The mystery of Jane Martin’s identity makes it difficult to solve the other mystery, which is the conundrum of her work. With Talking With, Martin seemed to establish herself as a feminist dramatist intent on examining women and gender and the role women play in society. By her later works—especially works such as Anton in Show Business in which gender is tertiary—this view of Martin had nearly deteriorated. A comparison of her earlier monologue-style shorts to mid-career full-length works such as Mr. Bundy to her most famous Keely and Du reveals a playwright with a wide range of social issues at hand and with specific aims in tackling them.
Eventually, the “social issue” play—in which Martin takes on a pressing social issue with her trademark dark wit—would define the course of Martin’s career. This type of work was a favorite of the Humana Festival and thus a favorite of Martin’s, and it would become the core of the Martin uvre. Subjects addressed by Martin have included gender studies, the state of the American theater, abortion, and Republican politics.
There are two basic forms that Martin has used in her work as a writer. The first is the style seen in works such as Talking With—a string of unrelated monologues on similar subjects. Martin’s forte has been in writing character monologues, in which a lone actor addresses the audience directly. She is well known for her short plays and her comic monologues—she in fact has helped make the ten-minute play a valid form of theatrical expression. She has also written traditionally staged dramas, with the fourth wall intact. These are plays such as Mr. Bundy and Keely and Du. Although her earlier work leaned toward the shorter monologue style, her later work has tended to be in a more conventional dramatic style.
Infused into every social or political study of Martin’s drama is a keen eye for southern gothic—her characterizations favor the down-and-out, the stereotypical backwoods hick, the ill-informed religious fanatic. Her comedy is dark, though her style is not pessimistic—she simply has a fascination with the darker, absurd side of humanity. Realistic character development is not usually Martin’s goal in writing—she tends to work in stereotypes, and her characters are often mouthpieces of sorts. One favorite tactic of Martin’s is to make her own points clear by presenting a character whose point of view is diametrically opposite to her own and then exposing the individual’s folly.
Especially notable in Martin’s style is the pointed wit with which she deals with her subjects. Although it cannot be said that all of her plays are comedies—Keely and Du borders on tragedy—it can be said that all of her plays are comic, no matter how dark the subject matter. She is known for her playful irreverence for the conventional and her quick sense of retort.
It is a useful exercise when dealing with the work of Martin to examine how a work might be viewed differently if Martin were not female, but a male writing under a female moniker. In Keely and Du, for instance, the play revolves around women who are upset with the confines of a patriarchal system. When viewed as a female-written work, it is clearly written as feminist drama. When viewed as male-written, however, the focus of both of the women on how their lives revolve around men becomes suspect.
With this play, Martin emerged on the national theater scene, winning her first of three American Theatre Critics New Play awards and creating rumors regarding her identity. Premiered, like most of her works, at the Humana Festival, and directed, like all her works, by Jory, Talking With soon received productions all...
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