Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Theatre Essay: Bitches is Crazy: or why I despise TALLEY'S FOLLY


BITCHES IS CRAZY

~ OR ~

Why I despise and loathe the Pulitzer Prize-winning play TALLEY'S FOLLY

 

In which I explain why I have a problem with a play that presents a stalker, who forces a woman to remain in a boathouse until she submits, as a romantic hero.


When I first saw Lanford Wilson’s TALLEY’S FOLLY, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1980, I didn’t even pick up on the horrific stalking and bullying aspect. This was in the early 1990s, when I first became interested in writing plays, and I considered it homework to go and see a community theatre production of the play in Haddonfield New Jersey. I picked the play exactly because it had won the Pulitzer Prize: I figured it had to be good. Like Shakespeare good.

But instead I was bored. It’s a ninety minute play that felt like two hours, but I gritted my teeth and stayed until the end. As I was walking out of the theatre I remember wondering whether I should abandon playwriting and go back to painting. If that was theatre, then I hated theatre.

My impression of the play, based on that long-ago production, was a long boring conversation, with lots of exposition, and the man doing most of the talking. I don’t know why I didn’t pick up on the truly repulsive underlying message of the play - perhaps it was the way it was directed - I don't remember any physical force used, as it is specified in the stage directions of the published script. 

Cultural gatekeepers have always been men (or men's female enablers.) To this day the vast majority of movie and theatre critics in the traditional media are men. But thanks to the new technologies all kinds of excellent feminist commentary is available to the public. One of the best purveyors of feminist culture theory is a web site called Tiger Beatdown. And one of its best essays is called TIGER BEATDOWN FOR DUDES Presents: That’s Not Funny. No, Seriously Dude, It’s Not.

In this essay, the author identifies a cultural trope called the Because...? Um Girl. I’ll let author Sady Doyle explain:
So then, of course, you have (television series) Eastbound & Down, where a man calls a woman a “bitch” and promises to “fuck her up (with some truth),” because she doesn’t want to immediately jump into a relationship with him, and her reaction to this is to dump her fiance and move to a new city with him about five seconds later, so he basically verbally abuses her into being his girlfriend, which, if we were encouraged to look into her motivations to the same extent that we’re allowed to examine the motivations of the other (male) characters on the show, would be some spooky tragic cycle-of-abuse bullshit – the show emphasizes that the only other characters who are drawn to him are deeply fucked up, I would take “deeply fucked up” as an answer here – but in the context of the show, it’s all cool. Because she’s not a person; she’s a plot point. Because she’s a woman.

Fear and contempt of women are the only motivating factors to write a character this way. In Apatow-Brand comedies, the girls who are not “Because, Um…?” girls are either bitches (wives; sexually unavailable women; professional women; ex-girlfriends) or sluts, typically of the crazy drunk variety. (Woody Allen, another prominent “Because, Um…?” writer, uses Manhattan to compress all of the above-listed “bitch” characteristics into a successful lesbian ex-wife, whom he hilariously confesses to having tried to run over with his car. HA! A man trying to murder a woman because she ended their relationship and/or is not heterosexual! It’s funny, ’cause that’s how a lot of women actually die!) Eastbound & Down takes this tack by having literally only two other female characters, a wife whom we’re encouraged to think of as an uptight bitch and a “fuckbuddy” whose only defining characteristic is that she is such a crazy drunk slut all the time. The “Because, Um…?” girl can only exist in the negative space created by this double bind. If women have standards, they’re bitches; if they don’t have standards, they’re sluts: try to write yourself out of this, and you find that the only feasible way to create a non-threatening female character is to give her no motivations or personality whatsoever, to turn her into a cipher who provides love or sex simply because the plot demands it.
This is an exact description of Sally in TALLEY’S FOLLY. 

Let us review the evidence. Wikipedia mentions some salient plot points:
While on vacation in Lebanon, Missouri the previous summer, Matt met Sally and has sent her a letter every day since. Though the single reply from Sally gave him no hope for romantic encouragement, he has bravely returned to ask her to marry him.

*** 

Sally arrives at the boathouse and is in disbelief that Matt has shown up uninvited, even though he had written her that he planned to come for the holiday.

*** 

Matt's interest in Sally had never waned; once, he drove from his home in St. Louis to the hospital where she worked and waited hours for her, even after being informed that she was not available.
Notice how the Wikipedia entry - which sounds like it was taken right from marketing copy - refers to the stalker coming to confront the stalkee after a year of rejection "brave." 

But Matt didn’t just wait for her at the hospital, he did a little snooping around while he was there:
                   MATT
Also, I talk to the patients at the hospital, remember? Some are not so young. And they all say "Are you Sally's beau? Every time we say something sweet to Sally, try to get fresh, she says 'Come on now, I got a beau."
Now please note - we are supposed to take this to mean that Sally is “really” in love with Matt because she’s telling men who are hitting on her that she has a boyfriend. She is supposed to be playing extreme “hard to get." 

In addition to spying on her at work, Matt spies on Sally through her aunt:
                    MATT
Oh my goodness. She does have a vanity as well as a temper. You are thirty-one because you were fired from teaching Sunday school on your twenty-eight birthday and that was three years ago.
                   SALLY

What?

                   MATT

I've become great friends with your Aunt Charlotte. There's a counterspy in your home. You're infiltrated. I didn't tell you. You're ambushed. I've come up on you from behind.

                   SALLY

When did you talk to Aunt Charlotte?

                   MATT

Last year. For a second today. And every few weeks during the winter. On the telephone. (He laughs.) I never heard of anyone being fired from Sunday school before.

                   SALLY

I quit. We didn't get along.
This is an astounding, grotesque exchange for many reasons. First, because Sally’s aunt has betrayed her to a stranger. Either the aunt has all her faculties and still gave out embarrassing personal information about her niece because she's nasty, or she has mental problems and Matt is taking advantage of this to get the dirt on his obsession. 



And Matt is not the least bit bashful about the fact that he has been obsessively spying on this woman - he’s brags about it with undisguised triumph:


You're infiltrated. I didn't tell you. You're ambushed. I've come up on you from behind.

I won’t even go into the apparent sexual assault metaphor there. And don’t tell me that Wilson was unaware of that possible interpretation.

The third reason that the “talking to Aunt Charlotte” passage is so objectionable is because of the way that Sally reacts right after Matt has humiliated her. Remember now, Matt has just said a few lines earlier that Sally has a temper. Here’s how she responds to all this information:
                   SALLY

I quit. We didn't get along.
Now most human beings would have some kind of objection to this gross violation of privacy let alone someone who is supposed to have a temper. But Sally is a “because...um girl?” defined as
"a non-threatening female character (with) no motivations or personality whatsoever...  a cipher who provides love or sex simply because the plot demands it."
To have Sally respond in a way that a person with a temper would respond would work against the narrative that says that Matt will win her in the end. And the plot demands that he win her in the end. And that's not hyperbole - the Matt character confides in the audience at the top of the play:
They tell me that we have ninety-seven minutes here tonight without intermission... if everything goes well for me tonight this should be a waltz one-two-three, one-two-three a no-holds barred romantic story..."
He virtually declares the outcome and and how long it will take. There's certainly no time for Sally to have an actual personality, or for there to be any realistic consequences to Matt's actions. The plot demands that she provide love. She delivers, like a compliant plot device.

Matt's charm offensive doesn't end with the stalking, however. He's not afraid to use physical force - several times throughout the play Sally tries to leave the boathouse and Matt stops her by holding her back or blocking the door:

                      SALLY

-Get gone now. Leave before I hit you with something. You can walk to the Barnettes', they'll give you some gas for a couple of coupons.

                      MATT

Now who is making the disturbance?

                     SALLY

               (Angry, quite loud.)

Get off this property or get out of my way so I can go back to the house, or I'll disturb you for real.

                     MATT

We are going to settle this before anyone goes anywhere.

                     SALLY

I won't be made a fool just because I fell in love again, Matt, and I won't be pushed around again.

                     MATT

You're not getting away from me.

                     SALLY

Get out of here!

                     MATT

Do you realize what you said? Did you hear yourself?

                    SALLY

             (Yelling toward the door.)

Buddy! Cliffy! Here he is. Matt Friedman is down here!
(Her last words are muffled by Matt's hand as he grabs her and holds her fast. She tries to speak over his lines.)
                     MATT

              (Grabbing her.)

Vilde chaya! you are a crazy woman! We could both be shot with that gun. People do not scream and yell and kick.

              (She stops struggling.)

People are blessed with the beautiful gift of reason and communication.

              (He starts to release her.)

                    SALLY
Cliffy!

                    MATT

               (Grabbing her again.)

How can such a thing happen? When they passed out logic everybody in the Ozarks went on a marshmallow roast. You are rational now?
(He releases her. She moves away. Matt stands where he can block her exit.)
Life is going to be interesting with you. Are you hurt?

Is there anything more repulsive than a thug using physical force against someone he is supposed to love, and then lecturing her on the proper way for people to behave? 

But remember how Sally is playing hard-to-get? Stalker/bully Matt can see the clues that tells him what she really wants, in spite of her many protestations.

This passage contains one of those clues:


                   SALLY

I won't be made a fool just because I fell in love again, Matt, and I won't be pushed around again.

Did “because I fell in love again” leap out at you too? Who ever says that, right in the middle of screaming at somebody to go away? Women, of course, in "romantic comedies" and that’s why you have to respond to their craziness by replying:


                  MATT

You're not getting away from me.
Women don’t know what they want. Or maybe they secretly do know what they want, but they’ll jerk you around for a whole year. And that's why, as a man, you can’t take no for an answer. You have to keep her in that boathouse until she gives you the right answer.

But maybe Sally is just crazy and so Matt is forced to act crazy too. But here’s the thing - nowhere in the play are we led to believe that Sally is crazy. She’s normal, albeit sad yet beautiful. No, Sally isn't crazy, Sally is a woman and bitches is crazy. 

But even more important than Sally blurting out that she fell in love is Matt blurting out in Yiddish during the struggle.

But first let's look at more of Matt’s charms:
                      MATT

I am foolish to insinuate myself down here and try to feel like one of the hillbillies. Who ever heard of this Friedman? I don't blame you. I won't be Matt Friedman any more. I'll join the throng. Call myself... August Hedgepeth. Sip moonshine over the back of my elbow. Wheat straw in the gap in my teeth. I'm not cleaning my glasses, I'm fishing for crappies. Bass.

                     SALLY

Sun perch.

                     MATT

Oh heck, yes. Only I'm not. I can't even take off my shoes without feeling absurd.

                     SALLY

People don't walk around with their shoes off here, sipping moonshine. It isn't really the Hatfields and the McCoys. The ones who go barefoot only do it because they can't afford shoes.
So we’ve seen that Matt is a stalker, a bully, and he mocks Sally’s community. How could such a character possibly be acceptable as a romantic lead?

Here’s how:  
                      MATT

...and Buddy came - does your entire family have such absurd names?

                      SALLY

His real name is Kenny. We call him Buddy.

                      MATT

Kenny? Is his real name? This is better, for a grown man? Kenny? Kenny Talley, Lottie Talley, Timmy Talley, Sally Talley? Your brother also does not know how to converse. Your brother talks in rhetorical questions. "You're Sally's Jewish friend, ain't ya? What do you think you want here? Did you ever hear that trespassing was against the law?"

Kenny has a good reason for telling Matt he's trespassing - he told him to leave because Sally wasn't there. Matt believed she was hiding from him and that's why he refuses to leave. 

So why is Buddy the bad guy and Matt the hero of this passage? 

Anti-Semitism. 

Matt's from an oppressed minority so he's allowed to be completely obnoxious and still get the girl. 

Still not convinced? Imagine how obnoxious Sally would sound if she said this to Matt: "What kind of names are those? Schlomo, Golda, Moishe, Uri?" She even says at one point that he shouldn't make fun of her accent because she wouldn't make fun of his. But the normal rules of polite behavior do not apply to Matt: we are expected to excuse him because he is a victim of anti-Semitism. 

And this should not be surprising - if people can excuse Roman Polanski for drugging and raping a 13-year-old due to the Holocaust, surely we can forgive Matt a little stalking and bullying and bigotry.

As much as I loathe TALLEY’S FOLLY, Wilson, in his introduction to the published version, reveals it could have been much worse. Wilson writes:
Everyone loved it, that is, except Marshall W. Mason, who was to direct. After many glowing comments and applause, Marshall and I retired to his office. He had (ominously) said nothing during the discussion period. I thought the play was perfect, so I had quite a chip on my shoulder. He said something like, "So the story is, essentially, Matt comes down to Lebanon and browbeats this girl into hysterical admission that she's barren." I said yes and he said "What's fun about that?" He pointed out that with Matt knowing she couldn't bear children he didn't even have to tell her he refused to bring children into the world. Except for being turned down, he had nothing more at stake. He didn't even have to browbeat her, he could just say Lottie told me. It wasn't even dramatic. His actions were brutal with little cost to himself.
All true enough, but please note that in spite of these glaring flaws Wilson admits to "everyone" - that would be the Circle Rep play reading group - loved it prior to the re-write, and Wilson himself thought it was "perfect." Wilson continues:
However, if he did not know her situation, then he would first have to tell Sally that he refused to have children and ask if she would have him in that condition. He had to risk something. Marshall must have been very convincing because the chip fell off my shoulder and very soon I was taking notes. I rewrote the middle third of the play. It was much more dramatic... Marshall said, "Let's read it. I'll read Matt, you read Sally.
OK, so Wilson rewrote some of this "perfect" play, but there was still a huge problem, he continues:
I had sat there as Sally, watching Matt jump through hoops, and all I said was "Oh Matt" and "Come on now, Matt." I didn't like my part. And I especially didn't like it when Matt finally told me he wanted to marry me but he didn't want kids. The writer had not provided me with the obvious response: "Who told you I couldn't have children?" I sat there livid because he had made me feel terrible about his lousy childhood and I thought it had all been a ploy. And all I did in the script was cave in. Back to the typewriter. Sally's part grew by a third. It is still not as flamboyant as Matt's but I think she now holds her own. She is much stronger and much more her own woman. We finally had a play.
I would argue Wilson is giving himself too much credit here - as I've demonstrated, Sally is a sap when it's narratively convenient. But then Wilson admits there are still problems with the final version of the play - the version that won the 1980 Pulitzer for drama:
If Matt knows she can't have children and it takes the whole play for him to convince Sally it's OK that she can't have children - it's a story. If he doesn't know and he presents his resolution, and then finds out she can't have children anyway - it's a plot. What happens is a very strange phenomenon. When Sally finally screams out in desperation, "I can't have children, I can't bear children!" there is an almost audible click as the last piece of the plot locks into place. It is an enormously satisfying moment. We feel the perfection of it. But it is also terribly disappointing. We feel like we have been manipulated. This has all been a carefully worked out artifice... that's what a plot this starkly presented does. It underlines the artifice... we decided to live with it.
And bingo - Pulitzer. 

Now the repulsiveness of Matt's character is not an issue for Wilson because, as I said, Matt gets an asshole license due to anti-Semitism. But the problem with the plot as-is goes beyond the "perfection" of its artifice. Wilson has set up a situation where a woman is interested in a man, but tells him to go away many many times, presumably because she can't have children. But if that's the issue, why didn't she just tell him she can't have children and see what he says?

But if that is really why she rejects him, why wouldn't she immediately respond, when he tells her he doesn't want children, that she can't have children? Instead he has to drag it out of her - still.

No matter how many times Wilson has someone tell us that Sally is strong, what he shows us instead is that Sally is a dithering, childish cipher who has to be browbeaten and physically restrained by Matt in order to achieve a happy ending. 

And are we to believe that because she can't have children, Sally has sworn off men forever? And that only a browbeating stalker who doesn't want children and is eleven years older could possibly make her interested in sex, love and marriage again? Are we supposed to believe that Sally is going to end up an old maid unless Matt comes along, like Mary in the George Bailey-free alternate universe in "It's a Wonderful Life?" That movie has the excuse of being made in the 1940s. TALLEY'S FOLLY was written in 1979. 

Finally, the device of having Matt speak to the audience at the beginning of the play, telling us up front that he's going to try to get the girl, adds nothing to the story. In fact, it puts Matt and Sally on an even more unequal footing by making Matt the omniscient narrator and Sally just a character behind the fourth wall, and it puts the audience in the position of being confederates of Matt in his campaign to win Sally.

And his little winking aside to the audience at the end of the play: 
(takes out his watch, shows time to Sally and then the audience) 
...right on the button. Good-night

- is creepy, precious and smug, all at the same time. 

I've been involved in play readings since November 2000 in New York City, and I've seen actors make really crappy plays sound good. Skilled and appealing actors can work wonders on bad scripts. And Wilson had access to a very high caliber of actor for his work by the time he wrote TALLEY'S FOLLY. But what those not-so-great actors in Haddonfield New Jersey made plain to me, and what the text itself and Wilson's own comments make even plainer is that this is actually a poorly thought-out play with a repulsive character as a romantic lead.

During the course of writing this essay, I had an argument on Facebook with an actor who defended TALLEY'S FOLLY by saying that obviously I am wrong about the play, since it's so popular and nobody else has noticed the whole stalking/bully aspect.

But actually, in the past few years critics are finally beginning to take note. 

This is from Theatre Mirror Reviews in 2006:
Adam Zahler’s canny direction makes Matt’s determination -- and aggression (He’s not taking ‘NO’ for an answer) -- seems ever so romantic. Remember, the play is set in 1944, way before “stalking” entered our vocabulary. Stephen Russell makes Matt an earnest, if gangly, hero to rescue Marianna Bassham’s fragile maiden-in-distress. The two seem so mismatched that we, just like Sally, need convincing---and we get it in Zahler’s heartfelt production.
This is from a 2009 theatre review in Pegasus News:
Matt Friedman is persistent (as many smitten men can be) but he doesn't seem delusional. The idea of stalking in the sense we have today didn't exist in 1979, when Folly won the Pulitzer, or 1944 when the play is set. Sally doesn't make Matt feel welcome, but she doesn't exactly chase him off.
And this is from a 2012 review in a blog associated with the Journal News:
She finds moments — flashes of moments, really — where Sally drops her resolve to reveal emotion in a shy smile, a glint in her eye, a color change on her expressive face.It’s not much for Matt to work with, but Stone uses those moments as fuel, to push, prod and needle his way into Sally’s heart.
In our modern age, Sally’s family would have a restraining order, power being power and no meaning no. Matt’s considerable charms — despite the best of intentions — would be kept at bay.
Of course the stalking is excused based on the "that's just how it was in the good old days" argument - but at least there is acknowledgement of the behavior. 

But why keep producing a play that excuses stalking and bullying? Not only excuses it, but posits those behaviors as absolutely necessary for a romantic comedy - the only actual dramatic struggle on stage in the whole play is Matt restraining Sally from leaving the boathouse, after refusing to leave it himself. 

My theory is that in addition to being relatively inexpensive to produce, most of the people who've seen this play in the past twenty years are old - theatre audiences are famously old. When the audience for TALLEY'S FOLLY was coming of age male dominance was the absolute law of the land. Nobody even questioned it. So of course these attitudes and behaviors are perfectly acceptable to them, even "romantic." 

As the post-baby boomers become old and become the theatre audience, they might not be so comfortable with the extreme patriarchy of this play - and TALLEY'S FOLLY will one day go the way of WHY MARRY, the 1918 Pulitzer Prize winner that nobody ever produces anymore. Because it's crap.

So sure, few people notice the egregiousness of TALLEY'S FOLLY now, but that's just because I'm ahead of the curve.

c. 2012 by Nancy McClernan