In Dialogue

Watching With Similar Eyes: Lucy Thurber

It’s a truism that the discussion of class is a taboo in American society. In fact, however, it’s discussed quite often, whether in the language of the rightist, “blue-collar” backlash, or the various liberal pieties of NPR and The New York Times. It would probably be more accurate to say that the discussion is not at all taboo—but the way we discuss it is strictly policed. Class boundaries are largely seen as impermeable, and the American poor are seen as so lacking in resources as to be fixed in place; certainly they are portrayed as something akin to objects, without sex, without desire, and certainly without magic.

The intelligent poor person is a nonexistent category, hardly ever represented in any significant way. There are a variety of reasons for this—erudition is a sort of cultural capital, after all. But what of people in transition? What of the formerly middle-class worker in the devastated post-industrial town, and his or her college-bound kid, financing a business degree from a state college on scholarship or student loan debt? What about poor women, shut out from most major recent advances of feminism? What about poor artists, not ne’er-do-well bohemians, but artists who grew up poor? What about poor gays and lesbians? “Most of us are in transition,” Thurber recently told me. “If you’re smart and poor, wherever you go, you never belong, which tends to make people into writers.”

It is these lowercase “i” invisible people who populate the world of Lucy Thurber’s plays. Unlike the sentimental picture of American poverty inherited from 19th century melodrama and the realist masterpieces of the 20th, poverty seen from the outside in, Thurber offers an unvarnished and brutal (but compassionate) picture of class in America, with all of its discomfort and contradictions. In her play Stay, currently running at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, a brother and sister (Billy and Rachel) who have managed to escape their circumstances manage to get pulled back in, both by the violence that is the legacy of their abusive, alcoholic father, and by a strange gift—as a coping mechanism, Rachel has developed paranormal abilities. When their father abused Billy, Rachel would alleviate his pain by way of a sort of telepathic connection.

What is being described here is, one imagines, a fairly common child’s game, a way to protect an otherwise helpless sibling from a vicious parent; however, Thurber personifies the magic and has it follow Rachel into adulthood, where, she finds, she shares it with her student, Julia. “Magical elements are essential [to my work],” says Thurber; “there is a need for magic, because the world [of poverty] is so stark. It’s everywhere, and it’s sort of a hill, family witchcraft. It’s not ‘new age Wicccan.’ It’s like, ‘you people have been doing this shit for a while.’ The more educated you become, the less you need that divine connection. When you’re poor, the forces pushing your life around are so tremendous, that you need to anthropomorphize them in a way.”

Having achieved some success as a writer, Rachel has gone to teach at a prestigious college, where she has encountered the wealthy and manipulative Julia. Obsessed with Rachel’s writing, Julia follows her, even seduces her, and eventually it is revealed that both women possess similar gifts. However, while Rachel’s gift is used for the survival of herself and her brother, Julia uses hers to attain power and control. Most notably, Julia uses her telepathy to steal peoples’ stories, much in the way that generations of materially privileged authors have romanticized and heroized the poor, creating idealized picaresques, viewing the noble poor from a distance.

In Thurber’s plays, poverty is anything but noble. Her characters are flawed, mean, selfish, bigoted, but often kind and remarkably generous in the face of overwhelming odds. In other words, they are human. “Guilty liberalism can be just as stifling as extreme conservatism,” she tells me; “Guilt doesn’t require action.” However, just as her plays are no pity parties for the underprivileged, neither are they slick or ironically distant: “Cynicism is a normal, healthy reaction, but it’s sad that it’s become the norm. I’m an optimist. I hold a deep belief that the sharing of our ugliness can actually elicit some kind of change. It’s true that we’re fucked, but the hard thing is to actually engage. But I want that.”

JULIA
You don’t like me very much, do you?

BILLY
Not really, no.

JULIA
That’s OK, a lot of people don’t.

TOMMY
I like you Julia.

JULIA
I know, Tommy, I know.

BILLY
That’s pathetic.

JULIA
You think so?

BILLY
I do. They way he lets you treat him is pathetic.

JULIA
Tommy don’t you want to defend yourself.

TOMMY
Not really.

JULIA
Why not?

TOMMY
Because he’s right. But sometimes love is about having the courage to be pathetic.

BILLY
Jesus.

JULIA
He has a point, you know? You feel pathetic for loving your father.

BILLY
Shut the fuck up! I don’t care who you are, you don’t have the right to talk about my father.

TOMMY
He’s right Julia.

JULIA
I know.

TOMMY
You’ve got to get better at that.

JULIA
I know.

TOMMY
It’s not nice to use things you see like that, Julia, it’s not responsible.

JULIA
I said I know. Will you shut up about it already?

-From Stay

Even Julia, however, is seen not as a sinister conspirator, but as a spoiled child. It is Thurber’s blessing—or curse—that she possesses the same gift of empathy as Rachel.

RACHEL
Great. Let’s see… (She picks up Julia’s story and looks at it.) first right off the bat, why didn’t you name your main character?

JULIA
I couldn’t think of a name for her.

RACHEL
Oh? It wasn’t for a structure reason?

JULIA
No. I just couldn’t think what to name her.

RACHEL
You named everybody else.

JULIA
Right.

RACHEL
And you didn’t name her.

JULIA
Right, because I couldn’t think of her name. I don’t know if you’ve heard but I’m considered brilliant.

RACHEL
I hadn’t heard that. But I am new here.

JULIA
Oh, well, then you should know I’m brilliant.

RACHEL
That’s… that’s fantastic.

-From Stay

Of course, one of the reasons why the poor are so often viewed from the point of view of the non-poor, especially in theater, is its status as a rarefied art form. Thurber, who teaches high school students in the South Bronx, tells a story about one of them overhearing an exchange with a (presumably) wealthy theater patron who said that she “enjoyed the play, but wished she understood it better.” To this, one of the students responded, “you’re gonna have to go through some shit in your life to understand that play.” As Thurber says, “to understand scarcity, you have to be able to watch it with similar eyes.” Indeed, her fierce empathy is a palliative to the both the slick alienation and the false sentimentality that surrounds us, both in and out of the theater. “Strangely, it doesn’t feel like people want [bridging divides] to happen today,” she says. “It wouldn’t be ‘cool,’ and god help us if we’re not cool.”

ELLEN
That was amazing.
(Pause)
Did you hear me Billy? Didn’t you think that was amazing?
(Ellen heads towards the kitchen. Rachel gets up and goes to the kitchen table. She sits there eating her pickles smiling at Ellen. Ellen moves to stand in the doorway to the kitchen looking in on them.)
I didn’t realize you couldn’t buy toilet paper with food stamps.

RACHEL
It’s fascinating. Billy don’t you think it’s fascinating?

ELLEN
It makes sense though. If I’d thought about it, because they’re food stamps.

RACHEL
Billy did hear that? Miss Roberts just realized food stamps are food.

ELLEN
And the cashier said-

RACHEL
Dorothy.

ELLEN
What?

RACHEL
The cashier. Her name is Dorothy her daughter is in Billy’s grade.

—From Scarcity

One of the cruelest things about growing up smart and poor, about being in transition and knowing it, is hope. The hope that one will not be like one’s friends and family, the knowledge that there is something else just past the horizon that nobody seems to understand or care about. “There is a certain guilt about living in a future place,” Thurber explains. “When do you come out of it? So much of our lives is dependent on constant movement. How do we stop living in our imaginations and just be here?”

Of course, what she describes is quite like the life of any playwright. It is this smallness, this humility, which is the most important thing about theater, and yet it is precisely what is most rapidly being devalued in our culture: “Right now, in America, the ‘mass’ is considered more important than the individual,” Thurber elucidates. “This is ironic, because there are so many complaints that we’re too individualistic, but everything is about being a big mass, as long as we’re not poor or ugly, and the only way to be an individual is to grab that fifteen minutes of fame on reality TV or YouTube or whatever. There’s an obsession with being big big big, instead of just being in a room together. There’s that unnamable thing we’re all after.”

“I want to make something. It’s not like we don’t want success—we all have gigantic egos and we wouldn’t [make theater] if we didn’t think we had something everyone should listen to… But at the end of the day, I want to be a citizen, really kind of putting my chin out there. Most theater doesn’t ask [an audience] for complexity, emotion, or humanity, but the essence of the art form is to disrupt the status quo.”

Lucy Thurber was the recipient of the Manhattan Theatre Club playwriting fellowship. Her plays have been produced and developed with WET, The O’Neill, The Public, Perseverance Theater, The New Group, Primary Stages and Soho Rep. She is a member of MCC’s Playwrights’ Coalition, Primary Stages’ writing group, New Dramatists, and 13P. Stay will run at Rattlestick Playwrights’ Theater through April 15. For information and tickets, visit Rattlestick.org.

Contributor

Jason Grote

Jason Grote is the author of 1001, Maria/Stuart, and Hamilton Township. He is writing the screenplay for What We Got: DJ Spooky's Quest For The Commons, and co-hosting the Acousmatic Theater Hour on WFMU.

SUMMER FUND DRIVE
We need your support in order to continue to offer insight, provocation, and dialogue.
$100       $200       $500       Other

ADVERTISEMENTS
×