by Alison Barker
In a 2007 interview with Mike Wood, playwright Tina Howe revealed that her influences were just as visual as literary. “I particularly liked the empty ones,” Howe said of Joseph Cornell’s shadowboxes. Her four-play marriage cycle, Birth and After Birth, could be characterized as a series of shadowboxes, with heavy emphasis on the “box.” The four plays—Birth and After Birth,Approaching Zanzibar, One Shoe Off, and Rembrandt’s Gift—are arranged chronologically, each serving as an installment of a married couple’s identity crises. And just like Cornell’s shadowboxes, Howe dresses each setting with a few carefully chosen artifacts torn from the reality of married life—sand from a seashore vacation, a scenic rest area, vegetables from a garden, or a bodice from a Little Bo Peep costume.
While two of her plays have been named Pulitzer finalists (Painting Churches (1984) and Pride’s Crossing (1997)), and Coastal Disturbances (1987) received a Tony Award nomination, those are her more mainstream works, in which she channels nostalgia for her native New England. In her introduction to Birth and After Birth and Other Plays she distinguishes these plays as “the ones where I rip off my white gloves.” These are the plays that seem to be the closest to her heart, and the ones that have won the least critical acclaim. She likens these works to those treasures squirreled away in one’s drawer of precious mementos, including tickets to a 1960 production of Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano.
After its New York debut in 2006, Ben Brantley of the New York Times criticized Birth and After Birthfor its heavy reliance of Albee’s and Ionesco’s absurdist strategies, and quipped, “You always sense the diagram beneath the drama, and the performers often seem hobbled by schematic straitjackets.” Yet hobbling characters, both with word play and with visual clues, seems to be Howe’s purpose—from curtain’s rise, the couple’s house is slowly being swallowed up by the surrounding forest. Unlike Ionesco’s couples—the Martins and the Smiths in The Bald Soprano, for example, whose dialogue highlights the ineffectiveness of polite society—Howe’s couples use word play to interrogate each other emotionally as they negotiate the senselessness of their language. Where Ionesco tends to hold his characters emotionally at arm’s length with rhetorical conventions, Howe always ends the beat of a scene on an emotionally weighty zinger:
SANDY: I guess some women just can’t have children.
BILL: You can’t pass a camel through the eye of a needle.
NICKY: One man’s meat is another man’s poison.
SANDY: A rolling stone gathers no moss.
BILL: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
NICKY: No pain, no gain.
JEFFRREY: WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?
SANDY: Your pathetic wife!
Howe maintains that the real problem critics have about her more audacious plays is the way she applies absurdist tactics to sexual and gender politics, and she may be right. Each play asks, how can one be an artist, spouse and parent simultaneously? What are the definitions and restrictions of womanhood according to our society? What is the role of the mysterious in domestic intimacy? Howe makes no apology for her early (and easy) self-identification as an artist, which alienated her from the community of feminist writers in the 1970s, whose solidarity thrived on a sense of embattled artistic self-actualization. In her introduction, she only briefly discusses her exclusion from women’s consciousness-raising groups in the 1970s, and focuses more on the effect her mother’s large, dominating hats had on her psyche.
Birth and After Birth addresses the question of the female professional, and whether or not she can be a woman if she doesn’t have a child. Sandy is the mother of a four-year old (played by a 200-pound grown man). Inexplicably, natural elements of the seaside encroach upon her, overpowering her rational identity: sand falls out of her hair, her teeth loosen, and increasingly, she detects sea air in the atmosphere. Approaching Zanzibar, the most ambitious play in the series, features a family of four on a road trip to visit their ailing, ancient aunt, “an eminent site-specific artist.” The father is a frustrated composer, the mother has recurring visions of an abandoned baby, the son is a prodigy and the daughter is near-sighted. One Shoe Off is where Howe performs her most beautifully poignant boxing matches between a young couple (Clio and Tate), an older couple (Dinah and Leonard), and a dashing, single, successful movie director (Parker). Howe collides the professional and sexual insecurities of the two couples over and over again, until Parker arrives on the scene just in time to reap the benefits of everyone’s yearnings.
In all of the plays, the power of the mysterious, sometimes in the form of the muse, is the last resort to keep a partnership—and hope—intact. However, the mysterious is also an agent of chaos. Like those of fellow fabulist Sarah Ruhl, Howe’s plays have moments of hilarity and hysteria that are not rooted in the logic of language, but in physicality and emotion. Howe casts emotional truths in material form onstage so that the audience must participate in the elements of a character’s reality. In Birth and After Birth, the toddler becomes at times a dead president, a doctor, and his own father in a re-enactment of adultery. InOne Shoe Off, Dinah lays bare her desire for her lost youth and strokes Clio’s cheek, encouraging her husband to delight in the smooth skin.
These are not stories of emancipation, but they may be stories of redemption, as long as you accept that one finds it in variable, changeable states between one’s self and one’s emotional obligations. When Leonard in One Shoe Off reacts to the news that a mobile home has wrecked on the freeway, Dinah draws her own parallels:
LEONARD: I mean, people aren’t mowed down by houses.
DINAH: They’re only buried by them.
What good is women’s liberation, if it can’t claim the full rights of being an artist who is self-aware, self-absorbed, and critical of the marital binds that nourish her? Perhaps it’s sort of emancipation, after all, to be confined in marriage. Howe provides an objective correlative for this idea when Parker tells both couples about the woman he saw washing dishes inside the mobile home as it careened out of control:
PARKER: . . . But how could that be? People don’t live in those giant mobile homes when they’re being transported, and they certainly don’t do the dishes while they’re moving. . . . It’s a miracle more people weren’t killed when you stop to think about it. A fifty-ton split-level ranch ricocheting across a four-lane highway. . . It’s a wonder any of us escaped.
DINAH: (Returning with an assortment of kingly robes and doublets): Here, I brought you some things from my collection.
PARKER: Eeny, meeny, miney, moe.
LEONARD: Dinah, this isn’t a play.
And there’s the rub: this self-proclaimed “well-mannered anarchist” showcases ambiguity. Tina Howe may have used her bare hands to build these plays, but hers is a curator’s touch that aims to comfort and disturb.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011