Antoniazzi_Alone Again_Contemporary Drama in English_19-2012-195-209 | Postmodernism | Morality

“Alone Again, At the Wheel: Postmodern Ethics in Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive” Contemporary Drama in English 19, (2012

): 195-209 BARBARA ANTONIAZZI Alone Again, At the Wheel: Postmodern Ethics in Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive Paula Vogel’s plays constitute a corpus that probes the moral underbelly of American society. In three decades of creative activity the playwright has dramatized a series of dilemmas combining the personal and the societal: she has dealt with aging and neoliberalism in The Oldest Profession (1981), sexual orientation and parenting in The Baby Makes Seven (1984), AIDS and mourning in The Baltimore Waltz (1989) and The Long Christmas Ride Home (2004), domestic violence and the porn industry in Hot ‘n’ Throbbing (1993). In this perspective, her Pulitzer-winning play on pedophilia, How I Learned to Drive (1997), can be said to tackle yet another disturbing issue but also to suggest, beyond the subject matter, Vogel’s general view on the possibilities and limitations of individual ethics in postmodern times, as well as the capacity of the theatre to function as an ethical practice. This article discusses How I learned to Drive as illustrative of a form of ethical thinking which questions dogmatic understandings of morality and resignifies the value of individual “regulative ideals,” however partial. As Drucilla Cornell contends,
They [regulative ideals] allow us to see differently the history and social relations in which we are immersed and to orient our practice to the possibility of change. Commitment easily dissolves under the weight of the world. A regulative ideal helps us to see what we might yet become, and this different way of seeing can itself take on a force that encourages critique and commitment. In this sense, it concretizes the invitation to remake the world, as well as providing a guide for our own reflection and judgment. (379)

Projected against the Baumanian idea that today’s morality rests on the individual, this reflection will guide the analysis of the play. Since, as the author put it in a 2004 interview, everything Vogel has written “is a discourse about gender, relationship and power” (Raymond), the article will first consider the “lessons” contained in the play that arrange the three elements according to the awkward didacticism of the characters. Hence, I will unpack the constellation teaching-telling-learning as the methodological motor that sustains the quest for an ethical dimension in a quasi-amoral world. Involved in this triple activity, the audience is co-opted into an exploration that touches the issues of sexuality, self-control and self-destruction. Treading this difficult terrain, the protagonist reconstructs her personal ethos while challenging the audience’s capacity for empathy and yet avoiding the mystifications of nostalgia and the temptation of nihilism.
 

The individual that finds him/herself “alone again. so is also moral relativism. finally. ix). and her uncle-bymarriage. a willful adolescent. the author seems to perceive a danger in the fact that “the ethical is too easily and even usually reabsorbed into the moral” (Guillory 41) and recurs to the means of her art to keep the distinction sensible. although the idea of a universal morality is rejected. “a starting point rather than a product of society” (13). after the end of certainty” (Cf. Bauman lists the main conceptual consequences of this shift intersecting the intellectual wave which. leaving as only imperative the necessity to pierce down through the irreducible duplicity of human relationships to the secrets of self-preservation. Peck. The two are intensely involved over the course of seven years in a disturbing romantic relationship that teeters on the brink of tragedy. Casting the postmodern as the moment in which these utopian ambitions lose sway. for her part. Alone Again) is called to demistify “power-assisted ethical codes based on the pretense that society is the guardian of morality” (Postmodern Ethics 14) while bravely facing the incurable ambivalence in which this take of responsibility casts the subject. morally ambivalent and operate their choices under the pressure of contradictory impulses. by definition. Thus. In staging the opposition between institutionalized moral codifications and elemental ethical ambiguities. Postmodern Moral Landscapes Zygmunt Bauman’s Postmodern Ethics and his booklet Alone Again discuss the demise of what the Polish sociologists calls “the modern ambitions towards a non-ambivalent. starting in the late nineties. Vogel. her plays strike a difficult balance that keeps them equally far from escapism and denunciative moralism. to the discovery that “there is no becoming ethical if not through a certain violence. non-aporetic morality” (Postmodern Ethics 9). Subtly inspired by Nabokov’s Lolita. And maybe. challenges the viewers’ certainties by pressuring the boundaries of their moral comfort zones. because humans have to live without the comfort of logically coherent ethical codes they are. x. pivots on only two “real characters:” the female protagonist. dark yet humorous. while being constantly questioned about their validity. has been called “the turn to ethics” (Cf.I. and a jaded woman. in that “moral responsibility” remains the first reality of the self. Li’l Bit. As a consequence her story of love and delusion with Peck is parceled through chronological and emotional shifts that make it impossible for the viewer to comfortably isolate guilt and responsibilities. present and the future so that Li’l Bit is simultaneously a vulnerable child. How I Learned to Drive is structured around a situation that apparently allows for a clear allocation of moral contempt but follows the dynamics of an exercise in ethical reading where the spectator feels compelled to operate choices and express judgments.). Like many intellectuals. Garber et al. In his rendition.” (Butler 26)   . Still. The piece. the narrative commutes between past. in fact. If “the decentering of the subject has brought about a recentering of the ethical” then Bauman’s configuration of ethics taps on the “tension between the poststructuralist critique of ethics and the ethical critique of poststructuralism” (Garber et al.

As David Savran has well observed. towards making sense of a society gone awry” (Savran xii).S. is there a mutual attraction among adults.” but a “potential event. communal and familial support has been reduced to debris by all consuming. the stress on the ambiguity and the humanity of what could be quickly classified as a victim/perpetrator interaction has struck a chord with adolescents’ sensitivity.” In reality. Borrowing Ulrich Beck’s term.don’t you ever feel self-conscious? Like you are being looked at all the time? (Vogel 55)   . rather than assertive or polemic. The smell of clover and hay mix in with the smells of the leather dashboard. When all of a sudden this man. the risk that in Beck’s framework is industrially produced. rips open Mary Jane’s blouse.S. the processes of privatization and individualization have reached beyond the landscape to the heart of the community.Judging from the innumerable high-school productions that the play has had. Risk. (7) The pastoral marrow has thinned to a ghostly aura that gives broken men the illusion of being the American Adams of their barefoot youth. quite on the contrary she “unleashes confusion in the hope that this will lead towards an understanding of the confusion. Is Li’l Bit a prey to her rapacious uncle.” Li’l Bit’s opening monologue is a lyrical description of disheveled suburban Maryland in which the waste of modernity clutters a forlorn rural landscape. unbridled desires. it undermines all attempts at endorsing “practical reason.] Here on the land the Department of Agriculture owns. Like the proverbial Mary Jane with which she identifies. the smell of sleeping animals is think on the air. the female Greek Chorus does not). which by definition is not a “fact.” Consequently. the author even renounces to construct an exemplary feminist hero. immersed as she is in a world whose coordinates are confused. Vogel’s performance of ethics can be defined as speculative. to be truthful to the complexity of the real.. Mirroring “crumbling concrete of the U. her body. And Little Mary Jane just laughed and laughed because she knew her money was in her shoes” (Li’l Bit laughs. has here spilt to pollute the sources of the familial environment..” that defines the surroundings. Always pierced by prying eyes. or is there a temptress manipulating a weak and wounded man? Exactly because the play does not exclude any of these implications. One wends its way past one-room revival churches. and boarded up motels with For Sale signs tumbling down.. “before the malls took over.. we may define the small-town context around the story as a “risk society. “Little Mary Jane is walking through the woods.. Li’l Bit grows up in an atmosphere of incumbent sexual danger that she laments without full awareness. and the perception of danger are in disarray: Li’l Bit: You haven’t heard the Mary Jane jokes? Okay.jumps out.” a “hazard” rather than an accident. [. Less than a mile away. is spelled as a personal threat nested in everybody’s gaze. Thus. and plunges his hands on her breasts. the crumbling concrete of the U.. the porno drive-in. the perception of her own value.

with hindsight.but I warn you: if anything happens I hold you responsible.. she transfers on eleven-year old Li’l Bit the liability of her uncle’s conduct “I will feel terrible if something happens. is thus administered the variations of a largely preposterous defensive ethos: for example. Lil’l Bit’s desexualized mother (Titless Wonder) is annihilated by her personal disillusions and juvenile mistakes. when the girl is on the verge of sexual initiation.” The Chorus frames the narrative by supplying impersonal lessons as well as personal memories but. Judging contingencies from her desolate solitude. sometimes avoiding and sometimes suffering the pitfalls of an emotional wasteland. grandma’s impositions on sexual etiquette function on the basis of fear: “Let her be good and scared! It hurts! You bleed like a stuck pig! And you lay there and say. ‘Why. while hypervirile grandpa (Big Papa) is a caricature of patriarchal bestiality whose marriage to fourteen-year old grandma is remembered as the rape of the Sabine women. First. have you forsaken me?!’”(43). and deploys many other clues and explanations. and deaden the weaker elements. Except for the couple of protagonists. Since the capacity for empathy has been lost in the degeneration of the social fabric. Can you tell the teacher from the lesson? Almost to mask the surrounding moral paucity. all the characters are subsumed in three actors collectively named the “Chorus. such confusion could be quickly be ascribed to an obscure sexual trauma that re-emerges under the guise of jokes and obsessions.” (43) The   . she almost pushes the girl overboard: “Don’t be scared. In a household in which all nicknames refer to the peculiarities of the family members’ genitalia. Prominent among them.. O Lord. the mother does away with the idea of risk completely to give in to the saccharine of closeness. but the author chooses to keep this part of the story from the public. So..” A couple of years later. and become whole..I believe in telling my daughter the truth! We have a very close relationship. the pervasive violation of intimacy perpetrated through prying gazes and objectifying language.. the Chorus propounds normative protocols which voice the ethical convictions of obsolete philosophies as well as the dysfunctional pedagogy inherent to impoverished familial relations. The mother’s educational strategy instead involves different dislocations of responsibility. the main learner. everyone else is branded by the violence of constant exposure in ways that reinforce the grotesque villains. taken as a whole. One the contrary. Since her birth Li’l Bit is the object of constant scrutiny within and outside the family circle. she is. literally. all valid. it won’t hurt you––if the man you go to bed with really loves you. because her sexuality defined as a fragment––a “bit”––she is the only character that can still grow. drops the word “pedophilia” at the beginning of the play. all communication is structured through lessons that revolve around arbitrary principles and mainly absolve the adults from the obligation to look out for the young. addressed by her lack of a penis Yet. II. it brings into the play the flattened conventional wisdom against which Li’l Bit and Peck pursue an individual quest for the reconstruction of their personal world. Li’l Bit.For a protagonist who.

he is the product of different unspoken “traumas” such as shell shock during World War Two (67) and. Uncle Peck. because they are taught under an inverted gender sign.] I want to teach you to drive like a man [.] You’re the nearest to a son I’ll ever have [.. To young cousin Bob. Peck is her “chance at having a father”(87) and someone who “knows an awful lot. Yet. unmistakable in the simplicity of the wording.. a soft mannered voyeur. The road belongs to them. Whereas “lessons” per se obviously fail to exhaust the rational and emotional interchange within the fragmented community. Understand? [. I will never touch you when you are driving a car. his attentions become increasingly empathic and threatening. The price they willingly pay is the secret that Peck asks them not to share. even in the acknowledged presence of a predator. has rather learned to use lessons as instruments of seduction in the only dominant relationships he can entertain: those with children. Li’l Bit manages to distill some of them into the source of a self-preserving ethos.. In this way the house on the tree. Anytime he is around children.” Even in retrospective he is less an ogre than a Flying Dutchman. shifts to his father mode and elucidates the gender dynamics of the road: This is serious business.] Men are taught to drive with confidence––with aggression. As the only source of sympathy that children thrown in such a world can find. Peck is the man who teaches him how to fish but who understands his weeping at the fish’s sorrows and lets his tears flow in the secrecy of their exclusive company. and the driver seat in the car––topoi of autonomy coveted by children––become microcosm of misrepresented love and potential soul damage. On the other hand.mother-daughter conflict organized around a shifting perception of danger and lack becomes the multigenerational site in which imperfect warnings reveal the impossibility for women to take care of each other. who has meekly accepted familial authority for too long.. Could Bob ever refuse the invitation to drink beer with him on the tree house? (35) To barely pubescent Li’l Bit. In spite of the premises. They drive defensively––always looking out for the other guy. apparently fall into the domain of the moral conventions that regulate gendered conduct. Vogel resists a connotation of experience as sorrowful deception. for example. taught respectively by her uncle and by her mother. (50) The mother instead delivers a three-page lecture on social drinking:   . ostensibly. And that can be fatal. versed in kids’ psychology and out of place among the adults. sexual abuse at an early age (89). they are abstracted from their contingent meaning and anchored to a deeper human dimension. Understand? (49)” “When you are driving your life is in your two hands. The lessons in defensive driving and deceptive drinking... Women tend to be polite––to hesitate. Peck represents the sense of belonging they pursue at the cost of their innocence. On the one hand Peck is a textbook pedophile. a lost soul desperate to find the maiden who will put an end to his wandering (86). Peck.

acquired rituals of behavior have the power to keep consciousness afloat when the risk threshold gets higher––like in the event of rape dates or car accidents. she becomes. yet. the audience is given questions. the engagement in an activity that is equally elating and dangerous needs to be performed in masculine terms while the feminine connotation of passivity “someone who performs just for you and gives you what you ask for” (51) is reserved. and addresses the audience as such. humorously.avoid anything with sugar.. Being Li’l Bit an omniscient but disjunctive narrator. so that her volition can instead be exerted only after accurate consideration. for the car..] step away from ladies’ drinks. as a teacher she does the opposite: instead of precepts. instead. or anything with an umbrella: believe me. The masculine protocol of survival is predicated on the unflagging repetitions of disciplined mechanical acts as if the body might become the primary learner of spiritual and intellectual control. quite on the contrary. Thus. Only after receiving the account of a romantic parable taking place between a man and a woman. Li’l Bit acquires man-like autonomy in governing bodily boundaries. This is the only scene in which   . but which becomes particularly significant when considering the privileged relationship that the theatre entertains with the spectator. Drink. the already jaded” (41). in a State in which the road regulations oblige the driver to abide by “Implied Consent” (66). does she trust the audience with her secret. in the economy of the play. “the translator. In this perspective. Li’l Bit-theteacher presents the audience with an ethical challenge: how will they bear witness to disturbing truths without dismissing any of their human implications? The author’s choice is to present all human implications first. the epicure. Teaching-Telling-Learning Li’l Bit opens the play in her late-thirties incarnation announcing: “Sometimes to tell a secret. III.Sip your drink slowly [. Li’l Bit avoids becoming an expendable subject. her dismissal of the man is ruthless. The play’s title and inception immediately foreground the constellation teaching-telling-learning as a deep structure that certainly pertains to issues of representation and plot. like a man: straight up or on the rocks with plenty of water in between (24) In both cases. doubts and dilemmas that instigate unrelenting speculation and a constant reassessment of events. you first have to teach a lesson” (7)... and his premature self-destruction after she exits his life is as cliché as heart-rending. Li’l Bit is the learner and the disciple. all the facets of the story of passion and denial with Peck are delicately laid out with troubling pathos: Li’l Bit’s adolescent desire for her uncle is honest. she has been provided with “moral” codes of infallible behavior. she refuses to produce the content of memory with the clarity that hindsight could ideally provide because abiding to a linear if reversed chronology would undermine her lesson. technology and the environment. Only after the lesson has been assimilated. As a pupil.. are we shown the abusive scene between the man and the child.. they are lethal [.] I think you were conceived after one of those. Ironically. Learning to disobey the behavioral conventions of her gender. the teacher. In the economy of the story.

” the woman sitting into the man’s lap. in fact.” So the audience is sheltered from the shock of the authentic because it could crystallize critical thinking. The will to disengage the moral balance of the story from the traumatic event is in keeping with Vogel’s recommendation to cast “a young woman who is of ‘legal age’ who can look as close to eleven as possible. but shorn of all sentimentalism in virtue of this quasi-Brechtian “alienation effect” that points at the critical core of the play. in which women’s bodies and children’s voices coexist. and I’ve lived inside the fire in my head ever since” (90). but. that is. “How I learned to Drive does not shrink from showing Li’l Bit’s woundedness. we witness Li’l Bit’s life as “whole” and endowed with agency. only in the fire of the brain. a core extending beyond the materiality of abuse. in spite of her vulnerability. right after she   . to occur at any time in contingent circumstances. in spite of trauma.” is directly addressed in the text. “the Memory plays. she adds. has remained largely “potential” instead of bringing about the complete devastation of the girl’s psyche. memory (mammary) is spelled on the body. the hole in her self” (416). but the remembrance is not. as if the body were already dissociated from its owner. she has been kicked out of college in 1970. How I Learned to Drive is part of a dyptic called “The Mammary Plays. however. Whereas we are told that body and head have been severed forever. but also of the “credentials” (Vogel 17) and the possibilities of gender––in short of “the messy ambiguities of lived embodiment” (Pellegrini 427). But Li’l Bit’s dialogue is spoken by the youngest girl in the Chorus. Not by chance. Like the names in the dysfunctional family. The viewer’s capacity for empathy. the man slipping his hands under her blouse with a moan. but also the non-linear mechanisms of apprehension and embodied cognition that continue. “the audience may feel uncomfortable” (4). anything necessary about the vulnus (wound) only the potential for a wound. not as a disfiguring mark though. There is not. in this non-linear psychic time. first weakened at the developments of the story.” a title whose phonetic double. in fact. as adult Li’l Bit wants us to think. The wound. as investigated by Pellegrini. no less significantly. that Li’l Bit’s body has learned. and adult Li’l Bit. What has it learned exactly? Early in the play Li’l Bit confesses that. “the human being is vulnerable as a singular body exposed to wounding.Peck and Lil’l Bit touch “sexually. or maybe. we are also shown.” If the actor is too young. The fragmented temporality of the story told mimics two neuropsychological dynamics: the workings of memory in the wake of psychic injury. Adriana Cavarero reminds us. it is sheltered from the temptation to oversimplify the nuanced moral exploration that constitutes Li’l Bit’s lesson. the scene would have condemned Li’l Bit to be only defined by her violability. recalls the event as the last day which she lived in her body: “I retreated above the neck. that is. but as a bodily metaphor of the risks. If placed at the beginning. because of a drinking problem. (30). As Ann Pellegrini has brilliantly argued in an essay that situates the play in a discussion of feminism and sexual trauma. I argue. it neither assigns her wounding to anyone event not makes injury the hole of her story. Instead. is suddenly co-opted again. After all. the audience would recast all the play in the perspective of sexual violence. on the contrary. Telling is remembering.

In the juncture of self-control and self-destruction. For the audience and for the characters alike. the night would pass. ethics as a care of the self. thus the lessons of memory. (21) The embodied knowledge of the “moral practices” achieved through her mother’s and uncle’s inflexible protocols anchor her to a “reflex” that guarantees survival. (18)” Because it is voluntary. Li’l Bit drinks like a man. was cruise the Beltway and the back roads of Maryland. the staged play corresponds to a play of the ethical mind that sifts out hollow prescriptions to re-discover. provides her with the license to navigate society and its risks. An ideal surreptitiously born out of the interdependence of lesson and threat. and yet some. amplified and complicated by the resonances that living bodies and shared spaces involve. mercy mitigates the compulsion of revenge and of self-righteousness.stops seeing her uncle. the subject behaves according to a regulative ideal that supersedes institutional permissions––to marry at fourteen. most nights. Racing in a 1965 Mustang––and as long as I had gasoline for my car and whiskey for me. and as Peck foretold.” like the quality of responsible consent. I would speed past the churches and the trees on the bend. despite circumstances. an ethical value such as mercy. The invocation of Shakespeare frames the play with a passing reference to The Merchant of Venice: “the quality of mercy. instead of overwhelming Li’l Bit. to love at eighteen. My hands on the wheel in the nine and three o’clock position––I never so much as got a ticket.reflex took over. In the difficult re-piecing of intellectual cognition and corporeal dimension.. in this case particularly. She does not go back home and does her best to go through a “Nixon recession:” What I did.. when the brain is taken over by darkness.” (39) it can be argued that. unexpectedly. Adapting John Guillory’s proposition that “reading belongs to the field of the ethical because it is a practice of the self. He taught me well. “is not strained. the stage provides a communal version of such practice.   . If the Postmodern is the territory where the wrecks of modernity’s grand ambitions coexist with the awareness of the moral vacuum threatening individual life. then this play dramatizes the interaction between residual preposterous codes and the attempt to develop. to drink at sixteen. the body remembers the lesson and does not surrender either to alcoholic unconsciousness or willful disaster. thinking just one notch of the steering wheel would be all it would take. Fully tanked. she does not die in a car.

Roach. Secondary Literature Bauman. Beatrice Hanssen and Rebecca Walkowitz. Beatrice Hanssen and Rebecca Walkowitz.com/off-broadway/news/10-2004/paula-vogel-the-signatureseason_5219. New York: Routledge. New York: Routledge." The Turn to Ethics. Savran. 2009. New York: Theatre Communications Group. New York: Columbia. Guillory. (1986)1992. Garber. Zygmunt. "Introduction.   . New Dehli: Sage. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Beck. Ann. Adriana. 2007. "Staging Sexual Injury. Drucilla. <http://www. Marjorie. 1998.Works Cited Primary Literature Vogel. Janelle G. 1996. Marjorie." In The Mammary Plays. "How I Learned to Drive." University of Pennsylvania Law Review 133. Eds. Marjorie. 1993. "Paula Vogel: The Signature Season". Garber. Raymond. Eds. 31. Cornell. London: Demos. "Toward a Modern/Postmodern Reconstruction of Ethics. "Ethic Ambivalence. 2000.html>." Critical Theory and Performance. Eds. Ulrich. Gerard. Marjorie. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Postmodern Ethics. 1996. Beatrice Hanssen. John.05. Garber. 2000. Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence. New York: Routledge. "Loose Screw: An Introduction. and Rebecca Walkowitz." The Turn to Ethics. ---. and Joseph R. Eds. Judith. Oxford: Blackwell. 2004. David. Butler." Paula Vogel The Baltimore Waltz and Other Plays. Paula. Cavarero. Garber.2011. "The Ethical Practice of Modernity: The Example of Reading.2 (1985): 291-380. New York: Theatre Communications Group. Reinelt." The Turn to Ethics. Alone Again: Ethics after Certainty.theatermania. 2000. Pellegrini. Beatrice Hanssen and Rebecca Walkowitz.

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