The question of theatre—the question of art in general—is a question of honesty. I don’t see how a dishonest person could possibly write. And I don’t see how honest people could not lean in their writing to what they are, to the things they know best. If my pen is honest, I will sometimes—frequently—portray characters who, like me, are women. If my expression is honest, it is inevitable that it will often speak in a feminine way.
If I think of it, it seems natural that I would write with a woman’s perspective, but I am not aware that I am doing any such thing. I don’t sit down to write to make a point about women if the central character of my play is a woman, any more than I intend to make a point about men when I write a play like The Danube, where the central character is a young man. The Danube is, in fact, a play about the end of the world.
Often, there are misunderstandings about my work because it is expected that as a woman I must be putting women in traditional or untraditional roles, or roles of subservience or subjugation or dominance, to illustrate those themes. Or when one of my women characters is portrayed in a position of work or leisure, certain assumptions or simplifications are made about the character which might be quite the opposite of what is presented in the play. When those contradictions occur, the critics never question their initial premise. Instead, they see it as a fault in the play.
The same thing happens if you have a non-white character or actor in a play. Immediately people assume the play is dealing with racial questions. One can almost hear those people asking, “If you want to deal with a ‘person,’ why don’t you put a ‘person’ on stage?”
In my play Mud, the character Mae works very hard. She earns the little money that comes into the house. The two men don’t earn money. That is not, traditionally, a woman’s position. The work that she does is ironing, which is traditionally viewed as a woman’s job, although Chinese laundrymen iron as well. It was my choice for her to iron because, in her situation, what other choices are there? She could be sewing. I have often been told that in Mud I have written a play about women’s subservience, by virtue of Mae’s job. While it is true that ironing is work that women do, the play also makes it very clear that Mae is willful and strongminded, and that the men in the play accept her as such and love her without making any attempt to undermine her strength. These people are too poor to indulge in bizarre ego games. They have a reality to deal with, which is poverty. That is the way things have worked out for them. The concepts of sex roles and role playing are a luxury, an indulgence that requires a degree of affluence.
The fact remains that there may very well be women whose temperaments, in a very profound way, are closer to the temperaments of men. If you reversed the sexes in Mud, you would see that Mae’s nature is more male than female in terms of dominance, and that the men’s natures are more female in terms of tenderness and acceptance. People see the character Lloyd as violent, but if a young woman were to take a gun and shoot a man who had used her emotionally and sexually—the way Mae has used Lloyd—they would applaud. That is because there is more compassion for women in relation to emotional abandonment. But the attention to sex roles, protest against sex roles, defense against the guilt that results from that protest, all these things keep us from seeing a work with a full perspective. They prevent us from seeing characters as human beings; we see them rather as party members.
To understand Mud as being about Mae’s oppression and my more recent play The Conduct of Life about the subjugation of Latin American women is to limit the perception of those plays to a singleminded perspective. It is submitting your theatregoing activity to an imaginary regime or discipline that has little to do with the plays. I would like to be offered the freedom to deal with themes other than gender. But again, people think, what right does she have as a woman to be writing about military cruelty in Latin America?
I’m pleased that at this time in my writing I am finding expression for strong female characters who are able to speak of their longing for enlightenment and of their passions, or who make political or philosophical observations. If I were limited to writing plays to make points about women, I would feel that I was working under some sort of tyranny of the well-meaning. It is unavoidable that every choice I make comes exactly from who I am—including the fact that I love to iron. I think it’s magic! Every single thing I have lived through in my life, everything I have witnessed, in some way gets into my work. The fact that I’m a woman is one of the most present things. Each day of my life something happens to me that is different from what would happen were I a man. Most of those things are rich and passionate, and I don’t refer to them by way of complaint.
As a writer, I am in an odd position in relation to feminism: radical feminists don’t consider me a feminist, but a great many people who are sympathetic consider me a feminist and see my characterizations of men as a harsh criticism. This began in 1977 when I wrote Fefu and Her Friends. The idea that I was a feminist was confirmed to them when I followed Fefu with Evelyn Brown, a piece about woman’s work, based on a journal of a New England woman who worked as a servant and wrote down her household chores in great detail. After that came Eyes on the Harem, which concerned the Turkish Empire with an emphasis on the harem.
The next play I did was an erotic, turn-of-the century piece, rather risque and naughty about sex; the men wore these white porcelain erect phalluses decorated with a blue circle like very fancy Swedish dishware, and the women wore white porcelain breasts with the nipples similarly decorated. There were a number of women who came to this play assuming that they would see feminist art, and they were horrified to find a work of such frivolity where men’s penises were paraded around with delight.
I feel myself as a woman in that I sense myself as a female organism, not as a woman in the way that society considers what I should do or think. If women suffer abuse because of the kind of organism they are—if they struggle in defense of this organism or this nature—I feel a great deal of excitement witnessing that struggle and I want to write about it. But if a woman suffers that abuse or confinement as a result of the world’s expectations, I feel compassion but I’m not as interested in writing about it. I’m not as interested in the rules of the world. I don’t like those rules and I suffer enormously from them, but the whole question is less interesting to me as a writer.
In any case, I have never set out to write in a particular manner or about a particular subject. The creative system is something so delicate and easily damaged that I would never impose anything on it. I know it has its own mind and its own will and that the system is my boss. If I think I know what I want to write about, I soon find out that I can’t write at all. But if I start writing and am patient enough, I sooner or later find something which is in the lower layers of my being, and that is the thing I should be writing about. These things are passionate yearnings that activate my writing and activate me as a person. Sometimes these things are minute, sometimes they are puzzling, but if I am patient and a good observer they will always reveal themselves to me and uncover the nature of the work I am doing, like pieces of a larger mass that crumble and reveal its nature.
The possibility of being creative depends on not being shy with one’s intimate self and not being fearful for one’s personal standing. We must take very delicate chances—delicate because they are dangerous, and delicate because they are subtle; so subtle that while we experience a personal terror it could be that no one will notice. It is this danger which in my mind is very connected to what is truly creative.
It is precisely at a time in my life when my work is following its most mysterious and personal course that it has become more political. I think this is because, although my examination is personal, my concerns are less directed at my own person. I am very happy that I have gained enough independence in my writing that the theatre around me doesn’t have so much influence as to keep me from following my own course.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. This Giving Season, please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!