Tina Howe Essay - Critical Essays


Tina Howe is not only one of the most prominent female playwrights from a new generation of American dramatists who emerged during the second women’s movement but also represents a group of dramatists whose works characterize the postmodern theater movement that began in the early 1970’s. Her plays blend traditional domestic drama with the experimental techniques that deploy considerable theatricality. On the surface, they appear naturalistic, slice-of-life comedies, but she injects an element of Surrealism throughout her plays by inserting unexpected, outrageous actions: the frenetic destruction of artworks, an old lady jumping on a trampoline. Like the absurdists, Howe focuses on existential issues, but she lacks their darkness and nihilism, preferring that her characters, and the audience, laugh at life’s reversals and accept them with valor and courage. Her language can be, at turns, everyday conversation with dialogue overlapping, or elegantly poetic arias and soliloquies. Through comedy, Howe probes the most basic of human emotions, forces laughter and compassion for those who suffer agonies familiar to all, and reminds viewers that life is full of both tragic and comic events. She celebrates life’s everyday, ordinary events—the sunsets, the family vacation, the reunion with relatives—those special ephemeral moments that can be captured perhaps on canvas or with a photograph but can never be relived. Between birth and death is life in process. Howe reminds the audience to live it to the fullest.

Howe’s plays are remarkable for their absurdist depiction of life and their female perspective. Her playwriting style closely allies her with the absurdists, to whom she admits her indebtedness. In particular, she borrowed the absurdists’ use of surreal details, incongruous actions, bizarre situations, and farcical characters, for these devices suited her interest in exploring the passions, drives, fears, and anxieties that lie below the surface in all persons. As a result, her plays are, on the one hand, wildly comic, replete with pratfalls, sight gags, and much physical and verbal comedy, and yet, on the other hand, are rueful and poignant, exposing the emotional pain of characters who battle life’s unavoidable tragedies and suffering. This tragicomic view of life has sparked comparisons between Howe and Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, specifically for Howe’s ability to capture “the same edgy surface of false hilarity, the same unutterable sadness beneath it, and the indomitable valor beneath both.” Howe presents her absurdist view of life from the female perspective: The central protagonists of her plays are women, and it is through their experiences that Howe explores such universal concerns as the ravages of time, the ineluctable human process of deterioration, the basal anxieties over death, and the human need to find meaning and permanence in an ephemeral world.

The Nest and Birth and After Birth

Howe’s first two comedies, The Nest and Birth and After Birth, are her most overtly feminist and absurdist plays. In these works, Howe draws biting satirical portraits of women as they struggle to find autonomy in a world demanding that they live according to the traditional roles of wives and mothers. The Nest depicts a trio of young women battling one another for the prize of an ideal husband, and the inanity of their actions culminates in a highly charged, symbolic moment, when one of the women removes all of her clothes and dives into a seven-foot-tall wedding cake. The Nest was panned by critics and closed after one performance. Birth and After Birth looks at women’s choices concerning childbirth. Through Sandy, mother of a four-year-old son with behavioral problems (played by an adult actor), who grows increasingly disillusioned and enraged over the demands that her family places on her, Howe shows the physical and emotional toll that child rearing takes on women and attacks the myth that marriage and motherhood fulfill women’s lives. On the opposite pole, Mia, a married anthropologist with no children, fears the physical pain of childbirth, and although she has tried to find personal fulfillment through her job, she feels inadequate as a woman because she has no children. With this play, Howe said she wanted “to show how threatening women on either side of the fence can be to each other.” The play implies as well that women, regardless of their choices regarding marriage and children, continue both to define and to judge themselves according to the myths of motherhood and family life. Birth and After Birth has proved so incendiary that Howe has had difficulty getting it staged.

A New Approach

After the failure of these two plays, Howe made a conscious effort to alter her playwriting style. She took note of the successful Broadway plays at the time and concluded that audiences wanted escape, so she set out to find settings that had not been used onstage before, something that audiences would find novel. More important, she decided to tone down her feminist voice by couching it in less threatening dramatic terms. As a result, Howe took women out of their domestic arena, placed them in such exotic and unlikely locales as museums, restaurants, and beaches, and made her central protagonists women artists. When Howe hit on this idea and wrote her first successful play (Museum) as a result of her new writing strategy, she knew that she had hit her stride: “I had found my niche at last. I would write about women as artists, eschew the slippery ground of courtship and domesticity and move up to a loftier plane.” Her later plays are still full of comic exuberance, zany characters, and outrageous situations, but her female characters, in the main, now seek their creative and intellectual potential through nontraditional roles, most particularly as artists.


As the play’s title suggests, Museum takes place in a museum gallery with three modernist exhibits: five life-size, clothed figures hanging from a...

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