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Age, of course
by Tina Howe When I was approached about contributing an article to an issue of American Theatre focused on "Women on Eroticism," I immediately leapt at the opportunity. The editor on the other end of the line was thrilled, expecting, no doubt, a thoughtful piece about saucy high-button shoes or suggestive Impressionist paintings. I am the author of Painting Churches and Pride's Crossing, after all! Little did he anticipate the bombshell I was going to drop in his lap. "How about an expose of the hot-to-trot grandma?" I asked. Having given a rousing speech titled "The Power and Passion of Older Women" at a number of theatre conferences, I felt I was an expert on the subject. If readers wanted a peek into the erotic fantasies of postmenopausal women, I was their guide! I then went on to describe some of the frisky silver-haired ladies I've known, seen or read about, but instead of cheering me on, the editor said, "Whoa...back up, Tina...I said I want you to write about erotic older women in the theatre!" "No problem," I said. "Consider it done!" Deadlines and word counts were discussed and we both hung up, thrilled at how we'd outsmarted each other. I booted up my computer, turned on Sir George Solti conducting Bach's St. Matthew Passion, opened a new document and waited for the floodgates to open. The chorus began singing, "Come ye daughters, share my mourning...." "Let's see, who are some of the sexy older dames in world drama?" I asked myself. The Evangelist and Jesus were now singing about the inevitability of His crucifixion. "There are all those wild women from the Greek tragedies, but they're hardly in their sunset years," I sighed. By this time, Kin Te Kanawa was singing, "Break and die, Thou dearest heart." I'd written exactly nothing. "What about Tennessee Williams's heroines?" I pondered. But they aren't old so much as victimized. By now the chorus was on to "'Tis I whose sin now binds thee." The dreadful truth slowly dawned. There weren't any plays that showed silver-haired ladies in flagrante delicto! Oh, sure, there's wild Margaret in Shakespeare's history plays, but a lusting Margaret? I'd have to call the magazine back and tell them it was a no-go. But then I suddenly remembered a play that had recently been written about a lovesick older woman. Not only was she in the throes of menopause, but the object of her affection was a much younger man! No poignant Gin Game with a couple of crotchety old-timers playing an endless game of rummy--this was hot sex between a hunk and a woman twice his age who raked scratch marks all over his back during their night of passion! There was only one problem. It was my play, Women in Flames--a dizzy romantic comedy I'd written a couple of years ago. I couldn't write an entire article about my own unproduced play. I mean, how brazen can you get? But then it occurred to me that I could discuss it as a sort of canary-in-a-mine-shaft probe that might inspire more plays on the subject, so that by next season our stages would be teeming with red-hot mamas driving their young lovers into a feeding frenzy. Now I was on a mission! I turned up my CD player full blast. By this time, the chorus was singing, "Receive me, My Redeemer, My Shepherd, make me Thine." Two impulses had inspired Women in Flames. The first was the desire to shake things up, and the second was to flip the Cyrano story on its head. Cyrano de Bergerac has long been a favorite of playwrights because it shows an audience the thrilling deceit of our craft. A disfigured poet hides in the shadows and woos the woman he loves via a gorgeous standin. It's exactly what we do--place our carefully chosen words in the mouths of handsome actors who then seduce everyone in sight.
But what if the poet in the shadows were a woman ravishing a man for a change? Why not? Look at how we thrill to Emily Dickinson and so many other lady poets. All I had to do was come up with a plot that would place a clever woman under a metaphorical balcony. The solution was obvious! Make her a playwright and him the handsome young leading man in her play. Then have the leading lady fall ill on opening night so she'd have to go on in her place. It had happened to me during the run of Coastal Disturbances before we had understudies. Rosemary Murphy suddenly took sick, so I was roped into going on for he; script in hand. It was terrifying, but also strangely exhilarating--a feeling I knew I could recapture. I hadn't had to play a love scene, but I always wondered what that would have been like. It was heady stuff I knew I'd return to some day. The next hurdle was coming up with a deformity for my playwright that was of the same magnitude as Cyrano's nose: some extra eyes, a missing limb, a tail' Which led me to thinking about what disfigures a woman most. The answer was so obvious, I blushed. Age! The next order of business was establishing that the playwright (Isobel) had the hots for her young leading man (Billy), so when she found herself on stage with him, it was both a turn-on and an opportunity. All that remained was figuring out the play she'd written that would put her in a position to woo him. After toying with a number of options, I settled on a feminist retelling of Miss Havisham's story from Dickens's Great Expectations--hence the title of my play, Women in Flames. In the novel we don't meet Miss Havisham until she's a vengeful madwoman wandering around in the disintegrating wedding dress she was abandoned in 40 years before. But what if Isobel showed us what led her to this tragic state? What if we met her as a blushing bride and saw just how monstrous her fiance had been? Then we'd understand her thirst for revenge. All I had to do was get rid of the leading lady, so Isobel could play her love scene with Billy. It was perfect. I had my beard. Young and beautiful Miss Havisham! It's the last scene of Isobel's play....Miss Havisham's scheming fiance shows up late for a final meeting before their wedding. He confesses he's lost all his money and isn't worthy of her. Whereupon she pours out her heart to him, telling him money doesn't matter. They have each other and their own blazing love. Things are going brilliantly when Isobel suddenly drops her script. She panics and starts to improvise. Poor Billy is totally lost and starts throwing out lines from other plays. Her moment has come! Like Cyrano standing under Roxanne's balcony, she has her chance to woo him undetected. She steadies herself and begins: Now let me tell you how a woman loves. No demure sighs and blushing for her....A woman summons her troops, bridles her horses and commandeers the greatest force of all--the imagination--that winged chariot that blazes across the sky, leveling everything in its path. No shrinking violet she. She curses the gods, burns offerings and plunges on, leaving ashes in her wake. This is how a woman loves....Not with winks and curtsies, but terrible speed...hair streaming, axles smoking, wheels popping off like tiddlywinks....Venus, Atalanta and Callisto rolled into one--goddess, lioness and starry night....Now you see her, now you don't....And when the heat of desire blooms between her legs, there's no blushing or stammering....She pulls out her spy glass and surveys the land below. Continents rise in a dizzying blur, but she holds her course, guiding her horses with hands of steel.... "Who shall it be tonight? Mortal, satyr or a sleeping god?" Then she sees him...pacing in an English garden. He wears an antique double t and riding boots. There is such agitation in his gait, she drops her glass. Is he human or divine? Nobleman or thief? His manner is so distracted she cannot tell. She reaches for Cupid's net she wrested from Apollo as he slept, and starts whirling it through the air....Round and round, higher and higher, tracing melting circles of desire, her gyrations mimicking the act of love....Up and back, in an our, around and over....She takes aim and lets it fly, catching him in its billowing folds....This is how a woman loves! Like a fisherman hauling up his catch from the deep. (pulling him close) You are so comely, my heart is pierced....Your skin, your eyes, your crooked smile....Your neck, your throat, your lovely ears....Your arms, your hands, your dimpled wrists....Your front, your back, your hips and waist....Your in, your out, your to and fro....Your rise, your fall, your yes and no....Oh, look at you....Just...look...at you! BILLY IS SO DAZZLED BY HER outpouring, he pulls her into a passionate embrace. She's landed him with the oldest aphrodisiac of all--flattery. They're all over each other in the green room. Then she spends the night with him. At his place.
You can imagine the cheers that rose from the women in the audience at the three readings the play received. But wait, things get even better! After their night of love, Isobel realizes her infatuation is ludicrous because of their age difference and she walks out on him. Billy breaks into wracking sobs and begs her to come back. By this time the women in the audience were on their feet. The fact that the sublime Blythe Danner played Isobel and frisky Paul Rudd played Billy, the first time around, didn't hurt. They were so overcome in their love scene, they had to put down their scripts and fan themselves! Needless to say, the three separate artistic directors who'd hosted the readings (at highly respected New York theatres) all ran screaming for the exit. It was as if I'd tossed a handful of black widow spiders in their laps. Their reaction made it painfully clear that there was no place for a woman like Isobel on their stages. It was time to put the play in a drawer and turn to other things. The irony of it all is that we go to the theatre because we want to see desperate people doing unthinkable things. Think about Greek tragedy and Shakespeare--matricide, fratricide, infanticide, stabbings in the bathtub, killings on the marriage bed...to say nothing of the blood that roils in so much contemporary drama. We're drawn to enactments of our deepest fears because we enjoy the ride. We rush to comedies for the same reason--to see those fears turned on their heads and satirized. Witness the success of Chris Durang, Craig Lucas, Charles Busch, Mel Brooks and a host of others. So why don't we ever see a happy May-September love affair with the sexes reversed? (Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate doesn't count because once Benjamin rejects her, she's portrayed as a howling succubus.) I think it's fallout from the most horrifying older woman-younger man coupling of them all--Oedipus Rex. When men see young actors entwined in the arms of older women, they can't help but think of their mothers. It's guilt by association. Isobel wasn't Billy's mother, but she could have been. Women are only supposed to have sex for procreation, so it makes men nervous to see them take up with younger men when they're past childbearing age. It's perfectly okay to show older men with younger women. It's a sign of their virility. Look at Charlie Chaplin and Arthur Rubinstein! We see it in life and art all the time. But there isn't even a word for female sexual prowess. The closest thing we have is "nymphomania," which is treated as a disorder, not something to brag about in the steam room. And so we continue to wait for courageous producers to allow the "mature" woman on stage. A woman who's lived, a woman who's suffered....We can die of lingering illnesses, henpeck our put-upon husbands and drive our children crazy, but live out our erotic fantasies? "Look out, here come those black widow spiders!" I say it's time to let us woo whomever our hearts desire. Even in broad daylight! The fellas have been doing it for centuries. Tina Howe's one-woman play Such Small Hands, commissioned for Elizabeth Franz, will open at Syracuse Stage this spring, and her new translations of Ionesco's The Bald Soprano and The Lesson will premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York in the fall. -1Questia Media America, Inc. www.questia.com Publication Information: Article Title: Women in Flames: What Disqualifies a Woman in Pursuit of Passion? Age, of Course. Contributors: Tina Howe - author. Magazine Title: American Theatre. Volume: 20. Issue: 4. Publication Date: April 2003. Page Number: 20+. COPYRIGHT 2003 Theatre Communications Group; COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group
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