The Play (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
How I Learned to Drive uses a series of nonlinear scenes from the memory of Li’l Bit, who reveals her complex emotional and sexual relationship with her Uncle Peck. The scenes jump instantaneously back and forth in time on a neutral stage with minimal props. Li’l Bit is portrayed at various ages.
A one-act play, How I Learned to Drive begins with a disembodied voice saying “Safety First—You and Driver Education.” This technique is used throughout the play to indicate how and where each scene is located within the overall narrative. On a bare stage with only two chairs representing a Buick Riviera, Li’l Bit takes her place, in the present, speaking directly to the audience. She describes suburban Maryland in 1969 “before the malls took over.” A young Li’l Bit then steps into the scene, now seventeen years old. She is sitting in a parked car on a summer night with an older, married man—her Uncle Peck. In what appears to be a not completely unpleasant experience, Peck fondles and kisses Li’l Bit’s breasts.
Members of the Greek Chorus assume their roles as Li’l Bit’s relatives at a typical family dinner, which consists of vulgar jokes and crude comments about Li’l Bit’s well-endowed figure. A protective and gentle Uncle Peck shields Li’l Bit from the insults. The scene ends with Li’l Bit bartering a secret, late-night rendezvous with Peck in exchange for the keys to his car.
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
How I Learned to Drive is staged in a style that is both presentational (includes the audience) and representational (excludes the audience). At times characters narrate action directly to the audience while other scenes are presented in almost cinematic realism. Told in a series of nonchronological cross-cuts, the actions of Li’l Bit, Uncle Peck, and the family are examined over a period of several years. This blurring of temporal chronology allows the audience to see into the deliberations and consequences of the characters’ actions in a unique way. The play is a memory told in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards. The audience sees the end of Li’l Bit’s relationship with Uncle Peck before it has even begun. The audience also sees the effects of the abuse before they see the cause.
The title of the play derives from its main action: the driving lessons Uncle Peck gives to Li’l Bit. The lessons become a metaphor for two of the major rites of passage for American youth: earning one’s driver’s license as well as sexual initiation, an event that often occurs in a car. This metaphor is supported through the use of phrases and terminology from driving manuals. Images of traffic signs are seen and heard to guide Li’l Bit’s navigation on the road of life. They also help her find her way through the sexual landscape of her relationship with Peck.
Complicating the presentation of the play is the use of a modern Greek...
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Intercourse between an adult and a child is called ‘‘statutory rape'': that is, a rape that might not seem to fit the definition of the word because both participants consent in having sex but that is considered rape according to legal statute because children are considered unable to knowingly give such consent. The age at which a young person can legally consent to sex is different in different states but generally it is between the ages of sixteen and eighteen. In HowI Learned to Drive, Uncle Peck anxiously counts the days leading up to Li'l Bit's eighteenth birthday, and she easily recognizes that he has been waiting for the opportunity to have sex with her legally, without fear of being put in jail for statutory rape.
Laws against sex with children have always been enforced in this country. In the 1960s, though, there was a sexual revolution that swept away much of the social stigma attached to many sexual practices. Starting in the 1950s, when Playboy magazine made pornography a mainstream commercial venture, and carrying on through the late 1960s and early 1970s, when there was a counter-culture revolution of college students who found their identity in social disobedience against the Vietnam War, sexuality came to be seen as a private matter, not a governmental one. Laws punishing homosexuality were challenged, in some cases successfully, and other laws were changed to make it easier to obtain divorces, giving people more leeway in...
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The music that Paula Vogel's script for this play suggests is music that spans two generations. The Motown music that she mentions several times, as well as songs by Roy Orbison, Jan and Dean, and the Beach Boys, are all historically correct for action that is taking place in the mid- to late-1960s. Stylistically, they are romantic songs with hints of sexuality and with roots in the harmonically rich doo-wop music of the 1950s. This is most important for understanding the playwright's point when, at the end of the discussion about sex, the chorus members who have been speaking for Li'l Bit's mother, grandmother, and grandfather break into song, singing in three-part harmony and evoking the kind of music that lovers would listen to on the radio, as the scene dissolves to Li'l Bit and Uncle Peck in his car. Though the play deals with child molestation, a subject that is generally treated with deadly seriousness, the music that Vogel suggests to accompany it is romantic, wistful, beautiful, and nostalgic. Using this music, the play is able to evoke the mood that surrounded Li'l Bit in her adolescent confusion, as opposed to the harsh facts of the case as the audience and the grown-up Li'l Bit can see them.
The scenes of this play are presented, for the most part, in reverse chronological order from how they occurred in life. In the earliest scene, Li'l Bit is seventeen, driving, and already in a physical relationship with...
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Compare and Contrast
1960s: Popular music, such as the songs referred to in the notes for this play, hints at sexual activity.
Today: Many popular songs directly refer to couples having sex.
1960s: Pedophilia is not spoken of. A child lodging a complaint about an older relative's improper conduct could expect not to be believed.
Today: Pedophilia is talked about every day on daytime television. Support groups have been established to give serious attention to charges that family members might not want to admit.
1960s-1970s: Alcohol use is considered an acceptable leisure activity. A "gentleman" is more likely to be able to buy a drink for a sixteen-year-old girl, as Peck does in the play.
Today: After noting the correlation between alcohol and automobile fatalities, most states have become strict about enforcing underage drinking laws.
1960s: America's reliance on mass transit falls to a third of what it had been during World War II, due to the availability of private automobiles and the thousands of miles of road that were built during the 1950s and 1960s.
Today: Many people are abandoning cars in urban areas and switching to mass transit because the roads are too crowded.
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Topics for Further Study
Research some of the songs that Vogel suggests could be used in staging How I Learned to Drive and report on what you think makes them appropriate for using in this play.
Do you think that Li'l Bit and Uncle Peck would have developed a physical relationship if he had not given her driving lessons? Explain what there is about driving lessons that would lead to such intimacy.
At one point in the play, Aunt Mary notes that ‘‘The men who fought in World War II didn't have 'rap sessions' to talk about their feelings.’’ Do you think that Uncle Peck's service in the war led to his becoming a child molester? Study what sort of psychological counseling is available to veterans today.
Compare the role of the traditional Greek chorus to the roles that Vogel assigns to the Greek chorus in this play.
At one point, Vogel implies that Uncle Peck is trying to draw Li'l Bit's cousin Bobby into the same sort of relationship that he has with her. Is it typical for child molesters to have several relationships with children of both sexes? Write about whether Uncle Peck would be typical or the exception to the rule.
From her final speech at the end, do you think that Li'l Bit has come to grips with what happened between her and Uncle Peck, or is she trying to run away from the thought of it?
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What Do I Read Next?
How I Learned to Drive, published in 1997, is available by itself from Dramatists Play Service, Inc. It is also bound with Vogel’ s follow-up play, The Mineola Twins, in a 1998 book called The Mammary Plays from Theatre Communications Group.
Vogel's earlier plays are available from Theatre Communications Group in a 1996 book called The Baltimore Waltz and Other Plays. In addition to the title work, this book includes Hot 'N'
Throbbin, And Baby Makes Seven, The Oldest Profession, and Desdemona.
Paula Vogel has said in interviews that this play is an attempt to look at Lolita from the other side. The 1954 novel Lolita, by Vladimir Nabakov, has become a modern classic. It is about a middle-aged European man who becomes obsessed with a twelve-year-old American girl. The book is currently available in several editions, including Vintage Press's The Annotated Lolita, with notes by Alfred Appel, published in 1991.
Moises Kaufman's play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde concerns Wilde's relationship with a young man. It was performed off-Broadway at the same time as How I Learned to Drive, and several reviewers noted similar themes. The play is available in a 1998 paperback edition from Vintage Press.
The Kiss, by Kathryn Harrison, is a memoir about her four-year affair with her father, whom she did not meet until she was...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Daniels, Robert L., Review of How I Learned to Drive, in Variety, March 24, 1997, p. 42.
Isherwood, Charles, Review of The Mineola Twins, in Variety, February 22, 1999, p. 159.
Kanfer, Stefan, Review of How I Learned to Drive, in New Leader, June 30, 1997, p. 21.
Schultze, Quentin J., et al.,"The Heart of Rock and Roll: The Landscape of a Musical Style,’’ in Dancing in the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture, and the Electronic Media, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.
Stone, Laurie, Review of How I Learned to Drive, in the Nation, July 28, 1997, p. 34.
Vogel, Paula, How I Learned to Drive, Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 1998.
Armstrong, Louise, Rocking the Cradle of Sexual Politics, Addison-Wesley, 1994.
Armstrong, whose book Kiss Daddy Goodnight opened a new era of open talk about pedophilia, discusses how the culture's view of offenses against children changed from the 1970s to the 1990s.
Holtzman, Linda, Media Messages: What Film, Television and Popular Music Teach Us about Race, Class, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, M. E. Sharpe, 2000.
Holtzman, a former chair of the Department of Communications at Webster University, dissects the ways in which people like Li'l Bit have derived their self-images from mass culture...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Guare, John, ed. Conjunctions 25: The New American Theatre. Annandale-On-Hudson, N.Y.: Bard College, 1995.
Mead, Rebecca. “Drive-by Shooting.” New York 30 (April 7, 1997): 46-47.
Savran, David. The Playwright’s Voice: American Dramatists on Memory, Writing, and the Politics of Culture. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1999.
Scanlan, Dick. “Say Uncle.” Advocate, June 10, 1997, 61-63.
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