Study Guide

Paula Vogel

Paula Vogel Essay - Vogel, Paula

Vogel, Paula

Introduction

Paula Vogel 1951-

(Full name Paula Anne Vogel) American playwright.

The following entry presents information on Vogel's plays through 2001.

Vogel is recognized as an important American playwright. Her work explores such controversial topics as domestic abuse, homosexuality, gender roles and stereotyping, pedophilia, pornography, and AIDS. Reviewers have commended her humor, compassion, and creative approach to sensitive issues, and she has received several prestigious awards and grants for her work.

Biographical Information

Vogel was born November 16, 1951, in Washington, DC. She received her B.A. at the Catholic University of America in 1974 and her A.B.D. from Cornell University in 1977. Her first play, Meg, was produced in Washington, DC, at the Kennedy Center in 1977. In 1979 she was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts; she subsequently taught at the American Place Theatre and Cornell University. Since 1985 she has been the head of the M.F.A. writing program at Brown University. In 1992 her most frequently produced work, The Baltimore Waltz, was staged and garnered much critical attention. Since then it has been produced in more than sixty regional theaters in the United States, Canada, Brazil, and England. She was awarded a Guggenheim Award in 1995. Vogel has received several grants and awards for her work, including a Bunting Fellowship, a McKnight Fellowship at the Playwright's Center, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and a residency at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center.

Major Works

Considered her best-known work, The Baltimore Waltz is Vogel's surreal tribute to her brother, who died of AIDS in 1988. Described as a second-generation AIDS play because of its metaphorical treatment of the disease, The Baltimore Waltz centers on Anna, a young teacher who has been diagnosed with the fatal Acquired Toilet Disease (ATD), and Carl, her homosexual brother. The siblings travel to Europe where Anna, in a desperate attempt to live out her fantasies, engages in numerous sexual encounters, while Carl searches for a cure for ATD. Anna and Carl meet black marketers and medical charlatans who claim to have found a remedy. As the play progresses, however, it is revealed that the action is really set in a Baltimore hospital room where Carl is dying of AIDS and that the characters' experiences in Europe are actually products of Anna's imagination. In Hot ‘n’ Throbbing (1990), Vogel explores issues of domestic abuse and pornography through the character of Charlene. Brutalized by her estranged husband, Clyde, Charlene works as a scriptwriter for Gyno Productions, which specializes in “women's erotica,” in order to support her two children, Leslie Ann and Calvin. When Clyde breaks into her apartment, violating a restraining order against him, Charlene shoots him—only to nurse him back to health. The Mineola Twins (1997) chronicles the lives of identical twins, Myrna and Myra, who grow up during the 1950s in the suburbs of Long Island, New York. Although twins, the two women are very different; they grow up to have radically different lifestyles and outlooks on life. How I Learned to Drive (1997) garnered much attention for its portrayal of a young woman looking back on her sexual relationship with her uncle in suburban Maryland.

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Vogel's work has been mixed. Most commentators praise her unflinching and compassionate treatment of such controversial issues as AIDS, domestic abuse, pedophilia, and homosexuality. They note that she often rebels against theatrical and social assumptions and stereotypes, providing a new and illuminating perspective for the theatergoer: for example, in Desdemona (1980) the title character is a conniving prostitute, not the innocent girl that Shakespeare envisioned. Moreover, the critics commend Vogel's imagination and biting humor. Yet other reviewers assert that by using comedy and metaphors to explore these topics, Vogel diminishes the seriousness of drama's emotional impact. Commentators have examined the sources for and influences on Vogel's work, particularly the relationship of her Desdemona and Shakespeare's Othello. Critics also have provided feminist interpretations of her dramas.

Principal Works

Meg 1977

Apple-Brown Betty 1979

Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief 1980

Bertha in Blue 1981

The Oldest Profession 1981

The Last Pat Epstein Show before the Reruns 1982

And Baby Makes Seven 1986

Hot ‘n’ Throbbing 1990

The Baltimore Waltz 1992

The Baltimore Waltz and Other Plays 1996

How I Learned to Drive 1997

The Mineola Twins 1997

The Mammary Plays 1997

Criticism: General Commentary

SOURCE: Savran, David. “Loose Screws.” In The Baltimore Waltz and Other Plays, by Paula Vogel, pp. ix-xv. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1996.

[In the following essay, Savran provides a thematic and stylistic overview of Vogel's work.]

Shortly after I met Paula Vogel—twenty years ago in a seminar room at Cornell University—she told me a story I have never forgotten. Although I couldn't know it at the time, it proved to be the best possible introduction to the extraordinary plays that she would go on to write. The story involves Paula, her mother Phyllis and her older brother, Carl, and takes place somewhere in the suburban sprawl between Baltimore and Washington.

When Paula was thirteen years old, her mother, recently divorced and with a reputation for being something of a trouble-maker, complained to the Board of Health about the trash collection—or lack of it—in their apartment complex. The Board investigated and, sure enough, conditions were unsanitary and the landlord was charged. As might be expected, the Vogels were promptly delivered an eviction notice, but rather than contest it, they found another apartment. The night they moved into their new lodging, however, Phyllis bundled the children into the car and drove back to their old flat. Once in the empty rooms, Phyllis pulled three screwdrivers out of her purse and instructed the two children to unscrew every screw in the apartment. She then drew an imaginary circle on the living room rug and asked them to place the screws inside the circle. Without damaging anything, they deftly unscrewed all the lights and electric sockets, unhinged all the doors, took apart all the kitchen cabinets, the refrigerator and oven. Every fixture, every appliance in the apartment, was carefully disassembled and every door, every switchplate, was neatly, almost lovingly, lined up against the wall. On the living room rug, meanwhile, grew a mountain of screws of every shape and size. Finally, when everything was dismantled, Phyllis drew a piece of paper from her purse, wrote “SCREW YOU” on it in bold letters, and artfully positioned it on top of the pile.

This story, which could very easily be a scene in a Paula Vogel play, is in fact amazingly revealing about Paula's strategies as a playwright. Like her unusually resourceful mother, she characteristically directs her energies toward responding to, critiquing and dismantling someone else's work. Each of her plays (with the notable exception of The Baltimore Waltz) is an act of retaliation. It questions, resists and teases a particular dramatic text and, more important, the text's guiding assumptions in regard to (among other things) gender, family, sexual identity, love, sex, aging and domestic violence. Going quite literally behind the scenes, Desdemona suggests that Shakespeare's women are not quite the innocent victims of masculine desires they appear to be but active makers—and unmakers—of each others' destinies. Talking back to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, And Baby Makes Seven celebrates fantasy and the power of narrative—and gives a new meaning to “family values.” Responding to both the structure and the quaintly elderly protagonists of David Mamet's The Duck Variations, The Oldest Profession reimagines old age as a time of sensual delight. Taking on the plays of John Patrick Shanley and Sam Shepard with a vengeance, Hot ‘n’ Throbbing demonstrates that behind their poor, misunderstood male protagonists lies a romanticization of violence against women that proves both dangerous and irresponsible. And although The Baltimore Waltz is a commemoration of Paula's brother, Carl, it also is a masterful reworking of Ambrose Bierce's “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” in which all of the action takes place in the mind of a soldier during the moment in which he is being hanged. Analogously, all of Anna's memories and fantasies can be understood to transpire in that split second after the doctor tells her that her brother has died.

Paula's method of critiquing, or if one prefers, deconstructing the work of her forebears comes from her reading of the theories of Bertolt Brecht and, even more significantly, of Viktor Shklovsky, the Russian Formalist from whom Brecht purloined the Alienation Effect. Shklovsky recognized that over time our perceptions become increasingly habitual and automatic: We no longer see what is around us. The purpose of art, according to Shklovsky, is to restore visibility, to defamiliarize the commonplace so that we notice it again. In adapting Shklovsky, Brecht added a political dimension to this notion of defamiliarization: Brecht's theatre attempted to demonstrate that that which we take for granted and assume to be universal and eternal is, in fact, the product of human labor and history—and thus subject to change. Like Brecht's, Paula's theatre is one in which the commonplace is insistently made strange, in which five grandmotherly women sitting on a park bench turn out to be prostitutes, or three obstreperous little boys turn out to be the imaginary children three adults manipulate to work out an ingenious and extravagant ménage à trois. The effect of this defamiliarization is to allow spectators and readers to see these characters and their situations in a new light, to reevaluate the meaning of women's work outside the home, or to celebrate the elements of fantasy that necessarily structure all relationships.

Like Brecht, Paula writes from a deeply rooted political sense. Unlike her illustrious predecessor, however, Paula is an avowed feminist. All of her work is devoted to exposing not just how women are entrapped and oppressed, but the possibilities that figures like Desdemona or the oldest professionals have to contest, subvert and redefine the roles they have been assigned. Yet Paula's feminism is itself a complex phenomenon. As these plays...

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Criticism: Desdemona

Steven Winn (review date 17 October 2000)

SOURCE: Winn, Steven. “A Double Dose of Sexual Politics.” San Francisco Chronicle (17 October 2000): B2.

[In the following excerpted positive assessment of Desdemona, Winn praises Vogel's canny revision of the character of Desdemona.]

A double bill of Dutchman and Desdemona at the Phoenix Theatre packs an invigorating night of sexual politics into one of the city's smallest theaters. The Bare Bones Theatre pairing of the 1964 subway car classic by Imamu Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) and Paula Vogel's 1993 backroom slant on Othello is a canny one. Here, in their distant arenas, are two similar dances along the precipice. Both plays...

(The entire section is 291 words.)

Jill Dolan (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Dolan, Jill. “Paula Vogel's Desdemona (A Play about a Handkerchief).” In Amazon All Stars: 13 Lesbian Plays, edited by Rosemary Keefe Curb, pp. 437-40. New York: Applause, 1996.

[In the following essay, Dolan contrasts Shakespeare's Othello and Vogel's Desdemona.]

Desdemona (A Play about a Handkerchief) continues in playwright Paula Vogel's tradition of resisting theatrical and social pieties. She turns conventions upside down and on their heads to see what falls out of their pockets, pushing them aside, offstage, before she'll ever allow them to resume what others have considered their “rightful” place in an ideological or literary...

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Sharon Friedman (essay date May 1999)

SOURCE: Friedman, Sharon. “Revisioning the Woman's Part: Paula Vogel's Desdemona.” NTQ 15, no. 58 (May 1999): 131-41.

[In the following essay, Friedman contends that Vogel's Desdemona signals a significant shift in feminist critical perspective in drama.]

In his introduction to Othello, Alvin Kernan asserts that Shakespeare's vision of human nature dramatizes ‘ancient terrors and primal drives—fear of the unknown, pride, greed, lust, underlying smooth, civilized surfaces’, and that there is a marked ‘contrast between surface manner and inner nature. … In Desdemona alone do the heart and the hand go together: she is what she seems to...

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Marianne Novy (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Novy, Marianne. “Saving Desdemona and/or Ourselves: Plays by Ann-Marie MacDonald and Paula Vogel.” In Transforming Shakespeare: Contemporary Women's Re-Visions in Literature and Performance, edited by Marianne Novy, pp. 67-85. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Novy contrasts the portrayal of the Desdemona character in Vogel's Desdemona and Ann-Marie MacDonald's Goodnight Desdemona.]

Two very different recent plays take a new and transforming look at Shakespeare's Desdemona, in ways influenced by different feminist ideas. The transformation in Ann-Marie MacDonald's Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) can easily...

(The entire section is 7858 words.)