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She Stoops to…Comedy

June 10th, 2007 No comments


In keeping with the themes of many of David Greenspan’s works, She Stoops to Comedy is a farcical look at love, gender, and identity–including the great lengths to which we will go when faced with the beginning or ending of love: complete transformation of the self.

Greenspan’s She Stoops to Comedy introduces us to the actress Alexandra Page, who has just experienced a relationship-ending argument with her long-time lover Alison Rose. In an attempt to recover Alison, who has gone to Maine to appear as Rosalind in Shakespeares As You Like It, Alexandra transforms herself into the actor Harry Samson and auditions for the part of Orlando. For those familiar with the Shakespeare play, the farcical zenith of She Stoops is reached when Rosalind, dressed as Ganymede, is wooed by Orlando. The complications of a woman dressed as a man wooing another woman dressed as a man pretending to be a woman should be ample incentive for seeing the production (if not happy confusion). But here’s the kicker: not a stitch of drag will you see. Along the way, the plot of She Stoops is complicated with the appearance of ex-lovers and new love interests (the director, the directors assistant, and the other Shakespearean actors, as well as an independent film troupe attempting to create a pseudo-documentary about reality in the theatre).

She Stoops to Comedy is an expertly and skillfully related tale of love and is in keeping with other romantic comedies such as Oliver Goldsmiths She Stoops to Conquer and Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Greenspan offers us an assortment of characters who are at various places in their experience of love, and he allows us to happily watch the reformation of love in Alexandra and Alison, who must both learn lessons about what it is to love, and how to do so selflessly.


As the play opens, Alexandra Page, an out-of-work, moderately famous lesbian actress, is talking through the bathroom door with her friend, Kay Fein, an archeologist or lighting designer. Alexandra is bemoaning the recent loss of her lover, Alison Rose. Alison Rose has left Alexandra to get some space and take the role of Rosalind in a production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. During the course of their discussion, we learn from Kay that Jayne Summerhouse, Kays ex-lover and the rival of Alexandra in both her career as an actress and as lover for Alison, will also be in Maine. Hearing Alexandras travails, Kay makes the off-hand remark that Alexandra should go to Maine and audition for the role of Orlando, starring opposite her ex-lover. For several possible motivations, including jealousy and to reclaim her lost love, Alexandra takes up the idea and steps out of the bathroom as a man, startling her friend Kay.

By the next scene we are in Maine and Alexandra, now Harry Samson, is auditioning for the role of Orlando. We are introduced to the director, Hal Stewart, and the brazenly-named Eve Addaman, Hals lover and assistant director. Additionally, we are introduced for the first time to Alexandras ex-lover Alison Rose. There is much merriment made of the names of the characters, the set and props on which the production will take place, and the audition of Alexandra/Harry Samson, who gets the part. The plot thickens as we witness Alison and Harry sitting down to get to know one another, and listen to each of them talk about their respective recent break-ups: ironically, with each other.

Jayne Summerhouse and her work partner Simon Lanquish enter. They are producing a pseudo-documentary about reality in the theatre, and have been invited by Hal Stewart to film the stage production. Much fun is had with the introduction of these characters and we watch Alexandra/Harry maintain composure as Jayne Summerhouse wryly ridicules Alexandra Page and openly flirts with Alison Rose. In addition, we get to see some toying with As You Like It: Simon cast as Touchstone, the clown and witty fool; Jayne as Celia, Rosalind’s cousin; and Eve Addaman as Adam, the old manservant to Orlando; and, of course, Alison as Rosalind and Ganymede. Furthermore, there is some fun with parts of the production, for instance, when Hal asks Harry to take off his shirt for the wrestling scene between Orlando and Charles the Wrestler, inspiring a farcical transition scene where Harry/Alexandra tries to smooth things over. Strengthening the love story, we have long scenes with Alison and Harry/Alexandra, and watch the re-transformation of their relationship continue.

The climax or peripeteic stage of the drama, to use Greenspan’s interpretation of Aristotle, as one would expect, is the requisite scene of sexual farce. It begins with a night out for dinner with Simon announcing his sexual interest in Harry; Jayne and Alison are gone off somewhere for a walk in the dark, and Kay Fein enters; then, with most of the characters together in the restaurant, there is a cell phone call from Alison to Alexandra, with Harry’s phone ringing, coincidentally, at the same time, which nearly gives away the ruse. Simon gets drunk, believing Harry to be a heterosexual who’s not interested in his overtures; Kay goes to find her ex-lover Jayne; and Alison and Harry walk a raving Simon back to the Offstage Hotel. Then the farce explodes in the hotel room, where Simon passes out but not before asking Harry for sex, while Alison too reveals her attraction to Harry (she doesn’t know why, because she is a lesbian) with every expectation that Harry will perform sexually. Stalling techniques and other subterfuges are engaged in to survive the night. We also witness the night spent by the other couples, including Hal and Eve, and Kay Fein and Jayne Summerhouse.

The play wraps up with a discussion between Alison Rose and Alexandra Page on the success of the performance of As You Like It, Alison now happily home again with Alexandra. There is discussion of a revival of the play next year, but that the director, Hal, would like to see Alexandra play the part of Orlando, thinking that she would, for some reason, be good at it.

At no time in the play is that actor in drag’
One actress plays Kay Fein and Jayne Summerhouse.

–David Greenspans notes to She Stoops

There is a long tradition in the theatre of cross-dressing: men, since before the time of Shakespeare, being the only sex allowed to act, always played the part of women and always dressed as them besides. For women, the tradition is less apparent. There is Amandine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin, later the Baroness Dudevant, also known as George Sand, who brazenly strode the streets of Paris in the mid-1800s in mens clothes; there is a film tradition, including Yentl, with Barbara Streisand, and Victor/Victoria with Julie Andrews–who, very like Alexandra Page in She Stoops to Comedy, is a woman dressing as a man. The only catch, by comparison, is David Greenspan’s directions for the part of Alexandra: At no time in the play is that actor in drag.

What does that mean? It means that David Greenspan is challenging the imagination of the audience. Can you see the woman in the man? Can you see the man in the woman? A question that is most certainly affirmed in the name of the character Eve Addaman, a brazen direction to the audience to not be fooled or limited by a characters sex alone. Gender is never as straightforward as the sexual physiology of the person, but in this play the question is nonetheless asked: What if a persons sex wasn’t as apparent as his outward appearance? Would his sex still show through, or would there be an ebb and flow of both sexes, freely, across his person? How does sex influence gender? That is, what is it to be a man and what is it to be a woman–beyond the physiological? Does being a man or being a woman change fundamentally who you are? Or can the question even be asked? As Gertrude Stein, one of Greenspan’s influences, said, What’s the use of being a boy if you are going to grow up to be a man? The light implication of her statement being: who dreams as a boy that he will turn out as he is now as a man; the darker implication being that little boys grow up to be the limited, closed, and often violent gender identities of grown men. The fact is, the identity one holds as a child is not the identity one holds as an adult. While the name may be the same, as well as the point of origin and family, the person has transmuted such that there may be little resemblance at all. Additionally, as each of us is fully aware, at any time any number of voices can be rattling around in our mind: our own voice, the voice of our mother, our father, our brother or sister, and even the voice of the guy next door. What is the influence of all these voices on your identity? Do they shape you, change you, speak for you? The nature of voice is as important to Greenspan as the nature of identity, and throughout She Stoops to Comedy, there are numerous instances of the identity questioning itself, shaping and reshaping her voice, framing the possibility that others live within the self or at least the possibility of other lives for the self. Can you have two (or more) people alive inside you at one time? Who, for instance, hasn’t experienced the following sensation when dressing for a costume party: the mask is on and suddenly a new person emerges from within, more energetic perhaps, bolder, more devious than the one who goes drably to work every Monday. How does this happen? Where does this new person come from? This is almost certainly to what Greenspan is pointing when he notes: One actress plays Kay Fein and Jayne Summerhouse, leading directly to one of the more comic scenes of She Stoops to Comedy: Jayne Summerhouse and Kay Fein arguing with each other, pointedly discussing each others weight, no less! But this example is the extreme pole of Greenspan’s position: the multiple personalities in the self released to confront each other. It is an extreme pole because Greenspan would like to see a harmonious relationship between the different selves. In fact, he would like to see them help one another, to contribute to the whole person, to see the union of the man inside the woman and the woman inside the man: the freeing of human imaginative energy from the stale gender roles and identity cocoons that each of us employs in his life. These are some of the questions raised and answered by She Stoops to Comedy and, in fact, by several of Greenspan’s plays.

But beyond this, Greenspan’s use of the gender-bending and sex-switching connects with the farcical tradition he follows, and points to throughout She Stoops to Comedy. The most obvious is Oliver Goldsmiths She Stoops to Conquer: or Mistakes of a Night. First put up on March 15, 1773, Goldsmiths romantic farce sees Kate Hardcastle, daughter of a well-to-do Englishman, square off against Charles Marlow, the son her fathers best friend, Sir Charles Marlow. Due to the stringent expectations placed on courting and its perfunctory nature at the time, Charles Marlow finds Kate Hardcastle curtsies to the floor and a lady without emotion. It is only by dressing as a barmaid that Kate is able to get the attention of Marlow and see him behave honestly, and thereby assess his true character, breeding, and emotion. By this method, Kate wins the heart of Marlow and in the end reveals herself to him, having thus stooped to conquer. She Stoops to Comedy also draws on Shakespeare’s As You Like It, which is the premise for the action in Greenspan’s play. Goldsmith, no doubt, found some of his themes and motifs in Shakespeares farce: a young man, Orlando, who succeeds with his true love, Rosalind, only after she dresses herself as a man, Ganymede, to instruct Orlando: to guide him away from the platitudes of overly sentimental, idealistic love and toward the proper attitude of friendship, respect, and natural desire. In both of the plays upon which Greenspan draws, one may immediately see similarities: the most apparent being that the lover takes another identity in order to excavate, align, and eventually woo the true self of the beloved. The identity is sloughed aside in order to release the energies that lie beneath, the energies of a full human being, not the limited and stagnated identity mandated by ourselves in society. The released energies have a re-vivifying effect on Alexandra Page and Alison Rose, strengthening both their self-confidence and their relationship with each other, not only affirming their love, but allowing their love to mature, take root, and grow deeper. The effect on love of the energy released by Alexandra Page is contrasted with the lost and pathetic love of Simon Lanquish, whose attempts at change have only ever been superficial and not fundamental; and the vain, self-indulgent love shown in Kay Fein and Jayne Summerhouse, imagistically symbolized in their both inhabiting the same body; and the stagnant, unimaginative love shown by Hal Stewart and Eve Addaman, whose love and love-making is as exciting as their teeth brushing together at the sink: their love will end soon due to their lack of energy and imagination and even their willingness to try.

Beyond the questions of sex and gender, audiences may be a bit overwhelmed by the form, structure, and verbal playing that occurs throughout She Stoops to Comedy. And in many ways this can be best explained by the recurring statement by Kay Fein, Alexandra Page, and others throughout She Stoops that things are post-modern. Whatever that means. In many ways, the key to the form and structure of Greenspan’s theatre can be found here, and knowing what postmodern means is crucial; so a small brush of literary theory and theatre history might be appropriate as back story for Greenspans approach.

Prior to the nineteenth century, and, in many ways even today, the form and structure of plays relied heavily on the structure and elements proscribed by Aristotle in his Poetics. The structural elements included the Hamartia, or tragic flaw, in the main character; Empathy, or the ever-crucial audience identification with the main character; the Peripeteia, or sudden fall, reversal of fortune, where audience empathy turns to dread; on to Anagnorisis, or recognition of the flaw (Hamartia); all leading to the Catastrophe, or terrible end, which evokes a Catharsis in the audience, purging it of its dread and anxiety, but sending along a good moral lesson. Over time, Aristotle’s theory and approach to theatre led to the development of five-act plays that moved in accordance with this theory and these steps. Additional elements included such things as time and place: the play should always occur in a unity of time and place, on the same day and in the same location. Shakespeare, for one, often violated the unity of time and space with the diverse settings and scenes of his plays, a fact which has often led people to suggest that he was the first screenwriter. Oliver Goldsmiths She Stoops to Conquer does, in fact, take place in one location and in a unity of time, hence its subtitle: The Mistakes of an Evening. Much of antiquity, as well as Elizabethan, Restoration, Neo-Classical, and Victorian literatures followed the forms and structures that preceded them. It wasnt until the early twentieth century, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and its accompanying changes, that a new outlook on art, culture, and society emerged: Modernism. The premise of Modernism was that the agrarian approach to life and art was outdated and needed to be done away with and replaced with a theory of life that matched the new industries, scientific discoveries, and, in short, the new outlook on man and the world. Modernism rejected the attachment to social institutions, such as governmental bodies and the Church. Instead, it sought new forms of government that were more socially conscious and equitable, religions that were more expressive of the individual and less autocratic, and methods of learning that were more scientific and less doctrinal. Thinkers such as Charles Darwin and Karl Marx emerged from this time period and have become charged examples of Modernism. While initially Modernism was a movement based on rejecting what had come before, as with any movement, over time it came to be like what it had replaced. The ideals it held in all things, including government, religion, and learning, became themselves new monoliths that stood in the way of even those who had hailed the coming of Modernism. The advent of such notions led to a splintering off of many groups who pursued their own approaches to virtually everything: thus, Postmodernism was born. There are many who argue that Postmodernism is only an extension of Modernism, and therefore is not a post at all. However, the single aspect of Postmodernism that would run most counter to this notion is the rejection of any or all unifying categories: the notion that the government can really be only capitalist, or socialist; the notion that an approach to religion should be by one method: Christian, Buddhist; the notion that learning or art can be one particular way for everyone. That is, there can be no true meta-narratives in life, for each individual cannot be categorized. Postmodernism, thus, is mostly known as a deconstructive approach to modernity or an approach that is very specific, eclectic, or stylized: feminism, Marxism, expressionism, post-structuralism, and multiculturalism serve as examples.

Postmodernism is the elevation of the individual over the majority; it is the approach that raises the specific over the general, and is suspect of anything that claims to have general truths. The manifestations in theatre are no less recognizable today with the advent of the three-act play, then the two-act, the one-act play, and now even the ten-minute play; absurdist plays that have no plot and may only seek to poke fun at the structure of plays themselves, such as Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, an Anti-Play; or plays that have characters and events that morph and change so that the audience is displaced as much as the characters, such as Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Additionally, there are solo pieces and performance art pieces. In fact, the manifestations and forms of theater now outstrip the words that can be used to describe them all.

With this all-too-brief overview in mind, it is now that we can discuss Greenspan’s She Stoops to Comedy. The play is postmodern on several levels: the question of gender and identity, as discussed above, the structure and movement of the play, and the relationship between the playwright, the play, and the audience. As has been discussed above, the notion of a five-act play with a decisive plot and subplot that moves inevitably through the ranges of Aristotelian Poetics is not here, thus marking the play as a break with this tradition, although Greenspan does reshape this structure in some of his plays. However, as the audience will soon discover, She Stoops to Comedy becomes far more postmodern in its refusal even to be written at all. Perhaps one of the first things the audience will notice is that scene after scene progresses in what one would assume to be a normal fashion, only to turn back on itself and start over; it is rewritten. In exposition, dates change: Well this is 1950, Kay Fein says, only to remark, Well this is 1990, only a few moments later. One becomes acutely aware in hearing the play that Greenspans voice is floating at the perimeter, just outside the hermetic area of the production, and his voice is changing, rewriting, and reworking elements of the play as they happen–as if the audience, the actors, and the characters are inside the playwrights mind, and he is hearing the character voices as they speak for the first time, and then is refining them. And this isnt the only instance of such happenings: Kay Fein is an archaeologist at the start, but a lighting designer later on. Scenes where characters are introduced are awkward the first time and so are rewritten a few moments later. In many ways, the nature of the play is in flux and may cause the audience to call into question what is real and fixed and what is not. In many ways, this is just like the life that each of us leads, re-writing what happened at a particular place, at a particular time, or longing to redo or undo what we have done. This play structure displaces the audience and shows that Greenspan is truly interested, in the words of Alexandra Page, in the urge to move across the words the page to paint a character on the stage. The impulse then to translate onto the stage’to make through revision the stage a play of words moving its characters its plot its action. And this urge, impulse, and tendency toward revision will be seen time and again throughout the course of the play: revisions of monologues, statements, and actions occur at once and in front of the audience: no sooner will a monologue finish than the character who delivered it will do it again, altering, transmuting, reshaping the meaning of what was said, and the plot or direction of the play will shift also, as though the playwright were present. In fact, a great amount of the humor in She Stoops can be gleaned from details that are reflexive: a statement such as Okay fine, becomes a character name: Kay Fein; the audience must surely be at peak form coming to a Greenspan play, for he expects you to be thinking, to pay attention, and, in many ways, will not tolerate a passive audience.

The play as a self-conscious construct is not new to Greenspan. In many of his plays the characters, narrators, actors and actresses, and even the notes themselves are aware that there are other eyes watching, other minds thinking, and that no form of theirs can be permanent. Jayne Summerhouse, following her introduction, breaks into a stream-of-consciousness monologue, then, as if aware of what she, as character, is doing, and what she, as actress, is doing, and aware of the audience, questions all of it: The audience thinks the others can hear this and maybe they can or maybe they cant, it being kept purposefully ambiguous Satire achieved. Greenspan continues throughout: stage directions are spoken by the characters, asides are made and then remarked upon, the plot devices and movements of plot are pointed out: it is a play not only being written as it is watched, but being critiqued and evaluated too. Greenspan is always conscious of the theatre and the stage, its power, its limitations, and certainly its possibilities. Because this is so, Greenspan will frequently have his characters, narrators, or stage directions comment directly on the theatre: exposition, plot movements, philosophy, dramaturgy, etc. The instances are numerous: in Dead Mother, Character 4 addresses the audience from the outset, as a theatre subscriber, complaining that there are too many plays with homosexual characters; in The Myopia the narrator, later a character, Raconteur, endlessly philosophizes about the theater, its meaning and importance; and this is no less true in She Stoops to Comedy, where, from the outset, the main character, Alexandra Page, theorizes about the urges and impulses to translate people and their actions onto the stage for others to see. In fact, if there is any strong through-line to any of Greenspan’s plays, it is his overwhelming awareness of the stage and its theatrics and his conscious awareness of his role as playwright and his characters as translations to staged images. As the Raconteur from The Myopia says, theatre has the capacity of presenting things actually happening– Nothing happens in a picture–its already happened–whereas in the theater what is happening is actually happening–it is happening as it happens–it is an act.

Greenspan is constantly fighting, and some would argue succeeding, to create new structures for his plays: to break the confines of the old structures and allow new ones to emerge. For, as has been discussed above, it is precisely when old forms are broken that energy is released, giving power so that new forms can congeal. As Robert Andreach notes in his essay on Eric Overmyer, David Greenspan, and Richard Foreman:

All that I can do is acknowledge Greenspan’s contribution to theatre-creating. Adjusting the forces that threaten theatre by attempting to restrict it to a culturally sanctioned form, Dead Mother recovers its elemental power in monologue and performance, expanding them in an unstructured whole.

David Greenspan is a breaker of forms, a releaser of energy: a champion, in his work at least, for both the spirit and identity of the human individual, as well as that of the theatre. Taken in this light, She Stoops to Comedy is an excellent introduction for an audience unfamiliar with Greenspan’s work, and a delightful reunion for those who are familiar with it. The many surprising ways in which sex and gender and identity are prodded, examined, and questioned makes the farcical nature of She Stoops truly refreshing and the deft and inventive handling of the structure, movement, and ongoing construction of the play make it a genuine joy to watch.

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