I just saw a friend’s play and while I quite admired many things about it, I was uncomfortable with many more, and didn’t know whether it was the script, the production, or my own prejudices that made me squirm.
The play is Pleiades by Marissa Skudlarek, and while it was inspired by those seven sisters of Ancient Greek myth, it doesn’t owe much more than its outline to that tale. For those not in the know, the Pleiades were seven sisters, daughters of Atlas and companions of Artemis, who were pursued by Zeus (the leader and horny toad of the gods) and turned into stars to keep them safe from him. Other than that vague tale, little is known of them other than their names and various stories of their couplings with other gods.
This was enough to serve as a springboard for Marissa’s tale of seven upper-class sisters summering in the Hamptons and the Zeus figure who pursues them (or some of them, at least).
And there’s where my discomfort begins. Marissa has chosen to set her play in the women’s liberation era of the 1970’s – a time when feminism was all the rage, the ERA had not yet gone down in flames and Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer were waging war against the good old boy network and traditionalists like the (ultimately victorious) Phyllis Schlafly. The seven sisters, realistically (if sparsely) drawn by Marissa, are caught between these opposing forces. On the one side “The Patriarchy” in the person of Bruce (the Zeus stand-in), and on the other “Feminism” in the person of their cousin Diane (the Artemis role).
As befits a play set in that time, Bruce is a male chauvinist pig (think Bobby Fisher) and Diane is a rabid feminist (Billy Jean King). Both are broadly drawn characters – well, not really characters, but agit-prop types – mouthpieces for their respective ‘isms’ – they are not quite caricatures, but not very real – especially compared to the sisters. Of the two, Bruce comes off better than Diane, because she is such a lampoon of the militant man-hating feminazi, that it’s easy to dismiss her, despite the fact that she has a point (or twenty). Bruce is a creep, but he’s a creep like many I have known, and his dialogue feels less arch than Diane’s.
Was this what the author intended? It seemed clear to me that it was (though in real life, Billy Jean King won that match, while in this version…Bobby Fisher wins). While the device was a bit contrived for my taste, I went along with it, preferring the sisters’ shades of gray to the black and white ends of the spectrum they were torn between. I actually ended up finding them more compelling thanks to the device (though I’m not sure they need such severe foils).
But then it got stickier. And ickier. I’m no fan of spoilers, so I’ll just say that the events of the play come down pretty strongly on the side of tradition and old-fashioned views of a woman’s place in the world. For a play billed as “female-driven” to wind up so squarely in the world of 1950’s Americana made me angry and sad.
But then I wondered again about the author’s intent. If the play had had a “stronger” (i.e., feminist) ending, I certainly wouldn’t have been so uncomfortable, but would it have been realistic? If the play had had a happier ending, wouldn’t that have been a cop-out? And untrue to both its source material and the time in which the play was set? Isn’t it better that I left angry at the sisters for essentially (from my point of view) kowtowing to societal norms? While Marissa is too young to remember the 1970’s, I still do. I can practically hear the screaming of my parents at my sister for “shacking up” with her boyfriend (and their absolute conviction that she was a whore for doing so). Going against the rank-and-file of that era was not done easily, and not without burning many bridges. And in the image-conscious class, it was simply not done (the play even references that idyll of disobedience to authority: Love Story).
Adding to my conflicted feelings was the production itself. The play was directed unevenly – as a comedy for the first 3/4, then as a drama for the final 1/4. Mind you, the script does take a dark turn at that point, but I don’t feel this is a fault of the script – Marissa opens the piece with a dramatic reveal of a somber topic, so it’s not as if there aren’t flashes of drama throughout, but the stakes were slight (when they were there at all), and for the longest time it felt that the actresses were playing to a metronome – a sameness pervaded the action and undercut the foundation she was trying to build.
And , yet…and yet… I’m still thinking about this play and arguing with myself over it, which I wouldn’t be doing if it hadn’t struck a nerve, if it had had no effect on me. Which is reason enough to overlook some of my quibbles. I just wish I hadn’t felt so damned depressed at the ending. Why is that? Haven’t things changed? Don’t women have greater options now than they did then? I like to think so, but I live in the San Francisco Bay area – considered by many (if not most; if not all) to be the most liberal place in America. So I’m in a bubble. And I’m not female. I’m a white anglo-saxon recovering Catholic gay male. So what would I know? Perhaps we haven’t come so far in 40 years, after all. Which would serve to make Marissa’s play a tragedy, not a drama after all.