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
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:
Catherine Nicholson (no middle name) was born in Troy, a small town in the Scottish Presbyterian sandhills region of North Carolina, on August 7, 1922, but her father Mike, the town druggist, registered her birth as August 8th. Catherine celebrated both days.
When Catherine was four, her older sister, Edna Earle, died at home from an overdose of morphine given her during an asthma attack by a new doctor in town. The morphine had come from Mike’s drugstore, a hard fact which Catherine’s mother never forgave. She took to her bed for a year, and during that year taught Catherine to read. Catherine’s head-start on schooling and her love for literature were born out of her mother’s unassuageable grief.
To escape the thunderclouds at home, Catherine spent much of her time outside the house. She read the magazines and drank cherry cokes at the soda fountain in her father’s drugstore, and watched every Hollywood movie that came to town – for free, in her uncle’s movie theatre. She played long hours with Nancy and other friends in the neighborhood: one of their best games was Plike (short for “play like you’rex … “), a form of theatre that didn’t require adult supervision or resources. And, when her mother didn’t intervene in time, Catherine gave her toys to the other children.
Moving Out into a Wider World
Catherine graduated from a small woman’s college near Troy that had been named after the 18th-century Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald, remembered by the Scots for her courage, fidelity, and honor. Then Catherine went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for a master’s in English literature. She taught in Winston-Salem, and later showed me the campus where she’d asked WH Auden to read. He arrived on the train from New York City, and she and her roommate invited all the beautiful, intelligent young men they knew for him to converse with. Catherine herself was working seriously on poems, but Auden never knew that.
Catherine never told me when and why her passion shifted from words on the page to live theatre, but she took the extraordinary step of moving alone from North Carolina to Chicago, to study at Northwestern University under the great acting teacher Alvina Krause. Catherine earned an MA and a PhD in theatre and oral interpretation at Northwestern, writing her dissertation on the role of the chorus in Greek tragedy.
It was during those years in the Midwest that Catherine made three discoveries which would shape her life until its closing: she discovered that, though she made a good actor, she made an even better director; she discovered the books of Jane Ellen Harrison, intellectual revolutionary who uncovered the violent destruction of female-centered culture which lay at the root of Western civilization; and she discovered Barbara, then an undergraduate in sociology at Northwestern and Catherine’s first real love.
Making Theatre Live
When I met her at the Charlotte Women’s Center in 1974, Catherine had directed university theatre for nearly twenty years, first at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia, then at the new branch of the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, where she and the painter Maud Gatewood had begunthe interdisciplinary arts program. I knew that the old lovers and friends she introduced me to thought she was a great director, but I had no idea what that meant until after we were living together and she was directing what would be her final play at UNCC, “Twelfth Night,” cast irrespective of sex. I listened to her anguish night after day after night, and I watched as she created a whole world; I watched her slowly give that world over to the actors; and I watched her withdraw to let the actors in turn make that world live for their audience. I saw how what she did caused everyone touched by it to rise far above their ordinary selves. And I saw what happened when the play was done, the collapse of the collective extraordinary back into the individual ordinary.
How We Got Together and Catherine Left the University
Catherine had become fascinated with me by reading my journal (she could quote chunks of it verbatim), and I had become fascinated with her by listening to her talk. Catherine’s mind was a library, and she could talk a blue streak – from morning coffee, when she would recount fabulously detailed, richly theatrical dreams, to the last drop of bourbon nearly twenty hours later. She was fifty-three, she was at the top of her game professionally, and she drank a lot. I was twenty-eight, I lived and breathed revolution and the Charlotte Women’s Center, and I was career-less, unless you counted a part-time job as a technical writer.
We were in complete agreement that an ongoing love relationship would be a terrible idea. We were in complete agreement that my moving into her house would produce a catastrophe. We agreed completely, and then in early 1975, we went ahead and did it anyway.
After the “Twelfth Night” performances a few months later, Catherine left her tenured teaching position, explosively. In practical terms, she could have stayed. The administration was upset about the sex discrimination suit she’d filed, but they still needed her. The gay male artists who surrounded her like a Judy-Garland fan club were alarmed by the women’s center and by me, but, given time and reassurance, they would have come around. The real reason she left, I think now, was that she had reached the limits of what the patriarchal theatre tradition could do. She’d directed Greek tragedy, knowing that the stories the old plays told were stories of the defeat of women. She’d directed Shakespeare, playing with gender roles even more than he had. She’d directed Brecht and Ibsen and Strindberg and the first North American production of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” She’d been there, she’d done that, and she wanted to create something new.
An Amazon Culture Center on Paper
You’d think I could tell most excellent stories about the years (1976-81) that Catherine and I did Sinister Wisdom together, but it was like being picked up by a tornado. Memory pictures swirl in my head, both of us being turned and twisted and swept away, from North Carolina to Nebraska to Massachusetts. I remember the women all along the way, lesbian-identified and not – massive presences, startling presences, stellar souls. I remember the ecstasy of break-through conversations, the traveling from lesbian home to lesbian home, the cooperative labor (many hands are supposed to make light work, but there was so much work associated with Sinister Wisdom, it needed an army and a couple of generations).
Through it all, Catherine remained in some sense the director. It was her idea that we should publish a magazine together. The resources we burned up in the process were chiefly hers. She was, essentially, the one who made Sinister Wisdom happen and the one who kept it going, most especially when I was felled by an attack of Graves’ disease in Nebraska.
Catherine was the lion-heart of Sinister Wisdom, and it is for that, more than for any other of the many gifts she gave, that I honor her and wish her to be remembered.
note: I wrote this tribute to Catherine after Julie R. Enszer, the current editor of Sinister Wisdom, e-mailed me that Catherine had just died. The news was not a surprise because it had been over a year since Catherine had been able to remember who I was, and her goddaughter had told me a few weeks earlier that Catherine had suffered a massive stroke. Surprised or not, however, I was in a state of semi-shock when I started writing this, and Julie patiently waited while I struggled through to the end.
My piece appeared along with other tributes by Marilyn Frye, Beth Hodges, and Susan Robinson (aka Susan Wood-Thompson) in Sinister Wisdom 90 (Fall 2013).
The 111th book-length issue of Sinister Wisdom arrived in my rural mailbox a few weeks ago. Wherever Catherine is now (I’ve listed her in my address book as “free in the universe”), I say to her, Remember that project we started with such trepidation in 1976? Guess what—it’s succeeding beyond our wildest imaginings.
The May 2002 installment below shows its age mostly in the letter to readers, where you can see me attempting to dredge up a bit of hope where there wasn’t much (the invasion of Iraq hadn’t happened yet, but the attempts to stop it would fail). The two following pieces do last, and both are meant to be read aloud (Barbara Mor’s “Suicidal Girls” would’ve made a great podcast, with sound effects, and my piece is a speech, to be delivered to a conference I never got to).
SHE IS STILL BURNING An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers Installment #13 10 May 2002
We are against war and the sources of war. We are for poetry and the sources of poetry.
(Muriel Rukeyser, 1949)
All humanity today lives under one global god: the God of War, who is continuously empowered and enlarged by the religion of money.
(Barbara Mor, 1987)
Peace is a place where no war is held.
(line from children’s poems circulating the internet, 2002)
I’ve begun this letter three times in the past six weeks, and then gotten submerged in translation contracts, while events raced ahead, outstripping my attempts to understand them. My first try began like this: “It’s March 31st as I begin writing this, and two old, ruthless and cynical men who despise each other (a description of Ariel Sharon and Yassar Arafat stolen from Robert Fisk, Mideast correspondent par excellence) head towards their final confrontation in the Land of the Patriarchs. … I hate it when men play chess with human pawns, particularly when they’re playing on a board that’s already soaked in blood. I hate it even more when nobody stops them.”
Six weeks later, the civilian infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority is wrecked and Arafat sidelined, and now it’s Sharon and his Likud party versus Hamas and Hezbollah. But these players are also mirror images of each other: both want the same land, all of it; both think they can take it by force; both believe their god backs them in this endeavour.
Personally, I think the opposing sides in all the battles spreading over the earth are serving the same god, the one Starhawk calls “The God of Force” (secular types worship him too, under names like “full-spectrum dominance”). This god may have ruled the earth for the last 4000-odd years, but these are strange times and I suspect that he might have finally shot himself in the foot.
Force doesn’t work anymore—it may be as simple as that. Here we have, for instance, George W. Bush, the most powerful man in the world and the least free, with his heart set on bringing down Saddam Hussein. Can he do it? Only if he’s willing to lose 10-30,000 troops, use low-yield nukes and crash the U.S. economy.
I’m thinking, in other words, that there’s something resembling hope at the bottom of this wastebasket. And if you’ll grant me a few moments and a little poetic license, I’ll try to explain why.
First, let’s say that the “God of Force” is shorthand for “dominant human belief and behaviour patterns under patriarchy.” When this god collapses in a bloody stalemate with himself, who’s left standing? Well, it’s probably (to use another of Starhawk’s phrases) the “Goddess of Regeneration.” She’s also shorthand, a metaphoric image for human potential (if you think of human beings as one body, then she’d be the soul—or, in scientific terms, the quantum hologram—of humanity). But she’s also a metaphoric image for the unity-in-diversity of matter/energy—hence, the soul of a humanity in sync with the rest of the cosmos.
And if we want to locate her prophets, we don’t need to look much farther than the Women in Black, with their week-by-week, year-by-year street-corner vigils for peace. Are they unrealistic and politically naive, these women? I don’t think so.
Bon courage (and happy reading),
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada
IN THIS INSTALLMENT
1) “Suicidal Girls”: an Irish Crone rap by Barbara Mor, about which she writes, “i really want to bodily pick up women, in all this chaos, and set us back on the OldFeministRoad: Fuck Off, Stupids!”
2) “Some Reflections on Lesbian Culture, Feminist Thought, Jazz and Love” by Harriet Ellenberger (presentation written for the conference “Ruptures, Résistances et Utopies” to be held in Toulouse, France, September 2002)