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Fefu and Her Friends

September 1st, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

“I am in constant pain.  I don’t want to give into it.  If I do, I’m afraid I will never recover…It’s not physical, and it’s not sorrow.  It’s very strange Emma, I can’t describe it, and it’s very frightening.”

So begins one of the central articulations by Fefu of her condition, and the central meaning of the play Fefu and Her Friends by Maria Irene Fornes.  In three prominent scenes, Fornes reveals the unspoken angst that is destroying the women at this 1935 New England gathering.

From Cleveland Public Theatre's production.

From Cleveland Public Theatre's production.

In a play that I’ve heard described as no play at all it is often difficult to put your finger on the precise malady that is afflicting all the women, as Fefu says, “I can’t describe it.”  Fortunately for us, there are two characters who can describe it.  These two characters make up the other two prominent scenes that reveal the angst.  The first of these remaining two scenes complements the “On the Lawn” scene from which I’ve quoted above, this is the “In the Bedroom” where Julia, a woman suffering from psychosomatic paralysis, tells us what is afflicting her:

“They clubbed me. They broke my head. They broke my will. They broke my hands. They tore my eyes out.  They took my voice away.”

And on she goes.  Julia discusses the role of the “judges” and the “guardians” in her hallucinatory rant.  The judges and guardians make up the “they” that is a constant refrain throughout this scene, per the above.  What is most important perhaps is the revelation by Julia that “They are after her too.”  The her being Fefu.

The third of the prominent scenes that strikes at the central meaning of this play–as if any one thing could–is the speech by Emma in Part Three. Emma is a woman with a strong and powerful presence in the play that is strengthened by the fact that so many of the women are unsure of themselves; whereas Emma is certainly not.  At a rehearsal for some future presentation (the purpose of which we are not entirely sure) Emma quotes from the prologue of Emma Sheridan Fry’s 1917 book Educational Dramatics.  For the prologue to a book about the importance of acting and dramatizing education, this has to rank among the most metaphysical of prologues ever.  The gist of the piece is that we have lost touch with the outside world–the world outside our heads and outside our own meager ego-oriented lives–and the will and spirit within us that makes us want to embrace this world.  “The Environment knocks at the gateway of the senses,” Emma begins.  “We do not answer.”  But we need to answer.  Why? Because outside of our heads and our meager perception of the world “life universal surges” and “life universal” holds for us the promise that “all is ours…that whatever anyone has ever known, or may ever know, we will call and claim.”  That in each of us is a light, a strong and powerful light, that shines out all we can achieve, and glory in the brilliance of our own strength and power and the joy of our creation and life.  And yet, we are reluctant.  We hunker down and hide.  We do nothing. Why do we not fulfill our potential?  Emma has an answer for that, too.

“Society restricts us, school straight jackets us, civilization submerges us, privation wrings us, luxury feather beds us.  The Divine Urge is checked.  The Winged Horse balks on the road, and we, discouraged, defeated, dismount and burrow into ourselves.  The gates are closed and Divine Urge is imprisoned at Center.  Thus we are taken by indifference that is death.”

In this quote can be found the key to the oft-quoted phrase from Christ, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:24) The meaning here is not a repudiation of wealth just because…  It has to do with the things that accompany wealth: “luxury feather beds us.”  The essence is that it is extraordinarily difficult to be spiritual when the body is so well comforted.  In the world of worship, the soul must yearn and it is impossible for the soul to yearn when the body is pleasured, i.e. distracted.  Emma expands the list of things that can kill the Divine Urge, but each has a role.  It certainly is fun to quote both Christ and Pink Floyd in the same paragraph, as I am reminded too "Another Brick in the Wall" from The Wall:

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thoughts controlled
No dark sarcasm in the class room
Teachers leave them kids alone
(yells) hey teachers leave them kids alone!
All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.

Fornes is suggesting the same thing.  Or rather, Pink Floyd is suggesting the same thing as Fornes (as she came first!), and in fact The Wall is a good musical/filmic counterpart to what this play is describing: the creation of a wall around the women, a wall that undermines them, defeats them, breaks them down, tells them they are inferior.

For Julia, the end has already been achieved.  She is broken.  Her strength is sapped as is her will to live.  The process is just beginning for Fefu.  Her nameless pain is the start.  Julia speaks of what the judges and guardians do, but this perhaps is too abstract, too strange a thing to get one’s head around, so, very like the teachers in the Pink Floyd song, Fornes provides us with explicit examples:

SUE: At the end of the first semester they called her in because she had been out with 28 men and they thought that was awful.  And the worst thing was that after that, she thought there was something wrong with her.

CINDY: (Jokingly) She was a nymphomaniac, that’s all.

SUE: She was not.  She was just very beautiful so all the boys wanted to go out with her. And if a boy asked her to go have a cup of coffee she’d sign out and write in the name of the boy.  None of us did of course.  All she did was go for coffee or go to a movie.  She was really very innocent.

EMMA: And Gloria Schuman? She wrote a psychology paper the faculty decided she didn’t write and they called her in to try to make her admit she hadn’t written it. She insisted she wrote it and they sent her to a psychiatrist also.

JULIA: Everybody ended going to the psychiatrist.

EMMA: After a few visits the psychiatrist said: Don’t you think you know me well enough now that you can tell me the truth about the paper? He almost drove her crazy.  They just couldn’t believe she was so smart.

So, again, here we see the judges and the guardians in action.  Standing above the young women, passing judgment, guarding their conscience and their intellect, regulating them; ensuring that the Divine Urge is never realized.

The gist of Fefu and Her Friends is contained in the three prominent scenes above (prominent because they contain the three strongest characters of the play who pronounce the largest ideas of the play).  Emma warns the women that they must “seek the laws governing real life forces, that coming into their own, they may create, develop, and reconstruct.”  Create, develop, and reconstruct what?  Society?  The Culture?  The way they relate to each other, and to men?  All of these are legitimate answers and represent what must be reconstructed.  For Julia it is too late, as demonstrated by the final scene in the play.  It may be too late for Fefu as well, who wraps herself in the bravado of masculinity to cover over her fear of redefining herself.

I’ll come back later and consider other things: themes, images, that strange shit with the gun, the animal, and Julia, etc.

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