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How I Came to Write a Play Where the Lesbian Doesn’t Kill Herself
by Carolyn Gage
© 2009, Carolyn Gage
There are many challenges in writing lesbian-feminist plays, and today I want to talk about two of them. The first is working without antecedents in the popular consciousness, without a canon of lesbian dramatic work from which to draw. The second is the particular kind of audience response to the work which generally results from this lack of a cultural context.
Playwriting is an intensely compressed art form, taking place in a single location, over a two-hour period of time, with real human beings. Plays rely on narrative and dramaturgical conventions in order to work around these constrictions. Conventions are a form of shorthand, based on common cultural assumptions. They involve familiar paradigms and archetypes, and also stereotypes. Unfortunately, the narrative and dramaturgical conventions I inherited came from two thousand years of theatre written by, for, about, and serving the interests of men.
The lesbian character does not fit into the patriarchal paradigm except as an object of ridicule, pity, disgust, or prurient interest. The lesbian can be the superfluous spinster, or the male sexual fantasy, or the vampiric seducer of women all of whom would otherwise presumably become compliant heterosexual wives and girlfriends. And, of course, the lesbian character can be a tormented outcast who kills herself. Obviously, within this paradigm I could not tell the stories I wanted, the stories that reflected my truth.
An even more serious problem with this lack of authentic models is the fact that the lesbian-feminist paradigm, aside from being new and unfamiliar, is also inherently hostile to the patriarchal project. The lesbian experience is hugely shaped by compulsory heterosexuality, which is so pervasive in the patriarchal models that it is just taken for granted. The fish does not know it is wet. But the lesbian looking down into the pool sees the fish, sees the water, feels the hands that, since birth, have been inexorably pushing her toward the edge of the pool, and, knowing she cannot swim or does not want to learn, she must resist.
To tell the story of that resistance is to draw attention to the existence of the pool and the hands that push — something that, in my experience, most men and many women are very, very uncomfortable having named. To make explicit, as I do in the play “Ugly Ducklings,” the negative effects of this pushing on girls who may still be rooted in a world outside the pool is to invite criticism and even censorship.
Similarly the lesbian-feminist archetype deconstructs some of the most venerated archetypes of patriarchal theatre — beginning with the patriarch. In this model, which does not disguise the fact that women have historically been barred from positions of power and authority — often by violence — the male hero does not come off looking quite so god-like. The lesbian-feminist playwright sees, notes, foregrounds the masses of women whose appropriated power props him up. She notes how his exercise of power perpetuates her and their oppression. He actually begins to look like an enemy — and a cowardly one at that.
In the lesbian-feminist paradigm, women, whom the mainstream would depict as vying with each other for his sexual attention or approval, turn to each other as more empowering, more enjoyable, and more appropriate companions and partners. The lesbian-feminist archetype deconstructs the patriarchal archetype of the so-called “good” woman, the compliant woman who privileges the interests of others — especially men — at her own expense. Not only does her behavior appear foolish and self-hating, but it also appears immoral in the lesbian-feminist paradigm, because female self-effacement enables the patriarchy that is systematically destroying the planet.
Writing the lesbian-feminist play requires a rejection of the models, assumptions and expectations of the traditional Western canon. This is hard work. It is the work of decolonizing oneself. The resistance to it comes from inside the playwright’s own head as well as from the world around her. Necessary disciplines of isolation and attention to one’s own experience can translate into anti-social behaviors and self-absorption. Both are occupational hazards, but they are seldom appreciated as such — even by the playwright herself, who may be wondering “what is wrong with me?” This has been by far my most serious oppression.
Fortunately for me, even though there was no visible, substantial body of lesbian-feminist dramatic work, there was a huge, vibrant, radical, radiant, life-saving, fire-breathing body of lesbian-feminist fiction, history, theory, poetry, music and art. I began writing in 1986, and I can honestly say that had I been born ten years earlier or ten years later, I would have never been able to write a play like “Ugly Ducklings” — or any of my other plays.
I feel incredibly blessed to have begun my career when I did, and I am incredibly grieved about the fact that women who came of age in the 1980s and later are so often completely unaware of this amazing heritage of radical feminist literature from the Second Wave. Much of it is out-of-print. With the demise of the women’s bookstores and the women-in-print movement during the late 1980s and early 1990s, there have been fewer and fewer institutions or publications for centralizing the work and facilitating access to it.
One of the books foundational for me as a writer was Dale Spender’s “Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them.” I recommend it to every woman who wants to write. It explained why I had no role models in theatre, why I am censored today, and why you cannot find many of the books that inspired my work. It explains why my work will be lost after I die. Unless, of course, I commit a high-profile suicide. More on that subject later …
In any event, I did have models for my content. I turned to the writings of Andrea Dworkin, Anita Cornwell, Audre Lorde, Christos, Paula Gunn Allen, Mary Daly, Julia Penelope, Phyllis Chesler, Barbara Smith, Cherrie Moraga — as well as the tremendous collections of radical feminist writings by lesbians without big names — lesbians writing about their experiences on the land collectives, separatists, women documenting projects, publishing women’s newspapers, et cetera.
I was fortunate enough to be living contemporaneously with some of my mentors, and I have had the great privilege of meeting many and even befriending some. The majority of us were banned from the academy just by virtue of being “out,” and this was a great class leveler, granting us precious permission to write without fear of ridicule or class comparisons. It also enabled radical thinking. If they’re going to hang you for stealing a chicken, you may as well steal a horse. And so we did. Whole stables. Also the economy was such that few of us had student debt, we could survive on part-time, minimum-wage jobs, and so we had the time and the energy to create our own culture. I feel a lot of rage about the fact that working class women and even some middle-class women no longer have that leisure.
The point I am making here is that art is not created in a vacuum. Not even the most brilliant woman can write without precedents. She will either use — and use at her peril — the ones that are hers by default — the mainstream, patriarchal ones that bombard us 24/7, or else she must actively seek out the feminist ones that will enable her to tell the story that empowers her.
But content was not enough. I also needed plays to use for models. Combing through the mainstream canon, I could find no radical feminist models, with the exception of a few highly encoded scenes from Gertrude Stein operas, a handful of one-act Suffrage plays, and a little one-act treasure called “Trifles” by Susan Glaspell — and I did direct and produce all of these.
But I needed successful, full-length, large-cast plays for models. I was going to have to locate the mainstream plays that most closely resembled the one I was intending to write. I was going to have to close my eyes to the content, and tease out the elements of structure that I could apply to my work. This is a dance familiar to many a native artist whose own tradition has been banned, stolen, corrupted or destroyed. I do experience my lesbian identity as a colonized one.
I found three plays, and I want to take some time to talk about them, because they illustrate, so beautifully, the problem of assimilation, or attempting to tell a partial lesbian truth without making it radical — “radical” as “down to the roots.” All three of these plays were attempting to change attitudes about gender. All three of them, in my opinion, did more to further entrench the stereotypes than they did to challenge them. I have no doubt the hearts of the playwrights were in the right place. But it is the structural mechanics, often relying on those dramaturgical conventions that undermined the message.
Patriarchal culture is a shopping cart with a bad wheel. It steers to the right, unless there is an intentional and constant effort to wrench it back to the left — in order to get it centered. I want to say that again, because it’s such a critical point in my survival. I live and work under career house arrest. I can write whatever I like, but I cannot make a living at it. I cannot find venues for it. My work is not allowed to leave the house. Why? Because I am always wrenching to the left. I would not have to do that in a culture that was authentically gender-neutral. I must wrench because the cart is rigged in the direction of male dominance/female subordination.
So I dug out three former Broadway hits that dealt with issues of gender and sexual orientation in same-sex environments for children.
The first play, “Tea and Sympathy,” was written by Robert Anderson in 1953. It was an attempt to advocate for the so-called effeminate boy at a boarding school — that is to say, the boy who prefers the company of women to his rowdy male peers, who is artistically inclined, who is not an athlete, and who has no interest in sex for sex’s sake. This advocacy backfired, however, because the play never left the sexually colonized paradigm of hetero-patriarchy. It never challenged the essentialist notion of manhood. At the very end of the play, the effeminate, scapegoated student is seduced by his macho housemaster’s wife, and this act supposedly rescues him from the questions in his own mind — and in the mind of his audience — about his sexual orientation. His so-called manhood is doubly redeemed in this adulterous scenario, because, by his initiation, he not only “becomes a man” but also succeeds in stealing his enemy’s wife.
In fairness to Anderson, his play went as far as he dared. Within the paradigm of hetero-patriarchy, he did manage to make the point that effeminate men might be more courageous, more appealing to women, more heterosexual than the macho, athletic men who prefer the company of male society. But in winning that battle, the playwright lost the war. “Tea and Sympathy” increased the marginalization of gay males — affirming through Tom’s example, that they just hadn’t found the right woman to rescue them yet.
The second play that dealt with sexual orientation issues in a same-sex environment for children was “The Children’s Hour,” written in 1932 by Lillian Hellman. This play was inspired by an actual trial that took place in Scotland in 1810. Two women who ran a school for girls were accused by one of the students, who claimed to have witnessed their engaging in sexual behavior with each other.
Hellman was careful to make the point in interviews that the play was not about lesbianism, but about “the power of a lie.” She was defending the right of women to be self-sufficient and to live without men, without being accused of lesbianism. This is a far-from-dated theme. Most current plays and films about single women go to extraordinary lengths to reassure audiences about not only the heterosexual orientation of the characters, but also their silliness and subordination in relation to men.
For Hellman to make her point, lesbianism must be represented as heinous. If she equivocates on this point at all, it is only in the final moments of the play, when one of the women realizes that her feelings may actually be lesbian. Within minutes of this confession, she kills herself — leaving it up to the audience to decide whether or not this is a tragedy or a necessary consequence.
“The Children’s Hour” was less useful to me than “Tea and Sympathy” because it did not work that well dramaturgically. It plays like a melodrama. But, again, it reflected mainstream attitudes toward lesbianism that are still rampant, and it provided a kind of foil for my own play.
The third play was the German classic “Children in Uniform,” adapted from the film “Madchen in Uniform” adapted from a book by Christa Winsloe. This took place in a Prussian girls’ boarding school, and actually depicted a butch student and her crush on the female teacher who shows her some tenderness in the otherwise harsh and regimented environment of the school. The film was released in the last years of the Weimar Republic, and critics are quick to point out that it represents an allegory about retaining humanity in a totalitarian environment. Interestingly, critics still fail to identify Winsloe’s intentional depiction of lesbianism as a locus of resistance.
This play was the closest to what I wanted to do in “Ugly Ducklings,” in that it was sympathetic to the lesbians. But the play is not without problems. Winsloe intends us to view the teacher as a martyr, but contemporary audiences find her relationship boundaries with the students inappropriate. Also, in the book, Manuela kills herself at the end, leaping from the roof of the school.
When the film was made, two alternate endings were shot — one where the suicide was completed and one where it was intercepted. By the time the play was written, box office concerns had obviously weighed in favor of the intercepted suicide, but it is an obviously pasted-on, fake happy ending. Dramaturgically, all of the action in the play is pointed to the necessity, even inevitability of Manuela’s suicide, and, in fact, none of the conditions that prompted it are changed.
And I want to take a minute with lesbian suicide, because it is such a central theme in my play. It’s also a central theme in my culture.
Lesbian suicide is a nifty ending for lesbian plays, because it offers the audience an opportunity to feel they can empathize with the character’s suffering without feeling that they are enabling an identity that troubles their notions about gender or morality. Most of us can afford to feel charitable toward the dead. When the lesbian characters don’t kill themselves, it can be helpful to let the audience know early in the play that they are dying — or at least permanently brain-damaged. This is the case in “Last Summer at Bluefish Cove,” “Stop Kiss,” and “Wit” — although in the latter, the lesbianism of the central character is coded.
Consider the 1980s film “Thelma and Louise.” They are survivors of male violence. They are outlaws. They have killed a would-be rapist. They are on the run. And finally, they indulge in a passionate, lip-locked, lesbianic kiss.
Now, in the lesbian paradigm, that would be the turning point — the beginning of their journey out of the nightmare: They kiss, they look at each other, they yell “yee-haw” — and then they get down to the business of survival. They ditch the car. Duh. They dye their hair. Duh. They go underground on any one of the dozens of women’s lands all over the US. They’re in Arizona, right? They could go to Adobeland. Or Apache Junction, which is an entire village of lesbians. They get healthy. They heal. They make love. They change their diets. They do yoga. They dance under the full moon. They build a hay bale house. They go to the women’s festivals. They make their own clothes or just don’t wear any. They get wilder and more politically clear-eyed every minute. They dedicate themselves to women, to the environment. They have a zillion delicious options.
But, in the movie, they go off a cliff. In the patriarchal paradigm that is all they can do after that kiss. Lesbianism is the fate worse than death. The movie may be dated, but it is still one of the very few that dares to depict girl buddies who retaliate against perpetrators. The ending is not accidental, nor is the timing of the kiss — coming after the decision to commit double suicide.
Twenty years later, “Million-Dollar Baby” has not traveled far. The empowered woman with fighting skills must ultimately desire her own suicide. It never occurs to her to fight for her life against the internalized able-ism that is killing her. Swank, by the way, won her Oscar for portraying a character raped and murdered for what was perceived as a lesbian identity.
There are two plots in “Ugly Ducklings.” One is the coming-out story of a closeted, middle-class counselor who has fallen in love with an “out,” working-class counselor. The second plot concerns a deeply disturbed adolescent butch and a 10-year old camper who has a crush on her. The adolescent lesbian acts out intense, internalized homophobia to deflect attention from herself, and the target she chooses is the ten-year-old. The ten-year-old, terrified by the scapegoating, attempts to hang herself on the stage. This attempt is intercepted by the two counselors, and in the course of the intervention, the closeted counselor outs herself. The child is saved, the lesbian lovers, on their way out of patriarchy, are reconciled — win, win, win.
I submitted this play to Arena Stage in DC several years ago. They considered production of the play. The script was circulated among the staff. They had a meeting about it. In the end, they rejected it on the grounds that it was too pedagogical. I was puzzled by this; pedagogical, meaning preachy? I went back through the script.
There is only one preaching/teaching speech in the entire play, and that is the speech that is delivered at the end of the play to the child with a rope around her neck. It is definitely pedagogical, because the child has internalized some very bad pedagogy that is going to kill her. In the speech, the counselor explains how being lesbian is something like being born left-handed. Absolutely pedagogical. No question about it. And also dramaturgically justified. In fact, there is nothing else I could put in that spot, unless, of course, I wanted the child to die — oh — unless I wanted the child to die. What Arena Stage was telling me was that the difference between art and propaganda was the death of the child. Kill her, its art and they’ll do it. Let her live, its propaganda; no production.
I kept my thoughts about this to myself for several years, but when the show was mounted last spring by Venus Productions, also in DC, I had reason to reconsider my silence. The reviews were strong. We had an endorsement from the NPR affiliate station. The show was nominated by the American Theatre Critics Association for best new play of the year.
And yet there were reviewers who took issue with the end of the play. Here are two examples: “Metro Weekly” complained that the ending was “too neat, never takes advantage of … lucrative opportunities to wrap up her dawdling script.” “Lucrative?” Interesting choice of words. “Dawdling?” The child with the noose around her neck … as in “let’s get on with it?”
“Potomac Stages” praised my restraint — not sure what that means — but they praise it, at least until “the final scene when it turns preachy and, as a result, becomes artificial and off-putting.” Again, interesting choice of words. These are theatre critics used to dead lesbians. Perhaps that explains why letting the lesbian live is perceived as “artificial.” I have “no comment” whatsoever as to the application of the word “off-putting” in reference to rescuing a child from hanging.
But in fairness to Arena Stage, who certainly know their business, and to these critics — it is possible that they are reacting to my violation of a convention, and that they do not perceive the homophobia that underlies that convention. All they know is that the lesbian doesn’t die, and she doesn’t die, because some fearless adult actually says the thing she needs to hear. And maybe that speech is jarring because it is absolutely taboo. There are only a handful of schools in this country today where a teacher could give that preachy, dawdling, pedagogical, off-putting, artificial, little four-line speech about left-handedness and sexual orientation. The majority of teachers in the schools today could lose their jobs for that little monologue. It is a deep taboo. More taboo than lesbian child-and-teen suicides.
At risk of sounding like a touchy artiste, I submit that the intensity of criticisms that have been so single-mindedly focused on pressuring me to change the ending of this play are in direct proportion to the success of that scene.
I am telling you this, because if you make radical art, you will encounter these pressures. They are incredibly deceptive. They can also be seductive. I would kill to have a production at Arena Stage. Just not that 10-year-old camper. Rarely will the keepers of the keys come right out and say, “That’s too feminist” or “That’s too lesbian” or “That’s too empowering of girls.” The majority of the attacks will come in the guise of helpful criticism, purely structural notes, and so on. It’s important to be able to identify these wolves in sheep’s clothing.
If you are doing radical, feminist work, and you are doing it well, and particularly if you are doing lesbian-feminist work, you will know the power of your work in exact proportion to the resistance you encounter. Never mistake it for a sign you are on the wrong path. We all must wrench, and wrench again, and keep wrenching as long as we are in the toxic, misogynist current of a male dominant culture. Do not ever apologize for that. And don’t even think about changing your ending!
© 2009, Carolyn Gage
First presented at the New England Women’s Studies Conference, March 2005
Published “In Search of a Lesbian Stage Tradition,” in “The International Gay and Lesbian Review,” Issue 14.2, March/April, 2007, Cambridge
Reprinted here by permission
List of Carolyn Gage’s plays with gay content.