The Question of Anna

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In Lanford Wilson's Burn This, the feminine hero, Anna, chooses Pale as her lover/partner rather than Burton. Setting aside the argument that love can sometimes make little sense of emotion, audiences, and especially women, are left wondering why she would make such a choice. Indeed, some of the play's male reviewers noted the unlikeliness of this choice as well. In his review of Burn This, Prank Rich noted that Anna and Pale lack the depth of passion of other great romantic theatrical pairings. Wilson's lovers "don't fight to the death," instead they “slowly settle down to make the choices facing those New York couples who inhabit the slick magazines," Rich remarked. "What begins as ago-for-broke sexual struggle trails off into sentimental conflicts between love and career, unbridled passion and intellectual detachment, a loft life style and the biological clock."

The question implied by Rich's comments is why Anna would choose Pale. In their first meetings, he is rude, obnoxious, confrontational, emotionally unstable, and drunk. If her desire to have children is a factor, as Rich asserted, would not Burton make the better choice? He is wealthy, steadily employed in an artistic profession that compliments Anna's own, emotionally stable, and in love with her. In recent years, biological anthropologists have insisted that women's reproductive choices focus on a male's ability to support a family, as well as physical attractiveness. If Anna's concern is her biological clock, and the text bears this out, then Burton appears the more likely choice.

Pale is unemployed by the play's end and his emotional instability should make him a less attractive choice. So why does Anna make this unlikely selection? In the stage directions for Burn This, Burton is described as tall, athletic, and good-looking. Pale is described as well-built and sexy. Clearly, Wilson intended that Anna's choice should reflect a grand passion, a sexual intensity that she cannot resist; but, the dialogue of the play fails to supply the necessary ingredients. Rich described Anna and Pale's relationship as "mechanical" and defined by "predictable conventions of breezy romantic comedies." However, the problem is that Burn This is not a breezy romantic comedy. It is a drama that Wilson intends be taken seriously, but its center is a romance that simply is not believable.

Rich is not the only reviewer to question the believability of Anna and Pale's romance. In a review written for The Wall Street Journal, Edwin Wilson also pointed out the inconsistency of the romantic plot. E. Wilson declared that "one problem with Burn This is the shaky premise that Pale, underneath his rough exterior, is really a tender, caring man." It is a significant problem, since there is absolutely no reason for Anna to think that Pale is anything other than what he initially seems to be.

The few moments in Act I in which Pale seems to break down are inconsistent with the rest of his dialogue. Rather than mourning Robbie, Pale's tears appear to be more an act of feeling sorry for himself. Most of his comments about his brother are unfeeling and derisive. There is nothing to indicate that Pale is anything more than a drunk engaged in a crying jag. After she sleeps with him, Anna admits her attraction to Pale is a symptom of the "bird-with-the-broken-wing-syndrome.''

When Pale appears a second time, he is just as rude, just as drunk, and just as confrontational. And yet Anna throws Burton out and chooses Pale. Wilson noted that "Anna discredits herself in taking to him [Pale]." That assessment appears accurate, especially in the absence of any...

(This entire section contains 1455 words.)

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dialogue that would support Anna's decision. Why Anna should love Pale remains one of the biggest problems in Lanford Wilson's play.

In a critical essay on Burn This, Daniel J. Watermeier maintained that Wilson's play is "concerned with how and why an unlikely pair 'fall in love'; an ironic, sometimes uncomfortable, love story with a resolution that is only tentatively happy. " It is clear from his essay that Watermeier is an enthusiastic supporter who finds it difficult to offer negative criticism of Wilson, and yet he cannot ignore the difficult romantic story that lies at the heart of the play. This love story is not only uncomfortable for Anna and Pale, it is uncomfortable for the audience as well. And since, as Watermeier acknowledges, the play is about how and why these two fall in love, problems with that “how and why'' cannot be ignored.

If the unlikeliness of Anna and Pale's romance is a problem for the audience, Anna's depiction of a modern woman trying to confront issues and make choices that plague her contemporaries presents special issues for women theatre-goers. In writing about the problems of gender in telling a woman's story, Carolyn G. Heilbrun argued that women live the stories they read, that women use literature as a model for behavior. Thus, if as Heilbrun asserted, "What matters is that lives do not serve as models; only stories do that," then women who view Burn This take something away that is cause for concern.

When Lanford Wilson has Anna choose Pale, he appears to be embracing the fiction that women don't want nice or good men, that they are looking for "bad" boys to save. Heilbrun contended that " [i]t is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts." But if women live by the stories they hear or read, is the image of Anna the story that women want as a model for their own lives? Anna is a woman who functions by emotion. Perhaps Wilson is making a statement about the artistic temperament, but he may also be embracing a dogma as old as man, which is essentially that women are emotionally-based creatures who do not make decisions based upon reason.

Mary Anne Ferguson echoed Heilbrun's argument. Ferguson contended that "literature both reflects and helps to create reality. It is through their preservation in works of art that we know what the stereotypes and archetypes have been and are; in turn, knowing the images influences our view of reality and even our behavior.'' Is Wilson reflecting real women in Anna? Male reviewers admit that there is no logic to explain her behavior and this, again, reinforces old debates (going back nearly two thousand years to early theology), that seek to restrict women's choices by arguing that women are without logic.

The problem with depictions of feminine heroes such as Anna is, as Ferguson interpreted it, that "the popularization of literary images has increased their influence so that the distinction between imaginary characters and real people has become blurred in the minds of many readers." This is, of course, a common phenomenon for movie and television stars, who find their audience unable to separate the real from the imaginary. But it can also be applied to literature and theatre. If educators are concerned with the development of self-image in young girls, and they claim to be, then Burn This might be accompanied by a disclaimer that young women should in no way find Anna's choice to be a reflection of reality or appropriateness.

Women readers and audience members who question the romance between Anna and Pale should ask themselves, "Is this how a woman would speak' Is this what she would say and do? Does Wilson write a credible woman?" The answer would seem to be no. Julie Brown asserted that in reading the texts of women creative writing students, she has observed that readers too rarely question the authenticity of voice. Does a character's voice reflect reality? Once again, the answer with Anna is no. Instead, Anna may reflect how Wilson thinks women behave, how he thinks they react. Anna may reflect what Wilson thinks women want from life.

My intent is not to question Wilson's right to claim that he can create romantic fiction. Instead the question is whether he can create a real, credible woman, a woman other women would acknowledge as a model. He has failed to do this with Anna. As Brown noted, feminism is not concerned with challenging an author's right to create a story, only with his or her ability to tell the story correctly. Brown's concern is with her female writing students: the problem with male-generated texts is in their influence on the next generation of women writers, who have only the male text as models. Brown echoes the observations of Heilbrun and Ferguson that women use literary texts as models of behavior, and Lanford Wilson's Anna fails as a realistic model for women.

Source: Sheri Metzger, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.

Review of Burn This

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Lanford Wilson's Burn This concerns three young people—two dancers and a copywriter—who share a Soho loft. The male dancer, a homosexual, has just died in a boating accident, and it becomes clear, in their grief, that the two remaining roommates were in love with him. The female dancer has a boyfriend, a successful screenwriter, whom she likes but does not really love; when the dead roommate's brother arrives, a bizarre, drunk, long-haired, foul-mouthed individual, she falls into a passionate affair with him, despite their obvious differences in temperament and basic dislike for each other. In the end, the woman's remaining roommate (the advertising writer) has moved out, leaving a scornful note ending with the words, "Bum this"; her ex-boyfriend has gone to Hollywood; her new lover has lost his job as maitre d'hotel in a New Jersey restaurant and separated from his wife and family; and the two mismatched sweethearts are left alone with each other in dismay and despair.

Burn This displays the narrowness of scope and looseness of structure so typical of realistic American playwriting today. What elevates Wilson above similar writers like David Mamet, Marsha Norman, Michael Weller, or Tina Howe is his surer literary sense; behind the apparently shapeless slices of life in his plays are traditional literary devices that invigorate what would otherwise be tame pieces of reportage. The brother in Burn This is a traditional intruder figure going back to Aristophanic comedy, an alazoru or boaster and spoilsport, who tries to gain access to the feast; in Bum This he even interrupts a champagne supper between the young woman and the screenwriter. The love triangle, and the general movement from death and separation to a new union, are typical of Western comedy over the past two millennia.

Furthermore, Wilson gives all the traditional archetypes a sardonic twist. The intruder, who seems so bohemian, actually has a very middle-class job plus a wife and family, just as the dancers and writers, whom we would expect to have an unconventional lifestyle, seem very staid and bourgeois. The "happy" ending, with the couple united, is so bitter that it does not seem comic at all except in the ironic sense. Other white American playwrights today—whether commercial, serious, or avant-garde—are either all surface or all depth; Wilson's plays have both an engaging surface and intriguing depths- He is not a great writer; he usually shrinks from even indirect treatment of major existential or social themes, and his dialogue lacks the distinction found, for example, in our black playwrights like August Wilson, whose Fences I reviewed here last fall. But he is a good minor playwright, which is about all he seems to want to be.

John Malkovich is so explosive as the brother that he has been compared to the young Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. Like Brando, he comes on so strong that he threatens to overwhelm the play. In this case, however, the rest of the cast balances him beautifully. Joan Allen is sensitive, intelligent, and emotionally powerful; she also has the bodily control to convince you that she is a professional dancer. Jonathan Hogan gives a superbly detailed yet spontaneous performance as the screenwriter, and Lou Liberatore, as the third roommate, knows how to play a background role with skill and insight without ever calling undue attention to himself. Marshall W. Mason, one of our best directors of original plays, directed with his usual skill and care; John Lee Beatty's magnificent setting of the loft with its cast-iron columns, set against a backdrop of windows showing a huge trompe l'oeil of a hazy skyline, deserves all the awards it will probably win.

Source: Richard Hornby, review of Burn This in the Hudson Review, Volume XLI, no. 1, Spring, 1988, pp 187-88.

Send in the Clowns

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There is another darkly happy ending in Lanford Wilson's Burn This, and another closed, self-protective heroine who must be pried open by a relentless and relentlessly vocal male. Anna is a modern dancer, who was taking her first steps toward becoming a choreographer when the death of her friend, her mentor, her roommate brought her to a mourning standstill. Her grief and her apartment are invaded by Pale, the dead man's brother, eloquently foul-mouthed in his denunciation of New York City and the world at large, as outraged—on the surface, at least—by the absence of parking space as by the death of his brother. Pale, who is about as artificial as grand grotesques tend to be, is some kind of natural force, simply riding over the other characters in the play—Anna's more conventional boyfriend, her other homosexual roommate—and carrying the protesting Anna off to bed every time he (or the drink) bring him to her door At the end, having agreed to separate, they are brought back together through the good offices of the roommate, a gay Mary Worth, and they accept what both suspect will be a union as disastrous and painful as it is necessary. Beneath this meeting of contraries, there is a sub-theme about love, loss, and art. The dance that Anna creates out of the loss of her partner and the sexual energy of her nights with Pale is said to be forceful, commanding, a work of genius alongside the tepid exercises of the other choreographers on the same program, poor would-be professionals who presumably are unlost and underlaid. At the same time, Anna's less vital boyfriend, a screenwriter who thinks that all movies are bad, writes the serious script he has always wanted to do, a contemporary love story (presumably Burn This) which the pain of his loss of Anna makes possible.

This recycled romantic myth of creativity need not be taken too seriously, for the heart of the play beats in Pale and Anna, less as characters than as roles for John Malkovich and Joan Allen. Malkovich is outrageous and totally fascinating. He roars, rages, and flutes his way through his part, modulating only to demonstrate how to make a proper pot of tea or to suggest that his hurricane temperament can calm into tenderness. Walter Kerr in a recent column (New York Times, November 15) suggested that Malkovich is wrecking Wilson's play, and a playwright who shall remain nameless asked me the other day if I thought Malkovich would ever make his performance mesh with the rest of the cast. I think that Malkovich is the Pale that Wilson wanted, that his unmeshed excess is realizing not trashing the playwright's intention. I miss only the note of vulnerability in the character, for the chinks in Pale's armor, as Malkovich shows them, seem as calculated as most of the rest of the performance. That calculation, however, belongs as much to the character as the actor, for Pale is a self-created figure, always conscious of his costume, his gestures, his rhetoric. For me, the odd thing about Malkovich's performance, which has received so much praise and blame, is that my attention regularly moved from him to Joan Allen. Not all that odd perhaps, because I watched her instead of Kathleen Turner whenever they were on screen together in Peggy Sue Got Married and I was startled at what a substantial character she made of Ann in the recent television production of All My Sons. Her Anna in Burn This often sits silently, her sentences broken off by Pale's verbal avalanche. The play of reactions across her face is a joy to behold. It is her amusement, her impatience, her disbelief that gives force to Pale's fury of words. Less is more in Burn This, as it is in Frankie and Johnny, and Joan Allen, like Kathy Bates, makes her play particularly worth seeing.

Source: Gerald Weales, "Send in the Clowns" m the Commonweal, Volume CXIV, no 22, December 18, 1987, pp. 749-50


Critical Overview