Women's Literature from 1960 to the Present: Overviews
WOMEN'S LITERATURE FROM 1960 TO THE PRESENT: OVERVIEWS
ELAINE SHOWALTER (ESSAY DATE 1973)
SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. "Killing the Angel in the House: The Autonomy of Women Writers." Antioch Review 32, no. 3 (1973): 339-53.
In the following essay, Showalter reflects on the growth of writing from a feminist perspective, focusing on women's issues and emotional expression in women's writing in the twentieth century, briefly discussing the works of various authors, including Virginia Woolf, Mary McCarthy, Sylvia Plath, Erica Jong, and Elizabeth Sargent.
Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.
In a paper called "Professions for Women," read to the Women's Service League in 1931, Virginia Woolf recalled two crises of her professional life: fighting off the spectre of Victorian respectability she ironically named the Angel in the House (after the self-sacrificing heroine of Coventry Patmore's popular verse-novel); and struggling to find the courage to "tell the truth about my own experiences as a body." In the first battle she thought she had won; the second, she thought no woman had ever won. The two battles are, of course, part of the same continuous war for artistic autonomy which women writers have fought since they first picked up the pen.
Woolf visualized the oppressive phantom as a graceful young woman, the spirit of Victorian womanhood, who hovered over her as she wrote, and whispered, "Be sympathetic, be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure." Yet this exemplary female had always been a male ideal rather than a living woman. This jealous guardian, forbidding wrath or wit or independence, sounds very much, in fact, like an agent of Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf's father, who alternately encouraged her to write, and insisted on her adherence to strict standards of womanly conduct. With his death in 1904, she was freed both from the requirements of keeping his house, and from the need to please him. She recognized that either of these demands would have destroyed her art; in her diary many years later she noted: "His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books;—inconceivable.…"She felt that her imagination was liberated by his death, and also that she had managed to kill the Angel in the House.
Yet she knew that within her lay a rich hoard of feminine experience, locked and inaccessible; remembering herself as a young girl, she said in "Professions for Women":
… she had thought of something, something about the body, about the passions, which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say. Men, her reason told her, would be shocked. The consciousness of what men will say of a woman who speaks the truth about her passions had roused her from her artist's state of unconsciousness.…For though men sensibly allow themselves great freedom in these respects, I doubt that they realize or control the extreme severity with which they condemn such freedom in women.
As this statement suggests, Virginia Woolf consciously refrained from writing about her own sexuality. The absence of sex in her writings may be explained away, or defended, or even made a virtue, as a sign of her lofty standards of health, normalcy, and refinement; but her reticence is in fact a renunciation. In her novels, sexual passion becomes a masculine property, comprehended by women in moments of empathy rather than experience, as in Mrs. Dalloway when Clarissa kisses Sally Sewall and experiences with brief intensity what men feel. Like other male properties—power, hierarchy, aggression, and anger—passion, we feel, is one Virginia Woolf is happy to renounce.
Nagged by the shade of her father, and conscious of the power of male disapproval, Virginia Woolf developed a literary theory which had the effect of neutralizing her own conflict between the desire to present a woman's whole experience, and the fear of such revelation. It is a theory of the androgynous mind and spirit; a fusion of masculine and feminine elements, calm, stable, subtle, unimpeded by consciousness of sex or individuality. She meant it to be a luminous and fulfilling symbol, but like most highly principled utopian projections, her vision of the serene androgynous imagination lacks zest and vigor. Whatever else one may say of androgyny, it represents an escape from the confrontation with femininity.
In her own novels, Woolf often presents the female sensibility as the polar opposite of the male—a duality which has much in common with D. H. Lawrence. The artist, embodied in Woolf herself, transcends the polarity represented by characters such as Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse: male reason, intellect, force, and sterility versus female emotion, lyricism, love, and fecundity. If Lily Briscoe, the painter who represents the author, rejects both of these extremes for the sake of her art, she nonetheless creates the strong impression that the art of the woman—motherhood exemplified by Mrs. Ramsay—is the truer dedication.
When Woolf looked at her sister-writers she readily perceived how their circumstances as women had made them weak; she was not as quick to see where they had been made strong. In the name of androgyny, she pities the excesses of women who worked closer to the core of female consciousness, and in particular she pities and regrets their rage. Writing of Charlotte Brontë in A Room of One's Own, Woolf notes, "… we constantly feel an acidity which is the result of oppression, a burned suffering smoldering beneath her passion, a rancour which contracts these books, splendid as they are, with a spasm of pain."
If only Brontë could have transcended that anger, that bitter consciousness of oppression, Woolf thinks, she would have been a better writer. Yet it is precisely that bitter consciousness which informs Charlotte Brontë's books with the authority of experience. Although the stereotype of the woman writer is still diminutive, the reality of the feminine tradition in English and American literature is quite different. As Ellen Moers points out in an important article which appeared in Harper's in 1963, the authentic line from which women writers trace their descent is one of protest, innovation, and confrontation. As Moers says,
Writing self-consciously as a woman, the Victorian woman of genius thought relatively little of her special female sensibility, but a good deal of a social fact: that women were an oppressed majority. "You may try, but you can never imagine," says a gifted woman in one of George Eliot's novels, "what it is to have a man's force of genius in you, and yet to suffer the slavery of being a girl." To be a woman of genius, brought up from earliest childhood with the sense of being a freak and a misfit, and with the experience of being inhibited and denied, provided a readymade insight into something of how it felt to be a Yorkshire millhand, a ranting Methodist—or a Negro slave.
Women's anger can be rendered obliquely. Other aspects of female experience, however, are unthinkable, unspeakable, or unprintable. The Angel in the House commands that their existence should be avoided, denied, or suppressed. Woolf chose avoidance, and in her work, at least, she succeeded. Other women writers manifest more ambivalence; they struggle to keep in touch with "taboo" but significant psychic levels of feeling and energy, and simultaneously search for covert, risk-free ways to present these feelings. The conflicts can be extensive and creatively exhausting, draining off energies which could go into art.
The Mask of Madness
The battle to stay alive, to fight for one's emotional independence against the smothering embrace of the Angel, is fought repeatedly in women's literature. An early and neglected example, one of the most brilliant, is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper." Published in 1892, the story is the narrative of the mental breakdown of a young mother undergoing a "rest cure" (like the one Gilman herself endured at the hands of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell); and it is electric with the repressed anger of the woman who knows that she is being destroyed in the name of love and concern. As she tells her story—one of virtual imprisonment, enforced solitude and inertia, prescribed by her doctor-husband—the reader gradually understands that she does not love her husband, nor appreciate his care. Rather, she is seething with frustration and resentment at his power to confine, control, and trivialize her. In her detested bedroom, she fancies she sees a woman in the pattern of the yellow wallpaper—a woman who shakes the walls with her efforts to escape, who circles the room endlessly on her hands and knees, looking for the way out, who is "all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through the pattern—it strangles so.…"The woman, of course, is herself, trying to break out of her life; but she can do so only by being mad. In the story's terrifying conclusion, she locks herself in her room, systematically ripping the paper off the walls. In the role of madness, she can express her aggressions against her husband; and when at last he breaks into the room, and faints in shock at the sight of her, there is a triumph in her narrative. Yet she is truly mad; she has defeated him only by destroying herself.
It is rather disturbing to encounter in this story a description of the cure Virginia Woolf repeatedly underwent for neurasthenia (probably manic-depression): darkened rooms, rich food, bed rest, and no writing. As Leonard Woolf describes it in Beginning Again, Virginia's illness came from activity and vanished with inertia:
If Virginia lived a quiet vegetative life, eating well, going to bed early, and not tiring herself mentally or physically, she remained perfectly well. But if she tired herself in any way, if she was subjected to any severe physical, mental, or emotional strain, symptoms at once appeared which in the ordinary person are negligible and transient, but with her were serious danger signals. The first symptoms were a peculiar "headache" low down at the back of the head, insomnia, and a tendency for the thoughts to race. If she went to bed and lay doing nothing in the darkened room, drinking large quantities of milk and eating well, the symptoms would slowly disappear and in a week or ten days she would be well again.
If she resisted at this stage, a crisis was sure to follow, and on four occasions led to a serious breakdown.
As in her own life extreme vivacity, activity, and excitement were the signals of mania presaging a depressive episode, so in her novels un-checked consciousness is always alarming. Women particularly do not indulge themselves in it. Yet, according to Prof. Nancy Bazin, Woolf seems to have related the emotions of the manic state to the female mode of perception, and particularly to her mother. Androgyny represents a perilous balance between the female mania and the male depression; but Woolf recognized the more intense state as richly fertile: "… these curious intervals in life—I've had many—are the most fruitful artistically—one becomes fertilized—think of my madness at Hogarth—and all the little illnesses.…"
Clarissa Dalloway exemplifies the self-restraint of many of Woolf's heroines. She, more than the others, has extinguished as much as possible all the excitement of her inner life: her male double, Septimus Smith, lives out the intense possibilities which Woolf saw as dangerous. His suicide is both an exorcism and a warning to Clarissa, who returns to the chaste and sanitary room where she sleeps alone on a narrow white cot and lulls herself with historical narratives. For Clarissa, for Charlotte Gilman's heroine, and for many of their sisters in literature, a room of one's own is a prison as well as a sanctuary. Psychologically enfeebled by their conditioning, they dare not defy society to do and say what they want; they struggle in a vague way to be let out of their rooms, but never understand that by this time the doors are locked from the inside.
The frequency with which one encounters madness in the heroines and in the lives of women writers seems to suggest that for them it is a form of genuine self-expression, sometimes the only one possible. As R. D. Laing's research into the genesis of schizophrenia has shown, madness may indeed be divinest sense, a way of maintaining the self in the face of baffling and contradictory reality. On the simplest level, madness offers a woman a socially acceptable excuse for expressing anger and hostility; and, conversely, the expression of these "unfeminine" feelings may be construed as signs of madness. Gilman's heroine has to behave in accordance with the role of the madwoman before she can confront her husband. Madness hath its privileges, one of which is honesty.
The mask of madness appears with sad regularity in women's books to the present day. In Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, for example, Esther Greenwood's total rejection of the feminine role is acted out before the curtain of the asylum, a curtain behind which the author can slip when her audience appears too shocked. If crazy Esther Greenwood is disgusted by childbirth, bored by men, unimpressed by male nudity ("turkey neck and turkey gizzards"), Sylvia Plath can claim to be a normal mother and housewife, and describe the novel to her own mother as "a potboiler." Mrs. Plath's horrified commentary on the novel—"as this book stands by itself, it represents the basest ingratitude"—is a sample of the pressures faced by women writers, the double bind of the demands of personal loyalty and the urgency of artistic truth.
However comprehensible or brilliantly appropriate madness appears as a response to the woman artist's existential dilemma, it is neither a dynamic nor a liberated response, but a ruse. And as ruses go, it is a very costly one. It would be cheaper to kill the Angel in the House.
Actually, writing is an ideal profession for women. You don't have to go to an office, you don't have to be away with half your mind on your household … wondering if it rains, did you close the windows? And for the woman who is tied down to her home, writing is a wonderful emotional release, to say nothing of the extra income it can bring.
—Faith Baldwin, ad for the Famous Writers School
If a woman is tied down to her home, one asks, what will be the emotions she needs to release in her writing? And what will she write about, besides these emotions and her fantasies of escape? The answer to the first question is that she will feel a large measure of anger, frustration, and resentment. The answer to the second is that she will have to write about what happens in that household, what she sees through those windows. In Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov tells an anecdote of a monkey in the Jardin des Plantes given an easel and brushes; the creature's first painting showed the bars of its cage. It sometimes seems that women's experience is as restricted and as foolish; women internalize literary values as well as other kinds, and their own vision often strikes them as dull and small.
Women critics have agreed with men that women writers are often timid, conservative, and conventional. In her review of The Second Sex, Elizabeth Hardwick quotes approvingly de Beauvoir's strictures on artistic women: "Narcissism and feelings of inferiority are, according to Simone de Beauvoir, the demons of literary women. Women want to please, 'but the writer of originality, unless dead, is always shocking, scandalous; novelty disturbs and repels.'"
Women, it is argued, never go anywhere or do anything; they have less experience to write about than men. But with so little opportunity for experience, so little space in which to channel psychic energy, women, as the ad from the Famous Writers School so shrewdly recognizes, need writing as an escape-valve for their desperate need for self-expression.
The dilemma of the woman writer in the second half of the twentieth century—struggling against convention to tell her own truth, and faced with male critics' contempt for it, and female critics' suspicion of it—is dramatized in the case of Mary McCarthy and The Group. Published in 1963, The Group is a subversive novel about women's roles and marriage, a deliberate exposure of the fantasy of the educated American woman's freedom. As McCarthy described it, the novel is about the failure of the idea of "progress in the feminine sphere." Nothing—not education, not politics, not technology, not sex—can jolt these somnolent young women, these sleeping beauties, from their Vassar tower, into dynamic growth. They are empty at the core, because they have never been free to experience themselves without the screen of male authority: cook books, sex books, child-rearing books, merge in their minds with their Vassar lectures, as infallible guides to the conduct of life.
In 1963 this message—McCarthy even makes the happiest woman in the book a lesbian—was not one America wished to recognize. While the book became a best-seller because of its allegedly sexy passages (sex from the woman's point of view seemed especially titillating and risqué) and because women readers responded to its underlying anger and accuracy, the male intellectuals hastened to attack this "trivial lady-writer's book" (Norman Podhoretz). John W. Aldridge thunderously banished McCarthy from the intellectual kingdom in an essay entitled "Princess Among the Trolls." Now, he announced triumphantly, the masquerade was over. She was no great thinker; she gave herself airs; she felt superior to men; in fact, she hated men. The Group, according to Aldridge, was a kind of wish fulfillment for her, enabling her to act out her self-deluding fantasies of intellectual dominance. "It is probably not surprising," he says wearily, "that Miss McCarthy's militant egotism should ultimately take the form of militant feminism and find its most satisfactory expression in the sexual contest between the brute male and the morally and intellectually superior female."
Norman Mailer, as one might guess, went wild. In a long essay called "The Case Against McCarthy," he ranted against the detail of The Group, seeing in it what he calls the "profound materiality of women." In a classical Freudian analysis of his own metaphors and obsessions, Mailer describes this detail as the "cold lava of anality, which becomes the truest part of her group, her glop, her impacted mass." With sensitive critics like these, and best-sellerdom to boot, The Group virtually destroyed Mary McCarthy's literary and intellectual reputation. By the time Hollywood got hold of it, Pauline Kael reports in "The Making of The Group," McCarthy herself was regarded as "poison … she's competitive"; the book was interpreted as proof that higher education made women aggressive and neurotic.
Yet there is great irony in McCarthy's fall as a "militant feminist," for the chorus of women's voices in her fiction creates a veritable symphony of female self-hatred. McCarthy is only merciless with her own sex; it is to the women in her narratives that she directs her most relentless mockery. In her famous short story "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt," the Babbitty man on the train emerges with considerable dignity and integrity, despite his crude middleclass tastes; it is the autobiographical arty heroine who is stripped of all self-respect and pretension. Similarly, in The Group, the female characters internalize all their aggressions against men. John Aldridge managed to find Amazons triumphant, but in truth, Kay, Noreen, Priss, and the rest pour their anger and frustration into bitchiness with each other, self-doubt, self-sacrifice, depression, madness, and suicide. They do not confront their men, much less defeat them.
Pauline Kael was more perceptive when she said that McCarthy's satire was an effort to protect herself against the horrible image of the castrating woman by "betraying other women. And of course women who are good writers succeed in betrayal but fail to save themselves." Since The Group, we have heard no more about women from McCarthy. Her subsequent books, a report from Vietnam, and a recent novel, Birds of America, narrated by an expatriate college boy obsessed with ecology, have found more favor.
It takes courage to hold out, for most women writers defying the stereotypes come in for much more abuse than McCarthy. The Brontës were called "outcasts from their sex"; Elizabeth Barrett Browning pronounced "coarse"; Kate Chopin's The Awakening banned as moral poison; Simone de Beauvoir denounced as frigid; Kate Millett proclaimed a pervert. In her remarkable long poem, "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law," Adrienne Rich describes the choices women have—to write badly and be patronized or to write well and be attacked […].
Standing in the shadow of Virginia Woolf, women writers were encouraged to be androgynous, to transcend consciousness of their sex, certainly not to write about it. The highest praise a woman writer could expect was to be absolved from being a "woman writer." As Erica Jong writes in "Bitter Pills for the Dark Ladies":
The ultimate praise is always a question of nots:
viz. not like a woman
viz. "certainly not another 'poetess'"
she got a cunt but she don't talk funny
& he's a nigger but he don't smell funny
& the only good poetess is a dead.
In 1963 the spirit of rebellion and passion in women writers seemed so extinct that Ellen Moers sadly predicted "no reason to believe that English and American literary women, as a group or as a sex, will ever again make the kind of gesture—and the splash—that they made in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries." Yet 1962-63 saw the publication of The Feminine Mystique, The Group, The Bell Jar, and The Golden Notebook. And suddenly women were once again intent on exploring their own experience. Now a new generation of angry young women, great-granddaughters of the Brontës, is speaking in language which will not go gentle. No more arts and wiles, no more fun and games. Today women writers are involved in a fierce encounter with the physical and sexual and social facts of their lives and, given women's experience, the encounter is bound to be bloody.
Wrote a huge book with her
Where (though I hate to seem
Nothing much happens and
—John Hollander, Double Dactylics
Once the penis has been introduced into
the poem, the poet lets herself down
until she is sitting on the muse
with her legs outside him. He need
not make any motions at all.
—Erica Jong, "Arse Poetica"
Today we are in a female Renaissance, a new Golden Age of women writers, an era of eros and anger. And if the new women writers defy male critics on paper and to their faces, they also create problems for their sisters. Used to the soothing myths of their sex's greater "spirituality" and "purity," many women find it profoundly disturbing to encounter expressions of female rage and eroticism, and particularly to find reflected in contemporary literature some of their own most deeply concealed doubts, beliefs, and feelings.
One form the new consciousness takes is role-reversal; the woman beats the man at his own game. Elizabeth Sargent's blunt and lusty poem, "A Sailor At Midnight," for example, reverses the roles of the hunter and the prey in a one-night stand. The woman picks up a sailor, and alarms him because their intercourse makes her bleed:
A sort of dread
Struck him. "What are you anyway," he
"Are you a virgin?"
"No, I'm a poet," I said. "Fuck me again."
Women students of mine respond with mingled envy and suspicion to Sargent's directness. The woman's intellectual superiority, her sexual imperiousness, and her exuberant (or exhibitionistic?) obscenity are presented here with a self-confidence which contrasts forcefully with Mary McCarthy's lady on the train. Sargent's woman can really claim to be "myn owene womman, wel at ese"; and modern women find it hard to identify with self-possession.
Even more troubling than Sargent's poetry is Denise Levertov's "Hypocrite Women," which challenges the numbness women induce as an evasion of sexual and spiritual commitment, and the self-hatred which such denials engender:
Hypocrite women, how seldom we speak
of our own doubts, while dubiously
we mother man in his doubt!
And if at Mill Valley perched in the trees
the sweet rain drifting through western air
a white sweating bull of a poet told us
our cunts are ugly—why didn't we
admit we have thought so too? (And
what shame? They are not for the eye!)
No, they are dark and wrinkled and hairy,
caves of the Moon.…And when a
dark humming fills us, a
coldness towards life
we are too much women to
own to such unwomanliness.
Whorishly with the psychopomp
we play and plead—and say
nothing of this later. And our dreams,
With what frivolity we have pared them
like toenails, clipped them like ends of
This is a subtler confrontation with the Angel, one which accepts a male view of female sexuality, and seems to use it to berate women. But Levertov is using the familiar details of physical maintenance, the constant paring and pruning of women's daily existence, to suggest the excision of female sexual consciousness.
Physical sexuality is a central theme of much of women's writing at the present, and while it is not the whole of womanhood, it is vital; it must be faced. "The blood jet is poetry," Sylvia Plath wrote. For women it is not the blood of war and wounds, but of nature. And the taboos are still strong, surrounding menstruation, for example, "that terrible female vulgarity of blood," as Mary McCarthy calls it. Even strong men seem to fear it; Norman Mailer owns himself beaten by Germaine Greer's challenge to women on the menstrual mythos: "If you think you are emancipated, you might consider the idea of tasting your own menstrual blood—if it makes you sick, you've a long way to go, baby."
Earlier women writers, if they mentioned menstruation at all, emphasized its shamefulness; in Katherine Anne Porter's Noon Wine, the Southern belles make themselves sick with home remedies designed to postpone menses before a ball, lest the young men suspect and be disgusted. In Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding, the trauma of menarche is clearly a part of Frankie's suffering; yet it is never mentioned. Recently, however, women are beginning to defy the taboos, to accept and describe the quality of this recurrent experience, its cultural ramifications, and its effect on women's self-image. In Such Good Friends, Lois Gould hilariously describes the modern female ritual of learning to use Tampax; while the heroine crouches in the bathroom, half afraid she has no vagina, her friends call out encouraging instructions. Menstruation also figures in women's pornographic writing, although it is conspicuously absent from male pornographers' fantasies; it does not stop Diane di Prima from joining an orgy with Kerouac and Ginsberg, which she relates in her Memoirs of a Beatnik.
Helpless Bodies; Free Wills
When they talk about their "experiences as bodies," the new women writers are anything but sentimental. As Alicia Ostriker writes in her long poem about pregnancy, "Once More Out of Darkness," which opposes an image of regeneration to the (male) images of our century as a wasteland, and of woman as a quagmire.
What I have said and
What I will say is female
Yes I said yes
Not analytical not romantic
But the book of practical facts.
The central experience of Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays is the heroine's abortion. Reduced to quintessential femaleness, Maria experiences herself as nothing. In herself, without the sheltering identity of her director-husband, she does not exist except as a body. The abortionist's sadism ("'Hear that scraping, Maria?' the doctor said. 'That should be the sound of music to you … don't scream, Maria, there are people next door …'") is not much different from the shrill brutality of the actor who finds out, after he has mistreated her, that she is married to a powerful man: "'Just hold on, cunt … You never told me who you were. '" Her life, its whole meaning, is literally in the careless hands of men; the abortion is only one event in her destruction.
Similarly, accounts of childbirth often emphasize the control and usurpation of female experience by men. The woman is most helpless when she should be most strong. In Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, childbirth is a clear symbol of the female condition; the woman becomes an object, deprived of will and stupefied, the utter opposite of the joyous creator, the poet. She is at the mercy of nature, science, and men, made passively to accept the narcotics that will further enslave her, since they make her forget the pain and thus condemn her to relive it. Esther has been taken to see a delivery by her medical-student beau, whom she perceives as threatening and even sinister in his omnivorous claims on her life. The prospective mother is a grotesque captive: "She seemed to have nothing but an enormous spider-fat stomach and two ugly little spindly legs propped in the high stirrups, and all the time the baby was being born she never stopped making this inhuman whooing noise." She has been drugged. Sylvia Plath rejects with horror the loss of consciousness and control, the manipulation of the woman's life by male expertise, the numbing of the woman's spirit to the pain which represents her only chance of free will:
I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn't groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again.
Even when the experience of childbirth is serene and dignified, as in Margaret Drabble's The Waterfall, it has troubling aspects. Drabble's heroine Jane is alone, in a cold house, tended by a midwife who has anxiously concentrated all the sources of heat in one room. Again the isolated room becomes a symbol of female experience. Still it is not childbirth, but a prosaic and particularly contemporary aspect of femaleness—a blood clot from birth control pills—which finally brings Jane into possession of herself:
The price that modern woman must pay for love. In the past, in old novels, the price of love was death, a price which virtuous women paid in childbirth, and the wicked, like Nana, with the pox. Nowadays it is paid in thrombosis or neurosis: one can take one's pick … I am glad I cannot swallow pills with impunity. I prefer to suffer, I think.
There is a great deal of anger in some of these books. Virginia Woolf might not have approved of their rancor, nor of their insistent femaleness, but I think she would have envied their author's freedom. Amazingly, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce lived identical life spans: 1882-1941. Yet how much he could think and say which she was forbidden! Today women writers are no longer willing to be silent about themselves, like Karl Shapiro's poets, "no belly and no bowels, only consonants and vowels." Good-bye to all that, writes Robin Morgan in a violent declaration of independence:
… we are rising, powerful in our unclean bodies; bright glowing mad in our inferior brains; wild hair flying, wild eyes staring, wild voices keening; undaunted by blood we who hemorrhage every twenty-eight days; laughing at our own beauty we who have lost our sense of humor; mourning for all each precious one of us might have been in this one living-time place had she not been born a woman.…"
If few women feel this rage, even fewer can still pretend not to hear it expressed.
Beyond androgyny, women have a lot to say.
SALLY BURKE (ESSAY DATE 1996)
SOURCE: Burke, Sally. "The Second Wave: A Multiplicity of Concerns." In American Feminist Playwrights: A Critical History, pp. 139-90. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.
In the following excerpt, Burke provides a brief history of the second-wave feminist movement, as well as examines the growth and writings of many feminist playwrights during the 1960s to the mid-1990s, including Alice Childress, Megan Terry, Adrienne Kennedy, Rosalyn Drexler, and others.
Under the veneer of 1950s complacency, a new consciousness simmered among women. Buoyed by a self-confidence developed when many managed homes and jobs during World War II, women who had apparently accepted the retreat from feminism and careers ordained by the return of the men did not forget that their earlier success had proven there was no "natural" gendering of labor into men's and women's work. Like their foremothers who underwent change during America's earlier wars, these women incubated ideas that formed the basis of the second wave of the women's movement. Of course, women's absence from most history, written as it is by men, concealed their common cause with Abigail Adams, the abolitionists, the suffragists, even their mothers or grandmothers who might have had similar experiences during World War I. Feminists have been forced by this absence to keep reinventing the wheel, that is, a feminist consciousness, defined by Gerda Lerner as: "(1) … the awareness of women that they belong to a subordinate group and that, as members of such a group, they have suffered wrongs; (2) the recognition that their condition of subordination is not natural, but societally determined; (3) the development of a sense of sisterhood; (4) the autonomous definition by women of their goals and strategies for changing their condition; and (5) the development of an alternate vision of the future."1 Since the late 1960s, feminist theorists have labored to ensure that, despite conservative backlash, the principles of sexual equality and the history of the struggle to bring about that equality are not again eclipsed, that women will retain possession of feminist consciousness and a usable past.
The second wave of the women's movement concerned itself with multiple issues. Under the banner of equal rights, women worked to effect equality between the sexes in such areas as education, employment, wages, the family, child rearing, and government. As their precursors in the first wave had learned to organize in the abolitionist movement, many women of the second wave received their education in the Civil Rights movement, recognizing that sex, as well as color, led to a denial of rights. Equally important to the reawakening of American feminist consciousness was the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. While much of what Friedan articulated had been said before, her focus on "the problem without a name" helped women realize that they were not alone, that others felt imprisoned by a society that circumscribed their lives according to their biology. Some perceived that the "problem" was social, not personal, and thus began the journey to women's realizations that "the personal is the political" and that the solution to the "problem" is political.
In 1961, President Kennedy established the Commission on the Status of Women. Its 1963 report demonstrated that women were victims of discrimination and recommended action in education and counseling, home, community, employment and labor standards, social security for widows, paid maternity leave, and equality under the law. The recommendations, while startling to many, asked for far less than women would soon demand for themselves. Women who had worked on state and national commissions grew weary of rhetoric followed by inaction. In 1968, at the third National Conference of State Commissions on the Status of Women, several delegates attempted to submit a resolution demanding that laws against discrimination be enforced; when they were told that the conference would accept no resolutions, they perceived the need for organization. This was the genesis of NOW, the National Organization for Women, formed "[t]o take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society NOW, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men."
The women of the 1960s and 1970s, like their foremothers in the suffrage and temperance movements, paraded to protest inequality and used street theater to attract media attention. For example, "At the 1968 Miss America pageant," a group of radical young women "crowned a live sheep, tossed objects of female torture—girdles, bras, curlers, issues of the Ladies Home Journal—into a 'freedom trashcan,' and auctioned off an effigy: 'Gentlemen, I offer you the 1969 model. She's better every year. She walks. She talks. She smiles on cue. And she does housework.'"2 While demonstrations called attention to the widespread perception of women as sex objects, women continued working in other areas. In 1970 NOW filed discrimination complaints with the Office of Federal Contract Compliance against 1,300 corporations; by 1971, the Women's Equity Action League had filed discrimination complaints against more than 250 academic institutions. Women confirmed, with statistical evidence, that their educations had been damaged by gender stereotyping. To countervail such damages, women lobbied for legislation outlawing sex discrimination in public schools and most colleges, which Congress passed in 1972.
The resurgent feminism of the 1960s and 1970s also challenged patriarchal privilege within families. As inexpensive oral contraceptives became available, birth rates fell; women, with and without children, employed outside the home gained some economic independence and no longer felt constrained to remain in unhappy or abusive marriages. Also, the age at marriage rose for women and more women remained single altogether.
By 1980, more than half the women in two-parent families were employed outside the home. New models for families came into being as males were urged to become active participants in child rearing. In the 1976 edition of Baby and Child Care, Dr. Benjamin Spock declared the father's responsibility to be as great as the mother's. In the 1980s and 1990s, new definitions of family arose: the "molded families" of second marriages, the two parents of the same-sex families of gay or lesbian partners, the single-parent family, and other variations of the so-called "ideal." By the mid-1990s, some states were extending health care and other benefits to unmarried domestic partners. By 1991, according to the U.S. Census, men with wives employed outside the home were the primary caregivers for 20 percent of children age five and younger. The Family Leave Act of 1993 guaranteed leave for childbirth or family illness to wife or husband. Clearly, feminism had had an impact.
Praxis: Transforming Stage and Society
The playwrights of the second wave sought to transform both the stage itself and the society it reflected. In the 1960s, off-Broadway revues, regional theaters, and newly created feminist theaters began producing plays by women in large numbers. These works were characterized by significant structural and thematic innovations. The playwrights melded the comic with the serious, blended musical and conventional theater, combined individual and social themes, and frequently replaced the traditional plot utilizing climax, recognition, and through-line with circular or contiguous structures and scenes of transformation. Gender roles were blurred, inverted, or abolished, and many dramas resisted closure. Emulating Alice Gerstenberg, Susan Glaspell, and Sophie Treadwell, feminist dramatists began using expressionistic techniques to portray the female psyche, to dramatize and explore women's oppression and the uniqueness of their fragmented lives. Others discovered ways to dramatize woman's reawakened feminist consciousness. These playwrights sought, through a praxis of the stage, to transform actor, audience, and world by using drama to promote women's awareness of their situation and to assist them in imagining alternatives to their oppression. These playwrights desired not only to dramatize women's experiences but also to change the conditions of their lives.
Agents of Change
When asked by the New York Times on 20 May 1973, "Where are the Women Playwrights?" Rosalyn Drexler replied, "They are deployed about the city waiting to make their move. They have already learned how to take apart and put together their typewriters in a matter of minutes, and how to keep them clean and well lubricated. At a signal … all women playwrights will shoot the vapids and proceed to a secret rendezvous where a secret store of explosive topics is waiting to be used. With proper handling, each sentence will find its mark." Her tongue-in-cheek metaphor holds seeds of truth. The feminist playwrights who had left or been turned away by the commercial theater had found homes in the cafés and studio theaters of off- and off-off-Broadway, in regional and feminist theaters. Yet except by scholars who began analyzing feminist drama in the mid-1970s, these playwrights were largely ignored. Even though seven women dramatists won Obies (the Obie Award was established by the Village Voice in 1956 to honor excellence in off-Broadway drama) between 1958 and 1978, the 10 plays included in Ross Wetzsteon's The Obie Winners: The Best of Off Broadway are by male playwrights. Ignoring Pulitzer Prize winners Crimes of the Heart (Beth Henley, 1981), 'night, Mother (Marsha Norman, 1983), and The Heidi Chronicles (Wendy Wasserstein, 1989), Time selected plays by male dramatists only for its January 1990 best-of-the-decade issue.
To combat such ignorance and indifference, women have formed alliances designed to make it known that, in Julia Miles's words, women playwrights "exist, they are talented, and they are ready to enter the mainstream theatre."3 In 1978, partly in reaction to learning that only 7 percent of the playwrights produced in funded nonprofit theaters from 1969 to 1975 were women, Miles founded the Women's Project at the American Place Theatre in New York. While Miles identifies neither herself nor the Women's Project as specifically feminist, the Women's Project has produced works by Maria Irene Fornes, Emily Mann, and many other feminist playwrights. By 1985, with a membership of approximately 200 playwrights and directors, the Women's Project had reviewed more than 4,000 scripts and presented 150 rehearsed readings. By 1994, it had produced 70 plays and published 5 anthologies. While its now 400 members have received numerous fellowships and grants, in her mission statement artistic director Miles says, "We measure our success by the increased courage and energy women are bringing to the stage.…Amore tangible measure is the increase in the numbers of women working in the theatre from approximately 6 percent to 7 percent for playwrights and directors [in 1978] to three times that number [in 1994]." Other organizations that have promoted women playwrights include the Women's Program of the American Theatre Association, the Women and Theatre Program, Women's Interart Theatre, the Women's Theatre Council, and the Committee for Women of the Dramatists Guild. In 1989, the First International Women Playwrights Festival and Conference was held in Buffalo, New York; the third met in July 1994 in Australia.
Negative images of women continued to predominate onstage. The vacuous but castrating Mommy of Edward Albee's The American Dream (1961) is an appropriate ancestor to the male-devouring Martha of his Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). The white Lula of Amiri Baraka's Dutchman (1964) uses her sexuality to lure, ensnare, demean, and murder Clay. Women are presented as marginal creatures by David Mamet, Sam Shepard, David Rabe, and Israel Horovitz. Even as diegetic characters, women are debased by Mamet's males. In American Buffalo (1975), Teach labels Ruthie a "vicious dyke" who has "not one loyal bone" in her body. Shepard's female characters are beaten to insensibility (A Lie of the Mind, 1985) and raped (The Tooth of Crime, 1972), while in Rabe's Goose and Tomtom (1981) Lulu is tied up, blindfolded, hung in a closet and periodically raped by Tomtom, who says, "I love to bang 'em, man. They got the plumbing, you know what I mean." As Susan Smith Harris concludes, "The very fact of the commercial success of these three writers points to a domination of a patriarchal, phallocentric theater system."4 Horovitz's Margy Burke, the title character of The Widow's Blind Date (1989), is gang-raped by men whose motives range from desiring to take her virginity to punishing her for being a whore, but who blame her for their crime. Countering such images and stereotypes by resisting the identities they posit and thus recovering womanhood is one task of the feminist playwright.
The vanguard of the feminist playwrights of the second wave actually preceded the onset of the women's movement in the 1970s. Writing in the early 1960s with wit, insight, courage, and determination, playwrights such as Megan Terry, Myrna Lamb, Adrienne Kennedy, Rochelle Owens, and Rosalyn Drexler produced works in a flowering that was anticipated in the plays of their fore-mothers. Inspired by both the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, these pioneers used the stage to illustrate that the violence of rape, inequality, and the assumed inferiority of women were human, as well as women's, issues. To experience the transition from being the other to being the center was the heady experience these playwrights offered female audiences.
Alice Childress: From the 1940s to Tomorrow
In April 1994, the New WORLD Theater at the University of Massachusetts produced Florence in tribute to Alice Childress (1920-94), whose career spanned six decades, from the original staging of Florence in 1949 to the 1994 production. Born in South Carolina, Childress moved to Harlem where she was raised by her grandmother; she left high school in her junior year to earn her living. At 19 she helped found the American Negro Theatre and worked there as a playwright, actor, and director for 12 years. She credits her grandmother with exposing her to art, encouraging her to write, and taking her to the Salem Church where, at Wednesday night testimonials, she learned to be a writer. "[P]eople, mostly women, used to get up and tell their troubles to everybody," she recalled. "I couldn't wait for person after person to tell her story.…That's where I got my writing inspiration."5
Her Gold through the Trees (1952) was the first play by a black woman to be professionally produced. Trouble in Mind (1955) won the first Obie Award for the best original off-Broadway play. Asked about the "firsts" attached to her name, Childress commented: "I never was ever interested in being the first woman to do anything. I always felt that I should be the 50th or the 100th. Women were kept out of everything. [Being first] almost made it sound like other women were not quite right enough or accomplished enough, especially when I hear 'the first Black woman.' When people are shut out of something for so long, it seems ironic when there's so much going on about 'the first'" (Brown-Guillory 1987, 68). Childress viewed race as the dominant factor in her life and work: "Being a woman adds difficulty to self expression, but being Black is the larger factor of struggle against the odds. Black men and women have particular problems above and beyond the average, in any field of endeavor."6 She also decried "people who say, 'I'm not a black playwright, I'm a playwright who happens to be black.' Like they're some god-damned accident! You know? Happenstance. I am a woman and I am black.…The person who says, 'I'm not a woman playwright,' or 'I'm not black, I'm a writer who happens to be black,' et cetera, is deluding herself."7 Her dramas address the difficulties of the struggle against racism and sexism, legacies of a white patriarchy that doubly oppresses black women. Rather than concern herself with a genteel middle class, Childress wrote, as did Georgia Douglas Johnson and Mary Burrill, of the lower economic class.…
ON THE SUBJECT OF…
ALICE CHILDRESS (1920-1994)
Alice Childress is considered a pivotal yet critically neglected figure in contemporary black American literature. Because she wrote about such topics as miscegenation and teenage drug abuse, some of Childress's works have been banned from schools and libraries in various regions. In her dramas as well as in her novels for children and adults, Childress drew upon her own experiences and created relatively commonplace protagonists. Childress was born in Charleston, South Carolina, but grew up in Harlem in New York City. She was raised primarily by her grandmother, who was an early influence on her writing, and inspired her to write about everyday events. Childress attended high school for two years but left before graduation. She held several jobs while acting as a member of the American Negro Theatre in Harlem; as part of the company, she performed in A Midsummer-Night's Dream and other works. Childress was also in the original cast of Anna Lucasta on Broadway, but found acting unfulfilling. She began to write dramas, later attributing this decision in part to her grandmother. In 1949 Childress's first play, Florence, was staged, and the critical praise it received launched Childress's career. With Gold through the Trees (1952), she became the first black woman to have a play professionally produced on the American stage, and with Trouble in Mind (1955), a play about a group of actors rehearsing Chaos in Belleville, a fictional drama with an anti-lynching message, she became the first woman to win an Obie Award for best original off-Broadway play. By far her best-known work, A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1973), is the story of thirteen-year-old Benjie Johnson's emerging addiction to heroin. The work was highly controversial and is the subject of the majority of critical attention to Childress's works. Despite overwhelming praise for its realistic treatment of a sensitive issue, several school districts banned Hero, apparently on the grounds that the theme of the work was inappropriate for young readers. Childress encountered similar resistance to her plays; for instance, the state of Alabama refused to air Wine in the Wilderness (1969), when it was produced for television that same year.
Megan Terry: "Mother of American Feminist Drama"
Named the "Mother of American Feminist Drama" by Helene Keyssar (Keyssar, 53), Megan Terry (born 1932) has written more than 60 plays, been translated into every major language, and produced internationally. Born in Seattle, Terry began working with the Seattle Repertory Playhouse at 14; artistic director Florence James's technique of having the actors write biographies of what their characters were doing offstage, was, Terry says, "one of the things that got me into writing."8 In 1966, she held a writer-in-residence fellowship at the Yale School of Drama. She has taught theater and given seminars in playwriting across the country.
Moving to New York in 1956, she worked in several theaters and in 1963 joined Joseph Chaikin at the Open Theatre, where she served as playwright-in-residence and ran the playwrights' workshop. Eight of her dramas were produced there, the most notable being Viet Rock: A Folk War Movie (1966). In the early 1970s she began working with the Omaha Magic Theatre, and in 1974 moved to Omaha and became playwright-in-residence, performer, composer, designer, and photographer. Her book, Right Brain Vacation Photos—New Plays and Production Photographs, 1972-1992, highlights the production of 25 of her works as well as dramas by Rosalyn Drexler, Rochelle Owens, and Maria Irene Fornes. Since its founding in 1968, the Omaha Magic Theatre, "which typically mocks and demystifies patriarchal sites and practices,"9 has produced more than 100 plays and musicals.
According to Jill Dolan, "Many contemporary feminist theatre makers, such as Megan Terry …, left the experimental theatres to form their own groups when their invisibility in the male forums was articulated by the American women's liberation movement."10 Terry, who acknowledges that "the women's movement enabled me to leave New York and give up that whole careerism business—the man's world of career stuff," defines feminist drama as "[a]nything that gives women confidence, shows them to themselves, helps them to begin to analyze whether it's a positive or negative image" (Jenkins, 329). Her dramas confront sexism, gender roles, the repression and oppression of women, and sexist language with the intent of disrupting what the patriarchy claims as the natural order. As a teacher, Terry acquaints her students with feminist dramatists: "I taught Emily Mann's Still Life.… My students were outraged that they'd never heard of this play, nor the work of Maria Irene Fornes, nor Roz Drexler, Rochelle Owens, Adrienne Kennedy,… Ntozake Shange,…Tina Howe. They knew none of these people, and they were getting their master's degrees!" (Betsko and Koening, 385).
Common to many feminist dramatists is "the strategy of transformation" (Keyssar, xiii); Terry is often credited with introducing it onstage. Transformation itself is variously defined as a training technique for actors, a means of dramatizing the instability of character, a disruption of the conventions of realist theater and the status quo that those conventions support, thus a means of "throw[ing] the spectator's focus onto society and the way it maintains oppressive roles and attitudes" (Savran, 241). Transformation is thus seen as a means of "inspir[ing] and assert[ing] the possibility for change" that can bring about "transformation of the self and the world" (Keyssar, xiv). Strindberg's expressionism may be an influence; in the preface to A Dream Play (1902), Strindberg wrote, "Anything may happen, anything seems possible and probable.…The characters split, double, multiply, vanish, solidify, blur, clarify." Strindberg's influence is discernible in Terry's remark, "I was more crazy about Strindberg and Ionesco and Sartre" than about other modern Europeans (Savran, 245). In Terry's transformations, too, anything may change and, "These changes occur swiftly and almost without transition, until the audience's dependence upon any fixed reality is called into question. A member of our audience once said that these continual metamorphoses left him feeling 'stationless,' which is precisely the point."11
Transformation in feminist drama also has roots in women's psychology and life experience. Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray all write of the fluidity of woman's experience and find her reality to be other than the binary thinking characteristic of phallic logic.12 That her time is so open to interruption is reflected in the abrupt changes of character, scene, and event found in transformational drama. Action frequently proceeds not in a linear manner but by contiguity, a principle described by feminist theorists as a nearness that creates a work "constantly in the process of weaving itself, at the same time ceaselessly embracing words and yet casting them off to avoid becoming fixed, immobilized."13 Terry works in the tradition of Glaspell, who also eschewed linear development. Claire's intent in The Verge in dealing with her plant forms applies equally well to feminist playwrights' experiments with dramatic structure: "I want to break it up! If it were all in pieces, we'd be … shocked to aliveness.…There'd been strange new comings together—mad new comings together."
Terry's first transformational drama, Calm Down Mother, was produced in 1965. The play, written because "there were no parts for women" (Savran, 253), is often cited as the first truly feminist American drama. Its three characters, identified only as Woman One, Woman Two, and Woman Three, are variously parts of a plant form; two delicatessen clerks and a customer; a woman filled with anger; a writer; two friends and the dying mother of one; nursing-home patients; a subway door; call girls; sides of a triangle; a mother and her daughters; and three amused gentlewomen. As the play begins, the plant splits and from it emerges Margaret Fuller, who asserts that she knows who she is because, "My father addressed me not as a plaything, but as a living mind." The transformations that follow expose the ills resulting from the institutionalized sexism of American society. The writer, for example, thinks, "Maybe if I keep talking and writing … I won't seem so small, at least not so small to me." A woman who has just escaped an "impossible marriage" is questioned about restraining orders. Women as victims of society's stress on them as sexual beings appear in the nursing-home patients whose nurse signals their superfluity—"Your cream's all gone. Time for the heap"—and in the young woman pressured by priests into abandoning birth control. Her sister, who refuses to "sit there in the church every Sunday, kneeling and mumbling and believing all that crap that those men tell you," is disowned by her mother, herself a victim of patriarchal religion. As the play ends, the three at once confirm and confront the idea that anatomy is destiny as they progress from proclaiming, "The eggies in our beggies [sic] are enough," to turning their backs on the audience in its representation of sexist society and asking, in unison, "Are They?" Although beaten down by sexist assumptions, woman's mind and spirit as initially represented by Margaret Fuller rise to resist being apprehended merely as a medium for reproduction.
Terry's best-known play, Viet Rock: A Folk War Movie, "was translated into every major language and was proclaimed in every major, and many minor, cities all over the world" (Betsko and Koening, 382). Terry directed the play, which has the distinction of being both the first rock musical ever staged—featuring such songs as "The Viet Rock" and "War Au Go Go"—and the first to deal with the Vietnam War.14 …
Maria Irene Fornes: From the Absurd to the Oppressed
Maria Irene Fornes's career began with The Widow (1961). In 1982 she was awarded an Obie for sustained achievement in the theater; her total of seven Obies is unique among women in the theater. Born in Cuba in 1930, Fornes emigrated to America in 1945. She studied painting, spending some time in Paris, where she was profoundly moved by Roger Blin's 1954 production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. In a memorial tribute, she remarked, "I more than just admire Beckett. He had a personal impact on me; he provided me with a new vision.… I was illuminated by it."15
The author of more than 30 plays, Fornes also teaches playwriting, designs scenery and costumes, and, like Crothers, Sophie Treadwell, Hellman, and Terry, directs her own plays. She also directs the INTAR Hispanic Playwrights-in-Residence Laboratory. A founding member of New York Theater Strategy, she served as president, fund-raiser, production coordinator, bookkeeper, and secretary; this work interfered with her playwriting for six years, a drought that ended with the production of Fefu and Her Friends (1977).
Fornes identifies herself as a feminist: "To be a feminist I think means that you follow a political process that has a development and you are part of the development and you adhere to it. I am a feminist in that I am very concerned and I suffer when women are treated in a discriminatory manner because I am a woman."16 Furthermore, Fornes invites "the audience to view the underside of patriarchal culture through women's eyes.… Fornes's mirror reflects disturbing images of patriarchy in general and of male behavior in particular."17
Returning full-time to writing and directing with Fefu and Her Friends, she examined women and their roles, investing her dramas with sympathy, empathy, and compassion. Fefu brought her Obies for writing and direction. The plot of this challenging drama centers on eight women who meet at Fefu's home to plan a fund-raising event. Although it is 1935, these women, untouched by the Great Depression, seem at first comfortable and self-sufficient in this domestic setting that functions as a concretization of woman's sphere. Although the play's action stretches from noon through the evening, Fefu's husband, Phillip, remains outside, seen by some of the women but not the audience. Fefu tells her friends that Phillip "married me to have a constant reminder of how loathsome women are," and begins to reveal the pernicious effects of the patriarchal control that looms just outside, keeping woman both nervous and in her place. Her metaphor of the stone in damp soil illuminates the state of male/female relationships: "that which is exposed to the exterior … is smooth and dry and clean. That which is not … [the] underneath, is slimy and filled with fungus and crawling with worms. It is another life that is parallel to the one we manifest. It's there. The way worms are underneath the stone. If you don't recognize it … [whispering] it eats you." The arrival of Julia, confined to a wheelchair by a surreal hunting accident in which she was not hit by a bullet but fell anyway, underscores the manner in which patriarchal control devours both body and spirit.…
Adrienne Kennedy: "A Growth of Images"
Adrienne Kennedy (born 1931) was raised in a racially mixed suburb of Cleveland. Her parents were active in the black community. Attending racially and ethnically mixed schools, Kennedy did not experience the sting of racism until she attended Ohio State University, where she encountered overt racial hatred from the women in her dormitory. "The white students on campus did not socialize nor interact in any fashion with black students. This experience made an indelible mark on her sensibility and engendered anger and hatred for racism which would find compelling expression in her plays."18 Kennedy is best known for her complex, enigmatic dramas, which have been translated into several languages and have been produced in Paris, London, and Rome.
The Great Lakes Theater Festival staged her first full production in Cleveland when it held the first Adrienne Kennedy Festival in 1992, during which the play it had commissioned, The Ohio State Murders, received its world premiere. Calling her writing "a growth of images," Kennedy stated, "Autobiographical work is the only thing that interests me.… I see my writings as being an outlet for inner, psychological confusion and questions stemming from childhood."19 If self is the subject of her expressionistic, surrealistic dramas, sui generis but also in the tradition of Marita Bonner's The Purple Flower, Glaspell's The Verge, and Treadwell's Machinal, that self is infinite, containing woman, man, god, and beast; it is also a template for the experience of the African American woman. As epilogue to her autobiography, People Who Led to My Plays (1987), Kennedy writes, "My plays are meant to be states of mind" (People, n.p.). An avant-gardist, she fashions her poetic dramas through arresting verbal and visual imagery. Like Terry, she changes scenes at a rapid pace. Her characters often split into several selves and her drama's form is often equally fragmented. She writes in a non-Western, circular time and may utilize sets simultaneously or superimpose them one upon the other. From herself as subject, Kennedy spins a thread that winds through her oeuvre, connecting the plays through shared characters and themes.
Kennedy frequently speaks of the women of her family—mother, aunt, and grandmother—as heroes and inspiration. bell hooks, discussing Kennedy's feminism, comments that "there is an emergent perspective on women's identity … that can be read as linked to a growing political concern in the fifties and sixties with female identity—with women's efforts to come to voice—to establish a writer's identity, and this concern is there in Kennedy's work."20 hooks also celebrates Kennedy's autobiography for "[d]ocument[ing] … the harsh nuances and textures that characterize [black women's] relationships to many white women" (183), something that Beah Richards and Childress also document. In a comment foreshadowing reaction to Anita Hill's testimony before the 1991 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court, Susan E. Meigs wrote that Kennedy's "characters represent the community of women, largely excluded from the political mechanisms of black protest, who are nonetheless expected to sacrifice gender issues for racial concerns."21 For Kennedy, as for Childress, "the history of race … is the predominant question of my existence."22 Significantly, Kennedy identifies Childress as a "great inspiration" (Betsko and Koening, 257). She also credits Lorraine Hansberry's success as inspiring: "I had abandoned playwriting … because I thought there was no hope; but with LH's success, I felt reawakened" (People, 109).
Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964) was written while Kennedy was in Ghana accompanying her husband on a research trip. If Tommy in Childress's Wine in the Wilderness is, in Bill's word, "together"—sure of herself, knowing who she is—Kennedy's Sarah is her polar opposite. In the multicultural chaos of Funnyhouse, Sarah fragments into four selves: the Duchess of Hapsburg, Queen Victoria Regina, Jesus, and Patrice Lumumba. Daughter of a woman who "looked like a white woman" and a father who is "the darkest one of us all," Sarah isolates herself in her room. Surrounded by artifacts of the dominant white culture, she writes poetry imitative of Edith Sitwell and has what she describes as her "vile … nigger" dream of herself and her white friends living "in rooms with European antiques, photographs of Roman ruins, pianos and oriental carpets." Although she "long[s] to become even a more pallid Negro" than she is, she cannot prevent her father, whom she characterizes as the "wild black beast" who raped her mother, from knocking on her door and begging "forgiveness for … being black." All of Sarah's selves speak of the black man as their father; all intend to kill him or believe they have already done so.
Describing the various sets as "my rooms," Sarah tells why she fantasizes about the Hapsburg chamber, the room in Victoria's castle, the hotel where she imagines killing her father, and the jungle; they are "the places myselves exist in." But, she adds, "I know no places. That is, I cannot believe in places. To believe in places is to know hope and to know the emotion of hope is to know beauty. It links us across a horizon and connects us to the world. I find there are no places only my funnyhouse." A culture that insists on identities established on the basis of either/or offers no room for the mulatto, for one who is both and thereby more. Sarah, who begins the play "faceless … with a hangman's rope about her neck," ends by hanging herself. She appears to be one more tragic mulatto, like the character cited by Mrs. Carter in Florence, killing herself because she is not white. Kennedy, however, does not wish to promulgate this white myth any more than did Childress. Sarah's death, announced from the outset by the noose, becomes a call for the creation of new spaces, for the accommodation of new identities beyond the prison of white patriarchy's binaries.
In A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White (1976), Kennedy continues to deal with representation and transformation. Clara, identified as a playwright and quoting lines she "wrote" for Kennedy's second drama, The Owl Answers (1965), keeps vigil at the bedside of her comatose brother while she works through problems in her marriage by projecting herself into scenes from the movies Now Voyager, Viva Zapata, and A Place in the Sun. The drama testifies to Kennedy's lifelong fascination with film, film stars, and fame, yet it also graphically presents the conundrum of the representation of minorities. Clara's life is the subject and she narrates her own drama, but in a unique manner. She is present in the reenactment of the films, sitting in the boat behind the actor playing Shelley Winters in the scene from A Place in the Sun, for example. But Clara, who "plays a bit part" in this story of her life, does not speak. The movie images speak for her, delivering not lines from the movies but from Clara's story. Although Kennedy's protagonist remains subsumed by the white majority, she is neither killed nor, asin The Owl, transformed into a nonhuman being, and thus moves closer to speaking for herself.
With The Alexander Plays, a quartet centered on the character Suzanne Alexander, a writer, Kennedy continued her "autobiography." No longer strained through white masks or voices, Suzanne Alexander speaks for herself. The first play, She Talks to Beethoven (1989), is set in Ghana; as she anxiously awaits the arrival of her husband who vanished two days earlier, Suzanne reads from a diary that has been written on Beethoven, the subject of her current project. So strong is Beethoven's presence for her that he appears; they converse about creativity and fame, and she discovers messages from her missing husband in the notebooks the deaf composer used for communication. When David returns, Suzanne asks if he sent Beethoven; in a voice not unlike Beethoven's, David replies, "I knew he would console you while I was absent," marking the interconnectedness of love, creativity, and art. Parts 3 and 4 of Kennedy's quartet, The Film Club (1992) and The Dramatic Circle (1992), deal with David's later disappearance; the first is Suzanne's monologue, the second its dramatization.
The most important of the four plays, The Ohio State Murders, premiered at the Great Lake's Festival's Adrienne Kennedy Festival in 1992. Beginning as a monologue in which Suzanne rehearses the talk she is to give on the genesis of the violent imagery in her work, the play enlarges into a restaging of Suzanne's memories of her undergraduate days. Kennedy's own pain at the prejudice she experienced living in a dormitory is searingly present in Suzanne's story. More shocking is the tale of the betrayal of this gifted young woman enrolled at the university in an era when minorities had to qualify to become English majors by taking "trial courses." The rage that imploded to split Kennedy's earlier protagonists as they turned inward is directed outward at a patriarchy that employs its privileged status to flatter, seduce, abandon, and murder. Declaring Suzanne's work "brilliant," white professor Robert Hampton seduces her. When she becomes pregnant, he insists he could not be responsible. Later he kidnaps and kills one of her infant twins; several months later, posing as a researcher, he imprisons the baby sitter, murders his second daughter, and kills himself.…
Rosalyn Drexler: The Art of Experimentation
Like Kennedy, Rosalyn Drexler (born 1926) is an experimental writer, a classification she also ascribes to life: "Life is experimental because it is changing from moment to moment, and you're never quite sure of the result, but you know something is happening and you are going in an organic direction. Only death is non-experimental. There's nothing more to work with."23 Drexler gave herself much to work with in a life that includes work as playwright, novelist, singer, painter, wrestler, masseuse, waitress, playground director, and sculptor. Her experience as a wrestler, for example, informs the plot of Delicate Feelings (1984). Drexler won Obies for her first play, Home Movies (1964), for The Writer's Opera (1979), and for three one-act plays, collectively titled Transients Welcome (1984). Puns, double entendre, literary allusions, and non sequitur abound in her work. She acknowledges Ionesco as another self (Lamont 1993, viii); several critics also detect the zaniness of the Marx Brothers in her dramas. Her works have been identified as theater of the ridiculous, absurd, collage, and farce; she describes them as "inside out … things that most characters only think are given voice and spoken in my work," and feels she has experienced discrimination "because of the kind of noncommercial work [she does]" (Betsko and Koening, 132 and 129). Rosette Lamont calls her destabilization of discourse a "semiotics of instability," within which she deconstructs the "naturalness" of male/female relationships in which the woman is presented as always already inferior. Instead, "Woman as the desiring subject is central to most of her work"24 She also exposes the tactics of the patriarchy; in She Who Was He (1976), Thutmose, Queen Hatshepsut's husband, arranges her murder, "then attempts to erase her name from history, has servants chipping away at obelisks raised in her honor, removes her name from scroll and tomb" (Betsko and Koening, 130).
Raunchiness and humor mark Home Movies. In what might be seen as a twentieth-century version of Fashion, Mrs. Verdun holds calling hours in her bedroom for guests who include homosexual poet Peter Peterouter, the sneering, stuttering intellectual Charles Arduit, the sly priest Father Shenanagan, Sister Thalia, and John the Truckdriver. Peter, acknowledging his homosexuality, also claims that an encounter in a gymnasium with the missing "well hung" patriarch left him "covered with the rash." Mr. Verdun arrives home literally encased in a large wooden closet delivered by John. He then "breaks his way out of the closet [and] prances around." He tells Mrs. Verdun, "My hormones are in top form" and, singing a sadomasochistic song, they go behind the curtain. In Drexler's hands, the portrait of the controlling patriarch becomes one of the first comic portrayals of bisexuality on the American stage.
The Bed Was Full (1964) was staged in 1983 by the Omaha Magic Theatre, which also presented Room 17C (1983), The Line of Least Existence (1987), and The Heart That Eats Itself (1988). The Bed Was Full parodies farce. A wife suspected of infidelity is pursued by a paranoid detective as people literally fall from overhead ramps into bed. In the midst of the absurdity, Drexler limns a male-dominated society in which violence imperils woman's attempts at self-determination, as is illustrated by the model Kali being kidnapped at gunpoint by Joel, who desires her as his model and muse.
In Occupational Hazard, the 1992 version of The Heart That Eats Itself (1988), Drexler contemplates the nature of art and artist. She calls this adaptation of Kafka's "A Hunger Artist," "a portrait of the artist as suicide" (Lamont 1993, x). Using the play as a vehicle for social critique, Drexler adds a flashback scene illustrating the sexual harassment of Emma by the Official of the Review Board of the Accident Compensation Authority, the agency for which the Artist works before leaving to pursue his calling. As she shoves the Official away and chokes him with her legs he feels only pleasure, then forces her to take money, with the threat, "And remember, mum's the word. Your future depends on it." …
Rochelle Owens: "Challenging the Categories"
Asked about the dramatist's function, Rochelle Owens (born 1936) responded, "To improve the well-being of the human psyche by revealing the multitudinous levels of human experience. To get rid of the false, dangerous and sanctimonious images the society inevitably is fixated on. To inspire and generate the possibility of authentic awareness of the sacred obligation of being alive."25 This advocate of theater as praxis was born in Brooklyn, where she attended public schools, and later studied at the New School for Social Research. A sponsor of the Women's Interart Center, Owens also helped establish the theater arts magazines Scripts and Performance, served on the advisory board of Performing Arts Journal, and taught drama at the University of Oklahoma.
She calls her early work "protofeminist [in] structure and dynamics. Protofeminist because it preceded the wave of political and sociological consciousness of the late seventies. Many women were writing incredible plays which pointed up a warped, sexist reality.… I think our work, beyond being avant-garde (that means getting rid of old structures, finding new meaning and creating new forms) also had an aware sensibility of the paradox and the inherent—almost genetic—cellular injustice between the sexes" (Betsko and Koening, 346). As one of several women playwrights responding to the question, "Where Are the Women Playwrights?" in the 20 May 1973 issue of the New York Times, Owens noted that while many women were writing for the theater, few were being produced, adding, "[T]hat sad fact is just a part of the general cultural attitude toward the female—women viewed in a particular framework are made invisible and totally ignored … [a woman who] dares to write [a] play … must have guts of steel and great forbearance to transcend the devious undermining, the negative expectations, and a mountain of other assaults on her sensibilities." In a later interview, she remembers being reviewed as "a housewife who writes plays." Such blatant sexism is among the subjects of her dramas, as are power, bestiality, scapegoating, love, murder, and theater itself—all part of her strategy of "challenging the established categories of theater" (Betsko and Koening, 344, 347).
Owens's Futz (1961), ostensibly a tale of bestiality concerning Cy Futz's passion for his pig, Amanda, proves to be a tale of scapegoating and misogyny when viewed under a feminist lens. Futz lives far from town and carries on his porcine amours in the privacy of his barn; to observe this "Satan" at his "abominations" with the pig he calls his "wife," the townfolk must go to his farm. As Cy protests, "I wasn't near people. They came to me and looked under my trousers all the way up to their dirty hearts. They murdered my own life." The women in the play, having suffered years of being branded sluts and bitches, agree that "no woman is good" and acquiesce in their own oppression. In the 10 February 1968 New Yorker, Edith Oliver called Futz "a witty, harsh, fanciful, and touching dramatic poem," but, like other critics, overlooked its feminism. In a 1978 interview, Owens stated, "When Futz and my other plays were first produced, there was absolutely no feminist perspective on the part of the critics and intellectuals who had either read or seen my work. Thus, these plays were often seen as a cry for freedom for males. You see, the women were invisible. There were women in the plays obviously. The women's story was there. But the critics didn't see it. They all had blinders on. That's why feminism is so important."26 In 1967 Futz won Obies for writing, directing, and acting.…
Myrna Lamb: "One Ultimate Revolution"
In her introduction to The Mod Donna and Scyklon Z: Plays of Women's Liberation (1971), Myrna Lamb (born 1935) writes: "There are many valid revolutions which we must support.… And there is one ultimate revolution which encompasses them all, and that is the liberation of the female of the species."27 Lamb feels the feminist movement has enabled women to see "themselves differently … as potential artists, not merely cooks and bottle-washers"; she wants her drama to effect social change and is "very hurt when people interpret [her] work as purely personal and psychological and don't see the political … substructure."28 She helped found the New Feminist Repertory Theatre, which in 1969 premiered three of her one-act dramas—But What Have You Done for Me Lately? and The Serving Girl and the Lady, and In The Shadow of the Crematoria—an event that Honor Moore describes as a "breakthrough in feminist theatre" (Moore, 499).
In But What Have You Done for Me Lately? a male lawmaker implanted with a pregnant uterus offers to the female physician who performed the implant all the reasons why the fetus must be aborted. She counters each protest by echoing the responses made by the patriarchy as it exerts control over women's bodies in the name of religion or humanity; recalling her own unwanted pregnancy, she disparages "righteous male chauvinists of both sexes who identif[y] with the little clumps of cells and g[i]ve them precedence over the former owners of the host bodies." To the Man's protestations, the physician responds, "If one plea is valid, then they might all be. So you must learn to accept society's interest in the preservation of the fetus, within you, within all in your condition." She informs him that as a legislator he killed women, careers, spirits, love, and self-respect. Finally, she agrees to take his case before a board "composed of many women, all of whom have suffered in some way from the laws you so ardently supported." The board decides, "[o]ut of compassion for the potential child and regarding qualities of personality and not sex that make you a potentially unfit mother,… that the pregnancy is to be terminated." Written, Lamb admits, as a polemic, But What Have You Done For Me Lately? is a powerful statement of woman's right to self-determination.
While other playwrights of the second wave wrote plays that were feminist in philosophy, orientation, and subject matter and utilized anti-realist structure and techniques such as transformation and nonlinear time schemes, held by many to be essential to feminist drama, Lamb made feminism itself her topic in The Mod Donna: A Space-age Musical Soap Opera with Breaks for Commercials (1970). On the surface a tale of mate swapping that satirizes the "new morality" of the 1970s, The Mod Donna incorporates issues of class status and capitalism into its plea for women's liberation. The Mod Donna intersperses choric songs and "commercials" dramatizing the dilemmas of women's everyday lives into the narrative of the capitalist "boss couple," Chris and her husband, Jeff, and the underling couple Donna and Charlie. Lamb details in the commercials and songs the ways in which women are bombarded with such messages as "Be desirable," and "Food is love / … So pick up that trusty kitchen tool." In the main plot, Chris, fearing her marriage going stale, has Jeff bring Donna, wife of Charlie, general manager at Jeff's business, into their home and their marriage. Chris convinces Jeff he needs a child to validate his manhood, persuades Donna to bear that child, then decides her marriage has been revitalized and tells the pregnant Donna that she is no longer needed. When Donna refuses to leave, Chris gives Charlie pictures of Donna performing various sex acts with Jeff. Inflamed, Charlie, refusing even to recognize the role Jeff, his employer and master in the capitalist system, plays in Donna's seduction, wields a blunt instrument in what the stage directions call a "symbolic execution" of Donna, a graphic illustration of the manner in which capitalism seizes on women as scapegoats and consumes not only their labor but the women themselves. As the drama ends, the chorus sings of "Our true need / Liberation."…
Jane Chambers: Dramatizing Lesbian Desire
The best-known plays of Jane Chambers (1937-83) bring onstage the representation of the lesbian and of lesbian desire, not by an outsider—as is the case in Hellman's The Children's Hour—but by a member of the community. Born in South Carolina, Chambers studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse in California. Her dramas have been produced off-Broadway as well as in regional and community theaters and on television.
Chambers was playwright-in-residence for The Glines, a New York Theater established in 1976 by producer John Glines to present drama about the gay life experience. In 1982 the Fund for Human Dignity presented her with its annual award, which honors those who by "their work or by the example of their lives, have made a major contribution to public understanding and acceptance of lesbians and gay men." Chambers was instrumental in fighting what Karla Jay described in the 29 May 1979 Boston Phoenix as the oppression arising from "having other people tell your story." In 1984, the Women and Theatre Program of the American Theatre Association (now the Association for Theatre in Higher Education) established the Jane Chambers Playwriting Award for plays written by a woman from a feminist perspective, with a majority of women's roles.
Chambers wrote A Late Snow (1974) as a screenplay but was told by her agent, "Nobody's going to buy a movie script about lesbians." To her protest that the successful Broadway play of 1968 about gay men, The Boys in the Band, was being filmed, he countered, "Fags are funny, dykes are gloomy."29 In 1974, when it was produced at Playwrights Horizons, several women refused to read for a role as a lesbian; two who were cast quit—one the night before the play opened (Hoffman, xi). The play presents five women stranded by a snowstorm. Before the storm, Quincey, Ellie's lover, comes to the cabin to install a Dutch cupboard, purchased from Ellie's former lover Pat, as a present celebrating Quincey and Ellie's first anniversary. While Pat helps Quincey move the cupboard into the cabin, Ellie, a college professor, returns from the out-of-town conference she's been attending, bringing with her, Margo, a famous writer. Later, the college roommate Ellie loved unrequitedly arrives.…
Martha Boesing: A Radical Voice
An eminent voice in feminist theater, Martha Boesing (born 1936) was the founder, artistic director, and playwright-in-residence of Minneapolis's At the Foot of the Mountain theater from 1974 to 1984; her work has been described as among "the most ambitious and innovative … in terms of both form and content."30 Boesing received her bachelor of arts degree in English from Connecticut College, where her first play, Accent on Fools, was produced in 1956. She began doctoral work in theater at the University of Minesota but left to begin her career with the Minneapolis Repertory Theatre. Actor, director, librettist, designer, and manager, in 1986 Boesing played the title role in At the Foot of the Mountain's Fefu and Her Friends, a production directed by Fornes. Her dramas have been presented across American and in Canada, Great Britain, Berlin, and Australia.
Lynne Greeley describes Boesing's dramas as falling into three categories: historic collages in which "Boesing quote[s] the original words of historical figures from documents, such as speeches and biographies, around which the characters [are] built"; collaborative pieces created with the companies by which they were staged; and those dramas of which she is the sole author.31 In 36 plays and librettos, Boesing deploys her feminist consciousness over issues such as: the threat of nuclear destruction; deep ecology; addictions of various kinds—food, sex, love, and money, as well as chemicals; American involvement in Central America; the effects of Columbus's voyages to the New World; and the Great Depression, always with an eye toward exposing the oppressions of a society erected on patriarchal values and always celebrating the role of feminist consciousness in re-forming both the theater and the world.
In River Journal (1975), a modern morality play with music, Boesing works in the tradition of dramatizing the fragmented self, established by Alice Gerstenberg in Overtones and continued by Kennedy in Funnyhouse of a Negro and The Owl Answers and Marsha Norman in Getting Out. Here the fragmenting force is patriarchal marriage, analyzed as forcing women to repress their true selves and—to satisfy their husbands—become both flirtatious coquettes and self-sacrificing mother figures. Because this phenomenon is widespread and might be seen by the audience as "natural," Boesing calls for a production incorporating masks, costumes recalling school plays or pageants, and ritual.…
Emily Mann: The Theater of Testimony—Society on Trial
Born in Boston in 1952, Emily Mann was raised in Chicago. She attended the University of Chicago Laboratory High School, where she worked on several plays, including Megan Terry's Viet Rock and, at 16, directed her first play. As a freshman at Harvard University, she wrote her first play, then from her sophomore year on devoted herself to directing. A Bush Fellowship took her to the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theatre program, in which she earned a master of fine arts degree in 1976. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music Theatre Company, she directed Crothers's He and She. In July 1990 she became artistic director of the McCarter Theater. In the 13 January 1991 New York Times, she told Hilary De Vries she was interested in creating a multicultural theater, because, "There are invisible racial and economic barriers that I want to break down. I want to create a theater of different American voices." In addition to Obies for playwriting and directing, Mann received the 1983 Rosamund Gilder Award for "outstanding creative achievement in the theater." She credits "Megan Terry, Irene Fornes, Rosalyn Drexler, Rochelle Owens, and Ntozake Shange [with] revolutioniz[ing] the theater in the seventies. These women radicalized our perception of and our consciousness about theater" (Betsko and Koening, 282).
Called fugues, compositions for voices, documentary drama, and theater of testimony, Mann's plays—combining monologue, dialogue, music, film, and slides and deriving from personal interviews, trial transcripts, and news accounts, both print and electronic—are truly innovative. Her works are not docudramas for she does not offer dramatic reenactment; instead, she distills material from real life in her dramatic retort, working an alchemy of deconstruction. Her work "forces the spectator to confront his or her own attitudes and beliefs and, without offering a facile solution, encourages reevaluation of deeply troubling issues" (Savran, 146). Although Mann is sometimes reluctant to be labeled a feminist, her plays and her philosophy proclaim her feminism. The form of her drama is nonlinear; she puts women in the subject position and eschews dramatizing violence, because "I did not want to perpetuate the myth that violence is sexy, I did not want to be a party to it … it's not sexy, and it's not fun. It's rare to see violence between men and women on-stage or in film which is not somehow erotic. I want to break down those clichés" (Betsko and Koening, 285). Whether the violence concerns the Holocaust, Vietnam, domestic abuse, or murder, the deed is reported; as in classical Greek drama, the audience sees effects, not enactment. Mann's moral philosophy is also feminist in its insistence on personal responsibility: "I think anything you put on a stage is a great responsibility because you have the power to move and change.…You've got to take complete responsibility for both the statements you make and the effect you have on a crowd" (Savran, 158).
Annulla, An Autobiography (1986), which originated as Annulla Allen: Autobiography of a Survivor (1974), Mann's first drama, premiered at the Guthrie in a production she directed in 1977. It derives from interviews Mann conducted with the aunt of a friend when she and the friend were traveling in Europe. In the play, Annulla, living in London at the age of 74, delivers a monologue about her life's progress from an affluent, indulged childhood, through having her husband imprisoned in Dachau while she remained free by posing as an Aryan, to working as a domestic servant when she escapes to London. The play is framed by the voice of a 32-year-old American woman, an obvious Mann surrogate. Annulla, who has "seen firsthand men's barbarism taken to his [sic] extreme with Hitler," is writing a play, The Matriarchs, based on her theory that, "If there were a global matriarchy … there would be no more of this evil. I have all the answers in my play!" A cultural feminist who believes that mother love "is the most powerful response in the world of a positive kind" and that "No woman who has ever loved her child could be a Stalin or a Hitler," Annulla leaves no space for women who are not mothers and ignores her destructive relationship with her own mother.
In Still Life, Mann revisits the issues of violence and feminism. In 1981, the play won Mann Obies for playwriting and direction. The play distills 140 hours of interviews with people she met in Minneapolis. Its staging is simple: the three characters, a man, his mistress, and his wife, sit at a table facing the audience, to whom they address their monologues; they seldom seem aware of each other. (Although the play is drawn from life, this style of presentation is markedly similar to that of Samuel Beckett's Play, and Mann does name Beckett as an influence on her work.) Mark, a Vietnam veteran brutalized by the war, has "brought the war home," terrorizing his wife, Cheryl, who says, "Mark wants to kill me." Yet Nadine, the mistress, sees him as the gentlest man she's ever known. Their testimony puts America itself on trial, exposing the interstices between expectations and reality. Mark, whose "biggest question of all my life was / How would I act under combat? / That would be who I was as a man," presents "courage" in combat as proof of manhood, an idea as ancient as warfare itself. Nadine sees herself as a feminist, and while she justly points out that keeping a house and raising children involve "a tremendous amount of work / that in our society is not measurable," she can also speak unironically about women being given "permission" to drive and has no qualms about her affair with another woman's husband. Mann's critique of patriarchal marriage is reminiscent of Boesing's River Journal.
As she did in Still Life, Mann uses the audience as a jury in Execution of Justice, a drama constructed around the trial of Dan White, former city supervisor, for the murders of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, the first openly gay city supervisor. The play was cowinner of the Actors Theatre of Louisville's 1983 Great American Play Contest. Mann combines film and television footage, the trial transcript, and personal interviews in this dramatization of the tensions within Dan White and between conservative and liberal factions in the city; in the process, she spotlights media excesses. She also adds the testimony of those she names the "uncalled witnesses," a chorus that includes a city policeman, a gay rights activist, friends of White, Moscone, and Milk, and a young mother. As Mann's title implies, the workings of the system itself were on trial in this case and, ultimately, Justice herself was executed. White, whom the defense depicted as an all-American boy debilitated by family worries and his consumption of junk food—his lawyers conceived the now infamous "Twinkie defense"—was found guilty of only voluntary manslaughter. While the Young Mother asks, "What are we teaching our sons?" White is given the maximum sentence: seven years and eight months.
Mann is a playwright concerned with moral problems and social justice, who uses documentary material in a nonlinear, nonrealistic manner. Despite Fornes's insistence that the dramas are "not theatre literature. It may be serious and subtle work, but it's not a play" (Savran, 65), Mann has moved theater in new directions by using documentary materials to denaturalize many of the assumptions of a patriarchal society and by confronting her audiences with the difficult decisions that her plays refuse to make for them. Indeed, Emily Mann herself is the most compelling witness in her "theater of testimony."
Ntozake Shange: Loving the "god" Within
Ntozake Shange, born in 1948 in Trenton, New Jersey, to Elois Williams, a psychiatric social worker, and Paul T. Williams, a physician, was named Paulette for her father, who had wanted a boy. The family moved to St. Louis when she was eight; there she was bused to a German-American school, where she experienced the bitterness of racism. At home, Shange met W. E. B. Du Bois, Josephine Baker, Miles Davis, Paul Robeson, and César Chávez. At eighteen she entered Barnard College, majoring in American studies; at 19, after separating from her lawstudent husband, she made the first of several suicide attempts. Nevertheless, she earned a bachelor's degree with honors in 1970. Moving to California, she renounced her "slave name" in 1971 and became Ntozake (she who comes with her own things) Shange (who walks like a lion). She earned a master's degree in American studies from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and began teaching women's studies and African American studies at Sonoma State. She describes the courses she taught as being "inextricably bound to the development of my sense of the world, myself, and women's language" and as "root[ing] me to an articulated female heritage and imperative."32
Shange regrets the fact that most plays by black men focus on their battles with white men, and celebrates drama by black women because it does not "continually focus all of our attention on the Other. Our attention [is] in our community."33 To focus this attention, Shange employs her own orthography. She seldom uses capital letters; employs ampersands, virgules, abbreviations, phonetic spellings, and black dialect; and generally eschews commas and apostrophes. Her language signifies her resistance to the King's English, about which she comments, "i cant count the number of times i have viscerally wanted to attack deform or maim the language that i waz taught to hate myself in / the language that perpetuates the notions that cause pain to every black child as he/she learns to speak of the world & the 'self.'"34
As a feminist, Shange insists on the linkage of the personal and the political: "I think the dangerous mistake that women make is to assume the personal is not political. When I make a personal statement, it is to me a political statement" (Betsko and Koening, 370). Interviewed for the 7 May 1989 New York Times, she spoke of the place of gender in her writing: "I'm a playwright. But I'm a woman first. I am not a generic playwright. I am a woman playwright. And I would hope that my choice of words and my choice of characters and situations reflect my experience as a woman on the planet. I don't have anything that I can add to the masculine perception of the world. What I can add has to be from what I've experienced. And my perceptions and my syntax, my colloquialism, my preoccupations are founded in race and gender." According to Shange, black women, to be represented at all, must themselves do the writing.35 Shange saw the necessity for black women to "move our theater into the drama of our lives" (Foreword, ix), which she accomplishes partly by legitimating female desire in "writing about adolescent girls and young women.… And one of the reasons I try to investigate girls from different backgrounds and girls with different senses of success is because I want to make sure that we all know that none of our desires are illegitimate."36 In form, Shange's drama is feminist and nonlinear, incorporating music, character transformation, and dream sequences. It is also African and African American in its utilization of oral and musical forms found in both cultures. She has won Obies for for colored girls and for Mother Courage and Her Children (1980), her adaptation of Brecht's play.
for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, only the second play by a black woman to be presented on Broadway (Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun was the first) began its trip there at the Bacchanal, a women's bar in Berkeley, California, in 1974. In September 1976, it opened at the Booth Theater where it ran for two years. The play earned an Obie, the Outer Circle Critics Award, the Audelco (Audience Development Committee) Award for excellence in black theater, the Golden Apple Award, and Tony, Grammy, and Emmy Award nominations. Reminiscent of Marita Bonner's The Purple Flower in its use of music and dance, for colored girls in its final form consists of 20 poems that together function as a bildungsroman, chanting the coming into consciousness and community of a black Everywoman. Shange calls her drama a "choreopoem"—a term she coined to describe a drama in which the speakers dance or move while delivering their lines—which combines metered prose and jazz rhythms, and which she felt fit, somehow, between genres.…
Practice and Praxis
The experimental playwrights of the second wave challenged and deconstructed conventional theater practice. They replaced the through line with a circular structure, set chronological time reeling into nonlinear representation, infused music, dance, and poetry into the prosaic pattern of male-dominated dramas and identified women as desiring subjects rather than adjuncts or reflections of male characters. Moreover, they often eschewed catharsis and closure, preferring that their audiences leave the theaters both aware of, and pondering the solutions to, the oppression they have witnessed.
- Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-Seventy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 274.
- Sara M. Evans, Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America (New York: The Free Press, 1989), 283.
- Julia Miles, introduction to The Women's Project: Seven New Plays by Women (New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications and American Place Theatre, 1980), 11.
- Susan Smith Harris, "En-gendering Violence: Twisting 'Privates' in the Public Eye," Public Issues, Private Tensions, ed. Matthew Roudané (New York: AMS Press, 1993), 127. Smith discusses the presentation and treatment of women in the dramas of Mamet, Shepard, and Rabe. I am indebted to her for pointing out several of these images.
- "Alice Childress: A Pioneer Spirit: An Interview by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory," Sage 4, no 1 (Spring 1987): 66; hereafter cited in the text as Brown-Guillory 1987.
- Alice Childress, "A Candle in a Gale Wind," Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, ed. Mari Evans (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984), 115.
- Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koening, "Alice Childress," Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights (New York: William Morrow, 1987), 73; this volume is hereafter cited in the text as Betsko and Koening.
- David Savran, In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988), 243; hereafter cited in the text as Savran.
- Elin Diamond, "Mimesis, Mimicry, and the 'True-Real,'" in Acting Out: Feminist Performances, ed. Linda Hart and Peggy Phelan (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 375; hereafter cited in the text as Diamond.
- Jill Dolan, The Feminist Critic as Spectator (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988), 85; hereafter cited in the text as Dolan 1988.
- Peter Feldman, "Notes for the Open Theatre Production," in Four Plays by Megan Terry (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 201.
- See, for example, Julia Kristeva, "Women's Time," Signs 7, no. 1 (Autumn 1981): 13-35; Hélène Cixous, "The Laugh of the Medusa," in New French Feminisms: An Anthology, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivon (New York: Shocken Books, 1981), 245-64; and Luce Irigaray, "And the One Doesn't Stir without the Other," Signs 7, no. 1 (Autumn 1981): 60-67.
- Luce Irigaray, "This Sex Which Is Not One," in New French Feminisms, 103.
- Toby Silverman Zinman, "Search and Destroy: The Drama of the Vietnam War," Theatre Journal 42, no. 1 (March 1990): 5-26.
- "Fellow Artists Remember Beckett," Beckett Circle 11, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 4.
- Scott Cummings, "Seeing with Clarity: The Visions of Maria Irene Fornes," Theatre 17, no. 1 (1985): 55.
- Catherine A. Schuler, "Gender Perspective and Violence in the Plays of Maria Irene Fornes and Sam Shepard," in Modern American Drama, 224.
- Margaret B. Wilkerson, "Diverse Angles of Vision: Two Black Women Playwrights," Theatre Annual 40 (1985): 107.
- Adrienne Kennedy, "A Growth of Images," Drama Review 21, no 4 (December 1977): 42.
- bell hooks, "Critical Reflection: Adrienne Kennedy, the Writer, the Work," Intersecting Boundaries: The Theatre of Adrienne Kennedy, ed. Paul Bryant-Jackson and Lois More Overbeck (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), 182.
- Susan E. Meigs, "No Place but the Funnyhouse: The Struggle for Identity in Three Adrienne Kennedy Plays," in Modern American Drama, 173.
- Adrienne Kennedy, Introduction to The Dramatic Circle, in Moon Marked and Touched by Sun: Plays by African-American Women, ed. Sydne Mahone (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1994), 189.
- Rosette C. Lamont, introduction to Womenonthe Verge: 7 Avant-Garde American Plays, ed. Rosette C. Lamont (New York: Applause, 1993); xxxvi; hereafter cited in the text as Lamont 1993a.
- Rosette C. Lamont, "Rosalyn Drexler's Semiotics of Instability," Theatre 17, no. 1 (Winter 1985): 75.
- Playwrights, Lyricists, Composers on Theater, ed. Otis L. Guernsey, Jr. (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1974), 349.
- C. B. Coleman, "The Androgynous Muse: An Interview with Rochelle Owens," Theater 20, no. 2 (Spring 1989): 21; hereafter cited in the text as Coleman.
- Myrna Lamb, introduction to The Mod Donna and Scyklon Z: Plays of Women's Liberation (New York: Path-finder Press, 1971), 28; hereafter cited in the text as Lamb.
- Linda Thurston, "An Interview with Myrna Lamb," Second Wave 1 (1971): 13.
- William M. Hoffman, Introduction to Gay Plays: The First Collection, ed. William M. Hoffman (New York: Avon, 1979), x; hereafter cited in the text as Hoffman.
- Vivian M. Patraka, "Notes on Technique in Feminist Drama: Apple Pie and Signs of Life," Women and Performance 1, no. 2 (1984): 58.
- Lynne Greeley, Spirals from the Matrix: The Feminist Plays of Martha Boesing, An Analysis. Ph.D. diss., University of Maryland, 1987, 126.
- Ntozake Shange, introduction to for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1977), x; hereafter cited in the text as colored girls.
- Neil Lester, "An Interview with Ntozake Shange," Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present 5 (1990): 45.
- Ntozake Shange, "foreword/unrecovered losses/black theater traditions," Three Pieces (New York: Penguin, 1982), xii; hereafter cited in the text as "foreword."
- Brenda Lyons, "Interview with Ntozake Shange," Massachusetts Review 28 (Winter 1987): 690; hereafter cited in the text as Lyons.
- Ntozake Shange, introduction to The Resurrection of the Daughter: Liliane, in Moon Marked, 323; hereafter cited in the text as introduction to Resurrection.