Frozen, by British playwright Bryony Lavery, was first produced in 1998, by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, in Birmingham, England. It is available in an edition published by Faber and Faber in 2002. Frozen is about the murder of a ten-year-old girl by a child-molesting serial killer and the crime's aftermath. There are three main characters, whose stories begin separately but then gradually converge. Agnetha, a psychiatrist from New York, presents evidence that violent criminals are brain damaged and not responsible for what they do. Nancy, the mother of the victim, is eventually able to forgive the murderer, Ralph, who for his part finally learns to feel remorse.
Frozen raises issues of great importance for criminal justice. Is the murderer evil or is his crime only the symptom of an illness? The play also explores the act of forgiveness. How can it be possible for a mother to forgive a man who has sexually molested and murdered her young daughter? With its powerful emotional impact, Frozen has been an international success. In recent years it has been one of the most produced plays in the United States and has also been produced around the world in cities such as Dublin, Amsterdam, Madrid, and Paris. The play also became the subject of controversy when Lavery was accused of plagiarizing the work of an American psychiatrist, Dorothy Otnow Lewis, whose life and work closely resembled that of the character Agnetha in the play.
British playwright and director Bryony Lavery was born on December 21, 1947, in Wakefield, Yorkshire, England. Her father was the principal of a nurse training college; her mother stayed at home raising their four children. In an interview with the Observer newspaper, Lavery described her childhood as "very happy and very poor." Lavery attended the University of London, where she first began writing plays, three of which were produced while she was still a student. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1969.
In the 1970s, while working as a theater administrator, she began to make a name for herself in Britain's emerging alternative theater movement. She was especially concerned with writing plays that had prominent roles for women. Her play, Sharing, which she also directed, was produced in London in 1976. With a friend, Gerard Bell, Lavery then formed a collective group, Les Oeufs Malades, which performed her plays in small venues. During the 1970s and 1980s, Lavery was artistic director for a number of small theater groups in London, including Extraordinary Productions, Female Trouble, and Gay Sweatshop.
Lavery has written over fifty plays. Some of the most notable include Origin of the Species (1984), Her Aching Heart (1990), Kitchen Matters (1990), More Light (1996) and Goliath (1997), the latter a one-woman show in which the actress plays all the characters. In 1991, she cowrote Peter Pan (based on the book by J. M. Barrie), and played the role of Tinkerbell herself.
In 1998, Frozen, Lavery's most well-known play, was produced. It won TMA Best Play 1998 and Eileen Anderson Central Television Award for Best Regional Play 1998. When Frozen moved to Broadway in 2004, it was nominated for a Tony Award. The play became controversial when Lavery was accused of plagiarizing some of her material from an article in the New Yorker about a psychiatrist who had studied serial killers.
Lavery's most recent plays are A Wedding Story (2000), The Magic Toyshop (2001; adapted from the novel by Angela Carter), Illyria (2002), and Last Easter, which was produced in New York at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in 2004.
Lavery has also written television and radio plays, and is the author of a biography of the actress Tallulah Bankhead. She taught play-writing at Birmingham University from 1989 to 1992. She is an honorary doctor of arts at De Montfort University and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Act 1 of Frozen begins in New York, where psychiatrist Agnetha Gottmundsdottir is about to leave her apartment and catch a plane to London. As she leaves she bursts into tears and screams into her carry-on bag. She recovers her composure and leaves for the airport.
In scene 2, Nancy is at home in her back garden in the evening, nipping some buds off her flowers. Her monologue gives insight into her family situation. It appears that her relationship with Bob, her husband, has become difficult. She has two daughters, Ingrid and Rhona, who are always quarreling. Nancy recalls that she wanted Ingrid, who is the older of the two, to take pruning shears to her grandmother's house, but Ingrid protested. Nancy then let Ingrid go out somewhere else and told Rhona to take the shears to Grandma. Rhona has not yet returned.
In scene 3, Ralph washes his hands in the sink. He says it is one of those days when he just knows he is going to do it, although he does not specify what he means. He then describes how he goes out in his van and tries to entice a young girl on the street to get in the van with him. He keeps cushions and a sleeping bag in the van, and it does not take him long to tempt the girl to step inside.
Scene 4 is in Rhona's bedroom, seven months later. Rhona is still missing. Nancy says she has lost two stone (twenty-eight pounds), and started smoking again. She has left Rhona's room exactly as it was, and she believes that Rhona is still alive.
In scene 5, Ralph brings a suitcase into his room. He has been questioned by the police about an incident in Scotland, which he denies having anything to do with. The police found nothing incriminating in his room, but his landlady has asked him to leave anyway. He packs some pornographic videotapes involving children in his case. He has all the titles written down in his notebook and is proud of the fact that the tapes cost a lot of money and he had to get them from abroad.
On board the flight to England in scene 6, Agnetha works on her laptop, referring to the title of her academic thesis, "Serial Killing … a forgivable act?" Scared of flying, she writes an angry email to her collaborator Dr. David Nabkus. She cannot get the stewardess to bring her the brandy she thinks she needs.
Scene 7 takes place four years later. Nancy has joined an organization called FLAME, which publicizes cases of missing children. She has just returned from addressing a parent/teachers meeting in which she tells the story of Rhona, who is still missing, on her fifteenth birthday. Nancy believes Rhona is still alive. She recounts the story of how FLAME found another child who had been missing for nine years. Nancy's activities with FLAME have brought her closer to her husband, who had been having an affair, but she does not have much understanding of how her daughter Ingrid is coping with her sister's disappearance.
Twenty years later (scene 8), Ralph sits on a bench. He has just had a tattoo of the Grim Reaper done on his ankle. He shows other tattoos, on his arms. He remembers exactly where he got each tattoo, and how long it took the tattooist to do it. Then he sees a young girl somewhere and hears her laughing. He pays close attention and is obviously beginning to plan another abduction.
In scene 9, three or four days later, Nancy is walking in the sun. She says that the police have arrested a man for an unsuccessful abduction, and they have found the remains of other children in the earth floor of a lock-up shed. The man has named Rhona as one of the children. Nancy reflects that all the time she thought Rhona was alive, her daughter was actually buried in the shed.
In his cell in scene 10, Ralph describes the way he was interrogated by police, who have tried to tie him to the areas in which the crimes were committed by questioning him about where he got each tattoo. When he discovered they had found his shed and his collection of videos, he confessed to the crimes. This did not stop the police from threatening him with violence.
In scene 11, Nancy reflects on the fact that the shed where Rhona was buried was close by. She has passed it many times. Her thoughts oppress her like a heavy weight.
Agnetha addresses an academic audience in a large hall in London (scene 12), beginning to explain her research on the brains of criminals. She has also examined Ralph, who is now serving a life sentence without parole for the murders of seven young girls over a period of twenty-one years. The scene switches to the prison, with Agnetha talking to Ralph, measuring the circumference of his head and doing various tests. After one test, in which she taps him on the bridge of the nose, his rapid blinking suggests that he has damage to the frontal lobe of the brain. The frontal lobes are part of the cortex and allow people to make rational judgments and adapt to the rules of everyday life.
In scene 13, Nancy is in her house, smoking. She is thinking that she would like to see Ralph die and watch him suffer like Rhona suffered. She has seen on a videotape showing that in America, the family of the victim is allowed to attend the execution of the criminal. She quotes an eighty-year-old grandmother whose grandson was murdered, as saying that she could forgive but not forget. Nancy thinks that forgiveness must take guts. Her mother will not forgive the killer and neither will her husband. Nancy then reveals that Ingrid has decided to travel in Asia. Nancy does not understand her daughter's motivation and has little sympathy for her.
Agnetha meets Ralph again in prison (scene 14). The scene alternates between the questions she asks him for word-fluency and other structured tests and the explanation she gives to her-academic audience, in which she says she believes she can show that Ralph's responses are abnormal (due to brain damage).
In scene 15, Nancy reports how she watched as the shed where the crimes were committed was razed to the ground. She is grief-stricken and calls out for her daughters.
Agnetha continues her examination of Ralph in scene 16, noting that he has a limp. She asks him where he got a scar on his forehead, and he gives two explanations, first that he fell off a roof when he was drunk, second, that he was in a car crash when he was sixteen. He also says he blacked out after falling down a mine shaft, and that his mother threw him into the sink when he was little.
Nancy hangs out her washing in the garden (scene 17). She has received postcards from Ingrid in Tibet, and gifts including prayer flags that, according to Ingrid, help to spread compassion. Nancy is not impressed. She cannot sleep and feels barely alive. The authorities will not even let her have her daughter's remains for burial. She pegs out the flags and they wave in the wind. Ingrid returns.
Agnetha concludes her address in scene 18. She explains research showing that toddlers who have been abused respond to a classmate in distress differently from children who have not been abused. They show no concern for the welfare of the distressed child but lash out with anger and physical assaults. To illustrate this, Agnetha and Ralph are shown together; she cries because her colleague David recently died, but he responds aggressively. Agnetha continues her lecture by saying that severely abused children also suffer brain damage. Such brain damage means that they are unable to form strong connections with other human beings.
In scene 19, Nancy says that she has just returned from the chapel of rest, where she and Ingrid viewed Rhona's remains that are collected in two cardboard boxes. Nancy held her daughter's skull and said it was beautiful. She placed Rhona's toy, Leo the Lion, in the coffin with the remains. When they return, Ingrid tells her she must let go of her anger, visit Ralph and forgive him. Nancy says if she visited him, she would kill him. She cannot forgive.
In scene 20, Agnetha calls Mary, the wife of her deceased colleague, David. She is worried that Mary may have read the email she sent to David from the airplane. Mary has not. Agnetha tells her that she misses David.
In scene 21, Nancy tells Agnetha that she wants to meet Ralph. She wants him to know how she feels, and why he picked Rhona. She has tackled all the bureaucratic red tape and was told that a recommendation from Agnetha could speed up the process of getting permission.
Ralph explains to Agnetha (scene 22) how methodical he is and how furious he is that the authorities have destroyed his video collection. Agnetha asks him if he feels any remorse, and explains to him the meaning of the word. Ralph says no. He tells Agnetha about his childhood. Agnetha decides not to recommend Nancy for a visit.
In scene 23, Nancy is determined to get permission to visit. Her marriage has broken up, and her family, except for Ingrid, oppose her desire to visit Ralph.
Agnetha concludes her address in scene 24. She says that serial murderers are not evil because they have no control over what they do. Their actions are only symptoms of their illness.
Nancy visits Ralph in prison in scene 25. She says she forgives him. After a long pause, he thanks her. She says she wants him to know she does not hate him, and that she has brought some photographs of Rhona. She shows them to him. He claims he did not hurt her and she was not frightened. Nancy disputes both statements. She asks him about his family, and he tells of beatings received from his father. Only then does he see, as Nancy points it out to him, that Rhona must have been as hurt and frightened by what he was doing to her as he was by his father's actions. He starts to cry and tells Nancy not to come again.
In scene 26, Agnetha sings happily to herself. It appears that she has regained her joy in life. In the next scene, Ralph struggles to write a letter to Nancy in which he says he is sorry for what he did. He seals the letter but then tears it up.
In scene 28, Nancy is drinking her morning tea and talking about a date she had with a man the previous evening. They spent the night together. She is not sure what is going on in her life but Ingrid is encouraging her.
Agnetha and Ralph meet again (scene 29). Ralph says he is sick; he has a pain in his heart, but the doctor says there is nothing wrong with it. He says the pain began the night after Nancy came to see him. Agnetha says that what he is feeling may be psychological; it may be remorse. As she leaves him, she gives him a kiss on the cheek. In the next scene, Agnetha is about to leave London and is elated.
In his cell, Ralph is working out (scene 31). He thinks he has cancer, and to beat the disease, he fashions a belt into a noose, stands on a chair, kicks the chair away and hangs himself.
In the final scene, Agnetha and Nancy meet in a memorial garden after attending Ralph's funeral. Nancy asks Agnetha if she thinks Ralph committed suicide because of her visit, and Agnetha replies yes. Agnetha is in mourning for David, who died six months ago in a traffic accident. She reveals that two days before he died, she slept with him. She asks Nancy whether she should tell his wife. Nancy says no, she should just live with it. The sun breaks through and music plays. Nancy smiles at Agnetha.
Bob is Nancy Shirley's husband at the time Rhona is killed. He does not appear directly in the play. He has an affair with another woman, and eventually he and Nancy get divorced.
Agnetha Gottmundsdottir is an American psychiatrist from the New York School of Medicine who flies to London to present her research findings in a lecture to an academic audience. For ten years, Agnetha and her collaborator, Dr. David Nabkus, a neurologist, have been conducting psychological and neurological research into the criminal brain. They have studied two hundred and fifty dangerous criminals, including fifteen on Death Row. When Agnetha examines Ralph, she is convinced that, like the other criminals she has studied, he suffered brain damage as a child and is therefore not responsible for what he did. This enables her to have some empathy for him as an individual, and she even hugs him and kisses him on the cheek when she says goodbye. Like Nancy, Agnetha is also suffering from grief following the death of a loved one. In her case, it is the recent death of her colleague David. They had a long association. She worked with David every day for ten years, and just two days before he died, she slept with him for the first time. His senseless death has shattered her belief in the beneficence of life, and she must learn to forgive him for leaving her so abruptly. When she first appears in act 1, scene 1, she is clearly upset, and gives in to a crying fit. On the airplane from New York to London, she is furious with David for getting himself killed, because his death shows her that there is no justice in the world. She must also learn to deal with her own guilt, since David was a married man and Agnetha is good friends with his wife. Like Nancy, Agnetha is frozen up inside, and must find a way to embrace life again.
Dr. David Nabkus
Dr. David Nabkus, a neurologist, was Agnetha Gottmundsdottir's colleague. He was killed in a road accident six months before the play begins. However, his voice is heard in the play in act 1, scene 18, when Agnetha plays an audiotape of David speaking about his research. He gives a description of the behavior of an abused boy toward a classmate in distress.
Ingrid Shirley is Nancy's elder daughter. She does not appear directly in the play but her words are reported by Nancy. At the beginning of the play she is an adolescent and quarrels with her mother. She thinks Nancy gives too much attention to Rhona. Later, Ingrid learns how to deal with her grief by traveling to Asia and exploring Eastern systems of thought that promote compassion and forgiveness. Even though her mother shows little understanding of what she is trying to do, it is Ingrid who paves the way for Nancy to forgive Ralph. Ingrid is able to let go of the pain of her loss.
Nancy Shirley is the mother of Rhona, the ten-year-old girl who was murdered. She has another daughter, Ingrid. Her husband, Bob, has an affair with another woman and eventually leaves her. Nancy deals with her grief by keeping alive the hope that Rhona is alive and one day will return home. She also finds consolation in joining FLAME, an organization that publicizes cases of missing children; she speaks publicly about Rhona's case as well as those of other children. It is clear from act 1, scene 7, when she talks about the speeches she gives for FLAME, that she enjoys her work and prides herself on the dramatic effect she has as the mother of a victim. She says that she finds such work on behalf of missing children easy and that she was born to do it, but the audience guesses that she is using this work to cover up her pain.
When Nancy learns what actually happened to Rhona, she has a new level of grief to deal with. In act 1, scene 12, for example, when she learns the details of the crime, she goes over her actions on that day, wishing that she had done something differently that might have saved Rhona's life. She urges FLAME to expand its mission to include lobbying for pedophile identification laws. She wants the authorities to inform local communities when convicted pedophiles move into their neighborhoods.
In dealing with her grief, Nancy at first feels only anger toward the killer. She thinks he deserves to be executed. She also feels that her heart has been torn out of her chest and she is unable to feel anything. But encouraged by Ingrid, she eventually learns how to forgive Ralph, and her life starts to move forward again.
Rhona Shirley does not appear directly in the play. She is the daughter of Nancy Shirley, and she is abducted, sexually assaulted, and killed by Ralph Wantage. Her body is not found for several years.
Ralph Wantage is the man who killed Rhona Shirley. He abducted, sexually assaulted, and killed seven young girls over a period of twenty-one years and has been sentenced to life in prison without parole. Ralph was abused as a child by his father and was also in several accidents in which he received head injuries that may have severely damaged his brain. He prides himself on his competence and the efficiency with which he carries out the abduction and murder of young girls. He confines his crimes to an eighty-mile radius of what he calls his "centre of operations," by which he means the lock-up shed in which he keeps his video collection of child pornography and where he also buries his victims. Ralph is extremely methodical and is obsessed with controlling his environment. He makes lists and keeps a notebook in which he records the titles of his porn videos. He plans everything very carefully, and has a high opinion of his own intelligence: "You've got to wake up very early to get ahead of me!" He remembers exactly where he got his tattoos, how long each one took, and even the advertising slogans of the tattoo parlors. Eventually, after Nancy visits him in prison, Ralph appears to feel something approaching remorse for what he did, and he writes a letter to Nancy saying he is sorry. Fearing that he has lung cancer and hoping to avoid a slow death, he commits suicide by hanging himself in his cell.
With its focus on issues of criminal justice, the play questions the extent to which violent criminals such as child killers can be held responsible for their acts. The view forcefully presented is that many men who commit the most heinous of crimes show significant brain damage that prevents them, at least in the eyes of the research team of Agnetha Gottmundsdottir and David Nabkus, from forming normal human relationships. The research shows that such criminals often have damage to the frontal lobes of the brain, the function of which, as Agnetha explains, is "to provide judgement, / to organise behaviour / and decision-making / to learn to stick to / rules of everyday life." Such individuals also have a smaller hippocampus, part of the brain that organizes and shapes memories. The result of this kind of damage is that the wiring within the brain that is involved in creating emotional bonds is less dense, less complex, than in normal people, which means that individuals suffering from such brain damage cannot connect well with others. In addition, Agnetha's research reveals that in most cases, including that of Ralph, such individuals suffered from abuse in childhood.
It is on this basis that Agnetha distinguishes between what she calls "crimes of evil and crimes of illness;" in the former, the perpetrator of the crime has a choice about whether to do it or not; in the latter, he does not, since his illness predisposes him to such conduct. He is driven by forces beyond his control. It is for this reason that Agnetha is able to show compassion to Ralph. "It's not your fault. You can't help it," she tells him.
The view presented in the play is a radical one; according to the law, Ralph, who has not been declared insane, is considered responsible for his actions. The play is weighted heavily towards Agnetha's point of view; it does not address the obvious question that of all the children who are abused, only a few go on to become child killers, which would suggest that there is more to be considered than the criminal's early background.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Describe an occasion when you forgave someone who had wronged you. What made you decide to forgive them? What benefit did you derive from your decision? Write a letter in which you forgive someone for doing something that hurt or offended you. The letter should explain your understanding of why the person behaved as he or she did, preferably in a way that does not express a negative judgment of them.
- Research serial killers. Is there a typical profile of a serial killer? Do serial killers have certain personality traits in common with each other? In an essay, briefly describe two serial killers and how they fit or do not fit the typical profile of such individuals.
- Bearing in mind that Ralph possesses a large collection of child pornography, research the link, if any, between pornography and violent crimes committed by men against women or girls. If pornography is shown to be connected to violence against women, should all pornography be banned, or just pornography involving children, or pornography that contains sexual violence? Would the banning of pornography violate the constitutional right to free speech? Conduct a debate on these topics with your classmates.
- On the issue of crime and punishment, conservatives often insist on the importance of personal responsibility, however deprived a criminal's background might be. However, liberals are more likely to argue that adverse personal and social circumstances mitigate a person's culpability. Which side of the debate are you on? Do you agree with Agnetha in the play that killers are not born but made, or are some people simply evil? Write an essay in which you explain both sides of the argument but note your favor of one or the other.
Revenge and Forgiveness
At first, Nancy's only desire is for revenge against Ralph. She would like to watch him suffer and die; she is clearly in favor of capital punishment. "An eye for an eye / tooth for a tooth," she says. The theme of forgiveness is introduced for the first time shortly afterwards, when Nancy refers to a videotape she has seen in which an American grandmother whose grandson was murdered says she can forgive the murderer. At that point, Nancy cannot even entertain such a notion. She gets no closer to it when Ingrid sends her prayer flags from Tibet with spiritual blessings on them. According to Ingrid, when the flags are hung up and wave in the wind, they spread healing and compassion. But Nancy is not yet ready to hear the message. Later, Ingrid says directly to Nancy that she should forgive Ralph; Nancy resists, still angry and possessed by thoughts of revenge and retribution. When she finally conceives a desire to visit Ralph to find out more about why he did what he did, the burden she has been carrying for so many years begins to ease. She repaints Rhona's room and removes the kiddie furniture. She realizes it is time for her to admit new feelings into her life rather than continue the same old response to the tragedy she suffered; then she will be free once more. When she visits Ralph, she tells him that she forgives him. Her forgiveness, and her ability to listen to Ralph's story with empathy, enables him to feel some remorse for his actions. In forgiving him, she is able to lead him to some limited measure of understanding of the gravity of the crime he committed. Anger (on Nancy's part) and callous indifference (on Ralph's part) give way to more constructive feelings. After this cathartic event, Nancy is able to begin a new relationship with a man, following the break-up of her marriage; her life has started moving forward again. To use the play's central metaphor; she has unfrozen and can live once more in the flow of life.
The metaphor of ice is used many times to indicate a person whose mind has become rigid and inflexible, rendering them incapable of connecting to others and responding adequately to life's demands for change and growth. It is notable that each character speaks frequently in long monologues rather than in dialogue with others.
The ice metaphor first occurs when Nancy reports Ingrid's dream that she was in the frozen Arctic and had lost somebody. The body was under the ice but there was no hole that would enable her to reach it. Later, when Rhona's remains are found, Nancy feels "something heavy / block of ice / burning ice / pressing on my lungs." Agnetha also uses the ice metaphor. She tells her academic audience that her ancestors came from Iceland and uses this as a bridge to inform her audience that she is an explorer in "the Arctic frozen sea that is … / the criminal brain." When she explains that the kind of brain damage often seen in criminals makes them inflexible, unable to adapt to new situations, she says, "There's a certain rigidity there / like the person is ice-bound / in a kinda Arctic midwinter."
When Nancy is in distress following the destruction of the shed in which the crimes were committed, the stage direction reads "A sound of splintering ice floes," which suggests that a process of healing may have begun. Two further sound effects occur during Agnetha's explanation of the brain damage suffered by many violent criminals: "somewhere, some liquid starts dripping slowly" and "A sound of something breaking." Both are suggestive of melting ice and convey the idea that knowing the truth about brain damage opens the possibility of understanding and forgiveness on the part of the victims.
Much of the play is presented in the form of monologues. A monologue is a lengthy speech given by one character in which the character expresses his or her thoughts aloud. In Frozen, entire scenes are given over to monologues. Presenting the play in this form allows the dramatist to underline one of the themes of the play, that each character is frozen in his or her own world, unable to communicate or interact with others or to participate fully in life. A good example of a monologue is in act 1, scene 2, in which Nancy speaks about the events of the day, as well as her family life, touching upon her difficulties with her husband and daughters. Act 1, scene 3 is also a monologue, this time spoken by Ralph, who explains what was going on in his mind when he abducted Rhona. Most of act 1 is in the form of monologues. Act 1, scene 12, in which Agnetha and Ralph appear together is the first scene in which there is any dialogue. Agnetha and Ralph engage in dialogue again in scenes 15, 16, and 18; while in intervening scenes Nancy continues her monologues. It is not until act 2, scene 21 (in the latter third of the play), that Nancy is shown with another character (Agnetha) in dialogue. This is the prelude to scene 25 when Nancy meets Ralph and engages in conversation with him.
Serial Killers Frederick and Rosemary West
While Lavery was conceiving and writing Frozen, the British public was learning the horrifying details of serial killings carried out by Frederick West and his wife Rosemary. With his wife as an accomplice, West murdered at least twelve young women at the couple's home in Gloucestershire, England. The victims were young women who came as lodgers or to care for the Wests' two young children. They were sexually assaulted, tortured, killed, and dismembered. Their bodies were disposed of under a cellar floor. The first victim was murdered in 1973, and most of the crimes were committed during the remainder of the decade. The murders went unsolved for over twenty years, before Frederick West was arrested in 1994 after police excavated the garden and found human remains. West was charged with eleven murders and confessed to ten of them. Before the case could come to trial, in January 1995 West committed suicide in his cell at Birmingham's Winson Green Prison by hanging himself. In 1995, Rosemary West was convicted of ten murders.
The Wests' third victim was Lucy Partington, a twenty-one-year-old woman who may have been abducted at a bus stop. It is likely that Partington was tortured and kept alive for a week before being murdered in early January, 1974. Some years after the arrest of West and the identification of Lucy's remains, Lucy's sister, Marian Partington, began to speak publicly about her own feelings regarding Lucy's murder. Marian Partington's story influenced Lavery in her writing of Frozen. Partington wrote of the fact that the family was not allowed to have Lucy's bones back because they were being kept as exhibits by West's defense lawyers. But Partington, like Nancy in Frozen, went to the mortuary and performed a ceremony: As she wrote in the Buddhist magazine Dharma Life:
I decided to place special items in the coffin, and something to represent the elements: a sprig of heather (earth), rescue remedy (water), a candle (fire) and some incense (air).
I gasped at the sight of her skull—it was so beautiful, like burnished gold. Holding her skull was very intense: for a moment I ‘knew’ a deep reality, and felt that what I was doing was not just for Lucy but for everyone who had suffered a violent death. I wrapped Lucy's skull in her soft brown blanket, while her friend placed some cherished childhood possessions inside to guard her bones.
Readers will recognize the similarity in this description to what happens when Nancy and Ingrid visit the chapel of rest in act 1, scene 19. Partington wrote also about the long path she took that eventually resulted in her being able to forgive. She discovered Tibetan prayer flags, which symbolize compassion, and hung them outside her kitchen window (an idea borrowed by Lavery in the play). Partington also sought a meeting in prison with Rosemary West, who showed no interest in such a meeting, never having acknowledged her guilt.
During the 1990s, the approach to crime known as restorative justice was increasingly widespread, both in the United Kingdom, other parts of Europe and the United States. In restorative justice, the victim plays an active role and
receives some type of restitution from the offender. Victims will often meet directly with offenders, and such programs are known as Victim-Offender Reconciliation Programs (VORPS) or Victim-Offender Mediation (VOM). The idea is to allow victims to express the impact the crime has had on their lives and to seek answers from the offender about the crime. It also allows offenders to tell their story about why they acted as they did. The theory behind restorative justice is that it helps offenders to face up to what they have done. Research has confirmed that VORPS not only help offenders to come to a better understanding of the effects of their actions on others but also help to reduce a victim's desire for violent revenge. Victims also report that through participating in VORPS they are better able to recover from the stress induced by the crime committed against them (just as Nancy discovers in Frozen).
Frozen was for the most part well received on both sides of the Atlantic. Writing in New Statesman about a production at London's National Theatre, Katherine Duncan Jones comments that one of the distressing aspects of the play is that Rhona's murder "divides the survivors, rather than drawing them closer." For Jones, it is Ralph rather than either of the women who is "the most fascinating character." Jones's conclusion captures the feeling that many reviewers expressed in various ways: "to my amazement this profoundly upsetting play is also strangely uplifting. There are some particularly moving touches in the closing dialogue between the two women."
For Ben Brantley, writing in the New York Times and reviewing a production of the play at the East 13th Street Theater, New York, Frozen is a "humane and intelligent drama." He comments that it carefully avoids sensationalism. The characters "don't so much vent their intense emotions as betray them through involuntary eruptions that they quickly stifle." The characters also demonstrate the ability to "channel and compartmentalize their most violent and troublesome feelings so that they can lead their everyday lives." Brantley describes the final confrontation between Nancy and Ralph as "unforgettable. Cool heat, in this instance, melts the heart more effectively than any raging fire could."
One dissenting voice to the general chorus of praise for Frozen came from Charles Isherwood, reviewing the play for Variety. Isherwood questions the play's plausibility, especially the scenes that show the interactions between Agnetha and Ralph, and Nancy and Ralph: "Much of this seems stagy or false—Agnetha's clinical methodologies are laughably simplistic and overly personal …And Nancy's cordial, solicitous attitude to her daughter's killer is not entirely credible, either." Isherwood also comments that Ralph's emotional breakthrough following Nancy's visit is unconvincing, and that in general, "the playwright tends to simplify ideas that are difficult and complex."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize: Six Important New Plays By Women from the 25th Anniversary Year (2004), edited by Emilie de Mun Smith Kilgore, includes plays by British and American dramatists Dael Orlandersmith, Rinne Groff, Kate Fodor, Helen Cooper, and Charlotte Eilenberg, as well as Lavery's Frozen.
- The Forgiveness Project at www.theforgivenessproject.com includes dozens of first-person stories about how victims of crime learned how to forgive those who had wronged them. The Forgiveness Project is a charitable organization that documents and promotes forgiveness, reconciliation, and conflict resolution. It works in prisons, schools, faith communities, and with any group that wants to explore the nature of forgiveness.
- Lavery Plays 1 (1998) contains four of Lavery's plays: Origin of the Species, about an anthropologist who digs up a living womanlike creature; Two Marias, which explores family identity, love, and death; Her Aching Heart, a parody of historical Gothic romance; and Nothing Compares to You, which sheds light on people's need to love and be loved. There is also an introduction by Lavery included in the volume.
- In Steven A. Eggar's The Killers among Us: Examination of Serial Murder and Its Investigations (2nd ed., 2001), a noted criminologist and former homicide investigator provides a detailed account of seven up-to-date cases, the myths surrounding serial murderers and the reasons why they continue to kill, the major problems of investigating a serial murder, and an analysis of the different law enforcement agencies that respond to a serial murder. The second edition includes an essay on victimology and an expanded chapter on the victims of serial killers.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English. In this essay, he discusses the play in the context of psychologicaland neurological research that has been conducted on violent criminals.
Frozen is not an easy play to read or to watch. The murder of their young child is any mother's worst nightmare, and it is hard, for those who have not suffered such a loss, to imagine how it might be borne, let alone conceive how the parent might eventually bring herself to forgive the man responsible.
In her searching examination of the abduction, molestation, and killing of the fictional Rhona Shirley, and the twenty painful years that her mother Nancy subsequently endures, Lavery makes no concessions to sentimentality. Act 1, scene 2, somewhat ironically titled "Family Life," shows Nancy on the evening of the day Rhona is abducted, not yet realizing that anything is wrong. It is hardly an idealized family portrait: Nancy is exasperated by her mother, complaining that she puts necessary tasks off to the last minute and then wants them done immediately; she is baffled by her husband, who has suddenly starting going to a gym (Nancy will later discover that he is having an affair with the Nautilus instructor); her relations with her elder daughter Ingrid are strained, and she refers to the high-spirited girl as Attila the Hun; Ingrid and Rhona are always fighting, and Nancy relates how she teased Rhona (rather cruelly, the audience might think) that very day, when Rhona tried on some mascara she had taken from Ingrid's room. All in all, Nancy comes across as a mother under pressure, trying to hold her family together but subject to all the stresses and strains of modern family life. When Rhona, who was only sent to her grandmother's because Ingrid refused to go, fails to return, Nancy is plunged into an abyss of pain and uncertainty. For years she convinces herself that the girl is alive, but when that proves not to be the case, she must face the grief, anger, and feelings of emptiness that will be her lot for many years. The road she travels is a hard one, and it seems at one point that she is stuck in a rut, her life having come almost to a halt.
Parallel to Nancy's story is the story of Agnetha. It is the information that Agnetha presents about the criminal brain that enables the audience to grasp how Nancy becomes able to forgive what might seem to be unforgivable. Agnetha, a psychiatrist from New York, is suffering a grief of her own—the death of her colleague—but her main function in the play is to provide hard scientific evidence that violent criminals often suffer from brain damage and are therefore less responsible for their actions than they might at first appear to be. It was this aspect of the play that landed the playwright in trouble, forcing her to deal with accusations of plagiarism. It turned out that the character of Agnetha was heavily based on a real person, Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis. Lewis, a psychiatrist, is the author of a book, Guilty By Reason of Insanity, in which she describes the many years she has spent studying the most violent of criminals in psychiatric wards, maximum security prisons, and on death row. Lewis and her colleague, the neurologist Jonathan Pincus (who was the basis for Agnetha's colleague Dr. David Nabkus in the play) concluded, based on extensive psychiatric and medical histories of these criminals, that certain functions of their brain had been damaged by childhood abuse and other forms of physical injury. Lewis's work was profiled in a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell in February, 1997, and Lewis was later outraged to learn that Lavery had taken so many details of her life and work and put them in the play with no acknowledgement or request for permission. Just to give two examples: first, in the play, Agnetha kisses Ralph on the cheek; Lewis describes how she once kissed the notorious serial killer Ted Bundy on the cheek (in response to a similar kiss he had given her). Second, Ralph's remark to Agnetha that the only thing he regrets is that "Killing girls" (act 2, scene 22) is not legal is an exact echo of a comment made to Lewis by the serial killer Joseph Franklin that he regretted only that "Killing Jews" was not legal. There are many other examples of direct borrowing by Lavery of the exact details of the work done by Lewis and Pincus. These include Agnetha's examinations of Ralph, such as when she taps him several times on the bridge of the nose and concludes from the fact that he blinks more than three times that he may have damage to the frontal lobes of his brain. Armed with a list of the offending passages, Lewis sued Lavery for plagiarism, and although the case never came to court, it did bring some attention to Lewis's remarkable work.
Guilty By Reason of Insanity makes compelling, uncomfortable reading. Lewis interviewed some of the most notorious of serial killers and other murderers in the United States, while Pincus conducted the neurological examinations. They found evidence again and again that these individuals had often suffered childhood abuse on an almost unimaginable scale, involving long histories of beatings by parents and others, and forced participation in unnatural sexual acts, some even involving animals. Some of the details are so horrifying that the reader feels as if he has stepped into some kind of alternative universe in which such things are allowed to happen. Lewis describes these case histories as "bizarre" and "grotesque," and yet there is no reason to believe the offenders were making anything up.
The researchers found that brain damage was equally common. A case in point was that of Arthur Shawcross, who killed ten women, and performed such acts as cutting out the vagina of one of his victims and eating it. Lewis and Pincus discovered that Shawcross, who suffered from amnesia, hallucinations, and blackouts, had scars in his frontal lobes and a cyst on his temporal lobes, which would have adversely affected the functioning of his brain, making him liable to seizures. Lewis commented that "If someone wanted to create a killer brain, that's probably the way to do it." In her epilogue, Lewis explained further that primitive human responses such as fear and aggression spring from the limbic system—brain structures which have links to other parts of the brain and are controlled by the frontal lobes. If the connections between the limbic system and the frontal lobes are disrupted, "we no longer have good control of our urges." In such cases, she asks, "how responsible are we for flying off the handle? It's a hard call. How responsible is a truck driver for a crash if the brakes are worn?" Her point, made persuasively many times, is that serial killers are not born but made, a comment that is echoed in Agnetha's words in Frozen: "I just don's believe people are born evil."
In Frozen, Ralph is a composite portrait of the wretched, disturbed, violent criminals who inhabit the pages of Guilty By Reason of Insanity. The story he tells Agnetha includes numerous Incidents—violent abuse by both parents, a car accident that left him temporarily blinded in one eye, a fall down a mine shaft that produced an hours-long blackout—any one of which, according to Lewis, might be enough to create the kind of brain damage that would predispose him to violence. In fact, in comparison to some of the cases recorded in Lewis's book, Ralph's background seems relatively mild. Nevertheless, because of Agnetha's research (which Nancy has read, as she reveals at the end of the play), the two women are able to see Ralph not as a monster but as a human being. That is not as difficult for Agnetha, who has not suffered personally as a result of Ralph's crimes, as it is for Nancy, the mother of a murdered girl. Yet Nancy, having been tutored by her daughter Ingrid about the necessity of forgiveness, is able to bring herself not only to meet Ralph but to talk to him calmly, without accusation, anger, or judgment. By simply asking him questions, she gets him to talk about his childhood, and she listens to what he says. When he describes the pain and humiliation he suffered at the hands of a brutal father, she simply reflects back to him what he has said: "Frightening bugger." Ralph nods. "Hurt you a lot." Has Ralph, the audience may wonder, ever had anyone listen to him in a non-judgmental way? It is because Nancy is able to empathize with him that he breaks down and cries. It is her empathy that creates the first stirring of remorse in him, the first time, it would appear, that he has ever become aware that his actions hurt another human being. Forgiveness achieves what punishment could not, and it is forgiveness, not revenge, that ultimately liberates Nancy.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Frozen, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
In the following review of a 2007 Marin Theatre Company production of Frozen, Hurwitt praises the production, but criticizes the play. Hurwitt finds that the play is overlong and schematic, and that the emotional climaxes are placed too early in the play.
Stacy Ross' Agnetha stands in her New York apartment, tense, dressed for travel, checking and rechecking her bags and tickets. Suddenly her jaw starts to quiver. Her eyes widen in panic and recognition. Sobs, then wails shake her so violently that any impulse to laugh quickly gives way to sympathy and curiosity.
It's a very tough scene to play, but the entire, interlocking-monologues structure of Bryony Lavery's Frozen is difficult. Director Amy Glazer and three brilliant actors—Lorri Holt, Rod Gnapp and Ross—not only make it work, and make it look easy, but invest the drama with great clarity and deeply moving power in the Marin Theatre Company local premiere that opened Tuesday.
Agnetha's opening, unexpected panic attack sets the tone for the next two, increasingly unsettling quick monologues. Nancy (Holt) is a weary but chirpy Englishwoman, tending her garden and worrying over warring young daughters. There's a lovingly comic air to her familiar frustration, but we already know not to trust the obvious as she talks about getting her youngest, Rhona, to run an errand to Grandma's house.
When Gnapp's creepily obsessive Ralph, meticulously washing his hands, begins to talk about his careful planning and conveniently placed van, the horror starts to seep in. Gnapp's predatory focus and frighteningly neutral tone as he moves toward an unseen child is chilling. The amplified sound of a van door sliding shut reflects back on Nancy's monologue—and the van heard pulling away nearby as she speaks—with a sudden terrible certainty.
Frozen, a hit in London in 2002 and on Broadway two years later, isn't easy. It's a dramatic exploration of the sociopathic mind and the power of forgiveness, taking a worst-case scenario.
Ralph is a serial killer and rapist who preys on children. Nancy is the mother of one of his victims. Agnetha is an American psychiatrist who studies "the Arctic frozen sea that is the criminal brain." Her thesis, developed with her late collaborator, is that the abuse suffered by children who grow up to become serial killers has physiologically altered their brains in ways that make them incapable of normal empathy or remorse.
Lavery based Frozen in part on the writings of Marian Partington, the sister of a victim of serial killers and founder of England's Forgiveness Project (whose work she carefully credited), and the psychological research of Dorothy Lewis and Jonathan Pincus (which she didn't credit). A resulting plagiarism controversy somewhat tarnished the play's success and has been cited as one reason it hasn't appeared here before.
The play's inherent difficulties may be more to blame. It isn't just the use of separate monologues, with limited—if tense and fraught—interactions. The play is a bit overlong and schematic. The emotional arc peaks too soon, since our inherent sympathy for Nancy's loss is stronger than our likely empathy with her second-act struggle to forgive. The added loss and guilt with which Agnetha struggles can seem like an artificial device to inject personal drama into her scenes.
Glazer, her actors and designers overcome most of these problems in a near-perfect production. Erik Flatmo's stark, sterile set—an anonymous-looking shed within tall, squared concrete frames—swiftly turns into everything from Agnetha's apartment and Nancy's garden to Ralph's cell with the help of Kurt Landisman's transformative lights and Steve Schoenbeck's apt ambient sound effects. Fumiko Bielefeldt's smart costumes convey character and the passage of time.
Holt makes Nancy's emotional journey as riveting as it is deeply affecting. With magnetic humanity and unerring nuance, she takes us from frazzled motherhood through determined false hope and heartbreaking grief into a fierce desire for vengeance and a luminously liberating struggle to forgive. Ross plays Agnetha's repressed grief and academic arguments in beautiful counterpoint, her arguments about the criminal brain perfectly illustrated by her tense interactions with Ralph.
Gnapp's performance is the revelation at the heart of Frozen. Intense, single-minded, defensive and arrogant, he's both an inhuman monster and a despicable yet eloquent argument against capital punishment. The terrifying image of parental abuse that bursts through his facade should provoke some lively debate at the discussions the company has scheduled after each performance.
Source: Robert Hurwitt, "A Serial Killer Strikes, and Now a Mother Must Wrestle with Forgiveness," in San Francisco Chronicle, January 18, 2007, p. E-1.
In the following excerpt, the critic gives a critical analysis of Lavery's work.
Bryony Lavery began her career working in the British alternative theater, both as a playwright and director known for her comedic touch. She also worked extensively in children's theater and with several theater groups. According to a contributor to Contemporary Dramatists, "by drawing on this wide range of experience, Lavery developed a voice quite unique in British theater and a style that reaches beyond the typical middle-class forms of farce and drawing room humor."
One of Lavery's best-known early plays, Origin of the Species, was first produced in England in 1984 and tells the story of an anthropologist who digs up a living woman-creature. In Her Aching Heart, first produced in London, England, in 1990, Lavery tells the story of two women who are reading the same historical romance and begin to develop a love affair parallel to the story in the novel. The Contemporary Dramatists contributor noted, "That the two lovers are both women is important, but it is not the key to the play's politics. Rather, the interweaving of the modern and the ‘historical,’ the real and the fictional, and the serious and the silly results in a delightful and complicated play."
Lavery's plays also often address contemporary social issues, such as Kitchen Matters, which she wrote for the Gay Sweatshop feminist theater company and is about the company's struggle to survive economically. Lavery based her play Goliath, first produced in London in 1997, on the book by Bea Campbell about working-class England and the class and race conflicts that abound in this part of English society. Goliath was produced as a one-woman show, with the actor playing all of the characters. As noted in Contemporary Dramatists, "the play makes serious political points, but it conveys its messages through emotion and through the vision (and the visionary quality of writing) of a set of characters trapped in time and place. Lavery allows the characters the freedom to strive for means of change, yet she does not offer any easy solutions."
Although best known in London theater circles, Lavery debuted on Broadway in 2004 with her play Frozen, which received a Tony Award nomination for best play and greatly increased the public's awareness of her in the United States. The play's primary characters are a social activist named Nancy, whose daughter has been murdered; the pedophile and serial killer who murdered her; and a psychiatrist studying the killer. The ten-year-old daughter of Nancy disappeared while going to visit her grandmother, but her remains are not discovered until two decades later buried on the property of the convicted pedophile, Ralph, who seems to feel no guilt for his deeds. Writing in Variety, Charles Isherwood pointed out that "the drama, set in the U.K., unfolds over the course of more than two decades, and is initially structured as three separate monologues woven together." In one monologue, Nancy describes the day her daughter disappeared and her own evolution into an activist who finds a group that searches for missing children. In another monologue, Ralph describes how he lured Nancy's daughter into his van, how he is upset with how the police exhumed the bodies he has buried, and how he is outraged over the destruction of his child pornography collection. Dr. Agnetha Gottmundsdottir is the psychiatrist-researcher who provides her own perspective of Ralph in the third monologue.
In his review in Variety, Isherwood found that Lavery produces "few revelations" in her play and thought that many in the audience "may come away with questions large and small about this play's plausibility." He also noted, however, that "the characters are, for the most part, drawn in convincing detail." In a review of the 2002 London performance of the play, New Statesman contributor Katherine Duncan Jones commented that "Lavery's tragedy … is less concerned with telling the grisly tale than with exploring the complex and changing responses of its three characters." Jones went on to note, "Bryony Lavery believes that ‘theatre should be cathartic’, and to my amazement this profoundly upsetting play is also strangely uplifting. There are some particularly moving touches in the closing dialogue between the two women." Hilton Als, writing in the New Yorker, called the play "extremely well-crafted."
In an interview with Matt Wolf for the New York Times, Lavery commented on her approach to playwriting, noting that "there always must be hope at the end of a play," which she believes is not easy to achieve. She told Wolf, "Hopelessness is a much safer place. You don't have to work quite as hard if everything is hopeless. You can just despair." As an example, she told Wolf that in Frozen she wanted to emphasize "the notion of forgiveness, which I wanted the play to explore." The play also generated controversy for Lavery when a psychiatrist, Dorothy Otnow Lewis, and New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell accused her of plagiarizing passages from a 1997 article by Gladwell and a 1998 book by Lewis.
Lavery's play Last Easter tells the story of how a group of theater people help one of their friends and colleagues deal with her impending death from cancer. The group makes a pilgrimage to Lourdes but is so uncomfortable with what they find there that they began to make wisecracks and sing show tunes. "I think it's a play about how miraculous life is," Lavery told Erik Piepenburg for an article in the New York Times. "I wanted to let the characters delight us in all their inconsistencies and their bravery as well. They're such an unlikely bunch of saints because they do, in my view, great things for their friends. They're so loving."
In addition to her plays, Lavery is also the author of Tallulah Bankhead, a biography of the actress who became a star and, as noted by Hugh Massingberd in the Spectator, was the "stylish embodiment of the Twenties." The biography was written as part of Absolute Press's "Outlines" series, which focuses on the lives of lesbians and gay men. Writing in the Lambda Book Report, Bill Greaves commented that Lavery provides a portrait that includes "what reportedly happened in Tallulah's life" bolstered with "but-what-really-probably-happened insights." Greaves also noted that the "writing has the shine and snap of good repartee," adding, Lavery "brings to Tallulah a great affection for ‘bad girls.’" In his review in the Spectator, Massingberd was less than enamored with Lavery's writing style and said it "might be categorised as Sapphic Solipsism." However, he also noted that "if one can ignore the embarrassing nonsense and the Sapphic special pleading, somehow there is a perceptive study struggling to escape from underneath the persiflage. The biographical material is handled with deceptive deftness."
Source: Gale, "Bryony Lavery," in Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2007.
In the following interview with Gardner, Lavery discusses the plagiarism controversy surrounding Frozen and how she managed to overcome it and continue writing.
Bryony Lavery has never been busier. This week, her second new play of the year, Yikes!, opens at the new Unicorn Theatre in London, hot on the heels of Smoke, a romantic comedy with a nasty twist, which has just finished runs in Trent and Scarborough. She's also working on an adaptation of Angela Carter's Wise Children for the National Theatre, and is just finishing another new play, called The Thing with Feathers, for the McCarter Theatre in Princeton—the first of two high-profile US commissions. Lavery isn't just at that satisfying point in her career where she can pick and choose the projects that really interest her: she seems to have the world at her feet.
And yet just over a year ago it looked as if her career was in ruins. Lavery had been accused of plagiarism. Her play Frozen, first seen in Britain at Birmingham Rep in 1998 and subsequently at the National Theatre, had transferred to Broadway, where it was a hit. A harrowing, strangely beautiful and cathartic three-hander, Frozen focuses on Agnetha, a criminal psychologist studying the difference between crimes of evil and crimes due to brain abnormality, and her relationships with Ralph, a convicted paedophile and serial killer, and Nancy, whose young daughter was one of Ralph's many victims. Dorothy Lewis, an eminent US criminal psychiatrist who has studied many notorious serial killers, read and later saw the play and claimed that Lavery had "lifted my life", arguing that Frozen plagiarised passages from a long article about her life and work written by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker in 1997.
Sitting in the National Theatre cafe, Lavery is eager to look forward, not back. "As far as I'm concerned, it's all sorted and I really want to move on." She pauses. "What I hate," she says fiercely, "what I'd really hate is if I was always just known as that playwright who was accused of plagiarism. But I'll probably have to live with it." She shrugs sadly and her hands twist nervously together. "News, particularly bad news, travels fast—and in my case it travelled right around the world."
A large, comfy woman in her 50s, Lavery looks as if should have spent her life outdoors on the lacrosse field, not indoors in front of a word processor. And, indeed, she was a late developer. Although prolific—she began writing plays in the mid-1970s and by the time she wrote Frozen had already churned out almost 40 plays—her career never looked as if it would set the world alight or win her any prizes. She worked primarily for the Cinderella sectors of theatre, writing for women, children and the radio and specialising in warm, witty feminist subversions of well-known stories (Lavery is an openly lesbian writer, after an early marriage ended in divorce). The glee in these plays was enormously appealing, but her writing seemed to lack a darker edge. It was as if she wouldn't allow herself to be serious.
With her 1997 play Goliath, however, something changed. An adaptation of Beatrix Campbell's book about the 1991 riots that set sink estates across Britain ablaze, the play painted a memorable picture of the misery of lives lived on the margins. Being able to draw on someone else's words seemed to free Lavery up as a writer. At around the same time, her mother died, following a mistake on the operating table; a year later her father died, too. Lavery poured her grief and pain into Frozen—a story about forgiving those who have hurt us most and finding a way to thaw our frozen hearts.
With that play, Lavery herself recognised that something changed. "After 30 years of writing, I thought I was getting better as a writer. You have to get better. Frozen seemed to me to be the proof that I had. Until Frozen, I was always confident that I entertained people, but it was with that play I felt that I had been able to go somewhere deeper and darker, because at last I had the real tools that I needed as a writer. All writers have a chasm of doubt about what they do: good writing is always on that dial between absolute doubt in your own abilities and absolute certainty. As you write, you move up and down the dial."
Frozen ignited Lavery's career—only for her to be accused of plagiarism. What's perhaps surprising is that the ensuing furore did nothing to dent that career; in fact, this season Frozen will be one of the most produced plays in the US, adding to the growing number of productions around the world. It's certainly helped that the case has never come to court, but it is also a sign of how much the artistic community has rallied behind her.
"I've had a huge amount of support from other writers, particularly from those in the US," she says. "John Guare, who was sued over Six Degrees of Separation, rang me up out of the blue one day and cheered me up by telling me how, when it was all going on, he sat on the subway one day, looked around at everybody and thought: ‘There's nobody else in this carriage who is being sued for a million dollars.’"
But perhaps her most unlikely ally was Malcolm Gladwell himself. In an extraordinary thoughtful and generous article for the New Yorker, Gladwell argued that although Lavery had indeed used his words without his permission, she had transformed them, giving them an artistic life of their own. "Instead of feeling that my words had been taken from me, I felt they had become part of some grander cause," he wrote, later adding: "Isn't that the way creativity is supposed to work? Old words in the service of a new idea."
Inevitably, the experience has left Lavery feeling bruised and battered. "When all the business over Frozen broke I moved entirely into an area of doubt," she says. "I felt so guilty—and I still do—that I hadn't taken care of other people's words well enough." Yet while this might have paralysed many writers, Lavery saw her only salvation in continuing to write and channelling the pain and guilt into her work.
"The only thing to do was to write my way through the dark times. And I discovered a joy in it. I had always taken a pleasure in writing, but the joy became deeper, perhaps because what had happened had made me more serious and more rigorous and made me realise just how important every word is." She laughs. "I suppose you could say that I drew on the pain creatively." She raises an eyebrow. "That's writers for you. We use everything."
Not, however, other people's words. "I have changed the way I write. I make sure that I've left any research that I've done a very long way behind," she says. "What happened has made me much more careful and that's a good thing. I think, writing Frozen, I was immensely naive and very stupid. Frozen's subject matter was so thorny I wanted it to be completely accurate, but that meant I wasn't as careful as I should have been. It is typical of me: if I was going to make a mistake, it was going to be a big one."
Yet out of the bad has come good, a whole new raft of work and a new confidence. Lavery may never entirely forgive herself over Frozen—but we should. After all, isn't Frozen an astonishing play about just that? As Anthony Powell, director of a current Denver production, said, when asked about the controversy around Frozen: "The play itself is its own redemption."
Source: Lyn Gardner, "‘I Was Naive and Stupid,’" in Guardian, April 6, 2006, 2 pp.
In the following excerpt, taken from a review of a 2004 M.C.C. Theater production of Frozen, Als praises the play for being well constructed, describing it as a series of monologues that shed light on the self-enclosed inner lives of the characters. Als also further explores the internal conflicts of the characters.
There is probably no greater horror than that of a child being abducted from his mother and having his barely formed life cut short. And there is probably no actress with greater skill at conveying wounded gentility and moral confusion than Swoosie Kurtz. As Nancy in Bryony Lavery's extremely well-crafted play Frozen (at the M.C.C.), Kurtz plays a mother who walks about in a stunned silence brought on by the kidnapping and murder of her little girl by a pedophile named Ralph (the brilliant Brian F. O'Byrne).
It makes no difference that Nancy's daughter was killed twenty years before the action of the play: Nancy is defined by mourning. She is—as the title of the play suggests—frozen by grief. And if to add color to the gray absence at the center of her life she chatters endlessly about the mundane—cocktail parties and the like—so be it. She likes the sound of her own voice; it's like the radio, distracting her from the sound of her daughter's cries, which echo in her imagination, like the sorrow songs.
Set in present-day England, Frozen is essentially a series of monologues describing the locked-in lives of three characters. In addition to Nancy and Ralph—who, at the time of the play, has been arrested for a new spate of child-abuse crimes—we have Agnetha (Laila Robins), a slightly younger than middle-aged criminologist who has travelled from the United States to deliver a group of lectures on the physical and emotional characteristics of the criminal mind. Although Agnetha is giving the lectures on her own, her work is a joint effort between her and her late lover, David. When, during the lectures, Agnetha wants to make a point that belongs to David, she rolls tape, and we hear his deep, sonorous voice. It's measured, steady, authoritative—a dream lover's voice. For Agnetha, it is the saddest of lullabies; her eyes fill with tears, as her body, which can't distinguish between public presentation and private pain, remains rigid.
Agnetha is just as paralyzed as Nancy, but, because she is a scientist, she must feign disinterest at all times, especially when she meets and interviews Ralph. As she sits in Ralph's cell, measuring his cranium and describing the criminal personality to the audience—instructing, she attempts to retain some measure of control—we can see her grief begin to seep through. Like the love and the despair that Agnetha will forever try to keep at bay, Ralph and his murky, cruel inner workings remain at a mysterious distance.
Agnetha tries hard to keep it together (and her demeanor can be annoying), but there's a braveness, a vulnerable pluck to her character, especially as it is played by Robins. Her thin frame cuts across the nearly bare stage; she has a deadpan focus and a passion for acting, but she's no showoff. While she is entirely convincing during her various monologues, you can tell that she prefers the relatively brief exchanges that take place when her character interviews Nancy about the crime and when she examines Ralph.
Ralph's repetition compulsion—to sexualize little girls and then silence his guilt about his fetish by dispensing of the victims—is the gravitas that makes the play deeper, and more troubling, than the first act leads you to expect. Lavery does little to explain Ralph's compulsion, except to have him reveal, during one of his unbearably intense monologues, that his father beat him when he was a child. Killing is a supreme act of revenge. By murdering Nancy's daughter, and others like her, Ralph, we glean, is killing the boy he was. This means everything and nothing. We may know the facts, but not the heart bent by and propelled toward destruction. Toward the play's close, when Nancy visits Ralph in jail to say that she at last forgives him, Ralph apologizes, but the sentiment is so far removed from his soul—what there is of it—that it's like watching a blind person trying to read the subtlest of expressions.
It's a great scene because of what Kurtz and O'Byrne do with it. Kurtz has always had one of those faces that belong to another era—that of the silent screen. She's aware (as Lillian Gish was) of what to do with her large eyes and her sweetheart of a mouth. She can say nothing and speak volumes by shifting slightly in her seat (her body is small and strong, like an osprey's). O'Byrne, on the other hand, is all physicality, alternately timid and intimidating, with slicked-back hair exposing a flat white forehead, and his tight, lithe frame encased in a snug wife-beater. The fusillade of words he unleashes barely express his damage, to say nothing of his pathetic attempts at damage control. You get the feeling that if you extended your hand to comfort him he'd gnaw it off, and still not satisfy his bloodlust. You get the feeling, too, that the three characters in Frozen are people who have always been attuned to tragedy—that tragedy seems to answer something in each of them. Which is not to say that Nancy wanted her daughter to be taken from her, but that her struggle has always been to find a balance between melancholy and order. The play's crimes come to seem like foregone conclusions, but before that possibility can be further expanded the performance ends, leaving us to our thoughts, and to the Pandora's box that Lavery has opened …
Source: Hilton Als, "Stuck," in New Yorker, Vol. 80, No. 6, March 29, 2004, p. 100.
Brantley, Ben, "Cold Murder of a Girl Thaws Feelings Locked in Ice," in the New York Times, March 19, 2004.
Gladwell, Malcolm, "Damaged," in the New Yorker, Vol. LXXIII, No. 2, February 24, 1997, p. 132.
Isherwood, Charles, Review of Frozen, in Variety, Vol. 394, No. 6, March 22, 2004, p. 49.
Jones, Katherine Duncan, "Cold Comfort: Katherine Duncan Jones Is Moved by a Mother's Chilling Plight," in the New Statesman, July 22, 2002, pp. 40-41.
Kellaway, Kate, "Comedy of Terrors," in the Observer, June 23, 2002, http://observer.guardian.co.uk/print/0,,4446565-102280,00.html (accessed August 3, 2007).
Lavery, Bryony, Frozen, Faber and Faber, 2002.
Lewis, Dorothy Otnow, Guilty by Reason of Insanity: A Psychiatrist Explores the Minds of Killers, Ivy Books, 1998, pp. 248, 288, 324-26.
Partington, Marian, "The Agony and the Empathy," in Dharma Life, No. 22, Spring 2004, http://www.dharmalife.com/issue22/agony.html (accessed August 3, 2007).
Goodman, Lizbeth, Feminist Stages: Interviews with Women in Contemporary British Theatre, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1996, pp. 40-46, 303-307.
In this interview, Lavery discusses her use of language, her gift for comedy, some of her early plays, and the nature of her feminist viewpoint. She also contributes an Afterword to this volume in which she comments on feminism in British theater.
Innes, Christopher, Modern British Drama: The Twentieth Century, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 233-38.
Innes discusses the feminist alternative in British theater from the late 1950s to the present. He surveys many of the small theater groups to which Lavery contributed, such as Gay Sweatshop, and the frequent practice of communal script creation, which has produced extremely creative work that nonetheless has some theatrical limitations.
Keppel, Robert D., and William J. Birnes, The Psychology of Serial Killer Investigations: The Grisly Business Unit, Academic Press, 2003.
This book examines the underlying psychology of serial killers and why they are often able to remain at large for many years. The book goes inside the operations of serial killer task forces and includes case reviews of some of the most baffling serial killer cases in the United States and Britain.
Schmid analyzes what he calls the serial killer industry that has become such a prominent part of American popular culture since the 1970s, making celebrities out of such figures as Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and Jeffrey Dahmer.