Sunday, November 06, 2005

Sarah Schulman and the Plight of Women Playwrights

The Women and Theatre Program listserve (available at began a conversation a week or so ago about Jesse Green’s New York Sunday Times feature story on playwright Sarah Schulman and Green’s inability to position Schulman as anything but a once-angry lesbian now trying to “reform.” The story, called “Who’s Afraid of Sarah Schulman” (10-23-05), is rife with the kind of containing, inadvertently disparaging descriptions that continue to plague women theatre artists. While leading his piece with references to Schulman’s notoriously prickly personality and her “difficult” nature as an artist, he remarks, “Though her speech is armored with jargon, the effect is often mitigated, in person, by her almost maternal warmth. In private, she has been a loving mentor to many young writers, feeding them encouragement and home-cooked meals. Even during our interview, she occasionally took my hand to emphasize an important point, and spoke in a modest whisper. Still, I found myself repeatedly preparing to flinch as she stalked me for bad motives, tired agendas and prejudices; when she thought she spied one she pounced as if to drag it from behind some trees and let it rot in the sun.”

In one short paragraph, Green manages to employ most of the stereotypes that still stick to women artists: they are smart but have to remain maternal, offering home-cooked meals to younger playwrights and touching the writer modestly to whisper privately. At the same time, Green paints Schulman as something of an animal, waiting to pounce on his words like prey she’s eager display like a trophy then let desiccate. This feature isn’t much different from one of the first New York Times Sunday Magazine stories to run on a woman playwright, which featured Marcia Norman in 1983, when her play ‘night, Mother ran on Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Nearly 25 years later, the tone is the same: bewilderment that a woman could be an artist, and a desperate need to place her in a domestic, rather than a professional space. Green’s piece on Schulman spends a great deal of time preoccupied with her sixth floor walk-up in the East Village, which stands in as the measure of Schulman’s inability to achieve profitable mainstream success. But it also slants the story, making it appear as though Schulman’s only aspiration is to find a new apartment. Green quotes Schulman’s confident assertion that she’s a good writer, that she’s trying to do “something that’s never been done before,” but he seems to undercut Schulman’s confidence by domesticating her and implicitly belittling the streak of paranoia that runs (no doubt rightfully) through Schulman’s stories.

After all, this is the woman who accused Jonathan Larson of plagiarizing her novel People in Trouble in his hit, long-running Broadway musical Rent. Stagestruck (Duke University Press, 1998), Schulman’s screed about the production and American theatre’s refusal to give lesbian playwrights their due, reads as the work of a writer slightly unhinged in her account of Larson’s purportedly unauthorized borrowing of her work. But after decades of neglect as a playwright, some resentment, even fury, seems logical and rational, rather than hysterical.

I don’t know if Schulman is a good playwright, as I’ve never seen or read her work. Manic Flight Reaction, the play recently produced at Playwrights Horizons, which occasioned Green’s Sunday feature, was reviewed in the Times by Christopher Isherwood (10-31-205). Isherwood calls the play “talky and hyperanalytical” and notes, “Virtually everyone onstage seems to have just emerged, eyes ablaze, from either an unusually revelatory therapeutic session or a seminar on the oppressions of the ‘media-industrial-art-technology complex,’ as one character puts it.” He criticizes Schulman for letting her characters quote philosopher Walter Benjamin, and for attempting to combine “didactic impulses” with “generation-gap comedy.” Isherwood expects conventional drama that closely hues to singular genre expectations; that refuses to be too thoughtful or intellectual, if it intends to be a comedy; and that keeps its references safely, slyly hidden. Schulman’s sin, in this play, doesn’t appear to be her lesbian characters or her own lesbian identity, but rather her intellectual and political commitments, which mainstream reviewers would rather elide from performance. Unless, of course, the playwright is Tom Stoppard or Tony Kushner.

Schulman’s play could be as awkward and heavy-handed as Isherwood insists. But shouldn’t we applaud a woman who uses her midtown production to stage a play with a 50ish woman academic in the lead, someone who’s lived multiple lives, someone who thinks deeply and isn’t afraid of contradictions? Isn’t it to Schulman’s credit that while she draws this unusual character, she also apparently unravels a plot in which one of the lead’s former female lovers has now married a Republican candidate for office and is determined to heterosexualize her past and her future? This sounds like a fine combination of issues and intriguing peccadilloes to me. Why isn’t there space in American theatre to let a writer like Schulman take a few risks, and even court failure, without dismissing her for her erudition or trying to reinscribe her as a mother, the role to which women in theatre apparently remain best suited?

I’ve long believed that more women—specifically, more feminists—need to write about theatre and the arts for the mainstream press. We need to make feminism the default perspective, so that Schulman’s experiences and her resentment over the lack of acclaim for her work might be described differently. When might we be able to consider our theatre from the perspective of a woman (even lesbian) playwright or critic, instead of relying on a less than sympathetic, entitled male reviewer who still can’t imagine what it feels like to be marginalized by gender from the most important forums of American culture life?