The following is excerpted from a speech Tina Howe, the author of Pride’s Crossing, gave at the 20th anniversary Women’s Project conference in November 1997 in New York City.
When my friend Honor Moore—the poet, biographer and feminist—produced my first play, The Nest, in 1970, she used to ask me, “Which are you first, a woman or a writer?”
“A writer!” I answered without thinking twice.
“Are you sure?” she pressed.
“Absolutely! I grew up in a family of writers.”
And growing up, I didn’t particularly like women. In fact, I was terrified of them. My mother towered over my father, who was only five foot six. With her upsweep hairdo, wiglet and hat adorned with feathers and plastic fruits, she was six feet tall and given to excess in speech and behavior. She was what’s known as a character. You never knew what was going to come out of her mouth next: a greeting as loud as a bullhorn or a thoughtless comment that would bring the room to a standstill.
And then there were the punishing little girls I went to school with as a child. Those privileged Brearley and Chapin girls who were so cruel to me. Like my mother I was tall, almost six feet by the time I was in fifth grade. To make matters worse, my front teeth had been knocked out in the playground, so I had a lisp.
“Say scissors,” they’d taunt.
“Thithers,” I’d respond.
“Again, again!” they’d cry, screaming with laughter.
“Thithers, thithers, thithers…”
I was so exhilarated to be the center of attention, I’d say it over and over until the halls rang with their derision.
Years later, in 1972, I actually joined a women’s group when we were living in upstate New York. My husband was teaching American history at the state university in Albany and we lived in a farmhouse in Kinderhook, 30 miles south. Women’s groups were sprouting up all over the place, so I joined one in Hudson.
I can’t tell you how uncomfortable I felt. The room was filled with young mothers like me. One by one, they revealed how overwhelmed and isolated they felt. When it was my turn to identify myself, I told them I was a playwright. The minute they heard “writer,” their eyes narrowed with suspicion.
“I get it,” one of them said. “You’re here to appropriate our pain for your plays. You don’t care about sharing, you’re just here to use us.”
I was stung to the quick. It was the old “scissors” routine. Once again I was the outsider who’d never be part of the group. They’d completely misread me. I found their confessions heartbreaking. It was just that my concerns were different. Because I have such an understanding husband, I didn’t feel their pain and isolation; my problems were more about how to balance work and motherhood. But once I was identified as a writer, the die was cast. I was not welcome. So I left after two sessions and started a writing group closer to home, and this time men were invited. We met every two weeks to read our work. This was clearly where I belonged.
Now that I’ve lived through ten productions of my plays, I finally understand Honor’s question. I’m most definitely a woman first. My gender defines my work and its reception. I’m always identified as a woman playwright. But one never makes such a distinction with the fellas—Shepard and Mamet are simply playwrights. But not us.
I remember all those lethal “Women’s Playwright” panels of the ’80s, how all the Wendys and I would be asked, “Can you write if you have your period?” “Can you write and nurse at the same time?” As if we are mere leaking sacks of milk and blood, ruled by the phases of the moon—Macbeth‘s three witches incanting over vats of newts and frogs. I’d like to see a panel of male playwrights questioned about their work in terms of their sperm counts or enlarged prostate glands.
I remember what an anomaly I was when Museum was produced at the Public Theater in 1977. All the women in the cast were a good 15 years younger than I. They were all in the throes of affairs with dashing men and each other. I was the one who had to race home to put the children to bed.
“Put the children to bed?” they’d say, wide-eyed. “You have children?”
It was as if I were from Mars. Times have changed. Now there are more working mothers in the theatre. Or are there?
The question I’m asked most frequently is, “Can you have a family and write for the theatre?” The answer is “Yes.” You just have to be made of steel and have a partner who’s behind you 150 percent. Making a living as a playwright is almost impossible, regardless of your gender.
Let me tell you about The Nest. It had its first production at the Act IV Theater in Provincetown in the summer of 1969. It was about three women friends competing for husbands. The action takes place during a dinner party they give for two male friends. Their anxiety about luring the men into marriage reaches such a fever pitch that dinner ends with the arrival of an eight-foot wedding cake—hint, hint.
By the second act, things spin so out of control that the most desperate of the three takes off all her clothes and plunges head first into the cake, to be licked clean by one of the delighted men. If Ionesco could present a male teacher ritualistically raping and murdering his female student, why couldn’t I present a woman ritualistically raping a man? All’s fair in love and war, right?
The New York critics were appalled. When the play moved to Manhattan’s Mercury Theater, Clive Barnes said of the 10 worst plays he’d seen in his life, The Nest was at the top of the list. He was sure we’d never hear from Tina Howe again.
My first review. Thank God I wasn’t around to read it. I gave birth to my second child the week it appeared. What I found so puzzling about the experience, given the critics’ dismay, was how much the audience loved it—they were rapturous.
Needless to say, we closed the following day.
Because I come from New England stock, which is drawn to self-flagellation, the play’s closure didn’t dampen my spirit—it emboldened it. I’ve always maintained it’s much easier to begin a career getting bad reviews because then you don’t expect anything. Pity the playwrights who come out of the gate a winner the first time. Then they covet good reviews, but as we all know, you’re only as good as your last play. To be wildly praised and then suddenly attacked must seem such a betrayal. But I was attacked for so long, I never expected to succeed. I was always in a defensive position. Which is the only position to be in, if you ask me.
So, what did I do for my second play? I whipped up even more mayhem and wrote Birth and After Birth, a piece about how women compete over fertility. Even though I married at 23, I didn’t have children for five years. This was in the early ’60s, when women blindly marched to the altar right after college. I can’t tell you how many women harassed me for being childless for so long.
“You’re not a woman until you have children!” they’d intone, wagging their fingers at me. “What do you know about femaleness when you’re denying yourself the most basic experience a woman can have?”
How dare they? I deeply resented these attacks. To this day, there’s a tyranny of women who have children versus those that don’t. I find their zeal arrogant and hurtful. I may rejoice in my two kids, but I’d never tell another woman how to live her life. Our biology and choices are too complex. They say women can have it all now, though I’m not entirely convinced. Back in the late ’60s, there really was a divide between women who had children and those who didn’t. It seemed a thrilling subject for a play.
If The Nest was a shocker, Birth and After Birth left audiences speechless. It was about Sandy and Bill Apple celebrating the birthday of their four-year-old son, Nicky—played by a large, hairy man. Sandy has invited her first cousin, Jeffrey, over to celebrate. Like his wife Mia, Jeffrey is an anthropologist who studies children from primitive societies. Jeffrey and Mia don’t have kids because they’re so wrapped up in their careers. Sandy’s determined to change their minds. The first act shows her and Bill vainly trying to discipline Nicky, who’s in such a fever of excitement over his birthday, he destroys the house.
Jeffrey and Mia show up in the second act and Sandy puts her plan into action. She and Bill literally force Mia to the floor and convince her she’s going through labor. Mia tries to resist but eventually goes along with the charade after telling a gruesome story about the Whan See, a mythical tribe of monkey people who live in trees in the Australian bush: The moment a baby is born in this culture, it’s stuffed back into its mother’s womb. Successful birthing involves enduring at least 10 reinsertions. As Mia recounts witnessing this ghastly ritual, she realizes she was the one pushing the baby back in.
“You know what it felt like?” she asks. “Stuffing a turkey. Stuffing a 50-pound turkey with some little…hamster or guinea pig.”
You can imagine the response. No self-respecting theatre would touch the play. My agent at the time fired me because he got so dispirited with all the rejection letters. It wasn’t until 1995 that the play finally saw the light of day—it only took 23 years. It was done at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia and then at the Woolly Mammoth in Washington, D.C.
How was it received? The audience loved it and the critics were appalled. “What is this self-indulgent throwback to Absurdism?” they complained. It’s one thing for men to take on questions of power and identity, but for a woman to approach the sacred cows of courtship and motherhood is just not done. We can write “issue” plays, but the moment we try to penetrate the mystery of the bedroom or nursery, the critics run screaming. The fellas get to work with their bare hands, but we have to don white gloves.
After my first two disasters, I knew I’d have to change course. I may be into self-flagellation, but at some point one has to cry, “Enough!” I desperately wanted a career in the theatre. So I looked around to see what sort of plays were succeeding.
The year was 1974. The big hits were Seascape, Travesties, The Changing Room, and A Chorus Line. Audiences clearly wanted spectacle and escape. They wanted to be transported to beaches, locker rooms and rehearsal studios. I could do that. So I wrote Museum, set in a contemporary art museum filled with eerie sculptures and gigantic white paintings. It had 44 characters. What did I care if I was creating a casting nightmare? My muse was calling.
Amazingly enough, the play was produced—with a cast of 55. The Los Angeles Actors Theater did it in 1976 back in the days when it was a free theatre. The actors weren’t paid and neither was I. The audience got in for free. Needless to say, there were performances when there were more people on stage than in the house, but the play was a hit. Joe Papp remounted it at the Public Theater a year later with a cast of 18 doubling and tripling their roles.
How was it received? Once again the audience was rhapsodic, but the critics were mystified. Forty-four characters going berserk in an art museum? What sort of play was this? Pirandello, Ionesco and Stoppard were allowed such excesses, why not me? Because women don’t do this sort of thing.
Theatre is a conservative art form by its very nature—a play needs immediate acceptance in order to run. It’s all about money: Because we’re so dependent on a healthy box office, we can’t get too far ahead of the audience or the critics. Women have more room to experiment in literature and the visual arts because those operating costs aren’t as high. Not that it’s easy for any of us these days. Look where our national priorities are: The federal government spends more money maintaining military bands than supporting the arts. That’s why I go to galleries when I need to be inspired. The work is invariably so much more radical and surprising.
All playwrights suffer from the economics of the business. Very few of us can make a living at it, but women have it twice as hard because the theatre is still largely a male bastion. You can count the number of important female critics and artistic directors on one hand. This has a tremendous impact on what and how we’re allowed to write.
I didn’t get my first good review until Painting Churches—a white-glove play if ever there was one. Not that it didn’t contain a few primal screams, but the setting was elegant and non-threatening. Everyone heaved a huge sigh of relief because finally I could be pigeonholed, just as all women writers are pigeonholed. Some of us write comedies, others write political plays. Some of us write about gender and others about race. We all have our niche. But what if we want to expand? Or, God forbid, change?
Every time I see a play by a woman that’s been commercially produced, I’m painfully aware of the subterfuge she’s had to adopt—the artful structure, the cautious handling of dangerous themes. The reason I’m so sensitive to these ploys is because I use them myself.
Take my new play, Pride’s Crossing. I wanted to write about the passion of old ladies. When men age, they just get old, but when we age, we become very powerful. The membranes between what we should do and what we want to do get thinner and thinner. There’s no rage like old-lady rage, just as there’s no tenderness like old-lady tenderness.
As the century comes to a close, I wanted to celebrate the life of women who lived through most of it, and who better than the thwarted women from my mother’s background and generation? They came from a stultified strata of Boston society that was all about exclusivity, fear and privilege. I wanted to articulate the howl they could never muster, but I had to be careful. I didn’t want everyone bolting for the nearest exit. So I decided to open it out of town. Premiering a play in New York has just gotten too risky—for women as well as men.
The white-gloves-or-bare-hands dilemma exists on two levels. We wear gloves to protect our hands, but we also wear them to protect what we handle—food, photographs, rare manuscripts. So when I ask whether we should wear gloves to do our work, I’m not just talking about appearances. I’m also trying to figure out what we have to wear to protect our work. Because the percentage of women who have their plays produced is so low, our plays by their very nature are rare. It’s not because we’re less creative than men—look at the literary output of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing and the other long-ball hitters. We’re just as prolific as the fellas. Just not in the theatre, for the reasons I’ve already mentioned.
We have to wear gloves to protect ourselves and our work. What I’m really railing against is that we’re not allowed more of a selection—boxing gloves, surgical gloves, riding gloves, driving gloves, welding gloves, the list goes on and on. So I thought I’d add another pair to your wardrobe. They’re double duty, inexpensive and mold right to the hand. They’ll allow you to handle comedy, tragedy and everything in between.
[At which point Ms. Howe flings 150 pairs of latex gloves into the audience.]
Tina Howe is the author of Pride’s Crossing, published by TCG books, among many other plays. This piece was excerpted from a keynote speech she gave at the 20th anniversary Women’s Project conference in November 1997 in New York City.
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