Saturday, June 25, 2011

"Pleiades" Reading, Part 1: "The Virgin Suicides," "The Big House," and Wendy Wasserstein

As I work on Pleiades, my latest full-length play, here are some brief thoughts about the books I've been reading as informal research, to educate me about the world of the play or just to get me in the mood to write it.

First up, Jeffrey Eugenides' acclaimed debut novel, The Virgin Suicides. (I also re-watched the film version, which I had last seen when I was in high school.) Reason: The Virgin Suicides is a novel about five beautiful sisters in a wealthy community in the 1970s, and Pleiades is a play about seven beautiful sisters in a wealthy community in the 1970s.

I admired the novel, but I don't think that it will have much influence on the play that I'm writing. The Virgin Suicides is noted for its first-person-plural narration -- it's told from the perspective of the men who were once the Lisbon sisters' neighbors and schoolmates, and still mourn their deaths twenty years later. As such, one of the novel's main themes is how men romanticize beautiful women and see them as unfathomable mysteries. Because of the unusual narration, the novel cannot present the Lisbon sisters' actual thoughts; everything is filtered through the narrators' haze of memory and longing and conjecture and tragedy. Again, this is very effective. But it's the opposite of what I want to do with Pleiades -- I want my female characters to have subjectivity, to speak for themselves.

The film version is remarkably faithful to the novel -- it has a male narrator who speaks in the first-person-plural and everything -- and yet the tone is somehow different. It captures the girls more intimately, sometimes showing their perspective in close-up, while the novel presents the girls as shadowy and elusive. Maybe that's just because the teen boys' voyeuristic fascination with the Lisbon sisters can't be effectively reproduced on film. Or maybe it's because Sofia Coppola brought a young woman's perspective to the material. The book is about what it's like to observe adolescent girls and wonder at their mystery; the film is more about what it's like to be an adolescent girl. As such, the movie has become a touchstone for a generation of romantic, dreamy girls who admire its aesthetics -- which is maybe the most disturbing thing about this disturbing story, when you think about it.

I read about The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home on some blog a couple of months ago, and immediately added it to my reading list. I had decided to set Pleiades at a summer home in the Hamptons, only to realize that I didn't actually know much about summer houses, the Hamptons, WASP culture, etc. So it was quite serendipitous that I stumbled across The Big House, a National Book Award finalist in 2003. The author is George Howe Colt, a poet, journalist, and descendant of Boston Brahmins. Colt, like the girls in Pleiades, is also a Baby Boomer; I think that a minor theme of Pleiades will be the decline of WASP culture in the '60s-'70s, and that's also a theme of The Big House.

The Big House is a combination of memoir, family history, and investigation of/paean to Boston Brahmin summer rituals. Colt's great-grandfather Ned Atkinson built a shingled summer mansion at Buzzards Bay, Cape Cod in 1902, and through the entire 20th century, it served as the heart of the family. The last chapters of the book deal with the need to sell the house as it became a "white elephant" burden to them in the 1990s, but I found these narrative sections less compelling than the earlier parts of the book, where Colt merely attempts to create a sense of place. He has a marvelous eye for detail, and lovingly describes both the objects and the people that filled the Big House.

Colt is nostalgic and proud of his heritage, but realizes that not everything about his house or his family were perfect. His tales of hidden WASP dysfunction almost make me want to write a whole series of plays about the Greek gods as upper-class Americans in the Gilded Age and beyond. (This is kind of similar to Francesca Zambello's production of the Ring cycle, currently at the San Francisco Opera. It is called the "American Ring" and portrays the Norse gods as a dysfunctional, wealthy family in Great Gatsby-style costumes. I haven't seen it, but a friend of mine is really enjoying it.) Reading The Big House also taught me that the American old-money upper class isn't as monolithic as it first appears. Colt's family were frugal, practical Boston Brahmins who summered on rugged Cape Cod, but I want my Pleiades to be a little more relaxed and pleasure-seeking. Their family is based in the New York area, rather than Boston. They live in Connecticut and summer in the Hamptons.

I was obsessed with Wendy Wasserstein's Uncommon Women and Others my senior year of high school -- and if you love a play as a teenager, chances are that it will stick with you for the rest of your life. So when I realized that I would be writing a play about a group of young women in the early 1970s, I started referring to it as "my Uncommon Women and Others play" and decided that I needed to reread some Wasserstein. After all, what other playwright did as much as her to chronicle the second-wave feminist movement? I'm even including a "consciousness-raising party" scene in Pleiades as a tribute to the consciousness-raising scene in The Heidi Chronicles.

Uncommon Women serves as a fascinating time capsule of the social and sexual mores of its era. For instance, in 1971: being a female college student who masturbates = weird. Being a female college student who hangs out on the quads of men's colleges with the explicit goal of picking up guys and sleeping with them = normal. In 2011, it's the other way around. (Progress!)

But rereading these plays, I am also struck by how sad they are, how their humor masks anger, confusion, and unfulfilled longings. In high school, I think I loved Uncommon Women for its portrayal of funny, gutsy young women with strong friendships. But now, the final line of the play, Rita's "When we're... forty-five, we can be really fucking amazing" just breaks my heart.

Or, take the ending of The Heidi Chronicles, where Heidi proclaims that her newly adopted baby, Judy, will be "a heroine for the twenty-first!" I'm sure that when the play premiered in 1989, Baby Boomer women found this sentiment inspirational: "maybe life has been difficult for us, but it will be so much better for our daughters!" But I am basically the same age as Judy, and it is the twenty-first century, and I don't feel much like a heroine, and life still feels difficult and full of glass ceilings and boys' clubs and politicians who want to set back women's rights. Did you see the survey yesterday showing that young American men overwhelmingly would prefer a son to a daughter -- and even worse, a women in the comments section saying "I am a woman in my twenties, and I would much prefer to have a male child rather than a female child. ... It continues to be (and may always be) easier for a man to succeed along many of the metrics by which society defines success: income, title, athletic prowess, sexual satisfaction. It's not that I don't want women to fight the good fight to equalize opportunities for both genders. I do, and I think of myself as fighting this fight. At the same time, I want to afford my children every advantage possible, and one major advantage is being male." God, that pisses me off. To live in a world where a woman can argue that internalized self-loathing is a rational reaction.

Here's a link to a blog post I wrote about Wendy Wasserstein three years ago. Because I identify as a feminist and a playwright (and am very aware that playwriting is still a male-dominated profession) I think that I will be wrestling with Wasserstein's legacy, and the work that she left behind, for a long time to come...

I'm not yet done with my Pleiades script or with reading books that I hope will inspire me. Next up: Cheerful Money by Tad Friend (another WASP memoir) and The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (early '70s feminist classic, which I first learned about via a mention in Uncommon Women and Others)!

1 comment:

terryteachout said...

I'm glad you liked "The Big House." I was one of the NBA nonfiction judges that year, and I still remember that book with pleasure and admiration.