Some Thoughts, and a Revision
Mark Blum and Betty Gilpin in “We Live Here“
When a play by a woman is reviewed, I notice, certain attitudes prevail. Of course there are exceptions, but the rule is that the play is treated with condescension if not outright hostility. Women authors face the same barrage but it is much more intense, and more universal, for playwrights.
That’s because when we write a play, we are placing ourselves front and center, asking, out loud to be noticed and taken seriously—what in my childhood was called “showing off.”
We are less obviously present behind the covers of books.
A case in point: right now in Manhattan, I’ve seen two plays by women and two plays by men.
The Women’s Project’s “Milk Like Sugar” is Rebecca Taichman’s loud, hard-hitting subversive comedy about three hip black teenaged girls who make a pact to get pregnant. Their reasons for wanting babies are the reasons pushed in commercials for cute infant clothes: she will be so cuddly, and she will love me.
Loud, harsh, brash, written in a lingo white theatre goers may find baffling, this is a play that matters enormously. Fortunately, it has won an award and been produced to enthusiasm in California, which may be the reason the New York reviews were respectful; it is also tougher to trounce a play about disadvantaged girls reviewers may feel they should care about—although they probably don’t.
Then there’s Zoe Kazin’s “We Live Here,” which I saw last night, a well-constructed play that shows the damage done by secrets. It has an unsatisfactory ending—the playwright may not have known how to tie up the plot—but it is absorbing, important theatre, which received scant praise.
By contrast, Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities”, built around the same theme and with similar characters, is held to be the best new play of the season. It, too, has a very unsatisfactory ending, as well as an unconvincing plot and a confusing time scheme.
Both these plays prominently feature the character reviewers love to hate: the monster mother, who spends her life manipulating, and destroying, her offspring.
This tiresome stereotype is paraded out again and again, either in the form of the Jewish mother cliché, or in the form of the Wasp cliché, but always with no frame of reference that might give the audience a hint of the social forces that form such a creature—if she can even be said to exist.
This lack of political understanding may be excusable for Eugene O’Neil, whose “Long Day’s Journey into Night” featured a mother addict, but ignorance persists even today, in stronger form, as monster mothers take the stage in plays written by both women and men.
If such creatures exist, they are formed by the expectations of their times. This is what I mean:
Constraints on women are often intensified when we marry and have children. Strangled by conventional expectations, we suffer, even now, from thwarted dreams and narrowed opportunities, and while we must always take responsibility for our choices, which may include being supported by husbands whose blandness is a form of resistance, having too many children, and bowing to society’s notions of who those children should be and become, we are also to some extent the victims of our own ignorance—or innocence—about the roles with which we are presented.
They are in many ways one role, even with the enormous differences that class and race introduce: to nurture, in contemporary parlance, to sacrifice ourselves—to be good: a recipe for rage in a culture that represses rage and substitutes sarcasm and manipulation.
So while the mother in Zoe Kazin’s play is first seen opening her daughter’s wedding presents, with no hint of the desperation that fuels such an unconscious act, the mother in Robin Baitz’s play is first seen cracking jokes that embarrass her adult children, with no hint of the desperation that fuels this kind of cruelty. The husbands in both cases are meaningless ciphers who take no responsibility for the harm their wives inflict.
But Kazin’s play is panned while Baitz’s is the subject of raves, even though both plays suffer from the same flaws and are built around the same dubious plots.
Too much showing off, My Dears.
However, no conclusion of mine is ever closed to reconsideration. I am now reconsidering the above statements in the light of the amazing Terrance Rattigan play, first produced in the 1970’s, “Man and Boy,” which I saw this afternoon.
The play is brilliant, and timely, and with the amazing performance of Frank Langella as the financier whose ruin will impact millions, it becomes that rarest and most delightful of exercises: the display of brilliance.
It doesn’t matter, to me as a member of the audience, that the financier is corrupt, king of stock manipulations no one understands. I love his audacity, his honesty, and his superb ability to trap the rest of the characters in the webs of their own inadequacies. It is so much fun, as he says at the peak of his game.
After seeing “Man And Boy” I understand for the first time both the guiltless misbehavior on Wall Street and our willingness to tolerate it; none of the protests spreading across the country calls for the ousting of these miscreants by name, and yet it is only as individuals that they can be called to account.
Now I am reconsidering what I said earlier: what we may lack, as women playwrights, is Rattigan’s audacity.
We try so hard to be GOOD, and goodness, at least on the stage, is not very interesting. Even the monster mothers in their own eyes, are trying to be GOOD, helping, prodding, criticizing… all in the service of GOODNESS.
But what works on the stage are the intricate machinations of power, which depends, always, on a quick and fearless assessment of others’ weaknesses—not on nurturing, caring, loving, helping:
The serpent and the tiger, not the lamb and the dove.
Even if my reconsideration sticks, it does not excuse our reviewers—or the playwrights who create monster mothers without understanding the essential role these characters play in patriarchal imagination and in the preservation of the status quo.