Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Utopia in Performance

At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I wanted you to know that my latest book, Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre, has been published by the University of Michigan Press.

Eventually, the book will be in bookstores around the country.

The book is now available from the publisher at http://www.press.umich.edu/titleDetailDesc.do?id=119520 and should also be available online from Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and other internet booksellers.

When I figure out how to add images to this blog, I'll attach the cover!

My best,
The Feminist Spectator

Monday, January 30, 2006

Wendy Wasserstein, In Memoriam

Wendy Wasserstein died today at 55 from lymphoma. The New York Times and other media outlets have reported the details of her life and death, to which I want to add just a few words of my own.

I haven't always been a fan of Wasserstein's work. In my book Presence and Desire, I devote a large part of one chapter to analyzing the conservative threads in her popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Heidi Chronicles. Although the play purports to be about contemporary U.S. feminism, I argued that in fact, it launched its bon mots at the expense of lesbians and a more radical critique of gender relations. Wasserstein's heroine epitomized the generation that wanted "it all"--the job, the baby, the marriage, success on the dominant culture's terms without too much strife or too much self-reflection. That Heidi, at the end of her play, was left with a baby and a good job but without a man (apparently like Wasserstein herself) seemed a paltry gesture of critique.

When I directed a summer theatre production of the play at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the late 80s, I took every opportunity to lampoon the comedy, stretching out its jokes with sight gags and other deconstructive critical commentary that I hoped would point up some of her liberal feminist excesses. I tried to use theatricality to suggest a more thorough-going critique of the play's description of white women's rush to marriage, children, family and away from more imaginative ways of imagining social relations.

But Wasserstein's play proved surprisingly durable. Despite my attempts to engage it critically with bold visual choices and strong female performances (to counter what I saw as the ultimately cipher-like character of Heidi), Wasserstein's comedy spoke through and her liberal critique won. You've got to admire a writer that tough.

And at this remove, in fact, I find that I do. Wasserstein was bound to take some hits, as one of the first women playwrights to succeed in the mainstream. Her subsequent plays, Sisters Rosensweig, An American Daughter, Isn't it Romantic, Old Money, and her most recent piece, Third, played either on or off Broadway, often with luminous casts filled with remarkable performers happy for the choice roles she wrote for women. Wasserstein was part of the inner circle of New York theatre, friends with powerful directors and other writers; her plays made money and were reproduced consistently at regional and community theatres.

Wasserstein never meant her writing to foment the feminist revolution. Her world was part and parcel of the one of which she wrote: the moneyed elite, women who in the 50s would have been constrained to their roles as family matriarchs, doling out love and dollars, who in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s--the years Wasserstein chronicled so deftly--had more and more perplexing choices that consumed them with the deep ambivalence that often roiled the clever surface of her plays. Uncommon Women and Others, her first play, which famously starred Glenn Close, Swoozie Kurtz, and Meryl Streep in its first production, remains on of the most trenchant dismemberings of the angst of early feminism for upper-class white women with new choices. The play deserves remounting, to see what it might have to offer these many decades after its first production.

Wasserstein's humor contributed to feminist discourse in the theatre in numerous ways. Her plays are simply funny, and tweak the stereotype of feminists as humorless and strident. She wrote bright, comic plays with a twinge of sadness, melancholy that became more evident and more cutting as her career went on.

When The Heidi Chronicles was first produced on Broadway, I spoke with a few colleagues on a panel devoted to the play at one of our academic theatre conferences. The room was packed with people who'd seen or read the play, mostly feminists like me, furious with the way Wasserstein had represented our lives, determined to critique her elitism and her one-sidedness, her glib erasure of the real blood, sweat, and tears that formed the platform on which Heidi came eventually to dance with a baby in her arms. We were disappointed that she hadn't told it all.

But I have to admit I will miss hearing what else she might have had to say. Who will fill her shoes, as a popular, commercially succesful woman playwright unafraid to at least address feminism by name, as well as by concept and conceit, courageous enough to look at women's lives and insist that they be the universal to which other human beings can relate and aspire, empathize and identify? Many other women playwrights write as well or better than Wendy Wasserstein, with perhaps more nuance, more complexity, more daring forms and contents. But who will gain the power to tell some of our stories on Broadway, as she's done so consistently all these years? Who will replace her as a public humorist, as someone to be counted on to laugh at our foibles as human beings from the perspective of women in a way that Broadway audiences can find accessible, as well as maybe provoking and just a little bit challenging?

If Wendy Wasserstein's goal was to assimilate, she did it very well, and carved a path for women in the theatre that we have to be careful doesn't close up after her. She'll be missed.

The Feminist Spectator

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Back to the Movies . . .

. . . because they’re always a pleasure and so telling about the state of American culture in all its permutations and variety. Spoiler alert.

Match Point

Woody Allen’s latest has been heralded as his return to form, after a series of films that made little impression on the zeitgeist. This one breaks his stride, however, by relocating his preoccupations to London, in a story about a working class tennis pro (Chris, played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) who befriends a man (Tom) from a hugely wealthy British family, insinuates himself into their circle, and eventually marries Tom’s sister (Chloe), all the while lusting after the American actress (Nola, played by Scarlett Johansson) who for a time is engaged to Tom. When Chris and Nola consummate their affair, he becomes obsessed with having her and jeopardizes the privilege he’s acquiring by association with his newfound friends.

Allen tells a good story. The narrative moves well and is filled with remarkably natural, even improvised-sounding dialogue that overlaps and repeats and intermingles in the messy, abrupt way that mirrors how we talk to each other. Such freely formed speeches make the characters sound real, and yet their actions are difficult to believe. The plot, as some critics have pointed out, resembles A Place in the Sun, which tells a similar story of a young man torn between the privilege he desires and the woman he truly loves. But in Allen’s retelling, it’s not clear that Chris really has the capacity to love anyone, not even himself.

As a result, the film’s central moral dilemma is hollow and unpersuasive. When Chris is quickly promoted through his father-in-law’s business, he doesn’t seem pleased or satisfied with his success, preoccupied as he is with his affair with Nola. At the same time, while Chris seems genuinely fond of Chloe, he’s almost too compliant with her increasingly strident demands that he have sex with her so that they can produce a child. Allen means him to be torn by relationships, but instead, the film observes him being torn only by circumstance.

For instance, when Nola inadvertently becomes pregnant (even though it’s Chris and Chloe who are trying frantically to conceive), she instantly retires her sultry seductiveness and becomes a needy, shrewish “other woman,” desperate for Chris to tell Chloe about their affair and for him to leave his wife. All the nuance of her character before the pregnancy vanishes; she morphs from a melancholy, slightly mysterious figure with a great deal of allure into an ordinary complaining, almost-wife who drags on Chris’s energy and attention.

While the film does indeed carry spectators along in its suspense, I found the choice of violence to free Chris from Nola predictable and kind of reprehensible. Here’s another story so familiar it’s practically mythological: the husband who needs to get rid of either his wife or his mistress so that he can maintain the appearance of sexual and financial success and “have it all.” (Why aren’t men excoriated for that desire, the way women are?) Once Chris kills Nola, setting up the murder so that it looks like a drug-related robbery that she unfortunately interrupts, we see him sweating and crying and unable to sleep, as though these performances of a conscience are enough to persuade us that his anguish is ethical or real.

Perhaps even Allen doesn’t trust his script. He interrupts the final third of the action with a “dream” sequence styled straight out of his earlier, more familiarly New York “kvetch” movies (or out of the mainstream chestnut, Ghosts): Chris hears noises in the night and enters his kitchen to find the ghosts of Nola and her neighbor (whom he also killed, in what he calls “collateral damage”) berating him for what he did to them. He tries to rationalize his actions, quoting Sophocles (of all things) and explaining in that anachronistically erudite, contemplative, ironic style of Allen’s films why he did what he did. This eruption into meta-narrative exposition is clumsy and out of place, even as a stylistic flourish. When this scene jump-cuts into a shot of the detective who suspects Chris bolting awake in bed claiming he knows that Chris did it, Allen’s hand becomes heavy indeed.

But because Chris is “lucky”—an emblem of the capriciousness of fate that Allen stresses throughout the script, from the opening shot, in which a tennis ball balances on top of a net, poised to drop to the opponent’s side or fall on Chris’s own—Chris gets away with the murder and is left to stew in the soup of his own guilt. But finally relieved from the narrative suspense of wanting to know what happens (and after a few unusually false endings), I found myself completely unmoved and perplexed by what I found an utterly predictable, conventional piece of work.

Not to mention its gender implications. Chloe is the vaguely insipid, innocent wife, who can’t see the betrayal that’s right in front of her; Nola is the failed actress who her rich former friends eventually label as “hard” and possibly a prostitute, reinstating the (very) old equation of women who perform on the stage as whores. Rather than somehow letting her revel in her unconventional, deeply physical sexuality (she and Chris first have sex outside in a field, during a driving rain), Allen’s narrative choice to make Nola pregnant reduces her not just to the “other woman,” but to the would-be other wife/mother, implying that mother or whore are (still) the only choices women have.

Tom’s family—whose too British prattling about business and horses and socializing provides the backdrop for Chris’s adventures—chatter incessantly about reproduction. Even though Tom and his wife (the more appropriate woman he marries instead of Nola) are pregnant at the alter, Tom and Chloe’s mother keeps badgering Chloe to get pregnant, as though she’s not fully part of the human race unless she’s reproducing it. “Family,” in this movie, is both empty and hegemonic, absolutely central to a social process that’s ultimately bankrupt even for the captain of industry Chris becomes. Allen doesn’t seem to be indicting the family, however, so much as promulgating these shopworn values.

Chris is the anti-hero, the one who suffers from his violent determination to hold on to his hard-won, newly privileged social position at all costs. Chris is the one who’s killed his child by his mistress. Chris is the one who, because he’s always been different, will finally never belong to this club of superficiality and wealth to which who would want to belong anyway?

Well over two hours later, I come away saying, “So what?” And shouldn’t we expect more than that?

My best,
The Feminist Spectator

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Delicate Balance of Criticism, II

I’d promised last month to talk about Lara Shalson’s article in the latest issue of Theatre Topics. Theatre Topics, by the way, is an excellent, accessible academic journal that addresses theatre and performance practice as well as ideas about contemporary culture. One of the latest special issues addresses “devising” theatre, in which groups of artists collaborate on texts that they create from the ground up, often with local communities. I highly recommend the journal for its reports on innovative approaches to practice, and its very good critical engagements with the teaching, as well as the making, of theatre and performance.

Shalson’s article, “Creating Community, Constructing Criticism: The Women’s One World Festival 1980-1981,” addresses the critical community that participated in the international performance festival which, 25 years ago, prompted the founding of New York’s WOW Café, which became the most vital generator of feminist performance in the 20th century. Shalson uses this historical event to launch an inquiry into critics’ position vis-à-vis community-based performance, and to challenge some of our received notions about the relationship of critics to the work they review. She describes our understanding of the critic as “outside” of the theatre-making community, and how community-based work is presumed to be “insular” and “confined,” “preaching to the converted.”

Shalson does a good job of arguing that what she calls “constructing criticism,” on the contrary, might contribute to the process of creating community through performance. “[T]hese two activities,” she writes, “are mutually reinforcing rather than oppositional and must be thought together” (223). That is, performance helps to create communities as well as the critics who write about it; critics, in this model, aren’t outside the work, but are part of its creation in the moment in which it’s seen. Rather than asserting power over a performance, or positioning herself as the intermediary between the community and the presumptively larger, more important dominant culture, the critic is a participant in a local process of witnessing and engaging performance.

As Shalson points out, the festival nature of the Women’s One World event highlighted the mutually constituting relationship of critics and performers. The festival, she suggests, “created the same reception conditions for critics as they did for all participants,” which resulted in a “heightened self-awareness on the part of critics about their role in relation to this community-based performance” (234).

When I was starting out as a feminist theatre critic, I, too, bought into the traps Shalson outlines. I felt my duty was to report on feminist theatre and performance to the larger audience I presumed should be intended for the work. I decided that aesthetic considerations were more important than political ones. As sympathetic as I might be to the “cause” that much of the work I reviewed espoused, I held it to the same rigorous standards I might bring to any performance. I indeed saw myself as separate from the performers/theatre-makers, with a duty not necessarily to be objective, but to side with the audience, which I presumed cared more about theatre than they did feminism.

As Shalson quotes in her article, when one of the groups I wrote about in my first book, The Feminist Spectator as Critic, wanted to see what I said about them before they’d give me permission to use a photograph of their work, I declined. I resented the implication that they should have any input into how I saw them and what I said. I recall, too, even earlier, my righteous guilt when I gave a Boston political theatre group a less than complimentary review in Sojourner, the feminist newspaper I wrote for at the time. Although I’d worked with Maxine Klein—an important leftist theatre-maker who’d actually been my teacher in the theatre department at Boston University during my first semester as an undergrad—I felt compelled to say that her company (Little Flags Theatre) had created a slipshod production of a didactic play without much artistic merit.

Who did I think I was serving with that review? And why did I guard my words so jealousy from preview by At the Foot of the Mountain, the feminist group who wanted to exchange viewing rights for that photograph? I was buying into exactly the assumptions about the relationship between critics and artists that Shalson challenges in her essay.

How should we, then, approach community-based theatre and performance, especially when we’re part of the community being addressed? How do we balance considerations of political meanings and intentions with aesthetic and artistic execution? These aren’t new questions; they have a long history in theatre criticism and I’ve mulled over them throughout my career. I feel urgent about them today, knowing that so much of the theatre and performance about which I care a great deal has lost funding and is under attack by right wing ideologues who haven’t even seen it, who will never take the time to truly look at work they despise a priori.

Shalson’s method of “constructing criticism,” which acknowledges that critics, too, are part of the audience being addressed by community-based performance, that they’re equally a part of the community, rather than people with pens who sit at an Olympian remove, is perhaps one answer. The presumptive reader to whom critics write might, in this case, be the community-based audience who has shared the moment with them, rather than some assumed, anonymous audience who might never, in fact, see the performance.

A community-based critic might write for other reasons than judging artistic or aesthetic merit or measuring consumers’ investments. They might write about the moment itself, describing the audience, the context, the importance of the event, as much as they write about the production, per se. In this way, a record of a moment of community is entered into our common store, not simply an assessment based on standards that might not, in fact, be relevant.

Paul Bonin-Rodriguez and Jaclyn Pryor and I have been working on what we call “colleague criticism.” Paul began this conversation in a graduate seminar I taught at UT several years ago; Jaclyn joined this work shortly after, and I began participating a year ago, when we presented on the subject at a local conference. Colleague criticism changes the relationship between critic and performer by embedding the critic within the work as it’s being generated, much as a dramaturg might work on a production.

Rather than assuming that the critic comes to the performance with the same knowledge as the spectator, as a kind of tabula rasa with few expectations except for maybe some knowledge of the script, the colleague critic might be part of the process of generating the work; might have seen it in earlier incarnations; might know the performer very well; and might understand in a deeper way the context in which the performance is generated. All of this knowledge goes into the writing, so that the colleague critic’s account is a kind of thick description, a layered discussion of the process and product of a performance, rather than a surface gloss on what’s seen in the moment.

Colleague criticism, it seems to me, is a way of writing about performance as a rich cultural process. It takes into account the multiple stages of generating a performance; it describes the desire of both the performer and the audience to have an intimate, meaningful exchange; and it opens a record of not only this performance, but of a history of feelings, desires, choices, and moments on which the performance is constructed and on which it will continue to change, grow, and live.

There’s much more to say about criticism, but I’ll consider this the beginnings of an on-going conversation, one I’ll use as a reference point in future posts. As usual, I’m happy to hear your thoughts. Thanks for all your posts on my holiday movie musings.

Happy New Year.
My best,
The Feminist Spectator