The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

How I Learned to Drive uses a series of nonlinear scenes from the memory of Li’l Bit, who reveals her complex emotional and sexual relationship with her Uncle Peck. The scenes jump instantaneously back and forth in time on a neutral stage with minimal props. Li’l Bit is portrayed at various ages.

A one-act play, How I Learned to Drive begins with a disembodied voice saying “Safety First—You and Driver Education.” This technique is used throughout the play to indicate how and where each scene is located within the overall narrative. On a bare stage with only two chairs representing a Buick Riviera, Li’l Bit takes her place, in the present, speaking directly to the audience. She describes suburban Maryland in 1969 “before the malls took over.” A young Li’l Bit then steps into the scene, now seventeen years old. She is sitting in a parked car on a summer night with an older, married man—her Uncle Peck. In what appears to be a not completely unpleasant experience, Peck fondles and kisses Li’l Bit’s breasts.

Members of the Greek Chorus assume their roles as Li’l Bit’s relatives at a typical family dinner, which consists of vulgar jokes and crude comments about Li’l Bit’s well-endowed figure. A protective and gentle Uncle Peck shields Li’l Bit from the insults. The scene ends with Li’l Bit bartering a secret, late-night rendezvous with Peck in exchange for the keys to his car.

Li’l Bit informs the audience that, despite the many rumors as to why she was expelled from college, the real reason was most likely her excessive drinking and late-night road trips. Driving intoxicated on the Maryland beltway, she never received a ticket. Uncle Peck, she tells the audience, taught her well.

The action jumps backward to when Li’l Bit is sixteen and has just earned her driver’s license and Peck brings her to an elegant inn to celebrate. Peck has Li’l Bit served several cocktails. As Li’l Bit becomes increasingly intoxicated, the Female Greek Chorus comes forward in the role of mother to deliver a guide to “social drinking” while getting quite drunk herself. Dinner ends, and Peck carries the drunken and dizzy Li’l Bit back to the car. She flirts, then shies away from Peck, finally passionately kissing him in a moment of drunken confusion. Li’l Bit then expresses worry that what they are doing is wrong and will cause harm. Peck convinces her that the relationship will not progress until she wants it to, confident in the expectation that at some point in the future Li’l Bit will want to fully consummate the affair. The scene ends with Li’l Bit passed out in the seat beside Peck.

Peck takes little Cousin Bobby fishing. During the fishing lesson Peck employs his strategies...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

How I Learned to Drive is staged in a style that is both presentational (includes the audience) and representational (excludes the audience). At times characters narrate action directly to the audience while other scenes are presented in almost cinematic realism. Told in a series of nonchronological cross-cuts, the actions of Li’l Bit, Uncle Peck, and the family are examined over a period of several years. This blurring of temporal chronology allows the audience to see into the deliberations and consequences of the characters’ actions in a unique way. The play is a memory told in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards. The audience sees the end of Li’l Bit’s relationship with Uncle Peck before it has even begun. The audience also sees the effects of the abuse before they see the cause.

The title of the play derives from its main action: the driving lessons Uncle Peck gives to Li’l Bit. The lessons become a metaphor for two of the major rites of passage for American youth: earning one’s driver’s license as well as sexual initiation, an event that often occurs in a car. This metaphor is supported through the use of phrases and terminology from driving manuals. Images of traffic signs are seen and heard to guide Li’l Bit’s navigation on the road of life. They also help her find her way through the sexual landscape of her relationship with Peck.

Complicating the presentation of the play is the use of a modern Greek...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Intercourse between an adult and a child is called ‘‘statutory rape'': that is, a rape that might not seem to fit the definition of the...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The music that Paula Vogel's script for this play suggests is music that spans two generations. The Motown music that she...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1960s: Popular music, such as the songs referred to in the notes for this play, hints at sexual activity.


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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research some of the songs that Vogel suggests could be used in staging How I Learned to Drive and report on what you think makes them...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

An unabridged version of How I Learned to Drive, starring Glenna Headly and Randall Arney, was made available on both audiocassette...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

How I Learned to Drive, published in 1997, is available by itself from Dramatists Play Service, Inc. It is also bound with Vogel’ s...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Daniels, Robert L., Review of How I Learned to Drive, in Variety, March 24, 1997, p. 42.


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(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Guare, John, ed. Conjunctions 25: The New American Theatre. Annandale-On-Hudson, N.Y.: Bard College, 1995.

Mead, Rebecca. “Drive-by Shooting.” New York 30 (April 7, 1997): 46-47.

Savran, David. The Playwright’s Voice: American Dramatists on Memory, Writing, and the Politics of Culture. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1999.

Scanlan, Dick. “Say Uncle.” Advocate, June 10, 1997, 61-63.

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