Never Retreat, Never Explain: A Review of The Second Coming of Joan of Arc and Selected Plays and Nine

Short Plays by Carolyn Gage Reviewed by Elliott batTzedek

There are so many talented, gifted, astounding writers in the world. In my world, the vast majority of these are women. Of those women, many are lesbians, and some are feminists, and some are lesbians and feminists, and these three categories account for four Ikea glassfronted bookcase units in my living room. But on all those linear feet of birch-veneer, only two shelves hold the books most important to me, the work of lesbian-feminist writers. This identity is more than the sum of its parts, and speaks to a world view that neither lesbians in general nor feminists in general fully share. Women are at the core of this understanding, as is a sharp and piercing analysis of how violence against women and girls has shaped and warped what “woman” is. From that understanding, which we mourn, we lesbianfeminists have created a culture of resistance to the violence and to the understanding of sex and gender created by that violence, a culture of A-mazing Amazons Razing the Maze, of women who remember and, failing that, invent, of wimmin and womyn and wombmyn. As much as this culture has become a target of ridicule, of charges of “cultural feminism” or “wiccan woo-woo,” the core question we raised, the truth about gender and violence that we revealed, are no less harsh and vital than they ever were. We are still on the project of telling the truths about our lives, and would still very much like the world to split open. Carolyn Gage’s work, collected in part in two collections of her short plays 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 fall of 1988, in Issue 35 of Sinister Wisdom, with a special focus on passing. My then-lover Mari and I read it aloud to each other in her orange Mercury Bobcat as we drove from Madison, WI to Minneapolis. I’m amazed we didn’t simply drive off the road, and that we noticed our exit, because this Joan—Jeanne, in her own words— felt real and alive and honest. One of us, her fury and hurt and passion and strength and fear reflecting the story of thousands of women’s lives. We finished, and just drove in silence for miles, taking it in. In her introduction to The Second Coming of Joan of Arc and Selected Plays, Carolyn says of this work, “I wanted to create a character who could transform shame into pride, self-doubt into militant conviction, and self-hate into blazing anger at a system that is bent on turning women against ourselves and against each other.” Well, then, yes, in this case the author and audience and creation were seamlessly intertwined. I’ve had a relationship with that play ever since, reading and rereading it, producing it, seeing Carolyn perform it, and finding myself quoting from it. And other of the plays collected in these new books have had similar histories with me, including first reading Louisa May Incest in Trivia in 1990, The Obligatory Scene in Harrington Lesbian Fiction Quarterly in 2005, and having seen many of the other short plays produced at various women’s music festivals. Carolyn has been dedicated to telling women’s stories, from a radical lesbianfeminist perspective, for more than twenty years, and whether as read 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 to consciousness? how do we wrestle with the big issues such as

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violence, gender, race and class? how has violence shaped us, and how do we respond to it, and under what conditions do we begin to resist? These questions which make the plays sound just as intense as they are, but don’t convey how entertaining and engaging they are as stories. As a playwright, Carolyn gives us women telling their life stories in their words, their voices. Behind each play is a vast amount of research, and Carolyn’s own genius at bringing what is hidden to light, but what we get as readers/viewers are damn good stories, one after another. How has violence shaped and distorted our lives? Ask Louisa May Alcott who, when confronted by her own character Jo March about her father, burns her work. Or Calamity Jane, broken and addicted and despised but still claiming what she knows to be true. Or Artemisia and Hildegard, arguing with each other about how male violence and control have or haven’t shaped them, each caught in her denial and unable to reach out to the other. Or Mary Mallon, “Typhoid Mary,” who confronts the scientists telling her she is carrying a dangerous, invisible death-causing bug, responds:

Them rich folks will spend a pot of money lookin’ 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 in Ireland while the rest of the world stood around biddin’ over the bones? Didn’t my own mother die the death of a dog on that ship while the rich folks looked down over their railin’s at us like we were just so many animals in a filthy cage? […] You don’t need a
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microscope to see death. (She holds up a potato) It’s as big and as plain as a potato. (She laughs.) In a context of violence against women, the background of all of Carolyn’s work, how do we then wrestle with other oppressions, especially race and class? By the women she’s chosen to give voice to, Carolyn opens many possibilities for us. In “Jane Addams and the Devil Baby,” she gives us Kathleen, an Irish immigrant in her 70’s, who takes on Jane’s bafflement about rumors of a “devil baby,” revealing how Jane’s compassionate but limited world view keeps her from seeing how the poorest, most desperate immigrant women assert their fears and dreams. In “Harriet Tubman Visits a Therapist,” Carolyn uses theatre’s ability to create completely impossible and utterly real worlds to pit Harriet against a very modern therapist who nonetheless is an employee of the slave master. The resulting confrontation revolves completely around race, violence, and resistance. And both Calamity Jane and Typhoid Mary speak out of their live experiences as outsiders to the world of polite manners and economic security. One of the features of Carolyn’s work that has always spoken most deeply to me is how she takes head on the question of women’s complicity with patriarchal power. Carolyn is not giving us a fantasy world of empowerful1 heroines, but very real women, struggling with each other, and with their own internal voices telling them to shut up, to be ashamed, to give in. In both The Second Coming of Joan of Arc, Entre’acte or The Night Eva Le Gallienne Was Raped and The Pele Chant, three very different women come to grips with how failures of love and honor between women helped horrible powers to reign. Louisa May Incest and Harriet Tubman Visits a Therapist, Artemisia and Hildegard, and t are direct, painful to watch because they feel real, confrontations between women, each claiming what she does is for the best. And in what is one of her most crushing
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scenes for me, in the play Battered on Broadway, one of the ugly failures of feminism takes center stage, as a group of women openly chooses funding “for all women” even as they explicitly know they are being bought off to silence some survivors. Of course each of these dramas is also built around the woman or women who resist, who keep their truth, who come to consciousness, who fight back alone or together. Carolyn is particularly concerned with the role of the butch woman in the wider culture and in theatre. As she writes in her introduction to Nine Short Plays: Much of my work explores the heavily censored role of the lesbian butch, and two decades of attempting to market, produce, and tour with these works has confirmed my suspicion that the reason for the resistance to this archetype lies in its indictment of traditional gender roles. The lesbian butch is living proof that qualities traditionally ascribed to “masculinity” are not innately linked to the Y chromosome. As an archetype, the lesbian butch demands a radical paradigm of gender, one that goes to the root of male dominance. The narrative that emerges from this archetype and paradigm is one of almost unimaginable liberation. Carolyn’s sword-fighting extravaganza that explicitly takes on this question, Bite My Thumb, is the one play in the collections I’ve not seen staged and desperately want to. It is no surprise that, as a tomboy who sharpened every stick into a weapon, bought boomerangs with a small allowance, fought off the boys on behalf of other girls and my best friend Mike when he was called sissy, I want to be Jo, “a large, older, butch lesbian” who grabs the sword and, with

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brilliant footwork, parrying, and thrusting, bests the boys. She’s the hero of the play, but it also has a heroine, of sorts, the transman Mark who is revealed and viciously denied by the men; in the end, Jo and Mark survive being pitted against each other and bond around the dream of telling their own stories, beyond gender roles and expectations. It is this play, more than the others that are more monologue or dialogue based, that most reminds readers that this is theatre, even though we encounter them in print as literature, and many readers may never experience them as living, four dimensional productions, with the electricity of the emotions and the sense of moving together through the split world of the time in the action and the actual running time of the play. This disconnect of printed page from live theatre is an issue for all playwrights, but particularly for playwrights from marginal communities. If you live in a city that has a “GLBTQxyz etc etc etc” theatre festival, can you imagine it featuring a production that takes on violence against women, or this sword-play show in which a middle-aged, heavy set or fat butch wins out over the cute, thin, young men and women in revealing tights? I live in such a city with such a festival, and they’ve done none of Carolyn’s plays. Theatre is a completely homoerotic and homosocial world, in which all women face barriers that only increase with each lack-of-status markers they embody, whether age, size, race, disability, or what is euphemistically called “nontraditional beauty.” There are playwrights in every community writing from the center of that community’s reality, but we will rarely, if ever, see these plays on commercial stages. And we need to see them—in addition to Carolyn’s plays, we need stories out of immigrant communities, stories from people surviving colonization, from inside of prisons and mental institutions, from outside of all that traditional power. Carolyn’s plays do get produced, in large part due to her own hard work, and because there are women all across the country hungry for
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new questions and new roles. These are usually small productions, and many are university-based. Carolyn has channeled her frustration with the ongoing suppression and censoring of feminist theatre into helping women and lesbians learn to do our own theatre. She’s written the collection Monologues and Scenes for Lesbian Actors, to help us find our own strong realities, and Take Stage! How to Direct and Produce a Lesbian Play, to empower communities which are hungry for the words but inexperienced in the norms of the world of theatre. And Carolyn is helping to lead the way as we all learn to take control of our words using new publishing technologies like print-on-demand. As the world of mainstream publishing shrinks and grows ever more conservative and blockbuster-driven, we all need to learn how to connect directly to one another, reproducing the power of those faded purple mimeographed copies of “The Myth of Vaginal Orgasm” that passed from woman to woman until they were barely readable. I love that The Second Coming of Joan of Arc and Selected Plays won a Lambda Award this year; it is far past time that Carolyn’s work drew this kind of attention, meaning it is also far past time that lesbian-feminist values were counted as part of GLBTQ alphabet soup land. In that land, there is no identity more “queer” from their norm than outspoken dyke radical feminists, as the censorship of Catherine Crouch’s film “The Gendercator” has shown so clearly over the last two years.2 And more importantly, I love that Carolyn Gage will go on doing what she does, telling the stories she needs to tell. My friend Carol Burbank, also a playwright and performance artist, used to have a poster on her door that I loved. It showed a woman drafting some large new work on a table, a door firmly closed behind her, and on the far side of that door a hostile looking crowd pounding on the door. The woman was smiling. Across the bottom, a quotation attributed to Canadian Suffragist Nellie McClung: Never retreat, never apologize, never explain—get the thing done and let them howl. A
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most fitting description of Carolyn’s work, and I hope, the ongoing goal of so many of us.

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“empowerful” comes from that most brilliant radical feminist blogger Twisty Faster, who coined the world to mock the false promise of “girl power” whose goal is to make women feel “empowered” when they do exactly what they are told to do but sold the idea that is their choice. If you don’t know her blog, go immediately to: http://blog.iblamethepatriarchy.com/ 2 see Sinister Wisdom 75 Winter 2008-2009 for Catherine’s story about having her film pulled from GLBTQ film festivals after vicious smear campaigns against her. You can read the interview online at: http://www.catherinecrouch.com/mainwebsite_html/press_home.php

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