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Copyright 2012 Carolyn Gage

From Starting From Zero: One-Act Plays About Lesbians in Love

They say that they are starting from zero. They say that a new
world is beginning.Monique Wittig.
In her novel, Les Gurillres, French lesbian-feminist author Monique
Wittig envisioned a world where women were rising up in armed
rebellion against patriarchal institutions. In attempting to describe this
new world they wanted to create, Wittigs women warriors found
themselves perpetually frustrated by the limitations of the language
they had learned from their colonizers:
The women say, the language you speak poisons your glottis
tongue palate lips. They say, the language you speak is made
up of words that are killing you. They say, the language you
speak is made up of signs that rightly speaking designate what
men have appropriated. Whatever they have not laid hands on,
whatever they have not pounced on like many-eyed birds of
prey, does not appear in the language you speak.
This is specifically the difficulty with lesbian theatre. The symbolic
gestures, tropes, metaphors, bits, stock characters and formulaic
situations that facilitate the compressed telling of a story in real time
on a stageall of these derive from a canon that has traditionally
employed female characters chiefly as rewards or obstacles for men,
in narratives that presume an audience identified with the principle
male characters and their issues.
Whatever they have not laid hands onthat is, the paradigms and
archetypes belonging to female-identified narratives, and especially
to lesbian narrativesdo not appear.

Lesbian-feminist philosopher Mary Daly described this malestream

culture as the foreground, while designating as the Background
the world of womens authentic being:
Background: the Realm of Wild Reality; the Homeland of
womens Selves and of all other Others
foreground: male-centered and mono-dimensional arena where
fabrication, objectification, and alienation take place
Marilyn Frye, another lesbian-feminist philosopher, made an
interesting analogy between women and stagehands, noting that
what she calls Phallocratic Reality occupies the foreground of the
worldview, where men and their experiences are illuminated, while
women constitute the shadowy backstage crew whose invisibility is
as essential to the maintenance of male performance as are our
How then to tell the stories of the stagehands? To place ourselves
center stagedivorcing us from the patriarchal context that gives us
meaning and renders us coherent in contemporary culture? How can
one represent with integrity stories of lives lived behind the scenes by
placing us in the glare of the spotlight? On the other hand, to move
the audience backstage is to risk revealing the secret of male
performance described by Virginia Woolf in Room of Ones Own
that women have served all these centuries as looking glasses
possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting man as twice
his natural size.
The staging of stories by, for, about, and serving the interests of
women, and especially of lesbians, is more than a question of
switching up pronouns, affirmative action hiring, or special initiatives
to promote the work of women artists. It is about, literally, starting
from zero. Because, what Daly and Wittig are talking about is a
colonization of languagea colonization of the imagination.
Wittig goes on to describe the lack of language for whatever they
have not laid hands on:

This is apparent precisely in the intervals that your masters

have not been able to fill with their words of proprietors and
possessors, this can be found in the gaps, in all that which is
not a continuation of their discourse, in the zero, the O, the
perfect circle that you invent to imprison them and to overthrow
And this is where we must begin. The perfect circle, the zero. Lesbian
relationships, like lesbian theatre, are expected to recycle the
accepted tropes of heteropatriarchal cultureits gender roles, its
power dynamics, its sexual clichs: Boston marriage, lesbian bed
death, which one is the man? When lesbians resist such
appropriation, our relationships, like our theatre, must be relegated to
the intervals, to the gaps of patriarchal language and of
But the patriarchal stigma attached to this absence cannot compare
with the promise of the zero, the perfect circle we will invent to
imprison the narratives that exclude us and to overthrow their
archetypes. Our zero encircles and encompasses what male
playwrights and critics have declared for millennia to be universal
themes. Imprisoned in the context of their narratives, they cannot
even acknowledge our existence. Their denial of us only reinforces
the power of our zero.
The women say, I refuse henceforward to speak this language,
I refuse to mumble after them the words lack of penis lack of
money lack of insignia lack of name. I refuse to pronounce the
names of possession and non-possession. They say, If I take
over the world, let it be to dispossess myself of it immediately,
let it be to forge new links between myself and the world.
Lack of penis how will we be sexual with each other? Lack of
money how will we be able to exert the coercive dominance that
ensures fidelity? Lack of insignia who is going to wear the pants?
Lack of name with no words for who we are and how we interact,
how can we be legitimate? Refusing to pronounce possession and
non-possession, can it be said that we have any rights, and if not,
what will take their place?

African American, womanist author Toni Cade Bambara said, I try to

take seriously acts of language. Words set things in motion. Ive seen
them doing it. Words set up atmospheres, electrical fields, charges.
Ive felt them doing it Im careful about what I give voice to.
The language and conventions of patriarchal theatre steer women
relentlessly in the direction of assimilation/capitulation, or else toward
tragedy. In my work, I do not find resolution for lesbians in those
endings, and the question is not only to define the alternative ending,
but to generate the contexts for arriving.
The noun playwright is interesting to me. There is an element of
craftsmanship, of buildingas with a boatwright or a cartwright. Like
our fellow wrights, we, too, build structures designed to transport.
The play must contain the audience and then carry them collectively,
for two hours. And the lesbian playwright must start at zero in order to
generate alternative destinations.
Bamabara always knew where she was going: The issue is
salvation. I work to produce stories that save our lives. I aspire to do
the same.
In The Greatest Actress Who Ever Lived, I want to re-examine the
trope of the casual affair in light of the tremendous revolutionary
potential of any lesbian attraction in a world founded on male bonding
and female alienation. The closeted woman experiencing her first
lesbian kiss wrestles with the more seasoned lesbian performer for
control of the narrative, demanding a more radical interpretation.
Souvenirs from Eden explores the impact of trauma on lesbian
couples, revisiting the breakup of a celebrated pair of historical
lovers. Again, I was searching for a resolution beyond the romantic
clichs, because these clichs actually restimulate the trauma for a
Lace Curtain Irish revises the history of Lizzie Borden, but it also
explores the unnamed intimacy between a heterosexual woman and
a lesbian, between a live-in servant and an employers daughter.

The Countess and the Lesbians is another play reclaiming lesbian

history, but also exploring a radical model for a lesbian breakup. In
this play issues of interpersonal colonization are counterposed
against a backdrop of the Easter Rising.
Til the Fat Lady Sings follows a lesbian couple into a hospital, where
one partner is scheduled to undergo surgery for a gastric bypass. In
this play, the struggle lies with how to support a partner when one
perceives her choices as self-hating.
Sarah Orne Jewetts partnership with Annie Fields was a model of
starting from zero. The two women arranged their lives to fit their
passions for each other and also for their very separate careers.
So much of this aspect of Jewetts life has been censored, it was
important to me to write Deep Haven, adapting their writings with a
focus on the lesbian dynamics and values.
Finally, Since I Died models a lesbian reversal of the traditional view
of death. In this adaptation of a short story, the narrator is the dead
woman, and just as viewing the heterosexual world through the
lesbian lens turns everything on its head, so does this intriguing view
of life as seen from the other side.
The Greatest Actress Who Ever Lived
All lesbians have needed to be the greatest actress who ever lived
at various times in our lives, and this was especially true for lesbians
living in the homophobic decades that followed the pathologizing of
same-sex relationships by the sexologists of the early twentieth
Lesbians who were closeted often suffered through passionless
marriages, or else negotiated a life of independence so sterile as
never to arouse suspicion. The minority of lesbians who, through
either bold choice or unlucky disgrace, became known for their
affinities, were often scapegoated and shunned as the most
unredeemable sinners and perverts.
In The Greatest Actress Who Ever Lived, I wanted to explore a
dynamic between one of these notoriously outed lesbians and a

woman still in the closet. Nance ONeil is sometimes considered

bisexual, because of a (falsely) rumored marriage with her manager
McKee Rankin and her late-in-life marriage to fellow-actor Alfred
Hickman. On the other hand, the scandals surrounding her liaisons
with women were numerous, and a vaudeville joke at the turn-of-thecentury was, Do you know Nance ONeil? No, who is he?
ONeils marriage as well as her close relationship to Rankin may
have provided her with beards to protect her reputation. For the
purposes of my play, I focus on the lesbian aspect of her historical
character, including her intense involvement with Lizzie Borden.
The character of Virginia Houlton is fictional, representing a rising
class of women, groomed to be housewives, but suddenly finding
themselves in a very different world during the Depression.
Nances character has become emotionally callous from her
experiences with a fickle public, as well as from her need to adopt
various ruses and personae. She is, after all, an actor. Its arguable
that she may have exploited Lizzie, who accompanied her to court
and paid off her creditors, and who also appears to have enabled
Nances purchase of a home in an expensive resort town outside
Virginia, on the other hand, comes off almost prissy in her judgments
about Nances lifestyle. But it is Virginia who treats her lesbian
passion as sacred, scoring Nance for her facile dismissal of the
embrace that marks her coming out.
In the background is the story of Lizzie Borden, whom Nance refers
to as the greatest actress who ever lived. Lizzies passionate
commitment to the women in her life caused her to sacrifice herself in
ways that neither Virginia nor Nance can accept.
This is a play about negotiations and boundaries and bottom lines.
Nance is a touring artist. She needs her public and she needs to be
mobile. Liaisons with men in her field offer her the best option for
protection and camaraderie. Virginia is a single mother, and the
closet appears to be her best option for protecting her custody. The

end of the play suggests the possibility that Virginias integrity around
her feelings for women may impel different choices.
At this point in their lives, all these women can do is steal an embrace
together, but their connection is profound and life-changing for
Virginia, and the witnessing of this may also prove to be life-changing
for Nance.
Our performances do transform us, for better or for worse, and
lesbian attraction has the power to disrupt not only our roles, but
often our most deeply cherished notions about who we are and what
we value.
Little Sister
In 2010, Amnesty International published a report titled, Maze of
Injustice: The failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual
violence in the USA.
This play was inspired by a desire to respond, as a playwright, to the
situation documented in that report, by my personal experiences in
witnessing stories from Native American women within my TwelveStep recovery community, and by my ongoing commitment to the
cultural reclamation of lesbians and so-called masculine, or butch
women who have been erased from history.
According to the Amnesty report, Native American women are at
least 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes
than other women in the United States, and at least eighty-six percent
of reported rapes or other sexual assaults against Indigenous women
are committed by non-Indian men who are rarely prosecuted or
The failure to pursue justice in such cases is due to a number of
factors, the report noted, including chronic under-funding of police
and health services, and a complex maze of tribal, state and federal
jurisdictions that is so confusing that it often allows perpetrators to
evade justice entirely. While tribal governments have substantial
autonomy over their internal affairs, the federal government has

steadily eroded their justice systems, particularly in areas that involve

non-Native individuals or interests.
In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that tribal governments cannot
prosecute criminal defendants who are non-Indian even if the crime
of which they are accused takes place on tribal lands. In addition,
tribal authorities, many of whose communities suffer the highest
poverty rates in the U.S., are chronically under-financed, leading to
major gaps in law enforcement and the availability of social and
health services as compared to non-Native communities. Finally,
federal law imposes restrictions on the sentencing, and historically
tribal courts could not hand down prison sentences longer than one
What this amounts to is a travesty of justice for the tens of thousands
of Indigenous survivors of rape, said Larry Cox, executive director of
Amnestys U.S. section. Violence against women is not only a
criminal or social issueit is also a human rights abuse, he added.
In failing to ensure that Indigenous women are protected from
violence, the U.S. government is complicit in violating their human
rights. It is disgraceful that such abuse even exists today.
There is frequently reluctance on the part of all victims of domestic
and sexual violence to report to authorities, but Native American
women living on reservations have extra reasons for their fear of
retaliation and their lack of confidence that the authorities will take
allegations of assault seriously.
According to Sarah Deer, an attorney with the Trival Law and Policy
Institute, American Indian and Alaska Native women are living in a
virtual war zone, where rape, abuse and murder are commonplace
and sexual predators prey with impunity. In many tribal communities,
rape and molestation are so common that young women fully expect
that they will be victims of sexual violence at some point.
It is this expectation of victimhood that becomes so pernicious, and
in all of my work, it is my hope to infuse women with attitudes of
entitlement that will become a bulwark for resistance.

Entitlement can derive from ill-gotten privilege, but it can also come
from heritage and historical antecedents. The stories of Lozen
uncompromising in prioritizing the welfare of women and children.
Lozen, as noted in the play, was nearly erased from history because
of her Two-Spirit identity. Generally erasure of the masculine woman
is a function of misogyny and/or homophobia, but in this case,
Lozens near-erasure was motivated by a desire on the part of her
Chiricahua people, to protect her reputation.
In my play, I attempt to incorporate the conflicting views about use of
histories recorded by white people, and also the problematic nature of
ascribing a lesbian or butch identity to a historical, indigenous figure.
The Two-Spirit tradition has by no means eradicated homophobia in
Native American communities, and I wanted to write a play that
celebrated the out lesbians in these communities and that
addressed the prejudice they face where the traditional values of the
Catholic church have become interwoven with the fabric of Native life.
The Ndee (Apache) culture includes the Sunrise Ceremony, a fourday communal celebration that marks the first menstruation of an
Ndee girl as she enters puberty. I was interested in the contradiction
between this empowering heritage and the disempowering
expectation described by Sarah Deer. How would a young survivor
of sexual abuse relate to the ceremony, when the arrival of the
menses translates to increased vulnerability via potential pregnancy
and changes in the body that can lead to sexual objectification?
Who are ones people? Where are the limits of family? These are
questions that inform survivor cultures, and questions with higher
stakes for an entire population that has been targeted for extinction.
How and when does compassion for those impacted by
intergenerational trauma translate to enabling of the cycles?
Finally, in Little Sister, I wanted to explore the tensions between a
partner whose focus is on external enforcement and a partner who is
preoccupied with the challenging of internal paradigms.

Souvenirs from Eden

Souvenirs from Eden is a memory play. I wanted to work with the
character of an unrecovered survivor whose life, aside from the
brilliance and daring of her lesbian poetry, seemed to have been an
extended, self-dramatizing suicide. I was interested in the struggle to
assimilate what are, by definition, unacceptable memories.
It is important for me to identify with survivors in my work, and I found
working with the character of Rene Vivien to be a challenge. There
was a temptation in my earlier drafts to write her off as a narcissistic
fantasist and an addict. I found myself siding with her lover Natalie
Barney, who survived her by seventy years, and whose writings
about Rene have influenced the way she is remembered. This may
have been an act of self-defense on her part, as Viviens
autobiographical writing and some of her correspondence repeatedly
framed Natalie as the source of her suffering.
As a resident of Maine, I was intrigued by the information I could find
about the summer they spent in Bar Harbor (then called Eden)
where Natalies family had a summer cottage. It appeared that the
Bar Harbor summer marked the first, and one of the most significant,
turning points in their ill-fated relationship.
The two young women had been lovers for less than a year, and
apparently Natalie was already alarmed by Renes use of the
addictive sedative chloral. There was an angry confrontation during
the crossing, when Natalie discovered that Rene had brought a
supply of the sedatives. Rene had also forgotten her trunk of
evening clothes, providing her with an excuse to avoid social events.
Rene was distressed by Natalies flirting, and preferred to avoid
socializing. After the summer in Bar Harbor, Rene returned to
Europe alone and moved into a separate apartment in Paris. This
was the first of many extended periods of refusing to see Natalie.
Rene consistently refused to accept Natalies attempts to
characterize her infidelities as expressions of a liberated spirit.
Perhaps with some accuracy, Rene defined her lover as a sexual
compulsive whose behaviors would have a progressively corrosive
effect on her character. During World War II, Natalie would flee from

occupied France to Italy, where she became a Nazi sympathizer and

an anti-Semitein spite of her own Jewish ancestry! During this time,
her correspondence with her Parisian housekeeper indicates that she
was more concerned with obtaining a specific brand of hairnet than
with the devastation and terror of the Occupation. She does appear to
have become a caricature of her younger self, and Renes
jeremiads, in retrospect, read as prophetic.
The more I studied Viviens writing, the more I came to appreciate
that what I had initially seen as the self-dramatizing of a spoiled rich
girl, was, in fact, authentic suffering. Her unflinchingly honest
appraisal of human nature was a poor match for her heightened
sensitivity to the opinions of others. In her poem Pillory, she writes
about experiencing homophobic shunning as a form of crucifixion.
Her desire to die, and also to see Natalie dead, was certainly tainted
by a morbid streak, but it may have been a reflection of her very real
understanding of the psycho-social-spiritual mangling that would
result from their being publicly identified as lesbians.
I wanted to write about this courageous, visionary, and selfdestructive young woman. I also wanted to write about memory, and
especially the memory of a survivor. I wanted to explore how memory
is constructed and deconstructedspecifically the disorientation that
occurs when we revisit a frozen memory with new contexts and new
information. How does revision of memory destabilize an identity that
has been formulated in the context of that memory?
Natalies ghost resists being demonized in Viviens memory. She
asks, Who would you be, if I were not a monster? For many
survivors, this question is intolerable. Projecting blame can be the
thin levee holding back a survivors tidal wave of guilt and shame. As
Renes character says in the play, You have to kill the memory
before it kills you. The loving memories may pose more of a threat
than the memories of betrayal.
The pain of many memories is a function of the fantasies they
contradict. I wanted to explore the fine line between memory and
fantasy, and in the play the murdered memory morphs into a mockery
of Renes romantic fantasies.


Unprocessed trauma memories are frozen in time, but they can, at

the same time, become intrusiverendering the experience of them
contemporaneous. Renes core experience of betrayal, her mothers
mercenary attempt to incarcerate her in a mental asylum, intrudes in
the form of an unwelcome memory. Renes inability to assimilate
this trauma keeps her trapped in the past, and, as Natalie notes, it is
forever the 17th of August in Renes world.
The play ends where it began, with the frustrated survivor looping
back to the trauma memory, unable to gain closure, because she
remains invested in a victim identity. In the end, both ghosts are
banished forever from Eden.
I wanted to show the life-and-death stakes of wrestling with critical
memories. It takes tremendous courage to revise the stories we have
told ourselves, to confront the betrayals of our parents, and to accept
the ambiguity of adult relationships.
Lace Curtain Irish
Researching the Fall River murders, I read Edward D. Radins book
The Untold Story. Radin, a professional crime reporter, made a
compelling case for Bridget Sullivans having been the actual
murderer. As a dramatist, I deal with character and motivation as part
of my stock-in-trade. It always seemed implausible to me that such a
brutal, carelessly executed, and obviously impulsive, double murder
could have been motivated by a desire to inherit money. The
documented, shocking, and sadistic inhumanity of Mrs. Borden
toward the maid within an hour of her murder appears to provide a
more logical motive.
If Bridget had been the murderer, why didnt Lizzie speak up? She
must have known. Why else would she have paid Bridgets passage
back to Ireland and bought her farm? In fact, she would have been
the only witness to the fact that Bridget had changed her clothing.
She would have been aware that Bridget was allowed to leave the
house with an unexamined bundle of possessions, while the rest of
the household was in lockdown and under surveillance, as the police
tore up floorboards searching for the murderers weapon and


clothing. Also Bridget changed her testimony several times, always to

Lizzies detriment.
It was also interesting to me that immediately after the arrival of the
police, Bridget began to suggest that the perpetrator was another
immigrantnot Irishwho worked for the family. Lizzie, even in
shock, was quick to interrupt her, contradict her assertions that this
man had motive, and insist that he was a loyal family friend incapable
of such a deed. Her response was protective and indignant. The
detail of this brief interaction, especially within an hour of the
discovery of the bodies, caught my playwrights ear.
The persistent rumors of Lizzies lesbian crush on bisexual matine
idol Nance ONeil also caught my attention. The estrangement
between Lizzie and her sister resulted from a house party Lizzie
hosted for Nances theatre company, and the sisters comments on
the incident suggest that lesbianism may have been the trigger.
David Rehaks book on the Borden murders cites a privately
published autobiography with an intriguing memoir from 1903. The
author, Alice Morris, records an afternoon she spent with the
celebrated lesbian couple Annie Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett in the
home of a Lisbeth Borden. (Lizzie changed her name after the
murders.) Morris comments on her surprise upon discovering the
identity of her hostess. Fields, a Boston philanthropist, and Jewett, an
author with a national reputation, were both very prominent socially,
and if they were socializing with Lizzie after the trial, it was clear to
me that she could not have been a murderer. And if Lizzie was
socializing with Fields and Jewettreceiving them in her home!she
had most likely found her way into Bostons most elite network of
The newspaper reports of the trial made frequent mention of Lizzies
lack of feminine charms, with special references to her masculine
jaw and masculine gait. There was an intense campaign in the
press focused on her unwomanly lack of emotion. These kinds of
descriptions and charges turn up in theatre reviews of lesbian
performers so frequently, they appear to constitute a form of
nineteenth-century code, understood by both readers and editors, for
identifying the subject as lesbian.

Lizzies jury found her innocent because there was not one shred of
physical evidence linking her to the murders. The book upon which
the historical record was based has been shown by subsequent
researchers to be biased and inaccurate. Much of the scapegoating
of Lizzie that occurred in her day appears to have been motivated by
homophobia and resentment of her status as a single woman with
financial resources, which she chose to spend on herself. Her will
also testifies to female-only social networks, with the majority of her
bequests going to either single women friends or servants.
The fact that Abigail Borden was murdered a good ninety minutes
before her husband baffled the police. Original theories posited that
Borden had been murdered by some disgruntled business partner or
employee (of which there had been many), and then Abigail, who
witnessed it, had been chased upstairs and murdered. When the
coroners report proved the impossibility of this scenario, the police
were at a loss to discover a motive for Abigails murder unless it
was the desire to inherit from both parents. Because Abigail was a
stepmother, it would have been imperative to murder the stepmother
before the father, in order to have the money pass to the daughters.
The police never made a connection between the abusive incident
regarding Bridgets illness and a motive to kill. This may have been
because of the protective role the police, who were Irish immigrants,
took toward Bridget, which began the very day of the murders. She
was allowed to leave the house with an uninspected bundle, and,
quitting her job a day later, she was hired by the police to clean the
jail. She also began to date a police officer during this period.
I wrote the play with an interest in countering the ubiquitous
assumption that Lizzie got away with murder, and also to establish
that her lifelong silence about the actual identity of the killer, with the
penalty she paid for that silence, was an act of great heroism.
The archetype of the rescuing lesbian butch is absent from the canon
of literature, as are all positive lesbian archetypes. (The seductive,
vampiric, embittered, or self-destructive stereotypes, on the other
hand, abound.) No one seems to note that Lizzie had an
extraordinary previous record of volunteer work in the area of social

justice, especially on behalf of working-class immigrants. In reading

the records of this case, it became apparent to me that Lizzie had lied
to protect Bridget when Bridgets petty theft was discovered, and this
was consistent with Lizzies later behavior during the trial. When
detectives hired by Lizzies attorney began to inquire about Bridgets
previous employment recorda record that contained reports of her
temperLizzies attorney apparently stopped that line of
investigation, and at no time in her defense was it even suggested
that Bridget might have had both motive and opportunity. Lizzies
defense strategy was focused completelyand successfullyon the
lack of evidence to indict her.
It is my belief that Lizzie was a lesbian butch who fit the profile of the
guardian/rescuer archetype. She was teaching the Chinese mill
workers, she was deeply solicitous toward a former teacher, paying
the bills for her end-of-life care. Her tenderness toward animals was
legendary, as well as her generosity toward her domestic employees.
I believe she extended a maternal warmth toward this young Irish
woman whose life had been so hard, and I believe she chafed under
her father and her stepmothers abusive and exploitive behaviors
toward Bridget. She obviously did not want to see her hang. The
reports in Radins book about Lizzie funding Bridgets return to
Ireland with money to buy a farm ring true to me, as does Bridgets
move to Anaconda, which is documented. A niece of Bridgets from
Anaconda has described her in her later years as an angry woman
who appeared to have had a serious, lifelong drinking problem. Her
descendants confirm the rumors about the gift of a farm in Ireland.
The character of Bridget in my play is that of a woman whose entire
life is being lived under the overwhelming influence of memories she
cannot access. The retrieval of traumatic memory is a subject that
interests me, both as a survivor who has experienced it personally
and as a dramatist. Certainly the retrieval is a dramatic moment, but I
am also interested in the ways in which the maintenance of denial
can shape a life. In Bridgets case, there appears to have been earlier
traumaperhaps poverty, or domestic violence, or both. Was the
emigration at the age of eighteen a furious effort on her part to resist
the fate of her mother and her sisters? Was her resistance to
marriage until she was in her forties shaped by her experiences with
fourteen siblings? In my play, I suggest that the violence of the

murders references her anger at earlier domestic trauma. On the

other hand, it could have also been a response to the cumulative
traumas from the anti-Irish prejudice she would have experienced
daily in the Anglo-dominated environment of Fall Rivera prejudice
rooted in the brutal colonization of Ireland that would have informed
her childhood.
Unquestionably, the support of the Fall River police, who were
predominantly Irish, saved her life. She was allowed to leave the
home the evening of the murders with an uninspected bundle. This
was before the meticulous, multiple police searches of the house.
The day after the murders, the police hired her to clean the jails,
enabling her to leave the employment of the Bordens. During the
period leading up to the trial, she began to date a member of the
force. Did this experience of protection drive Bridgets decision to
return to the States and settle in Montana, where Butte and
Anaconda were run by a rapidly rising middle class of Irish
immigrants, and where it was the Anglos who constituted an
unpopular minority?
Repressed trauma can colonize the thinking of a survivor. We can
live out our lives believing that we are in control of our choices, when,
in fact, our choices reflect strategies for maintenance of denial and
avoidance of situations and dynamics that might restimulate the
trauma. And these strategies can exist in competition with our
compulsions to return to the scene of the crime, compelling
survivors to enact less threatening, but similar scenarios that might
enable us to gain closure. Repressed memories can generate
thermonuclear cores of shame and guilt in survivors, with
compensatory grandiosity.
In Lace Curtain Irish, Bridgets deepest truth about Lizzie is that she
loved her. Lizzie was the first person to express a maternal,
protective tenderness and generosity toward her, and she responded
with the adoration of an abused child. This profound love is overlaid
with a colonized sense of contempt and superiority driven by the
need to defend herself from the memory of her criminal act. As a
dramatist, I was interested in the tension between an authentic
emotion and its counterfeita defensive, post-traumatic affect.


In my play, Bridgets trauma is associated with lace curtains in ways

that she does not understand. She dreams incessantly of these
curtains. She has made a point of purchasing similar curtains for her
home. On the day she reads about the death of Lizzie, they become
the bridge to her retrieval of the memory. I use the lace curtains as
not only a colonial artifact reflecting the exploitation of Irish tenant
farmers by their British landlords, but also as a metaphor for the
partial occlusion of memory.
The play also relies on animal imagery, and especially being treated
like an animal. This phrase describes Bridgets fathers abuse of her
mother, which, in turn, was passed on to Bridget. Bridgets employers
treat her like an animal, as Anglos historically treated the Irish. The
animality of the human condition becomes explicit with imagery
surrounding childbirth and food poisoning, as well as the primitive
bloodlust of the murders themselves.
The Countess and the Lesbians
While in Dublin for the Dublin International Gay Theatre Festival, I
became very interested in the women of the Easter Week Rising.
Visiting Kilmainham Gaol, I remember our tour guide stopping right in
front of the cell with Countess Markiewicz over the door. He spoke
about the men in the Rising who were sentenced to death, and he
also spent quite a bit of time talking about Grace Gifford, who was
granted permission to enter the prison and marry her fianc just
hours before his execution. He never made mention of Constance
Markiewicz, the only woman who had been a leader of the Rising and
who had been sentenced to death, along with her male comrades.
Because of her sex, her sentence had been commuted to life
This oversight struck me as intentional. A woman (rumored to be
pregnant) who marries a revolutionary is one thing, but a woman who
actually leads that revolution, who carries a gun, and who has killed
men in cold bloodwell, that is something else again. Who can
predict the effect of her example on impressionable minds?
With habitual contrariness, I began to research the life of Countess
Markiewicz, convinced that, in spite of her marriage to Count
Markiewicz, I would find evidence of a lesbian history in her past. The

lesbianism did turn up, but it was her sisters, not hers. Eva GoreBooth had lived with Esther Roper for over three decades. The two
women had met in 1895 in an Italian boarding house, where both had
been convalescing. Eva had been so taken with Esther and what she
did for a livingsocial reform and suffrage workshe immediately
returned to England, moved into Esthers home, and began to share
her work. They were together until Evas death in 1926.
Not only did the two lesbians appear to be involved in every political
movement, both radical and reform, that had anything to do with
women, but in 1916, the same year of the Rising, Eva started her
own revolution of sorts by founding a remarkable journal named
Urania, with Esther serving as one of the co-editors. Urania identified
gender as a social construct and made the astonishing argument
that, in order to challenge the gender categories, the system of
compulsory heterosexuality would need to be challenged. Marriage
was consistently represented as an unhealthy institution, and the
journal celebrated both declining marriage rates and broken
engagements. Female same-sex relationships were presented as
healthy alternatives to heterosexuality.
Needless to say, both their relationship and their political views on
gender and sexuality were sources of uneasiness among their
colleagues who were fighting on more traditional fronts, and they
found themselves frequently ostracized. Eva and Esther, on the
cutting edge of the First Wave, may have felt more at home in the
Second Wave.
Fortunately for me, because my whole purpose was to write a play
about Ireland, Eva and Esther, whose lives and work were in
England, left an extensive written record of their interactions with
Constance at the time of her arrest and during her subsequent
imprisonments. Constances letters to them from her various jails had
also been preserved. The first draft of my play was titled Ireland Was
Free for a Week, a statement that Constance made to her sister
during the first prison visit. It was an attempt to explain her actions to
her pacifist sister.
This version of the play was a dramatic adaptation of the writings of
the three women, much like my adaptations of Rachel Carsons and

Dorothy Freemans correspondence, or the play in which I adapted

excerpts from Vita Sackville-Wests journal and letters from Violet
Historically, it was fascinatingespecially the narrative about
Esthers paranormal premonition that led her to bring Eva to the train
station at the exact hour that Constance was being secretly
transported to a British prison. Unfortunately, as a play, it failed to
hold dramatic interest, and, without supplemental explanations, there
were too many gaps in the narrative. It was pointed out to me that I
would need a narrator.
I accepted that the adaptation did not work, but I could not accept the
convention of a narrator. The intrusion of this detached observer
might make for more smooth transitions and a better-informed
audience, but it was going to dash cold water over the heated
passions of the characters and slam dramaturgical brakes on the
momentum or suspense of the scenes.
I realized that I could solve the narrative problems if I used the
convention of a play-within-a-play. The trade-off was this: In order to
have this work, the framing device was going to have to be of more
immediate interest and drama than the embedded historical play.
Looking for compromise, I began to seek ways to structure this
contemporary story so that it would not compete with, or upstage, the
historical material. I was hoping to build the structure so that the
contemporary story would reflect, refract, illuminate, and magnify the
dynamics and the issues of the older material.
In the contemporary play, three women are rehearsing a play for the
Dublin Gay International Theatre Festival. The director, Kathleen, is
also the playwright. Grace, her partner, is acting in the play along with
Nan, who is in love with Grace and therefore in rivalry with her
colleague Kathleen.
In this love triangle, the issue turns on the question of Grace and
her choices. She specializes in supporting roles both on and off the
stage, and her subordination to Kathleen is evident from the start of
the play. Will she be able to liberate herself, will she choose to stay
with Kathleen, or will she allow Nan to rescue herin which case she

may simply be exchanging one mistress for another? And, if Grace

does free herself, will Kathleen be able to accept this defectionand
what will be the fate of the play that has brought them all together?
The tension between Eva and Constance, a tension generated by
Evas pacifism and Constances belief in the necessity of armed
resistance, is mirrored by the emotional violence in the triangle:
Kathleen fires (kills off) her rival Nan, Grace walks out (deserts),
and Nan celebrates the defeat of her enemy, even at the cost of her
own investment in the work.
It is at this point, that I introduce a play-within-a-play-within-a-play. It
is Eva Gore-Booths The Death of Fionavar, in which Eva resorts to
Irish mythology and very bad verse drama to work out her political
differences with her sister. She illustrates how the cost of battle, in
terms of bloodshed and human misery, renders the notion of a
military victory oxymoronic. In The Countess and the Lesbians,
Graces uses The Death of Fionavar to point out the hollow victory of
Kathleens firing of Nan, which will destroy their friendships and leave
the production in shambles.
As the women wrestle with their pride and their options, they make a
radical choice to continue to cling to the wreck of the rehearsal
process until there is some light. The play, like the love of Ireland
among the historical characters, is a thing that unites them and that
transcends their egos, and as they continue to inhabit the characters,
the actors discover that the script can provide a vehicle for
expressing and transforming their emotions. As the template for their
former relationships is shattered, they begin to inhabit the Irish play
as a temporary structure from which they can begin the process of
The play also addresses a dramaturgical problem: How to foreground
the people who work in the background? Several years ago, I
became fascinated with the woman who invented stage lighting.
Prior to Jean Rosenthal, lighting for theatre had been an electricians
job. She is credited with transforming stage lighting into a form of art,
and establishing the prestige of the lighting designer.


Jean was, literally, behind the scenes. For thirty years, she lit Martha
Graham and her company, as well as many professional shows.
Martha had given her her first lighting job, and from her initial
infatuation with Martha, Jean went on to light (and write about
lighting) some of the most glamorous lesbian actors on Broadway. I
called the play Lighting Martha, and spent almost a year working on
it. Finally, I had to abandon it. The premise of the work violated a
cardinal rule of dramaturgy: Never tell what you can show. The
more Jean talked about working with Martha Graham, the more clear
it became that it was Martha one wanted to see, not Jean. Martha
was the flamboyant one, the one with the flair and the dramathe
one with the high profile and turbulent romances. The more Jean
demonstrated her lighting for one of Marthas dances, Errand into the
Maze, the more it became clear that it was the dancers we wanted to
see, not the lighting. Light was really the subject of my play, and Jean
was a human metaphor. How could I have overlooked the fact that
light is not visible until it strikes a surface and even then, we perceive
the light only as it is reflected by the object.
So, with sadness, I put away a massive amount of research and a
not-inconsiderable number of drafts. But the issue of the behind-thescenes heroine is raised again in The Countess and the Lesbians,
when Nan questions Constances credentials as a revolutionary.
Nans point is that the people like Eva and Esther, who work for
decades behind the scenes, doing the tedious, thankless, repetitive
work of real social change, never gain the spotlight. Is it more
revolutionary for women to live an openly lesbian life and publish a
magazine that challenges compulsory heterosexuality, or for them to
take up arms and join a mens brigade to liberate a city park in the
name of the Irish Republic? And it is a coincidence that the leading
lady is a married woman with a titleher husbands?
As Kathleen points out, and as I learned painfully with Lighting
Martha, it is the romantic figure and the impulsive gesture that take
focus in the theatre. As Kathleen points out, . . . if you want to try
your hand at writing a smash hit about sitting on endless committees
and gathering signatures for petitionsgood luck!
In the end, Nan insists that Kathleen allow Eva and Esther to be
physically close on the stage, and Kathleen offers the spot for the

closing monologue to Grace as Eva, which is tantamount to giving

her the play. These compromises do not really solve the problem of
foregrounding women who work in the background, but the play
raises the issue in what, I hope, is a dramatic confrontation.
Til the Fat Lady Sings
When opera singer Debbie Voigt was fired from a production because
of weight, she responded at first with very public defiance, and then
later underwent gastric bypass surgery. This very public confrontation
followed by her capitulation (and subsequent resumption of her
career) focused international attention of the issue of how body image
has become more and more of an issue in the performing arts,
especially for women. In opera, many of the leading ladies have
historically been women of size. As opera commentator Christopher
Purdy has noted, many of the most famous divas would not have
been able to find employment in the current market, and their voices
might never have been heard if they lived today.
There are divided opinions about the gastric bypass surgery, and I
have friends on both sides of the debate. My own feelings on the
issue are conflicted, but I am clear in my opposition to the narrow and
rigid standards for body image that are applied to women in the
performing arts. I have heard story after story from my friends who
are actors and singers about ultimatums, warnings, rejections, and
promises related to their losing weight or sexing it up in terms of
appearance. Sometimes they tell the story with riotous humor,
sometimes with shame, sometimes with bitterness. One thing is
consistent: They have all been told to choose between their body
image and their career.
As a playwright, my appearance has not been an issue, but my
sexual orientation has. I know the pain of having to choose between
my career and a part of my core identity. My intention in writing this
play was not to take sides on the issue, but to reframe the paradigm.
It is the objectification of the body that is the problem, whether or not
one chooses the surgery and whether or not one has the acceptable
body type. It is about the relationship to the self: Will one dissociate
from it or dialogue with it?


Gillian loves Sarah and refuses to accept her decision. At the same
time, she is aware that it is not her issue to decide. Gillian appears in
the dream sequences as a passionate and steadfast lover, the mirror
that provides the key to Sarahs finding a voice for her body, instead
of seeking a new body for the voice. Sarahs final decision is left
unresolved in the play, but she has welcomed her body as a
participant into the discussion.

Deep Haven
Sarah Orne Jewett is one of the most famous authors associated with
Maine. Her home in South Berwick is an official national landmark
and a popular tourist site. Touring the home, I was disappointed that
the docent never made reference to Jewetts lifelong romantic
attachments to women. Her partnership with Annie Fields was
downgraded to a close friendship, and most folks would come away
with the impression that Jewett was a lonely, if prolific spinster.
Several of Maines most celebrated women writers had intimate
friendships with other women: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Rachel
Carson, May Sarton. Sarton, who died in 1995, outed herself and
liberated a generation of lesbian writers with the 1965 publication of
her novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing.
I began to envision what I called a Maine Lesbian Traveling
Chautauquaa programme of four one-acts about each of these
authors, highlighting the excerpts from their writing which made
explicit their lesbian relationships. Copyright issues compromised my
ability to proceed with this plan, and the only play of the four that I
can market is Deep Haven, Jewetts writing being in the public
Working on this project, I was struck by how different Jewetts
experience of her lesbianism was from the other three Maine writers,
who all came of age in the twentieth century, after the sexologists had
begun to pathologize same-sex relationships. The accepted and
respectable Boston marriage of the Victorian era was now the
subject of prurient commentary.


Jewett did not have to disguise, defend, or explain her life. She did
not have to resort to strategies of denial or defiance, nor was she
self-conscious about the gynocentric and matriarchal themes of her
Yes, she struggled with the pain of falling in love with heterosexual
women and being rejected by them. It might be more accurate to say
that she fell in love with women who may have also been lesbian, but
who married for financial reasons, or because they wanted to have
children. In any case, she writes of feeling suicidal over these
She and Fields also struggled with a need to have the legitimacy of
their union validated. They attended sances together in order to
obtain posthumous blessings from Jewetts father and Fields
Deep Haven is intended to celebrate the aspects of Jewetts life that
have been ignored or misrepresented, highlighting the intensity of her
desires for other women, her appreciation of her fathers recognition
that he had a lesbian daughter, and her very tender and intimate
relationship with Annie Fields.
Since I Died
This play is part of I Have Come to Show You Death, my collection of
dramatic adaptations of the writings of four 19th-century, New
England women writers, dealing with lesbian life partners and death.
Its based on a short story by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps titled Since I
Phelps was born in 1844 in Andover, Massachusetts, and came of
age during the War Between the States which claimed so many
fathers, sons, and brothers. In addition, the young men who did
survive the war were being lured away from rural poverty and toward
the promise of westward expansion and the rise of industries in the
cities. The populations in many New England villages and towns at
this time were predominantly female and elderly, and Boston
Marriages were common.


Lesbians and death, which might appear to be a strange coupling of

subject matter today, would have been a natural theme for writers in
a society where death was prevalent and where females significantly
outnumbered males.
Calvinism, with its grim and rigid doctrine of predestination and
unforgiving afterlife, offered little comfort to grieving women, and
Phelps generation of writers had strong motivation to help their
readers imagine a more benevolent realm of the spirit. Like several
other New England women writers, including Jewett, Phelps shared a
mission to subvert the traditional Christian horror of death as some
epic and terminal event, and to cut it down to size insteadto see it
as a passage.
Since I Died by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps is an unusual short story in
that the author gives very few details about the lives of her lesbian
partners. We understand that there has been an immediate death,
and that the bereaved partner is still in the room with the body. The
spirit of the dead woman rises from the bed, wrestling with her
attachments to her former lifeand especially to her partnerand an
overwhelming calling to a larger freedom. Is the author attempting to
demystify the wrenching separation, which will not be recognized in
the wider community with the healing rituals that would traditionally
be associated with loss of a spouse? In a fascinating lesbian reversal,
the author makes the case that the departed is experiencing her
partner as being the one who has died.