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Never Retreat Never Explain

Never Retreat Never Explain

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Published by carolyn6302
A review of two collections of plays by Carolyn Gage by Elliott batTzedek. The collections are: Nine Short Plays and the Second Coming of Joan of Arc and Selected Plays
A review of two collections of plays by Carolyn Gage by Elliott batTzedek. The collections are: Nine Short Plays and the Second Coming of Joan of Arc and Selected Plays

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Published by: carolyn6302 on Sep 20, 2012
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12/22/2013

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Never Retreat, Never Explain:A Review of 
The Second Coming of Joan of Arc and Selected Plays
and
NineShort Plays
by Carolyn Gage
Reviewed by Elliott batTzedekThere are so many talented, gifted, astounding writers in the world. Inmy world, the vast majority of these are women. Of those women,many are lesbians, and some are feminists, and some are lesbiansand feminists, and these three categories account for four Ikea glass-fronted bookcase units in my living room. But on all those linear feetof birch-veneer, only two shelves hold the books most important tome, the work of lesbian-feminist writers. This identity is more than thesum of its parts, and speaks to a world view that neither lesbians ingeneral nor feminists in general fully share. Women are at the coreof this understanding, as is a sharp and piercing analysis of howviolence against women and girls has shaped and warped what“woman” is. From that understanding, which we mourn, we lesbian-feminists have created a culture of resistance to the violence and tothe understanding of sex and gender created by that violence, aculture of A-mazing Amazons Razing the Maze, of women whoremember and, failing that, invent, of wimmin and womyn andwombmyn. As much as this culture has become a target of ridicule,of charges of “cultural feminism” or “wiccan woo-woo,” the corequestion we raised, the truth about gender and violence that werevealed, are no less harsh and vital than they ever were. We arestill on the project of telling the truths about our lives, and would stillvery much like the world to split open.Carolyn Gage’s work, collected in part in two collections of her shortplays published last year, has been central to this lesbian-feminist
 
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project since she wrote her own “coming-out” play,
The Second Coming of Joan of Arc 
, in 1987. I first encountered this play in the fallof 1988, in Issue 35 of 
Sinister Wisdom
, with a special focus onpassing. My then-lover Mari and I read it aloud to each other in her orange Mercury Bobcat as we drove from Madison, WI toMinneapolis. I’m amazed we didn’t simply drive off the road, and thatwe noticed our exit, because this Joan—Jeanne, in her own words—felt real and alive and honest. One of us, her fury and hurt andpassion and strength and fear reflecting the story of thousands of women’s lives. We finished, and just drove in silence for miles, takingit in. In her introduction to
The Second Coming of Joan of Arc and Selected Plays
, Carolyn says of this work, “I wanted to create acharacter who could transform shame into pride, self-doubt intomilitant conviction, and self-hate into blazing anger at a system that isbent on turning women against ourselves and against each other.”Well, then, yes, in this case the author and audience and creationwere seamlessly intertwined.I’ve had a relationship with that play ever since, reading and re-reading it, producing it, seeing Carolyn perform it, and finding myself quoting from it. And other of the plays collected in these new bookshave had similar histories with me, including first reading
Louisa May Incest 
in
Trivia
in 1990,
The Obligatory Scene
in
Harrington LesbianFiction Quarterly 
in 2005, and having seen many of the other shortplays produced at various women’s music festivals. Carolyn hasbeen dedicated to telling women’s stories, from a radical lesbian-feminist perspective, for more than twenty years, and whether asread on the page or viewed on the stage, her work has touched,shaken, angered, and moved so many of us.Carolyn’s work, especially in these short, character-driven plays,revolves around several essential questions: how do women come toconsciousness? how do we wrestle with the big issues such as
 
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violence, gender, race and class? how has violence shaped us, andhow do we respond to it, and under what conditions do we begin toresist?These questions which make the plays sound just as intense as theyare, but don’t convey how entertaining and engaging they are asstories. As a playwright, Carolyn gives us women telling their lifestories in their words, their voices. Behind each play is a vast amountof research, and Carolyn’s own genius at bringing what is hidden tolight, but what we get as readers/viewers are damn good stories, oneafter another.How has violence shaped and distorted our lives? Ask Louisa May Alcott who, when confronted by her own character Jo March abouther father, burns her work. Or Calamity Jane, broken and addictedand despised but still claiming what she knows to be true. Or  Artemisia and Hildegard, arguing with each other about how maleviolence and control have or haven’t shaped them, each caught in her denial and unable to reach out to the other. Or Mary Mallon, “TyphoidMary,” who confronts the scientists telling her she is carrying adangerous, invisible death-causing bug, responds:Them rich folks will spend a pot of moneylookin’ for [death]. Makin’ up fairy stories,huntin’ down innocent people. They go trackin’down death like it was some kind of mystery.Didn’t a million people starve to death inIreland while the rest of the world stoodaround biddin’ over the bones? Didn’t my ownmother die the death of a dog on that shipwhile the rich folks looked down over their railin’s at us like we were just so manyanimals in a filthy cage? […] You don’t need a

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