The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Stick Wife is a two-act play set behind the Bliss home in Birmingham, Alabama, during the autumn of 1963. Clotheslines haphazardly crisscross the stage, which is littered with what Cloud terms “the junk of marriage.” Rusting upturned tubs substitute for patio furniture and a rifle box serves as the back step. Such a set is appropriate for the debris of human lives that fall under examination throughout the play. In act 1 the play interweaves the lives of three unemployed working-class white men and their wives as they respond to the news of the Birmingham church bombing, which killed four young black girls. In Cloud’s backyard perspective of historical events, the most unremarkable of characters become the key figures: housewives, who passively watch the unfolding events on television, and their husbands, members of the Ku Klux Klan, who clandestinely participate.

The title character and protagonist is Jessie Bliss, a housewife married to Ed Bliss, an out-of-work mechanic, who insists her place is in the home. While Ed roams the city on Klan business, Jessie remains in a backyard that is more prison than playground. “You always gonna be right where you are,” Ed insists when Jessie threatens to leave. His words prove eerily accurate when he returns, after a prolonged absence, to reunite with her in the same place. In his absence she reclaimed the yard as her refuge and her body as her own, but upon his return, both the land and, by extension, her personhood are instantly relinquished to him. Two additional stick wives and their controlling husbands complete the cast of characters. Shadows of light appear at intervals during the play to indicate moments of insight or haunting, but these ghosts are technologically produced, not enacted. Thoughts of her grown children, who fled the very home that she cannot leave, equally haunt Jessie.

Act 1 opens with Ed and Jessie engaged in a verbal battle. Jessie wants to know where Ed is going and when he will return, but her repetitive questions about space and time are deflected. Ed’s reticence drives Jessie to consider following her husband, an idea he prohibits. She cannot accompany him on his secret mission because, according to Ed, as a woman she cannot protect herself from attack, and he refuses to be her bodyguard. Jessie is commanded to keep quiet and stay put, while Ed is free to speak and to leave. In a monologue Jessie reveals her fantasy...

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The Stick Wife Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Stick Wife calls on both realist and Symbolist dramatic genres. Domestic concerns about the prescribed social roles of women and men are enacted beneath a cat’s cradle of clothesline, representative of divisions that separate and entangle wives and husbands, blacks and whites, poor and rich. The minimalist set is static with no location shifts and few props. The scene is always the Bliss backyard. While other characters enter and depart, Jessie remains onstage throughout both acts, a woman firmly rooted in place. The play employs special effects of light and sound to project the disembodied spirits of deferred dreams and unrealized lives central to the play’s main theme: the quest for self-realization.

The play relies on symbolism to convey the complex interrelationships of women and men confronting racial, class, and gender stereotypes. Symbolism is carried into the characters’ names. The ironic last name for Ed and Jessie Bliss is obvious in their joyless marriage. Marguerite Pullet acts as a pullet, or young hen: She is a coward, afraid to defy the berating and belittling Tom. A model of submission, she clucks around Jessie’s backyard until called home to roost by her husband. The Conners are self-conning artists. Numbed by alcohol, Betty endures being Big Albert’s diminutive possession. Big Albert’s nominal adjective enhances his stature as a man, but he is still a little man, unimportant, unemployed, and invisible. The men’s racial intolerance stems in part from their own working-class insecurities and sense of inferiority, as Ed reveals to Jessie before leaving to bomb the church: “You see me marchin’. . . through the rich people’s neighborhood, just to prove I’m equal as them? No you don’t. I admit myself. I accept what I am.” Ed’s self-loathing seeks release in a hate crime enacted against people he deems low on the social ladder.

The Stick Wife Bibliography

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Arkatov, Janice. “Cloud’s New Play: The Tough Life of a Klansman’s Wife.” Los Angeles Times, January, 14, 1987, p. 2.

Brown, Janet. Taking Center Stage: Feminism in Contemporary U.S. Drama. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1991.

Miles, Julia, ed. Playwriting Women: Seven Plays from the Women’s Project. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1993.

Richards, David. “The Demons Next Door.” Washington Post, April 29, 1989, p. C1.