Sandy tells Curt to get undressed and then leaves the room. Curt acts nervous while he takes off everything but his underpants. When Sandy returns, Curt tries to make conversation with her, but he is awkward at best. Curt is a policeman, and he thinks that Sandy has no idea of his occupation. He tries to persuade Sandy to admit that her main purpose is not to give massages but to have sex with her patrons. Through their conversation, Curt learns that Sandy actually has no training in massage therapy, but he cannot get her to say anything that he can use in a police case against her as a prostitute. Once Sandy begins to massage Curt's back, Curt decides he cannot go through with the sting operation. He insists on getting dressed. "I don't know what I'm doing," Sandy says, as she watches Curt. Curt responds: "It's okay. Neither do I."
A week has passed when scene 2 opens. The location is the same massage parlor, but the characters are new. Doug, who is Curt's police partner, walks into the room with Heather, another prostitute. When Heather asks Doug to strip, he does so without any signs of self-consciousness. In contrast to Curt, he takes everything off and stands on the stage stark naked. Doug proceeds to ask Heather various questions about sexual acts and about whether she will perform them. While Heather does not admit to anything, she does insinuate that she would be willing to do them. Doug then reaches for his badge and tells Heather she is under arrest. Heather cries out that he has entrapped her.
Scene 3 takes place in a room at the police station. Sandy has been taken to the police station but is not charged with a crime. She is merely warned that the police suspect her of prostitution. Curt is telling Sandy that she is free to go. He warns her, though, that the next time she might not be so lucky. Before Sandy leaves, Curt asks her if she knew that he was a cop when he visited the massage parlor. Sandy admits that she did. When Curt asks how, Sandy says it was because he refused to take off his underpants.
Doug enters the room and is angry because his case has fallen through. Heather's accusation that Doug entrapped her has been upheld. Once Sandy is excused, Doug and Curt discuss how they fouled up the bust. Curt points out Doug's mistakes, and Doug emphasizes Curt's lack of experience. Then Doug talks about his sexual fascination with Heather.
In scene 4, Curt's girlfriend, Beth, is introduced. Curt and Beth are having an edgy conversation. Neither seems pleased with the other. Beth makes fun of Curt's partner, Doug. Then she demeans a restaurant that Curt mentions. Curt calls her on both points. When Curt tries to explain what he has gone through that day, Beth sticks up for the prostitutes and says the police should leave them alone. Curt counters by telling Beth that she does not know the first thing about the hazards of prostitution. When Curt offers further details about his day, Beth becomes jealous that Curt was somewhat intimate with another woman and that he seems to have been drawn to one woman in particular.
As Beth is about to leave Curt's apartment, she suggests that he find a new job. Curt mentions the limited possibilities that are open to him, since he has only a high school education. He also throws out the fact that Beth lives off a trust fund. He does so to suggest that her life is easy, especially compared with his own life. Their arguing intensifies, until Beth admits that she is really angry that Curt chose a particular masseuse at the parlor. Curt denies that he had any interest in the woman, saying at the end of the scene: "I can't even remember what she looked like."
Scene 5 takes place in a bar. Heather has lost her job at the massage parlor and is working as a bartender. Curt is listening to Heather complain, when Sandy walks in. Curt has asked Sandy to meet him there. Heather continues to talk about how Doug has cost her the massage parlor job. Sandy informs Heather that Curt knows all about the story because he, too, is a cop. Heather walks away in a huff.
Sandy and Curt make small talk. Curt tells Sandy that he wants to help her. Sandy tells him that she does not need any help. She likes what she does. The only part of her job that she does not like is turning over half the money she earns to the owner of the massage parlor. The single thing she would change about her life would be to own her own place. She could then continue as a prostitute but would not have to share the money she made with anyone else. Curt and Sandy then share personal information. They discover that their childhoods were somewhat similar. They were both raised poor. Sandy's mom has been married five times. Curt tells Sandy that his father was a grave robber. Curt encourages Sandy to get out of the prostitution business. He suggests that she take classes at a community college. Sandy believes that community colleges are only for losers. She explains how easy it is for her to earn a lot of money doing what she does. The scene ends with Curt asking whether Sandy will do him a favor, something that his girlfriend will not do. This is sexually suggestive, but the audience later finds out his favor has nothing to do with sex. He wants help memorizing the names of trees.
As scene 6 opens, Sandy and Curt are in Curt's apartment. Sandy is holding up plastic-encased leaves, which Curt is naming. Curt talks about his aspirations to one day work at a nature center. After flipping through several of the leaves, Sandy grows tired and is about to go. Before she does, she says that she would like to meet again. They set a date for the following Friday.
In scene 7, Curt and Doug are at the police station. Continuing demonstrations outside the massage parlor by citizens who want the place shut down have put pressure on Curt's supervisor. In retaliation, Curt has been demoted and transferred from the vice squad to the burglary unit, which he hates. Doug admits he has been seeing Heather, who has moved in with Sandy. Doug has talked with Sandy and insinuates to Curt that the discussion they had was about sex. When Doug suggests that he might pay Sandy to do him a sexual favor, Curt punches Doug in the mouth. Curt says that Doug is ruining his life; nevertheless, Curt apologizes for hitting Doug, and the scene ends.
In the next scene, Curt hears someone knocking on his door at home. When he answers, he finds Sandy standing there in her bare feet. She is crying. Sandy tells Curt that Heather is having a party at Sandy's apartment and that the people are getting carried away. Curt invites Sandy to stay at his place for the night. Sandy's stepfather has died, and this has made her feel miserable. Curt believes that he is part of the reason why Sandy is sad. He fears that he has put too much pressure on her to find another job and to do something more constructive with her life. Sandy does not agree with Curt, but she consents to spending the night.
Scene 1 is set in Curt's apartment two days later. Sandy is wearing some of Curt's clothes. She seems to have remained at Curt's apartment, but no explanation is given as to why she has done so. Curt talks about Duke Ellington's "Blue Serge." Curt and Sandy agree that it is a sad song. Curt explains how he had misinterpreted the title of the piece, believing it was "Blue Surge," or a surge of sadness. This leads Sandy and Curt to discuss their sad memories of growing up. Curt tells a funny story, and as the two of them continue talking and laughing, Beth walks in on them.
Sandy wants to leave, but Curt does not want her to. Beth wants to know why Sandy is there. The conflicting needs of the three people produce much confusion. Sandy wants to get out of the way, to avoid causing a scene. Curt is torn between Beth and Sandy but leans toward wanting to make sure that Sandy is all right. After she leaves, Curt wants to go after her. He tells Beth that he wants to help Sandy, confessing that Sandy is the woman from the massage parlor. Beth calls Sandy a whore. When Beth threatens to leave, Curt does not stop her.
In scene 2, set in the bar in which Heather now works, Heather and Doug are planning a date. Curt enters and asks whether they have seen Sandy. No one has. Curt tells them that he had gone by Sandy's apartment looking for her. Instead, he found an eviction notice and a large padlock on her apartment door. Heather and Doug mention the wild party that had taken place in Sandy's apartment. They tell Curt that they, too, left Sandy's apartment while the party was still going on.
Sandy enters. She is angry because she has had to pay her landlord five hundred dollars for the damage done to the apartment. Sandy admits that she went back to the massage parlor to make the money. This angers Curt, who thought Sandy might give up prostitution. Curt tells her that he spent the whole day looking for her. The only place he did not go was the parlor, saying, "I did not once think you would be stupid enough to go back there!" Sandy leaves after Curt yells at her. In the meantime, Heather, realizing that she has to find a new place to live, asks Doug if she can move in with him.
Beth and Curt confront each other in scene 3. Curt tells Beth that he likes Sandy because he is able to talk to her. With Beth, he confesses, he only seems to argue. Curt explains that there is too much of a gap between the two of them, since Beth does not understand what it is to be poor. He tells Beth that the only reason she stays with him is that she pities him. He goes on to say that she has agreed to marry him because she wants to shock her parents. This leads Curt to explain why he hates working in the burglary unit. He goes to rich people's huge homes and must make reports of stolen items that they do not even remember they own, because they have so many things. Curt says he sweats when he is in the presence of rich people, including Beth. Rich people make him feel as though he stinks. The difference in their social status makes Curt feel less than human around Beth. The scene ends with Beth insulting Sandy and Curt defending her—or at least explaining how he and Sandy are the same.
In scene 4, Doug and Curt are back in the police station, where Doug tells Curt that the police are going to bust the massage parlor. Curt wants to know whether Heather has heard from Sandy. Doug says the two women are not talking to each other. Then Doug describes how trashed Sandy's apartment was. When Doug mentions that the police raid on the massage parlor was planned for the end of the week, Curt realizes that it is the end of the week, and he disappears.
Curt has gone to the massage parlor in scene 5 to warn Sandy that there is about to be a raid and to give her an envelope filled with money. She is to take the money and never come back to the parlor again. Sandy refuses to accept the money; by the time Curt talks her into it, the cops have arrived. Sandy notices that the money has a paper band with an evidence number around it. Curt has stolen the money from the police department, and Sandy cannot believe it. Curt takes the money back from her. The scene ends with Sandy asking: "You wanted us to live together on stolen money. What sort of stupid fantasy is that?" Curt replies: "Mine, okay?"
In scene 6, Curt is still at the massage parlor, sitting in the same room, alone. Doug walks in and tells him that half of the police department is in the lobby. They discuss what Curt should do now that the police have arrived to find him there with stolen money. Doug tells Curt to get a good lawyer and says that none of the women has been arrested. The police, however, are seizing the massage parlor. Curt is despondent; he does not care what happens to him. Doug tries to turn Curt's perspective around. "It's your life," Doug tells Curt, "and it matters." Then Doug adds: "You got to believe that you deserve the best in this world. Do you believe that?" When Curt responds in the affirmative, Doug presses on, telling Curt that he really has to believe it in his heart.
Scene 7 takes place a year later at the bar. Doug and Heather are there together, and Heather is pregnant. Curt soon enters with a takeout dinner for the three of them. They fight over who is going to pay for the food. Sandy walks in, very smartly dressed. She has brought a present for the expected baby. Curt tells Sandy she is looking good, and Sandy returns the compliment, noticing Curt's uniform. Curt explains that he is working as a security guard. His lawyer cut a deal for him, but he had to resign from the police force. Sandy tells Curt that she is still a hooker, but now she is her own boss. She keeps all the money and is doing fairly well. Curt says his new job is boring, but it gives him time to attend classes. He has not been able to take the courses he wanted, but at least he is studying.
Sandy confesses that she stole one of Curt's plastic-encased leaves from his apartment and hung it in her house. Curt tells Sandy that he probably will never get a job at a nature center now, but he is touched that Sandy took one of the leaves. The play ends with Sandy and Curt sitting on the bar stools, holding hands. As they sit there, they "look toward something outside themselves that they can't quite see."
Beth is Curt's rich girlfriend. She is the least developed of the characters, representing not much more than the privileges of her class. She does not have to work, as all the other characters in the play do. She is attending art school. The other characters cannot afford to do this, or else they do not have those kinds of aspirations. It is not clear from what Beth says whether she truly loves Curt, though she does seem to want to try, at least a little. She just does not try very hard.
Beth's big scene occurs about halfway through the play. She arrives at Curt's apartment to try to straighten out their relationship. Although she argues her case, she appears resigned to the differences between them. She is not arrogant, but she does jump to conclusions about people, often casting people unlike her into stereotypes. But she is torn. At one point, for instance, she stands up for prostitutes, telling Curt that their profession should be legalized so that they can come together and demand benefits. However, after she suspects that Curt has fallen for a prostitute, Beth refers to Sandy as a whore. Beth leaves the play quietly. Her presence is barely missed.
Curt, a policeman, is the protagonist of the drama. It is around him that all the dialogue and action take place. The play opens with Curt inside a massage parlor as an undercover cop, trying to catch one of the masseuses in the act of soliciting sex. Because of his sensitivity or his sheer innocence and lack of experience, he fails. He is portrayed as being too honest to lie about his position. He cannot go through with entrapping the young woman. It later becomes apparent that part of the reason is that he is attracted to Sandy, the young prostitute.
At heart, Curt is a romantic. He wants to help people, and Sandy appears to need his help. At least, that is what Curt believes or wants to believe. Curt seems more motivated to sacrifice most of his life doing something that he does not like (being a policeman) and waiting until he retires to do what he really wants (working as a nature guide). In Sandy, he falls for a woman who is much younger than he is and who, in Curt's view, is the victim of poverty and lack of education. Curt has seen prostitutes who are hooked on drugs and who, in many circumstances, are treated like slaves by those who make money off prostitution.
Still, Curt's ethics are not fully defined. In the end, he steals evidence, in the form of money, from the police station to help Sandy find a better way of life. In some ways, he is trying to buy Sandy, much like other men try to buy her. Even though Curt may want Sandy for more than just sex, he uses money as a lure to get her. By the end of the play, Curt has changed, but not for the better. He has lost his girlfriend, Beth, and his job, and he has forsaken his dreams. He has been humbled by his experiences, but it is not certain that this is an improvement in his life. His humbling is more like a complete dissolution.
Doug is Curt's partner on the police force. At times, he seems to be more experienced or more tuned in to life than Curt, although his mind is often distracted by sex. Doug offers comic relief through his fascination with sex. Doug falls for Heather, although, in the beginning, it seems that he wants her only for sex. However, as the play evolves, Doug appears to be developing true feelings for Heather. His sensitivity also extends to his partner. Doug is the only character in the play who encourages Curt to stop feeling sorry for himself and to respect all the good things he has in life. In the beginning, Doug acts like a bit of a bumbling fool, but by the end he acts stronger than Curt. He has taken on the responsibilities of fatherhood and seems to be a caring spouse.
Heather is something of a bimbo at the beginning of the play. She does not pick up on clues that Doug might be a cop when he comes to the massage parlor intent on arresting her. Neither does she recognize that Curt is a policeman when he comes to the bar where Heather now works. Heather, in a drunken stupor, takes advantage of a missing bar owner by serving free drinks from behind the bar. Later, a group of people follow her to Sandy's apartment. While those people are trashing Sandy's place, Heather leaves. She does not accept any responsibility. Instead, she becomes angry when Sandy suggests that she should help pay for the damages.
However, at the end of the play, Heather speaks of how she cannot button her coat because she has grown so big with her pregnancy. She does not offer much in terms of resolving any of the issues of the play, but rather she appears to feature in the play as a statement that prostitutes are real people too.
Sandy is the prostitute whom Curt befriends and tries to help. Of all the characters, she seems to be the only one with her head on her shoulders, despite her profession. She does not know at the start of the play exactly what she wants. She has only a vague idea, and yet she is the one whose dream comes true. She is also a very strong character. She does not fall for Curt's weak promises of a better life when she could easily have done so. She enjoys being treated well by him. Even though she finds herself in fairly dire straits throughout the play, she stands up on her own two feet.
At one point in the play, Curt tells Beth that he and Sandy are alike, and on some level this is true. Sandy and Curt have had difficult childhoods. They both come from families who have no wealth, and they would like to rise above their station in life. But it is Sandy who is able to do this, at least financially. She does it by not taking Curt's advice and instead following her own dream.
Working Class versus Leisure Class
Four of the five characters in Gilman's play come from the working class. These are the most developed characters and the ones who are more often present on stage. Gilman's focus is on the working class, but she uses the character of Beth, Curt's girlfriend, to show contrast and to make her point about the differences between the two classes.
Beth does not have to work. She is going to school not to become a dental assistant or a data processor or take up some other practical vocation but rather to develop her creativity. She is in art school. To some people, who must struggle every day to earn minimum wage, painting might appear frivolous and a waste of time. Beth has the luxury of time, however. Her days are not spent in a meaningless job or in worrying about her next meal and how she will pay the rent. She is a shallow character, probably because Gilman did not want to portray the leisure class in a favorable light.
While Curt must work at a job that he does not like, Beth can pursue a profession in which she is fully engaged and through which she can expand her talents and nurture her soul. Beth has the potential to become an artist. She is inspired. She believes that everyone can and should follow her example. She pushes Curt to improve himself by seeking a better job. Curt, however, feels that being of the working class, he has few options. There is a ceiling over his head, and it is very low. He did not have the opportunity to go to a good college full time after graduating from high school. He had to find a job and provide for his mother.
Sandy also belongs to the working class, but she differs from Curt in many ways. She does not believe that education is her ticket out. She knows she can afford to attend only a community college, which she sees as not much more than a technical school, from which students emerge with minimal skills needed to perform boring jobs. She does not see community college as a stepping-stone to a bachelor's degree and a broader education. But she does have aspirations, unlike Curt, who has accepted his fate and goes through life in a sort of zombie-like sleepwalking state—not totally depressed but definitely not happy. Curt's only aspiration is to find something he might like to do after he retires.
Sandy and Beth are somewhat similar. They know what they want, and they go after it. They are independent thinkers. But while Beth uses her mind, Sandy uses her body. In society's terms Beth is legitimate, whereas Sandy must live on the outer edges of legitimacy. Through them, Gilman portrays another aspect of the differences between social classes.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Read a history of prostitution, such as Nils Johan Ringdal's Love for Sale (2005) or William Sanger's History of Prostitution: Its Extent, Causes, and Effects Throughout the World (1986). Write a synopsis of that history, including such details as times or countries in which prostitution was looked upon differently. Have attitudes toward prostitution changed in the United States over time? Was prostitution ever legal in America, such as during the development of the West? Are there signs of changing attitudes in the twenty-first century?
- The last stage directions of this play mention that Curt and Sandy are sitting at a bar, holding hands and looking into the distance at something they cannot see. What do you think Gilman is referring to by this statement? What could Sandy be trying to see? What about Curt? Use your knowledge of the play but also use your imagination to write up an account of what both characters might be searching for.
- Listen to Duke Ellington's song "Blue Serge" and describe the way the music affects you. Research the way in which music theorists have described this piece. Go to the musical director at your school and ask her or his opinion of what this music is all about. Find out what elements within the song impart a feeling of sadness. Bring the music to class and describe what you have discovered.
- Doug often comes across in this play as a figure of comic relief, providing humor to ease some of the tension. Still, by the end of the play, Doug seems more grounded and philosophical than Curt. Compare these two characters throughout the play. Where do their characters stand in relationship to each other at the beginning of the play? When does their relationship begin to change? Which one of them, by the end of the play, appears to have changed the most? What are those changes? Write a paper describing your findings.
Curt wears his poverty as he wears his police badge. In some ways, his poverty gives him a weird sense of authority. He also has a poor concept of himself and does not give himself much credit for knowing anything, but he claims to know all about poverty. He knows what it is to be hungry and to struggle. He understands poverty and can relate to it. When he finds comfort in being with Sandy, it is not her personality or skills or even her appearance that attracts him. It is her poor background that puts Curt at ease. Through their similar childhood struggles Curt relates to Sandy in a way he could never relate to Beth.
Gilman seems to be saying that it is lack of money that keeps people down. Without money, the dreams of people are small. Poor people are permanently handicapped in life. They will never get ahead unless they do something that is illegal, such as prostituting themselves or stealing money. It is their poverty that leads them to break the law.
In one long monologue, Curt tells Beth of his feelings about people who have a lot of money. He is angry that he must return to the burglary unit. He has worked in it before, and it makes him feel bad. He must go into people's houses and take reports about stolen property. He claims that often these people cannot even identify what has been stolen, because they have so many objects filling up their big houses. This excessive materialism makes him feel that he physically stinks. He sweats profusely around rich people, because they make him nervous. They make him feel worthless.
The excessive materialism reminds him of how little he had as a child and how little he still has. It makes him realize that his chances of ever catching up to the rich are nonexistent. He thinks that if everyone were poor, there would be no disparity, no jealousy, no belittlement. But when some people have so much—when their wealth in material objects is excessive—he feels that they have taken something from him. This could be one of the reasons why Curt has no second thoughts about stealing money from the police station. His attitude appears to imply that since he needs it to help someone else (as well as himself), it is his right to take it. It makes sense to him, at least while he is doing it.
Choices and Consequences
Gilman's play progresses through a series of choices and their consequences. At the beginning of the play, Beth chooses not to spend the night with Curt. This leaves him open to invite Sandy to stay at his apartment. When Beth returns to Curt's and finds Sandy there, Curt decides not to stay and explain everything to Beth but to go after Sandy instead. He has obviously chosen Sandy over Beth. Curt gives up the high-society woman he was going to marry but with whom he did not feel comfortable because he would be marrying someone beyond his social class. Curt chooses to pursue Sandy.
Sandy, however, does not choose Curt. Sandy does not seem to need a man in her life, at least outside of her business. She also chooses not to go to school. She is comfortable in her life, except for having to work for someone. She wants to become more independent, and she leaves the massage parlor and takes a chance on setting up her own private business. She is successful, enjoys what she does, and is making a fairly good amount of money—which was most important to her.
Doug chooses to allow Heather to move in with him, and the couple is going to have a baby. There is very little dialogue about Heather and Doug, but the overall sense at the end of the play is that they are both happy with the outcome.
Beth disappears about halfway through the play, so the audience does not know how she fares with respect to the consequences of her choices. Curt, however, seems to be the least affected by his choices. He has lost the woman he was going to marry. He also lost Sandy, although it is unclear if he ever had her. And he lost his job and all hope of the one dream that he had—becoming a volunteer at a nature center upon his retirement. All of the consequences Curt experiences, however, do not seem to have changed him very much. He did not seem happy at the beginning of the play, before he made all these choices, and he does not seem happy at the end. Curt seems to be neither happy nor sad. He remains somewhat numb throughout the play.
To add tension to her play, Gilman uses oppositions. There are oppositional characters and themes. For example, there is the aloof and some-what sophisticated Beth, who works with children to expand their artistic talents. She is well educated, well off financially, and, during the play, quite sexless. In opposition to her is Heather, who appears a bit light in the brain department, and who is represented as sex-personified through her profession, her conversation, and her ultimate pregnancy. While Heather teeters on the verge of disaster, seemingly following a path of least resistance, Beth has a definite plan of what she wants to do and how she intends to accomplish it.
Other obvious oppositions include poverty versus wealth; the difference between money inherited, money earned, and money stolen; cop versus prostitute; and legitimate women versus illegitimate women. Opposition not only creates tension, it also provides a means for Gilman to point out some of her beliefs or some of the ideas that she wants her audience to go home and think about. By showing opposites, Gilman gives her audience a choice: she seems to be asking her audience to choose which side they are on.
Conflict: Internal and External
Conflict is the meat of most plays. It can provide action and provoke thought. Conflict can be both external and internal; Gilman's play has both.
The external conflict in the play exists in the disagreements between Curt and Beth, Curt and Doug, Curt and Sandy, and Sandy and Heather. Personal values, dreams, and intentions clash. Implied external conflict in Gilman's play is represented by the demonstrators outside the massage parlor as well as the conflict between the police department and the prostitutes. Gilman's characters are challenged by the conflict that the playwright creates for them. They must find some way to come to grips with it, and that need drives much of the action of the play.
There is also internal conflict, which heightens the effect of the external conflicts. The audience does not see the internal conflict but can infer it from the dialogue of the characters and the characters' emotional outbursts. Such internal conflict is exemplified by Curt, who is constantly questioning whether he is good enough. His conflict derives from not fitting into his society. He feels poor and criticizes the rich, but inside he wants to be part of the rich class. He has a wealthy girlfriend, for instance, but this is not enough. He is not happy with her. He criticizes the wealthy, who he claims are hoarders and extravagant materialists; still, something about them gets under his skin. The rich would not bother him if he did not have any inclinations to be like them.
Gilman's audiences stay tuned in to the drama because they want to see how these internal conflicts will play out. Audiences are interested for another reason as well. They can relate to internal conflict. Who does not experience it? Internal conflict makes Gilman's character real.
There are many offstage characters in the play, characters who are never seen. There are the other policemen and policewomen at the station. The police force is also present in the lobby at the massage parlor toward the end of the play. Then, too, there are the people who hold the party at Sandy's apartment and trash her place. And there is Sandy's landlord, who fines her. Sandy's mother and her lover play an absent role in this play, as do Sandy's stepfather and Curt's grave-robbing father. There are the groups who protest in front of the massage parlor and Curt's boss, who demotes him.
These invisible characters add to the depth and breadth of the play. Although the play has only five characters, the audience perceives the cast to be much larger. The police station and the massage parlor, for instance, are full of people, even though the audience sees only two at a time. The offstage characters provide the audience with a sense of the world around the play, rather than a world focused only on the five onstage characters. They are not isolated and unaffected by society, and this is one of Gilman's points.
Passage of Time
The first act of Gilman's play takes place over the course of two weeks. It begins with the meeting of Curt and Sandy and ends with Sandy's spending the night at Curt's place. By having everything happen so quickly, Gilman focuses her audience's attention on a brief encounter between two people—one that will eventually change their lives. They meet, become friends, share thoughts, and try to work out a relationship but fail.
Most of the action of the second act is contained in one day. In that day, a climax is reached. Until the second act, there was still a slight hope that Sandy and Curt might work things out between them, but Curt blows it. He tries to do the right thing, but he does it the wrong way. The tables are turned, and Sandy, who is supposed to represent the illegitimate one, exposes Curt's illegitimacy. This happens very quickly; after this point, there is not much more to say, so Gilman makes the biggest leap in time in the whole play. In scene 7 of the second act, a year has passed. This is the epilogue of the play, summing up what has happened to the characters and bringing the audience to the place where the consequences of the characters' individual actions have brought them.
Gilman's plays are often said to reflect the characteristics of social realism. Her concentration on certain aspects of society that are not always easily discussed in general conversation places her dramas on the edge of American theater, away from mainstream productions, such as Broadway musicals. She did not, however, create this form. Social realism has been around since the nineteenth century, a time when artists and writers turned to a more realistic approach, in defiance of the romantic movement that was, at that time, predominant. A definition commonly used for social realism refers to the influence of everyday conditions on a creative work. Whether it is a painting or a play, the artist or writer attempts to present the world as it is, not as some people might wish it be. Social realists place an emphasis on the working classes and the poor, and the work is often critical of the environment that has produced these less-than-satisfactory conditions.
Works of social realism became prevalent in the United States during the Great Depression of the 1930s and early 1940s. These works depicted the awful conditions of poverty, the hardships of bad employment environments, and the cruelty of racial discrimination. This was when Richard Wright's Native Son (1940) was staged. This play (and novel of the same title) is about the oppression felt by a black man living in Chicago and his subsequent violent reactions. Another popular work, John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1940), focuses on the plight of a poor family struggling to make a living after having lost their home. No matter how hard they try, their lives keep getting worse. At this time, too, Diego Rivera, the famed Mexican muralist and avowed Communist, came to the United States and influenced the direction of American art with his realistic paintings dwelling on such themes as modern industrialization and Mexican history and peoples.
By the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, American theater was turning more toward the difficult topics of the social realists, at least off Broadway and in small regional theaters. Plays that dealt with homosexuality, AIDS, sex, and racial issues not only were produced but also won awards. Productions that dealt with socially realistic themes included Moisés Kaufman's Laramie Project (2000), about the brutal murder of a young, homosexual college student; Anna Deavere Smith's Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities (1993), about race riots in New York City; Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive (1999), about incest; and Eve Ensler's Obie-winning hit, The Vagina Monologues (1996), about women's body parts.
Prostitution in Chicago
Massage parlors that doubled as sites for prostitution still existed in Chicago in 2005. Various websites on the Internet even featured reviews of these parlors. However, the Chicago police department was trying hard to make prostitution, if not a thing of the past, at least a matter of embarrassment. In 2004, it was reported that the police department recorded more than three thousand arrests for prostitution. According to one newspaper article, Richard Daley, who was mayor of Chicago when Gilman's play was produced there, gave the city's police department permission to engage in website postings of its own. Pictures of women arrested for soliciting sex, as well as of the johns who patronized them, were made available for viewing on special pages. Their names and addresses were also provided in an attempt to embarrass these people into quitting. Apparently, traditional arrests, fines, and impoundments of vehicles just were not working.
The first public community college in the United States, Joliet Junior College, in Joliet, Illinois, was founded in 1901. Like other two-year colleges that would follow, it focused on liberal arts education. That focus changed during the years of the Great Depression, when community colleges began offering job-training programs to help ease the problems of unemployment.
By the 1960s, there were more than four hundred community colleges in the United States. Students attended these schools for a variety of reasons. Some people used them as stepping-stones to entering four-year colleges. Others went to gain associate degrees in specific trades. As of 2005, there were more than fifteen hundred community colleges, which educated more than half of the nation's undergraduates, and more than one hundred million people had taken classes at community colleges since the Joliet school was established.
Blue Surge premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago on July 9, 2001. Chris Jones, referring to this production and writing for Variety, calls Gilman's play "a racy, smart piece of gritty social realism that's alternately funny and politically provocative." Although Jones finds moments in the play that seem to be forced, a plot that appears at times to be contrived, and some language that might be "more suited to cable television" than to a small theater, he also says that "Gilman's writing is heartfelt and the narrative crackles along with plenty of surprises." Jones concludes his review by calling Gilman's work "a lively, flashy, gripping and typically smart piece of theater."
Joel Henning, a critic for the Wall Street Journal, also writes a mixed review for Gilman's play. There are moments that Henning finds exceedingly well done and others that he considers boring. At one end, Henning states that Gilman "controls her plots to a fault." For this reason, Henning concludes that, in some ways, Blue Surge is "too predictable, more like pallid television than edgy theater." At the other end, however, Henning compliments Gilman's concepts. "Some of her ideas," says Henning, "and much of her dialogue—though occasionally loony—are often dazzling." Henning finds the least believable character in the play to be Beth. If this play is about stripping "away Beth's veneer of social and economic altruism," it did not work, in Henning's opinion. The dialogue that this character is provided is some of Gilman's most contrived, Henning states. It is through this character that Gilman supposedly tries to make a point about "the motives of the rich," but this attempt does not come off well. Instead, the character of Beth "never seems to be much more than a cardboard poster." In conclusion, Henning holds out hope for Gilman as a playwright. "Ms. Gilman is young," he writes. "We can hope that her future plays will remain funny and accessible, full of meaning, yes, but meaning delivered other than with a cudgel."
In an article written for Crain's Chicago Business, Brian McCormick comments on the audience response to Gilman's work. "Much of that response," McCormick writes, "results from the writer's intense subject matter, an in-your-face ethos that is decidedly at odds with her soft-spoken, gentle demeanor." McCormick goes on to remark on Gilman's choice of subject matter for her plays. He states that Gilman's credo seems to be that the "more incendiary the topic, the better." McCormick reports that theater critics seem to be divided in their reviews of Gilman's plays. Some critics praise her for her intelligence, while others "complain of an emptiness behind her provocations."
One year after Blue Surge premiered in Chicago, it moved on to a stage off Broadway in New York. Simi Horwitz, a writer for Back Stage, interviewed the play's director, Robert Falls. In this interview, the director says that he found the play to be "uncommonly beautiful, exquisitely written, and ultimately uplifting." Horwitz offers his own comments about the play, stating that it is "an unexpectedly touching play." Horwitz also writes that the subject matter of the play "may be a little alien, if not off-putting, to some audiences."
Another writer for Back Stage, Victor Gluck, refers to it as possibly Gilman's best play yet. This play, says Gluck, "is that rare play about unsympathetic people that claims your sympathy. Extremely moving and beautifully written, it dramatizes its themes of social class and poverty without preaching." Gluck goes on to praise the director and some of the specific actors of the New York City production. He then remarks on Gilman's ability, saying that she creates "character by building up specific and unusual details that fill in a complete portrait."
The reviewer Ben Brantley, writing for the New York Times, states that Gilman's play, despite the fact that it was written and set in the early part of the twenty-first century, makes him feel as if he were watching a "grainy black-and-white film" from the Depression era—which Brantley attributes to the subject matter of the play. Gilman's characters, Brantley finds, are similar to the "young idealists" of those early movies, who "realize they are trapped, trapped in a society that will never give them an even break." Brantley praises Gilman for her work, which often presents "impeccably detailed, clear-eyed and sometimes overly schematic works." However, he points out some weaknesses. "While the appealing young cast members all occasionally hit emotional notes that resonate," Brantley writes, "there's an air of self-consciousness abroad that teeters on the brink of melodrama." Brantley ends his review, however, on an upbeat note. "Ms. Gilman," he says, "has the undeniable virtue of focusing with lucidity and evenhandedness on subjects that are more often sensationalized in the popular arts."
Hart is a freelance writer and published author with degrees in English and creative writing. In this essay, she examines the function of Beth in Gilman's play and the elements that make Beth such a flat character.
Gilman's play Blue Surge is about class and economic structure in the United States. The playwright portrays her ideas on these topics through the various characters of her play, with four characters representing the poorer side of society and only one of them the moneyed class. The single character who is rich is Beth, the girlfriend of Curt. Beth has few lines and is seldom seen onstage, and yet hers is a pivotal role, at least in an abstract way. Despite the fact that she is a minor character, she carries the weight of the oppositional point of the argument—the argument of the working class versus the privileged.
Critics have complained about Beth, calling Gilman's creation a flat character, one that has little depth. If Beth is the only representative of the rich, does not this also mean that Gilman's reflection of the upper class is flat? To push this question a little further, has Gilman's play provided a legitimate example of the rich versus the poor, or has she merely presented a one-sided view? To see whether Gilman has, in fact, done this, one needs to look closely at the role of Beth. What lines is she given? How does she represent her class? Does she ever defend herself?
The first lines out of Beth's mouth are not very flattering to her character. They demonstrate Beth's sense of superiority and lack of compassion. She starts off with a criticism of Curt's friend and police partner, Doug. Once she finishes with Doug, Beth moves on to disparage a local restaurant that caters to people who do not have much money to spend when they go out to eat. She insinuates that this particular restaurant is no better than a McDonald's. She also implies that the people who go to this restaurant do not have good taste. They do not, in Beth's opinion, know the difference between a salad made with iceberg lettuce and one made with gourmet mixed greens, typically served in better-class restaurants.
As the dialogue continues, Beth carries on with her assessments, changing from the people Curt must deal with in his life and his job to Curt himself. As she persists in pointing her judgmental finger, she also maintains her lofty position. Through her words, Beth puts Curt in a lower position. She gives him credit, when he insists upon it, for knowing more about prostitutes than she does. But her statement is loaded, insinuating that she knows more than he does of matters that are more significant. "Okay," she says. "You know more about hookers than I do. Okay? Fine. Congratulations."
Beth's tone does not improve. After Curt explains how he bungled the arrest of the suspected prostitute at the massage parlor, Beth turns from being judgmental to being sweet, nauseatingly so. "Honey, you shouldn't feel bad that you didn't know how to go to a hooker. That's a good thing." Here Beth sounds as if she is a schoolteacher talking condescendingly to a kindergarten child who has just complained of not being able to make a spitball.
In this introduction to Beth, the audience has been given very little upon which to make a positive assessment of the play's solitary character from the wealthier class. There is not much to like about Beth, and the dialogue between Beth and Curt is not indicative of a healthy and loving relationship. Curt, on the other hand, has already become endearing to the audience. He has bungled his attempts to arrest a prostitute. He has admitted to Sandy that he does not know what he is doing. He is, in other words, human and thus easy to relate to. He shows humility and sticks up for his friends as well as the so-called common people. He is easy to empathize with.
Beth also exposes some of her weaknesses, but they are not nearly so appealing as Curt's. The next flaw that she demonstrates is her tendency to contradict herself. When Curt first brings up the topic of the prostitutes, Beth thinks the police should leave the women alone. She stands up for them; for a brief moment, some members of the audience might applaud her. Not only has she taken a humanitarian approach to prostitution, she has also put a positive spin on her argument. Prostitution should be legalized, she suggests, but Beth's stance turns out to be an abstract one, not all that well grounded in reality. Shortly after Curt reveals that he had to choose one of the women in particular, Beth becomes jealous. She forgets her original support for the prostitutes and now refers to them as "scuzzy girls," a description of prostitutes not meant to be flattering.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Gilman's play Spinning into Butter, published by Faber and Faber in 2000, takes place at a liberal Vermont college, where political correctness prevails. Unfortunately, racial prejudice also thrives on the campus, despite many of the faculty members' denials. Gilman exposes how racism can exist in the deep recesses of anyone's mind, even so-called liberals.
- Boy Gets Girl, another of Gilman's plays, premiered in 2000 in Chicago. It tells the story of a blind date gone wrong. After the protagonist rejects the young man, he begins to terrorize her by stalking her.
- In 1999, Gilman's award-winning play The Glory of Living premiered in London, capturing the awe and fascination of Gilman's British audiences. This play takes place in the rural South and focuses on a young teenage prostitute who runs away with a no-good car thief. The couple marry, and the husband forces the protagonist to lure other young runaway girls to their house, where both husband and wife become involved in their murders.
- Neil Labute is another playwright who, like Gilman, focuses on social issues in his work. Labute is a prolific writer, and one of his best-appraised works is a collection of three one-acts called Bash: Three Plays, published in 2000. It includes Medea Redux, the tale of a woman who relates a story about a relationship with her English teacher; Iphigenia in Orem, about a Utah businessman who confesses to a stranger a crime he has committed; and A Gaggle of Saints, about a young Mormon couple who relate a violent crime in which they were involved.
- For another take on prostitution, the journalist Lael Morgan's Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush (1999) can be recommended. This story chronicles the lives of some of the women who went to Alaska in search of wealth.
This is how the second scene of the play ends. Beth has made her appearance, and it is not a very attractive picture. She has shown herself to be wishy-washy and critical. She demonstrates when she becomes jealous of the prostitute that she is not totally secure in herself; for most of her time on stage, however, she takes a superior stance. Beth's superiority is not established from having elevated herself, but rather from having pushed other people down to a position below her.
Beth represents the privileged side of Gilman's opposition of class and money. Beth has been described as living on a trust fund left her by a wealthy grandfather. The other characters belong to the working class. They struggle through life, working at jobs they do not necessarily like. They were raised poor and had parents who were less than ideal, to say the least. They seem to trip through life, falling into one pit after another and picking themselves up and trying again. They are, as Gilman portrays them, the underdogs of life. In contrast, Gilman portrays the rich as having easy lives, with opportunities handed to them without much effort on their part (other than being born); worries are erased from their lives because they have money. In addition, the rich, as Gilman expresses it through Curt, may have it easy, but they are not very good. Rich people make poor people feel bad about themselves. They make Curt feel as if he stinks when he is in their presence.
Beth's appearance on stage reinforces Curt's description of the rich. Beth makes Curt nervous. He sweats when he is around her and has to take many showers so that he does not become smelly. Beth hears these comments from Curt, but she does not defend herself. She does not try to bridge the gap. She just stands there in front of him and takes it. It is as if she cannot speak, although she is not tongue-tied when it comes to making herself look like an arrogant fool. It seems as though Beth has been set up to be the scapegoat.
Beth does not return until act 2, and her return is not graceful. She confronts Curt when she finds him with Sandy and, before leaving the stage, quickly sums Sandy up as a whore. Beth resorts to judging people again, and she does so through unflattering and hurtful stereotyping. Calling Sandy a prostitute would be one thing, but in using the word whore, Beth is further denigrating her. Admittedly, Beth is angry and hurt at that moment. But her actions further alienate her from the audience, who has seen the more human side of Sandy and is beginning to relate to and empathize with her. Beth remains on the outside, and Gilman does not give Beth a chance to state her case.
Although Gilman provides details of Curt's and Sandy's lives and of their personal philosophies and opinions of life, there is little or no such exposition given on Beth's behalf. She makes quick entrances and just as quick exits. Her dialogue consists mainly of questions directed at Curt, or else she is flinging out sharp retorts meant to inflict some degree of pain. She does not try to understand Curt. Neither does she defend herself and the class of people she is supposed to represent. She is, however, given one final chance to do so. It is in scene 3 of act 2. Unfortunately, Beth blows it again. She tries to defend herself from Curt's description of how she looks at poor people, including Curt, but she never makes a statement that might turn a better light onto the wealthy class—one that might make rich people look more lovable, or even likeable.
There is nothing said in this play that is complimentary of the rich. The upper class, represented by Beth, is never developed. From beginning to end, the rich remain stick figures, while the poor characters are fully fleshed out. A more rounded play might have tried a little harder to present the other side.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Blue Surge, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Heims is a writer and teacher living in Paris. In this essay, he argues that Gilman considers that how people are valued is more important than what values they hold.
Whatever other factors may contribute to the quality of human relationships and to the cohesiveness of society, whether people share the same values or are in conflict over their values fundamentally influences the strength and the nature of all human association. In Blue Surge, Rebecca Gilman explores how social and moral values and how social and moral valuation influence the way individuals react to and interact with each other and, especially, how they value themselves and each other. Against the background of an effort by a group of fundamentalist Christians to shut down a massage parlor, which is really a front for a house of prostitution, Gilman presents the story of four people—two police officers and two prostitutes—who are transformed by their contact with each other as they function inside of and respond to the larger social issue and find their own values and identities challenged and, to a greater or lesser degree, changed.
In act 1, scene 4, of Blue Surge, Gilman shows the antagonism that defines and seems to fuel the relationship between Curt and Beth. Curt is a police officer on the vice squad. He was raised in poverty—"a big dinner at my house was deviled ham and crackers"—by his mother after his father, a gravedigger, was sent to prison for robbing the corpses he was burying. Beth, his girlfriend, is an art teacher who is able to be unconcerned that she does not make much money, since she lives on the interest generated by stocks that her grandfather placed in her name when she was born. The disparity in their backgrounds is the cause of a constant clash between them. They argue about their values. Curt feels that Beth does not value him because of his class background, and he resents her because of hers.
"He wastes everybody's time, he totally blew it, and it's like there are no repercussions with him. He's oblivious." This is what Curt says to Beth about his partner, Doug, who, because of his clumsiness, has botched the arrest of a prostitute and, in consequence, the attempt to close the massage parlor. Beth seems to be in sync with Curt when she responds, "I don't see why you're still friends with him." Curt's answer seems straightforward, "We're not friends, really. We're just partners." Given this response, Beth's comment "He's such a jerk" appears to be inoffensive, merely an echo, in fact, of what Curt has been griping about. Curt, however, does take offense. "Could you not rag on my friends for once?" he snaps at her. The man who Curt has just said is not his friend suddenly becomes his friend, and Beth is accused of "ragging on" him when it was Curt himself who has been doing the ragging.
Rather than argue and point out the contradiction, Beth ducks. She attempts to change the subject. "So what's with this massage parlor?" she asks. But no topic of conversation is safe for them. As Curt explains, "It's right next to the Ground Round. These Christian Coalition people take their kids there…. They're freaking out." Flippantly, perhaps appreciating the double meaning suggested by the name of the restaurant, Beth responds, "That's what they get for going to the Ground Round." Curt does not find her quip funny. For him, rather, it is an indication of elitism. He takes it as a put-down of ordinary people and responds defensively. Another squabble begins. Again Beth retreats and says, "You know, you shouldn't close down this massage parlor, you should legalize it. These women aren't victims. They made a choice to be sex workers. If it was legal, they could unionize and get health benefits. And safe working conditions."
Curt answers her with sarcasm, saying, "Sounds good." Now it is Beth who feels demeaned by Curt. "If you think I'm full of [sh―t], tell me," she says. "Okay," he says and continues:
You don't know the first … thing about it. Drive over to Malton Road some night and see if these women look like they're in charge of anything…. They get the [sh―t] beat out of them on a regular basis and every single one of them is hooked on something because it's just about the most demeaning thing you could possibly do.
Beth becomes petulant rather than explaining to Curt that his description of the situation, if it is accurate (and Gilman's portrayal of both the prostitutes, Sandy and Heather, indicates that it is not), reflects exactly what she was saying. She claims that the oppressive nature of prostitution is not the consequence of prostitution itself but of the working conditions spawned by making prostitution illegal. "Of course," she says, "you know more about this than I do." Curt responds, "On this particular subject, I do. Yes…. It's one very small area. But when I'm actually an authority, I wish you'd just let me be the authority."
The way in which Curt insists on his authority reveals the depth of his insecurity. This exchange between Curt and Beth, moreover, is but one example of their constant state of discord. Their discord is the result of that insecurity and of the crippling sense of inferiority that haunts him and that he fights against by blaming her for his feeling it. The source of his misery is not Beth, however, but his own self-pity and self-contempt, which he uses her to experience and which he blames on her. "No matter how hard I try," he tells her in act 2, scene 3, after they have broken up, "I am never going to be as good as you." Even though she tells him that this is not so, he dismisses what she says:
I was so surprised when you said you'd go out with me … And for four years I've been … trying not to say the wrong thing…. I get this nervous sweat. Around you. And it smells bad. That's why I shower so much…. I've walked around for four years afraid that you think I stink.
It is not surprising, given how Curt feels about himself, that he is comfortable around Sandy, the nineteen-year-old prostitute whom he first tries to arrest and then makes it his mission to help. With her, he does not feel self-disdain, because he is able to think of himself as morally superior to her. His relationship to her, throughout most of the play, is defined and fueled by his attempts to raise her up from what he considers her fallen state. But the attempt to "save" her proves fatal to him, for the more deeply involved with Sandy he becomes, the more evident it becomes that his need for help is greater than hers.
When Sandy and Curt meet after she has been released, Sandy tells Curt that she does not want to stop being a prostitute, that what she really wants is not to have to hand over half her earnings to "the house." She wants to be her own boss and keep everything for herself. Ironically, this is exactly what Beth had been saying when she spoke about legalizing prostitution. But Curt does not snap at Sandy as he snapped at Beth. In fact, after she makes it clear to Curt that she does not want his help, he replies, "Well, if I can't help you maybe you could help me." He means that he wants her to help him study, by testing him to see whether he can correctly identify tree leaves by name. By the end of the play, however, it will be clear to both of them that he needs a far deeper kind of help. The scene that begins with his offering help ends with his asking for help. Even if that is only a ploy that allows him to keep seeing her, it signals the start of a painful but humanly essential transformation for him. Rather than guarding himself, as he does with Beth, Curt exposes his wounds to Sandy.
To her, he reveals a layer of himself that is hidden below the person he appears to be on the surface. Rather than a policeman, Curt really wants to be a nature guide. That is why he is learning to identify leaves. But he is incapable even of guiding himself. This becomes clear as he and Sandy grow closer. She yields to his encouragement and attempts to find work other than prostitution. When she is pressed for money, however, she returns to the massage parlor. This enrages Curt. He sees it as betrayal. His confused relationship with Beth, however, has made it impossible for him to attend to the difficulties that have forced Sandy back to prostitution. Curt's incompetence as a guide is further revealed in his final attempt to save Sandy. Instead of saving her, he endangers himself.
When he learns that there will be another raid on the massage parlor, Curt goes there to warn Sandy and brings her evidence money that he has stolen from the police station to enable her to flee and look for other kinds of work. Of course, he is caught. Through the efforts of his lawyer and the union, he escapes imprisonment but is dismissed from the police force. He becomes a security guard and begins to take biology courses at a local community college. Sandy leaves the massage parlor and establishes herself as an independent sex worker, able to pocket the full amount of her receipts.
When next they meet, it is a year later. Theirs are not the only lives that have changed. Heather has left the massage parlor, works as a bartender, and is having a baby with Doug. Because of Heather, Doug has lost some of the righteous moralizing that characterized his earlier opinions and has admitted and gratified some of his own, perhaps less socially acceptable, sexual desires. As Curt and Sandy open up to each other again, he shows a clarity of insight about himself that he had not had before. "All those years," he tells her, "and all that work. I didn't throw it away on you…. I got so mad and I threw it away on feeling sorry for myself…. All I can figure is, I just got tired." He does not say what made him tired or what he got tired of. Nonetheless, it seems clear that Curt grew tired of his own resentments and self-pity, of using them to resist his own grief and sense of need. He got tired of bearing the burden of his past, of trying to deny who he was, and of trying to meet an expectation of himself that he projected onto others, especially Beth. He got tired of trying to give help when he so much needed it.
Sandy responds to his vulnerability, and he is able to allow her to do so. She says, simply, "If you want, I could sit here for just a little while, and I could hold your hand. If you want." After a slight hesitation, which indicates his ongoing struggle with himself in order to bring himself to accept the help he so deeply wants, he gives her his hand.
Thus, Blue Surge, which appears to be a play about a social conflict regarding prostitution and the clash of moral and class values, does not really attempt to resolve those issues. It shifts away from them and focuses on individual experience without judging the individuals. Rather than concentrating on social conflicts, Gilman focuses on the resulting frustrated longing of bruised hearts and on the struggles her characters must endure as they realize the heart's pain. When they do—and if they can surrender to that pain—Gilman suggests, they may transcend it; only then will they be able to accept the tender help of an offered hand that such surrender might make possible. In Blue Surge, Gilman seems to be showing that the values people hold are of less importance than how each person values himself or herself and how each person is valued.
Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on Blue Surge, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
In the following review, Hurwitt calls Blue Surge "more socially and psychologically complex" than Gilman's previous plays and compliments the "grappling with what's right" for making the play "so moving and unsettlingly familiar."
Helping others is not only hard but also unpredictable and likely to backfire for the Midwestern characters in Rebecca Gilman's cops-and-hookers drama Blue Surge at the Magic Theatre. Helping oneself, however, can be immeasurably harder. More than the difficulty of doing the right thing, it's the grappling with what's right and on whose terms that makes the play so moving and unsettlingly familiar.
What starts as a routine vice raid on a thinly disguised small-town brothel—the Naughty But Nice massage parlor—turns into a life-changing situation for all involved. Cops get involved with hookers. A career and an engagement get derailed. Questions of sexual morality take a backseat to economic exigencies, lingering childhood traumas and class hatred. In a sterling West Coast premiere directed by Amy Glazer, the drama surges with sympathy for its understandably lost souls.
The Surge that opened Friday at the Magic has been considerably revised—tightened and honed to good effect—since its premiere at Chicago's Goodman Theatre two years ago (the published version). Though written with Gilman's usual facility for a page-turner plot and disturbing moral shadings, it's something of a departure from the issue-driven dramas that established her as one of the hot young playwrights of recent years: Boy Gets Girl (about a stalker), The Glory of Living (serial killers and child abuse), Spinning into Butter (racism in liberal academia).
As in her less well-developed The American in Me, which premiered at the Magic two years ago, Gilman's scope is broader here, less headline-driven and consequently more socially and psychologically complex. Glazer, who gave American a dynamic staging (and directed Butter at Theatre-Works the same year), has responded with a production as beautifully flowing and shaded as the script.
The primary settings—a seedy massage parlor, a police station, a lonely low-budget kitchen, a small-town bar—slip easily into place on Eric Sinkkonen's open, versatile set, filling the space defined by a square blue outline on the floor and a blue-pipe square above (the blues gleaming electrically in Jim Cave's subtle use of black light). Glazer keeps her scene changes swift and smooth, establishing a cinematic flow that enhances a psychological realism within a patently artificial space.
She mirrors that effect in the performances, playing the emotional tension of Gilman's primary romantic entanglement against the slightly exaggerated comedy of the supporting couple. The vividly rendered characterizations of the cast fulfill her vision.
John Flanagan is an engagingly conflicted vice cop—displaying his nervousness and cleanliness obsession in the simple act of undressing for his undercover massage parlor bust (and carefully folding his T-shirt and jeans)—who grows compellingly more complicated in the course of Surge. His Curt is a man wrestling with his aspirations and class-based resentments, trying to balance the demands of his job against his desire to help others find their way out of the poverty he feels has robbed him of options in life.
Flanagan is brilliant in his confrontations with his upper-class fiancee, Beth (a smart, classy Cofie Henninger, exuding unconscious entitlement), as he tries to explain his discomfort with her class and even her ability to choose to be an underpaid artist. He's appealing, irritating and deeply moving as he tries to help the young hooker Sandy (Kirsten Roeters) and confronts his own class condescension in the process.
Roeters is a delightful Sandy, from the cold snap of distrust she registers when she realizes that her client is probably a cop, through her slow softening to Curt's appeal. She and Flanagan generate a sensual tension that enriches their interplay of trust and distrust, sympathy and disappointment. The still empathy of her watchful attention to Curt's final realization—that he has to learn to help himself before he can help anyone else—compounds and amplifies the emotional power of Flanagan's resonant performance.
Meanwhile, in the alternative reality of the less self-conscious, Curt's partner, Doug (Darren Bridgett), and Sandy's co-worker Heather (Jibz Cameron) provide comically affecting relief. Bridgett enlivens the proceedings with a boyishly breezy, unconflicted hedonism and absence of introspection—failing to notice anything ridiculous in his stark-naked badge-flashing pose as he busts Heather. Cameron is as comical in her all-business lingerie (the apt costumes are by Kira Kristensen) as in her drunken attempts at bartending.
Nothing terribly dramatic happens to these people in the end. But in that nothing, Surge offers a deeply affecting wrestle with the drama of ordinary life.
Source: Robert Hurwitt, "Comfort, Discomfort of Surge's Strangers," in San Francisco Chronicle, April 7, 2003, Section D, p. 3.
In the following essay, Jones uses quotes from Gilman in providing background on Gilman's art and career.
Don't let the gentle demeanor fool you. Her plays are rife with murder and mayhem.
The aging, hemmed-in Chicago suburb of Forest Park, just 15 traffic-clogged minutes west of the Loop, with its grand old Italian restaurants and hedge-rimmed lawns, is not the kind of place you'd expect to find a progressive storefront theatre premiering Rebecca Gilman's The Glory of Living, a dark and intensely violent play about a Texan teenage murderess who picks up vagrant girls for her boyfriend's sexual kicks.
What's even more unlikely, perhaps, considering the power pyramid that favors major theatre institutions, is that a tiny company like Forest Park's ensemble-based Circle Theatre would be sharing the prestige of a Rebecca Gilman premiere with the lofty likes of the Goodman Theatre, New York's Lincoln Center Theater Company and London's Royal Court Theatre. But then, few playwrights find success as suddenly or as prolifically as Gilman has—and few either care or can afford to be as loyal as she is to the theatre that gave her a start.
Within the last year or so, Gilman has been transformed from a struggling Chicago scribe, who did temp work by day and wrote by night, into one of America's most talked-about and sought-after playwrights. Theatres are fighting for the rights to do her plays, and the Goodman has put up two of her works in a space of no more than nine months.
Les Waters' mounting of Spinning into Butter, Gilman's controversial play about racial issues on a college campus, was an unequivocal hit with Chicago critics and audiences last summer (the Goodman run was extended three times), and Dan Sullivan will direct the second production of the play in July at Lincoln Center. Even before the New York critics check in, there is so much interest from regional theatres that the play is likely to show up on this magazine's next annual list of the most-produced plays of the season.
Boy Gets Girl, Gilman's new thriller about a blind date turned terribly wrong, opened on the Goodman main stage in March and appears likely to follow Spinning into Butter's route to New York in short order. Between those commitments, Gilman somehow found time to write another play (also about murder) for the Circle—The Crime of the Century, her moving portrait of the eight Chicago nurses brutally killed by Richard Speck in 1966, opened in Forest Park last December.
In London, Gilman became the first American ever to win the Evening Standard Award for most promising playwright after The Glory of Living was produced at the Royal Court Theatre in January 1999. The play had already notched the American Theatre Critics Association's 1998 Osborne Award for the best new work by an emerging playwright.
Commissions are nosy mounting up. In February, the Prince Charitable Trusts announced that Gilman and the Goodman Theatre will receive the $75,000 Prince Prize for commissioning original work—it will be used to produce Gilman's next play, provisionally titled The Great Baseball Strike of 1994, during the Goodman's 2000–01 season in its new building. Kent Thompson, artistic director of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, say's he is musing over which Gilman play to produce in Montgomery—and he's also planning on commissioning an entirely new work from the 36-year-old author, who's rapidly becoming overwhelmed by offers.
A little more than two years ago, though, Gilman was clerking out a living in the Chicago accounting office of Peat/Marwick. And in most professional theatrical circles, her name meant nothing.
December 1996 was a busy month in the Chicago theatre. With a host of shows opening downtown, most of the city's leading theatre critics had bigger fish to fry than schlepping out to Forest Park for a low-profile Circle Theatre opening, especially since almost no one had heard of the playwright.
Who was she? A slight, unassuming woman with dark hair and a soft Alabama accent, whose gentle demeanor provided no clue whatsoever, then or now, to the intense content of her plays. Gilman was one of a large and varied group of resident writers at Chicago Dramatists, one of the city's most loyal incubators of young playwrights, but the primary harvest of her career to date had been a stack of some 150 rejection letters from resident theatres, including the Goodman.
"I was writing," Gilman says, because it was cheaper than therapy. I never thought I would ever make any money off these things—that never seemed even a possibility for me." Certainly, her body of work was small and perceived as rather eccentric. Always Open, for instance—penned when Gilman was just 18—is about a disgruntled group of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts employees who decide to suffocate their manager in a big vat of dough.
A native of Trussville, Ala., Gilman had arrived in the Midwest by a circuitous route. She studied at Middlebury College in Vermont before graduating from Birmingham Central College in Alabama and, after various digressions, finally fought her way into the University of Iowa's M.F.A. program in playwriting. Upon moving to Chicago, she supported her writing habit with a variety of clerical jobs. Aside from a small production in Houston of one of her early efforts, none of her plays had been produced professionally.
That included The Glory of Living. No theatre in town had been willing to touch this dark, unflinching and explicit exploration of child abuse, sexual deviance and serial murder. The piece was all the more disturbing because it was drawn from truth. "The springboard for the play," Gilman says, "came from a real Alabama murder during my senior year of college. The criminal was a young girl who had nor been taught to value her own life, so she could not be expected to value anyone else's." In Gilman's semi-fictional account, the 15-year-old protagonist, Lisa, was a child bride turned into a multiple murderer by her sick husband.
Gilman had a staunch defender in Robin Stanton, artistic director of Chicago Dramatists, who believed passionately in The Glory of Living and shopped it furiously around Chicago, with no success. "I was certain this was a very important piece of writing," Stanton recalls. "Rebecca is a playwright with real courage." Circle finally agreed to house the show, in part to get Stanton off its back.
It was the best decision the theatre ever made. Those few folks lucky enough to see Stanton's premiere call it a revelatory night of theatre, the kind of event that makes a critic want to shout the playwright's name from the rooftops. As would prove typical in her later works, Gilman laid out her story's lurid events with almost clinical dispatch, never shrinking from physical depictions of abuse but constantly confounding her audience's expectations. Instead of sensationalizing the killing spree or indulging in Southern stereotypes, Gilman made the case that we all bear responsibility for young people whose childhoods have been stolen by a society that no longer nurtures its young.
The reviews, phone calls and general buzz quickly reached the new-play offices of the Goodman and Steppenwolf companies. The Goodman moved fast, offering Gilman its McPherson Award, a commission named in honor of late playwright Scott McPherson. Artistic director Robert Falls read Glory of Living and a draft of her next play. He quickly joined the fan club. "Rebecca is both subversive and exciting," Falls says. "She uses a simple and sparse language with characters that remain unsentimental and truthful. And there's a real ferocious comic voice behind her writing."
That ferocity can also be seen in Gilman's refusal to shy away from the trickiest of themes. In the case of Spinning into Butter, her status as a white woman gave Gilman no qualms about exploring (sometimes in a comic mode) the effects of racism on an East Coast college campus. The play's protagonist, a youngish, liberal dean of students named Sarah, hears that someone is pinning anonymous racist notes on the dorm room door of one of her college's few black students (a character that never appears in the play) and is forced to confront her own latent culpability in the misdeed. This seemingly kind and sympathetic character confesses her own veiled racism in a searing second-act monologue that shocked the audience at the Goodman Studio into a silence so complete it seemed born of personal agony.
Gilman's point, of course, is that liberal intellectuals often talk a good game about diversity, but so fail to have the requisite experience or true understanding of minority experiences, that they end up as part of the problem.
"While the concept of political correctness has made us more sensitive to how we perceive each other;" Gilman says, "there's also a danger that the rhetoric will be allowed to mask some of our really angry feelings. People are now often afraid to articulate what they actually feel about each other."
The battleground may be gender rather than race, but objectification and fear are also the main themes of Boy Gets Girl, a gripping page-turner of a play with a thriller-style narrative that at first seems to recall such Hollywood attempts to exploit urban insecurities as Single White Female. The action starts when a single, thirty-something journalist named Theresa is set up by a friend on a blind date. At first the guy seems harmless, even pleasant. But over the course of time he reveals himself to be a dangerous stalker who threatens to unravel every thread of the now-paranoid Theresa's life.
"The pitfall is the expectations of the genre," Gilman allows. "You expect someone to get shot and that there will be a neat conclusion in some way or other. I wanted to take the subject seriously and write about it more realistically."
So the play differs from its Hollywood counterparts in several important ways. Through a host of semi-complicit minor characters (not all of whom are male), Gilman makes the point that the date from hell is not just an isolated jerk, but an inevitable product of a society that relentlessly objectifies women. One of Theresa's ongoing interview subjects is a filmmaker named Les Kennkat, a character based on Russ Meyer of Supervixens fame, who has an open obsession with women's breasts. But even as she paints Kennkat guilty as sin, Gilman also makes him into a likeable eccentric.
"I think this play is the flip side to Spinning into Butter," Gilman says. "It's not about what it is to objectify but to be objectified. As a society we tend to dehumanize each other, whether through prejudice, sexism, economics or the Internet. At some point we need to stop identifying so much with the things people are trying to sell us and try to think of each other on a more human level."
That perspective seems to confirm the opinion of Michael Maggio, dean of the theatre school at DePaul University and the Goodman's associate artistic director, as to what qualities most clearly define Gilman as a playwright. "She seems to have a remarkable capacity to put her finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist," Maggio posits. "She understands how to write plays that are premised in something that seems immediate and recognizable to her audience, but she finds a way to dig very deeply into the characters and the milieu. And she has a remarkable capacity to hook you into a story."
In other words, Gilman writes accessible plays with such intriguing plots that the audience finds itself hungry for what is going to happen next—and once she has the viewer under that narrative spell, she does not shirk from exposing complex themes with a strongly feminist sensibility, dispensed with just the right quirky touch of nouveau Southern gothic.
As you read the burgeoning Gilman oeuvre, other common themes emerge. She's fascinated by crime but is determined that her perpetrators' actions are never seen as isolated from societal forces. She fights objectification but seems to understand its hold on modern consciousness. She's never crudely polemical; there's always a sense of life's ironies and ambiguities.
But perhaps the most striking (and currently unfashionable) aspect of Gilman's stance is a warm and sympathetic attitude towards the victims in her plays, especially when their humanity is negated by tensions between society's liberal and conservative factions. In Crime of the Century (based on the book of the same name by Dennis L. Breo and William Martin), Gilman largely ignored Speck's criminal motivations and focused instead on the lives of the nurses, lives he stole with such brutality.
"I did not find Richard Speck to be at all interesting," Gilman says. "He was a jerk, a misogynist and a petty criminal. I did not want to give him stage time." But the nurses, rendered anonymous by history, were another story.
"The dramatic version so forcibly brought through to me the sorrow and tragedy of all these lives being snuffed out," says author and Speck prosecutor William Martin, who showed up on Circle's opening night and was deeply moved by the play. "I had tears in my eyes. The play is a tribute to the nurses, their families and the tragic loss that society suffered by their lives being extinguished."
Since the original idea to write about Speck had come from a Circle ensemble member, Gilman had no qualms about putting aside more lucrative offers and debuting the work in the suburb that starred her rush to fame. "Circle took a risk on me," she reasons, "when no other theatre was interested."
Source: Chris Jones, "A Beginner's Guide to Rebecca Gilman," in American Theatre, Vol. 17, No. 4, April 2000, p. 26.
Brantley, Ben, "A Play Luxuriates in Its Own Sense of Doom," in the New York Times, April 23, 2002, Section E, p. 1.
Gluck, Victor, "Review of Blue Surge," in Back Stage, Vol. 43, No. 18, May 3, 2002, p. 36.
Henning, Joel, "Theater: Spinning Vice into Virtue—In Rebecca Gilman's 'Blue Surge,' Sex and Class Intermingle, but the Sermons Last Too Long," in the Wall Street Journal, July 31, 2001, Section A, p. 16.
Horwitz, Simi, "An American Realist," in Back Stage, Vol. 43, No. 17, April 26, 2002, pp. 7-8.
Jones, Chris, "Review of Blue Surge," in Variety, Vol. 383, No. 9, July 23, 2001, p. 23.
McCormick, Brian, "Rebecca Gilman 36; Playwright Provacateur," in Crain's Chicago Business, Vol. 23, November 6, 2000, Section E, p. 8.
Iwasaki, Mineko, Geisha, a Life, Washington Square Press, 2003.
Although a geisha would never call herself a prostitute, there are a few similarities in the two professions. In this book, Iwasaki exposes some of the elements of her profession, for which she began training at the tender age of five.
Partnow, Elaine T., and Lesley Anne Hyatt, The Female Dramatist: Profiles of Women Playwrights from Around the World from the Middle Ages to the Present Day, Facts on File, 1998.
This rare collection of historical data focuses on dramatists who happen to be women. More than two hundred female playwrights are included, with information on the plays they produced as well as the critical response that the plays received. This is a good book about the evolution of plays written by women.
Pizer, Donald, ed., The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: From Howells to London, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
The beginnings of American realism are explored in American novels written by such authors as Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, and Mark Twain.
Rank, Mark Robert, One Nation Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All, Oxford University Press, 2005.
Professor Rank argues that people who are poor are not totally responsible for their condition. Rank makes a powerful case that poverty is a condition imposed by the failures of U.S. economic structure and politics. He also provides a workable solution.
Sutton, Randy, True Blue: Police Stories by Those Who Have Lived Them, St. Martin's Press, 2004.
Sutton invited police officers from all over the United States to write stories about their lives and their line of work. This book is a collection of those stories. While some of them are naturally very sad, especially those that deal with the terrorist attacks in New York City, other stories are surprisingly funny.
Willis, Clint, NYPD: Stories of Survival from the World's Toughest Beat, Thunder's Mouth, 2002.
A person who has never been to New York City might never have guessed the circumstances that are captured in this book of police stories. Someone who has lived in New York City will probably still be surprised and shocked at what goes on in the city.