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Keyword: ‘Maria Irene Fornes’

Palin and Fefu: a male-associated strategy of domination

September 7th, 2009 No comments

One of the more intriguing elements of Fefu is the relationship of certain actions against animals and Julia.

Taking up the Rifle

Taking up the Rifle

In Part 1 there is a conversation between Christina and Cindy in which Cindy relates the tale of Julia’s paralysis.  A hunter aimed at a deer and then shot it. Julia and the deer fell.  The deer was dead, but Julia had convulsions.  Julia was bleeding from her forehead, but it was not a bullet wound, and there was no other visible evidence of injury.  Julia rants in delirium. The paralysis is blamed on scar tissue on the brain from the fall: a petit mal.


Cindy relates what Julia said in her delirium:

“…she was persecuted.–That they tortured her…That they had tried her and that the shot was her execution. That she recanted because she wanted to live….That if she talked about it….to anyone…she would be tortured further and killed.” p18

The delirious statement by Julia above corresponds to her hallucinations later in The Bedroom, which serves as a fuller explanation of what Cindy relates.

At the end of the play, Fefu shoots and kills a rabbit.  This action again results in a wound on Julia’s forehead, but this time it seems as though Julia is finished, as her head “falls back.”  Just prior to the gun shot, Julia says, “I didn’t tell [Fefu] anything.  Did I?  I didn’t.”  Implying, per the quote above, that Julia was bound to silence about what she knew, punishable by death.

The question of interest for me here, though is that of the animals being shot and Julia being injured.

For the first part of my response to it, I’m going to point to Sir James G. Frazer1 and his work The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion.  In that work there are several stories that are recounted which have events that are similar, under a section entitled “The External Soul.”

Once, a warlock called Koshchei the Deathless carried off a princess and kept her prisoner in his golden castle. However, a prince made up to her one day as she was walking alone and disconsolate in the castle garden, and cheered by the prospect of escaping with him she went to the warlock and coaxed him with false and flattering words, saying:

“My dearest friend, tell me, I pray you, will you never die?”

“Certainly not,” says he.

“Well,” says she, “and where is your death? Is it in your dwelling?”

“To be sure it is,” says he, “it is in the broom under the threshold.”

Thereupon the princess seized the broom and threw it on the fire, but although the broom burned, the deathless warlock Koshchei remained alive; indeed not so much as a hair of him was singed.

Balked in her first attempt, the artful hussy pouted and said, “You do not love me true, for you have not told me where your death is; yet I am not angry, but love you with all my heart.”

With these fawning words she besought the warlock to tell her truly where his death was.

So he laughed and said, “Why do you wish to know? Well then, out of love I will tell you where it lies. In a certain field there stand three green oaks, and under the roots of the largest oak is a worm, and if ever this worm is found and crushed, that instant I shall die.”

When the princess heard these words, she went straight to her lover and told him all; and he searched till he found the oaks and dug up the worm and crushed it. Then he hurried to the warlock’s castle, but only to learn from the princess that the warlock was still alive. Then she fell to wheedling and coaxing Koshchei once more, and this time, overcome by her wiles, he opened his heart to her and told her the truth.

“My death,” said he, “is far from here and hard to find, on the wide ocean.  In that sea is an island, and on the island there grows a green oak, and beneath the oak is an iron chest, and in the chest is a small basket, and in the basket is a hare, and in the hare is a duck, and in the duck is an egg; and he who finds the egg and breaks it, kills me at the same time.”

The prince naturally procured the fateful egg and with it in his hands he confronted the deathless warlock. The monster would have killed him, but the prince began to squeeze the egg. At that the warlock shrieked with pain, and turning to the false princess, who stood by smirking and smiling,

“Was it not out of love for you,” said he, “that I told you where my death was? And is this the return you make to me?”

With that he grabbed at his sword, which hung from a peg on the wall; but before he could reach it, the prince had crushed the egg, and sure enough the deathless warlock found his death at the same moment.

There are many other stories of a similar sort which I will not repeat here, but the similarity is the nature of the soul being external to the person and that person’s existence being tied to the animal or object containing the soul.  Similar relationships are drawn between a witch/warlock and her/his familiar; and it should be noted that references to witchcraft are peppered amongst Fefu, the most obvious of which is Fefu’s story of the black cat that she feeds.  As a play with very strong feminist overtones, it is certain that the references to witches are there to point to men’s latent fears regarding the mystery and power of the female body.

With the above in mind, it is clear that the animals and Julia are connected.  We also know that there are two types of animals killed (a deer and rabbit) so there is no one type of animal with which Julia is associated–it would seem to be animals in general.  Although, there is no monopoly one the relationship between animals and people, the scene “In the Study” has Cindy reading from a magazine: “A lady in Africa divorced her husband because he was a cheetah.” p30. However, I will note that the animal in question here is a hunting animal, not a grazing animal.  So, the main question is, how is Julia related to animals or what does this connection mean?

For the second part of my response, a key comes from an article by Penny Faran2, who writes of Fornes:

By her own account, she began writing the play with two “fantasy” images in mind.  The first was of a “woman…who was talking to some friends [and then] took her rifle and shot her husband”; the second was a joke involving “two Mexicans speaking at a bullfight. One says to the other, ‘She is pretty, that one over there.’ The other says, ‘Which one?’ So the first one takes his rifle and shoots her.  He says, ‘That one, the one that falls.’” In the completed play, Fornes has brought these two startling premises together so that, however indirectly, Fefu shoots Julia rather than her husband Phillip and, in doing so, takes the place of the men in the “joke” who objectify women to the point of annihilation. p446

Faran goes on to point out that “taking up the gun is a male-associated strategy of domination” and that Julia’s observation that Fefu is hurting herself by firing the gun (in Part 1 of Fefu) is correct.

But the notion of the “objectification of women” and the notion that women have traditionally been viewed as passive creatures to men’s more active principle suggests that women, as are the deer and rabbit, subject to being acted upon and are defenseless against the male urge toward domination.  Julia is thus representative of this feminine principle and receives the action of the masculine principle against her.

This again highlights what may be a fundamental assertion that both Fefu and Julia are not only threatened by the male principle, but have harmed themselves, albeit in different ways: Fefu, by constantly acting the part of a man; Julia but allowing herself to become passive.  Again, this raises the notion of to what extent in the play that Emma offers an alternative vision of how women can succeed by redefining the terms of the conversation.

  1. Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion
  2. Farfan, Penelope. Feminism, Metatheatricality, and Mise en Scène in Maria Irene Fornes’s Fefu and Her Friends. Modern Drama 40 (1997): 442-453
  3. Previous Fefu post

Fefu and Her Friends

September 1st, 2009 No 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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