Play review: The Women

I recently had the pleasure of seeing The Women at the California Theatre Center in Sunnyvale, CA. The CTC always presents outstanding productions, and this one was no different. The play was based on the 1936 script written by Clare Boothe Luce.

The play is entirely composed of female actors, and focuses on the social and marital situation of socialites in the 1930s as well as relationships between women. To say that it is a bit misogynistic and counter to feminism is a bit of an understatement. The dialogue reflects the beliefs of the time: “After all, this is a man’s world. The sooner our girls are taught to accept the fact graciously—”… Sigh. You get the point. While dated, the dialogue is crisp and witty and contains the occasional gem that makes you stop and ponder…enough so that I found myself tracking down a copy of the script to revisit some of those lines.

Many of the major themes are dated but still resonate: the view of single women as not quite fitting in, girls not wanting to grow up to be women, spousal cheating, reasons behind why men cheat, the importance of being male in society, staying married for the sake of the children, the difficulty of discussing getting divorced with one’s children, domestic violence, and needing to find a man—any man. And keeping him. At any cost.

The single woman of the group who makes occasional appearances is an author, though not a particularly successful one. Due to have her latest book come out any day, she describes it as “the book my readers everywhere have been waiting for with such marked apathy.”

Another example of witty lines is when this woman is departing for Africa. Her friend Mary, our heroine, exclaims how she will miss Nancy. “I doubt it. Practically nobody ever misses a clever woman.” Commentary on the fate of single women in that era. Perhaps any era.

Some dialogue, like the lines above, invites pondering. Are things really so different nearly eighty years after Clare Boothe Luce wrote this play? In some ways yes. In some ways no.The reason men cheat on their wives, according to the mother of our heroine, is because they are tired and need to see themselves in a different way. “Stephen’s tired of himself. Tired of feeling the same thing in himself year after year. Time comes when every man’s got to feel something new—when he’s got to feel young again, just because he’s growing old…a man has only one escape from his old self: to see a different self—in the mirror of some woman’s eyes.” Are men today still running from aging into the arms of other women? Perhaps.

We learn from sources other than Stephen that the reason he would stay in the marriage to Mary, a woman he was no longer in love with (though he was fond of her) was the children. In a confrontation, the adulteress explained to Mary why Stephen doesn’t leave her. “You’re just an old habit with him. It’s just those brats he’s afraid of losing. If he weren’t such a sentimental fool about those kids, he’d have walked out on you months ago.” Ouch.

Mary recoils at Stephen’s desire to stay in the marriage for the children and not out of love for her. A dialogue between two servants helps clarify Mary’s reasoning. “Why does she get so mad every time he says they’ve got to consider the children? If children ain’t the point of being married, what is?” “A woman don’t want to be told she’s being kept on just to run a kindergarten.”

Throughout the play, we are told implicitly and explicitly that people should stay together because of the children. We see the daughter in exchanges with her “stepmom” that reinforce the idea that parents should be raising the kids together as a married couple.

I don’t know that these sentiments have really changed all that much—either that men stay in marriages for the children or that women are advised, implicitly or otherwise, to remain married for the children. I’ve known the first and heard the second.

Rather than encourage her daughter to leave a marriage where the husband is unfaithful, Mrs. Morehead urges her daughter Mary to remain. Remain and bear it. Like she did. Like other women have. According to Mrs. Morehead’s way of thinking, you never mention to your husband that you know of his unfaithfulness or to your girlfriends. Doing so invites the dissolution of the marriage, which one must avoid at all costs.

After her daughter’s divorce has been finalized, Mrs. Morehead, long widowed, paradoxically exclaims the benefits of being single. “Living alone has its compensations. You can go where you please, wear what you please, and eat what you please. I had to wait twenty years to order the kind of meal I liked! Your father called it bird-food—And heaven knows, it’s marvelous to be able to sprawl out in bed, like a swastika.”

However, Mary loves her husband and foolishly (as everyone is wont to point out) tried to call his bluff by asking for a divorce but waiting and expecting him to call her at the last moment begging her to call off the divorce. He doesn’t. Well, he does call, but not to call off the divorce. In the end, they both regret the divorce…but the woman gets her man. Again. In that way, the message is very conservative: stay with your cheating husband. You are better with a man than without one. This is true even for one of the servants who is beaten by her husband.

The 1936 version of the play was updated in 1973 and 2001, and produced as a movie in 1939 and more recently in 2008. The cast of the 2008 movie looks promising with actresses like Annette Bening, Cloris Leachman, Bette Midler, Carrie Fisher, and Meg Ryan. I am curious to see how this modern-day movie adaptation deals with the themes treated in the original play and what updated twists, if any, have been added. While it may be hard to scrub the misogynistic themes from the play and retain the dialogue, I expect the witty repartees and scattered insightful comments on human nature to remain.  The play makes you realize what has changed (and not changed) in terms of societal norms and views…and offers the occasional point to ponder.

Update: See my review of the 2008 movie.

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