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Paula Vogel 1951-

(Full name Paula Anne Vogel) American playwright.

The following entry presents information on Vogel's plays through 2001.

Vogel is recognized as an important American playwright. Her work explores such controversial topics as domestic abuse, homosexuality, gender roles and stereotyping, pedophilia, pornography, and AIDS. Reviewers have commended her...

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Paula Vogel 1951-

(Full name Paula Anne Vogel) American playwright.

The following entry presents information on Vogel's plays through 2001.

Vogel is recognized as an important American playwright. Her work explores such controversial topics as domestic abuse, homosexuality, gender roles and stereotyping, pedophilia, pornography, and AIDS. Reviewers have commended her humor, compassion, and creative approach to sensitive issues, and she has received several prestigious awards and grants for her work.

Biographical Information

Vogel was born November 16, 1951, in Washington, DC. She received her B.A. at the Catholic University of America in 1974 and her A.B.D. from Cornell University in 1977. Her first play, Meg, was produced in Washington, DC, at the Kennedy Center in 1977. In 1979 she was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts; she subsequently taught at the American Place Theatre and Cornell University. Since 1985 she has been the head of the M.F.A. writing program at Brown University. In 1992 her most frequently produced work, The Baltimore Waltz, was staged and garnered much critical attention. Since then it has been produced in more than sixty regional theaters in the United States, Canada, Brazil, and England. She was awarded a Guggenheim Award in 1995. Vogel has received several grants and awards for her work, including a Bunting Fellowship, a McKnight Fellowship at the Playwright's Center, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and a residency at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center.

Major Works

Considered her best-known work, The Baltimore Waltz is Vogel's surreal tribute to her brother, who died of AIDS in 1988. Described as a second-generation AIDS play because of its metaphorical treatment of the disease, The Baltimore Waltz centers on Anna, a young teacher who has been diagnosed with the fatal Acquired Toilet Disease (ATD), and Carl, her homosexual brother. The siblings travel to Europe where Anna, in a desperate attempt to live out her fantasies, engages in numerous sexual encounters, while Carl searches for a cure for ATD. Anna and Carl meet black marketers and medical charlatans who claim to have found a remedy. As the play progresses, however, it is revealed that the action is really set in a Baltimore hospital room where Carl is dying of AIDS and that the characters' experiences in Europe are actually products of Anna's imagination. In Hot ‘n’ Throbbing (1990), Vogel explores issues of domestic abuse and pornography through the character of Charlene. Brutalized by her estranged husband, Clyde, Charlene works as a scriptwriter for Gyno Productions, which specializes in “women's erotica,” in order to support her two children, Leslie Ann and Calvin. When Clyde breaks into her apartment, violating a restraining order against him, Charlene shoots him—only to nurse him back to health. The Mineola Twins (1997) chronicles the lives of identical twins, Myrna and Myra, who grow up during the 1950s in the suburbs of Long Island, New York. Although twins, the two women are very different; they grow up to have radically different lifestyles and outlooks on life. How I Learned to Drive (1997) garnered much attention for its portrayal of a young woman looking back on her sexual relationship with her uncle in suburban Maryland.

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Vogel's work has been mixed. Most commentators praise her unflinching and compassionate treatment of such controversial issues as AIDS, domestic abuse, pedophilia, and homosexuality. They note that she often rebels against theatrical and social assumptions and stereotypes, providing a new and illuminating perspective for the theatergoer: for example, in Desdemona (1980) the title character is a conniving prostitute, not the innocent girl that Shakespeare envisioned. Moreover, the critics commend Vogel's imagination and biting humor. Yet other reviewers assert that by using comedy and metaphors to explore these topics, Vogel diminishes the seriousness of drama's emotional impact. Commentators have examined the sources for and influences on Vogel's work, particularly the relationship of her Desdemona and Shakespeare's Othello. Critics also have provided feminist interpretations of her dramas.

Principal Works

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Meg 1977

Apple-Brown Betty 1979

Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief 1980

Bertha in Blue 1981

The Oldest Profession 1981

The Last Pat Epstein Show before the Reruns 1982

And Baby Makes Seven 1986

Hot ‘n’ Throbbing 1990

The Baltimore Waltz 1992

The Baltimore Waltz and Other Plays 1996

How I Learned to Drive 1997

The Mineola Twins 1997

The Mammary Plays 1997

Criticism: General Commentary

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SOURCE: Savran, David. “Loose Screws.” In The Baltimore Waltz and Other Plays, by Paula Vogel, pp. ix-xv. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1996.

[In the following essay, Savran provides a thematic and stylistic overview of Vogel's work.]

Shortly after I met Paula Vogel—twenty years ago in a seminar room at Cornell University—she told me a story I have never forgotten. Although I couldn't know it at the time, it proved to be the best possible introduction to the extraordinary plays that she would go on to write. The story involves Paula, her mother Phyllis and her older brother, Carl, and takes place somewhere in the suburban sprawl between Baltimore and Washington.

When Paula was thirteen years old, her mother, recently divorced and with a reputation for being something of a trouble-maker, complained to the Board of Health about the trash collection—or lack of it—in their apartment complex. The Board investigated and, sure enough, conditions were unsanitary and the landlord was charged. As might be expected, the Vogels were promptly delivered an eviction notice, but rather than contest it, they found another apartment. The night they moved into their new lodging, however, Phyllis bundled the children into the car and drove back to their old flat. Once in the empty rooms, Phyllis pulled three screwdrivers out of her purse and instructed the two children to unscrew every screw in the apartment. She then drew an imaginary circle on the living room rug and asked them to place the screws inside the circle. Without damaging anything, they deftly unscrewed all the lights and electric sockets, unhinged all the doors, took apart all the kitchen cabinets, the refrigerator and oven. Every fixture, every appliance in the apartment, was carefully disassembled and every door, every switchplate, was neatly, almost lovingly, lined up against the wall. On the living room rug, meanwhile, grew a mountain of screws of every shape and size. Finally, when everything was dismantled, Phyllis drew a piece of paper from her purse, wrote “SCREW YOU” on it in bold letters, and artfully positioned it on top of the pile.

This story, which could very easily be a scene in a Paula Vogel play, is in fact amazingly revealing about Paula's strategies as a playwright. Like her unusually resourceful mother, she characteristically directs her energies toward responding to, critiquing and dismantling someone else's work. Each of her plays (with the notable exception of The Baltimore Waltz) is an act of retaliation. It questions, resists and teases a particular dramatic text and, more important, the text's guiding assumptions in regard to (among other things) gender, family, sexual identity, love, sex, aging and domestic violence. Going quite literally behind the scenes, Desdemona suggests that Shakespeare's women are not quite the innocent victims of masculine desires they appear to be but active makers—and unmakers—of each others' destinies. Talking back to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, And Baby Makes Seven celebrates fantasy and the power of narrative—and gives a new meaning to “family values.” Responding to both the structure and the quaintly elderly protagonists of David Mamet's The Duck Variations, The Oldest Profession reimagines old age as a time of sensual delight. Taking on the plays of John Patrick Shanley and Sam Shepard with a vengeance, Hot ‘n’ Throbbing demonstrates that behind their poor, misunderstood male protagonists lies a romanticization of violence against women that proves both dangerous and irresponsible. And although The Baltimore Waltz is a commemoration of Paula's brother, Carl, it also is a masterful reworking of Ambrose Bierce's “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” in which all of the action takes place in the mind of a soldier during the moment in which he is being hanged. Analogously, all of Anna's memories and fantasies can be understood to transpire in that split second after the doctor tells her that her brother has died.

Paula's method of critiquing, or if one prefers, deconstructing the work of her forebears comes from her reading of the theories of Bertolt Brecht and, even more significantly, of Viktor Shklovsky, the Russian Formalist from whom Brecht purloined the Alienation Effect. Shklovsky recognized that over time our perceptions become increasingly habitual and automatic: We no longer see what is around us. The purpose of art, according to Shklovsky, is to restore visibility, to defamiliarize the commonplace so that we notice it again. In adapting Shklovsky, Brecht added a political dimension to this notion of defamiliarization: Brecht's theatre attempted to demonstrate that that which we take for granted and assume to be universal and eternal is, in fact, the product of human labor and history—and thus subject to change. Like Brecht's, Paula's theatre is one in which the commonplace is insistently made strange, in which five grandmotherly women sitting on a park bench turn out to be prostitutes, or three obstreperous little boys turn out to be the imaginary children three adults manipulate to work out an ingenious and extravagant ménage à trois. The effect of this defamiliarization is to allow spectators and readers to see these characters and their situations in a new light, to reevaluate the meaning of women's work outside the home, or to celebrate the elements of fantasy that necessarily structure all relationships.

Like Brecht, Paula writes from a deeply rooted political sense. Unlike her illustrious predecessor, however, Paula is an avowed feminist. All of her work is devoted to exposing not just how women are entrapped and oppressed, but the possibilities that figures like Desdemona or the oldest professionals have to contest, subvert and redefine the roles they have been assigned. Yet Paula's feminism is itself a complex phenomenon. As these plays suggest, she reacted strongly against the first wave of feminist theatre that surfaced during the 1970s, the “let's-celebrate-ourselves-as-women” brand of feminism that Paula regards not just as simplistic and ahistorical but also as exclusionary because certain kinds of women (depending on their class or racial or occupational position) inevitably get left out of the celebration. She has carved out her own distinctive feminist theatre in these five plays by recognizing, in her own words, that feminism means being politically incorrect. It means avoiding the easy answer—that isn't really an answer at all—in favor of posing the question in the right way. It means refusing to construct an exemplary feminist hero. It means writing speculative rather than polemical plays. It means turning Desdemona into a whore for real, or constructing two lesbians who use imaginary boy children as the conduits for their desires, or showing a woman titillated not just by writing pornography but by using her own children as the bases for her sexual fantasies.

Paula's complex relationship to feminism, as well as to Brecht, is in part the result of the very real contradictions that molded her when she was growing up. The daughter of a Jewish father from New York and a Catholic mother from New Orleans (her father left home when she was eleven), Paula has always been just a little bit schizoid. Passionately identifying with Mary Martin as Peter Pan, she confesses that she was always, well, confused about sexual identities—she expected that she, too, could get the girl. A lesbian who, by her own accord, loves men (and John Waters movies), she came out when she was seventeen. Brought up in a working-class family (her mother would move the household about once a year), she nevertheless entered academia, graduating from Catholic University and spending three years in the doctoral program in theatre at Cornell. A devotee of Büchner and Sigmund Romberg, Maria Irene Fornes and Judy Garland, In the Summer House and The Bad Seed, she is a fierce defender of the theatre in an era when it is under fire, seemingly, from all quarters. Since 1985, she has been director of the Graduate Playwriting Program at Brown University and has fashioned it into one of the very best in the country. Modeling herself in equal parts Joseph Papp and Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel in The Producers), she has transformed the annual New Plays Festival at Brown into one of the most exciting showcases for new work in the country (although I still look forward to the realization of a project she and I have long fantasized, the Dinner Theatre of Cruelty). A brilliant mentor, she inspires students and gives the most penetrating—and supportive—critiques I have ever seen. As in her own work, Paula is intent on getting her students to write not about what they are sure of, but what they don't know, what terrifies them, what they desire madly, what they have to fight to comprehend. As she explains it, she longs, both in her own writing and that of her students, to unleash the confusion in the hope that this will lead both writer and reader to understand the confusion, to make sense out of a world—and a society—gone terribly awry.

The reader turning to Paula's plays expecting that they will provide a straightforward narrative of her life will be disappointed. Although all are rooted in her experiences and all, in effect, tell her own story, none, not even The Baltimore Waltz, does so directly. And while she is the first to admit that her writing is deeply autobiographical, she has reacted strongly against the intensely personalized actor training methods she observed in graduate school. She writes by focusing not on autobiographical content but on questions of dramatic form, trusting that the content will take care of itself. She is obsessed with various theatrical devices and all of her plays use a formal device as their starting point, be it the “five blackbirds” principle of The Oldest Profession or the jump cuts of Desdemona. The device she uses most commonly is circular form, which she understands as an attempt to defamiliarize what Brecht calls Aristotelian drama, drama organized by the law of cause and effect and dependent upon a spectator's strong empathic response to a protagonist. The Baltimore Waltz, And Baby Makes Seven and Hot ‘n’ Throbbing are all circular in their organization. They are all about a repetition of the beginning, a return to the scene of the crime, as it were, that signals that everything has remained the same and, simultaneously, changed radically. All three texts play out and inhabit that contradiction. Paula's defamiliarization of Aristotelian drama also requires a strict limitation on empathy. And while all of her characters inspire a certain amount of identification, Paula is more concerned that the spectator come to recognize and deal with the necessarily problematic position of each protagonist. As a result, these five plays do not make easy reading—or playing. They demand that readers, actors and directors approach them with a genuine commitment to exploring their desires and fears as well as the laws, both spoken and unspoken, of the society in which they live (in the understanding that it is the law that produces desire and fear in the first place).

Of the five plays in the collection, the most unequivocally comic one, And Baby Makes Seven, is also the one with the most ill-fated production history (Paula refers to it as her “Scottish play”). For me, however, it remains a source of pure delight. In production, the three imaginary children always steal the show—as they were designed to do. (Paula carefully avoids providing much information about their three adult keepers.) And although the play's focus is clearly on the relationship between the adults and the children, and, specifically, on how the adults use the children to say and do what they are unable to do, Baby is really a play about narrative, about the stories that people make up to construct their identities, to deal with the people they love, and to divert themselves. Anna and Ruth are playwrights of sorts (to that extent, they both stand in for Paula), expert plotters who use their imaginary children to negotiate their relationship with each other and with Peter, and to deal with the impending arrival of a real child. Despite the play's psychological acumen and its formal brilliance (its three extraordinary death scenes leading up to the birth), however, Baby is perhaps the most original and important for its redefinition of family. For me, the play's rather eccentric nuclear family functions as a utopian fantasy, an ideal community in which even the wildest desires can be satisfied, in which personal histories can be invented on the spot, and in which adults are free to play like children. And although the first draft of the play was written in 1982, it uncannily anticipates the new “queer politics” of the 1990s because of the ways in which it destabilizes sexual identities. For although the three adults clearly self-identify as lesbian or gay, both the nature of their ménage and the content of their fantasies (at least as enacted by the imaginary children) question those designations. What is one to make of a family in which the boundaries between illusion and reality, power and subjection, friendship and love, female and male, are so porous, and in which family members freely materialize and dematerialize.

Like the other plays in this collection, Baby is more concerned with asking these questions than answering them. Like The Baltimore Waltz, it is a celebration of narrative, of the power of the theatre to make fantasy real. It commemorates the childhood one never had, the friends wished for but never gained, the desires never acknowledged. In their very different ways, all of these plays are acts of commemoration, both exhuming and reimagining the past—Paula's past for sure, but also that of the culture of which she is a part. Thus, The Oldest Profession looks back to a time when there was a palpable connection between people and both the work they performed and the things they consumed. And Hot ‘n’ Throbbing rereads the stories that constitute the canon of great literature and exposes what has been omitted in the telling. Yet these plays look back without nostalgia. They represent less an idealization of the past than a return to the scene of the crime. Like Phyllis taking Paula and Carl back to their vacant apartment, they are intent upon revisiting the past in order to take it apart, to analyze it, to undermine it, and so to wreak a truly creative revenge. In this volume, Paula leaves us not just a pile of loose screws (although there are plenty of those jangling about), but the pieces of the rooms in which we live, the closet doors, the marriage beds, the sources of light—and darkness—in the hope that we will discover how to put them to better use.

Steven Winn (review date 17 October 2000)

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SOURCE: Winn, Steven. “A Double Dose of Sexual Politics.” San Francisco Chronicle (17 October 2000): B2.

[In the following excerpted positive assessment of Desdemona, Winn praises Vogel's canny revision of the character of Desdemona.]

A double bill of Dutchman and Desdemona at the Phoenix Theatre packs an invigorating night of sexual politics into one of the city's smallest theaters. The Bare Bones Theatre pairing of the 1964 subway car classic by Imamu Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) and Paula Vogel's 1993 backroom slant on Othello is a canny one. Here, in their distant arenas, are two similar dances along the precipice. Both plays confront transgression against the norm and the violence lurking behind the facade. …

A spotlit handkerchief suspended overhead at the start of Desdemona signals Vogel's faithfulness to Shakespeare. True to the original, this is a story of sexual jealousy, intrigue and murder. By setting the action in a women-only laundry room, however, Vogel (How I Learned to Drive, Hot ‘n’ Throbbing) is free to give Othello a wild back story. Desdemona (Lauren Grace) is a blithe blond sexpot who likes to be paddled and play at prostitution. Her servant and Iago's wife, Emilia (Ellen Scarpaci), is an unhappily married scold. The courtesan Bianca (a buoyant Gwen Lindsay) is a businesswoman of the streets. The play's 30 blackout scenes run to repetition and random shocks at times. And Michelle Draeger's cast members don't all master the script's English working-class argot. But by giving Desdemona a freewheeling sexuality of her own, Vogel creates a perversely heroic figure. She may be doomed, but she's no mere function of a man's jealousy. “Men only see each other in their eyes,” Emilia observes with a resigned sigh. Vogel's Desdemona makes us see the rampant possibilities outside that blinkered view.

Jill Dolan (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Dolan, Jill. “Paula Vogel's Desdemona (A Play about a Handkerchief).” In Amazon All Stars: 13 Lesbian Plays, edited by Rosemary Keefe Curb, pp. 437-40. New York: Applause, 1996.

[In the following essay, Dolan contrasts Shakespeare's Othello and Vogel's Desdemona.]

Desdemona (A Play about a Handkerchief) continues in playwright Paula Vogel's tradition of resisting theatrical and social pieties. She turns conventions upside down and on their heads to see what falls out of their pockets, pushing them aside, offstage, before she'll ever allow them to resume what others have considered their “rightful” place in an ideological or literary hierarchy. There's always something askew in a Vogel play, something deliciously not quite right, which requires a spectator or reader to change her perspective, to give up any assumption of comfortable viewing or reading ground, and to go along for a refreshing change of performance pace, style, and scenery.

For example, Baltimore Waltz (1992), Vogel's most frequently produced play, both addresses and skirts commonly held assumptions about emotional and social responses to AIDS by writing a fantasy travelogue in which the heroine, suffering from the dreadful ATDS (Acquired Toilet-Seat Disease Syndrome), tours Europe with her brother, indulging in non-stop, flamboyant promiscuity. Their roles finally reverse, and the text admits it's the brother who is dying of AIDS. Vogel, in fact, wrote the play as a journey with her brother, Carl, to a “Europe that exists only in the imagination”; Carl died of AIDS in 1988.

But Vogel manages to wrest her text from the presumptions of “AIDS plays.” Baltimore Waltz encourages spectators to look carefully at the resonances between the repressed status of women's sexuality and that of People With AIDS; at ill-founded public fears of contracting AIDS by contact with toilet seats; and at homophobic ragings against homosexual teachers (and the teaching of homosexuality). In Vogel's wildly theatrical imagination, politics are omnipresent and wickedly funny, as humor replaces didacticism with sharp social insight and critique.

Baltimore Waltz was widely well-received, accumulating over sixty productions in three years, yet Vogel has described the subcultural grumblings that responded to the play's success in New York and in regional theatres. Some gay men resented that the woman suffered the ravages of disease in the play, rather than accurately portraying the more widespread afflictions of gay men; some lesbians critiqued Vogel for not writing about lesbians and AIDS, or for not writing about lesbians at all. These complaints miss the power and poignancy of Vogel's writing: through her command of theatricality and her nuanced critique of social systems, each of her plays writes a solid, wry, biting satire of the ideologies that deny full sexual, emotional, and political expression for women, lesbians, and gay men. Vogel's plays inevitably begin with sex, as the foundational (if sometimes foolish) interaction of social and political life.

Desdemona (1993) is no exception. In her deconstruction of the dubious heroine's role in Shakespeare's Othello, Vogel once again changes the lens, refocusing the spectator's view toward the backside of the play's action. Shakespeare's character is excessively, self-destructively chaste, virtuous, and faithful; in Vogel's play, she participates enthusiastically in the world's oldest profession. Where Shakespeare's Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca are one-dimensional in their expressions of piety, honesty, and fidelity, Vogel imagines them as the prostitutes Othello fears them to be, at Iago's evil prompting. Vogel's play neatly overturns Shakespeare's moral universe, building a more complicated, autonomous, and satisfying experience (if secretive and, finally, doomed) for Othello's women.

Desdemona rewrites discussions in Othello between Emilia and her lady, in which the horrifically proper, pure, chaste women can't imagine “abusing” their husbands by being unfaithful to them, except, as Emilia says, for a very high price. Vogel chews through the subtext of Shakespeare's play, impugning Emilia's motives for stealing the handkerchief for Iago in the first place, and imbuing her with her own lust for power. Desdemona opens with Emilia's theft and Desdemona's frantic, frustrated search for her daintily embroidered handkerchief. But while Shakespeare's character fears the loss, Vogel's Desdemona is not at all sentimental about the misplaced linen, shouting crossly, “Oh, piss and vinegar!! Where is the crappy little snot rag!” [7].

In Shakespeare's play, character after character insists on his or her honesty; in Vogel's play, no one is particularly honest, as most are out for their own gain, typically at each other's expense. Bianca, perhaps most vilely abused in the original, is most honorable in Vogel's version, as she's very open and matter-of-fact about the brothel business in which she engages. As Desdemona's friend and abettor (maybe even her suitor), Bianca teaches her lady sexual practices such as the notorious “l ‘n’ b” (“lam and brim,” the play's “Elizabethan” version of s/m) that increase her pleasure and that of her potential customers. Emilia is jealous of their relationship, for reasons not entirely selfless, since, in Vogel's view, sexual attraction floats freely among all three women.

While the women remain deluded about their ability to control their destinies (after the 100th brushstroke, even in Vogel's play, Desdemona's fate is sealed), they escape the deprecations flung by Shakespeare's men. Cassio's laughter at Bianca's expense in the original is turned here against the men, as their sexual prowess, in particular, becomes the object of derision among the women. Desdemona is obsessed with the size of men's members, which apparently none of them are very good at using. Men are absent in Vogel's play, except as objects of the women's ridicule, identified by their sexual habits or anatomical attributes (all compared to the size and heft of a hoof-pick, the play's reigning phallic symbol) or by their proximity to power that's carefully defined as male.

Othello's offstage jealousy boils fast as Vogel's short scenes progress. The Moor never appears in Vogel's play, although his power, and his temper, and his desires haunt the edges of the scenes among Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca. Male desire sets off the play's action, as Emilia steals for Iago the handkerchief that dooms Desdemona, but the dialogue among the three women courts a deeper understanding of their desires, for sexuality, for money, for power. Their men become means to what the three women willingly clarify as mercenary ends.

Vogel's dialogue only occasionally lapses into emulated Shakespearian verse. She peppers her characters' speech with anachronisms, references to Othello (Desdemona: “Don't be silly, nothing will happen to me. I'm the sort that will die in bed” [12]), and modern colloquialisms. Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca are distinguished by their accents, which loudly announce their class differences and influence their dreams and desires. Emilia tries to be respectable but mispronounces French; Bianca speaks with an almost impenetrable Cockney.

The stately Desdemona throws off the restraints of her class position and fulfills her “desire to know the world” [20] by substituting occasionally in Bianca's brothel, where she enjoys claiming her own body, if only to sell it to others. Through her assignations with strange men, Desdemona throws off the “purdah” of her situation: “And they spill their seed into me, Emilia—seed from a thousand lands, passed down through generations of ancestors, with genealogies that cover the surface of the globe. And I simply lie still there in the darkness, taking them all into me; I close my eyes and in the dark of my mind—oh, how I travel!” [20]

Formally, Vogel's plays follow an absurdist pattern rather than a realist one. Her stage directions here indicate that each scene or “cinematic ‘take’” should “simulate the process of filming: change invisible camera angles, do jump cuts and repetitions, etc.” [4]. Perspective is all, as the relationships between the bodies on stage represent the ideological work the biting humor of the play accomplishes. Vogel's ouevre indicates profound disinterest in truthfully representing the “real”; each of her plays offer an outrageous, imaginative situation, original or quoted from another source, which through its twisted perspective, manages to make more sense of the workings of ideology than most more linear, expository, realist efforts.

And Baby Makes Seven (1987), for instance, in which a lesbian couple and a gay man create an imaginary family of small but intellectually precocious children whom they finally must murder, quotes George and Martha's imaginary child in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Vogel's play entangles its characters in reimagined family structures and reenvisioned sexual desires, in a manner that requires refreshing leaps of imaginative faith. The Mineola Twins (1995) wreaks the same havoc with the complacencies of suburban Long Island life, disrupting its facades with wild sexual practices performed in unlikely places.

With six plays produced and several published, a 1992 Obie Award for Baltimore Waltz, Pulitzer Prize and Susan Smith Blackburn Award nominations, as well as numerous fellowships and residencies, Paula Vogel is a major lesbian playwright. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Brown University, where she fosters the talents of younger lesbian playwrights. One student, Madeline Olnek, for example, recently produced her play Spookyworld at the WOW Cafe in New York; its quirky setting (in a floundering horror-amusement park) and its non-linear, non-sequitor style clearly show the influence of Vogel's teaching.

Yet for lesbian critics and spectators, one can't help but be frustrated that Vogel's work hasn't moved to Broadway alongside Terrence McNally's plays or Tony Kushner's. While McNally's writing is conventional, Kushner's shares the depth of Vogel's political vision, and its hugely theatrical, non-realist imagination. While some commentators trumpet the glorious age of gay theatre, gender politics leave lesbians lingering behind in reputable regional theatres, when they need to be seen and heard by national audiences.

Cherry Jones, the first openly lesbian actor to win a Tony Award, for her magnificent performance in The Heiress in the 1994 New York theatre season, has performed in many of Vogel's productions. She played Bianca in both the Bay Street Theatre Festival and the Circle Repertory Company productions of Desdemona in 1993. Jones' recent success, in addition to that of openly gay male American playwrights, signals that Paula Vogel's turn for national awards and attention is well past due.

Sharon Friedman (essay date May 1999)

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SOURCE: Friedman, Sharon. “Revisioning the Woman's Part: Paula Vogel's Desdemona.” NTQ 15, no. 58 (May 1999): 131-41.

[In the following essay, Friedman contends that Vogel's Desdemona signals a significant shift in feminist critical perspective in drama.]

In his introduction to Othello, Alvin Kernan asserts that Shakespeare's vision of human nature dramatizes ‘ancient terrors and primal drives—fear of the unknown, pride, greed, lust, underlying smooth, civilized surfaces’, and that there is a marked ‘contrast between surface manner and inner nature. … In Desdemona alone do the heart and the hand go together: she is what she seems to be.’1

This characterization is reversed in Paula Vogel's revision of Othello as Desdemona.2 In this play, we have a Desdemona who is not what she seems, ‘of spirit so still and quiet’. Rather, she is Othello's worst nightmare, the transformation of Iago's pretence into reality. Though still naive, Desdemona is no longer the innocent—unselfish in her love, forgiving of all transgressions against her. She is sexually adventurous as she works for Cassio's harlot Bianca in her brothel, seemingly voracious in her appetites, manipulative of anyone who can feed them, and anything but loyal in her relationships with women or men.

Questions abound. Why has Paula Vogel created a Desdemona who, though ostensibly inside out, still seems like Othello's projection? Could a lascivious Desdemona represent a feminist reclamation of the powers of desire and, at long last, ownership of the gaze? What, in this revision, constitutes change, subversion, or the revelation of patriarchal ideology concerning women's sexuality encoded in Othello?

To be sure, Vogel joins a throng of critics, writers, directors, and actors who have challenged Shakespeare's plays with their new readings, literary applications, film adaptations, and inventive theatrical productions, often from a feminist perspective.3 In her call for ‘more new readings’ of Shakespeare in the 1990s, the scholar Jean Howard argues against the traditional approach to criticism that sees meaning ‘already in the text’, there to be discovered by the ‘alert reader’. Rather, Howard argues that a Shakespeare play is an occasion for a ‘complex, contemporary interaction with a classic text’ and ‘an occasion for creation by which the critic acknowledges his own place in history’.4

Peter Erickson, in Rewriting Shakespeare, Rewriting Ourselves, locates the writer as well as the critic in history. Emphasizing the ‘interactions between past and present that we construct and negotiate’, he is seeking representations of Shakespeare which go beyond contemporary theatrical performance and pedagogy to the ‘different cultural sites of contemporary literature’, which he perceives as ripe for ‘imaginative free play and for the development of an independent perspective’.5

Erickson's prime example is the poet Adrienne Rich's re-visioning of the father-daughter motif and women's forgiveness in both King Lear and The Winter's Tale. Given Shakespeare's iconic status, the danger is that the image can become ‘fixed in our minds as an inviolable element of father-daughter relations’, despite the ideological tensions in ‘values and expectations’, which are subject to dramatic pressure within the text. ‘Whether or not Shakespeare is seen as critical of Lear, Shakespeare cannot give us Cordelia's point of view.’6

This critical distance from Shakespeare in twentieth-century rewritings of his works is also noted by Marianne Novy, whose collection of articles documents women's readings of Shakespeare over the past three hundred years. Carol Neely, in an epilogue to this book, observes categories of revisions. Some writers foreground female friendship and express a connection to women characters who demonstrate assertiveness, exploit the uses of disguise to transcend confinement, and display wit as well as passion (e.g., Rosalind, Beatrice, Helena, Cleopatra). Other writers who adapt Shakespeare for their texts seem more detached as they ‘balance sympathy and judgement. … Patriarchal structures and the constrictions suffered by women are exposed and, sometimes, corrected through revision.’ Neely notes that several often seemingly conflicting responses alternate—

between anger and empowerment, between critique of patriarchal culture and the creation of alternatives to it. … Analysis of patriarchy moves beyond characters, beyond the playwright himself, to a probing analysis of his culture as well as the writer's, with Shakespeare's plays enabling the critique.7

These revisions eventually lead to ‘transformational’ readings which, in alliance with Shakespeare, ‘transform his scripts into their own’.

A SHIFT IN THE FEMINIST PERSPECTIVE

Paula Vogel's raucous Desdemona draws on many of these conventions of feminist revisioning. She foregrounds the women in the play; explores female friendship; and refocuses plot to reveal the ‘high cost of patriarchal values’ that several critics see embedded in Shakespeare's tragedies. As the editors of The Woman's Part assert, ‘the men who uphold [these values] atrophy, and the women, whether resistant [Emilia] or acquiescent [Desdemona], die’.8

However, departing from her re-visionary and transformational predecessors, Paula Vogel does not attempt to celebrate the purportedly ‘womanly’ virtues—the ‘flexibility, compassion, realism’ attributed to Shakespearean heroines.9 She does not perceive in the women's intimacy a ‘mutual affection and a kind of female subculture apart from the man's world’.10 Nor does she correct and revise the restrictions that so obviously oppress the women and inform the men's destructive fantasies of betrayal.

Rather, Vogel's play marks an important shift in the feminist critical perspective, specifically in drama, as characterized by Lynda Hart in her collection of essays on contemporary women's theatre: ‘the shift … from discovering and creating positive images of women in the content of the drama to analyzing and disrupting the ideological codes embedded in the inherited structures of dramatic representation’.11

Whether one takes the interpretive stance that Shakespeare questions and explodes patriarchal attitudes toward women or that he reinscribes profound fears of female sexuality and desperate attempts to control it, the terms by which women are defined (e.g., the virgin or the whore) and the spheres to which they are relegated—backroom, bedroom, balconies—remain in place. A revisionary theatre perceives genre, language, stage space, and the body as the ‘loci’ for the playwright to ‘dramatically challenge’ the terms, categories, and beliefs by which women are defined and determined in the discourse of dramatic and cultural texts.12

In any revision, the original work hovers over its present incarnation. In fact, the programme notes to Desdemona include a brief synopsis of Othello, followed by a letter from Vogel to her audience in which she reveals her implicit dialogue with the Bard. She begins by sharing her memories of earlier readings, when she had wept for the Moor, who ‘goaded to desperation by the innuendos of cuckoldry that [his ensign] Iago manufactured, [and] believing his virginal bride to be the harlot coupling with his lieutenant Cassio, gives in to homicide’, strangling ‘pure, blameless Desdemona’ in her bed.

At the same time, however, and despite Vogel's admiration for Shakespeare's ‘fantastic verse’, she began to question the critical assessment of Desdemona as a ‘fully dimensional heroine’. The woman that she reads is an abstraction played by ‘gawky male adolescents’. Furthermore, Vogel raises two provocative questions regarding conduct in a text which, though naturalized through the ages, in her mind bears questioning:

Had Desdemona been sleeping with the Russian Navy [that is, the Venetian garrison], would Othello have been justified in his self-pitying act of murder? [And] why did Emilia steal the handkerchief Othello had given his wife, if she was such a devoted servant to Desdemona?

(‘A Letter from the Playwright’)

In this self-reflexive reading of Othello, the playwright/critic also becomes a feminist spectator who, as Randi Koppen defines such a viewer, resists, revises, and produces meanings ‘in response to the text's own promptings’.13 In a deconstructive parody, Vogel dislodges the convention of the intimate scene between women in Shakespeare's theatre and expands it into an entire play. Now decentering the tragic hero, she foregrounds and enacts the threat of female transgression—the construction of female desire—that incites the tragic action of the play.14

Using bodily presence and ribald language in place of whispering asides, delicately expressed confidences, and plaintive ballads (e.g., Desdemona's song in the willow scene), these familiar female characters, central our most cherished narratives and cultural paradigms, speak in a forbidden language, and disrupt the categories of their representation—the twin images of the virgin/whore dichotomy and the faithful handmaiden—linked to their gender and class status. Vogel produces multiple and shifting identities as she dramatizes, among various postures, a whoring Desdemona, a spiritually monogamous Bianca, and a sassy Emilia, who does not invariably understand and support the lady she serves. As in women's performance art, ‘the position of the female subject talking back throws that position into process, into doubt’.15

FEMALE CHARACTERS AND PUBLIC ACTION

In Renaissance drama, particularly tragedy, centre stage is the site of public action and oratory more often reserved for male characters, reflecting the ‘relationship between the male-defined polis and the politics of stage space’.16 Several critics have lauded Shakespeare for creating a counter-universe in scenes where women share intimate conversations that reveal both their ‘freedoms and constraints’. Carole McKewin observes that although this enclosed space is often ‘shaped by the larger world of the play’, in where women talk to each other apart from men, they engage in freer expression of their ‘perceptions and identities, comment on masculine society, gather strength, and engage reconnaissance to act in it’.17

McKewin illustrates this assertion with her view that Desdemona and Emilia's ‘feminine friendship … is affectionate and generous and nurturing’. In the willow-song scene in Othello, Desdemona laments the plight of her mother's maideservant foresaken by her lover, and initiates a dialogue with Emilia about women's attitudes toward adultery and honour. According to McKewin, this dialogue between women ‘reflects both the increased oppression of the outside world and the the effect, however limited, the counter-universe can have on its opposite’. McKewin admires Emilia's loyalty to Desdemona and her ‘egalitarian view of man and woman in marriage’. Indeed, with more than a hint of cultural feminism, the critic perceives their friendship as what ultimately emerges from this counter-universe to ‘reveal what woman is, and to reshape the chimeras of slander’ that result in the ‘debacle of Othello’.18

Vogel, focusing her lens onto the background of the play, brings Bianca from the streets into the palace, juxtaposes her with Desdemona and Emilia, and complicates this intimate conversation with material concerns. Her women engage in frank discussion and behaviour that undermines their valourization and camaraderie, and so frustrates any attempt at a unified construction of ‘what woman is’. Her counter-universe is fraught with differences among the women and contradictions within each character. Their world is presented as inextricably intertwined with all that surrounds it, to reveal the hierarchy and intersection of gender and class relationships that might explain Emilia's careless but fatal betrayal as well as the harsh Renaissance code governing a woman's adultery.

PROBING THE IDEOLOGICAL DISCOURSE

To establish the links between the ostensibly dual universe of feminine and masculine, Vogel probes the ‘unconscious’ of the text—that which is not directly spoken or presented but ‘operate[s] contrapuntally’ in the ‘absence’, ‘silence’, or ‘reverse side’ of what is written.19 Although Othello is not a tragedy of a woman's infidelity, but rather of the tragic consequences of Iago's plot inflaming Othello's fantasy of betrayal, the subject of Desdemona's sexuality and, most notably, the men's construction of it, is always there, ‘latent’, bubbling to the surface in speech and action. Indeed, the hint of Desdemona's alleged indiscretion with Cassio is instantaneously translated by Othello into her whorish behaviour with his men of every rank and file, ‘pioneers and all’ (III, iii, 343). As Jyotsna Singh succinctly states:

To label Othello a ‘tragedy of jealousy’ has almost become a critical commonplace. What has less frequently been specified is a crucial aspect of his male jealousy—namely, the fear that wives can turn into whores or, put another way, that wives and whores are indistinguishable.20

It is precisely this binary construction that Vogel dramatizes and, in the process, deconstructs as she probes the ideological discourse that informs the play's lofty themes of marital love, honour, and loyalty.

What lurks behind the Renaissance ideal of pure and passive femininity, guardian of masculine sexuality, if not the anxiety that all women are descendants of Eve, responsible for ‘both mortality and the “sin” of human sexuality’?21 Female sexuality is contained in the social practice of marriage to a virginal bridge. That which is not contained ‘emerges as whoredom’. Singh observes that the terms ‘harlot’, ‘whore’, ‘strumpet’, and ‘courtesan’ recur ‘frequently in various Renaissance discourses such as court records, sermons, moral treatises, and literary texts’ in the service of moral prescriptions.

Singh also notes that prostitution, as a social and economic institution that expanded in the early modern period, is ‘elided’ in narratives which demonize women's unbridled sexuality and associate it with the prostitute.22 The idea of woman's desire (as opposed to woman as the object of desire) was seen as a threat to the moral and social order dependent on strict gender opposition and hierarchy.23

Within Othello, this polarization between the sexes is generated by the men and leads to the destruction of all the major characters. What one remembers of this conflict is the male preoccupation with honour that Othello speaks of as dependent upon a woman's faithfulness—‘I had rather be a toad / And live upon the vapour of a dungeon / Than keep a corner in the thing I love / For others' uses’ (III, iii, 269-72). And even after the discovery of his error, he calls himself an ‘honourable murderer’ (V, ii, 290).

Several critics have identified the root of this concern in the struggle for a secure masculine identity which gives rise to images of threatening females. Thus, in Man's Estate Coppelia Kahn argues that, although ‘in its outward forms, patriarchy granted near-absolute legal and political powers to the father … in unacknowledged ways it conceded to women, who were essential to its continuance, the power to validate men's identities through their obedience and fidelity as wives and daughters’.24

Shakespeare's Desdemona is continually called upon to defend her honour in a display of her faithfulness and obedience to her husband. She speaks her desire only in her wish to consecrate her marriage (‘the rites for which I love him’, I, iii, 252) by following Othello to Cyprus. Othello, however, speaks of it in fear and loathing:

O curse of marriage,
That we can call these delicate creatures ours,
And not their appetites!

(III, iii, 267-9)

And when he believes her guilty of sexual impropriety with one man, he declares her a threat to all men that he must eliminate (‘Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men’, V, ii, 6).

Iago's plot is consistently underscored by his numerous references to wives as whores. Taunting Desdemona and Emilia in repartee, he claims that though ‘pictures out of door’, you are ‘wildcats in your kitchens … players in your huswifery, and huswives in your beds’ (II, i, 108-11). And in his plot to dupe Othello, he substitutes talk of Bianca for incriminating remarks about Desdemona. In the staged conversation with Cassio which he intends to be inaccurately overheard by Othello, Bianca the whore serves as the ‘embodiment’ of Desdemona's transgression.25

REPLACING THE ‘ABSENT FEMALE’

By ‘making the silences speak’,26 Paula Vogel engages us in a production that replaces the ‘absent female’, represented by the boy players of the Elizabethan theatre, with real women whose sexual desires and psychic needs are no longer cursed, camouflaged, mimicked, or encoded in stylized gestures, at least by the men.27 As Sue Ellen Case argues:

Without the public appearance of the female body, cultural representations of sexuality could not be physical ones. Rather, sexuality became located within the symbolic system that was the property of the spiritual domain, for instance language. … In theatre, the sexual danger inherent in the female gender was alleviated by the male assimilation of female roles. …28

In Vogel's production, the women, not the men, comprise an almost exclusive community. Their formidable presence momentarily evokes the spectre of women's emasculating power and duplicitous nature that had only been treated symbolically in Othello.

In her Comic Women, Tragic Men, Linda Bamber argues that the ‘feminine in Shakespeare … is always something unlike and external to the Self, who is male. … The Feminine … is that which exists on the other side of … the barrier of sexual differentiation.’29 With ironic references to the men's suspicions in Othello, Vogel brings her audience across the great divide only to find that the women's quest for fulfilment seems to mirror the men's, as they yearn for sexual adventure, power and position, and, of course, true love.

Even sexual betrayal is in the air. Desdemona unwittingly cuckolds Emilia during her night at the brothel, and Bianca is almost driven to violence when she discovers that the handkerchief given to her by Cassio belongs to Desdemona. The playwright heeds Emilia's words in Othello: ‘Let husbands know / Their wives have sense like them. They see, and smell, / And have their palates both for sweet and sour …’ (IV, iii, 96-8). Women's desire, though boldly advocated by Shakespeare's Emilia, is articulated in terms of men's sensibilities. It is this version of sexuality that Vogel puts on display.

Making no attempt to capture the lost voices of Renaissance noblewomen, handmaidens or prostitutes, Paula Vogel stages the threat of female desire in a patriarchal culture and the conditions that might structure women's fantasies about themselves and each other. In dramatic texts, perhaps the most salient feature of what Sue Ellen Case calls the ‘Fictional Woman’ is her representation as an ‘object of exchange between men’.30 As maiden or prostitute, her ‘sexual allure can never escape the thrall of commodification’.31 Paula Vogel's women, exercising a kind of agency, are acutely aware of the value of their charms.

MANIPULATING THE SEXUAL EXCHANGE

In Desdemona, the three women spring to life as they appropriate the language of sexuality and manipulate the exchange. In coarsely mocking banter, they talk to each other about their experience of sex; objectify the male organ (as Desdemona fondles a hoof-pick, she stretches out and says ‘Oh me, oh my—if I could find a man with just such a hoof-pick—he could pluck out my stone’); name the various forms of copulation (as does Bianca when she informs and instructs the eager Desdemona in the tricks of her trade); and acknowledge the barter of their sexuality in exchange for money, gifts (‘a brooch for a breast’) and, in Emilia's case, her place in the world as the ensign's wife.

In Othello, the handkerchief functions as a powerful metaphor for the proprietary attitude toward women's sexuality. Whoever possesses the handkerchief possesses the woman. Thus, the handkerchief confiscated by Emilia and placed by Iago in Cassio's possession—only to end up in the hands of his strumpet Bianca—duly becomes proof of Desdemona's alleged betrayal.32

The handkerchief in Vogel's play—visible in a lit corner of the stage as the play opens—retains its power to convict Desdemona (Vogel's subtitle is ‘A Play about a Handkerchief’). However, we see it as a mere contrivance—a ‘snot rag’, in Desdemona's contemptuous language, which stands for nothing. The women become the ‘ocular proof’ that Shakespeare's Othello yearns for to justify his accusation and revenge.

Still, this Desdemona is far more complex than Othello imagines her to be. Vogel relies on dramatic irony as she reaches back through Othello to Shakespeare in order to fashion a Desdemona out of his subversive cues—for example, Brabantio, Desdemona's father, warning Othello that his daughter may betray him as she has betrayed her father in marrying without his consent. She has defied the patriarchal code in placing her will above her father's judgement—even the judgement of the Venetian Senate, in her refusal to postpone the consecration of her marriage. She professes not to have fallen prey to mysterious potions and charms, but to have responded to her heart's ‘preferences’. Furthermore, Othello tells us that she had been aroused by listening to his dangerous exploits:

She'd come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse. …
She wished she had not heard it;
Yet she wished that heaven had made her
          such a man.

(I, iii, 148-9, 161-2)

Vogel transposes this ‘greedy ear’, this desire to be a male warrior, into a greed for conquest and sexual adventure that Desdemona associates with male freedom.33 She explains to the scornful Emilia her desire to break out of her ‘narrow world’ and to see the ‘other worlds’ that married women never get to see, ‘bridled with linen, blinded with lace’ (19). Seeking to assuage her disappointment with the ‘strange dark man’, whom she mistakenly believed would offer her escape, she proclaims her ‘desire to know the world’:

I lie in the blackness of the room at … [Bianca's] establishment … on sheets that are stained and torn by countless nights, and the men come into that pitch-black room—men of different sizes and smells and shapes, with smooth skin—rough skin, with scarred skin. And they spill their seed into me, Emilia—seed from a thousand lands, passed down through generations of ancestors, with genealogies that cover the surface of the globe. And I simply lie still there in the darkness, taking them all into me; I close my eyes and in the dark of my mind—oh how I travel!

(20)

Desdemona reveals at once her desire to know and the limits on her desire as she seeks only carnal knowledge and imagines herself a passive learner. She becomes whatever they are. She knows whatever they know. Furthermore, Vogel associates Desdemona's desire for the ‘strange, dark man’ with the desire for a different and, using Coleridge's word, ‘monstrous’ union. The critic Karen Newman has linked Othello and his tales of ‘slavery and redemption’, ‘of Cannibals, that each other eat’, and ‘men whose heads Grew beneath their shoulders’, to the play's ‘other marginality, femininity’. Both thus represent the fear and power of the Other, which ‘threatens the white male sexual norm here represented by Iago’.34

Vogel's Desdemona openly expresses her attraction for the feared Other, acts out her propensity for a union which is alluded to by Shakespeare's male characters as unnatural and bestial. Concomitantly, she expresses disappointment in the divided self that marks Othello. As the Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt observes, Othello's own identity

depends upon a constant performance … of his story, the loss of his own origins, an embrace and perpetual reiteration of the norms of another culture. … He is both representative and upholder of a rigorous sexual code which prohibits desire, and yet is a sign of a different, unbridled sexuality.35

Vogel's Desdemona, less discreetly than Shakespeare's, aligns herself with the latter Othello as she quests for global encounters that will replicate if not surpass his mythical journeys.36

In Othello, it is Emilia who punctures the ideal of women's purity and of unwavering faithfulness to husbands. When Desdemona asks her, ‘Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?’ Emilia replies: ‘The world's a huge thing; it is a great price for a small vice’ (IV, iii, 70). In Shakespeare's dialogue, Emilia imagines fashioning a world that would make her wrong a right. However, it is a world in which her cuckoldry would make her husband a ‘monarch’.

In Desdemona, Vogel switches the women's respective stances. Her Emilia is unwilling to take chances, intimating that her position in the social order is vulnerable enough. It is Desdemona, with the haughtiness of the desirable noblewoman, who tries to remake the world—not for her husband's gain, but for her own power, responding, ‘The world's a huge thing for so small a vice’ (19).

With these inverted representations of the women, Vogel offers us a dual response. She reads against the text in order to reveal the material concerns and the discursive representations that haunt the women in Shakespeare's Othello. So, in Vogel's invention, the women are situated in the back room of the citadel, the private sphere of the servant Emilia where her work is no longer invisible. Among the artifacts of her daily life—tools, baskets, leather bits—she peels potatoes and washes blood-stained sheets and nightgowns (actually the chicken's blood used to feign Desdemona's virginity on her wedding night). The sense of containment in the back room and the association of sex and the spilling of blood seem to reflect a more vulnerable, certainly less lofty, image of women's lives.

The latter half of Vogel's play introduces Bianca. As the owner of a brothel, she is depicted as a more aggressive prostitute than the courtesan who in Shakespeare's play follows Cassio around, pining for his love and waits on his attention. Vogel's Desdemona, true to her class, ignores the destitute conditions underlying Bianca's plight. She sees her as the sexually and financially independent new woman of the Renaissance, that which the men of her station might perceive as the threat of organized lechery.37 Here, the women speak openly of sex, but like their Shakespearean counterparts are defined by the attachment to the men in their lives, and are frequently subject to physical abuse. And though they share these intimacies, they are separated by class divisions that evoke condescension, misunderstanding, and distrust among them.

Bianca, though on the surface free, is still subject to violence from her customers, and will never have her dream of romance and security with Cassio. In the end, she shatters Desdemona's misguided fantasy about her when she says: ‘Inside every born one of us want smugs an' babies, smugs wot are man enowt t' keep us in our place’ (38).

Emilia will continue to be ignored or mistreated by Iago, and, whatever fraught allegiance she has to Desdemona, cannot look to her for salvation as her lady's maid in exchange for keeping Desdemona's confidences. She has taken the handkerchief to advance the career of her husband on whom she is forever dependent. Despite the contempt for Iago that she openly expresses to Desdemona, she explains that

for us in the bottom ranks, when man and wife hate each other, what is left in a lifetime of marriage but to save and scrimp, plot and plan? … I says to him each night—I long for the day you make me a lieutenant's widow.

(13)

And finally, amidst all of her daring and bravado, Desdemona's fate is sealed in the cultural code reflected in the punishment of death for betrayal that she is to receive from Othello, even in Vogel's revision.

JUDGEMENT BETWEEN THE ACTS

As spectators, producing meaning in our interaction with Shakespeare's text and with Vogel's production simultaneously, we might resist her disturbing representation as we long for a Desdemona free of Othello's conception of her, pure or vile, and revisioned as more tragically heroic. Yet we feel Othello's conception more powerfully in his absence, sensing from the tension within the female enclave that the male world is ‘everywhere around’, and that the female world of love and desire is ‘entirely constituted by the gaze of man’.38 And when this Desdemona addresses the audience directly, without the mediation of the male protagonist, spectators might, in Brechtian terms, become ‘alienated’ from their ‘habitual perceptions’ of a character made strange by this shift in viewpoint.39

Clearly Vogel makes use of Brechtian techniques—the alienation effect, epic (episodic) structure, and the social gest—to disrupt the spectator's expectations of Othello, to ‘surprise the spectator into thought’. As Janelle Reinelt describes it, Brechtian technique

provides the means to … foreground and examine ideologically determined beliefs and unconscious habitual perceptions, and to make visible those signs inscribed on the body which distinguish social behaviour in relation to class, gender, and history … to see what is missing, or what new insights emerge if hidden aspects are thrown into relief.40

In thirty short scenes, or ‘takes’, punctuated with flashes of light and percussive music, Paula Vogel creates an episodic structure that invites the spectators to interpose their judgement between the acts. By contrast with a seamless narrative or plot structure in which the characters move to what feels like an inevitable end, the division between scenes allows the spectator greater freedom here to imagine alternatives to the course of these events, or to reflect on their determinants.

At the same time, the playwright explicitly frames the angles from which we view each character in a series of what one critic called ‘character-freezing tableaux’, that at once eliminate a single viewpoint while drawing attention to the framing of characters on stage. Freeing (or ‘alienating’) these characters from the audience's familiar or conditioned responses, the actors posture to the audience employing the device of the ‘social gest’.

Consisting of a singular gesture or a realm of attitudes41 expressed in words and movement, the gest demonstrates the character's identification with social attitudes and relationships. Emilia, the confidante in servitude, bends over her crate of potatoes or her pile of washing; Bianca, the sexually aggressive prostitute, stands with legs apart, hands on hips which are thrust forward; and Desdemona, with unladylike abandon, leans back upon a table, and dangles her head arched upside down, suggesting both privilege and vulnerability.

The final four frames constitute a tragic recognition shared by two women, though they have no authority to act on it. Once again, Vogel dislodges a generic convention associated with tragedy—the moment of recognition that signals self-knowledge for the protagonist. In their dialogic relationship, Desdemona and Emilia together discover that Othello's gathering up of the wedding sheets from her bed, ‘like a body’, breathing it in ‘like a bouquet’, isn't love (45). Indeed, it has been surveillance.

The final gest, which spans three ‘takes’ (scenes), conveys resignation as Emilia prepares Desdemona for her impending death in the marriage bed, brushing her hair the requisite hundred strokes. Desdemona, ‘listening to the off-stage palace’, leans back, this time to accept her fate. The audience, presumably grappling with their various responses to the revisions of the original text, might also become aware of what does not change. The female world, though presented more subjectively, is still performing under a watchful, scrutinizing eye, awaiting judgement. For all of Desdemona's fidgetings, she is forever confined within Othello's gaze. But the spectator, perhaps for the first time, might stand outside it, recognize it, and resist its compelling vision.

Notes

  1. Alvin Kernan, ‘Introduction’, Othello, by William Shakespeare (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. xxiii-iv. All subsequent references to this edition of Othello are in parentheses.

  2. Desdemona was first produced in association with Circle Repertory Company by the Bay Street Theatre Festival, Sag Harbor, New York, in July 1993, then by the Circle Repertory Company, New York in Fall 1993, and was published by Dramatists Play Service, 1994. All subsequent references to Desdemona appear as page numbers in parentheses.

    For a discussion of the ‘multiple implications’ of the phrase ‘the woman's part’, see the ‘Introduction’ to Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely, eds., The Woman's Part (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980), p. 12. The reference to ‘part’ in the title plays upon five different senses in which the term may be understood. It assumes (1) that women play a ‘distinct, gender-determined part’ in the world of the plays as well as outside them; (2) the bawdy meaning of ‘part’, as used by Shakespeare to indicate women's sexuality; (3) that the parts women play are social as well as sexual, and in the plays may be false—‘roles adopted to deceive or inflicted by the dominant patriarchal culture’—and constitute only part ‘of a whole’: that is, the complex identity of any character and of the men and women in relation to each other; (4) that feminine and masculine characteristics are changing cultural constructs and thus not restricted to females or males; and (5) that feminist criticism, in confronting these limiting constructs within texts, is ‘avowedly partisan’, and so taking the ‘woman's part’.

  3. For example, Peter Erickson's readings of the representations of Shakespeare by twentieth-century women writers (Maya Angelou, Gloria Naylor, Adrienne Rich) in Rewriting Shakespeare, Rewriting Ourselves (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1991); the numerous films of recent years such as Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night, Al Pacino's Looking for Richard; or Kristin Linklater's all-woman cast in the Company of Women's production of Henry V at Smith College, in September, 1994.

  4. Jean Howard, ‘Scholarship, Theory, and More New Readings: Shakespeare for the 1990s’, in Shakespeare Study Today, ed. Georgianna Ziegler (New York: AMS Press, 1986), p. 129, 138.

  5. Erickson, p. 2, 7.

  6. Erickson, p. 163-4.

  7. Carol Thomas Neely, ‘Epilogue: Remembering Shakespeare, Revising Ourselves’, in Women's Revisions of Shakespeare, 1664-1988, ed. Marianne Novy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), p. 243-4.

  8. Lenz, Greene, and Neely, p. 6.

  9. Neely, ‘Epilogue’, p. 243.

  10. Lenz, Greene, and Neely, p. 5.

  11. Lynda Hart, ed., Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women's Theatre (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989), p. 4.

  12. Hart, p. 13.

  13. Randi S. Koppen, ‘“The Furtive Event”: Theorizing Feminist Spectatorship’, Modern Drama, XXXV, No. 3 (September 1992), p. 379.

  14. See Dympna Callaghan, Women and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1989), p. 56-9, where she argues for ‘deconstructing certain crucial terms of canonical criticism’ in order to examine women's status in tragic drama and its reproduction in traditional criticism by ‘juxtaposing the concept of tragic transcendence with that of female transgression’.

  15. Jeanie Forte, ‘Women's Performance Art: Feminism and Postmodernism’, in Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, ed. Sue Ellen Case (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), p. 254.

  16. Nancy Reinhardt, cited by Hart, p. 8. Reinhardt notes that the ‘sides, background, niches, and balconies function as the inner domestic space where women are usually kept’. Lorraine Helms, in ‘Acts of Resistance: the Feminist Player’, in The Weyward Sisters: Shakespeare and Feminist Politics, eds. Dympna Callaghan, Lorraine Helms, and Jyotsna Singh (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), p. 111, examines the effects of theatrical production in relation to performance choices for those who play ‘the woman's part’ in contemporary performance. She claims that ‘with some exceptions, Shakespeare's female characters play their roles in the illusionistic scenes of the locus. They enjoy few opportunities to express the interiority of the reflexive soliloquy and even fewer to address the audience from the interactive platea.

  17. Carole McKewin, ‘“Counsels of Gall and Grace”: Intimate Conversations between Women in Shakespeare's Plays’, in The Woman's Part, eds. Lenz, Greene, and Neely, p. 118-19. McKewin cites Juliet Dusinberre's observation that Shakespeare's theatre offers a ‘consistent probing of the reactions of women to isolation in a society which has never allowed them independence from men either physically or spiritually’ (p. 117).

  18. McKewin, p. 128-9.

  19. Callaghan, p. 75, 65.

  20. Jyotsna Singh, ‘The Interventions of History: Narratives of Sexuality’, in The Weyward Sisters, eds. Callaghan, Helms, and Singh, p. 46.

  21. Callaghan, p. 53, 63-4.

  22. Singh, p. 12.

  23. See Dympna Callaghan's survey of the relationship between family, church, state and cosmos, and the significance of the category ‘woman’ in political and theological discourse (p. 14-27).

  24. Coppelia Kahn, Man's Estate (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1981), p. 12. According to Madeline Gohlke Sprengnether, male fantasies of betrayal stem from fears of being weak or ‘feminine’ in relation to a powerful woman. ‘The feminine posture for a male character is that of the betrayed, and it is the man in this position who portrays women as whores’. See ‘“I Wooed Thee with My Sword”: Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms’, in Othello, ed. Alvin Kernan, p. 250.

  25. Singh, p. 48.

  26. Singh (p. 7) draws on a phrase employed by Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn in their reading of Isak Dinesen's story ‘The Blank Page’ as a ‘paradigm for a feminist historiography’. See ‘Feminist Scholarship and the Social Construction of Woman’, in Making a Difference, eds. Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 13.

  27. Lorraine Helms (p. 106-7) cites varying critical responses to women playing female roles originally written by men for male performers. For example; Elaine Showalter argues positively that ‘when Shakespeare's heroines began to be played by women instead of boys, the presence of the female body and the female voice, quite apart from interpretation, created new meanings and subversive tensions in these roles’. On the other hand, Sue Ellen Case argues that these roles are ‘caricatures’, and that they should again be played by men to underscore that classic roles are ‘classic drag’. Helms argues for a ‘partial, problematic, and paradoxical’ freedom at the same time that one acknowledges these constraints.

  28. Sue Ellen Case, Feminism and Theatre (New York: Methuen, 1988), p. 21.

  29. Linda Bamber, Comic Women, Tragic Men Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1982), p. 4.

  30. Case, p. 26.

  31. Singh, p. 20.

  32. According to Carol Thomas Neely, the handkerchief also functions symbolically to represent ‘sexuality controlled by chastity’. Passed from female charmer to Othello's mother to Desdemona, its purpose has been to make women ‘amiable’, and prevent men from hunting after new fancies’. (See her extended discussion in ‘Women and Men in Othello’, in The Woman's Part, eds. Lenz, Greene and Nealy, p. 228-30.) Karen Newman discusses the handkerchief's historical as well as psychological significance: in her view, it ‘figures not simply [the mother's] missing penis’ but the ‘lack around which the play's dramatic action structured, a desiring femininity … an abberant and monstrous sexuality’. “‘And Wash the Ethiop White”: Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello’, Shakespeare Reproduced, eds. Jean E. Howard and Marion O'Connor (New York: Methuen, 1987), p. 156.

  33. Karen Newman observes that Desdemona's responses to Othello's tales are ‘perceived as voracious … conflating the oral and aural’. Othello's language ‘betrays a masculine fear of a cultural femininity … envisioned as a greedy mouth never satisfied, always seeking increase, a point of view which Desdemona's response to their reunion at Cyprus reinforces. … Othello fears Desdemona's desire because it invokes his monstrous difference from the sex/race code he has adopted, or alternatively allies her imagined monstrous sexual appetite with his own’ (p. 152).

  34. Newman (p. 157) further argues that although Shakespeare was subject to racist, sexist, and colonial discourses of his time, by making Othello a hero and Desdemona's love for him sympathetic, the play stands in a contestatory relationship to the hegemonic idealogies of race and gender in early modern England.

  35. Greenblatt, quoted in Newman, p. 150.

  36. Desdemona is, after all, willing to accompany Othello to Cyprus, which Alvin Kernan sees as a society‘less secure’ than the idealized city represented by Venice—the image of government, ‘of reason, of law, and of social concord’. The island of Cyprus is more exposed to the Turks, emblematic of the forces of barbarism, the ‘geographical form of an action that occurs on the social and psychological levels as well’ (xxvi-vi).

  37. See Jyotsna Singh's discourse on such facts as unemployment and population displacements that led to the prosperity of brothels in early modern England (p. 28-33).

  38. Roland Barthes, quoted in Greene and Kahn, p. 4.

  39. See Bertolt Brecht on the alienation effect in Brecht on Theatre, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Methuen, 1964), p. 192.

  40. Janelle Reinhelt, ‘Beyond Brecht: Britain's New Feminist Drama’, in Feminist Theatre and Theory, ed. Helene Keyssar (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996) p. 35-6, 42.

  41. Brecht, p. 198.

Marianne Novy (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7858

SOURCE: Novy, Marianne. “Saving Desdemona and/or Ourselves: Plays by Ann-Marie MacDonald and Paula Vogel.” In Transforming Shakespeare: Contemporary Women's Re-Visions in Literature and Performance, edited by Marianne Novy, pp. 67-85. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Novy contrasts the portrayal of the Desdemona character in Vogel's Desdemona and Ann-Marie MacDonald's Goodnight Desdemona.]

Two very different recent plays take a new and transforming look at Shakespeare's Desdemona, in ways influenced by different feminist ideas. The transformation in Ann-Marie MacDonald's Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) can easily be connected to a feminist impulse to show female strength and authority, though the play shows limitations in its woman warrior.1 By contrast, Paula Vogel's Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief contains no character anything like a role model for women. But, in its critical analysis of male power, the ideologies and structures that maintain it, and the exploitative possibilities in relationships between women of different classes, it shares concerns with feminists who focus on structures of oppression.2 Both plays raise the question of whether women can escape tragedy, and in neither one does Desdemona seem like an obvious victim. However, in MacDonald's play, Desdemona is, arguably, a recognizable extrapolation of Shakespeare's character in a completely different plot, while Vogel's Desdemona is almost totally opposite to Shakespeare's in character but concludes the play about to suffer the same death.

The rewriting of Desdemona in Goodnight Desdemona is mediated for the audience by the views of Constance Ledbelly, an easily put-upon assistant professor at Queen's University in Canada, recently deserted by Claude Night, the colleague for whom she has been ghostwriting. In her rather old-fashioned doctoral thesis, still in progress, Constance has been speculating about the possibility of a lost—comic—original for Othello and Romeo and Juliet. In a magical time-warp the play moves Constance from late-twentieth-century Canada to Renaissance Cyprus, where she meets Othello, shows him the handkerchief in Iago's pocket, and efficiently ends his jealousy. When Constance meets Desdemona, however, she is overwhelmed, for this is where her real emotional connection to the play ignites. A feminist critic without an interpretive community, Constance tells Othello of her reading of his wife:3

I've always thought she had a violent streak,
and that she lived vicariously through you,
but no one else sees eye to eye with me.

(32)

When this play's Desdemona appears, she confirms Constance's speculations from her first speech: “O valiant general and most bloody lord!” (32). She introduces herself using some of Shakespeare's own lines, some that vary only slightly—as when she resolves the ambiguity of “that heaven had made her such a man”—and some completely new ones:4

That I love my lord to live with him.
My downright violence and storm of fortunes
may trumpet to the world. My sole regret—
that heaven had not made me such a man;
but next in honour is to be his wife.(5)

A fair warrior indeed. Constance, gratified to find her interpretation validated, denounces the “sacred herd of Academe” (41) who have labeled her opinions crackpot: “Academe / Believes that you're a doomed and helpless victim.” Constance's view of Desdemona is actually very close to that of several more sophisticated feminist critics; for example, Mary Beth Rose says, “Openly and proudly acknowledging her love for her husband, Desdemona characterizes herself as a soldier-spouse,” and Carol Thomas Neely calls her “strong” and full of “energizing power.”6 With such energizing power, Desdemona sees Constance too as an Amazon; eventually the example of Desdemona works on Constance as the example of the first player describing Hecuba works on Hamlet.

O, what would Desdemona do to Claude,
had she the motive and the cue for passion
that I have? She would drown all Queen's with blood,
and cleave Claude Night's two typing fingers from
his guilty hands.

(49)

Like Hamlet, Constance works herself up to exclaim, “O Vengeance!!!” (50).

But this Desdemona has not only physical courage, anger and pride like Othello's, she also has Othello's susceptibility to Iago's manipulations. Although Constance has saved Othello from suspecting Desdemona, Iago gets Desdemona to suspect Constance not only of adultery with Othello but also of witchcraft and spying.

As Desdemona starts to fall apart like Shakespeare's Othello, using some of the same words, and threatens Constance with her sword, the time-warp effects begin again, to pull Constance out of this danger and into the Verona of Romeo and Juliet. Constance gives them the information that saves them from killing themselves; then, Juliet falls for Constance, who is cross-dressing as Constantine. Juliet wants a double suicide for love; Desdemona reappears and calls Constance to return to Cyprus and kill Iago. As they repeat their conflicting commands—“Nay come! Nay Stay! Nay kill!! Nay die!!” (84)—Constance breaks out into prose for the first time since her time-warp and tells them off:

I've had it with all the tragic tunnel vision around here. You have no idea what—life is a hell of a lot more complicated than you think! Life—real life—is a big mess. Thank goodness. And every answer spawns another question; and every question blossoms with a hundred different answers; and if you're lucky you'll always feel somewhat confused. … Desdemona, I thought you were different; I thought you were my friend, I worshipped you. But you're just like Othello—gullible and violent.

(85)

Miraculously, having saved Desdemona and Juliet from being tragic victims, Constance convinces them to give up their tragic absolutism and instead, as Desdemona says, “to live by questions, not by their solution.” In effect, this changes them into comic heroines instead of tragic heroines, and Constance concludes, “I was right about your plays. They were comedies after all, not tragedies.” She recalls earlier having thought “only a Wise Fool could turn tragedy to comedy,” and learns that she herself is both the Wise Fool and the Author (86). Magically, a scrolled manuscript appears which reads:

For those who have the eyes to see:
Take care—for what you see, just might be thee.
Where two plus one adds up to one, not three.

In other words, Desdemona and Juliet in their extremes of anger and love are aspects of Constance that she has denied and can now accept without being limited by their simplifications. This is a Jungian message (though not an exclusively Jungian one) and MacDonald encourages relating the play to Jung. The Chorus refers to archetypes, the unconscious and alchemy. Constance is obsessed with a mysterious “Gustav manuscript” bearing C. G. Jung's middle name, and the published version includes an epigraph from Jung.

Paula Vogel's Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief is much darker. Vogel also imagines an adventurous Desdemona, but her adventurousness is channeled into sexuality, and while the play stops before Othello kills her, at the end we know he will. In this play there is no Constance to give the play a contemporary and comic frame—on the other hand its Desdemona has ceased to be a tragic or heroic icon and becomes an ordinary, if upper-class, woman who just wants some excitement.

Desdemona complains, “Women are clad in purdah, we decent, respectable matrons, from the cradle to the altar to the shroud, … bridled with linen, blinded with lace” (19). She goes to Bianca's brothel to escape this confinement:

And the men come into that pitch-black room—men of different sizes and smells and shapes, with smooth skin—with rough skin, with scarred skin. And they spill their seed into me, Emilia—seed from a thousand lands, passed down through generations of ancestors, with genealogies that cover the surface of the globe. And I simply lie still there in the darkness, taking them all into me; I close my eyes and in the dark of my mind—oh how I travel!

(20)

As MacDonald's Desdemona could be said to exaggerate one aspect of Carol Neely's and Mary Beth Rose's, Vogel's could be said to exaggerate Shirley Garner's, who discusses Lodovico with Emilia in the willow scene because she finds him attractive.7 Vogel's Desdemona has a long-term affair with her Ludovico, in both plays the ambassador from Venice, who seems to offer her the chance of an escape.

But the relationships this play scrutinizes are those between women. Ever since she was five, Vogel's Desdemona has been making messes for Emilia—in this version her scullery maid and laundress—to clean up. Now she keeps promising Emilia promotions, raises, and escapes, and then taking back the promises. Much of the interest in the play is in their changing relationship and in the question of how much they are going to confide each in other. Emilia's rival for Desdemona's interest is Bianca. For a while Desdemona idealizes Bianca as “a free woman—a new woman, who can make her own living in the world—who scorns marriage for the lie that it is” (20). But even before she discovers that this is a misreading of Bianca, it becomes obvious that Desdemona's interest in Bianca is really a condescending whim: “I never tire of hearing your stories. They's so lively, so very funny. What else have I got for amusement's sake” (37).

These two plays have had radically different fates. MacDonald's, first produced by Nightwood Theater in Toronto in 1988, toured Canada in a revised version in 1990 and that year won the Canadian Governor General's Award for Drama, and in August 1997 went into its eighth printing. While Vogel herself went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for How I Learned to Drive, her Desdemona closed after very short runs at the Bay Street Theatre Festival (July 1993) and the Circle Repertory Company (October 25-December 5, 1993). One could postulate that part of the difference here results from a greater interest in Shakespearean intertextuality in Canada: Linda Hutcheon has speculated that “writers in places like Ireland and Canada, working as they do from both inside and outside a culturally different and dominant context,” are especially drawn to parody, and, while there are many Shakespeare festivals in the United States, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, which MacDonald visited while writing the play—a passage on male nudity in Shakespeare productions has often been taken as commenting on it—probably looms larger as part of Canada's theater scene than any Shakespeare festival does as part of the U.S. scene.8 On the other hand, MacDonald's play has had successful runs in the United States at such diverse locations as Pittsburgh, off-Broadway, Cambridge, Berkeley, and even Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania; as of 1997 it had had more than fifty productions worldwide.9

The difference in tone between the plays probably is more responsible for the difference in their popularity than the national contrast. Both plays are parodies, but MacDonald's is much more affectionate, and thus more likely to appeal to an audience drawn by the Shakespearean names in the title. MacDonald's is so playful about its parodic status that in one of her early scenes, her Desdemona says, “I hate a tripping, singing, licensed fool, / that makes a motley of the mighty, / And profanes the sacred with base parody” (48). In an interview, MacDonald says of her work in general, “I take something people identify with or revere, like Shakespeare, and say, ‘Excuse me while I turn this upside down.’”10 She, however, continues, “I would never lampoon something that I hated. It can only be something that fascinates me for some reason and if I'm fascinated by it then it means there is a deep attraction to it.”

Vogel's play does not suggest the same kind of attraction to Shakespeare. At the beginning she says, in a “Note to Director,” “Desdemona was written as a tribute (i.e., ‘rip-off’) to the infamous play, Shakespeare the Sadist by Wolfgang Bauer” (4). The Bauer play (which in its original German has the title Frauen und Film) is about a group of slackers, one of whom acts out a role called Shakespeare in an onstage version of a porn film. Shakespeare's role here begins with such lines as “Stupid harlot, insolent woman, you don't seem to know who I am, you whore,” and ends by sawing the woman's head off as he shouts “TO BE OR NOT TO BE!!!!” (The woman playing the victim reappears, live, a minute later.)11 This play is obviously not a sophisticated critique of violence in Shakespeare's plays or in his life but rather a send-up in which his name is used for the shock value of profaning it. There is something of the same spirit in Vogel's attitude toward Desdemona.

Behind both of these Desdemona plays, however, is a fascination with two apparently polar opposites for women—adventurer and victim—and Shakespeare's Desdemona is each play's interest partly because, in his version, she begins as one and turns into the other. MacDonald's Desdemona loves Othello and is faithful to him (though by the end of the play she seems more interested in Constance), but she exaggerates the love of military heroism suggested in Shakespeare's play. Her Desdemona is not a victim and is instrumental in the transformation of Constance away from victimhood. The play gently mocks Constance's obsession with her own theories about Shakespeare but ultimately suggests that following her own obsessions—getting into the world of the characters that fascinate her—will teach her something about complexity and about herself, and also lead her to a new sense of her own agency inside and outside scholarship. MacDonald's use of Shakespeare's own language—assigned to different situations and sometimes to different characters—and her blend of it with her own writing in an iambic pentameter often rich in imagery and puns, is also indicative of her continued fascination with Shakespeare.

Vogel's play is parody of a different kind. Here the emphatically chaste Desdemona of Shakespeare's play is as wanton as Iago claims she is—with every man but Cassio. (Thus the play makes Othello, who never appears, seem even more foolish.) Onstage she learns from Bianca how prostitutes fake pain for a sadistic client, and she reminisces about youthful sexual activities—in church—with Ludovico. Emilia is given Shakespeare's Desdemona's belief in chastity, while Desdemona twice speaks something very close to one of the Shakespearean Emilia's lines: “The world's a huge thing for so small a vice” (19; cf. 32). “How large the world now for so small a vice, eh, Mealy?” and “The world's a huge thing. It is a great price for a small vice”—4.3.67-68. The language is mostly prosaic twentieth-century slang, with dialects indicated to place the characters: “Upper class. Very” for Desdemona, “Broad Irish Brogue” for Emilia, and “Stage Cockney” for Bianca (4). Though the tone is ultimately different, the play has irreverence in common with the nineteenth-century burlesques of Othello discussed by Lawrence Levine.12 But one thing remains constant: while Desdemona is now degraded, not just sexually but also in her exploitative attitude toward the other women in the play, she still is going to die at the end—she has not turned into a survivor.

Clearly the fact that so much of Shakespeare's plot remains when the character is so different is part of the point. The play asks, among other things: “Do we feel different about a husband killing a wife who really is unfaithful? Should we? In what ways do we feel the same? How is it that this Desdemona, who is so different from Shakespeare's, in many ways apparently so ‘modern,’ still is about to suffer the same fate?

In her book The Currency of Eros, Ann Rosalind Jones, drawing on Stuart Hall and Christine Gledhill, establishes three categories for women poets' responses to tradition in their own poetry: (1) “close repetition of a model”; (2) “negotiated”—accepting “the dominant ideology encoded into a text but particulariz[ing] and transform[ing] it in service of a different group”; and (3) “oppositional”—in which “the ideological message and force of the reigning code is … pulled out of its dominant frame of reference and subversively inserted into an ‘alternative frame of reference.”13 Both these rewritings belong in the oppositional category, but, like some other plays discussed by Susan Bennett in Performing Nostalgia, they are not “so much concerned with the question ‘what have we done to Shakespeare's play?’ (although both [both Bennett's examples and both these] clearly work with the pleasure in recognition of connection to, yet difference from, the Shakespeare text) but with another which asks ‘how can this material be useful to us?’”14 Like many other twentieth-century women writers, these playwrights use Shakespeare to stress the limitations of his plays as well-known cultural myths about women's possibilities. They use Shakespeare because his cultural authority means that the received notion of female characters in his plays matters more than the received notion of, say, Ben Jonson's Celia. At the same time, they use Shakespeare because many of his female characters provide more material for interesting interpretations than those of most other playwrights.15

Both Vogel's play and MacDonald's stress the difference between their images of women and Shakespeare's, yet both playwrights still assume that the play's images of women, and the tradition of criticism surrounding them, are live enough issues to be contested, and MacDonald's play, or at least her protagonist, finds Shakespeare's women appealing in ways she claims the critical tradition has not recognized.16 MacDonald's assertive Desdemona is a critique of interpretations of Shakespeare's Desdemona as passive, and of views of women in general as naturally or ideally passive while Vogel's is more of a critique of Shakespeare's Desdemona's marital fidelity and of idealizations of this trait in women. Both plays also critique a tragic worldview. MacDonald imagines a Desdemona who carries a love of war and vengeance so far it becomes comic—for example, when she enthusiastically offers Constance the severed head she has picked up after a battle. Vogel critiques more bitterly, turning tragedy into melodrama mixed with satire, by removing from Desdemona, until the final moments when she is concerned for Emilia, any love of anyone.

Both plays use characters and plot elements from a play focused on a man (and secondarily on his relation to a woman and another man) to construct one focused on a woman and her relation to other women. While lesbianism is an overt part of MacDonald's play (and of MacDonald's and Vogel's own lives), I am not talking specifically about lesbianism here, though I will return to its relevance to both plays later. Constance is more excited about meeting Desdemona and Juliet than she is about meeting their husbands, and MacDonald is much more interested in Desdemona's and Juliet's relationships with Constance than in anyone's relationship with Othello or Romeo. The most important plot development in Vogel's play is the fact that Emilia finally trusts Desdemona enough to tell her about the handkerchief—as she never does in Shakespeare—and what she's observed of Othello's behavior. Critics have sometimes wondered how it is that Shakespeare's Emilia, having stolen the handkerchief, can watch Othello's growing jealousy and Desdemona's growing anxiety and not say anything until it is too late—and then transform herself into a martyr on behalf of Desdemona's chastity. Such a critic may postulate that the shock of Desdemona's death results in a moral growth for Emilia, but Vogel gives us another possibility: Emilia resents Desdemona's exploitation of her and loathes her morals, so her loyalty to Desdemona and her concern about Desdemona's fate are very limited until Emilia's total disillusionment with her husband close to the end.

Both of the plays return to Shakespeare's paradigmatic story of wife-murder to raise the question of why women are killed (or otherwise victimized) and what can prevent this. Both are concerned with the various cultural influences that contribute to women's victimization, though in different ways. Vogel imagines the narrowness of possibilities for Desdemona when Emilia recalls:

At age 12 she was washin' the courtyard stones for penance, with us wiping up behind her. Then she was taken with horses, thank Jesus, and left sainthood behind—and then in turn again, she thought she was dyin'—stopped eating, and moped, and talked all dreamy and a little balmy-like—until her father finally saw sense and sent her to the convent to be bred out of her boredom.

(25)

Vogel underlines the various limiting assumptions that Desdemona and the other characters make: Desdemona thinks she needs Ludovico's help to escape and go back to her father's house—and finally, that she can escape being killed by Othello by pretending to be asleep. Emilia thinks that prayer is the best way to deal with unhappiness in marriage, that women can only rise through their husbands, that there's no friendship between women, and evidently—since she's so devastated by news that he has been at the brothel—that Iago is sexually faithful to her. Bianca thinks that Cassio is going to marry her—“'Coz a gen'l'men don't lie to a bird” (39)—and that, after she gives half her money to a priest so she can consider herself unstained on her wedding night, they will have a cottage by the sea and be happy. Economics, ideologies, and lack of solidarity combine to confine women in this play; it is significant that women make economic gains here either by working formally as prostitutes or, as Desdemona remembers from her youth, in taking expensive presents from men in exchange for sexual favors. Hiding out in Bianca's brothel until she can leave Cyprus would actually provide the best opportunity for Desdemona to survive, but she doesn't understand the need for this until too late, since Emilia doesn't give her enough information until after Bianca has left in a rage over Desdemona's supposed affair with Cassio.17

As the play disabuses Emilia and Bianca of their illusions about their men, it leads toward what might be considered in the strictest sense a radical feminist analysis.18 Late in the play, having learned of her husband's visit to the brothel, Emilia remembers her married life:

Days could pass without a word between us—and he'd take his fill of me the same. I could have been the bed itself. … Women just don't figure in their heads—not the one who hangs the wash, not Bianca—and not even you, m'lady. That's the hard truth. Men only see each other in their eyes. Only each other. (Beat.) And that's why I'm ready to leave the whole pack of them behind and go with you and the Ambassador.

(42-43)

Here Emilia moves away from her previous delusions past the disillusioned view of Shakespeare's Emilia (in her speech attacking the double standard) to an even bleaker view of men, permitting however an escape into a new world.

But at least two details in the play complicate this analysis. On the one hand, Desdemona's own treatment of Emilia is shown to be as much of an exploitation as any man makes of any woman during the play itself, and, furthermore, she is not—until the very last moment—willing to let Emilia go with her. On the other hand, if Desdemona didn't figure in Othello's head, he wouldn't be as preoccupied with her as he is—after this speech Emilia recalls seeing Othello standing outside Desdemona's room, and at other times smelling her sheets for evidence of a lover.

In this conversation Emilia and Desdemona both give up the illusion they have had about Othello's love of Desdemona, but at the end Desdemona still thinks “Surely he'll not … harm a sleeping woman” (45). The audience should remember, then, Othello's entrance in Shakespeare's version, seeing Desdemona sleeping, and his waking her up to kill her.

In MacDonald's play, two factors prevent Desdemona's murder. First, Constance appears in Cyprus at the right time and points out to Othello that Iago has the handkerchief. Second, MacDonald has rewritten Desdemona's character to make her more aggressive than in Shakespeare and to leave out the vulnerability that combines with assertiveness in his version. MacDonald also uses both Constance's intervention and a change in personality to redefine Juliet away from victimization: her Juliet, a melodramatic character who enjoys only star-crossed romance, is bored with Romeo after one night's marriage and ready to fall in love and kill herself for Constance.

But the play is even more concerned about the victimization of Constance herself and how it can be ended. At the beginning, in her uncritical devotion to a man who exploits her, Constance seems another version of the popular image of Desdemona. The play suggests that her interactions with Desdemona and Juliet, and the self-discovery they provoke, move Constance beyond victimhood. First, she recalls her bad treatment by Claude, as well as by others back to the bully girls of fifth grade (females are not all good in this play either); she learns to express her anger and to realize that she actually enjoys swordplay with Iago when she thinks she is defending Desdemona. Then, in Verona, she tells Juliet the story of her relationship with Claude, and, at Juliet's urging, is able to declaim, “I love that shit, Claude Night!” (71). After protesting “I'm not up on Sappho,” Constance has a flashback to her loss of an erotically tinged friendship from the eighth grade—“I know I felt bereft” (77)—and is briefly ready to contemplate lovemaking with Juliet. Having tried out a bit of the behavior that she associates with Desdemona and Juliet, and seeing what it looks like in the extreme form that it takes in MacDonald's Cyprus and Verona, Constance becomes assertive enough to tell off her former models and articulate a worldview that, unlike theirs, accepts complexity. Illusions are easier doffed in MacDonald's play than in Vogel's; the main illusions that her Constance needs to lose are her idealizations of Desdemona and Juliet, and spending a little stage time with them makes this simple.

Susan Bennett discusses rewritings of Shakespeare as, among other things, instances of nostalgia, a trait that could be thematized in a fairly strict sense in MacDonald's Constance.19 She is fascinated not only with Shakespeare but also with an old manuscript, won the Dead Languages Award in college, writes with a pen (made from her dead parakeet) on foolscap, and keeps on her desk relics of her past—her Brownie Owl wings, her appendix. Her interest in Shakespeare's desiring women, Desdemona and Juliet, while she follows a self-sacrificing attachment to a man which involves mainly ghostwriting, could be seen to exemplify the “desire for desire” that Bennett, following Susan Stewart, associates with nostalgia.20 During the play, however, Constance comes to understand more about her own desires. Moreover, she confronts not only her heroines' limitations as models but also some unattractive aspects of Shakespeare's time, such as belief in witches and enjoyment of public hangings.

Thus, while Constance is nostalgic, both MacDonald's and Vogel's plays unnostalgically rewrite the past mainly to make points about the present.21 The ideologies that mislead Vogel's women are ideologies held, arguably, by many women today. Vogel may be suggesting that her play represents what Shakespeare's Desdemona, or other women of the time, were really like, contrary to the idealizing version in Shakespeare, but she is even more interested in suggesting that these issues are relevant today: the description on the back cover (presumably approved by Vogel) ends, “What were the roles women had to play then, and still have to play now?” This is one reason why Vogel puts more emphasis on ideological imprisonment than on economic imprisonment. Similarly, MacDonald is more interested in what Desdemona and Juliet mean to Constance, what it's like for her to experience life in an aggressive or more erotic mode, than in Desdemona and Juliet themselves, vivid as both of them are.

Desdemona has not been one of the most rewritten of Shakespeare's female characters, and her fictional and dramatic re-imaginers have usually paid attention to either race or gender but not to both. Frances Burney and George Eliot both wrote novels (Camilla and Middlemarch) about women and jealous men of the same race (white) with Othello allusions that underlined some similarities in restrictions on women in their own societies to those in Shakespeare.22 In the twentieth century, until recently the best-known rewritings that clearly engaged with Othello were much more concerned with race than with gender, and their Desdemonas were of comparatively little interest. Jyotsna Singh has discussed two such rewritings from Africa: Murray Carlin's play Not Now Sweet Desdemona and Tayib Salih's novel Season of Migration from the North, both published in 1969.23 Salman Rushdie's 1988 epic novel The Satanic Verses writes a version of Othello in which both Othello and Iago are Indians—Gibreel and Saladin—in love with white English women and their culture. In two recent novels, Nadine Gordimer's My Son's Story (1991) and Caryl Phillips's The Nature of Blood (1997), a reminder of the absent woman of color slighted in the interracial romance transforms the Othello story, a concern that does not enter the plays I am discussing,

Performed in an often self-consciously multicultural Canada and United States, MacDonald's and Vogel's plays remain in the tradition of pre-Gordimer women's rewritings of Othello, mostly concerned with women's gender issues—deliberately decentering the play to de-emphasize Othello himself—but racial issues emerge in both. Vogel's Desdemona explicitly says that part of Othello's original attraction was his blackness and his exoticism, but he disappointed her: “I thought—if I marry this strange dark man, I can leave this narrow little Venice with its whispering piazzas behind—I can escape and see other worlds. (Pause.) But under that exotic facade was a porcelain white Venetian” (20). Vogel's Emilia, more like Shakespeare's in this point than in many others, says, “he's as jealous as he's black” (25), though she also knows that her own husband is at least as jealous.

Something more complicated may be going on with regard to race in Goodnight Desdemona, but much of it depends on the casting and is not written into the script. Arguably the fact that Desdemona, in MacDonald's version, develops a jealousy like Othello's in Shakespeare's makes an anti-racist point. On the other hand, if Claude Night—who gets a full professorship and an Oxford job on the basis of ghostwritten publications—is played by a black man, as he was in the U.S. premiere in Pittsburgh, and as he often would be, if the actor playing his role doubles as Othello—does the play flirt with racism in its contemporary plot?24 Still, MacDonald's Constance says, after meeting Othello, “He's not a Moor” (32). In the production in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the actor playing these roles was white.25 The same actor also typically plays Juliet's Nurse—a role in which, in the version I saw, the actor's blackness fit with playing the role as a parody of a stereotype. He also played a very homophobic Tybalt who is last seen “ardently” carrying off Romeo dressed in Juliet's clothing. By the end, a white spectator, at least, is likely to find flirtation with racism dissolved in the kaleidoscopic reshuffling of many different kinds of stereotypes of race, gender, and sexuality, which alludes to and goes beyond the ambiguous eroticism of Shakespeare's cross-dressing plays.

The minority experience most represented in Goodnight Desdemona is lesbianism, though it is presented not as an identity so much as a possibility. When Juliet woos Constance, there is a surprising seriousness and even eloquence in some of her lines, and the emphasis on Juliet's finding beauty in Constance's older face (although she and Romeo have earlier taunted each other about the signs of aging in theirs) suggests that here as elsewhere in the play one of the key issues is Constance's own self-acceptance.26

More beauty in thy testament of years,
Than in the face of smooth and depthless youth,
Nay, lovelier by far, now that I see
the sculpting hand of time upon thy brow;
O look on me with eyes that looked on life
Before I e'er was born an infant blind …

(78)

In an interview with Shannon Hengen, MacDonald says that she uses comedy to help audience members “enter an experience that they thought they had no sympathy for. And in the end they find themselves identifying with people who they thought were perverse or alien or deviant, and that's my credo if I have one.”27 Like Hengen, I find the interchange between Juliet and Constance here a radical moment in the play that recalls this credo.28 A spectator who sympathizes with Constance and has been drawn into her odyssey in this play has by this point had to deal with her disappointment in Claude and Desdemona and the relatively crude advances of Romeo, who thinks she is a boy. In contrast to Romeo's pursuit in a skirt—and in contrast to Tybalt's attacks on Constance as “an Hellenic deviant” (63)—Juliet's love for Constance, which begins when Constance is disguised as Constantine, may well seem acceptable to spectators often uncomfortable with same-sex wooing. When her love continues after Constance is revealed as female, the disengagement that Shakespearean characters such as Olivia and Phebe experience at similar moments is also rewritten. This play thus rejects the “compulsory heterosexuality” of Shakespearean comedy as well as the equally compulsory death of Shakespearean tragedy.29

Vogel, by contrast, presents a world in which both compulsions are in full force, and one clearly leads to the other. Unlike MacDonald's play, Desdemona contains no moments of verbally acknowledged sexual attraction between women; yet trust between Emilia and Desdemona, the play keeps hinting, is a way that the two women could escape the deaths ordered for them by Shakespeare's plot. “There's no such thing as friendship between women” (26), says Emilia, and this belief is a large part of what dooms them both.30

Still, there are three points in the play of extended physical contact between women. In the first one, Bianca beats Desdemona at her request, reenacting the sadomasochism of interest to some of her clients, giving Desdemona instructions about how to moan. In the second, after Emilia learns that Iago was at the brothel and begins to cry, the stage directions state that “Desdemona sits beside her, and tentatively puts her arms around Emilia. Then, Desdemona rocks her maid.” In the third, at the very end of the play, in a transformation of Bianca's strokes, Emilia brushes Desdemona's hair. The play ends with three different segments of the 100 strokes Emilia has promised; the last stroke we see is the ninety-ninth. At the end of these strokes, we know, Desdemona will go to bed and will then be murdered.

The beating scene seems, at first glance, simply added for its shock value: further ritual desecration of the idol Desdemona. To add to the sense of shock and desecration, Emilia prays loudly during this beating. Perhaps the play is just out of control at this point, which is one of the scenes that make it very unlikely that this play would be frequently adapted for classroom use as a companion to Othello. On the other hand, one of the key concerns of this play, highlighted in the blurb, is with women's pretenses. Desdemona pretends to be innocent and girlish for her husband, even using fake blood to make herself appear virginal; Emilia pretends that she hasn't stolen the handkerchief. Bianca says that she is not hitting Desdemona very hard but encourages her to moan to make the pain appear worse. What prostitutes do in such beating scenarios, the play suggests, and what Desdemona is presumably doing, is just what performers do—including the performer who is now playing Desdemona. So if we as audience members are swept up into thinking that perhaps Bianca is hitting Desdemona harder than she says she is, this is another example of how the performers are pretending as the characters are. The fact that Vogel's apparatus specifically mentions the Bauer play, which also includes highly theatrical violence revealed as illusory, underlines this theme. At the same time, the audience is being asked to compare the violence that they see onstage here with the violent killing of Desdemona that they never see but know is looming in the background.

A lesbian reading may give even a fuller understanding of this scene, without making it any less transgressive. Perhaps part of the point of this beating is to underline an erotic charge in Desdemona's interest in Bianca—perhaps even to try arousing such a charge in the audience, to give at least a subliminal message that if lesbian eroticism is possible then it is even more perverse for Desdemona to stay with a murderous husband. But an additional suggestion of the lesbian reading is another dimension of the fact that Desdemona begins the play clearly preferring Bianca to Emilia and ends the play having broken up with Bianca and relying, if in a limited way and too late, on Emilia. It is after this beating that Desdemona decides not to go back to the brothel, which signals some distancing from Bianca. Though she claims to find it “smashing,” Desdemona turns away from this sort of eroticism.31 The hair-brushing scene at the end involves physical service that could well be taken as a gentler form of eroticism. Here, though under the threat of Othello's return, Desdemona momentarily finds respite and comfort, as she has given comfort to Emilia in the rocking scene. In the lens the play turns on cross-class relationships among women, it focuses on areas of special interest to lesbians but of importance to other women as well.

Women's rewritings of Shakespeare's tragedies often focus on the possibilities of new plots that will lead to at least survival and often greater freedom for the female characters: think, for instance, of Ginny in A Thousand Acres or of Melissa Murray's play Ophelia, written in 1979 for the feminist group Hormone Imbalance, in which Ophelia runs off with a maidservant.32 The fact that Constance manages to save Desdemona's life, and do more with her own, exemplifies one impulse that drives many of these rewritings—though Constance's critique of the surviving Desdemona adds a level of complexity. Vogel, by contrast, in keeping the plot of the murder, rather than letting Desdemona survive, is using a rewriting style more like that of several of the male rewriters concerned with racial issues, such as Salih and Rushdie, rather than that of most of the female rewriters. Like the postcolonial authors, she finds the reasons for the cultural myth of cross-racial wife-murder deeply rooted and examines them.

MacDonald's play, as Richard Paul Knowles has discussed, can be performed and received with a radical edge but also can be domesticated to some extent.33 Perhaps one of the reasons for its eight printings is that it can be used as a text in a course dealing with Women and Shakespeare, or Rewritings of Shakespeare, and many students will enjoy it while few if any complain about its subversive laughter. Vogel's play is harder to domesticate and riskier to assign. But it is well worth scrutiny for its theatricality and its probing questions about why women are victimized and how women victimize each other.34

Notes

  1. Ann-Marie MacDonald, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) (Toronto: Coach House, 1990). Page references will be included in the text.

  2. Paula Vogel, Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1994). Page references will be included in the text.

  3. On feminist interpretive communities, see Annette Kolodny, “Dancing Through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism,” Feminist Studies 6 (1980): 1-25, and Patrocinio P. Schweickart, “Reading Ourselves: Toward a Feminist Theory of Reading,” in Gender and Reading, ed. Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweickart (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 31-62.

  4. Shakespearean lines quoted outside MacDonald's text are taken from Stephen Greenblatt, ed., The Norton Shakespeare, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997). The lines quoted are from Othello, 1.3.162. Subsequent references will be included in the text.

  5. Lines taken from Shakespeare are italicized in MacDonald's texts. Often they are used by characters other than those that speak them in Shakespeare.

  6. Mary Beth Rose, The Expense of Spirit: Love and Sexuality in Renaissance Drama (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), 137; Carol T. Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 115, 126; see also Marianne Novy, Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 148, on how Desdemona identifies with Othello's military abilities.

  7. S. N. Garner, “Shakespeare's Desdemona,” Shakespeare Studies 9 (1976): 233-52. A view of Desdemona even closer to Vogel's has been developed by a few non-feminist critics, such as W. H. Auden, The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays (New York: Vintage, 1968), 269 (“Given a few more years of Othello and of Emilia's influence and she might well, one feels, have taken a lover.”) Since Auden, like Vogel, uses the unusual form “Ludovico,” rather than “Lodovico,” his essay may have been one of the inspirations for her play. Garner cites Auden's comments, more cynical than her view, from their earlier publication in “The Alienated City: Reflections on ‘Othello,’” Encounter 17 (1961): 13. As Garner notes, most critics before her, except for Auden, simply ignored Desdemona's lines about Lodovico.

  8. Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York: Routledge, 1988), 39. In The Canadian Postmodern: A Study of Contemporary English-Canadian Fiction (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1988), Hutcheon notes, “Parody and irony, then, become major forms of both formal and ideological critique in feminist and Canadian fiction alike” (7).

  9. This figure appears in the author's description at the beginning of Ann-Marie MacDonald, Fall on Your Knees (London: Vintage, 1997), a novel that won the 1997 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book.

  10. Judith Rudakoff and Rita Much, Fair Play: Twelve Women Speak: Conversations with Canadian Playwrights (Toronto: Simon & Pierre, 1990), 136.

  11. Wolfgang Bauer, Shakespeare the Sadist, trans. Renata and Martin Esslin (London: Eyre Methuen, 1977), 18, 21.

  12. Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).

  13. Ann Rosalind Jones, The Currency of Eros: Women's Love Lyric in Europe, 1540-1620 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 4-6. Jones is building on Christine Gledhill, “Pleasurable Negotiations,” in Female Spectators: Looking at Film and Television, ed. Deirdre Pribram (London: Verso, 1988), and Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding,” in Culture, Media, Language, ed. Stuart Hall et al. (London: Hutchinson, 1980), 128-48.

  14. Susan Bennett, Performing Nostalgia: Shifting Shakespeare and the Contemporary Past (New York: Routledge, 1996), 56.

  15. I discuss these issues further in my book Engaging with Shakespeare: Responses of George Eliot and Other Women Novelists (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994). See also Martha Tuck Rozett, Talking Back to Shakespeare (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994), esp. 6, for her discussion of transformations and their relation not just to one previous text but also to its social or reception history. Her discussion of Goodnight Desdemona compares Constance to her own students (163); Rozett has also written a review of Desdemona that emphasizes its connection with Thomas Rymer's complaint about the handkerchief in A Short View of Tragedy (1693). Rozett, “Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief,Shakespeare Bulletin 12, no. 3 (Summer 1994): 17.

  16. There is a surprisingly long history of women's protest against popular views of Desdemona. See Elizabeth Griffith, “From The Morality of Shakespeare's Drama Illustrated” (1775), rpt. in Women Critics 1660-1820, ed. Folger Collective on Early Women Critics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 122, who says, “She speaks little, but whatever she says is sensible, pure, and chaste,” and, for a view more like Constance's, see Helena Faucit, writing in 1880 of Desdemona as “courageous,” and protesting against a usual view of her as “a merely amiable, simple, yielding creature,” Women Reading Shakespeare 1660-1900: An Anthology of Criticism, ed. Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts (New York: Manchester University Press, 1997), 191.

  17. The prefatory information in the text, which presumably would appear in the program, refers to “Desdemona's last day on Cyprus,” which might well lead to the hope that she might survive.

  18. Emilia's speech uses some imagery close to that of the radical feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye in her essay “To See and Be Seen: The Politics of Reality,” in The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory (Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press, 1983): “Women's existence is a background against which phallocratic reality is a foreground. … The background is unseen by the eye which is focused on foreground figures” (167).

  19. Bennett, Performing Nostalgia, 7. On 6-7 Bennett emphasizes the pervasiveness of nostalgia across ideology and other categories.

  20. Ibid., 6, quoting Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, The Collection (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 23.

  21. The plays themselves have affinity with Linda Hutcheon's “postmodernist ironic rethinking of history … definitely not nostalgic … [which] critically confronts the past with the present, and vice versa.” Hutcheon, Poetics of Postmodernism, 39.

  22. For Burney, see Margaret Doody, Frances Burney (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University, 1988), 224-25. For Eliot, see Novy, Engaging with Shakespeare, 104-5.

  23. Jyotsna Singh, “Othello's Identity, Postcolonial Theory, and Contemporary African Rewritings of Othello,” in Women. “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period (New York: Routledge, 1994), 287-99.

  24. According to the photo, he seems also to have been played by an actor of color in the Toronto production discussed by Mark Fortier in “Shakespeare with a Difference: Genderbending and Genrebending in Goodnight Desdemona,Canadian Theatre Review 59 (Summer 1989): 47-51. Fortier says, on page 51, that the play elides the issue of race. Possibly, because of Canada's different history with regard to slavery, and greater consciousness of French and Indian minorities, Night's blackness would look different than it would in the United States.

  25. Personal communication, Carolyn Swift.

  26. Earlier in the play, Constance has asked Juliet, “Are you afraid of growing old?” (65). The praise for the beauty of middle age, in the context of both homoeroticism and rewriting Shakespeare, rewrites the association of aging with losing beauty in many of Shakespeare's sonnets.

  27. Shannon Hengen, “Towards a Feminist Comedy,” Modern Drama 38 (Fall 1995): 103.

  28. Ibid., 107.

  29. See Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” in Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985 (New York: Norton, 1986), 23-75. Rich's emphasis in this essay on a “system of heterosexual propaganda” (71) suggests an analysis in some ways similar to Vogel's underlining of how Bianca, Emilia, and Desdemona all hold beliefs about men that, at best, confine them, and, at worst, kill them.

  30. It is a sign of this play's bad luck with its critical reception that the New York Times critic took “There's no such thing as friendship between women” to be “a typical billboard declaration”—i.e., the play's message. See Ben Brantley, “Review,” New York Times, November 12, 1993, C: 20. Like the academics about whom Constance complains, he also referred to Desdemona as “one of Shakespeare's most passive and virtuous heroines.”

  31. For a review and analysis of lesbian debates about sadomasochism, see Shane Phelan, Getting Specific: Postmodern Lesbian Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).

  32. This play is discussed by Elaine Showalter, in “Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism,” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York: Methuen, 1985), 77-94.

  33. Richard Paul Knowles, “Reading Material: Transfers, Remounts, and the Production of Meaning in Contemporary Toronto Drama and Theatre,” Essays on Canadian Writing 51-2 (Winter-Spring): 258-295; see esp. 279.

  34. I would like to thank Attilio Favorini for giving me a copy of the script used in the Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival production of Goodnight Desdemona, Nona Fienberg for persuading me to look again at Desdemona, Bob Sawyer for inviting me to speak at his 1997 SAMLA special session, “The Appropriation of Shakespeare,” and Jyotsna Singh for her comments on an earlier version of this paper in her role as respondent for that panel.

Kevin Kelly (review date 19 April 1994)

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SOURCE: Kelly, Kevin. “ART's Startling, Scorching Hot.Boston Globe (19 April 1994): 23.

[In the following review, Kelly discusses the controversial nature of Hot ‘n’ Throbbing.]

Hot ‘n’ Throbbing, in ART's New Stages series, is likely to be the most controversial play of the year, the Oleanna of 1994. Whatever your response, you stumble out of the Hasty Pudding as battered as the woman trapped in its center, awed by the play's focus on sexual violence and its shadows of terrible farce. “God damn Oprah Winfrey,” the woman's abusive husband says, striking the horror of what playwright Paula Vogel is forcing us to watch. The participle is correct. Vogel—and director Anne Bogart—forces an intensity that convinces you what has been dramatized is not only necessary but inevitable. Trash-topic television has made it to the theater, but with far more serious purpose.

Using a currently overheated domestic issue, the dysfunctional family, Vogel has created a Home Life of sensationalistic dimensions. Rather than merely setting up a narrative frame about physical abuse, Vogel widens the canvas by asking perplexing questions about differences between pornography and erotica, about sexual debasement, about atavistic impulses without boundaries, about the impenetrable darkness of the psyche, all this packed into a single act that runs 85 minutes. It begins by holding you in thrall—possibly against your will—as a voyeur. It ends with you reacting one of two ways: distancing yourself from the play's obsessiveness or, to borrow from Keats, believing Vogel's “imagination is like Adam's dream—he awoke and found it truth.” Hot ‘n’ Throbbing has four main characters, referred to in the program as Woman, Girl, Man, Boy, a clue to the past being prologue. (We're all genetic ghosts caught in shared experience.) Charlene and Clyde have two teen-age children, Leslie Ann and Calvin. Separated from her husband, against whom she has a restraining order, Charlene works at home writing scripts for Gyno Productions, which specializes in “women's erotica.” (The firm's logo is a rhino named Rosie in G-string and pink pasties.) The inspiration—and rationale—behind Charlene's X-rated avocation comes directly from her past as a taxi dancer mimicking sexual acts in a Plexi booth, as well as from her struggle for independence. She's been to college. Husband Clyde is an uneducated lout. Daughter Leslie Ann is a sexpot repeating her mother's history as a dancer; son Calvin is a lonely nerd, lost in masturbation, an innocent act mimicking his father's sexual paralysis. What happens to these four interlocked lives is as dispiriting as ugly truth can be.

What happens is startling—alternately raunchy, tough, tender, compassionate, tough again. Two examples: Clyde breaks into his ex-wife's apartment and threatens her. She shoots him in the “butt.” He falls—mooning his bleeding wound—on the sofa. The comic undertone (the clown with his pants down) is vulgarly funny, a joke in the midst of terror. Terrified as Charlene is, she nurses him, then, after his pathetic confession about not having enough money for a prostitute, offers herself to his lust. Clyde's confession, by the way, is humiliation so painful you find yourself challenging your earlier thoughts about his brute behavior. Like love, lust is more complex than it seems.

Vogel has written this traumatic—and traumatizing—drama without flinching. Behind the outright sleaze are piercing questions. Has pornography freed us from debilitating inhibitions merely to stimulate dangerous fantasies? The “value” of the dehumanization of women is their own self-willed reclamation. But the shattering irony here is that society's concern for the warped criminal compromises all sense of justice. Is “adult entertainment” a privilege or a curse? These issues are embedded in a three-way structure. Charlene's script boils up from her laptop to be acted out by a taxi dancer in a plastic booth stage left. Her troubles with Clyde and her children are detailed directly—with cinematic jump cuts, close-ups, shifts in POV announced by a man in a booth stage right. The third direction is psychoanalytical, the man in the booth explaining—in a thick German accent—Clyde's “hysteria virilia,” which is clinically specified as Case 103. Frustrated and a failure, Clyde, like a whiner in Bunuel's “Belle du Jour” or de Sade himself, needs violence to stimulate an erection.

Hot ‘n’ Throbbing owes a debt to Marlane Meyer's Etta Jenks, a 1988 play about the victimization of women in pornography, including a snuff movie climax that's a (borrowed) stunner! Still, it's remarkable on its own, perhaps nowhere more so than in Vogel's perfectly tuned understanding of her characters, perhaps most notably Charlene, who, in the midst of banging out scorching sex scenes, defends herself to her children, for whom the scripts keep “food on the plate, Reeboks on the feet.” The language ranges from “fudge” to “fiddlesticks” to the big “f.” At this stage of development, Vogel needs a better ending, something more than the cyclical return of Leslie Ann sitting down at her mother's laptop and tapping out erotica. Neat as that is, the audience is unaware that Hot ‘n’ Throbbing has come to its end, which is a sure sign of a weak conclusion.

The ART production is as steamy as the Pudding gets (no pun intended). Bogart has drilled two solid performances, Diane D'Aquila as Charlene, Jack Willis as Clyde, both of whom are put to emotional and physical tests requiring total immersion in their roles. Believe me, they're immersed. Alexandra Loria and Royal Miller are the Voice Overs talking from the plastic booths. Inexperience shows through Randall Jaynes, as Calvin, and Amy Louise Lammert, as Leslie Ann, but they get the work done with ready-actor eagerness. Christine Jones' all-purpose set—a wheat-lighted runway curving behind Charlene's living room, the stage flanked by booths—is cramped but serviceable. Jenny Fulton's costumes and John Ambrosone's lighting are OK. There's haunting music—and eerie vocal displacement—in Christopher Walker's sound design.

Hot ‘n’ Throbbing is going to dismay—perhaps even disgust—a lot of people. But—again like the debate in David Mamet's Oleanna—it's not going to be easy to dismiss. You may be able to shake off its shock, you won't be able to escape its pulverizing truth.

Jayne M. Blanchard (review date 25 September 1999)

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SOURCE: Blanchard, Jayne M. “Hot ‘n’ Throbbing Hits Abuse Head-on.” Washington Times (25 September 1999): D2.

[In the following favorable assessment of Hot ‘n’ Throbbing, Blanchard commends Vogel's intelligence and compassion as well as her courage to take on controversial topics.]

With How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel's subject was the sexual abuse of a young girl by a family member. With Hot ‘n’ Throbbing, it's domestic violence. Not exactly topics that have you tappity-tapping to the theater humming a peppy tune.

But when you think about it, it was not the incest angle or the fact that the hero gets his eyes poked out that has given the Oedipus cycle such a long shelf life. We have to own up to the horrible aspects of human nature, and we could not ask for a better guide than Miss Vogel. She takes us by the hand and urges us (seduces us, actually) into the darkest, most roiling waters all the while dispensing a raucous, bawdy humor that renders us puddles of helpless laughter. She marches us right up to the face of evil and dares us to look and see ourselves in the hard pores of this face.

Miss Vogel's plays are extreme and baiting. But the wondrous thing about them is how she brings out the shades of gray in such seemingly black-and-white issues as sexual abuse and wife beating. For all their daring, her plays are really bundles of compassion and non-judgment. There is no male bashing or victimizing. No easy answers.

So it is with Hot ‘n’ Throbbing, a stupendous button-pusher about how we are all complicit in today's mingling of sex, violence and power. Miss Vogel seems to be saying that everything is so sexualized and tied to violence that setting boundaries is nearly impossible.

Blaming the media is simplistic, but director Molly Smith and set designer Bill C. Ray give credit where credit is due. Mr. Ray's set is literally a broken home, a suburban town house with a roof that lets the rain in, a door that's tragically weak against intruders, and windows and furniture that threaten to break down any minute.

The sturdiest things in the house are the TV sets, and Mr. Ray has brilliantly ringed the set with them—screens that silently flit images from film noir, Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger movies, Sylvester Stallone blockbusters, cartoons and slasher pics. The presence of these television sets and the endless images of casually juxtaposing sex and violence make a chilling metaphor that grows in menace as the play progresses.

Miss Smith and Miss Vogel also infiltrate the household with outside influences in the guises of the Voice Over (Sue Jin Song), a sinuous stereotype of an erotic fantasy, and the Voice (Craig Wallace), who takes on a number of roles, including a hard-boiled detective and an always-willing sex partner.

The Voice Over and the Voice prowl around the home of Charlene (Lynnda Ferguson), a smart and intense single mother who is trying to keep it together. Charlene writes porno films from a woman's perspective for a living, something that spills into all other areas of her life. She's wearily appearing to lose the battle with her Lolita-ish teen-age daughter, Leslie Ann (Rhea Seehorn), a symphony of adolescent pouts and disgusted wriggles, as well as with her son, Calvin (Danny Pintauro), a bookish boy who seems about to explode with barely squelched frustrations and desires.

Charlene wants to protect her children from growing up too fast, an uphill battle when Mom's a pornographer. But that's just a parenting issue; the real threat is her ex-husband, Clyde (Colin Lane), a violent drunk.

Charlene's lack of boundaries—she tries, heaven knows, but relents at the last minute—proves piercingly tragic when Clyde breaks into the living room. Not even a restraining order can stop him. He roars into the house like a runaway train, demanding a sympathetic ear, coffee, booze and, eventually, sex.

A cynical mind or regular viewing of the Lifetime channel is not needed to predict that things are going to end badly. They do, in a searing slow-motion sequence you are not likely to forget.

In How I Learned to Drive, Miss Vogel takes the meandering-road-trip route to the play's devastating final image. With Hot ‘n’ Throbbing, she charges like a bull, driving us to the inevitable conclusion that we all know is coming but still pray will turn out differently.

And that's what Miss Vogel seems to be saying, that domestic abuse and the automatic linking of sex and violence constitute a cycle, and until we figure out how to break that cycle it will keep happening.

For such an essentially hopeless play, Miss Vogel's gift to us seems to be an endless humanity. The humor is over the top and waggish, like an astutely written sitcom.

The character of Clyde could be painted as an unmitigated monster, but Miss Vogel and the actor, Mr. Lane, allow us to see Clyde's helplessness at being bombarded with barbed messages about what it means to be a man. His definition of being a husband and father is pathologically macho, but you cannot help but see the power it holds over him. Perhaps the most disturbing character is Charlene. Miss Vogel has given us an extreme, but sadly common, example of an abused woman. She is someone we cannot merely feel sorry for and then dismiss.

She reminds us of something we might see in women—those who make stupid choices when lonely and starved for touch, the women who believe the cruelly distorted image some men present of them, the women who are socialized to give the benefit of the doubt even when it is dangerous.

Miss Ferguson is stunning in the role—earthy, accessible, prickly and painfully real. Even though you know from the get-go her brutal fate, by the time it happens you are so familiar with Charlene you wind up shocked and shaken.

Miss Seehorn is a revelation as the histrionically twitchy Leslie Ann, who seems doomed to perpetuate the cycle. Mr. Pintauro is also strong as the son who has seen too much and tries to protect his mother. Miss Song and Mr. Wallace add troublingly sensuous, otherworldly presences in the roles of the Voice Over and the Voice.

Hot ‘n’ Throbbing is not a message play about the evils of domestic violence. Instead, it suggests that when we put sex and violence together as blithely as salt and pepper, we are responsible for the repercussions.

Steven Winn (review date 8 October 2000)

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SOURCE: Winn, Steven. “All Hot and Bothered over Porno.” San Francisco Chronicle (8 October 2000): F3.

[In the following mixed review of Hot ‘n’ Throbbing, Winn maintains that Vogel's “strong subject matter gets squandered on a crude, oddly listless piece of theater.”]

Playwright Paula Vogel has never been afraid to speak up about the unmentionable. She dealt with her brother's death from AIDS in The Baltimore Waltz, lampooned a suburban terrorist in The Mineola Twins and saw the tender side of a child molester in How I Learned to Drive.

In her recently revised 1985 drama Hot ‘n’ Throbbing, which opened over the weekend at Venue 9, pornography, domestic violence and sexual objectification get an 85-minute workout. There's no denying the power of Vogel's material, especially when a romantic reunion curdles into brutality in a disturbing climax.

But the strong subject matter gets squandered on a crude, oddly listless piece of theater. Susannah Martin's tin-eared Paducah Mining Co. production never seems to catch the (admittedly elusive) temper of the play.

Vogel plays a contrived form-and-function game here. Her portrait of a single mother supporting herself and her two teenage children by writing “adult entertainment” is crammed with post-Brechtian alienation effects. One voice-over narrator (Jake Rodriguez) is stationed like a disc jockey in a downstage sound booth. Another (the flimsily clad Chantel Lucier) wriggles inside a dancer's cage.

Together they interrupt, comment and frame the action as if they were directors of some high-concept porno film. “Jump cut!” one of them commands into a microphone. “Flashback!” They quote Lolita and dissect this dysfunctional American family like some fusty psychiatrist's case study.

The mother, Charlene (Annan Paterson), sits typing at her computer in the open-walled cage of Mike S. Burg's set. As she grinds out her weary cliches (“He was hot. He was throbbing”), her daughter, Layla (Laconia Koerner), performs a wriggling erotic dance upstage. Layla's younger brother, Calvin (Titus France), hops off the couch and simulates sex with his sister as their mother pounds away at the keyboard.

Outside these fantasy fragments, they're actually a pretty bland sitcom crew. Charlene's just trying to make a living and keep her kids up to speed with their homework. Layla's going for a sleepover at a friend's house. Calvin wears his baseball cap backward and thumps a fist in his glove.

Vogel wants to bring all the rampant undercurrents of an oversexualized society foaming to the surface. But the play's wild juxtapositions and agitated manner never build any dramatic friction. Martin puts the actors through surreal comic paces—Calvin spies on his sister and masturbates into his baseball glove; Layla thrusts her pelvis at the audience—that don't lead anywhere.

Koerner misfires on Layla's sweetly confused confession of her sexual fantasies. Paterson misses her chance to enrich the proceedings when Charlene's ex-husband Clyde (Don Wood) violates his restraining order and slams through the front door.

The encounter runs from black comedy, when Charlene shoots Clyde in the buttocks, to his murderous white rage. Randall Miller choreographs the violence effectively, but even at its height, Hot ‘n’ Throbbing dodges and feints around its hot-button issues.

Paterson and Wood seem completely lost when it comes to a scene where she coos sympathetically about his sexual problems with prostitutes and pornography. It's hard to blame them for not getting a fix on this ludicrous moment.

Hot ‘n’ Throbbing is intentionally unruly and extreme. But it all amounts to so much disjointed exclamation about sex, violence and the way people distance themselves. Vogel's play startles now and then, but the shocks are never more than skin deep.

Steven Winn (review date 19 November 1992)

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SOURCE: Winn, Steven. “A Baltimore Waltz with Love and Death.” San Francisco Chronicle (19 November 1992): D3.

[In the following review, Winn provides a favorable assessment of The Baltimore Waltz.]

AIDS gives the play [The Baltimore Waltz] its haunted minor key, its halting cadences and inevitable resolution, but the disease is never mentioned by name. In a comic tempo that wavers between enchantment and coy contrivance, Vogel inverts expectations by infecting a straight-arrow elementary school teacher (Anne Darragh) rather than her gay librarian brother (Rick Hickman) with a lethal disease. Accompanied, shadowed and hounded by a third actor (Kurt Reinhardt in a dazzling catalog of doctors, lovers, a Dutch boy in wooden shoes and other European prototypes), Anna and Carl take off on a whirlwind tour of the continent in search of a miracle cure. What awaits them, of course, is a last dance, a poignant farewell. The Magic's production is directed by Phyllis S. K. Look on a set (by Shevra Tait with lighting by Jeff Rowlings) that transforms the sterile white of hospital curtains into a billowy floating backdrop of clouds. Three assured performances—especially Reinhardt's bravura turn—go a long way toward smoothing over some of the more strained and thin aspects of the script.

OBVIOUS POINT

When Anna is diagnosed with Acquired Toilet Disease, contracted from the “deadly” 6-year-olds in her class, Vogel seizes an obvious point and runs with it. A disease that strikes school teachers who have the bad luck to sit instead of squat on infected kiddie toilet seats is no more randomly absurd, she suggests, than who gets AIDS and why.

Reinhardt plays a somber doctor who spills out a stream of technical jargon and then asks Anna in the same gray tone, “When you needed to relieve yourself, where did you make wawa?” Later on there's a safe-toilet-seat lesson and a visit to a sinister Viennese quack (Reinhardt with a diabolical gleam behind microscope-thick glasses).

While Anna accepts her fate with a certain equanimity and determination to get the most out of her remaining days—“I'm going to f—-my brains out,” she says, another ironic ringing of the AIDS bell—it's Carl, the ostensibly healthy sibling, who comes on with a more snarling attitude. His first scene is a nasty, middle-finger-salute farewell to his boss and a roomful of children at the San Francisco Public Library.

As Anna and Carl embark on their grand tour, The Baltimore Waltz almost subliminally whispers its darker descant theme. As Anna flows from sumptuous French meals where she mops up the sauces with her bread to luscious sexual desserts with waiters and bellhops, Carl seeks out art and culture in an ascetic traveler's pilgrimage. Dressed in striped pajamas and always ready for bed with his stuffed rabbit JoJo, he's never hungry.

GRAVE ENCOUNTER

In one grave encounter in the shadows, Carl submits to a customs agent patdown (by Reinhardt, arriving through the set's swinging doors in yet another guise) that's fleetingly sexual and then methodically medical. It's a 10-second precis of AIDS that silently pierces the action with injection-like precision.

Anna has her own black moments in the midst of her Sybaritic escape. In the painfully funny scene that brings the first half of the show to a close, Reinhardt's perfectly accented Dutch boy recreates his death-defying feat of plugging his finger in the dike as Anna's face, under Rowlings' subtly modulated lighting, goes white with terror at the thought of her own last stand. In a summary of Elizabeth Kubler Ross' six stages of handling death, Anna pops out of bed with a smile and adds a seventh: the dying body's redemptive throb of physical lust.

Vogel wrote Baltimore Waltz, which premiered earlier this year at the New York's Circle Repertory, after her own brother died of AIDS before the two could travel together to Europe as they had planned. While she's wishfully invented that lost experience and seen it all through a clarifying comic lens, certain things remain fuzzy. The angelically innocent relationship of Anna and Carl, most notably, is more or less delivered on faith (they sleep together like children)—a theatrical convention of a romance, perhaps, but less than satisfying for an audience.

PLOT DETAIL

The script is broken into its scenes with phrase-book conjugations and foreign-language lessons that wear out their metaphorical welcome. It's a necessary if somewhat puzzling plot detail that allows the couple to saunter around Europe for a month before finally seeking out the miracle cure in Vienna.

But Waltz neither expects nor deserves to be scrutinized with a logician's merciless eye. It's an elegiac meditation, wistfully rather than savagely funny. When the curtain flies open one last time and Anna and Carl approach each other as the Strauss music swells, life and death have changed costumes for one last dance in each other's arms.

Everett Evans (review date 21 March 2001)

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SOURCE: Evans, Everett. “Actors Theatre Stages Worthy Baltimore Waltz.Houston Chronicle (21 March 2001): 1.

[In the following favorable review, Evans commends the originality of The Baltimore Waltz.]

Though the field has grown crowded in recent years, The Baltimore Waltz remains one of the most original and personal plays dealing with illness and mortality in general, AIDS in particular.

Paula Vogel wrote the free-wheeling yet heart-wrenching fantasy in response to her brother Carl's death from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1988. The premiere production was a collaboration between New York's Circle Repertory Theatre and Houston's Alley Theatre that played here in spring 1992, shortly after its debut off-Broadway.

Vogel since has become even better known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive. The Baltimore Waltz now returns in a sensitive rendition at Actors Theatre of Houston.

In Vogel's imaginative treatment, reality is turned upside-down. It is the schoolteacher sister Anna who is stricken with a mysterious malady, while brother Carl, a San Francisco librarian, tries to keep alive the hope that a treatment may be found.

They set off out on a whirlwind tour of Europe (the real-life trip they would have taken if Carl had gotten better). He tries to track down experimental drugs on the black market, while Anna squeezes as much life as possible into her remaining weeks. Carl's search for a mystery man with underground links cues a spoof of The Third Man, with the contacts using as their unlikely signaling device identical stuffed rabbits.

In this dreamlike fantasy, the details take on the nonsensical qualities of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, as the two encounter bizarre authority figures and would-be experts, all played by the same actor. The action is dotted with allusions to books, movies and music, little shards of Carl's and Anna's shared past.

Medical jargon is exaggerated into gibberish. Anna's illness is ATD, for Acquired Toilet Disease, because it is thought to be contracted from toilet seats—an allusion to the taboo real-life means of transmitting HIV.

“It doesn't show yet,” says Anna, inspecting her face in the mirror. “I don't want anyone to know.”

“It's an illness, not a crime,” Carl replies.

Like so much in the play, the exchange seems a reversal of the siblings' real-life dialogue.

If patrons have not already gathered from the all-white set or the stagehands in hospital scrubs that things are not what they seem, reality begins to intrude during the vacation slide show. Carl's narration describes spots in Europe, while the photos show more prosaic images of Baltimore and the hospital. Anna realizes something is amiss, turning distraught as time runs out.

The Baltimore Waltz resonates with the primal pull of its premise: the survivor's wish to trade places with a dying loved one; the realization in fantasy of one last cherished goal not possible in reality. Despite a few moments when the humor grows forced or the absurd touches seem arbitrary, Vogel succeeds in her high-wire act of balancing fantasy, humor and tragedy. Baltimore is a fleet play—absurd, sweet and sad.

It also deserves some sort of prize for the most extensive and effective use of a stuffed rabbit in recent theater history.

George Brock has staged an understated, no-frills rendition, yet one that comes through in its key scenes, both emotional and zany. Despite a few misjudged moments, the tone usually is right, especially in the poignant closing scenes, handled with delicacy and genuine feeling.

Kate Revnell-Smith makes a poised and persuasive Anna—bright, vulnerable, angry with the crummy hand life has dealt her, eager to live. She handles her demanding showcase scenes deftly, especially the one in which Anna goes through all the textbook stages of the terminally ill, from denial through acceptance, in record time.

Greg Gorden is aptly cast as Carl. He projects zest, mischievous humor and childlike sweetness as the idealized gay brother. Revnell-Smith and Gorden have believable sibling rapport, frank yet always affectionate.

As the third player assigned all other roles, Foster Davis demonstrates considerable versatility and a flair for comic cameos. Whether as a surly French waiter, the suave mystery man Harry Lime, a mad Nazi scientist right out of Dr. Strangelove or a rueful doctor at Johns Hopkins, Davis makes the most of each opportunity.

ATH's is a worthy, ultimately touching Baltimore Waltz.

Criticism: How I Learned To Drive

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SOURCE: Evans, Everett. “A Long Journey: Multiple Ideas Spark Acclaimed How I Learned to Drive.The Houston Chronicle (4 October 1998): 10.

[In the following essay, Vogel reveals the inspiration for How I Learned to Drive.]

Paula Vogel believes in letting an idea simmer before bringing it to life on stage.

“This is a play I carried in my head for 15 to 20 years,” Vogel said of How I Learned to Drive, the provocative off-Broadway hit making its Houston debut Wednesday at the Alley Theater.

“That's not unusual for me. Some of my plays have reached the writing phase in less time, but some have taken even longer. There's one project I've had in mind since I was 15 years old. Sometimes, you finally get the time and opportunity, you sit down and start to do the first 10 pages or so … then you realize, ‘I shouldn't be doing this yet.’ And you put it away until you're ready.” Vogel's modus operandi obviously works. How I Learned to Drive is one of the most acclaimed new plays in years, winning the 1997 Pulitzer Prize, New York Drama Critics Award, Drama Desk Award, Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and other accolades.

An unusual coming-of-age story, it explores the forbidden, sexually charged relationship between a young girl named Li'l Bit and her Uncle Peck. He is the middle-aged, married man who, a la Vladimir Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, finds himself obsessed with a young relative—in this case, his teen-age niece.

Vogel, who lives in Providence, R.I., previously won acclaim for The Baltimore Waltz (produced at the Alley in 1992), one of the most unusual plays of the AIDS crisis and a metaphoric response to losing her brother to the disease.

Multiple catalysts sparked How I Learned to Drive.

“When you let something simmer in your head for 20 years,” Vogel said, “many things go into the pot. There's never just one spark. One of the primary ones was wondering whether I, as a woman, could write something as balanced as Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. And whether, as a playwright, I could write something as nuanced.

Of course, a play is not a novel, so it's difficult to get those psychological interiors you can have in that form. But it was at least partly an homage and response to Lolita—and a response to David Mamet's Oleanna, with a nod of affection to the form of Harold Pinter's Betrayal.

I knew the kind of play I wanted this to be would require dramatic skills I didn't have when I first thought of it. That's why it's always wise to put something aside and wait till you feel you can pull it off. I've heard from composers that they carry works around in their heads for years. I don't think playwrights are any different.

Vogel often is asked whether Drive has an autobiographical dimension. She answers that Li'l Bit's story is not hers, though it is set during the 1960s, the time of her own youth.

It's influenced by many things. I've been a university professor for 20 years (currently at Brown University). I've had a lot of discussions in my office with young people who were processing emotional pain. Teaching is like being a minister. You say a lot, and you hear a lot.

Vogel firmly insists Drive is not a play about “the P word”—meaning pedophilia.

I don't see it (the central relationship between Li'i Bit and Uncle Peck) as an abusive relationship. Actors and directors who've done the play don't see it as an abusive relationship. It's more about coming of age in this culture—where there are stories far more extreme, far worse than this one. I wanted to test the limits of what we think is ethical behavior, as those limits constantly change. Li'l Bit says, “You've got to let me draw the line.” But the line keeps getting redrawn, over time.

Noting that “no playwright likes to say what a play is about in just one sentence,” Vogel nonetheless follows with a succinct summation:

It's a play about the gifts we receive from people who hurt us. In some ways, it's a gift for younger people I've cared for and taught. Right now, we're in a culture of victimization that can be as traumatic as the original abuse, where people are encouraged to stay in the disempowered state of the victim. That approach to one's pain can be a not-good thing.

The other alternative is look at the situation squarely, recognize your role in it, take a step back, learn survival skills and move on. That is what this young woman does.

Vogel expresses gratitude to the Pugh Charitable Trust for the artist-in-residency grant that supported the development of Drive at the Perseverance Theater in Juneau, Alaska. How I Learned to Drive followed her previous work for the company, The Mineola Twins.

A grant like that can be a turning point for an artist. For three years, I spent three months a year in Juneau, the most beautiful spot in the world, working with (artistic director) Molly Smith. It was a great chance to do these plays back to back at the same theater with some of the same actors. To develop them in a public forum and receive feedback.

Drive made its New York debut early in 1997 at the tiny, off-off-Broadway Vineyard Theater, directed by Mark Brokaw and starring Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse. The enthusiastic response led to an extended run off-Broadway.

Among her other plays are And Baby Makes Seven and Hot and Throbbing, which she says major companies are reluctant to do because of “daring” content.

“There's a certain cowardice happening now in the not-for-profit theaters,” said Vogel. “A climate of fear fostered by the conservative right continues, whether it's picking on some particular play such as Corpus Christi (Terrence McNally's new work, being premiered at the Manhattan Theater Club this fall) or avoiding works that address certain issues.

“I think people would be scared to do this play (Drive), except that it got the blessings of the New York critics—which is always a fluke. Persistence is a part of it: I stayed in there so long, kept coming back with play after play.”

With Drive's success and prizes, Vogel admits, the landscape has changed.

“Sure, things are different. Doors open all at once. There's also the pressure of how can you top this success?”

New York next will see her Mineola Twins, coming in January to Broadway's prestigious Roundabout Theater, a company on a winning streak with its award-winning productions of A View from the Bridge and Cabaret. She calls Mineola Twins a “comic flip side” of Drive, irreverent and very different.

“My gods in the theater are John Guare, Caryl Churchill and Maria Irene Fornes. They are real playwrights' playwrights. They have never written the same play twice. I want to emulate them, to do something different every time.”

Vogel does not want to stop teaching, but with the increased interest in her writing after the success of Drive, she no longer can serve as a regular faculty member. She has a three-year leave of absence from Brown after renegotiating her position so she can work as a guest artist offering master classes for young playwrights in short, intense periods.

She plans to offer similar short-term workshops while a resident artist at the Arena Stage in Washington, where she will spend several months annually for the next three years. She will write pieces for the company, including new works and adaptations. She also is working on the screenplay of Drive, as well as a Showtime cable TV project that will feature scripts by herself, McNally and Harvey Fierstein.

Vogel considers herself fortunate to have had two near-perfect experiences with The Baltimore Waltz and How I Learned to Drive.

These (the original productions) were situations where you love everybody you're working with, love what's happening to your work and see everything come together. At the first preview of Baltimore Waltz, I told myself, “Well, if I get hit by a bus on the way home, I'm going to die happy.” I felt the same about the original production of How I Learned to Drive. To have that happen twice in my lifetime is a wonderful gift. I'd like to make it three. If it doesn't happen, it won't be for lack of trying.

Patti Hartigan (review date 7 March 1997)

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SOURCE: Hartigan, Patti. “Trinity's Mineola Twins Leads a Double Life.” Boston Globe (7 March 1997): D4.

[In the following review, Hartigan offers a mixed review of The Mineola Twins.]

Imagine a set of identical twins destined to grow up diametrically opposed to each other. As adolescents, they draw a line down the middle of their bedroom, setting up an ideological and territorial battleground they spend the rest of their lives fighting over.

What happens when biological twins disagree? What happens to baby boomettes who choose radically different lifestyles? What happens to women who are haunted by the same fears but end up miles apart in mindset? What happens to a culture so divided that dialogue is impossible?

Those are the intriguing questions playwright Paula Vogel asks in her play The Mineola Twins, which is having its New England premiere at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence. With its use of actors doubling up on roles and its uncanny blend of dreams, memory, and reality, the play probes deep psychological territory. In concept, there is brain food to spare, but in production, the play ends up as divided as the twins themselves. The first half plays like a crayon-colored cartoon, while the second half slowly turns into a poignant drama. By the end, it's clear that the style is part of Vogel's grand design, but the gee-whiz-it's-the-'50s tone of the first half does get a little annoying. The twins, Myrna and Myra, grow up in suburban Mineola, on Long Island. They live in terror of atomic bombs—and each other. Years later, they're still fighting and they're still afraid, only now their nightmares are about the breakup of the nuclear family, mass murderers, food additives. Myrna is the “good” girl: She dreams of having one mail-order hubby, 2.5 children, and a three-bedroom split-level in Great Neck. Myra is the “bad” woman: She keeps company with the entire football team, takes up with radicals, and ends up with a significant other of the female persuasion.

At Trinity, both twins are played in virtuoso fashion by company regular Anne Scurria, who gets quite a workout changing costumes and personas throughout the evening. As Myra, she transforms from a gum-chewing fast girl at Mineola High to a pot-smoking hippie to a tofu-eating executive at Planned Parenthood. As Myrna, she grows from a perky young thing in a poodle skirt to a stressed-out housewife recovering from electroshock therapy to a crusader for the Christian right.

Company regular Phyllis Kay gives a hilarious gender-bending performance as Myrna's fiance, Jim, and as Myra's partner, Sarah. Dan Welch plays Myrna's counterculture-wannabe son, Kenny, as well as Myra's conservative-wannabe son, Ben, though both roles are little more than caricatures.

And that's the trouble with the first half: Under Molly D. Smith's direction, the actors seem to be performing a really bad memory of the '50s and '60s. Throughout these scenes, they wear deliberately bad wigs (Welch's long shag is the unkindest cut of all). But when they get into the '80s, they tone it down, till in the last scene the hair is as natural as the acting style.

It turns out that this is the point: We need to sift through our memories, however romanticized or demonized, in order to come to terms with the present. We also need to acknowledge that our dreams reflect our state of mind; four dream scenes show the links between hidden desires and actual experiences.

The production seems to be searching for a way to bring all these disparate parts together. Judy Gailen's polka-dot set literally comes apart at the seams, with the back wall breaking into a zigzag. Andrew Keister's sound design features an eerie subconscious voice that haunts the women.

Vogel is making her long-overdue Trinity debut, and like her earlier work, Mineola Twins is loaded with questions and ideas. Both Myrna and Myra look back in anger and angst. Alas, they can't do anything about the over-the-top first half of the play, which is sometimes hilarious but at times seems too cute for Saturday morning TV. The second half is redeeming, however, when it becomes clear that there is a method to this madness. Maybe the sisters won't reconcile; maybe society won't mend its rifts. But at least Myra realizes that once she stops turning the past into a cartoon, she can put her head on the pillow and get a good night's sleep.

Steven Winn (review date 3 April 2000)

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SOURCE: Winn, Steven. “Of Two Minds on Tolerance: Twins Take Opposite Paths in Comic Play.” San Francisco Chronicle (3 April 2000): D3.

[In the following review, Winn finds a lack of humor in The Mineola Twins and contends that the play “whips past four decades of American cultural landmarks without making these brisk travelers stand out or matter quite enough.”]

To Paula Vogel, the “play” in “playwright” means having fun with the form. In How I Learned to Drive, her light-fingered Pulitzer Prize winner about child molestation, and The Baltimore Waltz, which dealt with her brother's death from AIDS in a wistful romance, Vogel leavened her subjects with a nimble and tender comic touch.

The Mineola Twins, a 1998 script in its competent West Coast premiere at the Actors Theatre, is a thinner piece of work. Structured as a cartoon fable, it follows suburban twin sisters from the 1950s to the '80s and offers a kind of object lesson on terrorism and tolerance. Vogel's theatricality bubbles through, especially in a stronger act.

The dopey, big-breasted Myrna (Peggy Lopipero) is the high school virgin in the show's Eisenhower-era opening. She may not be sure about Arthur Miller (“Isn't he the baseball player?”), but she knows she wants to save herself for marriage.

Boyfriend Jim (a cross-dressed and miscast Liz Ryan) promptly turns up in the bed of Myrna's slim sister Myra (Susi Damilano), who's sleeping her way through the school teams. “I happen to like football,” she insists.

Nixon's in office by the next scene. With Myra on the lam after a Patty Hearst-style bank robbery, the straitlaced, shock-therapized Myrna has screwed up the courage to help her estranged sister out. She withdraws $5,000 from the bank and sends her son Kenny (the delightful Melanie Slivka) down to Greenwich Village to help spring Myra to Canada.

In the show's best scene, crisply staged by Bill English, the fired-up teenager Kenny and his terrified Aunt Myra trade homilies about the revolution. “Sometimes you gotta use the system to crush the system,” Myra says, explaining uncertainly why she now drinks a soft drink made by a corporation she claims to despise.

Slithering around Myra's hideaway, longhaired, tie-dyed Kenny is desperate not to miss “the movement.” His mother sees to it that he does.

Twins fast-forwards once more, to the Bush years—the three Republican presidents are displayed like totemic emblems on a large projection screen through the show. Myrna has become a Dr. Laura-like radio kook, author of Profiles in Chastity. Myra's a lesbian mom and abortion rights activist whose son (the now-smarmy Slivka in horn rims and blue blazer) is a rabid conservative.

Even in its skillfully devised last scene, which brings the sisters together for the first time with a bomb about to go off, The Mineola Twins doesn't ever surprise. The ironies are handed out like playing cards. The jokes—about housewives and revolutionaries, conservatives and gay rights—are pretty well thumbed.

Lopipero and Damilano give capable, smooth performances that feel a little automatic. Not that there's much room to maneuver here. Twins whips past four decades of American cultural landmarks without making these brisk travelers stand out or matter quite enough.

Everett Evans (review date 16 August 2000)

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SOURCE: Evans, Everett. “Mineola Twins Rates Double Laughs.” Houston Chronicle (16 August 2000): 4.

[In the following review, Evans lauds Vogel's humor as well as the inspired premise of The Mineola Twins.]

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive, The Baltimore Waltz) has built The Mineola Twins around an inspired premise, rich in comic potential.

In Vogel's satiric look at American womanhood from the 1950s-'80s, twins Myrna and Myra are identical opposites. Alike in looks, they are night and day in attitudes and experiences. Life and the playwright put them through the wringer, with wild adventures that drive them to opposite ends of the sociopolitical spectrum, despite occasional psychic flashes of sisterly connection. Produced off-Broadway in 1999 with Swoosie Kurtz doing a bravura turn in the title roles, The Mineola Twins makes its Houston debut in an uneven yet worthwhile production at the Little Room Downstairs Theater.

Vogel's starting point is the suburban enclave of Mineola, N.Y., in 1959. The era's cliche: There are good girls and bad girls, no in-betweens. Myrna is the goody girl next door, teasing upright boyfriend Jim to the point of distraction, yet determined to save herself for marriage and the housewifely bliss she envisions.

In contrast, Myra is tough, restless, cool. She digs hanging out in Greenwich Village and, to Myrna's mortification, has earned her reputation as Mineola's bad girl. Jim visits Myra in a hotel room, on a mission from Myrna, to try to talk some sense into the wild twin—but winds up another of Myra's conquests. Myrna turns up, accuses her sister of wrecking her life, and dumps Jim.

Jumping to 1969, Myra is a counterculture revolutionary, on the lam from the FBI after a botched bank robbery, which was somehow meant to protest the Vietnam War. After marriage, divorce and shock therapy, Myrna is more uptight than ever. Pretending to help her fugitive sister flee the country, Myrna actually is in league with the agents out to capture Myra. Myrna's son, Kenny, who detests his mom and admires his far-out aunt, is determined to help Myra escape.

By 1989, released after a prison term, Myra has settled down with a lesbian lover and a job heading Mineola's Planned Parenthood clinic. Myra's teen-age son, Benjamin, rejecting his mother's values, has become a fan of Myrna, now a right-wing radio commentator and author of Profiles in Chastity—and secretly aligned with a group that bombs family-planning clinics.

As suggested by the program's indication that the action unfolds during the Eisenhower, Nixon and Bush administrations, Vogel does not disguise her play's political agenda. Yet like the often outrageous situations, her political points are made with offbeat humor and bite.

The strength of the play is Vogel's implicit understanding that conformity and rebelliousness are the yin and yang of American culture. Caught like siblings in a love-hate bond, each unintentionally nurtures the other, if only through the inevitable impulse of reaction. That the twins' sons reject their mothers' lifestyles and become their political opposites is an apt reflection of the pendulum.

Working on a shoestring in Little Room's tiny space, Richard Laub has directed an unpolished, no-frills rendition. It has some sluggish moments, takes its time building comic momentum and doesn't handle the one-twin-exits/the-other-enters moments as smoothly as it might.

Yet Laub has drawn essentially sound performances that convey the play's basic strengths. He also supplies inventive treatment of the twins' hallucinatory dream-monologues.

Kara Greenberg does good work in the title roles, increasing in confidence as the action progresses. Her Myra begins as a droll take on a '50s wayward girl, stumbles through her counter-culture confusion and matures into a sensible midlife standoff between resignation and social commitment.

The prissy Myrna, however, is the funnier role, and here Greenberg really goes to town. As Myrna's angry disapproval hardens into stony self-righteousness, Greenberg enacts a vivid caricature of the cultural warrior; her radio show provokes howls. If Dr. Laura needs an understudy, Greenberg can fill the bill in hilarious fashion.

Natalie Maisel kids the conventional upright 1950s male as Jim; later, she's a pleasant, supportive Sarah (Myra's lover). Peter Gehring brings naturalness and enthusiasm to the two sons, budding hippie Kenny and clean-cut conservative Ben. Greg Gorden and Drew Bettge cut up goofily in their wordless roles as cavorting scene-changers.

While not the best rendition imaginable, Little Room's Mineola Twins is a serviceable take on a play that merits attention.

Additional coverage of Vogel's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Group: Contemporary American Dramatists; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 108; Contemporary Dramatists, Ed. 5; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 76; Contemporary Women Dramatists; Drama for Students, Vol. 14; Literature Resource Center; and Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4.

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