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THE JOURNAL OF

AMERICAN DRAMA AND THEATRE
Volume 17, Number 2 Spring 2005
Founding Editors: Vera Mowry Roberts and Walter Meserve
Editor: David Savran
Guest Editor: David Krasner
Managing Editor: Ken Nielsen
Editorial Assistant: Amy E. Hughes
Circulation Manager: Elisa Legon
Circulation Assistant: Juan R. Recondo
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
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Professor Edwin Wilson, Chairman, Advisory Board
Jan Stenzel, Director of Administration
Frank Hentschker, Director of Program
THE GRADUA'IE SCHOOL AND U NIVERSITY CENTER
OF THE CITY UNIVERSI1Y OF NEW YORK
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Una Chaudhuri
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Shannon Jackson
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Jill Lane
Thomas Postlewait
Robert Vorlicky
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THE JOURNAL OF AMERICAN DRAMA AND THEATRE
Volume 17, Number 2 Spring 2005
DAVID KRASNER
I NTRODUCTION
DANIEL H. FOSTER
CONTENTS
FROM MINSTREL SHOWS TO RADIO SHOWS:
RACISM AND REPRESENTATION IN BLACKFACE AND BLACKVOICE
SARAH BAY-CHENG
THE TRANSCENDENTAL REALISM OF AMEIUCAN VERSE DRAMA
NICHOLAS K. DAVIS
Go TELL I T ON THE STAGE:
BLUES FOR MISTER 0-IARUE AS D IALECTICAL DRAMA
EHREN FORDYCE
INHOSPITABLE STRUCTURES:
SOME THEMES AND FORMS IN TENNESSEE WILLIAMS
NITA N. K UMAR
DRAMATIC TRANS-FORMATIONS: THE SURREALISM OF BEING
BLACK AND FEMALE IN ADRIENNE KENNEDY'S
THE OWL ANSWERS
ERIN STRIFF
REALISM AND REALPOLITIK IN EVE ENSLER'S
THE VAGI.l\L,4 MONOLOGUES
CONTRIBUTORS
5
7
17
30
43
59
71
86
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jOURNAL OF AMERICAN DRA!I1A AND THEA1li.E 17, NO. 2 (SPRING 2005)
INTRODUCTION
D AVID KRASNER
The following essays were gathered from papers presented at the
2004 Modern Language Association Conference in Philadelphia. They
share two aims: examining realism and non-realism in American drama
and theatre, and investigating plays and ideas that have influenced
American theatrical history. The first two essays partake in analyzing
American minstrelsy and language in American drama. Daniel Foster
focuses on the oscillating relationship of minstrelsy as a visual art form,
with its racist connotations, and an oral tradition linked to European the-
atrical roots. By emphasizing visual and oral perceptions of minstrel his-
tory, Foster expands our perspective and requires theatre historians to
rethink the contours of minstrelsy's reception on American soil. Sarah
Bay-Cheng also applies a binary analysis to the history of American verse
and prose drama. American verse drama experienced difficulty taking
root in American theatre; accordingly, American verse drama, as Bay-
Cheng astutely observes, resides in the interstices of the high idealized
poetry and grass-root realism.
The next four essays focus on specific plays in order to accentu-
ate larger themes. Nick Davis calls our attention to James Baldwin's 1964
play Blues for Mister Charlie, a drama exemplifying Baldwin's ongoing inves-
tigation of spatial and temporal experiences of race and class in America.
Davis holds that Baldwin's play is not an aberration in the author's canon,
as most critics assert, but rather it is a dynamic and experimental play
incorporating themes evident in Baldwin's well-known novels. Davis's
revisionist approach illuminates a play that has received insufficient atten-
tion. Ehren Fordyce, like Davis, also sheds light on a lesser known work
by a well-known author. He examines in significant detail Tennessee
Williams's posthumous play The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le
Monde (published in 1984). Williams, Fordyce contends, carries the "the
kindness of strangers" idea that concludes his most famous play, A
Streetcar Named Desire, into likely his final play, Remarkable Rooming-House.
More importantly, Fordyce compellingly observes how the playwright's
thinking evolved themes of hospitality, home, gratitude, kindness, and
relationships from the post-World War II period to the Reagan era.
The final essays illuminate two well-known dramas by providing
an avant-garde and social-activist template, respectively. Nita Kumar
points out that Adrienne Kennedy's 1964 play, The Owl Answers, is a
6 KRASNER
unique form of surrealism, one that imaginatively blends various shades
of the European avant-garde while incorporating the American experi-
ence of race. Erin Striff's analysis of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues
pinpoints the efficacy of political drama. She details the play's success in
supporting victims of domestic abuse, while critically focusing on how
the effectiveness of experimental drama in gathering support sometimes
compromises artistic aims. Her honest appraisal raises important ques-
tions about drama and political action.
These six authors cast rich and multi-valiant perspectives on
American drama and theatre. They are, moreover, rising and promising
scholars in the field. I want to thank David Savran and the editorial board
of the Journal for providing them with a forum to present their ideas.
jOURNAL OF A MERICAN DRAMA AND THEATRE 17, NO. 2 (SPRING 2005)
FROM MINSTREL SHOWS TO RADIO SHOWS:
RACISM AND REPRESENTATION IN BLACKFACE AND
BLACKVOICE
DANIEL H. FOSTER
Perhaps the most popular image of the American minstrel is that
of a white man in blackface performing a variety of racist skits and jokes,
like those performed by the Christy Minstrel Singers in 1842, and/or
singing whitewashed notions of slave plantation songs, like those per-
formed by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer in 1927. The era between and
including these two landmark years in minstrel history, 1842 and 1927,
not only provides us with our most popular image of the American min-
strel show at a time when it was, according to many scholars, America's
most popular mass entertainment, but also represents the minstrel show's
lowest point aesthetically and ideologically. Significantly, in Spike Lee's
film Bambooifed, when the character Pierre Delacroix pitches his idea for
the satire "Man Tan and the New Millennium Minstrel Show," he states
that the minstrel show began in the 1840s.l While Lee is right to search
for satire in the 1840s, as a historical fact this statement is somewhat mis-
leading. The minstrel show began before the 1840s, but it was not called
a minstrel show until 1842, a date that marks its downward slide into
racist representation. It is for this reason, perhaps, that historians have
begun searching elsewhere for a more complex understanding of the
minstrel show, expanding their focus to include both what came before
1842 and after 1927. The somewhat surprising consensus among schol-
ars is that, before 1842, blackface performance was not a particularly
racist activity. This is not to say that the minstrel show lacked racist ele-
ments before 1842, but that it was more concerned with doing the posi-
tive work of class warfare from the bottom up, binding together the poor
against the rich rather than white against black. W T. Lhamon elegantly
assesses minstrel history when he notes that blackface "marked the entry
not of any authentic blackness into American and Atlantic culture, and
not of any exclusively working-class position, per se, but of a relational
opposition that has used racial and class markers to stage a continually
sliding disaffectation from the dominant culture."Z
I Spike Lee,   New Line Cinema, DVD, 2001.
2 W T. Lhamon, Jr., Jump Jim CrmJJ: Lost Plqys, Ly nes, and S tree! Prose of the First
Atlantic Popular Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003) , 6.
8 FOSTER
To understand what happened in 1842 that changed the course
of blackface performance, scholars have begun to examine minstrelsy's
performance genealogy. However, because of a tendency to view the
minstrel show as a wholly American phenomenon, most critics have
failed to observe this shift from a broader, transatlantic perspective.
Indeed, most focus on the way that the minstrel show burlesqued
European theatrical content rather than adapted its forms, and how it
became an export to, rather than an import from, Europe. One signifi-
cant exception to this rule is Dale Cockrell's recent study, Demons of
Disorder. Like other scholars of the minstrel show, Cockrell tries to under-
stand the sea-change between pre- and post-1842 blackface as deter-
mined by the interplay of two elements: a shift in audience demograph-
ics offstage and performance activities onstage. Posing the seminal ques-
tion about whether those who appeared in blackface "were not attempt-
ing to demean those of black skin, but were adopting the visage of the
Other in an effort to reconfigure a hard world," Cockrell answers simply
but truthfully: blackface meant different things to different people at dif-
ferent times.3 Prior to 1842, it meant solidarity for the disenfranchised;
for the enfranchised it reinforced their power and superiority. After 1842,
as audiences shifted away from the disenchanted poor to the enchanted
rich, the question of whether blackface was ritual or racism became less
ambiguous, and thus the stage naturally reflected back what these people
quite literally came to observe rather than hear. According to Cockrell,
after 1842 blackface performance became increasingly visual and less
aural. Together with a shift in audience, these more representational per-
formance activities brought to the surface the minstrel show's not-so-
latent racism.4
While generally agreeing with Cockrell's answer as to what and
how the minstrel show changed from 1842 to the late 1920s, I think he
takes a rather circuitous, albeit interesting, route up to 1842. Following a
Bakhtinian approach, Cockrell argues that before 1842 blackface per-
formance exhibited "the continued existence of ancient European folk
theatricals."S He traces minstrelsy back to feudal traditions of European
3 Dale Cockrell, Demons of Disorder: Eor!J Blac!iface Minstrels and their World (New
York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 82.
4
Ibid., 141.
5 Ibid., xii-xiv.
FROM MINSTREL SHOWS TO RADIO SHOWS 9
mummery and Morris dancing among the peasantry. Both of these activ-
ities included blackface performance that was, according to Cockrell,
inspired by the broader category of the Other rather than the more nar-
row category of race.6 However, Cockrell can provide little if any solid
evidence linking these feudal traditions to their supposed American
descendents. As he himself admits, he can only offer "concurrences and
resonances" between the two, but nothing as concrete as a medieval
mumming play adapted into a minstrel endplay.7
Following a more direct route between Europe and America, I
will look at the figure of the minstrel per se in Europe, especially in the
years directly preceding 1842, in order to observe how this figure affect-
ed minstrelsy in America. Although quite different in many obvious
respects, there are several significant and less obvious ways in which the
American minstrel does continue the European ludic tradition, particu-
larly with regard to the way in which it emphasizes and continues an
enduring tension between sight and sound. This tension between the
senses reaches all the way back to Orpheus, the first minstrel, and opera,
the first minstrel show, which, of course, featured Orpheus as its first
hero.s This approach not only embodies the virtues of homophony and
chronological proximity, it might also help clarify why the aural element in
minstrelsy shifted from being the primary signifier of reality to the secondary one, and
how with this change the minstrel's blackened face changed from more of a
ritual mask to a representational costume. From the Scottish tradition of min-
strels to the published books of the Romantic poets, from Bakhtinian
blackface to bourgeois blackface, and from radio broadcasts of black-
voice to televised ones, this shift from "a culture of the eye" to "a culture
of the ear" is only one swing of a pendulum that has kept going back and
forth between sight and sound since the introduction of the very first
minstrel in Western mythology, Orpheus.9
6 I bid., 53-54.
7
Ibid., 46-47 and 54.
8 Interestingly, among other names, the title "Ethiopian Opera" was also used
to denote the nineteenth-century minstrel show. For example, the man considered the
"father" of the minstrelsy, Thomas Dartmouth Rice, billed his parody, Otello, an
Ethiopian opera. See William]. Mahar, Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Ear!J Minstrelsy and
Antebellum American Popular Cui/tire (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 2.
9
I am borrowing the terms "culture of the eye" and "culrure of the ear" from
Cockrell, 141.
10 FOSTER
In the original Orpheus myth, after successfully winning back his
beloved Eurydice from Hades, Orpheus loses her again in his effort to
see as well as hear her. Sight and sound, the myth seems to be warning
us, are in some way incompatible: we can only have one or the other, not
both simultaneously.JO This tension between sight and sound remains
part of the minstrel figure throughout its long and continuing evolution,
even during its rebirth in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centu-
ry among the British Romantics. As it relates to the American minstrel,
the most compelling example of British minstrelsy during this era is Sir
Walter Scott's enormously popular book, The Lay of the Last Minstrel,
where the tension between sight and sound is present between the min-
strel in Scott's book and the medium of the book itself. The narrative
conceit of Scott's Minstrel is that contained in this book is a song sung by
the last of the medieval class of minstrels, itinerant bards who once wan-
dered from castle to castle and were given food, clothing, and lodging by
the nobility in exchange for their songs.
1
1 This minstrel therefore belongs
to an older, more oral tradition than the poet, presumably Scott's autho-
rial persona, who has recorded the minstrel's song in writing. In some
sense, then, the "last" minstrel in Scott's book is really the "second-to-last
minstrel." These two minstrels, however, are separated by an intermedial
gap, a tension between the poem as performance text and the poem as
literary text. Aware of this gap and somewhat anxious to fill it, Scott
attempts to preserve the oral tradition in and through the written tradi-
tion. Celeste Langan contends that in his aim to reactivate the aura of a
lost orality, Scott invokes the "northern pronunciation" of Scotland and
10 Similarly, opera, which interestingly took its first plots from the Orpheus
myth, is built upon a continual tension between drama and lyric, a continual disagreement
over whether it is a theatrical event for the eyes or a musical event for the ears. For an
interesting discussion of opera as Orpheus and an embodiment of his mythical tension
between music and drama, see Theodor Adorno, "Bourgeois Opera," in Opera through
Other EJ•es, ed. David J. Levin, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), 25-43, espe-
cially 33.
11
John Jamieson asserts in the preface to his 1869 edition of the Book of
William Wallace that by the great fifteenth-century Scottish bard, Blind Henry, also one
of the last minstrels, these songsters led a "dependent and ambulatory life" (i-ii). Jamieson
claims that, in a strange reversal of power, the minstrel, although not of the nobility,
expected support of his bodily needs from his noble benefactor just as this benefactor
expected support for his military goals from his vassals: "that as the tables of the great
were open to him, where, in former times at least, a minstrel had the prerogative of an
honorable seat, he had also, by established custom from time immemorial, as good a right
to claim the raiment allotted to his vocation as the baron had to exact military service
from his vassals" (iv-v). John Jamieson, ed., Wallace, or, Tbe Life and Acts of Sir William
Wallace of Ellerslie, By Henry the Minstrel (Glasgow: Maurice Ogle & Co., 1869).
fROM MINSTREL SHO\X'S TO RADIO SHOWS 11
attempts thereby "to reanimate lyric by linking it with the ballad tradition,
with the oral traditions still part of 'low and rustic life."'12 Paradoxically,
however, it was books like The Lay o/ the Last Minstrel that helped lay to
rest such oral traditions and to secure the survival of the printing press
as a viable means of poetic propagation. Scott's Lay of the Last Minstrel
can be regarded as one of Britain's first bestsellers. Although in 1805 only
750 quarto volumes of the poem were printed, by the time of the reprint-
ing in 1830, 44,000 copies had been sold in Britain alone, making it at that
time the most popular poem in British history.13
This moment of transition from a culture of the ear to one of
the eye is repeated in the United States at approximately the same time
and, once again, around the figure of the minstrel. In 1842 the mask of
blackface, which had hitherto subverted the American eye since the early
1700s, was now enlisted to support visual knowledge and with it racism.
1
4
Like the shift from itinerant singer to published author, blackface shifted
from a performative ritual passed down by word of mouth to text-based
scripts circulated via the printing press. And just as Britain Scott's poem
became the first bestseller, so too in the United States the minstrel show
became the most popular American mass entertainment. This shift
occurred in part through the adoption of the word "minstrel" by black-
face performers. Before 1842 it seems that this particular term had never
been used to designate blackface performance. The first person to use it
in this way was Dan Emmet in December 1842, when he called himself
an "Ethiopian Minstrel."15 The birth of the minstrel show as such came
shortly thereafter, when Dan Emmett, Billy Whitlock, Frank Bower, and
Dick Pellham first played together as a quartet. In an all-music show on
February 6, 1843, at the Bowery Amphitheater in New York City, they
called themselves the Virginia Minstrels.16 Prior to this moment in
American theatrical history, "minstrels" had certainly appeared on
12 Celeste Langan, "Understanding Media in 1805: Audiovisual Hallucination
in The Lay of the Last Minstrel," Studies in Romanticism (March 2001): 1-2.
13 Sir Walter Scott, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, cd. Ralph Hartt Bowles (New
York: The Macmillan Company, 1904), xxxvi.
1
4
According to Cockrell, from the early 1700s to about the 1830s, Americans
would have had about 25,000 chances to see blackface on the legitimate stage (14-17).
15 Ibid., 152.
1
6 Ibid., 151.
12 FoSTER
American stages and in concert halls, but only in association with the
European concept of minstrel as national bard and singer of folk songs.
In 1833 the Tyrolese Minstrels had been in New York City; the German
Minstrels had come in the spring of 1837; and the Alpine Minstrels in the
summer of that same year. The Rainer Family Singers had been
announced as the Tyrolean Minstrels in 1839. As something of a step-
ping-stone between these European-style minstrels and the American
blackface minstrel, one group of musicians and singers began in October
1840 to call themselves the Boston Minstrels. The Cambrian Infant
Minstrels arrived later that year; and throughout 1841 and 1842 the
Rainer Family Singers emerged everywhere, but again usually billed as the
Tyrolese :tv1instrels. Without exception, the word "minstrel" is used in
these contexts to apply only to white, non-blackface, European-American
singing groups who performed in concert halls to respectable, white mid-
dle-class audiences. Its adoption by Dan Emmett to apply to burnt cork
performance looks therefore like an attempt to barter on the word's
European luster, both to lend some amount of respectability to the hith-
erto rowdy, working class, mixed-race ritual of blackface while continu-
ing, at least temporarily, to throw these middle-class values into question
through parody and satire. From a marketing perspective, the minstrel
show had the advantage at this turning point of being readable from two
contrary perspectives: as descriptive by the middle class and as satire by
African Americans and the working class.J7 However, as market forces
shifted and the audience became uniformly middle class, the shows
became increasingly "realistic"; that is, they were interpreted as being
more representational but also racist. In the end, the elements of self-
mockery transformed into mockery of others, as the delineation of the
characters onstage no longer reflected the white audience offstage.
Like Scott's bestseller, which helped to establish the novel as a
popular mass entertainment for the British bourgeoisie, the Virginia
1v1instrels helped to establish the minstrel show for the American bour-
geoisie. But with this success came the same sacrifice that seems to attend
the minstrel figure throughout its long history: the sacrifice of sound for
sight. Before becoming codified as the minstrel show, blac!iface was more
blackvoice. What was real for the American working class audience was less
the appearance than the sounds of pre-1842 burnt cork performers, the
making of noise, dissent, and charivari so that those who were usually on
the bottom-meaning African Americans, working class whites, and
1
7 Ibid., 151-52.
FROM MINSTREL SHOWS TO RADIO SHOWS
13
immigrants, especially the Irish-might find solidarity. However, when
performers like Dan Emmett and the Virginia Minstrels began to court
those in power, the target of their burlesques shifted. More precisely, as
the audiences for the minstrel show became white and rich, these audi-
ences began to observe the show less as a burlesque of themselves and
their pretensions of wealth and respectability than as a "realistic repre-
sentation" of African Americans.
By the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the
number of professional minstrel shows decreased. In their place, pub-
lishing houses began to carry stock minstrel scripts and the minstrel show
became largely the purview of amateurs. Everyone from the Elks Club to
women's finishing schools purchased these scripts for performance by
their enrollees. Late in the history of minstrelsy, one especially popular
practice came in the formation of theatre companies that employed
actor-directors to tour the country and help these various clubs, schools,
and institutions stage their very own minstrel shows. Serving also as tal-
ent scouts, this new breed of wandering minstrel kept on the lookout for
new recruits, amateurs particularly gifted in the ar t of blackface and par-
ody. These are the circumstances in which Freeman Gosden met Charles
Correll, better known for their radio stage names ''Amos ' n' Andy."
The two men met while both were working for the Joe Bren the-
atrical company of Chicago.
1
8 Through a series of circumstances and
vicissitudes of fortune too various to list, in 1926 Gosden and Correll
went on the radio in Chicago with their first radio show, Sam 'n' Henry,
which eventually transformed into Amos 'n' Antjy in 1928.19 The show was
an instant success, a kind of comic strip for the airwaves, America's first
sitcom and longest running, most popular radio show, spanning over thir-
ty years from 1928 to 1960.
2
0 Like the birth of opera, Scott's bestseller,
and Dan Emmett's Virginia Minstrels, Amos 'n' Antjy was both a unique
and unparalleled success, but also a continuation of the minstrel tradi-
tion. The resultant condition was that in each of its previous instantia-
tions this minstrel show also embodied a tension between the seen and
the unseen, sight and sound.
1
8 Melvin Patrick Ely, The Adventures of Amos 'n' Ancfy: A Social History of an
American Phenomeno11 (New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1991), 35-36.
!9 For one of the better accounts of the show's pre-history, see ibid.
20 John Dunning, On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1998), 31.
14
FoSTER
Although scholars still point to some vestiges of the minstrel
show in various kinds of performance during the early years of the twen-
tieth century, most argue that by the 1920s the minstrel show had deteri-
orated into blatant racism and all but died out as a significant feature of
American popular and professional theatre.zl While true on the whole,
Amos 'n' Anqy is a significant exception, one made even more significant
because it ushered in the minstrel show's return to its aesthetic and ideo-
logical roots in sound and the unification of disenfranchised blacks and
whites. Here was blackface again, this time reborn as blackvoice and only
blackvoice, the minstrel show boiled down to pure aurality. Although I
believe it is impossible to hear Amos 'n' Anqy as non-racist today, yet his-
torical documents do reveal that this radio show, like early blackface per-
formance, was particularly effective in binding together blacks and whites
through poverty rather than separating them through race.22 As a radio
show, Amos 'n' Anqy could still be heard by its enormous white and black
audience as a burlesque and a parody of the middle class. In the preten-
sions and inflated egos of its characters, the listening audience heard
what their ancestors had heard a century before: malapropisms, wordplay,
and the outwitting of the powerful by the poor.
If the story ended here, we would have arrived at a somewhat
satisfactory conclusion to this chapter in the American minstrel's per-
formance genealogy. But having swung to the aural in 1928 with the first
Amos 'n' Anqy radio show, the cultural pendulum was bound to swing
back again to the visual, which it did when Amos 'n 'Anrfy moved to tele-
vision in 1951. As before in minstrel history, with the more visual medi-
um came the sense that here was something more representational than
ritual, and that this representation was racist, despite the fact that the
show's title characters were now played by African Americans. As before,
this sense of racism was also helped along by a shift in audience.
Compared to radio owners in the early 1930s, television owners in the
early 1950s were decidedly more middle class. Despite the boom that fol-
21 According to Eric Lott, by the 1920s it had performed its historical function
and was no longer needed. I take issue with this, insofar as Amos 'n' Anijs popularity may
certainly be evidence that minstrelsy had not outlived its need. Eric Lott, .Love and Theft:
Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press,
1994), 6.
22 For an account of those who believed the show to have been more harmful
than helpful, as well as details of the ways in which Amos 'n' Andy was boycotted by
African American preachers, the NAACP, and the African American newspaper, The
Pittsburgh Courier, see Arnold Shankman, "Black Pride and Protest: The Amos 'n' Andy
Crusade," Journal of Popular Culture 12 (Fall 1979): 236-52.
FROM MiNSTREL SHOWS TO RADIO SHOWS 15
lowed World War II, in 1950 only an estimated 9% of American house-
holds had televisions. Compare this to 1935 when, in the midst of a
depression, over 70% of Americans owned a radio, meaning that radio
was more available to poor, working class Americans than television.
2
3
Like the increasingly middle-class audiences of the post-1842 minstrel
show era, the television audience for Amos 'n 'Ancfy was decidedly middle
class. But unlike 1842, this middle class would have included African
Americans who were strengthened somewhat by their improved status in
World War II and by the growing Civil Rights movement, as well as by
other concerned Americans who in 1951 had the power to do something
about this particular racist representation. With the help of the NAACP,
the show was therefore taken off the air in 19 53, after only two years, a
considerable feat seeing that the radio show version ran from 1928 to
1960, outliving the television show it spawned by seven years.
But this, too, is not the conclusion of the minstrel tradition in
America. The pendulum keeps swinging back and forth as the shadow of
blackface continues to pass over the face of history, as exemplified by
Ted Danson's blackface roasting of his then lover, Whoopi Goldberg, at
the Friar's Club in 1993, or the more recent blackface costume donned by
a New Orleans judge, Timothy Ellender. However, as in the recent past,
both of these incidents were justly reviled. Perhaps less objectionable is
the hip-hop blackvoice of Eminem, whose disenfranchised, working-
class, Detroit persona lends him more credibility than a Hollywood star
or a Louisiana judge.24 Partly because he symbolizes this story, Eminem
has survived longer than one of his blackvoice predecessors, the ill-fated
Vanilla Ice. The stepson of a Chevrolet dealer, when "outed" as a liar for
claiming that he had been stabbed five times while living on the streets,
Vanilla Ice told his erstwhile fans they could "kiss my white ass."
2
5 Unlike
Vanilla Ice, who, as his name suggests and he confirms, is white through
and through, Eminem's name suggests that despite what he is on the out-
23 Arthur Frank Wertheim, &dio Cometfy (New York: Oxford University Press,
1979), 46.
24 Hilton Als, "Introduction," in White Noise: The Eminem Collection, ed. Hilton
Als and Darryl A. Turner (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2003), x.iv-xvi.
2
5 Todd Boyd, "Check Yo Self Before You Wreck Yo Self: The Death of
Politics in Rap Music and Popular Culture," That's the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader, ed.
Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal (New York: Routledge, 2004), 326.
16 FOSTER
side, on the inside, where his voice originates, he is black. As has been
argued coundess times before, sight has more to do with the external
world, hearing the internal. Just as Orpheus lost Eurydice by trying to see
her, sight is often accompanied by separation, while sound brings us
together. True, the voice can be a deceiver and it is easier to disguise one's
voice than one's features, but at least in the case of minstrelsy, from
Europe to America, traditionally it is the voice that erases difference
rather than emphasizes it. We may not be able to see through walls, as the
minstrel might claim, but we can sing through them.
jOURNAL OF AMERiCAN DRAMA AND THEATRE 17, NO. 2 (SPRiNG 2005)
THE TRANSCENDENTAL REALISM OF
AMERICAN VERSE DRAMA
SARAH BAY-CHENG
" . .. in an age in which disbelief is so profoundly preva-
lent ... poetry and painting, and the arts in general are
... a compensation for what has been lost. Men feel that
imagination is the next greatest power to faith: the reign-
ing prince."
-Wallace Stevens1
Although Stevens's 1951 essay "The Relations between Painting
and Poetry" concentrates primarily on painting, his insights might also
usefully apply to poetry and drama, particularly the odd hybrid of mod-
ern verse or poetic drama. Described both as a revolt against realism and
as an "invisible" dramatic form, American verse drama conforms to nei-
ther the conventions of realism nor the anti-realist stance of the avant-
garde. Occurring largely between psychological realism in the early twen-
tieth century and the diversity of experimental performance in the latter
half, American verse drama attempted to incorporate the style of real-
ism-and the popular audience it might attract-without sacrificing its
faith in the "higher" principles of poetry and spiritual enlightenment.
Such drama has been regularly dismissed by theater critics, who
ha\'e often referred to it as dramatic poetry, or as failed drama. Usually
cast against the dominant trend of realism, the dismissal of verse plays
was particularly potent in the United States. For example, in a New York
Times review from October 27, 1907, the author opined that, "Our best
theatrical achievements will eventually be along realistic lines," in part
because, ''As a people we are without poetry, without poetic feeling. And
the general national characteristics are present in the actor as well as in
the merchant or the financier."
2
Another New York Times commentary
subtitled "Public Indifference to Poetic Drama" (1909) baldly stated that,
"The modern theatre-goer lacks imagination. His judgment is frequently
1 Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel· Essqys on Reality and the Imagination (New
York: Knopf, 1951), 159-76.
2 AIK, "The Lesson of One Theatrical Night," New York Times, 27 October
1907, n.p.
18
BAY-CHENG
at fault in respect to the truth of what he sees, but that does not prevent
him from asking that it have a basis in common knowledge."3 Later crit-
ics concurred. For example, Arnold Hinchliffe's 1977 survey calls verse
plays "dramatic poems rather than drama"4 and Lionel Abel responded
to Djuna Barnes's The Antiphon (1958) by asserting, "no human being
would ever talk like that."S
A noteworthy exception to this line of criticism is W .B.
Worthen's Modern Drama and the Rhetoric of Theatre (1992). Like earlier crit-
ics, Worthen notes that "the rhetoric of poetic drama challenges stage
realism, but only incidentally on verbal grounds"; however, he reads in
modern verse drama a particular challenge to the realist stage: "Poetic
drama exposes a 'deeper consistency,' not only through its verbal design,
but also in the way it presses the performance to evade the scenic prior-
ities of stage realism."6 This tension between the material realism of the
stage and the "pressures" and "challenges" of verse may, in part, explain
why so many modernist poets turned from the private contemplation of
published poetry to the public spectacle of the theatre. Allardyce Nicoll
speculated in 1936 that verse drama in the twentieth century would suc-
ceed where nineteenth-century verse had failed: "The attempts at poetic
drama in the nineteenth century failed for various reasons, and among
those perhaps the greatest was the fact that the current lyric measures
were unfitted for the stage. Now vanished are those measures, and new
rhythms, born of travail and soul's exploration, have taken their place."
7
Nicoll's juxtaposition of "travail"-painful work-with the
"soul's exploration" suggests an alternate reading of poetic drama.
Rather than opposing the theatre, modernist poets saw in performance
the opportunity to create a tangible (if imaginary) reality from which the
soul might grow and "explore." The physical space of the theatre-the
3 N. A., "Public Indifference to Poetic Drama and Miss Julia Marlowe's Present
Problem," Ne1v York Times, 21 February 1909, 14.
4 Arnold Hinchliffe, Modern Verse Drama (London: Methuen, 1977), 27.
5 Lionel Abel, "Bad by North and South," in Tragedy and Metatheatre (New York:
Holmes and Meier, 2003), 190.
6 W B. Worthen, Modern Drama and the Rhetoric of Theater (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1992), 101.
7 Allardyce Nicoll, "The Lyric Drama," New York Times, 16 February 1936, n.p.
TRANSCENDENTAL REALISM 19
physical work of the performance-is for the transcendental verse. It is
no coincidence, then, that many American verse plays take revelation,
often explicitly spiritual, as their theme, for example, E. E. Cummings's
Santa Claus (1946) and Archibald MacLeish's J B. (1956). Such drama,
particularly in the wake of two world wars, attempted to recover through
performance a faith that had been lost, and to transcend the terrible real-
ity of a post-holocaust, post-atomic world. Theatrical realism in verse
drama emerges not as an obstacle to the poetry, but as a useful foil; a
deliberate illusion to be collectively undone by the audience.
This tension between the illusion of the stage and the resonance
of the poetry is the main theme of William Carlos Williams's 1942 play,
Matry Loves. In an intentionally cliched love-triangle, the framing plot cen-
ters on a financier (Peter) who is in love with a playwright-cum-poet
(Hubert), who is engaged to be married to the leading actress but requires
Peter's financial backing. The structure of the play-a frame story inter-
posed with scenes from Hubert's drama (all ostensibly written about
love)-gives Williams the opportunity to reflect on poetry in the theatre,
through the opposing arguments of a poet-cum-playwright and his com-
mercially minded backer. Williams's juxtaposition of a play about
romance with the romantic-poetic aims of its playwright suggests a pun-
ning irony for Matry Loves in particular, and verse drama in general.
Though certainly not an outstanding piece of drama, the arguments in
the play neatly summarize the debate surrounding verse drama and per-
haps best explain its purpose.
For example, like the hypothetical financier of the 1907 Times
review, Peter chastises Hubert for his lack of commercial understanding
and realism, "This is the professional stage. When the I faucet is turned
on, the water must run hot I or cold as they want it."S As Peter says of
the audience, "They don't I come here to here to be elevated-by the
imagination I or otherwise" (33-34). Hubert, the prototypical poet,
defends his verse thus:
8 William Carlos Williams, Ma'!j Loves [1942), in Many Loves and Other Plays ~
William Carlos l ~ i l l i   m s (New York: New Directions, 1961), 10. All subsequent citations
appear in parentheses in the body of the text.
20
The words must carry a special meaning,
A special dramatic structure of their
own. What is the dramatic structure
as occurs in words? Verse. That
is the drama of words-words in love,
hot words, copulating, drinking, running,
bleeding! (33)
BAY- CHENG
The dichotomy Williams presents is clear. Commercial practical-
ity is expressed in theatrical realism, while imagination and poetry are
opposed to such verisimilitude. As an analogy for the ironic purposes of
American verse, Williams inverts the presumed verbal structure of the
play. The so-called "modern verse" of Hubert's play, presented as scenes
in rehearsal, is written entirely in prose; whereas the frame story, includ-
ing Hubert and Peter's dialogue, is written in irregular blank verse.
While it might be easy to dismiss Williams's play as a comic love
triangle, punctuated by arguments for verse on stage, the scenes from
Hubert's play- or "playlets" as Williams calls them- present not
romance, but rather the exploitation of sexual power and sexual
deviance. Williams's characters enact sexual behaviors startling to a 1942
audience, including bisexuality, homosexuality, adulterous sex, and sex
with multiple partners. Characters are not interested in love, but rather
the power of sexual exploitation; not verse, but perversion. Each of the
playlets centers on sexual tension: a doctor who confesses to planning a
rape, a housewife who manipulates multiple lovers and the threat of
pregnancy and (illegal) abortion that hangs over all of the women. The
theme of exploitation is further echoed in the frame story, in which Peter
uses his offer of financial support to seduce Hubert.
It may seem odd to include Maf!Y Loves as a transcendental
drama, let alone its exemplar. However, it is precisely the hoary excesses
of the play that make its spiritual yearning visible. As Hubert intones,
verse "should project I above the coarseness of the materials ... some-
thing else in the words themselves I tragic without vulgarity" (92).
Though presented in the form of a comedy, Williams's Maf!)' Loves invites
its audience to see through the fabrications of the theatrical romance to
the darker side of its characters. At the same time, Williams's invites the
audience to rise above their mutual exploitation, both as witnesses of the
illicit behavior of the characters, and, in their mistaking of the stage for
"reality," their commercial desire for realistic representation. Hubert
explains:
TRANSCENDENTAL REAuSM
No one knows what poetry
should be today. It should be the
audience itself, come out of itself
and standing in its own eyes, leaning
within the opening of its own ears,
hearing itself breathe, seeing itself
in the action-lifted by poetry to
a world it never knew, a world it has
always longed for and may enter for a
few precious moments never to be known
in prose. The audience is the play. (33)
21
Williams creates a realistic, even gritty, environment in which to immerse
his nearly inaudible verse.
But Hubert's poetic ambitions clash with the major action of the
play itself. One would never know from the interspersed scenes that the
idealistic Hubert is their author. The "lifting" of the audience to a "world
it never knew" seems unlikely given the quality of the language in the
scenes Hubert apparently wrote. To wit, a character "Laddie" attempts to
woo an older married woman with the following plea:
Look! You think I'm a silly kid, don't you? Imagine! I
was born on this block. Can you imagine it? I grew up
here. I went to high school four blocks over. I've been
sticking around here long enough. But what am I gain'
to do with my mother? (25)
What Williams highlights in the absurdity of Hubert's poetic
attempts is the absence of poetry in American life. While he seeks to
uplift the audience, the juxtapositions of verse and prose, of theatrical
ambition and commercial reality, suggest the futility of his aims. It is
almost as if Williams in his own verse acknowledges that his American
audience may be "without poetic feeling," so he submerges his poetry in
realism, in hopes that the theatre may uplift the audience out of the very
darkness he presents on stage.
Williams's attempt to project verse through theatrical realism
best explains the aims of modern verse drama and the abundance of real-
istic representation within it. T. S. Eliot argued that it was the function of
verse drama to create poetry on the stage, "without losing that contact
with the ordinary everyday world with which drama must come to
22 BAY-CHENG
terms."9 Such plays were not anti-theatrical, nor were they attacks on the
theater itself, as some critics have suggested.lO Rather, American verse
drama attempted to transcend the realistic representation of the stage in
favor of articulating a "higher" or superior reality, just as Williams seeks
to elevate his audience beyond the sexual deviance rendered in prose. It
is this distinctly American transcendentalism that distinguishes such verse
from similar efforts in Europe. II I also take it as the basis for including
Eliot here although he wrote his later plays as British citizen, and nearly
all are set in England. Despite this transferred identity, Eliot, like other
American poets-turned-playwrights, follows a pattern of theatricality and
verse that, to extend Jean Cocteau's theory, attempts to write poetry
through the theatre.
In particular, we may consider Eliot's The Cocktail Party (1949) as
his attempt to portray two visions simultaneously: the physical, material
world represented by the realistic setting of the play, and the spiritual
transcendence of both audience and character found within the verse. In
The Cocktail Party, Eliot presents, hke Williams, a cliched romantic sce-
nario-that of a British cocktail party gone awry, and not one, but two
failed romantic triangles. Lavinia, the hostess of the cocktail party, has
left her husband Edward, who must decide if he wants her back while
trying to end his affair with the young Celia. Lavinia, having ended her
affair with Peter (who is in love with Celia), does return to Edward, only
to resume their marital struggles. While Edward and Lavinia attempt to
reconcile, Celia and Peter attempt to find meaning in their lives.
Overseeing this apparent romantic comedy of manners is the figure of
Sir Harcourt-Reilly-part therapist, part spiritual guide. At the center of
the play is the character Celia, who has typically been interpreted as a
Christian martyr, but who may also be interpreted as a Buddhist who
9 T. S. Eliot, Poetry and Drama (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951), 43.
lO Martin Puchner (Stage Fright: Modernism, Anti-Theatricality and Drama
[Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2002]) makes a compelling argument for the anti-theatricality
of modern drama. However, it is worth noting that he includes largely European play-
wrights, with the expatriate Gertrude Stein as the sole American.
1
1 I am thinking in particular of poetic efforts in France and Germany, but one
also finds compelling examples in Poland, Russia, and Czechoslovakia. It is worth noting
that England enjoyed a brief post-war revival of verse, as evident in works by Ronald
Duncan, Norman Nicholson, Ann Ridler, and better-known plays by Christopher Fry and
John Arden. But such plays were often explicitly anti-realist (as, for example, Edward
Bond's War Trilogy), containing little if any spiritual optimism noted in Eliot's work and
that of other American playwrights.
TRANSCENDENTAL REALISM 23
attains enlightenment. Unlike the other characters who return to a third-
act reprise of the cocktail party, Celia leaves the play entirely, and is
revealed to have been killed doing missionary work overseas between acts
two and three.
Though written in blank verse, The Cocktail Parryl2 was roundly
criticized for its lack of poetry, or as Clive Barnes wrote in 1968, "the
verse is deliberately flattened into the most prosaic poetry a great poet
ever wrote."t3 Indeed, the play itself barely resembles Eliot's better-
known poetry, sounding much more like a leaden echo of Noel Coward
than even his own Sweenry Agonistes. But, as with Williams, the quality of
the verse is deliberate, as Eliot attempts to draw attention to the con-
structed nature of drama-without flagrantly violating the veneer of
realism. Eliot attempts to slip his poetry past a critical-even unimagina-
tive audience-by submerging it in the form of drawing-room comedy
and theatrical realism. As he writes in his essay, "John Marston": "It is
possible that what distinguishes poetic drama from prosaic drama is a
kind of doubleness in the action, as if it took place on two planes at once .
. . . In poetic drama a certain apparent irrelevance may be the symptom
of this doubleness; or the drama has an under-pattern, less manifest than
the theatrical one."t4 Eliot's juxtaposition of realism with poetry encour-
ages the audience to see through the performance as illusion, and indeed,
to see beyond the theatre as the apparatus for illusion to a larger reality
that cannot be articulated on stage.
To this end, Eliot's characters constantly negotiate and debate
what is "real." Sir Harcourt-Reilly, for example, wants Edward to learn,
"What you really are. What you really feel" (307); Peter asks Lavinia,
''What is the reality I Of experience between two unreal people" (316);
Celia complains that "Perhaps the dream was better. It seemed the real
reality I And if this is reality, it is very like a dream" (324). Most charac-
ters lie, but this becomes an essential part of interaction.
12 T. S. Eliot, The Cocktail Parry, in The Complete Poems and Plqys 1909-1950 (New
York: Harcourt Brace, 1950). All citations from the play appear in parentheses in the body
of the text.
13 Clive Barnes, "The APNs 'Cocktail Party'," New York Times, 8 October 1968,
42.
1
4
T. S. Eliot, "John Marston," in Euqys on Elizabethan Drama (New York:
Dutton, 1956), 173.
24 BAY-CHENG
Eliot casts this disparity between reality and the dream in explic-
itly theatrical terms. In the third act, Peter returns to England as an aspir-
ing screenwriter, sent as a location scout for his next film, and to help the
director find "some typical English faces" (378). Julia becomes confused,
thinking that Peter will take an actual manor house back to California,
and asks to be included in the fUm as a "typical" English face. In their
banter about the house, Eliot makes clear that the confusion of reality
and projection is blurred precisely in the realistic representation of the
stage, or even more on the screen. As Peter explains to Julia:
PETER: We're not taking Boltwell [Manor].
We reconstruct a BoltweU.
JULIA: Very well, then:
Why not reconstruct me? It's very much cheap-
e L   7 ~ ·
In his parallel between the fac;:ade of the ftlm set and Julia's belief
that she too can be reconstructed in Hollywood, Eliot highlights the
falseness of dramatic recreation as an existential question. If the per-
formance of the self comes cheap, how can one discover the spiritual
authenticity that escapes the visually oriented Peter Quilpe, literally, the
"whelp" of the play. For this, Eliot implies that one must see through the
material world, as if it were a play or film, to grasp spiritual insight. For
example, Julia tells Peter he will understand, "when you're not concerned
with yourself / But just being an eye" (383), or when Harcourt-Reilly
states that the "sudden intuition" of death "May tend to express itself at
once in a picture" (384). Such pictures in the mind's eye are far more
revealing than the apparent reality expressed on stage or screen.
Tellingly, the only character who escapes the tension of reality
and projection is Celia, who escapes the material concerns of the drama
by leaving the stage. While other characters "put on proper costumes"
(367), Celia's death occurs off stage and between the acts, well beyond
the reach of the performance at hand. Whether Christian martyr, or
Buddhist Bodhisattva, Celia transcends the performance, encouraging the
audience not only to see through the performance as such, but also to see
the realism of the stage as the illusion it is. In this context, dramatic poet-
ry-disguised as realism-lies as the hidden truth behind the theatrical
fac;:ade, waiting for the audience collectively to uncover the "higher"
meaning within a popular genre. This critique of the modern world as
illusory continues themes expressed in Eliot's early poetry, The Wasteland
and Prufrock, but engages dramatic action as a more tangible layer. The
TRANSCENDENTAL REALISM 25
theatre itself becomes a place where the illusions of social behavior, so
often taken for reality, are exposed as empty performances.
Though it may seem odd to cite Eliot as typical of American
verse drama, his combination of poetry and theatrical realism echoes
throughout other American plays of the mid-twentieth century. Such dis-
parate examples as Paul Goodman's The BirthdCfY (1940) and Robert
Lowell's Endecott and the Red Cross (1964) combine realistic settings with
poetic language. Like Eliot, American modernist poets seemed drawn to
the stage precisely because of its inherent doubleness. The images of the
stage are at once real and imagined, materially present and socially con-
structed. Modernist poets who turned to the stage exploited the material
conditions of the theatre-sets, props, costumes-as images of Eliot's
theatrical "doubleness," a critique of the theatre within its stages. Djuna
Barnes, in particular, uses the material elements of the theatre, as well as
verse language, to undermine the realist representation throughout The
Antiphon (1958).
There is much to undermine in the play. At first established as a
family reunion (critics have often seen the play as derivative of Eliot's The
Fami!J Reunion [1939]), The Antiphon's central action is the revisiting of the
main character's adolescent rape; a violation orchestrated by her (now
absent) father and more or less sanctioned by her mother. At the climax
of the play, the daughter Miranda confronts her mother, Augusta, and the
sexual violence inherent within the family (two brothers attack both
mother and sister during the play) is exposed. Critics of Barnes have
tended to read the play autobiographically, as does Phillip Herring in his
Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes (1995). As Herring's title might
suggest, his biography integrates, and perhaps even conflates, what little
is known of the facts of Barnes's life with the subject matter of her poet-
ry, novels (particularly, Nightwood [1936]), and plays. On the surface, the
play appears to revisit (and revise) Barnes's own rape by a family friend.
While the circumstances of the violation are not clear, Barnes's has allud-
ed to the event in numerous letters, as well as including it as a dramatic
event in her plays.1s
15 For more on the role of sexuality and violation in Barnes's work, see Dianne
Chisholm's "Obscene Modernism: Eros Noir and the Profane Illumination of Djuna
Barnes," American Literature 69, no. 1 (March 1997): 167 -206; and Louise A. DeSalvo, "To
Make Her Mutton at Sixteen: Rape, Incest, and Child Abuse in Tbe Antipbon," in Silence
and P01ver: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes, ed. Mary Lynn Broe (Carbondale: Southern
Illinois University Press, 1991): 330-37.
26 BAY-CHENG
But both the verse language and the setting for the play present
the action of the play as analogous to performance. The opening scene
describes a balustrade with "flags, gonfalons, bonnets, ribbons and all
manner of stage costumes" and Miranda is described, "wearing an ele-
gant but rusty costume, obviously of the theatre" (7). Characters put on
masks, Miranda tells her mother to "Blow less hard about the stage"
(172), and Miranda's brother Jeremy appears in disguise. At the conclu-
sion of the play, the mother comments that the gryphon, who sits in the
entry to the house, is "A solid beast, an excellent stage, fit for a play"
(158). Barnes is thinking about the performance of the play, detailing its
physical environment, costumes, furniture, sound, and gesture. Her stage
directions for character actions describe orchestrated reactions that fur-
ther reinforce her sense of performance: "At the same moment that
MIRANDA appears on the gallery, DUDLEY and ELISHA (her broth-
ers], without further caution, move forward. ELISHA leans, still cracking
almonds against the lay-figure, while DUDLEY, hat still on, umbrella up,
sits in the chair at the head of the table, his feet braced against its top"
(53) .
Barnes therefore sets her autobiographical play, including facts
present in other writings, amid the trapping of theatrical performance,
and expressed in highly unrealistic, even anachronistic verse dialogue.
Still, the violent action of the play is hauntingly realistic. The descriptions
of the rape, though in verse, are evocative. Brother Jeremy recalls the
attack: "The girl, damned, with her instep up-side-down, I Dragging
rape-blood behind her, like the snail I Whimpering 'Glory, glory!'" (150) .
Although Barnes does not submerge her verse in colloquial rhythms, the
acts of violence on stage are accompanied by verse that tends toward the
prosaic. For example, as two other brothers attack their mother and sis-
ter, one cries, "Slap her ears down. Stand her on four feet! / That'll set
her up! I'd say that's one position I Of which she hasn't made the most
in twenty years" (138). Barnes's juxtaposition is poignant. Though much
of the verse is determinedly anti-realist, the violence of the play is realis-
tically enacted, and past abuses are conveyed in precise detail.
As in the work of other poets-cum-playwrights, it is tempting to
see Barnes's combination of verse, violence, and explicit theatricality as
antithetical to the performing stage. She is, however, no less concerned
with the audience than either \Villiams or Eliot.16 Like her male counter-
1
6 Indeed, she was dismayed by the lack of popular attention her work
received-both novels and plays-and she appealed to Eliot for help in marketing her
work.
TRANSCENDENTAL REALISM 27
parts, Barnes wants her audience to recognize the limits of the perform-
ance in order to fully grasp the dark reality behind it, and to see for itself
acts of violation realistically portrayed. For instance, at the play's climax,
Barnes uses a dollhouse (perhaps as an allusion to another seminal real-
ist play) to confront the very real horrors of the past. Through the win-
dows of the dollhouse, the mother Augusta confronts her complicity in
her daughter's rape, while brother Jeremy recounts the scene. Through
the window of the dollhouse, Augusta revisits the scene, ''As in a glass
darkly, a frost of fury spent- I As ghosts of hot-house plants in sum-
mer shed I A static flight impaled upon the pane: I As in profaned mon-
strance, see conspire I The fighting shadow of the Devil and the
Daughter" (150). Through the window of the dollhouse, Augusta wit-
nesses the past events as if through the proscenium frame. So too does
the audience to The Antiphon witness Barnes's own personal trauma
through the gloss of a highly formalized, poetic stage.
While the audience witnesses the sins of the past, Barnes simul-
taneously connects these sins to a new spiritual awakening. Although one
might expect the revelation of the rape to occur near the end of the play,
the dollhouse scene comes at the end of Act II. Act III, is arguably the
play's most overtly poetic and religious scene, and features the aftermath
between mother and daughter, culminating in their simultaneous deaths.
Significantly, the act is marked by numerous biblical references. Barnes
attempts to situate the trauma of rape in a larger literary and cultural con-
text-she quotes Shakespeare and Sophocles, among others-but more
than any other source, Barnes uses biblical allusion. For example,
Miranda characterizes her parents' marriage as that of "Carrion Eve" and
"Titus Adam" (160), and her own birth as ''A door slammed on Eden,
and the Second Gate" (161). She accuses her father of being a "Self-
appointed Holy Ghost and Father" (180), while Augusta defines her
daughter's suffering as "Some damned dark Beatitude" (173). While Eliot
sees the path of spiritual commitment as a means of escaping the false
reality of daily life, Barnes weaves the language of the Church into the
oppression that turns acts of faith (particularly in the father, here con-
Dated between the personal and the Holy) into wrenching betrayals. The
play ends with a kind of blessing, but Miranda uses her prayer to God as
a personal rebuke for her own act of faith: "God have mercy on us all;
and may He I Forgive me my abominable innocence" (192).
Nevertheless, the play is not a rejection of the spiritual or reli-
gious. Its very title, the response, suggests the vocal exchange between a
religious celebrant and a congregation of believers. The language Barnes
employs serves both to compel and challenge such an audience. She uses
28 BAY-CHENG
her verse to distance the audience from the events they witness, while
simultaneously using the image of stage realism to confront the audience
with very real events. Like Celia, Miranda martyrs herself to escape the
reality of a world that offers her only suffering, and significantly her
death is marked by the destruction of the realist set. Miranda dies,
"pulling down the curtains, gilt crown and all," while another character
observes "the fallen portion of the wall" (201). Her death is of her own
choosing, an act of will that frees her from the reenactment of past trau-
ma, something suggested not only by the replay of events on stage, but
also in the attack by her brothers, and in references to her sexual promis-
cuity. As her brother notes, "I might have known, being weary of the
world, I And all the bootless roar of vindication, I She'd not defend her-
self" (202). By letting go of the weary world, Miranda ultimately escapes
the torment of theatrical reenactment, "the bootless roar of vindication."
Though not a happy ending, Miranda's escape from the stage is no less
liberating than Celia's, and Barnes suggests, however bleakly, the possi-
bility of personal salvation for those who can escape the limits of repre-
sentation.
It is this possibility of salvation that distinguished the American
poetic-dramatists of the mid-century from their more experimental, less
realistic, and ultimately more-enduring counterparts in Europe. By appro-
priating the popular form of theatrical realism, and infusing it with the
heightened language of poetic verse, American verse dramatists sought
to discover a new popular genre, one that would uplift as well as enter-
tain. Spiritual recognition, revelation, and reconciliation run throughout
such verse plays, suggesting hope for the future, and perhaps directly
reflecting the optimism of post-war America. Even for Barnes, who
began The Antiphon in the mid-1930s, the sins of the past could be tran-
scended by an audience (and perhaps the playwright herself) willing to
confront them.
But despite the predictions of Nicoll and others, and the best
efforts of a generation of poets, the popular promise of verse drama was
never fulfilled, and by the late 1950s verse had all but disappeared from
American stages. Still, such experiments may have foreshadowed the turn
from realism evident in the second half of the twentieth century. It is no
coincidence, for instance, that the Living Theatre's first season included
plays by both Eliot and Williams. Though Julian Beck would later call
such early efforts "juvenile," his early writings suggest the connection
between poetry and a new avant-garde in American theatre. As he wrote
in 19 59, "we are trying to give the modern poet a theatre that will be his
home. Though the greatest plays ever written are unquestionably in verse,
TRANSCENDENTAL REALISM 29
this is considered an eccentric endeavor, an avant-garde adventure."
17
Similarly, Al Carmines and the Judson Church Poet's Theatre regularly
presented poetic musical version of poems and plays by Gertrude Stein,
among others. By the early 1970s, "poetry" and "poetic" became popu-
lar critical terms to describe anti-realist American experimental theater.
Robert Brustein described the work of artists Sam Shepard, Ronald
Ribman, Adrienne Kennedy, and Robert Wilson as "a few representative
. . . Americans who scorn verisimilitude, preferring interior poetry and
metaphysical themes to factual narrative based on realistic representa-
tion."JS
Verse drama, with its poetic-cum-spiritual ambitions, marks a
connection between the rise of realism in early 20th century drama, and
the anti-realist, anti-representational performance in the latter half of the
century. As many have already noted, American poetic drama became
most effective when artists began to create a poetics of performance
rather than dialogue in blank verse. However, the aims of Wilson's
trance-like performances are perhaps not so different in their intent than
Eliot's attempts to spiritually enlighten his audience, and Richard
Foreman's dramas of interior impulse might be seen as closely aligned to
Barnes's own self-centered ruminations on familial and sexual violence.
(Certainly, Foreman is no stranger to modernist poetry). Rather than
reading verse drama as an anomaly in American theatre, we might usefully
consider the brief heyday of verse drama as a transition in the American
theatre, one in which playwrights sought to recover a lost faith through
poetry amid a dark reality. Or, as Eliot said of drama, "it is ultimately the
function of art, in imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality, and
thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, to bring us to a
condition of serenity, stillness, and reconciliation."l9
17 Julian Beck, "\X'hy Vanguard?", New York Times, 22 March 1959, 1-3.
18 Robert Brustein, "Or Just 'Conscientious Naturalism'?", NeJJJ York Times, 18
March 1973, 127.
19 Eliot, Poetry and Drama, 43-44.
joUR.J.'JAL OF AMERICAN DRAMA AND THEATRE 17, NO. 2 (SPRING 2005)
Go TELL IT ON THE STAGE:
BLUES FORMI.ITER CHARLIE AS DIALECTICAL DRAMAl
NICHOLAS K DAVIS
James Baldwin wrote four plays during his prolific career: a stage
version of Giovanni's Room, never published; an extrapolation of Malcolm
X's autobiography titled One Dqy, When I Was Lost, and the two plays on
which his reputation as a dramatist was based-Blues for Mister Charlie,
which debuted on Broadway in 1964, and The Amen Corner, which bowed
the following year. Of all of these, Blues was probably the most famous,
and certainly the most infamous; even within Broadway's sensational his-
tory, it remains a notoriously fractious production. Directors were fired,
venues shifted, actors replaced, and during one rehearsal, Baldwin
climbed a thirty-foot stage ladder and impugned the producers and artis-
tic directors for bungling his work "to the point of sabotage."2 Faced
with such eruptions of creative tension as well as underwhelming box-
office receipts, the Actors Studio Theater threatened to close the pro-
duction a mere month into its run, a prospect only averted by private
donations and a public petition signed by the likes of Lorraine
Hansberry, Tennessee Williams, Sidney Poirier, and Marlon Brando.
Yet the biggest wounds to Baldwin's ego were dealt not back-
stage but in the critical reception. Philip Roth wrote one of the most rep-
resentative and most widely circulated pans, accusing Baldwin of "a con-
flict of impulses-duties towards a variety of causes, of which, unfortu-
nately, the cause of art seems to have inspired the weakest loyalty .... The
real hero of the last two acts is blackness, just as the real villain is white-
ness."J Robert Brustein's jeremiad against Blues-stingingly titled
1 I really have to thank David Krasner, Ellis Hanson, Shirleen Robinson,
Siobhan Adcock, and especially Hortense Spillers for their contagious excitement and
warm encouragement at every stage of developing this essay.
2 W]. Weatherby, James Bald1vin: Artist on Fire (New York: Donald I. Fine, Inc.,
1989), 236-55. See also David Leeming, James Baldwin: A Biograpi?J (New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, 1994), 230-42.
3 Philip Roth, review of Blues for Mister Charlie, by James Baldwin, directed by
Burgess Meredith, Actors Studio Theater, New York, The New York Review of Books, 28
May 1964, 13. Reprinted in Harold Bloom, ed., James Baldwin: Modern Critical Vie1vs (New
York: Chelsea House, 1986), 37-43. For Joseph Featherstone's nearly identical appraisal,
see Fred L. Standley and Nancy V. Burt, Critical EsSCfYS on James Baldwin (Boston: G. K. Hall
& Co., 1988), 121-25.
Go TELL lT ON THE STAGE 31
"Everybody's Protest Play," with a scathingly direct nod to Baldwin's own
published dismissal of Richard Wright's NativeS on-agreed that Blues was
"uncontrolled, hysterical, self-indulgent."4 Even more than Roth,
Brustein directed his vitriol against Baldwin personally: "The fault, I am
afraid, lies not in the 'problem' [of race relations] but in the author . ...
[Baldwin] has tasted power and is rolling that taste around on his tongue
[so that] much of the exasperation of this play stems from Baldwin's
inability to reconcile the private and public aspects of his character."s
Writing three years after this initial wave of reviews, C. W E.
Bigsby still alleged about Blues for Mister Charlie that "in a genuine attempt
to avoid facile resolution Baldwin allows conscious ambiguity to degen-
erate into moral confusion," and that Blues lacked "that vital compassion
which is to be found in Lorraine Hansberry's work."6 Even the play's
ostensible supporters speak in noticeably qualified terms, often validating
the play less on its own merits than in relation to external social condi-
tions or by association with the rest of Baldwin's canon. For example,
Tom F. Driver argues of Blues that "the message is not very sophisticat-
ed, but it is true enough; and it could hardly be more to the point at a
time when the paralysis of the Southern 'moderate' is creeping all over
the country."
7
Fred L. Standley, with even more ambivalence and deper-
sonalized distance, merely reports that "while some critics have dismissed
the play as propagandistic, bombastic, and melodramatic, others have
praised the manner in which it reveals the myths and stereotypes relating
to black-white relations, a thematic emphasis Baldwin had explored
poignantly a year earlier in The Fire Next Time."B
The aftershocks of these appraisals-many of them malicious,
some of them mild, none of them magnificent-can, I think, be detect-
ed at concentric levels of remove from the epicenter of Blues's 1964 pre-
miere. The most distant reverberations are the continued omissions of
4 Robert Brustein, "Everybody's Protest Play," The Nm; &public, 16 May 1964, 35.
s Ibid., 37.
6 C. W E. Bigsby, "The Committed Writer: James Baldwin as Dramatist,"
Tlllentieth Century Literature (April 1967): 45 and 46.
7 Tom F. Driver, "T he Review that Was Too True to Be Published," 1964.
Reprinted in Standley and Burt, 291-95.
8 Fred L. Standley, "James Baldwin as Dramatist," 1981. Reprinted in Standley
and Burt, 300 (my emphasis).
32 DAVIS
Blues from such recent and important revts!Onist studies as Dwight
McBride's James Baldwin Now and D. Quentin Miller's Re-Viewing James
Baldwin: Things Not Seen, which cite the play only once apiece, both times
in passing.9 The most immediate consequences were the drastic adjust-
ments in Baldwin's authorial posture and praxis that are so clearly legible
in The Amen Corner, a play whose theme, structure, and Broadway pro-
duction all read as reactionary gestures designed to avert another Blues-
style creative and public ordeal. Consider these facts: The Amen Corner
provides a single character, Margaret Alexander, with an incontestable
primacy over her supporting cast, a structure Baldwin had avoided in all
of his literary works since Giovanni's Room in 1956; the full array of char-
acters in The Amen Corner are all black Americans, comprising Baldwin's
first racially uniform dramatis personae since Go Tell It on the Mountain in
1953; and the narrative of The Amen Corner saunters unilaterally forward,
without flashbacks or frame-narratives, a conservative temporality almost
unprecedented in Baldwin's earlier novels or plays. For all of these devi-
ations in pattern to occur at once constitutes an aesthetic rupture too
great to overlook; we cannot simply ascribe these retrenchments in The
Amen Cornerls style to the fact that Baldwin began working on the script
in the 1950s, because it looks as incongruous and un-ambitious when
compared to his works of that era as it does in juxtaposition to Blues. The
aesthetic ruptures inherent in The Amen Corner imply, then, in the lowest
view, Baldwin's concerted redirection in the wake of failure, which is cer-
tainly what Blues's detractors would have felt necessary-and Baldwin, it
must be said, forever seemed sensitive to public opinion.
This essay, however, operates from a more optimistic hypot hesis.
What if, instead of a failed recipe, Baldwin struck out in new directions
after Blues for Mister Charlie because the play had so well articulated his
themes that, in this case, reiteration would only have been redundant?
What if Blues is not a blemish on Baldwin's literary career but an under-
rated achievement doomed to provoke discomfort because it renders
lethal American dilemmas and inbred social phobias in their complete,
unbeautiful intractability? I would like to submit two fundamental and
9 Dwight McBride, ed., James Baldwin Now (New York: NYU Press, 1999); and
D. Quentin Miller, ed., &-Vietving James Baldwin: Things Not Seen (Philadelphia: Temple
University Press, 2000). In a similar vein, when the prestigious library of America series
issued its commemorative two-volume set of Baldwin's work in 1998, edited by no less a
personage than Toni Morrison, the volumes were respectively designated Ear!J Novels and
Stories and Collected Ess"D's, constituting yet another clear sign that Baldwin's plays lie far
from the center of his vaunted literary legacy.
Go TELL IT ON THE STAGE 33
concomitant defenses for this vision of Baldwin's play as a feat of radi-
cal theatre: first, that the structural and political textures of Blues for Mister
Charlie are patently consistent with those of Baldwin's celebrated essays
and novels, in sharp retort to those spurious contentions that Blues lays
bare some different, not to say cruder, element in the writer's psyche; and
second, that Blues is a specifically theatrical piece, its complex form and
ethical stances credibly descended from such politicized dramatic tradi-
tions as the Attic tragedy and the Brechtian epic. In this play, Baldwin
devises acutely stage-specific strategies for realizing his characteristically
tough ideas about history, guilt, and the role of art and of audiences in
considering them. By re-viewing Blues in these ways, it soon becomes
clear that most of the critical objections mounted against Blues for Mister
Charlie reflect deficiencies not in the play but rather in longstanding
American paradigms for conceiving the theatre, not inadequacies in
Baldwin's grasp of a social problematic but a reluctance of many
Americans to admit just how unwieldy and variously reinforced our fac-
tionalized history really is.
To begin, then, certain formal trademarks of Baldwin's writing
must be understood as central to his recurrent thematic ambitions. The
most important of these structural motifs is the multidirectional flow of
time, which in the novels Go Tell It on the Mountain and   i o v a n n i ~ Room
takes the shape of serial flashbacks from a "now" -event that has been
directly catalyzed by the interspersed scenes of memory-! refer, respec-
tively, to John Grimes's ecstatic salvation and David's departure from
France on the eve of Giovanni's execution. The combined effect on the
reader of Baldwin's oscillations between past and present is that, while
each text gradually elaborates a forward logic of causes and effects lead-
ing to the crisis of the framing episode, the actual shape of the text
densely juxtaposes pasts and presents, so that they seep into each other
and effectively surround and saturate the framing scene with the contexts,
feelings, and circumstances that have produced it. Brutal logics of causa-
tion are everywhere apparent, ranging from personal betrayals to wider
social inequities, though none takes solitary precedence as the source of
the protagonist's dilemma.
Moreover, because these narratives tend to be voiced in the first
person, subjectivity in Baldwin's nm·els is constructed just as dialectically
as is history itself. The present moment and the subject within that
moment are each understood as a contingent product both of always-
operative social forces (racism, nationalism, etc.) and of specific lived
experiences (a murder, a move, a sexual liaison). Baldwin's conceptions of
history and personal identity, then, are essentially premised on this con-
34
DAVIS
stant alternation that is also a static overlap-between, on the one hand,
immanent social narratives that ground the historical present ineluctably
in the past, and on the other hand, the imminent behaviors and moral
choices of the unraveling present, which will establish the contours of
the future. This poetics, which amounts to a whole philosophy of time
and personality, unmistakably recalls Walter Benjamin's crystallizing
image in "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in which the tectonic
heaves and dynamic swerves of human life appear, to the rearward gaze
of history's angel, as a single rubble pile preceding a new dawn.IO In fact,
the character Elizabeth Grimes clearly espouses this same aesthetic and
historical philosophy in Go Tell It on the Mountain, when she states:
To look back from the stony plain along the road which
led one to that place is not at all the same thing as walk-
ing on· the road; the perspective, to say the very least,
changes only with the journey; only when the road has,
all abruptly and treacherously, and with an absoluteness
that permits no argument, turned or dropped or risen is
one able to see all that one could not have seen from any
other place.
11
The present moment in Baldwin's writing is thus always two undivorce-
able things: a culmination of pre-existing patterns that can only now be
appreciated, and a decisive, epiphanic break in the protagonist's life where
genuine change seems within reach, even though a later moment of his-
tory or memory will see this, too, as an embedded moment within a
revised larger pattern. Free will and historical fatalism simply cannot be
separated in Baldwin, who refuses to dispense with either of them, how-
ever much each seems to diminish the claims of the other. This insoluble
dialectic sets a template by which the novels' obsessive arrays of binary
oppositions-white/black, male/ female, straight/ gay, secular/ religious,
creation/ death, home/ abroad, North/South, America/Europe,
Now /Then---constantly emerge as both projective social fictions and
deadly social facts.
All of these ideas return momentously in Blues for Mister Charlie,
whose crucial event is the murder of Richard Henry, a young black man
recently returned home to the South after a brief, difficult sojourn in
10 Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in Illuminations,
trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), 253-64.
II James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain (New York: Dell, 1952), 161.
Go TELL IT ON THE STAGE 35
New York. The play culminates in the sensational trial of Lyle Britten, a
local white shopkeeper accused of the killing. Never is Baldwin's audi-
ence left in doubt of Lyle's guilt-the curtain literally rises on his point-
blank execution of Richard- and we are hardly less certain that the crime
will go unpunished. Blues for Mister Charlie, then, is a story of murder that,
unlike most examples of that genre in the American theatre, incorporates
neither mystery nor suspense into its plot. The foregone qualities of the
story are underlined throughout by the assembled citizens of Blacktown
and Whitetown, whose choral interludes and interjections repeatedly
express an almost ritual familiarity with how any Southern jury-trial of a
white murderer of a black victim will progress: "We know what you going
to say," they intone as witnesses testify, during the ostensible climax of
the action. "Get it over with."
1
2
Baldwin's primary feats in Blues for Mister Charlie pertain not to
actual narrative events-which are sparse and, on occasion, perfuncto-
ry- but on the rich methodologies by which he arranges and presents
them. Philip Roth notwithstanding, the play's task far exceeds merely pos-
ing Black against White in an onstage clash and showing us which side
emerges victorious. Quite to the contrary, we notice throughout how
resoundingly Blues insists that America's racial predicaments and racist
customs are inseparable from patriarchy, economic and class rivalry,
regional feuding, and other collateral systems of prejudice, and how the
theatre becomes for Baldwin an ideal venue for anatomizing the intricate
life-processes by which these various bigotries install and perpetually
enforce one another. In this particular work, of course, the successive
sounding and artful, intricate repetitions of these varying registers of
rhetoric and conflict are what constitute the play as a "blues" composi-
tion. Racism, classism, sexism, regionalism, etc., are, in the musical anal-
ogy, the notes through which this native son rings out his plaintive but
angry portrait of a lingering catastrophe. Waters E. Turpin, in one of the
few heartfelt defenses of the play published in the wake of the premiere
production, likens the structuring of its scenes to "the turgid, repetitive
rhythms of a syncopated blues that has no end," and lest the comment
be misread as a criticism, Turpin continues, "What other way-authenti-
cally--could Baldwin have conceived his piece, considering the material
he had chosen?"t3
12 James Baldwin, Blues for Mister Charlie (New York: Dell Publishing, 1964).
Subsequent citations will be rendered parenthetically within the text.
13 Waters E. Turpin, "The Contemporary American Playwright," CLA Journal
(September 1965): 20.
36
DAVJS
The aptitude of this observation notwithstanding, the structural
model of the blues has become nearly generic in much 20th-century
African American literature; as in the greatest blues compositions, the
nearly discursive arrangements and riffing cascades of familiar notes in
Blues for Mister Charlie is not an end or an aesthetic in itself but an avenue
into what I am tempted to call a deeper and more profound network of
key paradoxes and hypotheses. There is a considerable, indeed formida-
ble, logic at work within the deceptively improvisatory structure. As in
Baldwin's novels, time in Blues for Mister Charlie swings backward and for-
ward, such that after commencing with Richard Henry's assassination, the
work pursues two separate but mutually informing plots: one, in the past,
traces the junctures which lead from Richard's arrival in town to his scan-
dalous death, and the other, in the present, catalogues the personal and
judicial responses to that death. The temporal fulcrum of the play's two
halves is literalized also as a spatial wedge, since Baldwin's set outline calls
for a wide, empty gulf extending from the front of the stage right
through the audience, into which Lyle tosses Richard's dead body in the
prologue. Seminally, this gulf at all times marks a boundary between two
spaces as well as an internal fissure within a single space-it serves, for
example, as the aisle of the church in Acts 1 and 2 and as the aisle of the
courtroom in Act 3, indexing Jim Crow segregation of these public
realms but also figuring the schizophrenic crises inherent to both institu-
tions. To further complicate the spatial dynamics, Baldwin requires no
change of scenery among these acts, so the church and the courthouse
are essentially the same space, with the pulpit of the former doubling as
the witness stand of the latter. Other locales within the play's action, such
as Lyle Britten's store or Papa D's juke joint, are only cursorily rendered
within a proscenium space from which the church steeple and the court-
house dome never disappear. The uniformity of the stage setting, then,
is just as conspicuous as the sharp sense of difference registered by the
yawning gulf down the middle: the physical world of Blues for Mister
Charlie is, confusingly, always the same even when it is different and inter-
nally differentiated even when it is the same.
In this way, too, the plastic qualities of the theatrical stage yield
a metaphor for the psychic contradictions of the social body (or are they
the other way around?). Blacktown and Whitetown, the most obvious
social collectives in the play, are both beset by internal dissonance even as
they more strongly, and with more public showmanship, oppose each
other. Blues's American South, like the Harlem of Go Tell It on the Mountain
or the France of   i o v a n n i ~ Room, is represented as a palimpsest of
inscribed historical betrayals, power imbalances, and zealous polariza-
Go TEU. IT ON THE STAGE 37
tions-not just black against white but men against women, rich against
poor, native against invader, Christian against secular. With so many prej-
udices at stake, all of the town's citizens find themselves in uncharted ter-
ritory somewhere in the middle of these competing axes of power; con-
spicuously lacking in Blues for Mister Charlie is a wealthy, white, male,
Christian, heterosexual, politically orthodox character who can compla-
cently enjoy a royal flush of socially dominant attributes. The entire
bramble of hierarchy and estranged bigotries that Blues for Mister Charlie
detects throughout its population of characters reminds us of this
description of the American South which Baldwin offered in his 1959
essay "Nobody Knows My Name":
The South is not the monolithic structure which, from
the North, it appears to be, but a most various and
divided region. It clings to the myth of its past but it is
being inexorably changed, meanwhile, by an entirely
unmythical present: its habits and its self-interest are at
war. Everyone in the South feels this and this is why
there is such panic on the bottom and such impotence
on the top.
14
Baldwin's observations of political and ideological disunity, laced here
with allusions to sexual dysfunction, reiterate his overall message: that the
categories-and therefore the travesties--of race, sex, class, and nation
can never be cleanly partitioned. One device for conveying this insight is
Baldwin's frequent trope of incest, both in the deep-historical sense of
regional miscegenation and in the contemporary vectors of attraction, as
when we discover that Richard Henry, his father Meridian, their friend
Pete, and their white sometime-advocate Parnell James are all in love or
lust with the same woman. Even at the most overt levels of dialogue,
though, social bigotry is expressed not as a single, blazing hatred but as a
compound of resentments. Richard provokes the rage of his killer with
mocking commentary on Lyle's poverty, his white supremacist beliefs,
and his panicked jealousy of his wife's sexuality: "I thought white folks
was rich at every hour of the day," Richard catcalls. "Ha-ha! The master
race! You let me in that tired white chick's drawers, she'll know who's the
master!" (99, 1 02) By extension, Lyle's revenge against Richard is inseparab!J
1
4 James Baldwin, "Nobody Knows My Name," in The Price of the Ticket: Collected
Nonfiction 1948-1985 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985), 188.
38 DAVIS
an act of sexual, racial, and class-based self-assertion, tempered also by
proud regional identification since Lyle repeatedly stresses that Richard
"might as well have been a northern nigger. Went North and got ruined
and come back here to make trouble" (26-27).
Still, the play would be less brilliant than it is if these accumulat-
ed forces of social division nonetheless yielded the same alignments
under different banners. Instead, Jo Britten, the wife of the white
supremacist murderer, briefly transcends her racist suspicions when, as a
dominated wife, she forges an empathic connection with the exploitation
of black women; she is later coerced back into pleading her husband's
innocence out of economic dependence. This is the real conundrum of
the play-not the conspicuous animosity between white and black com-
munities but the paradoxical, simultaneous existence of so many "com-
munities" and the impossible moral mandate by which individuals must
choose among their various alignments. This is why the central focus of
Blues for Mister Charlie palpably shifts from Lyle and Richard in the first act
and onto the skeptical black reverend Meridian Henry and the guilty,
white liberal Parnell James in the second. As a Whitetown citizen informs
Parnell in Act 2, ''A lot of people in this town, Parnell, would like to know
exactly where you stand on a lot of things" (74), and Parnell himself fre-
quently vocalizes his own ambivalence, as when he offers Lyle these feel-
ings about the town and the region he has always inhabited: "I don't like
it here. But I love it here. Or maybe I don't. I don't know" (28). Such eth-
ical confusion seems like the only sane response to the bottomless
quandary of the American South, but of course life does not allow us to
rest in such indecision, and if Blues is about anything, it is about the messy
obligation to select one among many, equally historically determined afftl-
iations.
Many contemporary reviewers, especially white critics, took
strong exception to Baldwin's portrait of the constantly waffling white
liberal, perhaps because he substantially mirrors their, or our, stranded
position as audience members. Page R. Laws more properly perceives
how "Parnell becomes our touchstone in the play as he desperately tries
to maintain conflicting loyalties,"ls and yet Meridian Henry- a mourning
father and a radicalized cleric- is just as fully a touchstone for the same
set of reasons. The climactic paradox of the play may be that, when
1
5 Page R. Laws, "No One to Hate: Blues for Mister Charlie as Dialectical
Drama," in James Bald11Jin in Memoriam, ed. Ralph Reckley, Sr. (Baltimore: Middle Atlantic
Writers Association Press, 1992), 30.
Go TEu. IT ON THE STAGE 39
Richard is murdered, Meridian's parental demand for swift justice can no
longer permit the more abstract, dialectical perspective on history that he
and Parnell, alone among the play's characters, have exhibited in their
conversations-a proudly defended and articulately shared perspective
that serves as the foundation for their otherwise surprising friendship:
"For God's sake spare me the historical view," the Reverend counters,
though he himself, at the pulpit and in private, has hitherto been a signal
articulator of just this "historical view" (60) .
From this confrontation between Meridian and Parnell, it is
tempting to argue that the most intriguing dialectic formulation that Blues
for Mister Charlie enacts-an innovation from any of Baldwin's fictional
creations, and the crowning gesture of the play's ethical contempla-
tions-is a moral interrogation of history and memory that places dialec-
ticism itself at one end of a paradoxical dilemma. Richard's murder is the
fundamental breach in this play not just because it is the dividing instance
between the alternating "before" and "after" plotlines but also because it
supplies the litmus test for two approaches to the past: whether history
must always be viewed as a bottomless archive of contingent behaviors
where, in Baldwin's own phrase "no one's hands are clean,"16 or whether
certain (im)moral acts dictate a more constricted point-of-view that iden-
tifies and punishes absolute transgressors. It is this second view of histo-
ry, which the criminal court predictably seeks to actualize in Act 3,
though it just as preclictably fails to accomplish this because the first ver-
sion of history, that of entrenched ideology and permeating social dis-
course, is never really absent. "It was a black boy that was dead, that was
a problem," Meridian bitterly observes to Parnell, "but it wasn't a man that
was dead, not my son-you held yourselves away from that!' (58).
Since Baldwin trusts neither the church nor the courtroom to
regulate, organize, or expose these depths of human experience, he has
found a last remaining public space in which to present the dialectical
complexities and intricate paradoxes of American life: the theatre. In
deploying the medium to these ends, he stands in the good company of
the Greek tragedians, whose work was famously attended by the entire
voting citizenship of the polis, so that drama was, in the words of David
Wiles, "not understood as 'art' in any recognizable modern terms [but
instead] was an integral part of Athenian culture."
17
Another scholar of
1
6 James Baldwin, "Many Thousands Gone," in The Price of the Ticket, 78.
17 David Wiles, Gn>ek Theatre Perfom;am:e: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2.000), 2.
40 DA\15
Greek tragedies reminds us that "appeals to contemporary feeling on
political and social issues are certainly not to be excluded on a priori
grounds as violating the purity of Greek art."18 If we held American play-
going to a similar standard of municipal accountability-which Baldwin
clearly urges us to do-then critics like Roth or Brustein could no longer
attest that the play's manifest denunciations of racism serve to counter-
mand, rather than to strengthen, its dramatic power.
Through the same strategies, however, Baldwin fulfills key
requirements of a political theory of the theatre much more recent to his
epoch than the Sophoclean or Euripidean arena-namely, the Brechtian
"epic" drama. The very title of one of Brecht's legendary rebukes of sen-
timental "realism" begs the question, "Can the Present-Day World Be
Reproduced by Means of Theatre?" Brecht ultimately answers his own
question in the affirmative, but only on the condition that playwrights
stop encouraging fully immersed identification with their characters, a
tactic that necessarily excludes dynamic, depersonalized social analysis
from the limits of the proscenium. "Man," he wrote, "can no longer
describe man as a victim, the object of a fixed but unknown environ-
ment," he insisted, for the same reasons that "it is scarcely possible to
conceive of the laws of motion if one looks at them from a tennis ball's
point of view."
1
9 Brecht addressed his plays and his essays to an ideal
audience that, in his language, rhymes closely with those described by his-
torians of Greek tragic performance: "Our conception of 'popular'
refers to the people who are not fully involved in the process of devel-
opment but are actually taking it over, forcing it, deciding it."20 In other
words, this approach to the drama enlists the audience into playing a
formative role in "taking over" the material of the drama, "deciding" its
content, and reconstructing the world as a direct consequence of their
active investment in the theatrical enterprise.
Baldwin duplicates this Brechtian demand for creative determi-
nation not just for his audience but, through related strategies, for his
actors. For example, one notices immediately that the long paragraphs
and pages of stage directions characteristic of an O'Neill, Williams, or
18 Eric A. Havelock, introduction to Oedipus the King (Englewood Cliffs:
Prentice-Hall, 1970), ix. See also Christian Meier, The PoEtical Art of Greek Tragetfy
(Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993), 1-7.
19 Bertolt Brecht, "Can the Present-Day World Be Reproduced by Means of
Theatre?" in Brecht on Theatre, ed. John Willett (New York: Hill and W
1
ang, 1964), 275.
20 Bertolt Brecht, "The Popular and the Realistic," in Brecht on Theatre, 108.
Go TELL IT ON THE STAGE 41
Hansberry play are entirely missing from Blues for Mister Charlie. After
being, as we have seen, especially clear about the stage-set's unique spa-
tial layout, Baldwin is just as noticeably silent about how the characters
should navigate this peculiar environment. This silence is all the more
evident, and important, because several key movements in the play are
invested with extreme thematic weight. The most telling instance is the
play's final scene, when Parnell, the instrumental witness in Lyle's acquit-
tal, meets after the trial with Juanita, Richard's pregnant lover, who is also
the object of Parnell's desire. The play's final line is Juanita's half-invita-
tion, "We can walk in the same direction" (158), but what would be the
connotations of choreographing this joint exit via the Whitetown exit at
stage left, or the Blacktown exit at stage right, or else down the central
theatre aisle that cuts through the audience-indeed, that divides us?
This closing ambiguity reminds us that Blues for Mister Charlie can
only be properly received by spectators and critics willing to abdicate the
need for climactic resolution, who will understand Richard's dual attrib-
utes as seething provocateur and pathetic victim not as evidence of what
Bigsby called "the play's moral confusion" but as coeval, non-divorceable
attributes of Richard's existence, and as keystones to a dialectically
premised artwork about a relentlessly paradoxical, vertiginously compli-
cated American predicament. Cyraina Johnson-Roullier has written
astutely of Room that "the novel seems to ask questions that
have larger implications than the isolated problems of its protagonists,
issues that lead the reader beyond the significance of race and/ or homo-
sexuality alone, to the more broadly defined difficulties of social life:
when two or more conceptions of reality clash, and one is intolerant of
the other, how are they to be reconciled?"2
1
Blues for Mister Charlie, I
believe, reprises these exact thematic concerns, and their consequential
formal structures, in a medium that enlists the public to engage Baldwin's
fierce ideological preoccupations within a living, communal space. In
keeping with the dialectical orderings of time and character in Brecht's
plays and Baldwin's early novels, Blues for Mister Charlie foregoes a linear
portrait of historical time or historical subjectivity, foregoes any clear
privileging of one social problem as greater than or comprehensive of
others, and rejects the easy strategies of audience identification and stage-
21 Cyraina Johnson-Roullier, "(An)Other Modernism: James Baldwin, Giovanni's
Room, and rhe Rhetoric of Flight," Modern Fiction St11dies   1999): 945.
42
DAVIS
directed prescription that characterize most popular dramas of the
American twentieth century. In these respects, Blues for Mister Charlie is the
opposite of a didactic play, since it explodes more ideas than it assigns,
particularly the notion that any single political, aesthetic, or historical
position could ever faithfully comprehend the regional, sexual, econom-
ic, historical, and ethical complexity of America's racial crisis.
jOURNAL OF AMERICAN DMMA AND THEATRE 17, NO. 2 (SPRING 2005)
INHOSPITABLE STRUCTURES:
SOME THEMES AND FORMS IN TENNESSEE WILLIAMS
EHREN FORDYCE
"[Tennessee] Williams once said that he traveled so much
'because it's hard to hit a moving target.' "1 He is not the first, nor will he
be the last writer to experience the angst of not belonging, of not being
pleasantly greeted by the world he inhabited and of which he tried to
make sense. Similarly angry, isolated, damaged by life, and exiled in
America, Williams's contemporary Theodor Adorno writes the caustic
and occasionally beautiful Minima Moralia from 1944-4 7, roughly at the
same time that Williams composes A Streetcar Named Desire. Broadly sur-
veying the cultures of America and Europe and writing as though atop
some high, chilly crag, Adorno finds it hard not to read traces of German
Fascism in the production- and consumption-driven ethos of his new
and temporary home. In a passage from 1944, called "Refuge for the
Homeless," he writes:
Dwelling, in the proper sense, is now impossible. The
traditional residences we grew up in have grown intoler-
able: each trait of comfort in them is paid for with a
betrayal of knowledge, each vestige of shelter with the
musty pact of family interests. . . . Anyone seeking
refuge in a genuine, but purchased, period-style house,
embalms himself alive. The attempt to evade responsi-
bility for one's residence by moving into a hotel or fur-
nished rooms, makes the enforced conditions of emi-
gration a wisely-chosen norm .... The house is past. "It
is even part of my good fortune not to be a house-
owner," Nietzsche already wrote in the Gqy Science.
Today we should have to add: it is part of morality not
to be at home in one's home .... Wrong life cannot be
lived rightly.z
1 Gordon Rogoff, Vanishing Acts: Theater Since the Sixties (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 2000), 62. Thanks are due to Brian Larson for bringing Williams's The
Remarkable Rooming House of Mme. Le Monde to my attention. I also want to thank David
Krasner, Barbara Ozieblo, Peggy Phelan, and Janice Ross for allowing me to present pre-
vious versions of this material and receive responses to it.
2
Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life [1 951], trans. E.
F. N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 1974), 38-39.
44 FORDYCE
Unhoused, dwelling in a forced migration, the German Jew Adorno rec-
ognizes, like Nietzsche, a slim freedom. He wants to be suspended from
the stale interests of the rentier class. Adorno admits the hope is faint. It
is only a willingness to evade responsibility that leads one to believe one's
self free in the midst of hotel furniture; but Adorno still wants his and
others' exile from home to stand for something: a resistance to the
oppressive betrayals behind his homelessness, betrayals of family, nation,
history, capitalism, and war. Ultimately, Adorno's alienation from home
does not resemble Nietzsche's; it is less free. Adorno's dialectical ironies
are not exuberantly red-blooded as they tread the abyss; philosophy, for
Adorno, is a melancholy science.
In part, Adorno is witnessing the start of a great historical divide
in American culture. The forced migrations of World War II persist after
the war in a new kind of culture on the move. Soldiers shipped through-
out the nation during the war relocate to new homes after it, and those
homes are often found in the relatively new geography made possible by
the automobile: the suburb. The huge, industrial machine of war moves
on and transforms itself into an engine for the global import-export mar-
ket. The American South begins to cast off its rural past and to industri-
alize. African Americans continue their relocations North by bus, car, and
train. Mass immigration into the nation continues as well.
A signal example of this restlessness, the motor hotel, or
"motel," arrives in the years following 1945. In the words of autocamp
and motel historian Warren Belasco:
For many returning veterans, the highway hospitality
business seemed an ideal place to get started; the old
romance of the independent roadside inn seemed espe-
cially welcome after fifteen years of depression and war.
The abolition of rent control in 194 7 encouraged wide-
spread upgrading and construction)
These motels could also be built because the nation had a new infra-
structure made for the mobility of war, the highways and superhighways,
massive roads that led Adorno to further melancholy reflections on the
American landscape. In the section from Minima Moralia entitled
"Pqysage," he observes,
3 Warren James Belasco, Americans on the Road· From Autocamp to Motel, 1910-
1945 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1979), 170.
INHOSPITABLE STRUCTURES
The shortcoming of the American landscape is not so
much, as romantic illusion would have it, the absence of
historical memories, as that it bears no trace of the
human hand. This applies ... above all to the roads.
These are always inserted directly in the landscape, and
the more impressively smooth and broad they are, the
more unrelated and violent their gleaming track appears
against its wild, overgrown surroundings. They are
expressionless. 4
45
\Vhether or not one agrees entirely with the inhuman, expressionless
affect that Adorno ascribes to America's roads and, by implication, to
mass culture, one senses his underlying lament. The bourgeois idyll of
interiority-the pastoral landscape, the personal space of reflection, the
domestic space of civic autonomy-is over. Apres moi, the unmitigated
exteriority of industry.
If Conrad Hilton's rise to fame in post-war America is any indi-
cation, perhaps Adorno has a point. Hilton, it could be said, takes the
utilitarian, Depression-era values of a Dale Carnegie and writes them
large.s Winning friends becomes an instrumental task of influencing peo-
ple and converting them into customers; or, as Hilton succinctly and
ambiguously formulates his credo in the title of his 19 57 autobiography,
"Be My Guest."6 For Hilton, at his large hotels and for American veter-
ans at their small roadside motels, hospitality becomes a mandatory,
enforced virtue. Hospitality no longer connotes a civility occurring on a
small scale in homes and communities; instead, it is a euphemism for the
replicable, mass-management practices of an industry. As hotel manage-
ment theorists Jane Darke and Craig Gurney write, "Our starting point ...
rs that the term 'hospitality' has been selective!J appropriated to denote a
4
Adorno, 48.
5 Great-granddaughter Paris Hilton's rise to fame consists, perhaps, in a form
of hospitality made new for the age of screen culture: she personifies the "hostess with
the mostest" because she sets no borders berween herself and her public-sphere guests.
She is unassailable, becoming "pure screen"; ostensibly without limit between public and
priYate; pornographic, spectacular, characterless, utilitarian (see Frances Ferguson,
Pornography, the Theory: What Utilitarianism Did to Action [Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 2004)); privileged, yet utterly of the rule-of-the-people.
6 The candelabra Lurniere in Disney's Beauty and the Beast (1991) sings a similar
anthem, "Be Our Guest." Disney, of course, soon used the song in advertisements for
their hotels and resorts.
46 FORDYCE
large-scale service industry providing overnight accommodation and/ or
drink and/ or food on a commercial basis. It represents, in essence, the
commodification of domestic Jabour."
7
But however utopic the question,
is hospitality commodified still hospitality? Can enforced hospitality dis-
play the gracious, non-instrumental quality that would seem to be one of
hospitality's primary characteristics?S
While many of the qualities commonly associated with
Williams-the unusual mix of lyricism, nostalgia, and sexual subver-
sion-may seem a world away from the gloomy Marxist tenor of
Adorno, the writing of Minima Moralia and A Streetcar Named Desire coin-
cide historically and, perhaps, more than just fortuitously. Underneath
Williams's seemingly graceful indulgence often lingers something like
Adorno's grim smile. In Williams's own words, society insistently "rapes
the individual,"9 or as he remarked about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, "the play
... says only one affirmative thing about 'Man's Fate': that he has it still
in his power not to squeal like a pig but to keep a tight mouth about it."lO
While Adorno may have had his homelessness forced upon him by poli-
tics and ethnicity, Williams's family biography with the alienee Rose
(among other things), his sexuality, and his (as much as most people's)
impressionistic politics made him equally alien to the idea of home.
I suggest that Adorno's image of an expressionless mass culture
where dwelling is impossible and Darke and Gurney's image of domestic
hospitality transformed into the hospitality industry serve as a theoretical
and historical backdrop to Williams's 1947 A Streetcar Named Desire.
Emerging from the failure of familial, domestic hospitality in Streetcar, it
is possible to draw a line over time to what is perhaps Williams's last play,
The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde. Published posthumous-
7
Jane Darke and Craig Gurney, "Putting Up? Gender, Hospitality and
Performance," In Search of Hospitali!J: Theoretical Perspectives and Debates, ed. Conrad Ashley
and Alison Morrison (Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000), 78.
8 See Jacques Derrida, OJ Hospitali!J: Anne Dufourmante/Je invites Jacques Derrida to
Respond [1997] , trans. Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford Uruversity Press, 2000), 83 and
passim.
9 Qtd. in David Savran, Communists, Cowbqys, and Queers: The Politics of Masculinity
in the Work of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams (Minneapolis: Uruversity of Minnesota
Press, 1992), 79. From David Frost, "Will God Talk Back to a Playwright? Tennessee
Williams," Conversations with Tennessee Williams, ed. Albert ]. Devlin Oackson, MS:
University of Mississippi Press, 1986), 146.
10 Qtd. in Brian Parker, "Swinging a Cat," in Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot
Tin Roof[1954] (New York: New Directions, 2004), 181.
INHOSPITABLE STRUCTURES 47
ly in 1984, the text can be read as an assessment of the state of hospital-
ity in the age of Thatcher and Reagan, a time when, to take one measure
of the period, privatization is not a reassertion of individual rights to pri-
vacy, but a euphemism for the movement of capital from governments
to corporations. In Rooming-House, the issue is not merely that family and
hospitality have failed. Instead, the play demonstrates- perhaps even
flaunts- a society thoroughly in the sway of systemic inhospitality.
like Emerson, master of the one-liner, Williams is endlessly
quotable. But probably the most famous line in the work of Tennessee
Williams is Blanche DuBois's last words in A Streetcar Named Desire. The
line reads, from beginning to end, 'Whoever you are- I have always
depended on the kindness of strangers."ll While the line's fame stems
from the revelatory way it synthesizes the play- it is a good old curtain
line, in that sense- its fame also means that the line now exists in that
penumbra afforded most cultural monuments: a place between parody
(The Simpsons, etc.) and benign indifference (the line floats famous, free,
meaningle.ss, a satellite set loose from its planet).
In Streetcar Blanche addresses the line to the Doctor who is about
to take her to the insane asylum. While the Matron tries to press Blanche
out the door, the Doctor adopts a more civil path, "drawing [Blanche] up
gently and [supporting] her with his arm [as he] leads her through the
portieres."12 In response Blanche gratefully holds tight to his arm. While
she knows that he is "not the gentleman I was expecting,"13 his civility
may lead her to perceive him as her guest or, more likely, as her host.
Blanche recognizes that he is not her desired Gentleman Caller, Shep
Huntleigh, but she treats him with some of the same wistful yearning.
And so she begins the line, "Whoever you are- .. . "
Perhaps I make too much of this "Whoever you are," but the
universal gesture of the line seems important. Part of the ambivalent
beauty, struggle, and folly that Blanche's character represents is apparent
in her gesture, in her desire to extend her hospitality absolutely, even to
an anonymous person. As Derrida reflects in the text OJ Hospitality:
11
Tennessee Williams, The Theatre of Tennessee Williams, 7 vols. (New York: New
Directions, 1971), 1:418.
12
Ibid.
13 Ibid., 413.
48
One of the subtle and sometimes ungraspable differ-
ences between the foreigner and the absolute other is
that the latter cannot have a name or a family name; the
absolute or unconditional hospitality I would like to
offer him or her presupposes a break with hospitality in
the ordinary sense, with conditional hospitality, with the
right to or pact of hospitality .... The law of absolute
hospitality commands a break with hospitality by right,
with law or justice as rights. Just hospitality breaks with
hospitality by right; not that it condemns or is opposed
to it, and it can on the contrary set and maintain it in a
perpetual progressive movement; but it is as strangely
heterogeneous to it as justice is heterogeneous to the
law.l4
FORDYCE
Blanche takes the Doctor's arm before he even gives her his name.
Yet, Blanche's utopic gesture may be only partly liberal-handed,
only partly absolute. It does not utterly absolve the Doctor of his respon-
sibility for bearing a name. Her gesture also relies on a restriction and a
law in that it interpolates the Doctor into the gentlemanly codes of
behavior that Blanche imagines she and her Old South aristoi stand for;
those gentlemanly codes that she sees the traveling factory middle-man,
pragmatist, and nominally foreign "Polack" Stanley as lacking. Even as
she says "\Vhoever you are" to the Doctor, she holds tightly to his arm.
She clings, but perhaps she also grasps.
The obvious, dramatic irony of Blanche's final words-what we
get and she apparently does not-resides, of course, in her misrecogni-
tion of the Doctor.IS She hopes that she is about to receive kindness
from a stranger, unreserved and gracious hospitality. Instead, he is taking
her to an asylum. He is there to mollify her and to make her reasonable,
and his hospitality is instrumental, however graciously or not he intends
it.
But there is a second and probably more important order of
irony in the line, an irony concerning Blanche's relationship to the hospi-
14 Derrida, 25-27.
15 I am taking for granted, as usual in a dominant reading of the play (Kazan's
film, for instance), that Blanche has drifted, after her rape by Stanley, into delusion. She
misrecognizes the Doctor as something other than a Doctor. However, an alternative
reading of the scene could, of course, present Blanche as aware of her untenable posi-
tion in the Kowalski household, aware of whom the Doctor is, and self-consciously per-
forrning her last exit to the institution where she will be cared for by strangers.
INHOSPITABLE STRUCTURES 49
tality she has received from Stella and Stanley. While Streetcar conspicu-
ously plays out a tragedy of desire and death, with an agon fought over
the spouse/sister and between two diametrically and hyperbolically
opposed gender roles- the super-masculine Stanley and the super-femi-
nine Blanche-Streetcar is also a tragedy of failed hospitality. To evoke
some concerns from Edward Albee's work, Streetcar involves "a delicate
balance" in social relations, manifested metonymically through the figure
of host and guest relations. Both Streetcar and A Delicate Balance demon-
strate that while hospitality appears to call for unrestricted acceptance of
the Other, in truth hospitality more frequently entails the host teaching
his or her law to the named guest. The Latin word for "guest" (hostis) is
also the word for "enemy or public foe"; perhaps we should not be sur-
prised if the relationship of hospitality has a tendency to become a case
of "get the guests."16
The alpha host in Streetcar, Stanley, has a relatively territorial and
possessive sense of the law between host and guest. As he remarks to
Stella, ''You see, under the Napoleonic code- a man has to take an inter-
est in his wife's affairs."1
7
While Blanche might have expected the old
social codes of a family's sticking together to hold, she soon finds that in
the Kowalski house a modern ethos has taken over. The mobile couple,
rather than the rooted and extended family, is the primary social unit, and
Blanche is basically the enemy-economically and legally, as much as sex-
ually-from the start. The more important irony in her line "I have
always depended on the kindness of strangers" concerns the fact the she
has not been able to find unreserved kindness from her own family, let
alone from strangers.
At a certain point in Blanche's "madness," Streetcar plays out the
ontology of absolute hospitality. In another sense, the play is a 1947 play,
conditioned by changing historical notions of what constitutes hospitable
relations among family and between friends and strangers. The play
occurs at Adorno's moment of motels and expressionless roads, i.e., the
moment when streetcars themselves already seem like a nostalgic journey
between desire and death. The house is past, or at least Stella and
Blanche's family home Belle Reve is gone, and only the "musty pacts of
family interest" remain. It is a null-class proposition, but would the
tragedy of Streetcar have happened if, upon arriving in New Orleans,
Blanche had stayed at a hotel?
l6 See Walter A. Davis, Get the Guests: Prychoana!Jsis, Modern American Drama, and
the Audience (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994).
17 Williams, Streetcar, 284.
50 FORDYCE
Tennessee Williams's last play authorized for publication, The
Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde, was printed in 1984 in a lim-
ited edition by Albondocani Press. The twenty-two page work is a short
and sharply-etched grotesque, marked by graphic scenes of sexual and
social humiliation. Allean Hale has suggested that it may be Williams's
"most unpleasant play."18 Since the play is not widely available, it is worth
briefly summarizing the setting and actions. Williams often uses locations
like hotels, bars, and boarding houses, sites where itinerants gather, sites
where the marginalized cling to one another in precarious host-guest rela-
tions, and The Remarkable Rooming-House offers another variation on this
pattern. Set in a nightmarish London rooming-house attic described as a
"rectangle with hooks," the play involves a number of inhospitable meet-
ings between the protagonist, Mint, a "delicate little man with a childlike
face,"
1
9 and three other characters. Williams asserts a Beckettian twist on
the setting by making Mint paralyzed from the waist down and, hence,
only capable of navigating the attic by swinging from one ceiling hook to
another or by crawling across the floor. During the play, no character
evinces sympathy for Mint's condition.
The action opens with a " tow-headed young street boy" (2), the
son of Mme. Le Monde, coming into Mint's room, taking him into an
alcove enclosed by semi-transparent curtains, and forcibly having sex
with Mint. The strangeness of the opening is only complicated by Mint's
reaction: having tried to put off Boy's sexual aggression, Mint is
described, when behind the curtain, as emitting "moans of masochistic
pain-pleasure" (2). Not only is the action partially hidden behind semi-
transparent curtains, but the audience quickly has to confront a semi-
obscure action played on the borders between forced and unforced sex,
pain, and pleasure. If Mint is the main character, is one expected to iden-
tify with him?
When Boy leaves, an old British public-school friend of Mint's
named Hall arrives. Mint has invited Hall for tea-and perhaps sympa-
thy-but instead Hall spends his time eating all the tea and cookies while
18 Qtd. in Philip C. Kolin, "The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde:
Tennessee Williams' Little Shop of Horrors," The Tennessee Williams Annual Review 4
(2001 ): 39-48. Future citations of Kolin refer to the paragraphs of the online version at
< <www. rennesseewilliamsstuclies.org/ archives/2001 /3kolin.htm > >.
19 Tennessee Williams, The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde (New
York: Albondocani Press, 1984), 1. Future references to this play will be cited in-line by
page number. Since the text of the play is unnumbered, I am considering the first page to
be the opening page of dialogue.
INHOSPITABLE STRUCTURES 51
the famished Mint tries to climb across his hooks to get to the table. Hall
also discourses on the two characters' past at their school, "Scrotum-on-
Swansea"; on the squalid news of the world contained in the dailies
(criminals, bad genes, gruesome genetic experimentations, bond-trading);
and, more generally, on his own sexual and fiscal prowess. It should be
noted that while Hall eats his host's food and talks about himself, he
patronizingly dismisses Mint for his "impropriety" and "unappetizingly
sordid chattering blather" (7). And while crowing about his own invest-
ment savvy, Hall is described in the stage directions as being dressed in a
"flashy, tight-fitting plaid suit, obviously subjected to long wear" (3).
Suffice it to say, Hall does not appear to be the most reliable character.
After some unresolved, disquietingly unsatisfying dialogues
between Mint and Hall and a series of monologues by Hall, the play
comes to an abrupt conclusion with the arrival of the eponymous Mme.
Le Monde. Having bought, off-stage, some shares of Amalgamated Inc.
from Hall, Mme. Le Monde comes upstairs to look into Hall's request for
more food. In the meantime, during Hall's absence, Boy has taken the
opportunity to once again sadistically and sexually prey upon Mint. In
one of the play's more memorable instances of ga!Jows' humor, Mint ini-
tia!Jy refuses Boy's advances, saying, "Oh, no, no, no! Well, maybe, since
you've come-with lubricant is it?" Boy replies,   (18). When
Mme. Le Monde, "a large and rather globular woman with a fiery red
mop of hair that suggests a nuclear explosion" (18), discovers Boy zip-
ping up his pants after leaving Mint, she quickly "floors her son with a
lethal karate chop" (20). Asked by HaU if he was her only son, she replies
nonchalantly, "Mr. Hall, my fecundity is equal to the queen bee's. I am
constantly reproducing drones such as that one" (20-21). Mint is then
killed off when Mme. Le Monde throws him across the room to land on
a cot which, in a comic piece of grotesquerie, is described as flattening
beneath Mint. When Hall then tries to make a discreet exit, l'vfme. Le
Monde pulls a lever by the door and Hall slips down a set of fun-house
stairs accompanied by mechanical and human sound effects, then silence,
followed by the jauntily sentimental refrain of "Tea for Two" performed
on a player piano. Mme. Le Monde then laconically delivers her final
monologue. The tone and attitude of the speech, like the moments just
described, is unsettling precisely because it is so difficult to locate: is she
being grotesquely funny, tragically inhuman, or something else?
Before arriving at Mme. Le Monde's final lines, however, I want
to observe how other interpreters, notably Allean Hale and Philip Kolin,
have assessed the play's sudden shifts of tone. Hale reads the play's con-
cern with madness, asylums, and death as another instance of Williams's
52 FORDYCE
continued meditation on his relationship to his sister; and she sees the
play's images of hooks and of Mint falling down as an authorial self-
reflection on Williams's weak limbs and continued use of sedatives in the
1980s. She also begins her discussion of Rooming-House by asking whether
the late Williams was more and more writing for a gay audience, albeit
noting, "To label him a homosexual writer is to narrow his scope as a
playwright, yet that is the direction in which some current criticism is
moving."20 While she does not name the critics to whom she is referring,
Hale herself returns to the idea that the play particularly concerns gay
identity when she writes:
Rooming House is another instance of Williams usmg
"house," "hotel," or "boarding house" to represent the
house of life. I believe he was translating Le Monde liter-
ally as "the world" to suggest to his special audience,
"The world is a slaughterhouse"-perhaps adding
silently, "to a homosexual."21
Although the play pushes same-sex relations to the fore immediately, the
apparent emphasis on sexual attributes of identity may actually be a tac-
tic on Williams's parr to make a point that is not only about social and
political identity. Mme. Le Monde sardonically describes the protagonist
Mint as a "morphodite gimp"; that is, a lame pervert. But ultimately the
play seems to ask that we recognize something else: both Mint's bios (his
social, political, biographical life), as well as his zoe
1
his "bare life," in
Giorgio Agamben's phrase.22 While the characters in Rooming-House keep
sexualizing Mint, he keeps insisting that what he really needs is to eat
something. The world of the play is the slaughterhouse, the rectangle
with hooks, the concentration camp; and further qualification as to audi-
ence is probably unnecessary.
Hale invokes what Eve Kosofksy Sedgwick has called, in
Epistemology of the Closet, a "minoritizing" view of homosexuality.
Kosofsky describes two basic sets of contradictions underlying
homo/heterosexual definition:
20 Allean Hale, "Confronting the Late Plays of Tennessee Williams," Tbe
Tennessee Williams Annual &view 6 (2003): 1-14. Future citations of Hale refer to the para-
graphs of the online version at <<v.-ww.tennesseewilliamssrudics.org/archives
/2003/Shale.htm>>; see paragraph 22.
2
1
Ibid., para. 23.
22
Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Lift, rrans. Daniel
Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).
INHOSPITABLE STRUCTURES
The first is the contradiction between seeing homo/het-
erosexual definition on the one hand as an issue of
active importance primarily for a small, distinct, relative-
ly fixed homosexual minority (what I refer to as a
minoritizing view), and seeing it on the other hand as an
issue of continuing, determinative importance in the
lives of people across the spectrum of sexualities (what
I refer to as the universalizing view). The second is the
contradiction between seeing same-sex object choice on
the one hand as a matter of liminality or transitivity
between genders, and seeing it on the other hand as
reflecting an impulse of separatism- though by no
means necessarily political separatism-within each
gender. The purpose of this book is not to adjudicate
the poles of either of these contradictions, for, if its
argument is right, no epistemological grounding now
exists from which to do so.23
53
In a play where Boy has incestuous relations with his mother while also
performing sadistic sexual acts on a same-sex partner; in a play where
Hall repeatedly chides Mint for groping him (although Mint denies this
and there is no evidence for it other than Hall's claims); and in a play
where Hall repeatedly scorns 1\fint's homosexuality even as, at one
moment, he obliquely implies that he might have had sex with Mint if
Hall had not just had sex with Madame and if Mint were not in such a
bad state of disrepair (10); in such a play, the attempt to adjudicate a fixed
sexual and social identity for the characters, let alone the audience, is
bound to be problematic.
I linger on the question of sexuality because Kolin, like Hale,
picks up on Rooming-House's overt sexuality and homosexuality in such a
way as to ultimately reduce the parameters of the work's unsettling of
identity and genre. Building on Linda Dorff's well-known essay about the
"comic grotesque" in Williams, Kolin sees Rooming-House as offering a
"distinctive camp view of the world," "more hilarious, than horrific," and
he concludes his article on the play with the chummy, yet mildly patron-
izing tag-line, "The play was all Tennessee: coterie camp and apocalyptic
humor."
24
23 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1990), 1-2.
24 Kolin, para. 6, 21, and 22.
54 FORDYCE
''While it's not true that Camp taste is homosexual taste, there is
no doubt a peculiar afflnity and overlap,"25 and Kolin, probably develop-
ing from Hale, seems to evoke this assumption in his phrase "coterie
camp." Yet, in the process of fixing the genre and implicitly "minoritiz-
ing" the potential coterie audience of the play, Kolin makes a number of
other unusual critical moves. Basically he displaces the perversion of
social codes in the play-the truly dangerous threat of inhumanity, inhos-
pitality, anti-socialness-onto a seemingly more manageable threat, sexu-
al perversity.
This is clearest in Kolin's remarks about the protagonist, Mint.
Mint is mostly put upon in the play, the passive and masochistic butt (in
several senses) of the play's arbitrary aggressions. Yet Kolin often blames
Mint for the actions of the play and, in the process, also stigmatizes Mint
as a "perverse" character. For instance, Kolin accepts the off-handed
remark by Mme. Le Mende where she calls :tv1int a "morphodite gimp"
(1 9) and then he proceeds to characterize Mint as "homoerotically
aggressive."
2
6 At another point, he suggests that Hall and Mint "per-
versely reminisce" about their days at public school, but it is mostly Hall
who reminisces; Mint is trying to get to the food.27
Later Kolin calls Mint a "paralyzed, aggressive homosexual drug
addict, who has met a Sisyphus-like fate, condemned to seemingly point-
less motion."28 While the hooks in the play may indeed be a visual pun
on the hook of addiction, no direct verbal evidence or action in the play
by Mint or others ultimately confirms or denies such a reading. Kolin may
be projecting too much of Williams's own biography into Mint's charac-
ter and, moreover, doing so with a moral edge that threatens to read the
work as a punishment play about Mint's perversity. Indeed, while Hall dis-
parages Mint for being prone to accident and being the psychosomatic
author of his own ailments (5), Williams portrays Hall as anything but
reliable in such judgments. Part of the play's point consists in the arbi-
trary quality of Mint's suffering.
25 Susan Sontag, "Notes on 'Camp,'" in Against Interpretation (New York: Farrar,
Straus & Giroux, 1961), 290.
26 Kolin, para. 4
27
Ibid., para. 5.
2
8 Ibid., para. 8.
INHOSPITABLE STRUCfURF.S 55
At yet another point, Kolin says that the play features an "on-
stage orgasm at the mere recollection of an assignation years earlier."29 In
fact, the moment is quite different in the text. As Hall is accusing Mint of
having made sexual advances on him at school, Mint says "Coming, com-
ing" (1 0) to indicate that he is ineffectually trying to haul himself over to
the tea and cookies. Hall then off-handedly slags Mint by interpreting the
line as "an orgasm at the mere recollection of it" (10), but the joke obvi-
ously depends on Hall's hostile misinterpretation of Mint's intentions.
Finally, as already pointed out, early in the play Hall accuses Mint of hav-
ing tried to grope him, and Kolin takes Hall's words at face value, writing
that "The guest [Hall] ... is so offended by being groped by Mint that
when the little man asks him to 'run the risk of hooking me back up,' Hall
revengefully 'lifts Mint from the floor with the pretense of terrible effort and holds
him under the hook furthest removed from the tea'."30 But in the play, it is actu-
ally Hall, not Mint, who has a line about risk, saying, ''All right, all right,
I'll run the risk of hooking you back up if you'll quit this unappetizingly
sordid chattering blather" (7).
Why does Kolin consistently make these displacements from
Hall onto Mint? Basically I think that he needs to give a referent to Hall's
homophobia, to actually locate it in Mint, rather than to see that the
homophobia lingering in the play is a social malaise without a necessari-
ly "real" referent for its fear. If one of drama's basic capacities is to offer
pieces of dialogue that contradict each other and to exhibit visual and
verbal evidence that are cognitively dissonant, then Kolin significantly
diminishes such tensions when he reads Hall's and Mint's characters. In
the process, he turns the horror in the play into something aesthetic,
campy, slightly cynical; something in "quotation marks."3
1
The dark romp through sexual extremes and black humor are
evident in The Remarkable Rooming-House, especially before the entrance of
Mme. Le Monde, but ultimately the play seems to me to be an ontologi-
cal fable, with some amorphous historical and political allusions, about
the inhospitable nature of the world. In this regard, I am sympathetic to
Annette Saddik's arguments about the Artaudian nature of Williams's late
writing. In an essay concerning The Gnadiges Fraulein, Saddik writes,
29 Ibid., para. 3.
30 Ibid., para. 8.
31 Sontag, 280.
56
While Dorff's essay [on Williams's comic "outrageous-
ness"] unravels [the] "comic grotesque side" [of The
Gnadiges Fraulein], an Artaudian reading can certainly
incorporate this   ~ p e c t of the play and yet go further in
exploring what this interpretation cannot-the inex-
pressible tragedy and underlying metaphysical cruelty of
a cosmic pain beyond language, the primal screams that
defy rational comprehension and embrace the pre-logi-
cal utterances of unadulterated nature.32
FORDYCE
"We are not free. And the sky can still fall on our heads."33 In Remarkable
Rooming-House, this metaphysical principle of cruelty is Mme. Le Monde,
with her hair like a nuclear bomb. She is at once the Devouring Mother
and the dea ex machina of tragedy. In her fantasticalness, she seems like an
emissary from beyond, and yet, perhaps more frighteningly, she also
seems very much of this earth. She does, after all, have her eye out for a
good investment.
Ultimately, she does not merely rise on top of a machine; she is
of the machine. She is the voice of the system, and with a karate chop or
a flick of a switch, she can eliminate the redundant ones, the useless ones,
the drones, the bad genes, the experiments gone wrong. If in Streetcar
Blanche has to go into exile and leave the house for the asylum, in
Rooming-House the asylum has now occupied the home itself. Mme. Le
Monde is the Doctor, and she is always in.
Mint may be the protagonist of the play, but she does not even
afford him, in his second-rate and second-in-line killing (after Boy and
before Hall), the hospitality of a tragic hero's climactic death. In that
sense, while Hall's refusal to share his food with Mint points to the play's
thematics of inhospitality, Mme. Le Monde embodies the play's dra-
maturgical structure of inhospitality: its principle of elimination. The last
lines of Remarkable Rooming-House belong to Mme. Le Monde, who says,
32 Annette J. Saddik, " 'The Inexpressible Regret of All Her Regrets':
Tennessee Williams's Later Plays as Artaudian Theatre of Cruelty," in The Undiscovered
Country: The Later Plqys qf Tennessee Williams, ed. Philip C. Kolin (New York: Peter Lang,
2002), 16.
33 Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards
(New York: Grove Press, 1958), 79.
INHOSPITABLE STRUcruRES
That's how it goes in a rectangle with hooks, Galileo be
damned. Now evening descends. The moon is out,
serenely. It goes, it goes. There's nothing more to be
asked for that will ever be given (22).
57
Having just murdered the three other characters in the play, Mme. Le
Monde nonetheless delivers a ruminative and lyrical series of closing
thoughts. The "GaWeo be damned" seems to refer to the old sentiment
that the sun revolves around the earth, not vice versa, "Galileo be
damned." In other words, Le Monde suggests that in a world like a "rec-
tangle with hooks," most people narcissistically believe that the world
revolves around them and not the other way around.
Then her flnallines, in their spare beauty, evoke the tragic. The
evening slowly descends on the itinerant, temporary guests of this world.
In the play's flnal sentence, with its eerie double-negative, Williams
echoes the well-known Biblical evocation: "And in that day ye shall ask
me nothing. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the
Father in my name, he will give it you. / Hitherto have ye asked nothing
in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full" (john
16:23-24). Williams calls this blessing to mind and then serenely, implaca-
bly throws it away. Guests may ask for more food and more time in this
world, but ultimately the host, Mme. Le Monde, denies them. At the end,
"there's nothing more to be asked for that will ever be given."
The lines are melancholic, but they also possess a kind of
strength. They do not redeem the world, but they make a grim peace with
its inhospitableness. Writing about the nature of phobia, the psychoana-
lyst Adam Phillips has suggested that
The ftrst world we flnd outside us is, in part, a reposito-
ry for the terror inside us, an elsewhere for those desires
and objects that bring us unpleasure. And that world we
make outside is the world we need to get away from. It
is the place, or one of the places, where we put the
objects and desires we wish did not belong to us. To be
at home in the world we need to keep it inhospitable.34
34 Adam Phillips, On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoana!Jtic Essays on the
Unexamined Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 24.
58 F ORDYCE
The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. L.e Monde may hold on hard to the
horrors and depredations of this world. But if it does so, its purpose is
not to exploit camp antics. If anything, the play ultimately bringsto mind
another kind of "camp" --Auschwitz -- and other froms of catastrophe,
such as hair that explodes like a nuclear bomb and work that fails to make
one free, all set in a fine and privatized place. Ultimately the play makes
peace with these terrors by murdering them off; it murders the "undesir-
ables" that inhabit it in order to be fully at home inside the inhospitable.
jOURNAL OF AI-IE RICAN DRAMA AND THEATRE 17, NO. 2 (SPRING 2005)
DRAMATIC TRANS-FORMATIONS: THE SURREALISM OF BEING
BLACK AND FEMALE IN ADRIENNE KENNEDY'S THE OWL
ANSWERS
NITA N. KuMAR
Everything leads to the belief that there exists a certain
point of the mind at which life and death, the real and
the imaginary, the past and the future, the communica-
ble and the incommunicable, the high and the low, are
not perceived as contradictions. It would be vain to
attribute to surrealism any other motive than the hope
of determining this point.t
This essay is an attempt to think through the question of
Adrienne Kennedy's surrealism. It is premised on the idea that in spite of
the manifest similarities between Kennedy's dramatic form and the liter-
ary style enunciated by Andre Breton, the effect and the focus of
Kennedy's works differs in crucial terms from the goals of Breton's sur-
realism. Breton offers many definitive pronouncements about the nature
and purpose of surrealism and the one quoted at the beginning of this
essay defines it in terms which relate very closely to Kennedy's works,
too. My contention here, however, is that Breton's statement is both true
and untrue about Kennedy's works. While the definition given above
catches the form and the texture of Kennedy's plays and describes the
way they blur the line between opposites, the difference between Breton
and Kennedy seems to lie in the emotion generated towards this state of
surreality and the underlying meaning of the work. While in Breton, the
dissolution of contradictions that produces surreality is a joyous state of
"absolute reality," in Kennedy, the surrealism is a sign and a symptom of
deep individual and racial pain and traumas, and does not lead to any
form of resolution of contradictions. In one of his famous utterances in
Surrealist Manifesto (1924), Breton defines surrealism in terms of joy and
transcendence: "I believe in the future resolution of those two seeming-
ly contradictory states, dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, of
surrealiry, so to speak. I look forward to its consummation, certain that I
1
Franklin Rosemont, ed., Andre Breton: What is Surrealism? (London: Pluto
Press, 1978), 129.
60 KUMAR
shall never share in it but too indifferent to my death not to taste, at least
slightly, the joys of such possession."2 Whereas Breton celebrates surre-
ality and looks forward to the joy of its possession, Kennedy's protago-
nists are destroyed by their experience of the dissolution of the structure
of dream and reality, and are unable to achieve any resolution of these
states.
What follows is an analysis of the surrealistic form of Adrienne
Kennedy's play The Owl Answers.3 I argue that Kennedy's surrealistic
dramaturgy needs to be decoded back into the framework of the "real"
issues of race, gender, religion, and other socio-political concerns in
order to be understood. The Owl Answers destabilizes the easy opposition
between "realism" and "anti-realism" and the "antirealistic" form
becomes the means to a "realistic" portrayal of the fragmented and dis-
torted psyche of the black woman protagonist in the play. In this play,
Kennedy eclectically uses both realistic and antirealistic devices to express
deepest layers of fragmentation of identity and at the same time expose
their ineptitude and eventual failure by leaving a gaping hole at the cen-
tre of her protagonist's being by turning her into an owl, who can only
emit a sound recognizable as a cry of pain. The utter defiance of logic
and "realism," the refusal to explain, turns the audience/ reader into a
voyeur, an outsider, who can neither participate in, nor fully comprehend
the experience. Yet, this position does not imply that there is a kernel of
experience from which the audience is debarred. The form of Kennedy's
work preempts the experiences in the play from becoming essentialist.
The volatile dramatic form is in a continuous state of tension with the
experiences it is attempting to communicate. A personalized, focused and
intense response to racism and sexism is embodied in a dispersed, de-
centered and eclectically varied composition. The experience of
Kennedy's play is both constructed and deconstructed by its antirealistic
dramatic form.
Although Kennedy has acknowledged, in her autobiography,
People Who Led to My Plqys, as well as in several interviews, the formative
influence of the European and American literary traditions on her work,
Kennedy's relationship with the dramatic conventions used by Lorca or
Tennessee Williams is manifestly problematic. As Kennedy grappled with
2 Ibid., 126.
3 All subsequent references to The Owl Answers are from Adrienne Kennedy,
Adrimne Kennedy in One Act (l'vlinneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), and page
numbers are given in parentheses.
DRAMATIC TRANS-FORMATIONS 61
the conflicts of gender, race, and culture, she used and molded the avail-
able modes of perception of self and reality to evolve a highly complex
dramatic form, which reflected many psychological confusions and ques-
tions. As she tried to locate herself within the European and American
dramatic traditions, while remaining true to her own experiences as a
black person, her plays became sites of contestation in which the dra-
matic forms came in a relationship of resistance to the experiences she
was trying to communicate. The disturbing power of her work comes
from a persistent engagement with the white culture and not from a
deliberate subversion of, or distancing from, the white world.
The major departure she made in her works was the experiment
with de-centered, fragmented subjects, and the erasure of boundaries
between the self and the other. She had tried to work with simultaneous
use of different settings and perspectives in short stories earlier, but in
her plays, she extended the notion of "self" to include several personas.
"It was," she says in an interview, "a huge breakthrough for me when my
main characters began to have other personas."
4
A significant occurrence
while she was traveling in Ghana was her discovery of masks, and this
gave her an insight into an extended notion of character. In People Who
Led to My Plqys, she notes, "Not until I bought a great African mask from
a vendor on the streets of Accra, of a woman with a bird flying through
her forehead, did I totally break from realistic-looking characters."S The
discovery of the mask opened the possibility of exploring the many parts
of the self by turning them into different people. It provided her with the
freedom and the means of dealing with what interested her most, the dis-
parate aspects of the self. She had been fascinated by various historical
characters such as Queen Victoria, the Duchess of Hapsburg, William
the Conqueror, but had not been interested in dealing with them histori-
cally. The use of masks and personas made it possible for her to use his-
torical people as extensions of the main character, thus bringing appar-
ently unconnected but deeply formative areas of experience across the
boundaries of race, gender and culture within the space of individual
experience. With the "self" thus broadly defined to include the historical,
cultural and social matrix in which it is formed, the conflict within the
"self" in these plays becomes a resonant and complex expression of the
4
Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig, Interviews with Contempora'J' Women
PlayJvrights (New York: Beech Tree, 1987), 251.
5 Adrienne Kennedy, People Who Led to My Plqys (New York: Knopf, 1986), 121.
62 KuMAR
experiences of African American people. Although Kennedy has claimed
that her work is primarily autobiographical, dealing with inner, psycho-
logical confusions stemming from childhood, these personal questions in
her plays widen out in space and time to carry the weight of historical
and cultural issues concerning women and people of color. While Sarah
in Funnyhouse if a Negro was the first character in Kennedy's plays to have
several personas, in The Owl Answers Kennedy brings the experiments
with de-centered subjects into sharper focus by giving multiple personas
to nearly all the characters in the play. Funnyhouse had already revealed
African American reality to be problematic. The Ou;J Answers nearly con-
founds the idea of a consistent and structured "reality" by playing with
continually transforming personas and shifting perspectives.
A look at the names of the characters instantly draws us into the
unusual characterization in the world of The Owl Answers. The protago-
nist in this play is "SHE who is CLARA PASSMORE who is the VIR-
GIN 1v1ARY who is the BASTARD who is the OWL" (henceforth
referred to as She Who Is). She is described in the beginning as a "plain,
pallid NEGRO WOMAN" who speaks in a "soft voice as a Negro
schoolteacher from Savannah would" (26). Through the course of the
play her body is revealed as black, and at the end she transforms into an
owl. Another character in the play is "BASTARD'S BLACK MOTHER
who is the REVEREND'S WIFE who is ANNE BOLEYN," and she
wears a long dress as Anne but when She Who Is tries to talk to her as
Anne, the latter turns into Bastard's Black Mother by putting on a "rose-
colored, cheap lace dress" (29). Black Mother takes off the rose-colored
dress and her black face to reveal herself as the Reverend's Wife, who has
a "pallid Negro face," long dark hair and wears a white dress (30).
"GODDAM FATHER who is the RICHEST WHITE MAN IN THE
TOWN who is the DEAD WHITE FATHER who is REVEREND
PASSMORE" has long silky white hair and a white face as Dead White
Father, and when he removes these, he has dark "Negro hair" as
Reverend Passmore and wears a white church robe (28-29). He has a gold
cage in which there is "THE WHITE BIRD who is REVEREND PASS-
MORE'S CANARY who is GOD'S DOVE." Providing hints about the
dramatic and ontological nature of the multiple personas, Kennedy notes
in a stage direction that as the characters change into and out of them-
selves, they leave "some garment from their previous selves upon them
always to remind us of the nature of She Who Is" (25). The suggestion
that the transformation of other characters also serves to remind us of
the nature of She Who Is makes them at another level aspects of She
Who Is. The other characters in the play are Negro Man, who does not
DRAMATIC TRANS-FOR!IIATIONS 63
have other selves, and Shakespeare, Chaucer and William the Conqueror,
who are dressed in the costumes of the historical characters whose
names they bear, but form a collective character referred to in the play as
They.
6
They are not dramatically differentiated, their lines throughout the
play being spoken "by all or part of them" (27). Moreover, in spite of the
suggestion that they are the icons of the white culture, which enthralls
She Who Is, the role of Shakespeare, Chaucer and William in this play is
limited to being the "guards" of the Tower of London and the "strangers
entering a subway."
The setting and the time in the play are similarly de-centered.
The scene, as the stage direction puts it, is a "New York subway is the
Tower of London is a Harlem hotel room is St. Peter's" (26).7 It is shaped
like a subway car with the usual subway sounds and sights, and there are
two seats on which She Who Is and Negro Man sit at the beginning. She
Who Is drags a great black gate that is guarded by They to keep She Who
Is locked in the Tower of London. Bastard's Black Mother brings in a
great dark bed that later serves as the bed in the Harlem Hotel room, and
also as the High Altar. Within this physical and symbolic space, She Who
Is travels in the subway, is confined in the Tower of London and under-
goes, in the Harlem Hotel room with its High Altar, the carnal-spiritual
experience which at the end transforms her into an Owl. Another stabil-
ity that is disrupted in the play is that of visual perspective. After every
6 Whereas the use of Shakespeare and Chaucer as icons of English culrure is
apparent, the presence of William the Conqueror may need a note. William I was the
Duke of Normandy (1035-1087), who became the King of England (1066-1087). What
is particularly resonant here is the fact that he was surnamed "the Bastard" because he
was the son of Duke Robert I of Normandy and his mistress Arlette, daughter of a tan-
ner. Due to his illegitimacy, there was some resistance among the Norman barons to his
appointment as his father's heir, but he overcame it and went on to become the King of
England. The protagonist in Kennedy's play is also a "Bastard," who struggles to estab-
lish an authentic link with the culrural and literary ancestry of England, but with less suc-
cess.
7 The New York subway was also the setting of Baraka's 1964 play Dutchman.
The underground railway, rife with movement and activity, is perhaps a peculiarly appro-
priate location for the exploration in these plays of the substratum, the nether zones, of
reality. This location represents with economy the ambivalence She Who Is feels for
England in the play. Along with the Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London is the his-
torical symbol of English power and predominance. As the prison, it becomes the sym-
bol of entrapment She Who Is feels towards a culrure she longs to identify with, but of
which she can never be a part. Kennedy juggles with the feelings of love, nostalgia, icon-
oclasm, entrapment, and rejection in her complex attitude to English culrure.
64
KUMAR
scene, the stage direction suggests, the stage should revolve one or one
and a quarter turns. This movement would suggest the motion of the
subway, and also induce shifts in the perspective from which the audience
views the action.
The Owl Ans1vers eschews linear, chronological progression or
unfolding of events. Past and present merge and transform into one
another and characters move in and out of their various selves. The bare
details of the "story" of She Who Is, if it is legitimate to reconstruct it
in factual terms, show her to be a bastard daughter of the Richest White
Man in the Town, adopted by Reverend Passmore and renamed Clara.
She is a schoolteacher in Savannah, is "almost thirty-four" years old and
has been married briefly (36). She has a great passion for the English cul-
ture, and reads English literature and history. The events in the play
revolve around a fantasy trip to London and imprisonment of She Who
Is in the Tower of London, and this journey is superimposed on a sub-
way journey with Negro Man and Strangers. Negro Man tries to rape She
Who Is while Father looks on, and the play ends in the transmogrifica-
tion of She Who Is into an Owl. This physical transformation of She
Who Is into an owl eliminates any chance the audience may have had of
a simplistic division of the experiences in the play between reality and
fantasy. While her journey to London can be interpreted as a fantasy trip
superimposed on her subway journey, her transformation at the end is
suggested to be "real," as she suddenly looks like an owl and can make
only owl sounds. The ending brings into question the very basis on which
the foregoing attempt at a summary of the play is based, that of a given
determination of what constitutes reality. We are thus compelled to recre-
ate the "reality'' of the play on the terms set up within its world.
The dramatic development in the play takes place through repe-
tition, accretion, and layering of images and ideas. Kennedy uses dramat-
ic techniques eclectically to create a highly individualized dramatic form
in which the experiences of her characters remain in a state of resistance
to the attempts, of the writer and the reader/ audience, to impose a defi-
nite form on them. Kennedy achieves this dramatic effect of the slippage
or excess of experience by simultaneously using differing, and often con-
trary, modes of perception of "reality," without privileging any single
mode over the other. The density and mystery of the play come from the
fact that Kennedy piles up levels of "reality'' in her characters and action,
and makes these levels simultaneously lived. In the characterization of
She Who Is, for instance, naturalistic and psychological details about her
mulatto birth and the resulting sense of oppression and exclusion are
inextricably mixed with the more surrealistic experiences and mysterious
DRAMA'OC 'fR.ANS-FOJU.iA'OONS 65
transformations of characters. Bastard's Black Mother informs She Who
Is that she was born of the union of the "Richest White Man in the
Town and somebody that cooked for him," and this detail has the feel of
biography because such a parental history is resonant of the socio-his-
torical conditions of blacks (30). In the same breath, however, Mother
goes on to inform She Who Is: "That's why you are an owl." Unraveling
the meaning of such a statement, when set in conjunction with a socio-
logical detail, becomes a hermeneutic problem.
By using a multiplicity of dramatic modes and techniques,
Kennedy creates the space and forms for the representation of the con-
flicts she felt in her psyche. In grappling with the intensely personal, she
also reveals the complex inter-working of the issues of sexuality, race and
colonization as the determinants of the consciousness of her black,
female protagonists. Through her experiments with transforming charac-
ters, shifting perspectives and variations in tone and mood, Kennedy
explores the complex cultural, racial, and gender relationships of mar-
ginalized subjeccivitics, such as "Negroes" and "Bastards," to the domi-
nant cultural traditions of the white world. In this play, She Who Is grap-
ples with her need, and her eventual failure, to "identify" herself, mor-
phologically and culturally, with the dominant white Western patriarchal
tradition.
She Who Is claims to be "almost white" and has a great need to
be linked with the cultural and literary ancestry of England, a point
repeated very nostalgically several times in the play. England is called the
home of "dear Chaucer, Dickens and dearest Shakespeare," and again it
is the "Bronte's home" (31, 33). The play begins with She Who Is sitting
in the subway, which soon transforms into the Tower of London. She
Who Is has traveled from Georgia to London to claim Father's body and
give him burial in St. Paul's Chapel. Instead, we find her imprisoned in the
Tower of London, which is being guarded by Shakespeare, Chaucer and
William the Conqueror, who give orders to keep her locked there. They
dispute her claim that Goddam Father is her father, asking her, "If you
are his ancestor why are you a Negro?" (28). In a circular logic, she can
prove her white ancestry only by proving herself the ancestor of her
white father. The love of She Who Is for "all the lovely English," and her
longing to establish her ancestral connection with them, are very
poignantly contrasted with their rejection of her. Deeply nostalgic images
of summers at Stratford, of Buckingham Palace, the Thames at dusk,
walks through Hyde Park and the "innumerable little tearooms with great
bay windows and white tablecloths on little white tables" mark the rever-
ies of She Who Is (33). These varied and touching images of the white
66
K UMAR
world in the monologues of She Who Is are contrasted with the com-
pulsive and monotonous repetition of the question, "If you are his
ancestor why are you a Negro," addressed to her by Shakespeare as well
as by Goddam Father. She is only a prisoner to them and they jeer at her
and coldly instruct the guard to keep her locked.
Anne Boleyn, as a persona of Bastard's Black Mother, establish-
es the matrilineal connection of She Who Is with the white world. The
connection is traced through Anne's experience of "so much of love and
suffering" (31). The reference makes us pointedly recall the story of
Anne's difficult marriage with Henry VII, his rejection of her for her
inability to produce a son, the accusations of adultery leveled against her,
the imprisonment in the Tower of London, and finally her death by exe-
cution. There are significant parallels in the experiences of these two
women, Anne and She Who Is, even though they are vastly removed by
factors of race, nation and historical time. Both have problematic con-
nections of lineage with white patriarchal figures of authority: Anne's
failure to bear a son to the king, and the inability of She Who Is to prove
herself the "ancestor" of the Richest White Man in the Town. Both
women are punished by imprisonment in the Tower of London. In spite
of these connections, however, Anne remains inaccessible to She Who Is.
At one point '1\.nne appears to listen quite attentively," but "her reply is
to turn into the Bastard's Black Mother," who, then, identifies herself as
"not Anne" (29-30). This transformation of Anne into the Bastard's
Black Mother who "is Anne Boleyn," and at the same time is "not Anne,"
seems to symbolize the inability of all the white personas in the play to
communicate with She Who Is. Dead White Father, for whose burial she
has traveled to London, denies any relationship with her in a pure line of
descent. While this can be read as the patriarchal rejection of She Who
Is, the failure of Anne to respond to her extends the rejection beyond
gender lines.
The relationship of She Who Is to the representations of the
white world in the play is deeply ambiguous. The fascination for the icons
of British history and the need to belong to its cultural tradition are vivid
and obsessive. At the same time there is the sense of entrapment repre-
sented by the obvious symbolism of the Tower of London in which
Shakespeare and others keep She Who Is locked. Kennedy's representa-
tion of the white cultural history is marked simultaneously by a strong
sense of nostalgia as well as iconoclasm. While She Who Is desperately
tries to locate herself within the white historical and cultural tradition, her
inability to create an authentic space for herself becomes the measure of
the deficiencies and contradictions within this world. For She Who Is, the
DRAMATIC TRANS-FORMATIONS 67
experience of participation in, and exclusion from, the world of "dear
Chaucer, Dickens and dearest Shakespeare" are concurrent as Kennedy
refuses to privilege either experience over the other. One of the most
telling instances of the gulfs that open up is the difference between the
evocation of the historical Shakespeare as the "dearest Shakespeare" and
the role Kennedy assigns to the character named Shakespeare as the hard
and jeering guard in the Tower of London. Shakespeare and the other
white characters are completely unable to see beyond the skin color of
She Who Is. Historically, the most common determinants of "race" have
been the visible morphological characteristics of skin and hair. In the
absence of any clear genetic data concerning the distribution of human
population into races, these indelible visible characteristics have played a
determining role. Kennedy's plays deal obsessively with hair and skin
color, but she displaces the stability and finality of these signs by the dra-
matic device of several personas with various shades of skin color and
hair. She Who Is is a "plain, pallid Negro woman" who claims to be
"almost white" and is the ''Virgin Mary," the image of purity and white-
ness, but underneath, "her body is black" (42). The representatives of the
white world in the play are blind to these variations of her identity. The
love She Who Is has for the white culture turns into a threat, justifying
her comment, "I can see they're afraid of me" (32). The purity of the rich
cultural heritage of the white world can be maintained only by the exclu-
sion of "Negroes" and "bastards," and both terms are used to define the
identity of She Who Is: "If you are my ancestor why are you a Negro,
Bastard" (31).
The earlier part of the play foregrounds the longing of She Who
Is for cultural identification with England, while the latter shifts to iden-
tification in religion. As the attempt at validating her cultural, historical
ancestry through the father is coldly rejected by Shakespeare and others,
religion offers an alternative. Kennedy has inscribed gender into her rep-
resentation of Christianity by exploring the possibility of grace/ redemp-
tion offered by God the Father, and through the matrilineal connection
with Virgin Mary. The religious symbolism in the play includes St. Paul's
Chapel, the High Altar, the ceiling and the Dome of St. Peter's, Reverend
Passmore with his "white battered Bible," God's Dove, and, most impor-
tantly, Virgin Mary as a persona of She Who Is. St. Paul's Chapel is the
privileged place where She Who Is hopes to see her father buried as an
authentication of her link with England as the "place of our ancestors."
God's Dove as the White Bird is obviously contrasted with the black owl.
The contrast is further extended in the association of White Bird with the
male and of the black owl with the female characters. The Bird mocks at
68 KUMAR
She Who Is and reveals itself entirely on the side of white patriarchy by
repeating the question They keep asking She Who Is: "What are you
doing in the Tower of London?" (34)
The Christian virtues of love and pity suggested in the symbols
of the Bible and God's Dove are revealed as ambiguous for blacks and
women. Having internalized the Christian ideal of love and pity as the
universal ideal, She Who Is eventually realizes that she is as much locked
out of religious consolations as she is from the cultural heritage. When
pressed to define the yearning that fills her, She Who Is labels it vaguely
as "love or something, I guess," which she sees as the universal human
yearning. She does not, however, distinguish between carnal or spiritual
love, a distinction made by Negro Man and Dead Father. The carnal and
spiritual aspects of love are brought together in the nightmarish scene in
which Negro Man tries to rape She Who Is while she, as Mary, hysteri-
cally calls out to God to show his love to her. The parallel speeches of
God and the father in response to her appeals merge them into a single
male image and thus extend the earlier rejection by the father to the spir-
itual rejection of She Who Is by God. The Christian offer of love and
pity are no more available to her than is the white cultural tradition.
Problems of perception are built into the play as Kennedy makes
a single, complex image, such as the Owl or the Virgin Mary, the vehicle
of a series of meanings and modes of perception. The play brings these
modes into an amorphous conjunction, refusing to distinguish or demar-
cate. Sometimes the images are made to convey contrary meanings, and
thus create surrealistic symbols marked by complexity and ambiguity. The
Marian symbolism constructed around both the mother and She Who Is
is one such generative source. She Who Is, as her complete name tells us,
is "the Virgin Mary," and the Reverend renames her Mary when he
adopts her, but an important aspect of the sense of exclusion for She
Who Is comes from her inability to ever become "Mary." She Who Is is
also unable to bridge the contradiction implicit in the Christian ideal of
virginity and the heterosexual ideal of marriage. The Marian image of
Virgin Motherhood defines heterosexuality as taint and thus creates an
1mpasse.
The most problematic symbol in the play is the owl. Because of
their nocturnal habits, owls have traditionally been associated with dark-
ness, the occult, and the otherworldly. While these associations are
allowed to persist, the play builds up a far more complex and ambiguous
symbolism of the owl by placing it within the gender, cultural and racial
concerns in the play. The symbol operates on various levels simultane-
ously: the physical level at which She Who Is transforms into an owl at
DRAMATIC TRANS-FORMATIONS 69
the end; the symbolic level at which the owl is associated with night, dark-
ness and the otherworldly and is an aspect of She Who Is; and the myth-
ic level complicates Christianity-the world of the owl, "owldom," is set
in opposition to the "kingdom" of God. The question of being and
becoming is also played up in the image of the Owl. She Who Is is "the
Owl" from her beginning and also becomes one at the end of the play
when she "suddenly looks like an owl."
Kennedy's personal experiences of listening to the owl sounds in
Ghana are embedded in these associations. She recalls one such experi-
ence:
The owls in the trees outside the Achimota Guest
House were close, and at night, because we slept under
gigantic mosquito nets, I felt enclosed in their sound. In
the mornings I would try to find the owls in the trees
but could never see them. Yet, at night in the shuttered
room, under the huge white canopied nets the owls
sounded as if they were in the very center of the room.s
The title of the play derives from the hysterical outpouring of
She Who Is, "I call God and the Owl answers" (43). These lines, as well
as several other references in the play, suggest a relationship of alterity
between the Owl and God, between "Owldom" and God's "Kingdom."
God's "kingdom" and "owldom" are seen in opposition to each other as
the two possible fates for She Who Is. If God's "kingdom" is the only
space for salvation, then as its contrary, "owldom" is the area of darkness
and damnation, a connotation also supported by the fact that the owl is
also a symbol of "darkness" before the coming of Christ. Therefore the
transformation of She \X'ho Is into the owl at the end is resisted and
feared.
The play, however, does not stop with such a binary reading of
the two symbols. The symmetrical construction of the two terms, "king-
dom" and "owldom" also suggests equivalence and thus opens up the
possibility of an alternative reading of "owldom." The Owl is not mere-
ly the end of She Who Is, but also her beginning. The suggestions of
"beginning" and "belonging" are resonant of the African Americans'
search for their origins in Africa. This structure of associations, of the
owl with Africa, and set in opposition to the white Western world, sug-
8 Kennedy, People, 121-22.
70 K UMAR
gests a more positive meaning of "owldom." The ftnal transformation of
She Who Is into the Owl may also be interpreted as the possibility of
attaining an African identity after her attempt to be integrated into the
white world has failed. In spite of the strong association of the owl with
blackness and femaleness, the play preempts an unequivocal symbolism.
The owl remains a symbol that cannot be fully translated or annotated.
Kennedy appropriates the surrealistic form to embody experi-
ences that are rooted in and grow out of the world of racist and sexist
cultural practices. Differences of race, gender, class, nation, time and
space are blurred but this erasure of boundaries does not lead to release
and resolution; on the contrary, it dramatizes the destructive nature of
these differences. Kennedy's surrealism brings us solidly back into the
real and lived world of a black woman in the twentieth century, offering
a new dimension to surrealism itself.
jOURNAL OF AMERJCAJ.\1 DRAMA AND THEATRE 17, NO. 2 (SPRING 2005)
REALISM AND REALPOLITIK IN EVE ENSLER'S THE VAG.INA
MONOLOGUES
ERIN STRIFF
Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues is a play that celebrates
women and their vaginas. It seeks to reclaim images of the female body
through professional productions as well as through benefit performanc-
es linked with a women's charity, V-Day. The play has become a cultural
phenomenon, raising awareness about women's issues on a global scale.
Still, can the desire to support a "good cause" allow us to ignore this
play's shortcomings? Eve Ensler's benefit performances of The Vagina
Monologues employ "realism" not merely as a dramatic style but as inspira-
tion for political activism. In order to solicit donations for V-Day, the play
trades on its portrayal of "real women" suffering oppression in order to
instill a sense of agency in spectators that they might help their plight. I n
this respect, we as an audience are less encouraged to dwell on whether
or not the monologues are representative of real people, but rather
encouraged to believe that the ticket we have purchased will go toward
helping women in desperate need around the world. Realism is therefore
linked less with a political style than to political engagement with the
world around us.
We might agree with the sentiment of stopping violence against
women and want to help with the causes it supports, but for many spec-
tators, it is difficult to transcend the message that the play itself contains.
Some may question the play's biological essentialism and gender stereo-
typing, but it appears that the majority of the non-traditional audience
this play attracts is able to overlook the contradictions and simply expe-
rience the catharsis i t offers. I will argue that a number of feminist and
artistic compromises are made in order for this play to be popular. Its
very popularity, however, is the reason the fund-raising for V-day has
been so successful. The question remains as to whether a more nuanced
piece less dependent on the limitations of realism would have captured
the public imagination. In this article I will be considering the ways in
which realism, popular theatre, and feminist activism converge and create
meaning in The Vagina Monologues.
The use of realism in femini st theatre has long been critiqued.
Many have argued that feminist performance should be experimental in
style, because dramatic realism is male-identified and often features
women confined to the private sphere. In performance, the symbolic do-
72 STRJFF
sure realism offers frequently ensures that at the play's end women are
returned to their (subservient) place, prompting theatre scholars toques-
tion whether realism is compatible with a feminist message. Others, such
as critic William Demastes, have defended realism, saying "It may be a
low art form, requiring minimal training and aesthetic experience, but it
is accessible to a large public that can use its life training to assess the
virtues and weaknesses of the product onstage."
1
The qualities Demastes
outlines are hallmarks of Ensler's play- it appeals to a non-traditional
theatre audience and it frequently encourages particularly the female
spectator to reflect upon her own experiences and compare them with
the stories she hears.
Elin Diamond writes that "Realism disgusted Brecht not only
because it dissimulates its conventions but because it is hegemonic: by
copying the surface details of the world it offers the illusion of lived
experience, even as it marks off only one version of that experience."2 If,
however, we take on board the idea that realist theatre attracts a wider
audience, perhaps a realist piece carries with it the power to effect change
through its popularity. Brecht, of course, utilized popular forms within
his work and acknowledged the power of the popular:
"Popular" means intelligible to the broad masses, taking
over their own forms of expression and enriching them
/ adopting them and consolidating their standpoint /
representing the most progressive section of people in
such a way that it can take over the leadership: thus intel-
ligible to other sections too/ linking with tradition and
carrying it further/ handing on the achievements of the
section now leading to the section of the people that is
struggling for the lead.3
1
William W Demastes, Realism and the American Dramatic Tradition (Tuscaloosa:
University of Alabama Press, 1996), xiii-xiv.
2 Elin Diamond, Unmaking Mimesis: Essqys on Feminism and Theatre (New York:
Routledge, 1997), 50.
3 Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre: The Development if an Aesthetic ed. and trans.
John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1957; reprint 1986), 108.
REALISM AND REALPOLITIK
73
However, Brecht took on aspects of popular culture in order to reach a
broad audience with his Epic theatre, which as Janelle Reinelt notes he
referred to as the "real" realism.4 He felt that this popular form of the-
atre could effect social change by inspiring involvement by the spectators.
Does, however, Ensler's work identify too clearly with the dramatic the-
atre to serve this function, relying as it does on thinking above reason,
sharing the experience, rather than critiquing it, ultimately providing a
hegemonic discourse? A Vagina Monologues V-Day Production is, I would
argue, meant to be straightforward and profoundly cathartic; it is there-
fore less likely to call the spectator to action above and beyond the dona-
tion s/he has made by purchasing a ticket.
The Vagina Monologues does not attempt to provide a realistic
form in the sense of domestic drama, but rather the monologues them-
selves appear to impart actual women's stories in order to inspire the
audience to care about real-world issues. In this respect, it is closer to the
aims of a rally, in which a political cause might be laid out in such detail
that the participants become increasingly willing to lend their support.
One might be tempted to relate The Vagina Monologues to a tradition of
agit-prop theatre, or agitation propaganda, which strove to educate the
audience member and encourage them to support a particular cause.
However, agit-prop, from the time of Soviet group Blue Blouse as well
as Erwin Piscator, has traditionally made use of multi-media techniques
that functioned not merely to draw in the spectator, but to "historicize"
the critique, as when, for instance, Piscator projected film of a battlefield
while in the foreground a political speech was performed. Agit-prop in
this way provided multiple viewpoints even as it tried to compel the audi-
ence to agree which vision was the "correct" one. The Vagina Monologues
is intentionally minimalist, and uses no public documents or images to
back up or locate in a larger social or historical context the events taking
place on stage. In this respect the view imparted is a relatively limited one,
created to appeal to a broad audience by virtue of its sharply defined
focus.
One might argue it is reductive to suggest the play reflects only
Ensler's viewpoint, since Ensler claims to have interviewed over two hun-
dred women to create a text comprised of a multitude of voices reflect-
ing upon their vaginas. She speaks of "protecting" the integrity of her
4 Janelle Reinelt, " A Feminist Reconsideration of the Brecht/Lukacs Debates,"
Women and Peiformance: a }oltrnal of Feminist Theory 7.1 (1994): 123.
74 STRJFF
subjects' stories,s thereby encouraging her audience to read the text not
just as realism but as documentary theatre in the style of Anna Deavere
Smith, featuring transcriptions of the interviews she conducted which
have been edited together. However, textual evidence indicates that these
interviews have largely been re-configured and heavily edited into a fic-
tional context. Certain subjects, for example, have said that they do not
recognize themselves in monologues ostensibly written from their point
of view. One of these monologues, "The Woman who Loved to Make
Vaginas Happy" is disowned by the woman on which it is based, and is
followed up by another monologue from this same woman in which
every line she speaks is italicized, suggesting that this is "just the way she
told it."6 This distinction suggests that Ensler took dramatic license with
the other monologues and that the veracity of this one is an exception.7
Although Ensler may well have used interviews as her primary source
materials for the play, they clearly inspired the piece rather than forming
the basis of it.
We can therefore surmise that the play is similar in form to the
docudrama, made popular by made-for-TV movies. Docudrama, unlike
documentary theatre, is based on a true story, but as Gary Fisher Dawson
argues in Documentary Theatre in the United States, does not provide docu-
mentary evidence, nor does it attempt to get as close to lived events as
possible.s Appropriately, docudrama is a mainstay of the women's cable
channel Lifetime which has been a major corporate sponsor of V-Day, and
also premiered the V-Day documentary, Until the Violence Stops.
Docudrama has at its core the desire to create an emotional response and
a cursory understanding of the issues at hand by its spectators. Janet
Staiger has mapped out three reservations to the use of television docu-
drama, which can be applied to The Vagina Monologues. The first is that the
dramatic license used to create a seamless presentation of history and
5 Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues (London: Virago, 2001), xxv.
6 Ensler, 113-18.
7
Jennifer Anne Kokai, When is a Vagina not a Vagina? A Critical Study if Eve
Emler, The Vagina Monologues, and the V -Day Movement, M.A. Thesis, Washington University,
2003, 20-21.
8 Gary Fisher Dawson, Documentary Theatre in the United States: An Historical
Survey and Analysis o/ Its Content, Form and Stagecraft   CT: Greenwood Press,
1999), xiv.
REALISM AND REALPOLITIK 75
lives obscures facts and distorts events. The second is that spectators are
encouraged to believe that what they are watching is in fact true, a mis-
leading tendency which blends facts and speculation. Finally, docudramas
simplify stories and roles overly simplifying complex issues.9 The com-
plex social problems referred to in The Vagina Monologues may be
explained in more detail if an audience member becomes involved with
one of the feminist movements linked with the production; however, if
a spectator feels that they have made their contribution to women's caus-
es simply by donating money instead of time, further education about
these complex issues may never occur. It is my contention that all three
of these critiques of docudrama do, in fact, take place in The Vagina
Monologues, but that the simplification of the stories makes for a greater
emotional response from its spectators, who are therefore more likely to
make monetary contributions to V-Day.
The development of the text and production of The Vagina
Monologues is complex. It will therefore be particularly useful to discuss the
different versions and their histories here. In 1996, Eve Ensler, having
interviewed a variety of women about their vaginas, performed The
Vagina Monologues off-Broadway, where it won an Obie in 1997. It contin-
ued as an Off-Broadway production, featuring three constantly rotating
celebrity actresses, until 2003. The play has also been performed interna-
tionally, in such locations as Islamabad and Kosovo. In 1998 the first V-
Day took place, featuring a celebrity benefit performance of The Vagina
Monologues. Proceeds were donated to various charities committed to end-
ing violence against women. In 1999, V-Day began to act locally, and Eve
Ensler made the rights of her script available without charge to universi-
ties and communities who may perform the play as long as the proceeds
go to local women's charities, with an additional10% earmarked for a dif-
ferent international charity each year. Each of the performance texts,
consisting of the original piece Ensler performed, the revised script writ-
ten for three actresses, and the ever changing V-Day performance script
meant for the College and Worldwide Campaigns, are to be read slightly
differently. The published Vagina Monologues exists in two editions: the
1998 edition and the 2001 ''V-Day'' edition. The published script repre-
sents the script as meant to be read by Eve Ensler or the three profes-
sional actresses. The 2001 edition also contains "success stories" from
the College Campaign participants. The V-Day performance script is
9 Janet Staiger, "Docudrama," The Museum of Broadcast Communications,
<<www.museum.cv /archives/ ecv /D /htmlD /docudrama/ docudrama.htm>> [accessed
11 February 2005).
76
STRIFF
written with a stated aim of ra.tsmg as much money as possible for
women's charities. The original script was edited down for the V-Day per-
formances, and new monologues are written yearly with the aim of
appealing to a broader range of audience members, many of whom are
unused to attending the theatre.
The issue of the varying editions becomes important as we con-
sider how Ensler continually alters the piece to appeal to the widest pos-
sible audience. For example, the 1998 edition contains a significant dif-
ference to the monologues as published in the 2001 V-Day Edition as
well as the V-Day performance script for the College and Worldwide
Campaigns. In the monologue, "The Little Coochi Snorcher that Could,"
the story of an abused young woman who is picked up by a lesbian in her
twenties is changed, so that the young girl is no longer 13, as she was in
the 1998 edition, but 16. The age change is significant because, as Jennifer
Kokai points out in her unpublished thesis, it is the age of consent in
most states, and therefore the affair is probably legal, though controver-
sial.10 The final sentence of the monologue is also changed, as can be
seen from a direct comparison of the two different versions. The 1998
edition reads: "Now people say that it was a kind of rape. I was only thir-
teen and she was twenty-four. Well I say, if it was a rape, it was a good
rape then, a rape that turned my sorry-ass coochi snorcher into a kind of
heaven."'' Other editions read: "I realized later she was my surprising,
unexpected, politically incorrect salvation. She transformed my sorry-ass
coochi snatcher and raised it into a kind of heaven."
1
2 It is evident that
Ensler does not want to be misunderstood as sympathetic to a "good
rape," much less a statutory one. The admission that a seduction of a 16
year old by an older woman that would be legal in most states is "politi-
cally incorrect" seems to be an admission of guilt, and certainly does not
sound like the words spoken by the woman who was originally inter-
viewed. Rather, it distances V-Day, the performers, and by extension, the
audience, from what might be seen as a "deviant" sexual relationship.
This edit gives a sense of the many decisions that were made regarding
10 Kokai, 28.
II Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues (New York: ViUard, 1998), 75.
12 Ensler, Vagina [2001], 82. The 2000 acting edition states that the girl is 13 but
includes this line about political incorrectness.
REAIJSM AND REALPOI.lTIK 77
The Vagina Monologues in order to temper that which is seen to be offen-
sive in order to make it palatable for a wide audience. Clearly, any attempt
at accuracy is less important than appealing to the broadest range of peo-
ple who will then donate to the V-Day cause.
I n professional productions, the "reality" of the voices repre-
senting the two hundred interviewed women is accentuated by the three
performers sitting on stools, reading from index cards, and generally
resisting the appearance of acting. Since the performers are often celebri-
ties or professional actresses, the audience is unlikely to believe they are
relating personal experiences. The V-Day benefit productions often have
one actress performing each monologue, with some monologues divided
between as many as four actresses. Directors are encouraged to cast
everyone who auditions, regardless of experience or talent. These often
inexperienced actresses speaking in the first person from a script about
intimate experiences creates a strong impression that these are "real peo-
ple" onstage telling us their stories. This potentially causes confusion in
V-Day productions, as it is not uncommon for spectators to speak to an
actress after a performance to offer comfort, or to disclose that they have
experienced something similar. In that respect, the distance between the
women who were interviewed, the actresses who perform stories based
on their lives, and the writer, Eve Ensler, is collapsed. The spectators are
therefore more likely to believe that what they are viewing is "more real"
than what they would see in a "traditional" theatre piece, which may
increase the engagement they might feel and the donation they are likely
to make. In 2003, women and men were encouraged to write and per-
form their own monologues to be performed alongside Ensler's, but the
performing rights no longer allow this. Instead, in 2004 and 2005 V-Day
has encouraged organizers to showcase ''Vagina Warriors" from their
community who have suffered or witnessed violence and have fought to
end it. However, V-Day performers are instructed to read out the
women's biographies, rendering these "warriors" speechless.
Though The Vagina Monologues can of course be lauded for the
tangible effect it has in providing funds to stop violence against women
and girls, there are a number of ways in which this play contains a mixed
feminist message. The most violent and disturbing narratives in the The
Vagina Monologues are owned by women who are in some way "other" to
our culture. This potentially creates a situation wherein the most "exces-
sive" images of ,·iolence can be jettisoned by the viewing public who can-
not relate to the specifics of these stories. For example, one monologue,
entitled "My Vagina was My Village" and is told from the perspective of
a survivor of a Bosnian rape camp. The experiences of gang rape and
78
STRIFF
physical mutilation are extreme and distressing, but so distant from the
experiences of the "typical" audience member, that it risks positing sex-
ual violence as something that only happens to foreign people in distant
countries. Rape, sexual and physical assaults are endemic in our society
and touch everyone, yet these narratives are more distant than those
reflected in the remaining monologues. It is problematic for us as a cul-
ture to assume that the real violence, the serious violence, occurs else-
where, which might also suggest that insidious forms of sexual crimes
such as date rape are comparatively insignificant. Not reflecting in the
monologues that middle class women suffer sexual violence, or indeed
suggesting that other cultures are more inherently violent, makes it easi-
er for the spectator to keep the horrific nature of these crimes against
women at a safe distance, therefore rejecting the real-world political
engagement Ensler is trying to encourage.
In the 2002 HBO production of The Vagina Monologues, Ensler
demonstrates a vulva puppet, which can be seen as a metaphor for the
way the vagina "ventriloquizes" women's desires. If ventriloquism is lit-
erally "belly-speak," this is "vagina-speak." For example, in the mono-
logue, "My Angry Vagina," a woman states that her vagina is angry about
a variety of indignities, but she herself makes no such claims. The woman
articulates that her vagina "wants to read and know things and get out
more . . .. It wants kindness. It wants change ... it wants to stop being
angry."13 These are all desires linked to women's cultural oppression.
Perhaps women's subjugation is more safely challenged by the vagina
itself, distancing women from the act of resistance. Reducing the female
body and indeed, women in general, to the vagina relegates women to a
reproductive and sexual bodily function. This play features an excess of
synecdoche, as vaginas serve the role of speaking and accounting for
women. For example, women in entire geographic areas are summed up
by what particular women said about their vaginas: "In Great Neck, they
call it a pussycat."
1
4 Or, how enthusiastic the audience was about the per-
formance: "They were wild for vaginas in Oklahoma City."IS These are
some of the many examples within the play in which women are defined
by th.eir vaginas, as an attempt to accentuate commonalities within the
13 Ensler, vagi11a (2001), 73.
14 Ibid., 5.
IS Ibid., 97.
REALISM AND REALPOLITIK 79
gender and therefore appeal to the broadest popular audience: "women
are all the same, we all have vaginas." This biological essentialism col-
lapses the differences that exist between women, such as race, sexuality,
and class, attempting instead to create a personal connection so that
women audience members will be supportive of the play and V-Day.
Ensler's message has a strong link to the radical feminism of the
1970s, sometimes referred to as cultural feminism. As Jill Dolan explains
in The Feminist Spectator as Critic, "The revelation of women's experience
and intuitive, spiritual connection with each other and the natural world
is idealized as the basis of cultural feminist knowledge."J6 This connec-
tion with other women is valorized within The Vagina Monologues, and in
this respect, the play resembles Consciousness-Raising (CR) groups from
the seventies, in which women would reflect upon their own experiences
and relate them to larger political issues. In her book Feminist Theatres in
the U.S.A., Charlotte Canning argues that CR became popular as the
women's movement began to fragment, as a way to insist that all women
were the same, regardless of their background. Canning contends that
"Experience testimony was encouraged as unifying, rather than differen-
tiating; difference was viewed as counterproductive."!? The Vagina
Monologues reifies this by insisting that all women should feel a sense of
unity because they have experienced similar indignities linked with their
biology. Like the plays in the seventies in which, as Sue Ellen Case writes,
"the audience was treated like an extended CR group,"
1
8 the female spec-
tator of The Vagina Monologues is encouraged to respond to intensely per-
sonal stories as well as reflect upon her own oppression and innate
strength as a woman. This intimate relationship is furthered by the struc-
ture of the play: all monologues are delivered directly to the audience,
never to any of the women on stage. Ensler's aim is for as many audience
members to walk away from the production feeling differently about
women's bodies as possible, and in this way create political change. Again,
when the message about the female body is rather conservative, it is dif-
ficult to see how true political change could ensue.
16 Jill Dolan, The Feminist Spectator as Critic (Ann Arbour: University of Michigan
Press, 1991), 7.
17 Charlotte Canning, Feminist Theatres in the USA .: Staging Womens Experience
(New York: Routledge, 1996), 44-45.
18 Sue-Ellen Case, Feminism and Theatre (New York: Methuen, 1988), 65.
80
STRJFF
A similar idea is put forth in Eve Ensler's 2004 play, The Good
Botjy, in which Ensler uses her negative perceptions about her own stom-
ach as a catalyst to consider why women are never satisfied with their
bodies. In the introduction to the published script, she writes, "In the
midst of a war in Iraq, in a time of escalating global terrorism, when civil
liberties are disappearing as fast as the ozone layer, why write a play about
my stomach?"
1
9 Her answer to this question is that women are disem-
powered in our society because they spend their time and energies in try-
ing to attain "the good body." In contrast to The Vagina Monologues, The
Good Boqy struggled to find an audience; at its peak it was playing to hous-
es that were 40% full at maximum and the play closed one month early,
19 December 2004.20 One reason could be that Ensler's laments about
women's reliance on Botox, the gym, and dieting in order to attain a per-
fect body were hardly startling revelations, though neither were many of
her monologues. It cannot be discounted that many people might see The
Vagina Monologues because of the unruly nature of the title and the prom-
ise of forthright discussions of female sexuality, "attractions" that The
Good Boqy lacks. Another reason why The Good Boqy might have been less
successful is that Ensler is mainly reflecting upon herself, while the other
stories she tells in The Good Botjy are only "loosely based" on real women's
experience. This calls attention to the notion that the appearance of real-
ism is a powerful draw. This play therefore lacks the audience's personal
connection to the seemingly real stories that characterize The Vagina
Jl.1onologues.
Like The Good Boqy, The Vagina Monologues seems to adopt an
"Everywoman" standpoint, and focuses upon encouraging ordinary
women to accept themselves and their bodies. However, the Central V-
Day galas, held each year in such venues as Madison Square Garden, usu-
ally feature a performance of the play enacted by A-list celebrities. This
detracts from the shared experience between the audience and the per-
former, because the cultural oppression and body image of a celebrity
will be of a very different nature than the average spectator. Ensler her-
self has said "Look, I used to be one of those activists who said, 'Ask the
grass roots people to speak; bring the real people on.' Here's the deal: no
19 Eve Ensler, The Good Body (New York: ViUard, 2004), ix.
20 David Roney, Robert Hofler and Zachary Pincus-Rorh, "Going Solo,"
Variery 24 (December 27-January 2, 2005), 24.
REALISM AND REALPOLITIK 81
one came. So you have to make a decision: what is worth what?"2
1
Ensler's mission is to create popular theatre, because she wants to make
as much money as possible for charity. In so doing, she is willing to com-
promise her stated aims and again place the Hollywood image of woman
onstage, inviting the female spectator to make comparisons. This use of
celebrity culture to promote her play is again a fundamentally conserva-
tive gesture, but one likely to garner popular support.
Though the highlight of the V-Day celebrations is the play, it is
not produced with the same standards as we would apply to commercial
or university theatre, which, I will argue, further compromises its mes-
sage. Production values are seen to be less important than the fund-rais-
ing activities built around V-Day, and in fact, College Campaign partici-
pants are discouraged from placing too much of their own artistic
"stamp" on the piece. As the 2004 V-Day Organizer's Handbook states,
'We encourage you to have as few rehearsals as possible .... Participating
in a VDay production is supposed to be fun, educational and empower-
ing, not a burden."
22
After my experience co-directing this play at the
University of Hartford in 2004, I maintain that this approach has a detri-
mental effect on those interested in creating feminist theatre. One of the
benefits of rehearsing is the explorations of the text which occur in prac-
tical workshops. Through rehearsal, theatre becomes a collaborative
process in which actor and director work together, finding what creates
meaning in the script. By insisting that rehearsals are a burden the organ-
izers are assuring that the play will lack technicaly proficiency; moreover,
they deprive the cast of discovering what is empowering about their own
and each other's work. In Feminist Theatre Practice, Elaine Aston discusses
the importance of what she calls "activating the feminist script." She
acknowledges that a woman-centered play does not necessarily mean the
play is feminist, and that particular care must be given to highlight gen-
der issues within such a play.z3
2
1
Susan Dominus, "Eve Ensler Wants to Sa,·c the World," New York Times, 10
February 2002, sec 6: 30.
22 V-Day. "V-Day Organizers Handbook," V-Day, <<vspot.vday.org/docu-
ments/ 2004/0rgskit2004CC.doc>> [accessed February 13th, 2004], 32.
23 Elaine Aston, Feminist Theatre Practice (London: Routledge, 1999), 122-40.
82
STRJFF
Undoubtedly the play has gone a long way towards making the
word "vagina" (though not the anatomically correct term "vulva")
acceptable for popular culture. What is curious is the way in which the
unspeakable, excessive word in the context of The Vagina Monologues has
to an extent become "feminism." In a review of the play for The Village
Voice, Sharon Lerner interviewed celebrities that were quite happy to per-
form The Vagina Monologues for sell-out crowds in Madison Square
Garden, but were extremely reluctant to class themselves as "feminist."
Glenn Close, a staunch supporter of Ensler's cause, described feminists
in the following way: "[t]hey don't like men- you know, kind of, urn,
butch."24 This was echoed by other celebrities committed to the cause
who were happy to support V-Day but blanched at its relation to femi- ·
nism. I have observed this behavior reflected in the classroom: students
respond positively to The Vagina Monologues but resist the feminist label.
In her article, Lerner argues:
Therein lies the marvel of this V-movement, which has
turned the stuff of the old take-back-the-night rallies
into a hot ticket. Rape, domestic violence, even home-
lessness, when it happens to women- Ensler has trans-
planted these issues into a context that seems edgier and
yet is somehow more palatable than the dread feminism.
"Vaginism" doesn't get all mucked up in messy issues
like abortion or unequal pay. And though it often refer-
ences lesbians-or their vaginas, anyway-the V-move-
ment doesn't get in the way of being attractive to men.zs
The festivities associated with V-Day, and the seemingly endless
queue of celebrities willing to speak out in support of Ensler's work
make the movement appear particularly attractive. In the same article,
Gloria Steinem is quoted as saying that feminism in the 1970s was com-
prised of "just some lone crazy ladies with buttons on them. It was cer-
tainly a long way from a book, a movement, Madison Square Garden."26
24 Sharon Lerner, "Clit Club: V-Day's Charismatic Cuntism Rocks the Garden,"
The Village Voice, February 2001, 14-20.
25 Ibid.
26 Ibid.
REAlJSM AND REALPOUTIK
83
In short, "Vagina Feminism" takes on the label of "populist" rather than
feminist and in fact has installed itself as part of popular culture. This
particular brand of feminism, linked as it is to one person and to one per-
formance piece, is both too excessive and too narrow to encompass the
larger sense of women's oppression. Though The Vagina Monologues has
had extensive media coverage and has received much popular support, it
does not necessarily inspire its audience to show interest in other femi-
nist causes beyond contributing to V-Day.
The popularity of The Vagina Monologues and the effect this has
had on the real-world benefits are worth considering. Though The Vagina
Monologues is arguably the most successful avowedly feminist play ever
produced, there has yet to be a significant scholarly work published on
this piece. Does its popularity disallow it from serious theatrical study, or
are scholars reluctant to critique a work which might be viewed as ideo-
logically and technically flawed but has accomplished much in real terms
to benefit the lives of women? Because V-Day is such a prominent move-
ment, so inextricably linked to ending violence against women and girls,
criticism of it can suggest a lack of support for the charities it benefits.
The Vagina Monologues has a tangible benefit that no other feminist play
can match: in seven years, V-Day has raised over twenty-five million dol-
lars for women's charities and in 2004 benefit performances were mount-
ed in over 2,000 locations.
27
I t has galvanized a new generation of women
into thinking about gender issues. In evaluating our responses to The
Vagina Monologues it is necessary to weigh the value of these benefits
against the compromised feminist message the play itself imparts. When
we consider the structure of V-Dt!)l: Until the Violence Stops, the docu-
mentary made about V-Day, it underscores the "real" benefit of the play:
the charity work that V-Day funds. The documentary begins with
excerpts from The Vagina Monologues but quickly shifts focus upon the
groups of people who have benefited from the production.zs It therefore
makes the direct link between mounting a performance of The Vagina
Monologues and the work the V-Day organization has performed to stop
domestic violence in the Lakota nation in South Dakota, or female cir-
27 "V-Day Official Website," V-Day, <<www.vday.org>> [accessed 11
February 2005).
2
8 Abby Epstein (producer and director), V-Dqy: Until the Violence Stops DVD
Documentary, 2004.
84
STRIFF
cumc1s10n m Kenya. How can the feminist spectator argue with the
important work which is being accomplished as a result of this play?
Jennifer Kokai writes that the play "relies on its connection with
the reputation of V-Day as a movement to garner praise rather than the
literary worth of the script on its own."
29
I argue that V-Day is inextrica-
bly linked with both Eve Ensler and The Vagina Monologues, based as it is
on no other performance or prominent fundraising activity. V-Day effec-
tively functions as the non-profit organization which puts the funds The
Vagina Monologues earns to use. It is difficult to see how the movement
could identify a new play that captures the public imagination and then
convince the playwright to make the rights available in the way that Eve
Ensler has. Thus far, there seems to be a steady audience for the play
annually, though one could argue that the extensive cast of primarily non-
actors for the V-Day productions means that an ever-changing coterie of
family and friends are willing to pay to show support for performers they
know. Though there are no longer any touring productions of the play in
this country, the still-growing (as of 2004) number of V-Day productions
of the play suggests that V-Day will continue as a successful non-profit
organization for the near future. However, tying the movement so exclu-
sively to one theatrical production means that the market will eventually
be saturated and the movement will wane. The failure of The Good Botfy
to find a similarly enthusiastic audience suggests that if there was an
eventual plan to replace The Vagina Monologues with The Good Bo4J at V-
Day benefits, this change would find little success. Unless V-Day does
link itself to another equally successful production, it is a charity with a
limited life span.
In critiquing The Vagina Monologues I wish to point out that our
production at the University of Hartford raised approximately $5,000 for
women's charities, an accomplishment that directly affects women much
more than any other feminist plays with which I have been involved. In
addition, after having taught this play three times in a variety of class-
room settings I can also assert that it is the single most effective play I
have taught in terms of raising student interest and awareness of gender
issues. One might argue that although the monologues provide a narrow
view of feminism and simplify its issues, its popularity has brought a
deeper understanding of the real violence women and girls actually suf-
29 Kokai, 34.
REALISM AND REALPOLITIK 85
fer. The V-Day movement has made a palpable difference in the lives of
disadvantaged women, and seems poised to continue to move people, at
least in the short term. We might wish for a more transgressive or enlight-
ened play to be linked to the movement, or at least one with more artis-
tic merit. However, the evidence is unequivocal that The Vagina Monologues
attracts non-traditional theatre audiences, as well as inspiring them to care
about women's issues. If the play undermines the dominant order ever so
slightly with each occurrence, then each annual V-Day inches toward
bringing about evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, change. For these
reasons, it is preferable that audiences experience The Vagina Monologues
and its arguably compromised feminist message than to reject it outright.
86
CONTRIBUTORS
SARAH B AY-CHENG is an Assistant Professor of English and Theater at
Colgate University, where she teaches acting, theater history, and theory.
She is the author of Mama Dada: Gertrude Stein's Avant-Garde Theater
(Routledge, 2004), and her essays have appeared in The Journal of American
Drama and Theater, Studies in the Humanities, and in critical anthologies on
theatre and film. She is currently working on a new book on poetry and
drama.
NICK D AVIS is an advanced Ph.D. candidate in English at Cornell
University, with a special emphasis in Film & Video Studies. In the spring
of 2005 he will complete his dissertation entitled "The Work of Art in
the Age of Homosexual Reproduction: Adaptation and Desire in
Contemporary Queer Film." His research interests encompass film, mod-
ern American drama, twentieth-century American literature, and African-
American literature. In the fall of 2005 he will begin an appointment as
Visiting Assistant Professor of Film & American Literature at Trinity
College.
EHREN F ORDYCE teaches directing and contemporary performance at
Stanford University. He has published articles on Reza Abdoh, Elevator
Repair Service, and late 20th-century American Experimental Drama and
is currently working on a book about technique and ideology in post-
dramatic theatre.
DANIEL H . FOSTER received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago
in 2001, where he was awarded honors for his dissertation on Richard
Wagner, "The Hellenization of Politics: Wagner's Ring Cycle and the
Greeks." As a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Penn Humanities
Forum and in the music department of the University of Pennsylvania,
he taught courses on the history of opera and nineteenth-century music
and literature. In addition, he has published on such topics as the British
Romantics and Franz Schubert, Richard Wagner and Greek drama, and
W E. B. Du Bois and African American spirituals. He is an Assistant
Professor in the Theater Studies Department at Duke University, teach-
ing a course on Radio Theater, working as a dramaturge for productions
of Tom Stoppard's Hapgood and Tony Kushner's Angels in America, and is
completing his song cycle, Musical Veils, a work combining African
American spirituals and European American poetry.
87
DAVID KRASNER teaches theatre, drama, and performance at Yale
University. He recently edited the Blackwell Companion to Twentieth-Century
Amen'can Drama, to which two participants here, Sarah Bay-Cheng and
Ehren Fordyce, contributed chapters. He is currently working on Modern
American Drama, 1945-2000: An Introduction (Blackwell), co-editing, with
David Z. Saltz, Staging Philosophy: New Approaches to Theater and Performance
(Michigan), and editing Theatre in Theory: 1900-2000 (Blackwell).
NITA N . KuMAR is Reader of English at Shyama Prasad Mukherji
College, University of Delhi. She has a Ph.D. in African American drama.
Her recent publications include "The Logic of Retribution: Amiri
Baraka's Dutchman," African American Review (2003); "Black Arts
Movement and N tozake Shange's Choreopoem," Black Arts Quarter!J
(2001); and several other essays and reviews on African American and
Postcolonial literatures. She has received a Mellon Fellowship at the
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre, University of Texas at
Austin, to work on Adrienne Kennedy papers.
ERIN STRIFF is Assistant Professor of English at the University of
Hartford, and is setting up the department's new drama minor. She edit-
ed Performance Studies (Palgrave 2002) and has published on feminist the-
atre and performance art.
MARTIN E. SEGAL THEATRE CENTER PUBLICATIONS
THE HEIRS OF
MOLIERE
FOUR FRENCH COMEDIES OP THE
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@ Lt. Cha....e.. TI.e P...Joo..ohle Prejudice
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TRANSLATED AND EDITED BY
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