The focal characters of Paula Vogel's 1997 play How I Learned to Drive are Uncle Peck, a grown man who orchestrates a seven-year-long sexual assault against his niece, and Li'l Bit, the object of his fixation who encourages his lust. On their own, the facts of the case qualify the play as a drama, more specifically a tragedy. A good case can be made that such subject matter could never be anything but inherently and irrevocably tragic. But the play has comic elements, and all turns out well for Li'l Bit, its narrator and protagonist, who, fifteen or twenty years after the action, can look back on her relationship with her uncle, scrutinize it, and then get on with her life. These elements support the interpretation, made by the author herself, that the play is actually a comedy with tragic elements. The fact that there is no definitive answer, that the work remains suspended between the two categories, is one of the sources of its power.
A character like Uncle Peck is not one that can be found likeable, in theory. Morally, he has no ground to stand on. In the beginning of the play, Li'l Bit is, as she describes herself, ‘‘very old, very cynical of the world, and a know it all. In short, I'm seventeen years old.’’ There might be some room for moral equivocation when Peck fondles and kisses her breasts. Audiences just may think that Peck accepts the girl for the age she feels, pushing her age upward by just a few months, and that he is a hopeless romantic who views love as a moral imperative more compelling than the legal age of consent. It is a shaky argument at best, one that is probably used by pedophiles all of the time; with her nearness to the magic eighteenth birthday and her permission to his touch, he at least has a case to argue. The play only starts with that situation, though: where it builds to, even after the news of Peck's death while Li'l Bit is in her twenties, is a scene of the same man fondling the same girl's breasts when she is eleven. There is no argument that could make this acceptable.
In spite of the horror that he is responsible for, the potential psychological destruction of his niece, Peck cannot be written off by audiences as a monster. He can't be seen as a decent man with the one small flaw of child molestation: the best that can be said about him is that he is a complex character. Vogel creates his complexity with an even hand that makes it difficult for audiences not to care about what he is going to do every moment he is onstage. Li'l Bit is complex, too, but audiences are not as resistant to feeling what she feels: because she is a child, the presumption of innocence is hers. Peck is guilty from the start. The greatest challenge that How I Learned to Drive faces is the challenge to invest Peck with enough innocence that audiences will leave the theater accepting his basic humanity.
It would be more difficult to accomplish this if innocence were a peripheral matter to this play, one that could only be hinted at symbolically. As it stands, however, innocence is a central issue, which allows Vogel to address it directly. The protagonist, Li'l Bit, can remember her early sexualization with nostalgia because, as an adult, she knows how wrong it was to want to give up her innocence so quickly, but at the same time, she understands why she...
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wanted to do it. Even without the presence of Uncle Peck, Li'l Bit's family life is warped, a fact made clear early in the play with the information that family nicknames are based on genitalia, giving her an awareness of sex at an age when she was too young to cope with the knowledge. She sees her grandmother lead a miserable life because of her efforts to deny her own sexual urges, while her mother tells her that there is nothing wrong with sex, so long as it is intertwined with love. Her grandfather, "Big Papa'' (audiences are told that his is one of the genitalia-inspired nicknames), is a bully who uses his wife as a receptacle for sex and who has no patience for anyone who is not a sex object for him. Sexuality equals maturity and power in Li'l Bit's home; innocence is to be ridiculed.
The same pattern continues at school, where, in a quick trio of scenes, audiences see Li'l Bit mocked, then alienated, then, finally, revered. This sequence starts with Li'l Bit naïvely unaware of the importance of the breasts that have grown on her, not expecting Jerome to ridicule her for them as he does. Even among other girls, she is an outcast, first because of her intimidating physical development and then because of the uninhibited sexual humor she brings from home. The last high school scene, with Greg, shows her dawning awareness of the way her breasts give her control over boys and men. The message throughout her childhood is that innocence is a problem, sexuality a cure.
Peck is a man who has seen some suffering, which he is too stoic to admit to himself. It is his wife, Aunt Mary, who tells the audience that his stint in the Marines affected him. In a display of considerable denseness, she explains that he will hang around her when troubled and that her well-meaning response is to avoid talking about anything substantial, leaving Peck to swallow his sorrows and deal with them alone. His ideal life is fishing barefoot, as he explains to Cousin Bobby in their scene together at the fishing hole. It is what he misses most of all about South Carolina, and, by extension, about his past. In that scene, the basic guidelines of his relationship with Li'l Bit show themselves. He starts the scene as a boy himself, fishing alongside Bobby, then eases into the role of the mature participant with his fishing advice, and finally he is forced, when Bobby is upset about the fish's pain, to take a paternal position to comfort him. His offer of beer at the end of the scene, apparently a seductive tactic (as it is when he buys Li'l Bit martinis), can be seen as an attempt to pull Bobby over the line into adulthood, so that he will not be alone.
With Li'l Bit, Peck goes even further, trying to bump her up ahead of him in maturity, putting her into the adult role so that he can reclaim his youth. He begs her for sex; he backs away when she shows her annoyance and promises that he will wait chivalrously until such time as she might be ready. Far from being the type of predator that usually comes to mind when the subject of grown men and young girls is raised, Peck acts like he is a young boy who has every reason to expect Li'l Bit's rejection and to dream of her attention. He acts like Greg, just as Big Papa is a grown Jerome, and, in fact, their overlapping scenes responding to the mystery signals from Li'l Bit's breasts merge Peck's and Greg's personalities into one.
If the situation were just left like this, with raw psychological motivations—Li'l Bit rushing to undo her innocence as Peck struggles to regain his—it might make a convincing paradigm, but audiences could be left to appreciate such a situation intellectually, instead of falling into the world of the work.
The setting cannot be ignored. It accounts for much of what makes these people and what they make of themselves. A rural setting might give Peck and Li'l Bit too much free reign to work out their own psycho-social dynamic between themselves, as occurs in countless Southern gothic stories, in which the characters' environment is more symbolic than real. An urban setting would be too real, though, making it unbelievable that they could stay the focus of one another's attention year after year. Instead, Paula Vogel has placed them in an artificial environment; they live in the suburbs, but when they need to be alone, they drive to the farms run by the Department of Agriculture, or else they go far away, to the shore, where attitudes are described as "European."
Vogel actually relies less on the physical place to tell audiences about the world these characters occupy than she does on the music that floats in the air around them. The songs that she suggests are for the most part sweet and melodic, celebrations of love and youth and the special synergy that the two create when they are blended together. Songs like "Come Back When You Grow Up, Girl,'" 'You're Sixteen,'' and "Hold Me'' might seem chosen to fit the specific details of the situation, but they all suppress their awareness of the danger of love. They are love songs with an edge. Pure, treacly love songs would not do for the story of Li'l Bit and Uncle Peck's illicit affair. They have a rock and roll attitude.
Rock and roll has always been known as the music of youth, especially when it was new and revolutionary in the 1950s and 1960s (when the songs that Vogel suggests were on the charts). The tension about this youth music is that it also has a reputation as the music of sexuality. As Bruce Springsteen explained in 1988 (quoted in Schultze):
When I was growing up, I got a sense of so many things from rock 'n' roll music. I got a sense of life. I got a sense of sex. But most of all, I got a sense of freedom. For me, the best rock 'n' roll always gave a sense of freedom and expanding awareness.
It is music that makes old people feel young and free and young people feel that they possess the wisdom of a hard-lived past.
Uncle Peck cannot be forgiven, but he also cannot be ignored. Vogel shows him and Li'l Bit in mutual agreement. The crime that Peck commits— and a considerable one it is—is in wanting so badly to be young again that he is willing to take the chance of causing his niece irrevocable harm. His wife drives him to it; his victim drives him to it; the music drives him to it; and, in the end, Li'l Bit comes away wiser and content: still, none of these extenuating circumstances absolves him of moral responsibility. Nor is his guilt any reason for audiences to take him lightly. He is too well written for that.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on How I Learned to Drive, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Kelly is an instructor of creative writing at Oakton Community College.
How I Learned to Drive forces its audience to confront the tough issues of parenting, gender stereotyping, incest, and child abuse. More comic than tragic, it succeeds because of Vogel's innovative handling of her subject matter. The play opens with the main character, Li'l Bit, speaking directly to the audience. ‘‘Sometimes to tell a secret, you first have to teach a lesson,’’ she says. What follows is her stream-of-conscious monologue told in flashbacks. The action is circular, often looping back in time or jumping ahead to the future like incidents in a dream. The Li'l Bit who opens the play is a confident, self-possessed woman in her thirties, a teacher who begins by explaining the historical context of her lesson. With only her voice, she conjures up a warm summer night, thick with the smells of farm animals and the leather dashboard of the parked car. Both she and her audience are in the parking lot of the Beltsville Agricultural Farms on a warm summer evening in suburban Maryland. A hundred years before, farmers on the same spot might have sat watching Civil War battles. Tonight, however, the audience will witness a different, far more personal and secret civil war between an eleven-year-old Li'l Bit and her middle-aged uncle Peck— a war that lasts for seven years.
Minimalist staging allows Vogel to create the bland bareness of a lecture hall. Two chairs facing the audience serve as the front seats of various cars. Sitting in the chairs, Li'l Bit and Peck do not touch. Pantomime suggests sexual behavior rather than overtly acting it out. Pop music of the sixties, automobile sounds, and road signs continually remind the audience of its participation in a driving lesson. The only actors other than Li'l Bit and Uncle Peck are the flat, static characters of the three-member Greek chorus that is actually part of the staging. Composed of a male, female, and teenager, the chorus members fulfill a variety of roles in the play. As individual family members, high school girls, high school boys, and a waiter, they assume roles in various scenes, as well as observing and commenting on the action. At times they provide a background musical score of 1960s' songs sung in three-part harmony. At crucial moments, they offer comic relief between the audience's moments of insight into Li'l Bit's family background. Throughout the play, the voice of the instructor announcing the next lesson topic drives the play from scene to scene, easing the audience over what might otherwise be too bumpy a road.
Because the lesson she wishes to teach is inseparable from her secret, Vogel deliberately begins the play in medias res (in the middle of the action) with an already old and cynical seventeen-year-old Li'l Bit parked in a dark lane with an older married man. Their conversation indicates that they know each other well, that such occasions are regular in their lives. In exchange for his not drinking all week, she permits him to kiss her breast but draws the line at anything more. It is not until she calls him Uncle Peck and reminds him that he needs to get home to Aunt Mary that the audience realizes the relationship of the two. Since clearly she is the one in the driver's seat, the one calling the shots, the audience tends to see her not as a victim but as a willing participant. Vogel's structuring of Li'l Bit's flashbacks throughout the play reverse that perception, ending the play with two unforgettable images: Peck's initial abuse of the eleven-year-old Li'l Bit and the soon-to-be thirty-five-year-old Li'l Bit. The former is an innocent victim; the latter, a whole woman who has learned a tough lesson, healed herself, and moved on to forgiveness.
Li'l Bit lives with her mother and maternal grandparents. Her mother's sister Mary and Mary's husband, Peck, are frequent visitors in the home. Conversation almost always centers on the discussion of men and women and sex. ‘‘In my family,’’ Li'l Bit says, "folks tend to get nicknamed for their genitalia.'' Her remark provides the occasion for the first comic performance from the chorus as her mother explains how Peck, Li'l Bit, and her cousin Bobby got their names. Li'l Bit's grandmother was a child bride who still believed in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. She has never experienced an orgasm and does not believe such a thing exists. She warns her daughter that telling Li'l Bit the truth about sex will result in her ruination. However, Li'l Bit's mother blames her mother for not telling her the facts of life so that she could protect herself from pregnancy. The scene "A Typical Family Dinner'' begins with Mother observing that Li'l Bit's bust is getting as big as her grandmother's. Li'l Bit's attempts to steer the conversation into another direction only encourage her grandfather, whose jokes perpetuate the stereotype that a female does not need an education. ‘‘She's got all the credentials she'll need on her chest,’’ he says. His jokes only confirm what Li'l Bit is already discovering at school. To the teenage boys, she is no longer a person, only an object of sexual fantasy. Their innuendoes and jokes strip her of her self-confidence. She is embarrassed to dance, to participate in sports, or to be part of any activity that calls attention to her breasts.
Peck, Li'l Bit's uncle by marriage, is childless. He is a veteran of World War II and a Southern boy whose mama wants him to be more than his father, to amount to something in the world. A hard worker and a jack-of-all-trades, he is a gentle, kind man, but he is also an alcoholic and a pedophile. He goes back to South Carolina once or twice a year to see his mother and family but most of all to fish. His real prey, however, is his timid cousin Bobby, who cries at the baiting of a hook. He and Bobby keep secrets. He promises not to tell anyone that Bobby cries over the pain a fish might feel if Bobby won't tell anyone what happens in the tree house afterwards. He has truly loved his niece Li'l Bit all her life, ever since he first held her tiny body in his hand. She is only eleven, alone with him and completely at his mercy, when he first touches her in a sexual way. His wife Mary is an enabler who convinces herself that her husband is a good man. She complains that all the women in the neighborhood "borrow'' him to shovel sidewalks, jump-start a car, or provide a ride. She knows he has "troubles" but blames them on the lack of "rap sessions'' to help men talk about their troubles after the war. She also knows that something is going on between her husband and Li'l Bit but chooses to blame her niece.
Unquestionably a very modern and innovative play, How I Learned to Drive succeeds in great part because of its classic elements. Although it is more comic than tragic in tone, the play focuses on a series of causally related events in the life of a person. Its two main characters, Li'l Bit and Peck, are observed and analyzed by a Greek chorus. Its purpose is to provide a catharsis for the audience. Its protagonist is superior to the people around her. Her own error in judgment results in her downfall. A sharp recognition of that error is immediate, but she does not move to reverse her actions for seven years. Li'l Bit is, after all, only eleven when her overconfidence leads her to ignore her mother's warnings and willfully persuade her mother to let her travel alone with her uncle Peck. When Peck invites her to sit on his lap and drive, she is at first surprised and then delighted by being treated as a grown-up. Peck instructs her to keep her hands on the wheel and her eyes on the road. Her delight in actually steering the car gives way when he places his hands on her breasts. She realizes that her mother's warnings were justified, that what he is doing is wrong, but she is a vulnerable child at the mercy, not only of an adult family member but also of her own innocent love for him. It is not until Peck attempts consummation of the relationship on her eighteenth birthday that Li'l Bit finally has the courage to end their relationship. For the first time in seven years, she takes back her body and her life. Peck goes home to drink himself to death. When the adult Li'l Bit drives off at the end of the play, once more able to believe in forgiveness and family, the catharsis for both Li'l Bit and the audience is complete.
Moreover, Vogel, like the ancient Greek playwrights, warns her audience of its own fallibility. She does not ignore omens that presage moral disaster but meets them head on. In ‘‘The Photo Shoot,’’ Vogel forces her audience to confront the tougher issues of voyeurism and sexualizing of young children. In dramatizing the different perspectives of Li'l Bit and Peck, by extension she dramatizes those of every member of her audience and its larger society. At thirteen, Li'l Bit is uneasy about being in the basement alone with her uncle but responds to his direction after being reassured that her aunt Mary is not at home. He tells her that she "has a body that a twenty-year-old woman would die for,’’ that in five years she'll have ‘‘a really professional portfolio.’’ She is horrified by the realization that he is building a portfolio of photos to submit to Playboy when she becomes eighteen, but he shrugs off her response. After a heated argument, the scene ends with her choosing to accept his promise that the photos will never be seen by anyone but him, a person who has loved her all of her life. Yet even as he is making his promise, his actual photos of the thirteen-year-old Li'l Bit and those of real contemporary models are being flashed on the stage in a slide montage.
Ironically, the family member that does the most harm to Li'l Bit is also the one who teaches her how to navigate life's roadways successfully, warning her that driving like a woman ‘‘can be fatal’’ because women "tend to be polite'' and are likely to hesitate. "Men are taught to drive with confidence— with aggression,’’ Peck tells a fifteen-year-old Li'l Bit. "They drive defensively—always looking out for the other guy.’’ He teaches her how to drive like a man so that she will be capable of handling whatever road disaster she encounters—even a ten-car pile-up. When she checks her rearview mirror before driving off in the final scene of the play, she sees the spirit of Peck sitting in the backseat. At thirty-four, able once more to believe in family and forgiveness, she has made peace with the past.
Source: Lois Carson, Critical Essay on How I Learned to Drive, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
The subject of childhood sexual abuse has gone from tabu to prime time. It has been explored on television shows like NYPD Blue and Law and Order, exploited on Oprah and Sally Jessie Raphael, given hours of carefully lascivious attention on network and local news. The current best seller, The Kiss, makes much of a deeply disturbed father-daughter relationship, and piles up royalties in the process.
Serious theater, usually the first art form to deal with difficult topics, is behind the curve in this matter. Still, How I Learned To Drive, at the Vineyard Theater, more than compensates for lost time. Paula Vogel's play begins as a diverting lecture in driver education as a high school student might perceive it—tips on how to hold the wheel, how to watch for on-coming traffic, how to turn and park. All too soon, however, we learn that this is a metaphor for the life and times of a toxic family. In the sticks of Maryland the narrator, Li'l Bit (Mary-Louise Parker), grows out while she grows up. Her burgeoning figure becomes the star attraction for Uncle Peck (David Morse), who spends hours, days, weeks, and finally years, attempting to gain his niece's confidence. Peck's interest is hardly a secret. Li'l Bit's mother (Johanna Day) is well aware of what runs beneath the surface of her brother-in-law's avid, overly polite concern. ‘‘I don't like the way he looks at you,’’ she warns her daughter. But when Li'l Bit demurs, Mama cautions that ‘‘if anything happens, it will be your responsibility!’’
Meantime, Grandma (Kerry O'Malley) speaks of sex as a miserable burden carried by women down through the centuries. Constantly beleaguered by Grandpa (Christopher Duva), she has never had an orgasm and doesn't believe that such a thing exists. As for her Neanderthal husband, much of his dinnertime conversation consists of tormenting Li'l Bit by commenting on the increasing size of her breasts. (‘‘You'll need a wheelbarrow to carry them soon.’’) Manifestly this situation is rife with disastrous possibilities, and most of them occur. Despite the colorful characters and southern locale, however, Paula Vogel is not some Erskine Caldwell for the '90s.
How I Learned To Drive is in fact a scrupulous attempt to anatomize the drama of the abuser and the abused, and to see how such incidents occur en famille. To accomplish this most difficult task, the playwright tells her story in mosaic form—an accretion of small scenes leading to the truth. Sometimes it is 1969, and the girl is a mere child; at others it is her high school years, or her freshman college semester. The only person in her family ever to go on beyond high school, the restive and confused Li'l Bit finds it impossible to concentrate on her studies, drinks to excess, becomes the subject of campus gossip and innuendo, and finally gets expelled. Time moves back and forth like sand in an hourglass, the light and emphasis constantly shifting. One moment we may see the teenager squirm at a dinnertime confrontation; another moment we may be listening to her mother's moral lectures or her Uncle's continuing pleas for intimacy.
It is from the scenes of verbal seduction that the play derives its greatest strength. For Uncle Peck is not the kind of heavy-breathing seducer who populates so many Movies of the Week. He is a plausible soul with a good job and an attractive wife. ‘‘I've loved you since I could hold you in one hand,’’ he confesses to his niece, and there is no reason to doubt his word. He does indeed love the girl—and not just carnally. His is an affection mixed with lust and insecurity and, as things progress, a fatal self-loathing. Alternately terrified and intrigued by his advances, Li'l Bit is a mixture of victim and unwitting temptress, not quite complicit in the affair—but not entirely blameless either.
If How I Learned to Drive focused only on this roiled relationship it would still be an outstanding effort. But Vogel exhibits more than a talent for clinical analysis. She has also composed a comedy of bad manners, with a series of memorable riffs. Watching an outstanding cast perform them is comparable to sitting in on a session of fine jazz soloists, each waiting for a turn at the microphone. In particular, ‘‘A Mother's Guide to Social Drinking,’’ spoken by Mama to Li'l Bit, is a classic advisory to white-trash debutantes:
A lady never gets sloppy—she may, however, get tipsy and a little gay.
Never drink on an empty stomach. Avail yourself of the bread basket and generous portions of butter. Slather the butter on your bread.
Sip your drink, slowly; let the beverage linger in your mouth—interspersed with interesting, fascinating conversation. Sip, never slurp or gulp. Your glass should always be three-quarters full when his glass is empty.
Stay away from ladies' drinks: drinks like Pink Ladies, Sloe Gin Fizzes, Daiquiris, Gold Cadillacs, Long Island Iced Teas, Margaritas, Piña Coladas, Grasshoppers, White Russians, Black Russians, Red Russians, Melon Balls, Blue Balls, Blue Hawaiians, Green Arkansans, Hummingbirds, Hemorrhages and Hurricanes. In short, avoid anything with sugar or anything with an umbrella. Get your vitamin C from fruit. Don't order anything with Voodoo or Vixen in the title or sexual positions in the name like Dead Man,
Screw or the Missionary. Believe me, they are lethal. I think you were conceived after one of those.
Drink, instead, like a man: straight up or on the rocks, with plenty of water in between. You're less likely to feel hung over, no matter how much you've consumed, and you can still get to work the next morning even on little or no sleep. Oh, yes, and never mix your drinks. Stay with one all night long, like the man you came in with: bourbon, gin, or tequila 'til dawn ... If you feel you have had more than your sufficiency in liquor, do go to the ladies room—often. Pop your head out-of-doors for a refreshing breath of the night air. If you must, wet your face and head with tap water. Don't be afraid to dunk your head if necessary. A wet woman is still less conspicuous than a drunk woman.
The tragedy that lies behind these admonitions, of course, is that while Mama is an encyclopedia on the subject of boozing, she knows next to nothing about sexual predation—a lack that is to have dire consequences.
In telling a story that might easily have slipped into prurience, Vogel and director Mark Brokaw have taken a discreet, almost chaste approach. Uncle Peck lies down on a hotel bed with Li'l Bit but we never see him do anything more than put an arm around her shoulder. Indeed, the sole time his hand comes in contact with her torso is toward the end, and then only briefly.
When the seducer and his quarry converse, his voice emanates from his mouth. Yet Li'l Bit's responses are given by other members of the cast, giving the scene the quality of a dream happening to someone else.
At the epicenter of How I Learned To Drive, Parker is superb as a wide-eyed child, smoldering adolescent and marred adult. Morse gives such a well-rounded performance as her uncle that the play has been criticized for being overly sympathetic to an immoralist. Such carping misses the point: The kind of men who pursue the young are seldom testosterone-driven maniacs who advertise their intent. They may very well be the man next door, the uncle who dispenses driving lessons.
Moreover, in presenting what she calls a "Male, Female and Teenage Greek Chorus'' (played by the supporting cast of three), Vogel shows how friends and family members can be, in the jargon of the moment, "enablers," people who either look the other way or bewilder the young with ignorant counsel. The idea of love is treated as a four-letter word in these families, and children guiltily search for it the rest of their lives.
As complicit choristers, Duva, Day and O'Malley inhabit a variety of parts, ranging from juveniles to old folk. In every role they remain the same: that is to say, superb. Jess Goldstein's deliberately tacky costumes, and Narelle Sissons' minimalist scenery lend an acute sense of time and place.
Still, as fine as these professionals are, the star of the evening remains Paula Vogel, a playwright who never gives in to the obvious. Neither her plot nor her people are predictable; in the middle of the saddest scenes she evokes a laugh, and just when a moment seems to be edging on hilarity she introduces a wistful note that leaves the smiles frozen on the audience's faces.
Vogel is a major talent waiting for a big theater to display her wares. For now, try the small off-Broadway venue that houses How I Learned To Drive. She won't steer you wrong.
Source: Stefan Kanfer, ‘‘On Stage: L'il Bit o' Incest,’’ in New Leader, Vol. LXXX, No. 11, June 30, 1997, pp. 21-22.