by Douglas Messerli
Jane Bowles (with music by Paul Bowles) In the Summer House, Playhouse Theatre, New York, December 29, 1953
The play was revived at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre of the Lincoln Center, New York, August 1, 1993, (incidental music by Philip Glass)
It was the year of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, the year that saw the first color television set, the great flood in the North Sea and “great” tornadoes in Michigan (the storms killing more than 200 people). The Platters and The Four Tops began their musical careers. The year saw the deaths of two great theater legends, Eugene O’Neill and Lee Shubert (one of the three legendary Shubert brothers). Broadway saw productions of Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town. I was six years of age. Despite all these facts and my long-standing conviction that the 1950s is a highly misunderstood decade — more sophisticated than we imagine it today — I am still trying to comprehend what it must have been like to encounter Jane Bowles’ play that year of 1953, which ran for only 55 performances on Broadway.
The play actually had a history that went back to the late 1940s. Bowles’ friend Oliver Smith evidently had been trying to convince Jane to write a play for several years, and in 1946 and 1947, in Vermont and Paris, she wrote much of the play, the first act of which was published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1947. In 1951 the play was performed at the Hedgerow Theater in Moylan, Pennsylvania, with Miriam Hopkins in the lead. Just before the Broadway production, Jane’s husband Paul came from Morocco to New York and wrote music for the work, seeing it through rehearsals and production.
How could actors and audiences of that time be prepared for such a work? Bowles’ writing is so original that it is hard to compare it with any other writer of the day —or perhaps even now. The expressionist and fantastic aspects of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire might be described as the work closest in tone to Bowles’ play. Williams, in fact, was a close friend of Jane’s. Bowles’ work, however, is far more comically surreal than even the most “campy” of Blanche’s observations in Williams’s 1947 production.
If Paul Bowles is to be believed, it is clear that the lead actor of the play, the great Judith Anderson, did not know what to make of the character. “Who am I? Who am I supposed to be?” she often asked in her frustrated interruptions of rehearsals. Evidently even the onstage psychoanalyst could not answer her. No one seemed to understand what the play was about.
Bowles herself clearly wanted actors that could play their roles in the grand manner of highly theatrical performance. She hand-selected both Judith Anderson for the role of Mrs. Eastman Cuevas and the divine Mildred Dunnock for Mrs. Constable. A young actor named James Dean was rejected for the lesser role of Lionel because he was too “normal.”
For Bowles narrative does not function in a traditional manner. There is no straightforward “plot” to this play, nor any of the tightly knit interconnecting patterns of scenes and acts that make up most so-called Broadway plays. Indeed the set changes in every scene of Act One—as it moves from a garden in Southern California to the beach and back to the garden—and Act Two, which occurs in the nearby popular restaurant. The characters shift focus throughout, as the major figure of Act I disappears—along with numerous other characters, including husband, sister-in-law, her daughter, and servants —from the very center of the play. Casual figures such as Lionel, whom we first encounter carrying an advertising placard displaying Neptune, become central characters. A young girl who appears briefly in two scenes (becoming a victim of either accident or murder) is “replaced” by her mother, who ultimately becomes perhaps the central figure in the play. A restaurant worker — Jean Stapleton in the original production —is later introduced, becoming an important voice of the second act. In short, the play moves forward through a near structureless series of “surprises,” twists, and turns in characters, plot, and meaning.
It is the emotional states of its figures that drive this work forward — and, at times, backward. Act One establishes the central character’s role and symbolic position immediately as Gertrude Eastman Cuevas stands upon the balcony of her beach home calling to her daughter below :“Are you in the summer house?.... Are you in the summer house?” wherein her daughter indeed has sequestered herself. Although she is front and center in the scene, Mrs. Eastman Cuevas is equally removed from all, even from the man whom she admits she may marry, Mr. Solares, who soon enters with sister, her daughter, and servants in tow. The comical picnic that follows — with Solares and family in the garden, Gertrude on the balcony, and Molly hidden away—sets the tone of the entire work: absurdity, imperiousness, humility, and complete acceptance of all of these are its matter.
Solares, the courtier of the haughty Mrs. Eastman Cuevas, politely attempts to present the strange scene as one of normality, while his sister, Esperanza, crudely pokes holes in the pretense of both. When Mrs. Eastman Cuevas expresses her love of the ocean, Esperanza declares that she “hates it.” When Gertrude (believing her first husband was not sufficiently interested in his job) asks Solares if he likes his work, Esperanza interrupts: “He don’t like no business —he likes to stay home and sleep — and eat.” Later, upon Gertrude’s disapproval of such a heavy meal in the middle of the day, the overweight Esperanza quickly catalogues the heavy breakfasts and lunches she and her family consume:
For breakfast: chocolate and sugar bread: for lunch:
soup, beans, eggs, rice, roast pork with potatoes
and guava paste…Next day: soup, eggs, beans, rice,
chicken with rice and guava paste —other day: soup,
eggs, beans, rice, stewed meat, roasted baby pig and
guava paste. Other day: soup, rice, beans, grilled
red snapper, roasted goat meat and guava paste.
So much for normality!
Enter Lionel and friends bearing placards of Neptune and a mermaid to advertise the local restaurant, The Lobster Bowl. Molly, called out of her hideaway to give them water, is delighted by the marvel of their costumes, and Lionel, clearly attracted to her, gives her a little plastic lobster as a gift. As if the stage were not filled enough as it was with its strange assortment of characters, Gertrude’s new lodger, Vivian, suddenly appears. She is as enthusiastic and excitable as Esperanza has been sarcastically honest. As quickly as she is whisked away into the house, her mother, Mrs. Constable, appears, worried about her overwrought daughter’s mental health.
In short, within a single scene Bowles has spilled 14 characters onto the stage —all but one in the play —expressing their various emotional states as if midway through a grand opera. And, in this sense, no further scenes can quite compare with the play’s first. The rest of the work, scene by scene, explores the various relations between these bigger-than-life figures.
Scene Two presents Molly one month later, temporarily out of hiding, as she encounters the vivacious and avaricious Vivian skillfully attempting to take her place in the hearts of both Gertrude and Lionel. The scene ends with Gertrude, Solares and his extended family, and Mrs. Constable in search of her beloved “bird.” The audience can only suspect what — through her slightly hysterical interrogations of her daughter —Gertrude clearly also suspects, that Molly has pushed Vivian over the cliff.
Scene Three, one month later, presents the aftermath (celebration is an incorrect word) of the double weddings of Gertrude and her daughter. As the women each prepare to leave their homes and face separation, with neither one seeming to perceive any future with her new husband, the dramatic attention shifts to the drunken Mrs. Constable, who, with her daughter’s death and no other purpose in life, has stayed on in the beach community. The interchange between these strong women, where Mrs. Constable expresses her preference for the sharp-tongued truth-teller Mrs. Lopez over the imposing bitch-liar she perceives in Mrs. Eastman Cuevas, presents a stunning encounter between a being who struggles to keep in control and another who has freed herself from nearly all constraints. It is as comical as it is shocking.
Act II, made up of two scenes, is nearly emptied of the first act’s dramatic force. The Lobster Bowl, where Lionel works, has become merely another “summer house” for Molly, as she passes the time with card games and reading and rereading her mother’s letters from Mexico. The witty interchanges between Inez, waitress in the restaurant, and Mrs. Constable are what saves these dark and dreary scenes from bringing the play to a near standstill. Yet, the play does begin to unwind, and Lionel, recognizing the need for change, suddenly becomes courageous enough to demand that he and Molly move away to St. Louis, where his brother is involved in selling barbecues. The hilarious irony of his shift from boiler to barbie is almost lost in the darkly comic, but often wise, discussions between Mrs. Constable and Molly, and the older woman’s attempts to convince her to follow Lionel, to escape the dark confines of her life.
Molly, however, has word that her mother is returning, and she awaits her arrival with joy and consternation. Her mother’s entry and her declarations of the horrible (and to the viewer/ reader, hilarious) life with the family in Mexico merely point up her selfishness. She is happy nowhere, neither on the balcony of the vine-covered beach house nor the highly peopled rooms of her husband’s abode. Now nearly powerless, she is must again find someone she can control. But just as the view of the garden was altered with her mother’s departure, so does her mother now seem changed in Molly’s perception. As her mother desperately tries to rein in her daughter by telling Mrs. Constable that Molly killed Vivian (which, interestingly enough, Mrs. Constable denies), Molly suddenly recognizes that she must escape, that she must leave with Lionel. Mrs. Eastman Cuevas, like Mrs. Constable, is left without a purpose, almost a child again herself, recalling some horrible unnamed event that we suspect was probably centered around an attempt to gain love.
Without wishing to sound as if I have undergone too many viewings of The Wizard of Oz (a movie, I admit, I saw again quite recently), I might suggest that Bowles’s characters could be compared with the three friends of Dorothy in search of a heart (Mrs. Eastman-Cuevas), a brain (Mrs. Constable), and courage (Lionel) in order to save the young heroine from the mistakes of their lives. The poignant conversation between Mrs.Constable and Molly near the end of the play point up the problems of nearly everyone involved in Bowles’ fantastical journey.
Warned in her mother’s letters not to dream, Molly is nearly ready to give up her life and submit again to her mother’s control. “Why shouldn’t you dream?” asks Mrs. Constable (I can hear Mildred Dunnock’s voice in the very question). “I used to waste a lot of time day-dreaming,”answers Molly. “Why shouldn’t you dream? Why didn’t she want you to?” Mrs. Constable persists. “Because she wanted me to grow up to be wonderful and strong like she is,” responds the young girl. Mrs. Constable and we, the audience, know that her mother—having abandoned all dreams —is neither wonderful nor strong. Like Vivian at the cliff, the balcony is merely a height from which one can easily fall. And so too is the ephemeral surf Mrs. Constable prefers —the foam on her face that makes her believe, momentarily, that life is beginning once more — insufficient to help one go on living. The needs of the heart and mind alone are never enough. One must have the courage to act. As Lionel puts it, the longer one puts off acting the harder it is to do so. “Suppose I kept on closing that door against the ocean every night because the ocean made me sad and then one night I went to open it and I couldn’t even find the door. Suppose I couldn’t tell it apart from the wall any more. Then it would be too late and we’d be shut in here forever once and for all.”
Jane Bowles describes the necessary remedy simply as a stage direction: Molly’s flight is sudden.
Los Angeles, July 14, 2005