Why Make Art?

Note to readers: The essay that follows was originally my master’s thesis for Goddard College. In the fall of 1984, it was published in Trivia: A Journal of Ideas, the longest piece they had published and the one that received the most reader response.

Trivia‘s editor called it “the essay on everything,” and she may have been right. At the very least, it’s an essay on creativity, and that’s the reason I chose to republish it here.

Essays on creativity are intended to spark other people’s creativity, so if any part of what follows speaks to you—take it and run with it.

 

THE DREAM IS THE BRIDGE
In Search of Lesbian Theatre

 

Foreword

For the past fifteen months, as a graduate student at Goddard College, I’ve been prospecting in an interface between disciplines: where theatre, theology, and political theory converge. I’ve been trying to discover how to make art, make religion, and make revolution in ways that come together, answering my deepest desires.

In the following essay I attempt to spell out what I have found and to spell it out clearly and vividly enough that it can be of use. I work in the writing as much with metaphor and image as I do with concepts. My essential themes resist expression in the form of propositions. But what I have been learning and saying leads me to the following conclusions:

a) Lesbians, in addition to being distinct, living individuals, are a metaphor for “humankind.”

b) Theatre, in addition to being an evolving art form, is a metaphor for the way lesbians make our lives.

c) A theatre that we make the way we make our lesbian lives—a theatre that richly expresses our lesbian lives—might shatter those tenaciously held images of “humankind” which block the political/religious/cultural transformations that must take place, soon, if the earth we stand on is to remain a living planet.

d) Lesbians are a moving power for change when we make our arts and our religions and our politics and our lives according to our deepest longings. When—on the contrary—we stifle what moves us in the name of what is “possible” and “good,” we reinforce systematic terror.

A note on the form of this piece: Once I recognized to whom I longed to speak, carefully but freely and from the heart, the words became a river, a current carrying me to the mouth of the sea. I wanted readers to experience that same rafting down the Mississippi, and so I interrupted the writing with “chapter” and section titles only, not with footnotes. I give enough information in the text so that readers can locate my sources, listed at the end of the essay. Also at the end are notes, divided by “chapter,” in which I place stray thoughts and influences that I didn’t develop or acknowledge in the essay itself.

One crucial thing I have not written about in the essay itself—its origin. It began, I think, in the spring of 1983 with the cat scene in the Goddard Follies, a collectively created theatre event, directed by Catherine Nicholson, which was both celebration and self-criticism of the Goddard learning community. The cats were the five lesbian/feminist students living on campus. When they played out their secret thoughts (thoughts both funny and ferocious but above all serious, affecting what they did, political) in front of the faculty and staff and other students, they made brief, extraordinary theatre. And in the process of making it, they raised their own spirits. Scripting lines from their improvisations gave me my first experience of how theatre answering my desires might be made; I thank Janis, Laura, Pam, Robin, and Tina for making that beginning possible. I thank C. Colette, Judith Katz, Lise Weil, and Elizabeth Clement LaRoche Taylor for the conversations that kept that beginning alive in me.

Finally, I hope this essay is some return of energy to those who contributed most to its completion: Nelle Morton, who showed me the way to go home and whose essential themes (hearing to speech, speaking the words of our lives, the goddess who works herself out of business, images coming before words, following the metaphor) reappear throughout my own; Nicola Morris, my advisor, who tricked me into becoming, finally, a writer-all-the-way and who gave me the benefits of superb editing; Lois Harris, second reader on my committee, who gently informed me that it was time I came out from the bushes and said what I thought; Jill Dolan, who gave me the example of her master’s thesis; Susan Wood-Thompson, who made an art of friendship when I needed it most; Monique Wittig, Sande Zeig, and Syn Guerin, who—separately and together—created the images I needed to see before I could know what I meant and feel what I intended; and Catherine Nicholson, for the constancy of her radicalism, for her lesbian eyes, for sharing her intelligence and imagination and deep knowledge of theatre with me.

The Quest

In 1953 Knopf published a book of essays by Eric Bentley called In Search of Theatre. In it he recounted his journeys through North America and Europe, seeing theatre productions, talking with theatre people, directing plays himself, reading and rereading new and old plays, trying to come to some sense of what genuine-elemental-quintessential theatre, theatre worth the effort (the effort being—always—immense, regardless of a work’s value), might be in the time in which he was writing. In Search of Theatre is about an art form, but it’s also, as he admits in the foreword, about himself, inevitably part travelogue and part autobiography because it is the account of a quest.

I have used Bentley as a model, imitating the title and intentions of his 1953 book, because I have been questing too. But we’re different. Thirty years have passed between the publication of his book and the time I begin writing this; the world is immeasurably closer to nuclear holocaust. Why anyone should pour their life energy into a polluted, coopted, ephemeral, and very expensive art form is for me a question with a hideous edge of irony that it could not have had for Bentley in the late forties and early fifties. And though we are both “free,” “white,” citizens and beneficiaries of an imperialist power, and over twenty-one, I am not an upper-middle-class male and have not learned to pass myself off as one (nor do I very often want to). The moment-by-moment differences between living as a man and living as a woman, multiplied by the difference between being able to assume a cloak of class privilege and going out more-or-less bare-assed into the world—these differences are extreme. No foundation bankrolls my travels; no university supports my research; no mainstream publisher expresses interest in my manuscripts; no financially viable theatre company invites me to work with them. Nor does it seem likely that any would in the future. If, then, I write an account of a quest that, in simple fact, no one on the face of the earth asked me to undertake, I write it for myself—for purposes of locating and perhaps saving my soul (melodramatic but true). And even this most personal and urgent of aims would not have been conceivable for me had I not been supported emotionally and financially for over a year by another woman.

Thus we come to the further and not so small difference of being a lesbian and identifying myself as such in print and in public, for political and personal reasons— placing my words, in effect, outside the realms of “civilized” discourse. There is an unspoken assumption in Bentley’s book that what he searches for, what answers to his desire for genuine, elemental, quintessential theatre, is theatre with a capital T. Generic-label, universal theatre. Theatre for everyone. Art. Provided he has done his job well, the rest of us, if we are literate in the English language and take performance seriously, will naturally be interested in reading what he has discovered.

I, by way of contrast, assume nothing of the sort. People won’t let me. I can’t get by with any implicit claim to universal significance. When I announce myself as a lesbian in my work, it is as if I paste on my forehead a label which says in the common parlance, “I am one of those queer girls over there. Take me for a sickie, take me for a nuisance, take me for a threat, take me for exotica—but whatever you do, baby, don’t take me seriously.”

Which is just as well, since it keeps me honest (even as it leaves my vanity in shreds). My quest for authentic theatre is double-aimed: I want to discover what, if any, meaningful action is possible for me; and I want to discover what I can do, see, hear, feel, experience, that will help me want to stay alive. It is only the butterfly lady Intuition who leads me to theatre, the arena of illusion, in search of something real. But it is ugly, repeated experience that leads me to know my search is not everyone’s, is perhaps no one else’s.

For, after all, who do I think I am? And who do I think my people are? If I knew those things for sure, I wouldn’t be gallivanting around the psychic countryside, periodically getting shot off my horse. If I knew those things for sure, I wouldn’t be questing in the first place. Experience leads me to believe that most of who or what or how I am is lesbian and that most people who might be even remotely interested in anything I have to report are other lesbians. I’ve been betting my life on those two propositions for the past ten years. But I wouldn’t claim Truth for either.

Conceptualization is provisional; every category dissolves on close inspection. Boundaries shift; animals die; time passes; the spirit moves on. I can’t step into the same river twice. When I speak, I don’t know what I mean. When I speak, I don’t know who is speaking. And so if I write “The Dream Is the Bridge: In Search of Lesbian Theatre” at the top of a piece of paper, the words are stabs in the dark. I write “theatre,” knowing it hasn’t been invented yet, is in a continual process of invention, will never be invented definitively. I write “lesbian,” knowing that most of the human creatures calling themselves that have little enough in common with me, have little enough reason to trust me, are themselves under a continual threat of extinction.

The ways of language are so strange, however, that when I write “the dream is the bridge,” I feel on much firmer ground. How utterly clear, then, that this writing is dream spun out of dreams, how utterly clear that I am walking on air, how obvious the exchange of illusion for reality, how satisfying to play the fool.

Maybe Alice Walker felt something similar when she copied this weirdly ominous passage from the Gnostic Gospels onto the frontispiece of In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: “If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.”

Maybe Barbara Ann Teer was resurrecting a similar wisdom when she said, in an interview in Karen Malpede’s anthology Women in Theatre: “My ancestors said, ‘There is something within . . . it banishes all pain. . . . It’s given, and it’s in everybody. Some people worship it and honor it and make love to it and make it work for them, and some people ignore it and just hang out in their minds.’”

It’s getting a little dangerous for anyone to keep hanging out in his or her mind; it’s gotten more than a little dangerous for me already; it’s time to pay attention to dreams, which are—after all—the language of desire; it’s time to play “as if.” Act as if lesbians were real, theatre was real, and I had the best reasons in the world for putting them together. Get back up on that horse and ride.

The Objects of My Affection

When I say I’m looking for something real, I mean I’m looking for something that moves me. All the way, in every way.

And that, in a nutshell, is why this is not an essay on Theatre, or on avant-garde theatre, or on political theatre, or even on feminist theatre, though it is about all those things in part. This is an essay into lesbian theatre because, over and over in the past fifteen months, it has been what I am calling lesbian theatre that has moved me, all the way, in every way.

In the foreword to In Search of Theatre, Bentley simultaneously offers and retracts a definition of drama: it should not be defined, he says, but it is “the art of the elemental”—an art, like the other arts, “concerned with the bedrock of human experience,” only more so. (He quotes Yeats: “What attracts me to drama is that it is, in the most obvious way, what all the arts are upon a last analysis.”) To me, dramatic art is the art of desperate search; it is what one reaches for when there is very little time left, when nothing but the elemental will serve.

And in the process of reaching for it, I discovered that being a lesbian is more elemental for me than being a feminist. Women have been loving each other, touching each other, chasing each other, fighting with each other, crying over each other, leaning on each other, living together, raising children together, working together, making art together, going on the road together, struggling against injustice together, aging and dying together, far longer than we’ve been writing political theory to explain the bases of our resistance to oppression. Being a feminist is for me a political identity, a tactic: it’s a badge I wear to say that yes, I fight for the freedom of women; yes, I have some ideas of my own about how societies work, and why, and I got most of those ideas from women. Being a lesbian is a related but whole other kettle of fish—a deeper identity, a strategy for living, close to the heart of what has kept me alive thus far. If I described myself in sociological terms, “lesbian” would be the structure and “feminist” the superstructure. “Lesbian” would be the bedrock, the natural subject of theatre.

But no one knows how to define the line a woman crosses when she becomes, or recognizes herself as, a lesbian. Every time someone within or on the boundaries of the many feminist movements tries to define that line, and the positive or negative values of crossing it, great political battles ensue—friendships rip apart, alliances crash, spirit blood flows in the streets. Women get very nasty very fast.

Feminist theorist Marilyn Frye wrote an entire essay showing how the word lesbian is extraordinarily resistant to semantic analysis; she tentatively concluded that it is in fact undefinable within patriarchal meaning systems, that “lesbians are outside the conceptual scheme, and this is something done, not just the way things are” (see “To Be and Be Seen” in The Politics of Reality). After wrestling for years with the same problems of self-definition and peer-definition, I give up. And follow another fork in the road.

When I was working as an editor with feminist theologian Nelle Morton on her collection of essays The Journey Is Home, she seemed most urgently concerned with teaching me what she meant by image. I could not grasp what she was saying for the longest time. Then her words began penetrating me, little by little by little. I still don’t comprehend to any very great depth how she means what she means, but I can imitate what I think she means well enough to take the first baby steps on my own.

Images begin in imitation, in action, in “the thing done.” (Jane Ellen Harrison said that ritual, the common birthing place of theatre and religion, is “doing the thing we want done”—and that is something to remember, though how to use it I cannot tell.) Images come first, words come later. Images fill words. When a word lives, the images that fill it shine through the word, breathe in the word, dance with the word. When a word dies, it pulls the creatures who speak down with it. Dead words are filled with images of a dead past, images that have a nostalgic hold over us because they are familiar, associated with familia. Dead words, filled with deadening images begun in deadly actions, are a death grip on what wants to live. Living words—in contrast—are ensouled, filled (as is living theatre) with images whose sense cannot be exhausted in their descriptions, with images that do not exhaust us, with images that encourage rather than stifle the hidden purposes of desire.

And so if I want to circle around the thickets of politics and the snares of patriarchal dictionaries (and I do), I go toward the place behind, the background, the arena out of which action images emerge to animate the words I need. Where I can see what I have to see to know what I mean and to feel what I intend. If that is a riddle, I’ll put it plainer. I quit these futile attempts to define the word in common usage, lesbian; I look instead for living, kicking, biting images of lesbians.

And they’re all over the place. In, for instance, these self-creating, self-defining, bedrock lines from an early poem by Judy Grahn:

I am the wall at the lip of the water
I am the rock that refused to be battered
I am the dyke in the matter, the other
I am the wall with the womanly swagger.

Or in these lines repeated throughout a performance given by Linda Powell, Breena Clark, and Gwendolyn Hardwick of Cheryl Clarke’s Narratives: poems in the tradition of black women (at the First National Festival of Women’s Theatre, Santa Cruz, May 1983):

Women excite me and move me
in the way those old midnite conferences
with my rebel sister Ruby
made my childhood memorable.
                                        from “Ruby the Runaway”

The audience for Narratives was so moved and excited that they gave the company a long, standing ovation. And little wonder, for how often has anyone heard words like these from a public platform:

In 1943 Althea was a welder
very dark
very butch
and very proud
loved to cook, sew, and drive a car
and did not care who knew she kept company with a woman
who met her every day after work
in a tight dress and high heels
light-skinned and high-cheekboned
who loved to shoot, fish, play poker
and did not give a damn who knew her ‘man’ was a woman.
                                        “Of Althea and Flaxie”

At a workshop given by the performers and poet the following morning, I tried to say what it was that had felt like such a gift the night before—a combination of toughness and tenderness that suffused the entire performance from the time the three women entered the auditorium with percussion instruments to the time they left. A feeling tone, a something. At that point Cheryl Clarke said (approximately, my notes break off here) her poems were about women, only a few of whom were lesbian women, but everything she wrote, she wrote from a lesbian way of seeing—which is both tough and tender. And then the company speculated about the mystery of audiences: when they perform for a feminist audience, the audience sees a performance about women; when they perform for more varied audiences, the audience sees a performance about lesbians. For both sorts of audiences, however, the lesbian poems seem to deliver the greater shock, generate the higher electricity.

The connections between overt lesbian material, shock, and theatrical electricity may be something to ponder for those who, like myself, silently cheer on Macheath in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera when he says, “Nice? You call that nice? That’s not nice, you clown! That’s Art, and Art ain’t nice!” Lesbians (at least ones I’ve met) are no more nice than good art is. Sometimes heartbreakingly sensitive—yes. Inclined toward wonder at and attention to those things under the heavens that fly, swim, hop, crawl, slither, grow toward the light, mewl and toddle—yes. But soothing? tactful? chockful of the “feminine” virtues? nurturant at any cost? nice?? Hardly.

I could continue until I’d compiled a dictionary-length catalogue of lesbian images, from art and from life; and it would not begin to convey the variety of lesbian lives. (And I would never finish this essay.) If lesbian-ness is not definable, if the essential characteristics of our lives can only be conveyed in images of our lives and those are never-ending, it is nonetheless the case that we recognize each other. We do in some way distinguish ourselves and each other from other sorts of humans. And we distinguish on the basis of actions. We are lesbians because of what we do, not because of who we are or where we come from. We are distinctive because we act like lesbians, not because we share a common group of origin or a common homeland or even a common situation.

Lesbians seem to me an unfathomable tribe whose members are distributed throughout and belong (but not wholly) to all the other, more “tribely” tribes. We are like people with dual, triple, quadruple citizenships. Sometimes we get together; often we don’t, or can’t; mostly we recognize each other in passing.

But how do we recognize each other? Granted that I am generalizing from a limited sample—and a sample that is not only limited but skewed, in particular by the de facto segregation that persists in a persistently racist United States—still, it seems to me valuable to spell out a few of the ways in which lesbians I have known, read about, seen across crowded rooms, or heard tales of, do in fact appear to behave.

What do lesbians do? To a greater extent and with greater intensity than any other group I can think of, we make up our lives as we go along. Lesbian lives look to me like a three-ring circus that neglects to close down for the winter. The one thing I’ve learned to assume about a lesbian’s life is to assume nothing. If she’s one place, one way, one time, she’s liable to be a thousand miles farther west with a different set of multiple identities six months later.

Lesbians like to experiment on ourselves. We must somehow want change, since we provoke it so often. We must have a lust for freedom, or we wouldn’t chase after it so. We must like to teach and learn from each other, or we wouldn’t keep ending up in such unlikely pairings: athlete with scholar; butch with femme; musician with tone-deaf sculptor; cross-race, cross-class, cross-generation, cross-religion, cross-language, cross-ethnicity, cross-occupation, cross-temperament alliances that are generally as tempestuous as they are fruitful. It is as if we were trying to separate the elements of human existence, throw them up in the air, and juggle them.

Which is a very theatrical thing to want to do. Vera Mowry Roberts compares theatre (with its risky, simultaneous, multiple sensory appeals) to the Juggler of Our Lady. I say that lesbians are the Jugglers of Our Lady. We are bound to quarrel over how our lady exists and what her real names are. But surely we perform for love of some one or some moving thing. Otherwise, why would we take the risks we do? One false move, one moment of hesitation, one slip from the balance point—and our whole dazzling show tumbles down around our feet. Exposing—behind the juggler’s mask—the Fool, with her parti-colored rags, her borrowed boots, her aching heart.

Lesbians don’t play it safe. Our lives are like experimental theatre. We make our lives the way theatre is made. And this synchronicity, attraction, connection between lesbians and theatre fascinates me. It’s something to juggle with.

Making Theatre/Making Up Our Lives: Enacting

When I write about the processes of theatre making, I have in mind activities like playwriting, developing a script from group improvisation, creating a mime pathetique, learning performance skills, the intricate collaborative labor of staging a full-scale production. All are chaotic, fermenting processes—like lesbian lives, not easily described —but for purposes of writing coherently about them, I divide theatre-making activities into three interacting movements: freeing, shaping, and enacting.

Enacting is the goal (as well as the method), the end (as well as the means), the culminating activity toward which theatre making aims. When it works, people call it magic. Mostly it doesn’t work, or it works only for moments. But the memory of it, or the hope of it, drives those in the theatre—provides motive to keep going through what has seemed to me (in the wretched middle of my admittedly very limited experience with theatre productions) a jungle, an obstacle course, an endurance contest, something only a masochist could love.

I offer as evidence an unfinished, unmailed letter to friends, begun halfway through preparation for the premiere performance of Monique Wittig’s The Constant Journey:

3/27/84: I am up in the light booth, running the dimmer board while the tech director focuses lights. I am worried she may fall—the ladder leaves something in the way of safety to be desired and everyone is very tired. I decide again, for the fourth production in a row, that theatre requires more stamina than I’ve got. Catherine decides, for the fourth time in a row, that she’s too old for it. Sister-Pooh similarly decides that she no longer wishes to live with humans who are never home. Everything that could conceivably go wrong, has. All this wrestling with material fact in the service of illusion seems a peculiar way to spend time.

But during the performance I forgot all that. I think most theatre people must forget “all that” or their first production would be their last. What causes them to forget? What is that thing that banishes pain and leads them to attempt once again what any reasonable person would see to be virtually impossible? (Herbert Blau aptly titled his first book The Impossible Theatre.) Have they gone permanently mad? Or do they just want something very, very much? What do they want? What is the enactment of their desire?

According to Webster’s, the transitive verb enact in its most general sense means “to act out; REPRESENT.” What is represented is re-presented, presented again, made present, brought intact from the past into the present. Représentation (the French word for performance), as Peter Brook points out, “takes yesterday’s action and makes it live again in every one of its aspects—including its immediacy”; when it works, it is “the renewal of life.” Then becomes now.

Enactment contains the potential to suspend distance as well as time. Enacting is the heart of every sort of communal magic and the antithesis of banal, deadly living—the so-called living in which humans exist as isolate clichés, separated from each other but repeating each other, neither united nor individuated. On a good night, when audience and actors conspire (literally, “breathe together”), the life that is performed and the life that is witnessed come together, become clear, intense, branded into memory, signal shapes of desire and comprehension. When the play is played out, the people become players and the players are altered.

What exactly happens between performers and audience, on those rare occasions when theatre achieves a part of its potential, seems to me impossible to accurately describe: it is a sort of intangible something, vibrations of the ether, a pathway for electricity of the mind and heart, current racing between hostile poles, transforming both. However one reaches vainly after it with language, it is what I intend to point toward when I use the word enacting. It can happen in rehearsals, when the only audience is the director, and it can happen in scheduled performances. It can happen in every kind of theatre, including rituals in which the performers and the audience are the same persons. It is what makes the hair stand up on the back of one’s neck. It is what gives one, days or months after a performance, the queer feeling of déjà vu, an inexplicable belief that the play has not ended, that it is not an event remembered but a twilight zone, a vortex in time, a secret continuing performance in which one has unwittingly become an actor.

Successful enactment (to pile up phrases) is a manifestation of power, “blooded thought,” breathing poetry, the appearance of that which speaks but cannot be spoken. It leaves one with no exit: when the spirit dances, what is there to be done but dance with her?

And that is where I leave off juggling with the various enchantments of enacting, the goal and motive and method of theatre making. Except, as an aside, to note that there is something too at the heart of lesbian experience which drives us through our virtually impossible lives. Something that occurs rarely, something nearly indescribable, something that alters the players, something clear, intense, branded into memory. A kind of communal magic. The antithesis of banal, deadly living. A renewal of life that happens when we conspire.

Are we permanently mad? Or do we just want that rare something very, very much?

Making Theatre/Making Up Our Lives: Freeing

Theatre practice is based on the knowledge that the people who make theatre may have been born free but by the time they get anywhere near a stage, they’re no longer so. No longer spontaneous; bound by convention; out of touch with their past, their senses, their emotions, their physical capacities, their powers of imagination, their abilities to think quickly and clearly. Ill-equipped to create transformative moments for themselves or anyone else. This is one of the more delightfully realistic aspects of theatre. The people who make it know they’re working with damaged goods.

Any realistic lesbian political practice needs likewise to base itself on the knowledge that lesbians are damaged goods. Ill-equipped to create the conditions of change for ourselves or anyone else. Out of touch with our own powers. In need of something analogous to the training that performers seek out, training aimed at freeing their creativity.

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free

The first thing to be noted about such training is that it hurts. The following I wrote in my journal after participating in a mime workshop at the conference “Critical Stages: Women in American Theatre,” March, 1983:

Now we are each to make up our own phrases to add to the group collage. Oh, whoopee. I creak when I move. Worse, I can’t imagine any movement to make—it’s as if the pathways between my brain and muscles have been twisted. When she [Constance Valis Hill] says, now move your head and then turn that motion into a gesture, I have to stand still, watch her do it, and then copy her, thirty seconds behind the rest of the group. This is like entering first grade with undiagnosed dyslexia. Like trying to lip-read without letting anyone in the room know you’re stone deaf. Humiliating. I want to explain to this lovely woman how difficult her simplest requirements are and could she please pat me on the head for having the nerve to try and tell me it’s all right.

Although this was early on in my year of exploring theatre (and I was an extreme case— sedentary, chain-smoking, old enough to know better), the psychic pain never completely stopped. I only learned not to let it stop me. After the early-morning movement workshops in Santa Cruz, at the first National Festival of Women’s Theatre, I would lock myself in a restroom stall for three minutes of very quiet gasping and sobbing before I could mask my face sufficiently to go on to the next workshop. And I noticed that I was not the only woman in these workshops plagued with a debilitating self-consciousness. What was it that was so frightening and so difficult for some of us?

Marilyn Frye describes an oppressive system as a network of related barriers and forces constructed in such a way that each action of the oppressed is either blocked or booby-trapped (see “Oppression” in The Politics of Reality). The everyday experience of oppressed people is full of double-bind situations, where options are reduced to a very few and every one of them exposes you to “penalty, censure, or deprivation.” When you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, it stands to reason that the pathways between brain and muscle are going to be damaged in some way; there’s likely to be a terrible disjuncture between impulse and gesture if you’ve grown up learning that almost every gesture you make is going to rebound in some way to your discredit.

To stop acting is impossible, but a sometimes fatal hesitation or inappropriateness develops. I remember, for instance, role-playing done by a short-lived feminist theatre group at the Charlotte (North Carolina) Women’s Center in 1974. One of us played an enraged, drunken husband bursting through the splintering back door of the center (which also served as an unfunded shelter for battered women). The rest of us responded with what amounted to paralysis, even though we knew it was only a game, we understood the politics of rape and wife-beating, and we far outnumbered the “rapist.

The trappings of “femininity” tend to further confine and immobilize a woman—an obvious example being the near impossibility of running from danger while wearing “come-fuck-me pumps” (say, sandals with ankle straps and three-and-a-half inch stiletto heels). It’s relatively easy to change one’s wardrobe, but the inculcation of “femininity” is more than skin deep. By the time they are grown, many women habitually and unconsciously move in “feminine” ways (with small steps, hesitantly, leaning toward a man and looking up while speaking to him, smiling when there is nothing to smile at, using a flirtatious body language that signals submission more than attraction). “Femininity” inhabits women’s bodies.

“Femininity” inhabits women’s voices too, often long after we’ve begun to consciously change our movement patterns and life patterns. Many lesbians with a powerful physical presence—women who solidly take up space—open their mouths only to squeak. We often speak in high, thin tones, let our voices go up at the end of statements as if we were not asserting something but only asking a question, giggle when we mean to laugh, apologize by tone of voice even when we are not apologizing in so many words.

How are we to free ourselves from this dangerously engrained hesitance, lack of spontaneity, dancing-dog submissiveness, acute self-consciousness? How are we to reconnect the shattered poles of our existence? How are we to gain access to the full range of our bodily, emotional, intellectual power?

Imagining Oneself into Another Body and Mind

Acting requires stamina and flexibility; for that reason almost every movement discipline from modern dance to judo to fencing to gymnastics contributes in some way to acting skills and has been used in conjunction with training actors. But the movement work most valuable for lesbian self-creation is probably that which is designed specifically for theatre work, for instance the teaching explained in Litz Pisk’s The Actor and His [sic] Body. She intends her work to tune an actor’s body so that inner, emotional impulses can flow without distortion in outer movement; the point is to release the tensions that block an actor’s ability to do, to act. Because Pisk concentrates, not on movement for the sake of beauty, but on movement for the sake of something outside one’s body (the play, the production for an audience), she has been able to work wonders with extremely self-conscious or clumsy beginning actors, as well as with dancers and athletes. (Concentrating on emotional intention, she diverts one’s attention away from one’s two left feet.) She teaches movement in the service of imagination.

Significantly, Pisk emphasizes the confluence of voice with imagination and movement. She encourages students to speak, sing, burble, buzz, hum, chant, while they repeat the physical loosening and tuning exercises. She also uses animal-poems and passages from Greek tragedy and Shakespeare to relate poetry of words to poetry of movement, repeatedly pointing out that the aim of an actor is to create a mental-physical link between herself and the creatures she wishes to embody. The translation required is a leap of the whole person: body, imagination, and voice.

Another teacher of actors regarded with almost worshipful gratitude by her students is Kristin Linklater (see Freeing the Natural Voice). She likewise connects the vocal work, in which she specializes, with developing imagination and releasing natural movement. The point of her teaching is not to produce a “trained” speaker, but to enable an actor to use all her resources of sound-making in the task of imagining herself into another’s being.

And thus we come to the practitioners of that spookiest of the teaching arts, showing someone else how to imagine herself into another mind and body. From Sonia Moore’s devoted propagating of Stanislavski’s methods, to Joseph Chaikin’s anecdotal The Presence of the Actor, to Uta Hagen’s overwhelming depiction of why it takes so long for a novice actor to play a role with real feeling, to Michael Chekhov’s search for ways to use memory in creating a role without inducing mental breakdown—all the writings I’ve read on the development of imagination in acting resemble manuals for surviving a winding, rocky road to sainthood. They’re fascinating and infuriating. No matter how many specific exercises and techniques they present, they seem essentially composed of metaphors—useful only if you can discover a connection in your own experience and follow the trajectory of the metaphor from that solid, personal beginning.

But if one is looking for ways to become freer, ways to tap personal potential, ways to unbind binding forces, ways to imagine oneself—translate oneself—into a more powerful body and mind, these are manuals and teachings not to be overlooked.

Zen and the Art of Gender-Fuck

Question: Is a lesbian really a woman? Is she really a man? Is she both? Is she neither? Answer: All of the above.

If freeing our physical/emotional/intellectual powers were simply a matter of shedding “femininity” and enrolling in several actor training courses, lesbians, qua lesbians, would not be in the trouble we always seem to be in. Something more complex than the male domination that confronts other women besides ourselves is standing in our way. Jill Dolan writes, in her thesis on lesbian/feminist theatre criticism, that lesbians are caught between and made invisible by two polarized gender roles, neither of which is ourselves. In fact, that is probably true of the deep, potential selves of most people, certainly most women. But for lesbians the sensation of inhabiting an invisible, unnameable limbo between two grotesque, puppet-like but all-too-depressingly-active caricatures of humanity is a primary, conscious aspect of our experience—an aspect that feels, as Cheryl Clarke describes it, “passing strange.”

If a woman acts more “mannish” than “womanish,” she is perceived by many people as a lesbian, regardless of what she does or doesn’t do with her affections and her body, her attention and her politics. This is confusing and confused enough. But then the real actions of real lesbians, done for very good and real reasons, skew the situation even further toward the mind-boggling. Many of us have taken the obvious and effective shortcut to liberation from the gender system. We’re shown two ready-made garments off the rack, “femininity” and “masculinity.” Neither fits; neither is particularly pleasing, for that matter. But one of them invites respect and the other invites victimization. We’re not allowed to have the costume that invites respect. So we steal it and wear it and flaunt it and get all the mileage we can out of it. We go as far as we are able to go with it. And then straight feminists inform us that lesbians act like men (the implication being that we are a reactionary oppressed group, the lumpenproletariat of the women’s movement—not to mention an embarrassment at fund-raisers and probably the reason the ERA didn’t pass).

 I’ll grant the ladies their point, but not their political implications. Many lesbians do act more like men than like women. We have either been rebelling against “femininity” since childhood, refusing to wear dresses, play with dolls, or act nice; or we experienced a sea change in adulthood and deliberately set about weaning ourselves away from the clothing, the cosmetics, and the body language that announce “feminine” vulnerability. However we came to “act like men,” it’s a good thing, not a bad thing. It’s a giant step along a freedom road, and it often generates great delight as well as anxiety.

In the fall of 1983, I was one of five students rehearsing Martha Boesing’s play Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down, which alternates realistic scenes with hallucinations in which the female actors play male generals, scientists, negotiators, civil defense workers. The latter scenes were occasions of giddy playfulness. We’d put on our suit jackets, stomp, swagger, strut, bellow out our lines, and then collapse with laughter. There was an element of vengeful satire in what we were doing, added to the pleasure of breaking gender rules, and I was not the only actor to relish those scenes most. I think now, in fact, that I didn’t enjoy them nearly as much as did some of the others in the cast who were younger, heterosexual, not particularly feminist. For them, this was a Feast of Fools, unheard-of license. (It was also apparently too much license. One dropped out, we were unable to replace her, and there went the production.)

What altered me was preparing for the role of the gender-ambiguous doctor in Ashes: “being butch” from dawn to dusk, noticing and changing the way I dressed, sat, walked, and talked. I was impressed first of all by how difficult it is to change engrained behavior. (I felt vastly stupid. And I was mortified to discover that an innocent-baby, ultra-femme seductiveness—which I’d used in childhood to get by with my small criminal acts—clung to me as if I had been sprayed, ineradicably, by a very frightened skunk.) But I was even more impressed by the power of this pretending. Despite my failure to pull off a creditable butch routine, I felt as if walls inside my brain were being bulldozed, clearing space for something new.

What do I mean by “something new”? According to Sande Zeig, the gestures appropriate to women are the gestures of slaves. It follows, I would suppose, that the gestures appropriate to men are the gestures of slavemasters. Neither is appropriate to a free human. The androgynists say combine them, but two wrongs obviously do not make a right. (My mother told me they didn’t, and they don’t.)

It seems to me that Zeig moves close to a way out of this either-or impasse—close to a liberation strategy that would work for lesbians, in theatre and in life—when she points out that gesture has been polarized. “Masculine” gestures cluster at one end of a spectrum, “feminine” gestures at the other. If we follow the metaphor, we should discover an unperceived rainbow in the middle.

Or we can follow Zeig’s other metaphors and learn to regard gesture as clothing (and we can wear anything we want) or as language (and we can say anything we want). A little butch, a little femme, a little childhood ambition (tutus, anyone?), a little cross-species dressing (a detachable fur tail, for instance, gives one quite a lovely feeling); mix and match; stalk and slink, strut and flutter; get the timing down, and take it on the road. To find the splendid, appropriate mask, try on the entire dazzling array of masks. But really try them. Talking about it doesn’t count.

 Seeing it, however, counts toward. (Monkey see, monkey do; and we’re related to monkeys after all.)

Sue-Ellen Case, in her workshop on women in drag, at the women’s theatre festival in Santa Cruz, analyzed her own experiences of directing women in men’s roles, emphasizing the impact of drag when it is used with conscious political purpose. She first said that feminist plays written in the last fifteen years are too small a repertoire for a director to choose from: we need not only to write new material but to take back the old material, playing all the roles in the old plays, both as “guerrilla warfare” against the gender system and as a way of liberating ourselves to appropriate the history of theatre practice in its entirety. She pointed out that when women in drag seriously play male roles, they lead an audience to question both gender and sexuality. She insisted also (and I believe from my own experience) that the impact of drag on the actors themselves is positive: it is “growthful,” so to speak, for an actress to play muscles and authority, “taking the stage” and pursuing other women. (As Case noted, most scenes involving women characters in the old plays are foreplay; the throughline is the bedroom; they are about hunter and prey.)

Case then went on to detail her direction of three theatre pieces involving women in drag: The Roaring Girl (1610), with an all-woman cast; an evening of Karl Ballantyne cabaret pieces in which the male parts were played by a woman in drag (just as the German actress Liesel Karlstadt played them in the 1920s); and Simone Benmussa’s recent play The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs, about a woman who passed as a male waiter in the late nineteenth century. These productions led her to speculate that women playing in drag are always perceived as lesbians, both by the audience and by the other players. Men in the audience were particularly disturbed by the love scenes in these plays, and the women in the cast who were not in drag began phobically avoiding the actresses who were as soon as the latter put on their costumes. Case sharpened her attack on the straight audience’s cherished notions of gender and sexuality by casting the most “feminine,” “attractive” actresses she could find in the male leads. She also played against racist stereotypes by casting a Black actress as the ingenue in The Roaring Girl.

A comic rampage on the gender system—almost a lesbian practical joke—was directed by Roberta Sklar in a production of The Boyfriend at Smith College in the fall of 1982. The Boyfriend is a play that would not be worth reviving if it were done by a cast with the proper physical credentials: it’s dated, white upper-middle-class heterosexual froth— spectacular, substance-less, and probably no longer funny at all if played straight. But played impeccably by an all-woman cast, it glittered. The straight audience, if they were shocked at all, covered it up well and laughed along with a good grace. (This may have been owing to the unbearably genteel nature of Smith College audiences as well as to a tradition at Smith, a woman’s college, of women playing male roles.) There was no mistaking the response of the lesbians in the audience, however. We genuinely enjoyed it. It freed us, at least for the length of the performance, from fear.

Seeing and Being Seen

“If we don’t see ourselves, we go crazy and we cease to be all that we could be.”
Judith Katz, playwright,
“Lesbian Theatre” panel, August 1983

 “Part of the magic of theatre is the relief of being seen.”
Elizabeth Clement LaRoche Taylor, in conversation, February 1984

In January of 1984, after a month-long workshop with the Bread and Puppet company culminating in two days and nights of performances, the group of twenty-five participants met to evaluate. There was much talk centering on the questions, what political use can art have? how can the artist use his art to effect change? (I’m using the generic he because, though most of the group were women, “the artist” they had in mind seemed to me suspiciously male.) One participant referred to the seductiveness of art, and Peter Schumann interrupted to say, “Seduction, that’s a good word.” Like most things he had said in the previous four weeks, that started me thinking. Why were these people conceiving their audience as some recalcitrant mass which must be seduced into thinking about important things for its own good?

I remembered audiences I’d been part of—for instance, the primarily lesbian audience at a performance of Jane Chambers’ A Late Snow given by the Wicked Women’s Theatre in Northampton, Massachusetts, the preceding June. A Late Snow (1972) is one of the first plays with sympathetic lesbian characters to have been produced in this country (or probably anywhere). But it is neither particularly earth-shaking in its structure and point of view (it’s bedroom farce, in fact) nor especially well-written (groans were heard during a few of the longer speeches). Realistic plays are the most difficult to direct with nonprofessional actors and a short rehearsal period, so the acting sometimes left something to be desired also. Still, the audience, which did not resemble a recalcitrant mass, was obviously getting something from the play besides entertainment at the sight of their friends pretending to be somebody else. They were not passive. They were actively testifying, themselves becoming actors by responding to the actors, laughing, shouting out interjections, whistling, murmuring assenting phrases during some particularly right-on speech from the character who argued that lesbians must come out publicly if our lives are ever to become less impossible.

No artist seduced that audience into looking at our own lives. We wanted to. We needed to. It was a rare opportunity; it was a relief. It was the kind of experience that lets us know we aren’t crazy. It was the kind of experience that frees us from fear. It was the kind of experience that helps us want to stay alive.

One thing, minimum, can be said for the political usefulness of plays with lesbian characters, provided that the characters resemble at least a few flesh-and-blood lesbians, rather than the “prodigies of malevolence” generated by “the voyeuristic imagination” of what Monique Wittig calls “the straight mind.” These plays help keep lesbians who see them sane, lively, and alive. If that goal is not germane to most political movements I could name, it is certainly part of any politics deserving of lesbian support.

Most people I have met or known or cared for, people who are not lesbian people, deeply want lesbians, if not dead, then changed—silent, disguised, muffled, incognito, pushed to the edges of human consciousness and human cultures (there, apparently, to lurk like the memory of a bad dream). If we do not ourselves deeply desire to remain sane, lively, and alive—and act accordingly—we will surely be extinguished by their fear. The words of our lives scattered and dispersed. Every gift we might have given, lost. Lesbian art—art that holds up a mirror to our natures—is, for lesbians, literally a last-ditch attempt at self-preservation.

Self-preservation has a lot to do with politics, too. I do not believe that any political revolution begins or continues because oppressed people voluntarily choose en masse to risk their neck for unrealizable utopian ideas. There may be joy in struggle, but there is far more of anguish, torture, slow bleeding, defeat. Why would any reasonable person with a taste for living choose it? Unless she had no real choice. No exit.

Speaking the Words of Our Lives

Suppose we have no exit. Suppose we speak and speak authentically, act and act authentically, fight back and fight back effectively, or die mute and unmourned. The necessity of speech/action/struggle may be clear, but what languages of word and gesture can we find to speak with and from? Everywhere we search, the earth and its peoples and their respective languages have been colonized. When we speak—if we speak at all—we speak with forked tongue. And the act of speaking itself is struggle. A furious attempt to fling off binding forces, forces that want us stifled and silent.

Many feminists have written about internalized censors, the voices inside that repeat voices outside which have been telling women since birth that we are not good enough to create, we are selfish to want to create, we are dangerous to ourselves and others when we create, what we create is too trivial to be taken seriously. But when the woman is a lesbian, the company of outer-become-inner censors multiplies and increases in volume. Becomes a screeching cacaphony of abuse, battering our conscious and unconscious mind with the repeated, pounding message that we are not only shit, we are unspeakable shit.

I have never seen that full lesbian-baiting chorus of abusers portrayed on a stage. But I have seen enacted the struggle of a woman to begin, barely, finding and speaking her own words—and it was powerfully disturbing and powerfully freeing theatre.

In the monologue that begins “Electra is trying to speak,” from the third of The Daughters Cycle created by the Women’s Experimental Theatre in New York, Sondra Segal speaks of Electra in the third person. The descriptions she gives of Electra’s struggle to say what she means are embodied in her act of describing:

She is not a speaker / she knows she is not a speaker / but she has something she wants to say / she thinks she has something she wants to say / she is looking down and playing with her hands . . . / she’s starting / she is stammering . . . / she is angry … / she’s making a joke at her own expense . . . / she’s going to cry / she can’t stand the sound of her own voice . . . / she’s appearing as her father . . . / now she’s appearing as her sister . . . / now she’s appearing as her mother . . . / she can’t stay on the subject / she doesn’t know how to speak / and she doesn’t know how to stop . . . / she can’t breathe / there’s probably more she could say.

I’ve only seen the monologue performed on videotape; but even in that diminished medium, with a group of Smith College students watching a black-and-white-and-gray image of the actor’s face flicker inside a small box, the impact was great. It was like seeing a funny but excruciating version of myself going through the repeated experience of trying and failing to say what I think I mean, an experience that is in real life profoundly humiliating, no matter the extent to which I may understand its causes.

Part of the process of scripting seems to be, in feminist theatre at any rate, freeing oneself to speak of what causes shame, liberating taboo subject matter. At the National Festival of Women’s Theatre, some of the most powerful performances were literally a telling of secrets. Deah Schwartz, Anne Wilford, and Marcia Kimmell presented excerpts from a theatre piece called Leftovers: The Ups and Downs of a Compulsive Eater, which they created, produced, and perform together. Leftovers resurrects one hilarious, appalling moment after another in the lives of the three of them, as they try to transform eating from addiction to nurturance, in a woman-hating culture which currently enforces thinness as goodness. As Rosemary Curb remarked afterward, Leftovers performs the remarkable trick of making comedy out of self-hatred, without itself being self-hating.

The high-school group We’re Women Too also created, together with their drama teacher/director, a collage based on telling the secrets of their own experience. In  I Sailed My Barbie Down the Gutter and Other Tales of Corruption they presented a tightly woven series of interior monologues (sometimes literally reading from that most private of books, their own journals) on their struggle with drugs, fathers, birth control, high-school boys, classism. Both these group pieces were received with great enthusiasm by the audience.

A third piece based on revealing one’s secret life, The Adventures of Scarlet Harlot, scripted and performed by prostitute/performance poet Carol Leigh, I found equally absorbing, hilarious, and liberating. But mine was a minority opinion, perhaps because Carol Leigh demanded payment in kind from the audience—at one point walking right out into the audience, clad only in sleazy black lingerie and not much of that, wanting to know from individuals just how much ass they kissed on their jobs. Her performance was essentially a challenge, a gauntlet flung down at the audience’s feet, a demand—not a request—that they see her job, performing heterosex for money, as a choice worthy of some respect and that they see her, like themselves, as more than a victim. The audience, primarily composed of feminist theatre workers, was by and large unwilling to respond (shamefully unwilling, if you ask me).

If there had been a lesbian theatre company at the Festival performing a theatre piece based on telling the secrets of our lesbian lives, with the specific intent of freeing lesbians from shame, of liberating the taboo subject matter that is the content of our twenty-four hour days and nights, it might aptly have been called We’re Women Too. Or Leftovers. Or The Adventures of Scarlet Harlots. Or, for that matter, Electra Speaks. But there wasn’t such a company, though many of the theatre artists at the festival were lesbians and Terry Baum did create a successful premiere performance of Death’s Angel (a one-woman play which she also wrote and directed, in which an aging lesbian battles the staff of a hospital for control over her dying lover’s last hours). Being a lesbian was almost normalized in the seven-day-long environment of that women’s theatre festival. But something—something powerfully disturbing and powerfully freeing—was missing.

Hearing to Speech, the Necessary Condition of Freedom

In women’s consciousness-raising groups of the late 1960s and early 1970s, transforming events were occurring that Nelle Morton witnessed, participated in, and described in the following way. Women were revealing things to each other they had never before admitted, even to themselves. And the telling, which seemed to come “up from down under” with wrenching pain and explosive force, was freeing their powers. One woman began brokenly, touching herself here and there, saying, “I hurt . . . I hurt all over and I don’t know where to begin crying.” But gradually in the circle of listening women “her story took on fantastic coherence”; and when she had finished, she told the others she believed they had “heard her to speech.” They had been willing to go the entire journey with her, without manipulating or diverting or judging. Their communal courage had been the necessary condition of her freedom: among those women, she became able to say what she knew, to give form to the truth of her experience.

After these experiences Morton wrote that “there is a great ear at the heart of the universe, hearing women to speech.” Later still, she called this continuing and mysterious act of hearing to speech “the goddess,” hastening to add that, for her, “the goddess” is not a generic label for one or more supernatural beings, but rather a moving —a metaphoric—image. And then she said that the goddess works herself out of business.

Sometimes I think I will never understand what Nelle Morton is talking about. But I do know that lesbians play goddess for each other constantly—that is, when we are doing our job. And I do also know that playing goddess is an essential aspect of making art, the necessary condition of that freedom.

Take, for instance, the act of writing. In Becoming a Writer Dorothea Brande counsels the aspiring writer to act like one, to imitate the life of a writer, and then shows how acting like a writer involves doubling oneself. An adult self secures and protects safe space for the child self to play in. All the material bubbles up out of the child, but it is the adult/editor/director/goddess self who sets up the conditions in which play is possible. She hears the child to speech, thereby working herself out of business, and returns only to select from what the child has created.

Take, as another instance, the act of directing in theatre. (Here I am relying on conversations with Catherine Nicholson; material from a workshop on directing given by June Judson at the 1983 New England Theatre Association meetings; my own experience as an actor being directed by Catherine in five weeks of rehearsing Martha Boesing’s Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down; and a four-week Bread and Puppet workshop at the beginning of 1984.) I begin by talking about the kind of directing I do not have in mind when I imagine a theatre that might speak the words of lesbian lives, that might body forth our experience. I begin, in effect, with a tirade.

A director works to realize the intentions of the playwright (who may be herself) in the most vivid form possible. She is responsible, too, for sustaining a working environment in which creativity can flourish. But how can she do either except—ironically—by indirection?

When a director manipulates performers as if they were his puppets—or as if he were a sculptor and they were his materials—he may choreograph powerful action images on stage, but the images will not embody the truth of the actors. That transformational thing which is the heart of acting, and the actor’s contribution to theatre, will not happen. The actors will not be heard to their own speech. The goddess will not appear.

Or if she does appear, she will come incognito, disguised, muffled, at the edges of consciousness. Even if she descends from the flies, huge, center stage, occupying the whole stage, sweeping out over the audience, taking up the people in her arms (as she did in Bread and Puppet’s production of Josephine at Goddard College in January, 1984), no one will know her name. They will call her Josephine (“little Joseph”) or “Peter Schumann’s puppet.” They will talk about “her boss” (as Schumann did), her huge male puppet counterpart, hanging limp and cold and alone in the Bread and Puppet Museum barn in Glover, Vermont, sixty snow-covered miles north. They will mistake her significance and her power. She will be for them and not be for them. In the end, she will break their hearts.

In fact (I decide now, after months of stewing about it) this appearing / nonappearing of “the goddess” lies at the core of what simultaneously attracts and repels me in Bread and Puppet productions. As the goddess is a metaphor for what brings forth truth in acting, what calls forth authentic speech, so my ambivalence about Bread and Puppet has to do with who calls forth speech and who brings forth action—and how—in this company.

Peter Schumann doesn’t want live actors in his spectacle-plays. The sculpted and choreographed images of Bread and Puppet, whether they’re humans bare-faced or masked, or humans inside puppets, or giant puppets manipulated from outside by humans holding wires or strings or sticks—these images are meant to supersede actors, not to become archetypal, more-powerful-because-less-idiosyncratic actors themselves.

I think what Schumann does want is a direct circuit between his mind and the senses of the audience, a line that will carry high voltage. Which seems to me breath-taking, admirable, self-creating amour propre. Laurie Anderson (“Our Lady of the diodes”) works with a similar intent, using a different technology; and they both make powerful theatre. But Schumann’s theatre is an assault on my lesbian sensibilities. Because what does the man have on his mind, anyway?

 In The Color Purple Alice Walker puts in the mouth of her wild lady, Shug, the following pungent observation: “You have to git man off your eyeball, before you can see anything a’tall.” If the goddess who lurks surreptitiously around the edges of every Bread and Puppet production is ever going to come out from the bushes, somebody has to get man off his eyeball. The goddess doesn’t enter—in hope and glory and power for change—where she ain’t wanted.

But back to those of us who long for her appearance.

The director who wants actors to enact must work herself out of business. By the time the production is ready, it is the actors’ play—they own all of it, the words and movements and silences coming up out of them as if originating there spontaneously, unassisted. The director’s movement from center to periphery can be literal: June Judson said that in beginning rehearsals she found herself often onstage, interrupting action, touching the actors; but as the production progressed, she moved farther and farther back from the stage. Catherine says that by the time a play is ready, she feels as if the actors have done it all on their own, even though she’s been working constantly, obsessively, with them from the beginning. What is the core of a director’s work which is so amorphous and peculiar, so easily mistaken for what it is not?

The director makes herself radically present to the actors, the words of the playwright, and the setting in which they meet. She is there (like that circle of listening women), to a degree that is difficult to achieve in everyday life. She makes of herself a hearing, seeing, feeling, thinking intensity. If she’s really good, she almost disappears into what she does.

When I see how I ordinarily manage my waking moments, I know how unradically present I am most of the time—moving and speaking by habit, absorbed in the fantasy movies running incessantly in the back of my mind, lulled and irritated by the messages that come in from the dominating culture, snatches of songs, commercials, the sound of traffic, dead language. One of the intents of systems of oppression, certainly an effect of them, may be just this distraction. When someone actually manages to focus her attention on the person before her, they both change and unpredictable events occur. Those unpredictable events link radical art with radical politics.

But these are still general statements. I’d rather describe specifically some of the things happening when I was one of the actors directed by Catherine in the five weeks of rehearsing Ashes. We began by reading the script aloud, trying on different roles, and then actors and director collectively cast the parts. By the time this process was finished, each of us was playing a role we wanted to play.

Then Catherine set up improvisations centering around the relationships between the characters, what might have happened between them before the play begins. We invented scenes—Miriam, the mother, shopping in a market; Petra and Sheila, the daughters, arguing on a school bus; Birdie, Miriam’s sister-in-law, explaining her childhood. At certain times, all of us would concentrate on one role. For instance, when I was having (great) trouble playing Einstein, Catherine grouped the other actors into a classroom while I lectured on nuclear physics and they interrupted with questions. (“What is unified field theory?” “Well, my darlings, . . . ”)

After we began playing the actual lines, Catherine used several different methods to help us bring them alive. At one point she directed one of us to read the lines of a hallucination scene while the rest of us danced the action images in the lines. Though the movements we discovered were not actually used, they colored the way we spoke the words afterward. She would interrupt other hallucination scenes to suggest that one of us play a lecture on the history of science as Mary Poppins (it worked!), or that two of us drone lines from the writings of Paracelsus as if they were a Gregorian chant.

Two things impressed me about this directing process. First, Catherine carried around a large bag of tricks (what June Judson called an “encyclopedia of devices”). When one didn’t work, she’d try another or invent something new entirely. Second, the devices were just that—whether they were surprises, disruptions, suggestions, or so non-directive as to be invisible, the point of them was to provoke us to discover and use our own resources.

Playing goddess in theatre is obviously tricky business. If the director plays it safe, if she lets the actors get by with their insecurities and their vanities and their niggling self-consciousness (which, speaking as a sometime actor, I would like to say are not exactly our fault), she ensures lousy theatre. And everybody has contempt for her. If she provokes too much, too soon (or if outside forces intervene), the environment she’s been working to stabilize—a safe place for serious play—is threatened. (And the cast of players hates her.) The show can tumble down around everyone’s feet in a matter of moments, and we’ll all know who to blame. (Does this remind anyone, besides me, of movement politics?)

But when it works—this playing goddess—it’s heaven. Being seen and heard in the way a good director sees and hears an actor (with informed attention and a passionate desire that the actor become all she can become, so that the play can become all that it can become) was for me an extraordinary experience. I was grateful. (Being seen with intensity, being recognized, is not something anyone experiences often in daily life.) I was reassured. (The attention felt non-intrusive, non-threatening. It demanded nothing from me except that I bring my resources to a collaborative project.) I was even—sometimes—ecstatic. (Is there anything much more thrilling than doing things you never believed you could do?)

I also got some inkling of what June Jordan might have meant when, at the end of her directing workshop a few months later, she said with a kind of fiery defiance that theatre was her religion. The moving shape of things to come.

Making Theatre/Making Up Our Lives: Shaping

What I am calling the shaping movement in the activities of theatre making is the movement of discovering structure, of putting the pieces together to form an image of the whole. Roberta Sklar has said, in a lecture on feminist theatre, that the structure of a play poses a way of thinking. Jill Dolan, in a talk given at the 1983 American Theatre Association meetings, elaborates on Roberta’s point by claiming that lesbian/feminist theatre can change the way people think as well as changing what they think about lesbians. The structure of the “well-made play,” which proceeds from conflict to climax to catharsis, reveals and accomplishes the intentions behind it (to purge society of disruptive influences; to restore the established order). It follows, Dolan says, that lesbian playwrights and theatre workers who intend not to restore but to transform the established order need to discover structures unlike the “well-made play” with which to reveal and accomplish this aim. Put more generally, lesbians need to identify and deconstruct male systems of thought in order to create our own.

Starhawk, writing of witchcraft in Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics, speaks similarly of the importance of structure, saying that consciousness is embedded in the forms we make. If we want to know the shape of our thinking, we look for its reflection in the shape of the art-forms and objects we create. She goes on to say that it is structure, not content, which determines how energy will flow. If we regard culture as the stories we tell each other, it is the shapes of those stories—their plots, not their characters, settings, or details—that mold our expectations and actions.

According to Starhawk, story-structures characteristic of our current “official” male-dominated culture include stories that move toward apocalypse, stories of a struggle between good and evil, stories of the great man and his disciples, and stories which focus on a struggle for power that ends in a fall from power. If she is anywhere near correct, we should find that the shape of much male-dominated drama follows these patterns, these plot lines. And we should also expect that simply substituting female for male characters in the old stories would change no one’s way of thinking but rather reinforce the current “movements of energy,” the current “expectations and actions.”

In the long run, I agree with Sklar and Dolan and Starhawk on this matter of structure. Structure is the indelible signature of a way of thinking. The structures of male-dominated art and religion and politics are plots. They reinforce oppressive attitudes and behavior; they lead us to expect nothing better. And why, after all, would we want to repeat, even in translation, what has been killing us softly—and not so softly—all along?

But in the short run, I find talk of finding an alternative to male stories, systems of thought, structures, points of view, aesthetics, counter-useful. When we think the opposite of “man,” what do we come up with? “Woman.” And what images chiefly fill the word woman? My first suspicion is that they are not lesbian images. My second suspicion is that they are boring—whited-out, played-out, sucked-dry, exhausted and exhausting, weeping, profoundly disheartened images. Madonna-with-Child images. Mother-accusing-daughter/daughter-accusing-mother images. Images of family, familia—that old deadening and deadly story. Images, in short, that are not likely to assist me in my project of wanting to stay alive and lively.

(My suspicions were borne out in a six-week improvisation workshop following the demise of Ashes. Out of that cast of five women, only the lesbians remained. And what did we play out? Family roles—sisters, mothers, daughters. We rapidly demoralized each other. We did our liveliest work when Catherine disrupted our scenes, playing an unidentifiable stranger.)

What can lesbians possibly be intending, what is our meaning, when we speak of making women’s theatre or women’s politics, woman-identified theatre or woman-identified politics, feminist theatre or feminist politics, for that matter? I don’t any longer have much notion. Woman has just about come to signify to me straight woman, although when or how that happened I cannot tell. (It’s probably been happening gradually, over years, in bitter confusion, as “the women’s liberation movement” in the U.S. turned into “the women’s movement” turned into “women’s development” and “women’s culture” and left/liberal coalition politics.)

Woman-identified woman seems to me to have become a euphemism for lesbians, rather than the attempt it originally was to locate the strategic significance of lesbians with regard to a movement against male dominance. Euphemisms are verbal ploys to avoid rocking somebody’s boat, usually the speaker’s own. How is one to begin making art out of them? Supposing, as I do, that “art ain’t nice.” (Politics ain’t either.)

In a recent article, “Ideology and Performance,” which is heavily influenced by feminist theorists, Herbert Blau writes of the difficulty of creating theatre to embody a truth that is not expressible within the system of gender identity which structures human experience, “the truth of the actor.” He speaks of the time required to bring into being that which cannot now even be imagined; but in doing so he mentions what seems to me one sure base of departure: “I know the same old gestures when I see them and the same old story when I hear it.”

If lesbians want to speak the words of our lives (and we’d better want to), we need form that can embody our truth, “the truth of the actor”—ourselves. “Men’s stories” don’t fit; they’re the same old Same Old. “Women’s stories” are the same old Same Old, too— complementary, even if more devastated; interlocking, even if at great cost. “Men’s stories” and “women’s stories” are two sub-plots that converge in the closing scenes. Closing us out.

But what else do we have to begin with? Where else can we set out from? One doesn’t discover original forms by peering inside a vacuum bottle. To make new things, we have to play with the old things. We have no choice but to steal somebody else’s fire and fool around with it. The question is how to do that and not get burned.

“Separate the Elements Softly and with Great Care”
(Paracelsus, quoted in Martha Boesing’s Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down)

What Peter Brook calls “the deadly theatre” is composed of cliches—gestures and words that habitually go together, which remain firmly embedded in the official culture, which reinforce the lulling messages of an oppressive system. What I am calling the shaping movement of theatre making consists of two sub-movements separating a known phenomenon (“deadly theatre”) into its elements and rearranging those elements into a new image of the whole. (These two sub-movements could as easily be called analysis and synthesis, the separating and connecting movements of thought, movements which are not contradictions but rather polar contraries, since they depend upon each other as well as excluding each other.)

My first experience of “separating the elements softly” came on the last of a five-day playwriting workshop given by Judith Katz at the Santa Cruz women’s theatre festival. Throughout the week the twenty participants had been gathering material from dreams, gossip, eavesdropping—writing fragments of dialogue, character descriptions, set descriptions, action. On the last day we sat on a carpeted floor, surrounded by toys and child-sized furniture, and each contributed our favorites to three piles of index cards: monologues; dialogues; stage directions. Then Judith brought us magic markers and scotch tape, rolled out a length of butcher paper, and told us to put together a play from our “collective unconscious.” After two hours, the butcher paper was covered in magic marker, and we’d almost finished the first scene. We had taken several characters from individuals’ work during the week, made up a few more, and designated three playing locations: a chicken coop, the interior of a Foster Freeze, and a red land-yacht convertible with tail fins.

Perhaps the experiment was most exciting for the experienced writers, since it turned upside down their notion that to make a play you first outline and then add flesh to the bones. In Judith’s experiment we assembled a coherent and very funny first scene as if we were making a crazy quilt: a line one of us had written for character B ended up in character A’s mouth, carrying an opposite meaning in a setting thought up by someone else entirely and in the course of an action devised by a group of women talking loudly and interrupting each other often.

If the exercise proved anything other than that we did share something resembling a collective unconscious, it proved the virtues of flexible innocence. It was a demonstration of Judith’s chief point of teaching: Never Assume. For instance, the red land-yacht convertible had originated the day before as I was struggling to follow instructions for a writing exercise in which one of our imagined characters was to tell another a dream (from the dream journal we’d been keeping for a week). Since I can’t remember more than fragments of my own dreams, I’d written a mock dream, delivered as a monologue, in which the red convertible figured prominently. But I had assumed that no one in their right mind would drive a convertible onto a stage, so the group decision to place it in the pile of stage directions was something of a revelation to me. (Judith said sternly, “Harriet, just give up this idea about what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate for theatre.”) It was a revelation to other group members to discover that cherished lines given to a character of their own invention sounded even better when assigned to a dissimilar character imagined by someone else. And it was a revelation to us all that one can write very well sitting on the floor of a community nursery, with paper, scissors, magic marker, scotch tape, and a determination to let no sober adult notions stand in the way of honest play.

“Never Assume” seemed also to be the strategy underlying the Bread and Puppet workshop’s development of a playing script from the last work finished by Franz Kafka before his death in 1924, the meditation on art and society in the form of a short story called “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.” Workshop members disassembled the story, analyzing it, retelling it, locating the spine of it, playing out parts of it in many different ways. The final reassemblage was done by Schumann; but the process of many people working enabled him to develop his intentions as he went along, choosing the most workable of the many alternative playings we had presented.

In the process I was interested in the way elements were separated, to be rejoined differently. For instance, some of us would copy all the details of Josephine’s history, or all the descriptions of how the mouse folk lived, from Kafka’s story to long sheets of newsprint hung in the Haybarn Theatre. At different rehearsals, Schumann would give phrases from the sheets to performers or narrators, sometimes asking that they be sung, sometimes that they be shouted, sometimes spoken. As a makeshift band developed on a platform extending into the audience from stage-right, one line from the sheets, “we are not in general a music-loving race,” became the only text sung in a jam session, with wild fiddling and jazz scatting, that marked and provided momentum for the entrance of an audience of “fancy people” in animal masks and costumes to Josephine’s “concert.”

At certain points in the rehearsal, Schumann warned against the temptation to “illustrate”—for instance, to use music as an accompaniment rather than as part of the ongoing action of the play. He was obviously trying to break clichéd associations of gesture and sound. One of the more effective moments in the play was a silent “speech” done entirely with mouthing and body language by an emcee introducing a substitute performer for Josephine. This was a “set-up” segment of the play, and in its expected form (audible speech with appropriate gestures) would’ve provided a marvelous opportunity for the audience to squirm restlessly in its seats.

The most fully intentioned and far-reaching attempt, that I’ve witnessed, to break open sound/movement clichės occurred in a production of Monique Wittig’s The Constant Journey, which premiered at Goddard College on March 30, 1984. The scripted words were chiefly confined to a prerecorded sound tape; most of the characters heard on the tape were never seen onstage; what was heard sometimes referred directly to action occurring on the stage at the same time, sometimes to action that had previously occurred, and sometimes to action that was to occur later in the play. In a few scenes the action had only indirect association with anything in the text.

For instance, nowhere did the text in its final form refer to Panza being tossed in a blanket, though Panza’s blanket-tossing is one of the famous chapters in Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote, of which The Constant Journey is a revisioning. (In The Constant Journey Quixote and Panza are heroines combatting injustice.) Yet during a central scene of the play, we see Panza’s shadow falling and rising and falling and rising in contorted postures while the voices broadcast through the theatre played out the meeting of Quixote and Panza with the galley slaves. Though most of the audience had surely not read Don Quixote nor were familiar with blanket-tossing as an instrument of folk punishment, the action had an emotional impact that supported and enriched, though it did not illustrate, the text. Panza was actually performing stunts on a hidden trampoline, lighted from behind a muslin curtain; and the repeated motion of her shadow seemed to capture the sense of struggle—fighting to remain upright, falling, rebounding—that may be one core image of the play. (One woman in the audience said it felt like the core image of her life.)

If The Constant Journey seemed to me a successful example of “separating the elements softly”—a working-out in play form of radical theatre’s first commandment, “Never Assume”—it also seemed to me an example of successfully putting those elements back together to form a new image of the whole. Which is no small trick in itself.

Achieving Simplicity through Complexity

I especially appreciated about Wittig’s Constant Journey that it did not treat me, a member of the audience, as a moral idiot in need of persuading to the truth. That is in fact fairly rare in political theatre. Even as effective and sophisticated a play as Martha Boesing’s feminist/anti-nuke Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down ends (in its original version, since rewritten) on a strained note, with the dying mother announcing that we’re all in the same boat—no matter who put us here, we all have to start bailing. Really? I’ve suffered one and a half hours of death-of-the-mother/death-of-the-planet to be told this?

In a January 1984 student production of Ashes at Dartmouth College, the players ended, according to the script, with an invitation to participate in the closing ritual by naming people, animals, plants, things, dear to us for whom we wanted a candle lit. Very few in the audience named specific names. One woman cried out, “Light a candle for us to love and understand one another”; her request was followed by a trickle of pious abstractions from other audience members. I thought at the time that something must be wrong with a play if it elicits this response, for who, after all, is not persuaded that if humans are to survive, we must somehow create more love and understanding among us. The question is how. There may be many viable answers to that question—or none— but it is an evasion of the question to end a play such that it leads an audience to virtuously repeat what it knew long before the playwright’s good-hearted intervention.

Examples of earnest insults to an audience’s intelligence abound in political theatre. My most vivid memory of the Living Theatre—which I saw perform only once, in Iowa City in 1968—remains the contempt with which they treated their audience, played out in the taunting way they solicited our participation and in the easy righteousness with which they attacked what they presumed (wrongly) to be the complacency and political unconsciousness of midwestern university students. To a lesser degree, this same cheap superiority and A-B-C politics weakened a performance by the San Francisco Mime Troupe given in Iowa City the same year.

The accusation of “simple-mindedness” has been used more than once against political theatre by critics whose chief desire is to remain within the assumptions of the system they’re “making it” in. It is also true that the profoundest statements are usually the simplest. But there is a difference between presenting an audience with simple truths easily arrived at (and in a spirit of dyspeptic missionary-hood) and presenting an audience with simple truths arrived at through intense, prolonged artistic work (work done in the belief that audience members are as deeply interested as theatre artists in discovering meaningful action for this place in this time).

Herbert Blau refers, in the foreword of Blooded Thought, to Aristotle’s claim that theatre combines the powers of philosophy and history, and this remark-in-passing gave me the notion that what is required of worthwhile philosophy making might reasonably be required of worthwhile theatre making. Fung Yu-Lan ends his Short History of Chinese Philosophy by saying, “Before the simplicity of philosophy is reached, he [sic; the philosopher] must pass through its complexity. One must speak very much before one keeps silent.” OK. I would now like to speak in detail, very much, of two examples of theatre practice which seem to me to have reached, by way of a journey through complexity, toward a simplicity that is not simple-minded—a simplicity that moves, not instructs.

My first example is a production of Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo, directed by Adrian Hall and given by the Trinity Square Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island, in November 1983. The play is the story of how Galileo is “requested” by Cardinal Barberini, after Barberini has become Pope, to refrain from publicly stating that the earth moves around the sun, a statement in opposition to Church authority. Galileo is shown the instruments of torture. He shuts his mouth and keeps it shut.

In Trinity’s version of the play, Brecht himself is the narrator, and Brecht’s judgment of his own life is interwoven with Galileo’s judgment of his. Galileo secretly continues his research, but in a final speech he says aloud what might have been had he been able to face torture—scientists might have henceforth not divorced their science from their ethics and their politics; they might have developed something akin to a Hippocratic Oath that would have prevented the automatic subservience of research to military profit-making ends (a subservience that has resulted in the threat of nuclear holocaust). Trinity’s version ends ever so simply, in a short rhyme delivered directly to the audience by the actor Peter Gerety, playing Brecht. I can’t remember it to quote it exactly, but the gist is this: “See, see what happens when we don’t say what we know?”

Well, the production was superb; the impact, terrific. Those few simple ending lines were no insult to anyone’s intelligence; they were a quietly anguished summation of the complicated action of a complicated play based on a three-and-a-half-century-old incident that is near to the root of our present very complicated historical situation. According to notes in the program by dramaturg James Schevill, the process of creating this complex a theatre experience included the following: First, Brecht twice rewrote his 1938 script of Galileo. The Trinity production was based on the version that he developed at the end of his life, which incorporates his central concern with the dawn of the nuclear age. Secondly, the company began its rehearsal process in a collaborative search after the meaning of the play, a technique which has developed over the twenty years since Adrian Hall became the company’s founding director. They together read, discussed, cut, and clarified the structure of the play for an audience before developing their individual parts. Thirdly, the designers were brought into this process early on. Eugene Lee literally remodeled the theatre to convey the sense of spatial relationships in Galileo’s scientific theories.

The debate at the heart of the play was carried out in the smallest details of costume and property and action. In a pivotal scene, Barberini and Galileo confront one another at a costume ball. Barberini enters with a mask on a long stick; he whirls the stick in a motion that expresses his ideas of the universe. Galileo understands this conversation on the level of body language, which contradicts and usurps the conversation in words, and responds in kind. The result for the audience is a menacing and brilliant multi-leveled display of the personal/political/scientific/ethical conflict that is the subject of the play.

My second example of a simplicity achieved through complexity is The Constant Journey. For several reasons, it seems wildly unfair to compare the two, though I think I have other and good reasons for making the comparison. But before going into those, I’d like to detail the ways in which these two productions are incommensurable. First, it seems either arrogant or stupid, or at any rate naive, to speak in the same breath of one of the first plays of Monique Wittig (she had written four previous plays, but I am not sure that any of them were produced) and the last work of Brecht, who is, as far as I’m concerned, the chief man to be dealt with in twentieth-century theatre. (Oh, OK, so there’s Beckett. But could anybody please tell me how to use his work?)

Secondly, how is one supposed ethically to compare the work of a repertory company with twenty years’ experience and an annual budget of over two million dollars, supported by IBM, Exxon, New England Telephone, and the Mellon Foundation (these only a few of the big-money donors listed in the program), with the work of a company so hastily assembled it hadn’t even come up with a name for itself, financially supported (it looked to me) by not much more than one of the actresses’ mother’s VISA card, and composed primarily of non-affluent lesbians, half of whom didn’t speak the same first language? (That was a rhetorical question. The answer is, one shouldn’t compare them, at least not without first taking into account the differences in situation.)

Finally, there is the matter of theatrical tradition and heritage. First Brecht, and then Adrian Hall and company, no matter how subversive their intentions, possessed in common a twenty-five-hundred-year-old bank of plays and theatre practice. (And that’s just their European bank; Brecht raided Eastern theatre too.) That, folks, is twenty-five-hundred years worth of plays overwhelmingly by and about and for men—unashamedly, blatantly focused on men’s stories (and incidentally, at times, by way of illuminating the main show, retailing the stories of women attached to men as wives, mothers, daughters, lovers, muses, scapegoats, mirrors to reflect men at twice their size). Sounds like an overstatement, doesn’t it? But I think it is as true as a generalization about centuries of past history can be, even taking into account the submerged, interrupted, muted tradition of women theatre workers, which is told for the first time, though only partially and only for the United States, in Helen Krich Chinoy and Linda Walsh Jenkins’ Women in American Theatre, published in 1981.

The story Chinoy and Jenkins assemble is not a lesbian story—or only in tiny, mostly closeted part. If we want to locate a tradition that lesbian playwright Wittig could directly draw on, if we want to check out the size of her bank account, we’re looking at ten years of theatre practice, done mostly in isolation, in scattered lesbian “communities” on two (or more? I have no way of knowing) continents, most productions improvised for a local audience, almost no scripts published, no anthology of lesbian plays extant in any language I know of. The first public, specifically lesbian theatre group I’ve seen referred to in print is the Lavender Cellar Theatre, begun in Minneapolis in 1973 by eight lesbians. It produced two plays by member Pat Suncircle and four other productions before its demise fewer than two years later. In an article based on a 1977 interview with the former members of Lavender Cellar, Dinah L. Leavitt notes that they “had few theatre skills, little experience, no money, no scripts, no theatre building, and no clear idea of what a lesbian theatre was” (see her article in Women and American Theatre as well as Emily L. Sisley’s “Notes on Lesbian Theatre”).

The lesbians of Lavender Cellar did, of course, have one thing: the honor of being forerunners, pioneers, visionaries. But my dismal feelings on surveying the wreckage of our history, or lack thereof, resemble those of the second sister in the epilogue of The Constant Journey. Her aunt says to her, “In the worst conditions ridicule must be risked by standing up with the worst weapons.” She replies, “But when I think of her helmet, her lance, not to mention her horse, I don’t even want to laugh. I wonder how Quixote managed to scare anyone with those weapons.”

The unmarried aunt, however, has the last word in the play, and one of those last words is her reflection that “a great power of decision can carry the victory. This,” she continues, “is one of Quixote’s traits which must be cherished.” I do cherish that power of decision after having seen it portrayed on the stage of the Goddard College Haybarn Theatre, and it seems to me one reason why it is not entirely naive to speak in the same breath of Brecht and Wittig, or of Adrian Hall and actress/producer/director Syn Guerin; or of the Trinity Square acting company and Sande Zeig and Pam Christian, the actors of the unnamed company that performed The Constant Journey.

But there are other—less personal, less emotional—reasons for comparison. Reasons having to do with the substance of the plays.

In The Constant Journey Wittig is centrally concerned with heroism, as is Brecht in Galileo.

Both plays are themselves a philosophic dialogue (taking philosophy in its oldest sense, as thought about how one should live inextricably intertwined with thought about how things are and what they mean).

Both attempt what Brecht (not very usefully) called “alienation”: they purposely avoid a seduction of the audience into easy sympathy; they try to halt an audience’s lust for a long slow bath in familiar poisons; they rely on interruption, on the unexpected, to keep an audience alert and thinking.

Both playwrights are intellectuals, but the intellectuality of neither is a cold one. They mix in healthy doses of popular entertainment and spectacle, what Peter Brook calls “rough theatre.”

Both Wittig and Brecht do great things with language. Intentionally subversive great things.

Finally, neither writer’s work could be described, by any stretch of the imagination, as nice. They don’t aim to please. They don’t aim to preach, for that matter. They aim for the jugular of that which murders hope. Both Wittig and Brecht attempt to make art a weapon of freedom struggle.

A Gift

Scene 1: As the play begins, lights come up on Quixote, voraciously reading in every double-jointed, odd-adolescent position conceivable (upright, upside down, draped over the back of a chair), while the voices of her mother, youngest sister, and aunt quarrel over what they must do to control her. Mother and sister vow to burn her books—fables of Amazons, conqueresses, and highway robberesses, which she emulates to the shame of her family. They inform the aunt that Panza (who, they say, is infatuated with Quixote) reinforces Quixote in her delusions by taking everything she says literally. The aunt stubbornly calls Quixote and Panza “a happy pair,” saying they will “learn something together.”

Meanwhile, a hand reaches out from beneath Quixote’s platform and snatches her book from her. The audience is already intrigued by this unexpected development when Quixote reaches for yet another volume, hidden in a secret pocket under her chair. She opens it; the stage lights go out; the book bursts into flame. Quixote stands in darkness, only her face illumined by the burning book. The voices are silent. The fire shoots up closer and closer; the flames nearly lick at her features while she stares at them for what seems a long dangerous time. She closes the book, extinguishing the flames, plunging the theatre into darkness and ending the first scene.

Even with this first brief taste of The Constant Journey, my mouth dropped open. And remained open for much of the rest of the play. I was astonished.

How could it all be so poignant? The physical comedy played simultaneously with haunting, unlocateable voices reached to some remembered level of feeling where I am never sure whether to laugh or scream or cry. Whatever one cares to call this level of lived experience, this incomprehensible intensity, it is always for me a touchstone. Those moments when I am most myself and most alive, I exist like this: somewhere between laughter and tears, in some unnameable territory between trust and fear.

Quixote’s actions during most of the first scene were hilarious. But women’s voices threatening to burn books are not, carrying as they do associations of the Holocaust (those who burn books often enough do not hesitate to burn people) and of the incessant betrayal of women by women. The voices of the mother and younger sister were for me articulations of what Mary Daly calls the “token torturer”—the woman who breaks other women’s spirits in the service of men and their deadly systems. The woman I’ve learned to fear.

But how could Don Quixote—come on now, Man of La Mancha? “to dream the impossible dre-e-eam”? puh-leeze—how could Quixote played as a lesbian represent the secret heart of my experience? She did. I too am a voracious reader. I too take books for reality and emulate them to the shame of my family. I too appear absurd to others, if not always to myself. I too live with the sense that other, better socialized, “straighter” women whisper about me behind my back. I too have the feeling that I am perceived as a clown. I too discover in myself a desire to “win fame around the world by redressing wrongs with weapons.” (And, like the foolish Panza, I would follow another such woman anywhere, “riding an ass.”)

Thus my attention was captured at the very beginning of The Constant Journey in a way it had never been captured before in a theatre. I wanted this play to succeed with a ferocity of desire that was new in my experience and that had little to do with the fact that I’d just spent two weeks pouring time and labor into the frustrating, recalcitrant details of its production. I wanted this play to succeed because it was a play about me, a me I avoid noticing even in mirrors, a me that I am speechlessly proud of and that I do not wish held up to ridicule.

To recognize my personal stake in The Constant Journey did not make me single-mindedly joyful. It tore me. For if I had to wait until I was thirty-seven years old to see images of my innermost self on a stage, displayed there in the space of one hour of public time, and if this recognition was accompanied by astonishment, relief, pain, and a great stirring of my senses and intelligence, what might my life have been if I had seen it earlier? In real life, unlike stage life, the past is not re-playable. I can cry out, “Give them back, give them back, those years. I want them all back!” And it won’t do me a damn bit of good.

But at least I knew something was being enacted before my eyes that I had dreamed might someday exist. In conversation later, Wittig said that she had always been trying to create universal art from a lesbian point of view. That is her way of putting it; I am not sure what mine would be. I will just say that The Constant Journey brought back to me old, never really realized intentions—dreams that got lost, wandered off, went into hiding. Big scary dreams, “lunatic-fringe” dreams, dreams of a world perceived and survived and imagined into transformation by lesbian brains and hearts. Dreams that the dreamer called sinister wisdom—before she forgot what she knew. Before her inner reality succumbed to “realism.” That reactionary fiction.

Let me try again to say what I mean, less bitterly, in another way. The Constant Journey proceeds out of the interior realities of lesbian life as at least this one lesbian deeply experiences them (as fool, lover, friend, dreamer, fighter, thinker, runaway). Not out of lesbian life as it is perceived from the outside by hostile, patronizing others (an imitation of men, a psychological regression, a seduction of other women, a blasphemy or a perversion, a “sexual preference,” a fascistic hard-line feminism, a pity).

And that is why I call The Constant Journey a gift. Because who would have expected a thing so simple in its complexity? Flesh and blood on bare boards, on a stage of history swept clean of dreams by terror. Standing there, moving there. The beating, speaking heart of a dream.

Voici les langages dans mon coeur. These are the languages of my heart. To hear them spoken, to see them bodied forth; to be spoken by them, to be seen in their embodiment: this is to be touched—and touched deeply—with amazing, empowering grace.

This is what lesbian theatre can do.

A Vision

I used to be big on visions. I used to think they led me on like a star. Where did I get that notion? Probably from the Christmas song that always, absurdly, moved me nearly to tears, whether we children sang it (off-key) in school or in church or on the snow-filled streets, caroling house to house: “We three kings of Orient are, Bearing gifts we travel afar, Field and fountain, Moor and mountain, Following yonder star. Oh-ooh, Star of wonder, Star of night,” etcetera.

I don’t entirely trust visions anymore. The images they arrive in can mislead. (For instance, my feet get tangled up, I don’t know which way to go, when I realize that half my core images of goodly living come straight out of a white working-class prairie congregation of the Disciples of Christ.) More than what we envision, I trust what lesbians do—particularly when our backs are to the wall, when there is no exit for us and we’re furiously fighting for our right to life.

But there remains a childhood part of me that wants to mythologize, that needs some wondrous star to follow, in art and in life. So I’ll make one up. An eccentric crack-pot vision for times when I cannot face the recognitions of extremity, for the chilling dawns when it seems that nothing, short of a gun to my head, could move me out of sleep and onto my feet.

In 1983, Sue-Ellen Case calls Shakespeare “the great prison-house of art.” In 1968, Peter Brook writes of “the infuriating fact that Shakespeare is still our model,” the one who “succeeded where no one else has succeeded before or since in writing plays that pass through many stages of consciousness,” plays that—”through the unreconciled opposition of Rough and Holy, through an atonal screech of absolutely unsympathetic keys”—when enacted become clear, intense, branded into memory, signal shapes of desire and comprehension. In 1928, Virginia Woolf writes that if women work for her however we can, Shakespeare’s sister will come again. And this time around she will not die mute and unmourned. She will speak the words of our lives.

I understand that Shakespeare’s sister speaks to me because I speak English, because I am genetically and culturally what my father calls “a duke’s mixture”—Welsh, Irish, Scotch, English, Swiss, German, blended with darker-skinned unknowns my families have conveniently lost track of. And I understand that, like her brother, Shakespeare’s sister is a dangerous model, a potentially imprisoning citadel of the imagination.

But I said this was an eccentric vision, the spilling contents of a cracked pot. And I need to spell out my content, spit it out, in so many words. So OK. So here goes.

Shakespeare’s sister is a dyke. Lesbian lives are Shakespearean. We sing in “an atonal screech of unsympathetic keys.” Our oppositions are unreconciled. We are rough, we are holy, we are men, we are women; we are united, we are each utterly alone. We are the bones of our mothers and fathers, sunk deep in the blue lagoon that Laurie Anderson sings of, suffering continual sea change, made rich and strange and prophetic. Left alone, telling our tale, we speak the words of our lives and the words of our lives transmute, translate, become the last living languages of a planet balanced, spinning, on a verge of the abyss.

Lesbians are splendid, appropriate subjects of theatre. Lesbians are splendid, appropriate makers of theatre. Theatre is a splendid, appropriate metaphor for our lives. If we follow where the metaphor leads—if we get back up on our horses and ride—we may yet come to . . . What?

Blooded thought. Breathing poetry. Dancing spirit. Renewal of life. A mirror held up to our natures, reflecting the whole of re-creating Creation.

Afterword: Come Out and Play with Me

In the somewhat grim struggle to finish this essay, I wished most for some simplicity to emerge from what I hoped had been the preceding complexity—what had been, at any rate, a great pile of scraps of paper, 3″ x 5″ cards, failed draft after failed draft after failed draft, mini-reviews of performances, notes on books read, sentences broken and abandoned, half-finished outlines I didn’t follow after all. I was sitting at the kitchen table, smoking too much, staring into space, worrying over time and money and my back tooth that had just broken off in the piece of sourdough bread I was substituting for a balanced meal, when the words of another childhood song (I must be pedaling backwards in time) came back to me, whole and unbidden:

Bluebird, come out and play with me,
And bring your dollies three,
Climb up my apple tree,
Shout down my rain barrel,
Slide down my cellar door,
And we’ll be jolly friends
Forevermore.

My Bluebird group sang this song often; it was our favorite. Bluebirds are baby Campfire Girls, ages seven to nine. Campfire Girls are like Girl Scouts, only we had prettier uniforms, our ceremonies echoed Native American rituals, and we took Indian names for ourselves. The organization was founded by American feminists to encourage self-reliance, friendship, a passion for the out of doors, and respect for Native American traditions among girls. During the resurgence of feminism in the 1970s, the organization changed its name and admitted boys to its groups and camps, in the interests of equal rights and keeping itself afloat financially. When I remember what Campfire did for me, then, I’m remembering something that no longer exists. The experience is not available to my nieces—no equivalent source of strength is there for them.

But back then, in what has become (incomprehensibly to me) a vanished world, Iowa in the 1950s, my friends and I sang our best Bluebird song with zest, lustily shouting some lines, whispering others, harmonizing in perfect innocence. We didn’t know our favorite song was full of double entendres; its sexual code escaped us. We just loved to sing it. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. And on reflection, I believe our ritual performances of the Bluebird song (which triggered explosions of high spirit—running, chasing, neighing, screaming, rolling on the ground, screeching laughter) must have something to do with my desire to put together those two nouns whose definition eludes me: lesbian and theatre.

I don’t know what lesbian theatre is, or might become. I don’t want to guess. I just want to see it made. And so I ask myself, how can lesbian theatre happen? What is the necessary condition of its freedom? What is the essential act that makes it possible? And I answer myself, for now, in the following way. Lesbian theatre can happen when grown-up girls (battered, stymied, twisted, estranged, confused, refused, messed up, turned around, upside down, and thoroughly disreputable as we may have become) want something long enough and hard enough that we finally spit it out — a rude, guttural, wild breaking into bluebird song, with words that might go something like this:

Hey!
Girl over there!
Look at me.
Maybe I love you.
Maybe you’d love me.
Forget what stands in the way.
To hell with what people say.
Let’s play.

 Beyond that, there are no guarantees.

  

 

NOTES

 The Quest

Bentley, I discover in a brief description at the end of The Life of Drama, is no child of the upper middle class either. But the man knows how to pass — he fooled me, at least.

The Objects of My Affection

References to “doing the thing we want done” recur throughout Jane Ellen Harrison’s work, but especially in Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion.

Making Theatre/Making Up Our Lives: Enacting

The phrase “blooded thought” I lifted from Herbert Blau, in emulation of The Constant Journey’s Gina de Passamonte, who “stole only from the rich and with their riches, like Molly Cutpurse, … tried to rectify the injustices inflicted upon the poor.”

“Passing strange” comes from Cheryl Clarke’s poem “hair: a narrative.”

The image of the goddess coming out from the bushes was suggested by Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, where, after the village pageant, Isa—in despair about herself and her husband, whom she loves and hates—thinks, “Surely it was time someone invented a new plot, or that the author came out from the bushes …  ” (p. 215). The pageant-play Isa has just witnessed is a series of scenes from English history up to and including “ourselves,” the audience in June 1939; its author/director, Miss La Trobe, is a lesbian.

Making Theatre/Making Up Our Lives: Shaping

My use of familia was suggested by Cynthia Rich’s analysis in Look Me in the Eye.

My descriptions of The Constant Journey, a work in progress, are of its first performance. The text and production elements have undergone extensive changes since then.

After finishing the essay, I realized that Brecht’s Galileo and Wittig’s Constant Journey are similar to Lorraine Hansberry’s last play, Les Blancs, which is also centrally concerned with heroism and uses a more experimental form than she had tried in previous plays. There is some evidence (from letters to The Ladder and from unpublished sources) to suggest that Hansberry—who strikes me as the most politically acute US playwright thus far—was also an early lesbian activist who closeted herself out of fear of harming the civil rights and Black liberation movements. Yet one more reason to mourn her early death.

A Gift

When I say that “realism” is a reactionary fiction, I mean that what we have been taught to regard as “real” is fake, or at least misdescribed. In a work-in-progress on feminist realism in modern fiction, Lise Weil compares patriarchy as women experience it to “a vast piece of realistic fiction which women inhabit as if it were really real.” What she calls feminist realism, by contrast, is committed to the discovery of what is: It is “the activity of coming to see what has been unseen, relegated to the background, out of the range of patriarchal vision.”

A Vision

Voici le langage dans mon coeur is a line from Laurie Anderson’s “Langue d’Amour.” I made “language” plural because it seemed to me that the languages of one’s conscious and unconscious mind and body are many, and that they come together in “the heart.”

 

SOURCES

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___________.
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Theatre Journal, vol. 35, no. 4 (December 1983): 441-60. [Quotation from p. 460.]
____________.
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Brande, Dorothea.
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Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. New York: Avon Books, 1968. [Quotation on representation, p. 126; quotations on Shakespeare, pp. 78-88.]
Chaikin, Joseph.
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Chekhov, Michael. Previously unpublished writings and commentary collected in
The Drama Review, Fall 1983.
Chinoy, Helen Krich, and Jenkins, Linda Walsh, eds.
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Clarke, Cheryl.
Narratives: poems in the tradition of black women. New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, 1983.
Daly, Mary.
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Dolan, Jill. “Toward a Critical Methodology for Lesbian Feminist Theatre.” Masters thesis, New York University, 1983.
Frye, Marilyn.
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______________.
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[The featured image at the top of this posting is a photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi, found on Unsplash.]

 

 

           

 

           

Published by

Harriet Ann Ellenberger

writer, editor, translator; co-founded the journal "Sinister Wisdom"