The Women and Theatre Program listserve (available at wtp@athe.org) began a conversation a week or so ago about Jesse Green’s New York Sunday Times feature story on playwright Sarah Schulman and Green’s inability to position Schulman as anything but a once-angry lesbian now trying to “reform.” The story, called “Who’s Afraid of Sarah Schulman” (10-23-05), is rife with the kind of containing, inadvertently disparaging descriptions that continue to plague women theatre artists. While leading his piece with references to Schulman’s notoriously prickly personality and her “difficult” nature as an artist, he remarks, “Though her speech is armored with jargon, the effect is often mitigated, in person, by her almost maternal warmth. In private, she has been a loving mentor to many young writers, feeding them encouragement and home-cooked meals. Even during our interview, she occasionally took my hand to emphasize an important point, and spoke in a modest whisper. Still, I found myself repeatedly preparing to flinch as she stalked me for bad motives, tired agendas and prejudices; when she thought she spied one she pounced as if to drag it from behind some trees and let it rot in the sun.”

In one short paragraph, Green manages to employ most of the stereotypes that still stick to women artists: they are smart but have to remain maternal, offering home-cooked meals to younger playwrights and touching the writer modestly to whisper privately. At the same time, Green paints Schulman as something of an animal, waiting to pounce on his words like prey she’s eager display like a trophy then let desiccate. This feature isn’t much different from one of the first New York Times Sunday Magazine stories to run on a woman playwright, which featured Marcia Norman in 1983, when her play ‘night, Mother ran on Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Nearly 25 years later, the tone is the same: bewilderment that a woman could be an artist, and a desperate need to place her in a domestic, rather than a professional space. Green’s piece on Schulman spends a great deal of time preoccupied with her sixth floor walk-up in the East Village, which stands in as the measure of Schulman’s inability to achieve profitable mainstream success. But it also slants the story, making it appear as though Schulman’s only aspiration is to find a new apartment. Green quotes Schulman’s confident assertion that she’s a good writer, that she’s trying to do “something that’s never been done before,” but he seems to undercut Schulman’s confidence by domesticating her and implicitly belittling the streak of paranoia that runs (no doubt rightfully) through Schulman’s stories.

After all, this is the woman who accused Jonathan Larson of plagiarizing her novel People in Trouble in his hit, long-running Broadway musical RentStagestruck (Duke University Press, 1998), Schulman’s screed about the production and American theatre’s refusal to give lesbian playwrights their due, reads as the work of a writer slightly unhinged in her account of Larson’s purportedly unauthorized borrowing of her work. But after decades of neglect as a playwright, some resentment, even fury, seems logical and rational, rather than hysterical.

I don’t know if Schulman is a good playwright, as I’ve never seen or read her work. Manic Flight Reaction, the play recently produced at Playwrights Horizons, which occasioned Green’s Sunday feature, was reviewed in the Times by Christopher Isherwood (10-31-205). Isherwood calls the play “talky and hyperanalytical” and notes, “Virtually everyone onstage seems to have just emerged, eyes ablaze, from either an unusually revelatory therapeutic session or a seminar on the oppressions of the ‘media-industrial-art-technology complex,’ as one character puts it.” He criticizes Schulman for letting her characters quote philosopher Walter Benjamin, and for attempting to combine “didactic impulses” with “generation-gap comedy.” Isherwood expects conventional drama that closely hues to singular genre expectations; that refuses to be too thoughtful or intellectual, if it intends to be a comedy; and that keeps its references safely, slyly hidden. Schulman’s sin, in this play, doesn’t appear to be her lesbian characters or her own lesbian identity, but rather her intellectual and political commitments, which mainstream reviewers would rather elide from performance. Unless, of course, the playwright is Tom Stoppard or Tony Kushner.

Schulman’s play could be as awkward and heavy-handed as Isherwood insists. But shouldn’t we applaud a woman who uses her midtown production to stage a play with a 50ish woman academic in the lead, someone who’s lived multiple lives, someone who thinks deeply and isn’t afraid of contradictions? Isn’t it to Schulman’s credit that while she draws this unusual character, she also apparently unravels a plot in which one of the lead’s former female lovers has now married a Republican candidate for office and is determined to heterosexualize her past and her future? This sounds like a fine combination of issues and intriguing peccadilloes to me. Why isn’t there space in American theatre to let a writer like Schulman take a few risks, and even court failure, without dismissing her for her erudition or trying to reinscribe her as a mother, the role to which women in theatre apparently remain best suited?

I’ve long believed that more women—specifically, more feminists—need to write about theatre and the arts for the mainstream press. We need to make feminism the default perspective, so that Schulman’s experiences and her resentment over the lack of acclaim for her work might be described differently. When might we be able to consider our theatre from the perspective of a woman (even lesbian) playwright or critic, instead of relying on a less than sympathetic, entitled male reviewer who still can’t imagine what it feels like to be marginalized by gender from the most important forums of American culture life?

The Feminist Spectator

Link to original post on Blogspot.

 

7 Responses to Sarah Schulman and the Plight of Women Playwrights

  1. Snakeoil says:

    Dear Jill,

    I appreciate your call for feminist playwrights and writers to write about theatre and the arts for the mainstream press. I keep telling myself to take up the challenge of publishing something in The Village Voice, rather than in TDR or Theatre Journal.

    In an interesting way, your analysis of Jesse Green’s article about Sarah Schulman makes me think about the recent nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. I can’t put my finger on it, but there seems to be an odd dynamic at play in both cases.

    Schulman gets dismissed for being too euridite, and for being overly prepared to grapple with complex issues. In her case, it is precisely the ‘evidence’ of her past political and intellectual commitments that Green uses to position her as likely to ambush unsuspecting audiences.

    Miers gets dismissed for *not* being prepared to grapple with complex issues. She is criticized for her lack of judicial experience, for her close personal ties to Bush, and for her lack of a clear record on issues likely to be encountered by the Supreme Court.

    It seems like a difficult situation in both arenas: women are dangerous when their intellectual/political record is a given, and they are equally dangerous when it’s a mystery.

    And of course, no one in the mainstream media bats an eye when Bush replaces his female nominee with Alito. Does this also happen in the theatre? It’s easier to make people happy when a man deals with serious issues than when a woman engages with those issues on her own terms?

    Cranky snake.

  2. P'tit Boo says:

    oh my god. You nailed it.
    Yes you did ! Thank you for this !
    Let’s keep it up !

  3. Snakeoil says:

    Hi P’tit Boo,

    Thanks. How do you insert photos into these blogs? I’ve always wanted to learn how to do that.

    Unfortunately, I also haven’t seen any of Sarah Schulman’s plays, so I don’t feel able to comment on the quality of her work.

    However, with respect to Alito’s replacement of Miers as Supreme Court Nominee, I recall hearing pundits discuss how one of Bush’s criteria for selecting a new nominee had to be scrapped in the days before he picked Alito.

    One pundit said: “He wants a woman, a conservative, and someone with experience on the bench. One of these things has to go.”

    To my shock, the other pundit said: “He might have to compromise and pick someone less conservative this time around.”

    I knew all along that the ‘thing that had to go’ would be a woman.

    But it’s always interesting to watch how ‘scandals’ play themselves out in the arts world. It almost always takes a woman, a gay person, and/or a person of color to spark a massive scandal that ends in something getting shut down. Karen Finley, Chris Ofili, Jack Smith, Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, the Wooster Group (mostly women and gay men at the time they were censored for Route 1&9), Lenny Bruce… I could go on and on.

    This is probably over-simplifying things quite a big, but when straight white men do outrageous things with their bodies (or usually with other peoples’ bodies), they are hailed as ‘revolutionary,’ ‘radical,’ ‘groundbreaking,’ etc…

    When women, gays, people of color do things representing their sense of embodied experiences, they are called ‘sick,’ ‘perverted,’ ‘pigs,’ ‘obscene,’ ‘chocolate-smeared,’ ‘low-lifes,’ ‘racist,’ and so forth.

    Anyhow, I think the whole Miers nomination was a ruse, basically a cop-out way of saying, “Look, we TRIED to nominate a woman. See what happened? She just wasn’t qualified.”

    Something always has to go… and in this case, it’s a woman.

  4. Jill Dolan says:

    Snakeoil, just wanted to say I appreciate your response here, and agree that there are interesting parallels to the way women are treated in all sorts of other aspects of public life. Thanks for writing. All best, jd

  5. Colleen Werthmann says:

    Dear Ms. Dolan,

    For what it’s worth, I saw and very much enjoyed Sarah Schulman’s play. I appreciated it for both its ambitions and “talkiness” about big ideas. However, I don’t think that a play deserves especial praise for having a female academic as its protagonist — I don’t think it’s that unusual. Rebecca Gilman’s play, SPINNING INTO BUTTER, which was at Lincoln Center years ago, has one, as does Wendy Wasserstein’s play, THIRD, which is (come to think of it) also at Lincoln Center. Unafraid of contradictions/thinking deeply? Those are great qualities for characters in a play to have. But (maybe because I am not one) I don’t see what is necessarily praiseworthy about a character being an academic, per se.

    Did you ever get to see the play? Just curious.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I am curious to find out if there has been any investigation into the challenges faced by male dramaturges working with female playwrights (and of course, vice versa)? One comment by Christopher Isherwood in Ms. Dolan’s posting jumped out at me: “(he)expects conventional drama that closely hues to singular genre expectations” jumped out at me.

    Is there a general predisposition by men in the theatre towards linear writing vis a vis plot and action? Do many women writers write far more in circular or “concentric circle” patterns which evokes more an intuitive understanding of story rather than a logic based ‘a leads to b leads to c’ understanding?

    etc. etc.

    Any thoughts?

    daf

  7. daf says:

    I am curious to find out if there has been any investigation into the challenges faced by male dramaturges working with female playwrights (and of course, vice versa)? One comment by Christopher Isherwood in Ms. Dolan’s posting jumped out at me: “(he)expects conventional drama that closely hues to singular genre expectations” jumped out at me.

    Is there a general predisposition by men in the theatre towards linear writing vis a vis plot and action? Do many women writers write far more in circular or “concentric circle” patterns which evokes more an intuitive understanding of story rather than a logic based ‘a leads to b leads to c’ understanding?

    etc. etc.

    Any thoughts?

    daf

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