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Howe, Tina

HOWE, Tina

Born 21 November 1937, New York, New York

Daughter of Quincy and Mary Post Howe; married Norman Levy, 1961; children: Eben, Dara

Born in New York City to a family of writers, Tina Howe writes plays stretching dramatic forms and evoking her self-professed "obsession" with art. While these plays often feature artists as characters, their concerns are the integration of art and daily life, her themes the renewal and regeneration only art and children provide.

After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College (B.A. 1959), where she wrote her first play, Howe spent a year in Paris where she "wrote around the clock…and the infatuation [with playwriting] began." After returning, she earned her teaching credentials at Columbia Teachers College and Chicago Teachers College, then began teaching high school first in Monona Grove, Wisconsin, and later in Bath, Maine. There, she says, she learned her craft while running the drama department, a task she took on with the agreement that only her plays be produced. The Nest (1970) was Howe's first professionally produced play.

Often innovative and even experimental, Howe's most critically successful works to date have been Painting Churches, which won the Outer Critics Circle Award for best Off-Broadway play, 1983-84, and was produced by PBS' American Playhouse series in 1986, and Coastal Disturbances, which received a Tony nomination for best play, 1987. In 1983 Howe received an Obie for distinguished playwriting.

Howe has always claimed an affinity with the absurdists. Her work, however, in its playful exploration of the absurd in a realistic setting, more resembles the early absurdists Pirandello and especially Giraudoux, than it does later, more minimalist absurdists such as Beckett and Genet. Her plays typically work through theme and variation based on musical forms rather than linear plot development. She moves her characters to epiphany incrementally, through accretion, in a series of large and small moments that build into a final, resonant image. This led to some unfounded accusations of formlessness in early reviews by critics more used to obvious moments of crisis and resolution. Howe's plays develop a rhythmic energy that carry them beyond the ordinary and into a heightened realism bordering on the fantastic or absurd, ending in a release: unexpected silliness, poignant ecstasy, what she calls "the flamboyant in everyday life."

Howe's plays are notable as well for their imaginative use of settings, from a full working kitchen in Art of Dining (1978) to the complete art exhibit of Museum (1983). Perhaps influenced by her mother's work as a watercolorist, Howe's stage directions often provide visual tableaux, as in the strikingly pictorial Coastal Disturbances, and an emphasis on the final image in the stage directions of each play. In The Art of Dining, Howe's personal favorite, the characters huddle around a bonfire inside a restaurant "purified of their collective civilization and private grief" as they feast and the curtain falls. And in Approaching Zanzibar (1990), a young girl bouncing on a trampoline (made up to look like a bed) chants, "Paradise…paradise," as she bounces higher and higher, until she "looks like a reckless angel challenging the limits of heaven."

Howe's plays have been produced around the country and abroad and have premiered in such prestigious venues as the Los Angeles Actors Theatre, the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Kennedy Center, and the Second Stage. She has also received a Rockefeller grant, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a Guggenheim fellowship, an American Academy of Arts and letters award in literature, and received two honorary degrees. Although her family has its roots in the Boston area, Howe has spent most of her life in and around New York City. She teaches playwriting at Hunter College and New York University, as well as at the Sewanee Writers' Conference, University of the South, Tennessee. Howe has served since 1990 on the council of the Dramatists Guild.

Howe's plays continue to document how the public perceives and interprets art and the arts. She acknowledges that women playwrights are often treated with disdain by what remains the largely male domain of the theater but continues to enjoy making the act of writing plays as difficult as possible via her selection of unexpected and untraditional situations and settings. Howe truly pushes the envelope more than the traditional, conservative playwright.

Her absurdist comedy, One Shoe Off (1993), explores marriage, fidelity, and courage while also paying homage to the theatrical cliché that the show must go on no matter what else is happening. Her most recent offering is Pride's Crossing (1997), produced at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre of Lincoln Center. Called by most critics the best new play of the 1997-98 season, Pride's Crossing is the story of Mabel Tiding Bigelow. The play opens when Mabel is ninety years old, as she tells the story of her failed attempt to escape from her upper-class Boston upbringing. Mabel moves from age ninety to ten, to thirty-three, to fifteen, to sixty, and finally back to ninety.

The complex lead character of Mabel has clashed with society as she tried to make a place for herself in a world not quite ready for her feminist tendencies. Howe created the character of Mabel by blending her own eighty-nine-year-old Aunt Maddy with Gertrude Ederle, who at age nineteen swam the English Channel in 1924. The renegade Mabel of Pride's Crossing, Massachusetts, swam the English Channel at the age of twenty-five, but rather than focusing on the swim, debated a marriage proposal instead.

Pride's Crossing was one of three plays nominated for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Yet the 1997 jury believed none of the three had filled all the criteria for the Pulitzer and no award was given. Pride's Crossing, however, did receive the 1998 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best American play.

Other Works:

Closing Time (1960). Birth and After Birth (1974). Swimming (1991). The following pieces in: "Birth and After Birth" in The New Women's Theatre (edited by H. Moore, 1977); "Antic Vision," American Theatre Magazine (Sept. 1985); "Stepping Through the Frame," Art and Antiques (Jan. 1987); "Teeth," in Best American Short Plays (1990), and in Antaeus Plays in One Act (edited by D. Dalpern, 1991); "The Reluctant Exhibitionist," Allure Magazine (Sept. 1991); One Shoe Off (produced 1993), and others.

Bibliography:

Brown, J., Feminist Drama, Definition and Critical Analysis (1979). Hart, L. ed., Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women's Theatre (1989). Brater, E., ed., Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights (1989). Betsko, K., and R. Koenig, Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights (1987). Di Gaetani, John L., A Search for a Post-Modern Theatre (1991). Foster, K., "Detangling the Web: Mother-Daughter Relationships in the Plays of Marsha Norman, Lillian Hellman, Tina Howe, and Ntozake Shange" (thesis, 1994). Schlueter, J., ed., Modern American Drama: The Female Canon (1990).

Reference works:

CA (1983). CLC (1988). CD (1988). CBY (1990). FC (1990). Notable Women in the American Theater (1989). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

New York (28 Nov. 1983, 22-29 Dec. 1986). NYT (1 May 1983, 28 Nov. 1983, 16 Nov. 1986, 30 April 1989, 7 May 1989). Newsday (11 Jan. 1998). Otherstages (27 Jan. 1983). Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present (interview,1989). Theatre Week (12 June 1989).

—MARCIA HEPPS

AND WILLIAM KEENEY,

UPDATED BY HEIDI HARTWIG DENLER

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