Pity and Terror in the Parlors of the Mighty
“I’m really, basically, a homebody,” insists Jiang Qing, a.k.a. Mrs. Mao Zedong, in the interview that opens Anne Washburn’s play The Ladies. “I’m a very ordinary girl who became a movie star.” The claim is disingenuous, but tantalizing; in a play by Anne Washburn, whose work makes a study of exposing the malevolent within the mundane, a character’s proclamation of ordinariness is a promise of extraordinary things to come.
On the surface, The Ladies: A Text about Girls and their Fierce Little Fantasies is a free-form exploration of the lives of four infamous first ladies: Madame Mao, Elena Ceausescu, Imelda Marcos, and Eva Peron. But the play, which will have a workshop production at HERE from January 17–26, 2003 finds its true fascination in the dynamics of power and the not-so-ladylike ways women from extraordinary first ladies on down to ordinary girls next door—seek to achieve it.
The inciting idea for the project came in the summer of 2000 from director Anne Kauffman, whom Washburn met through the Soho Rep Writer/Director’s Lab. “She said, ‘Do you want to do this thing with these women?’“ Washburn recounted in a recent interview, “and I love terrifying women, so I said, ‘Great.’” The two began a long process of investigating the Ladies’ torrid histories, punctuated by periodic meetings to discuss what they had learned, meetings which Washburn tape-recorded, “because my handwriting is really slow and unreadable and I wanted to make sure we wouldn’t lose any brilliant insights.”
This cycle of reading, meeting, and taping continued for about a year, until the deadline for a scheduled reading at Dixon Place loomed. Overwhelmed by the sheer volume of historical material, Washburn was unable to devise a way to get all four “really willful protagonists in the same space, without, you know, setting it in Hell, which we didn’t want to do,” so she suggested that Kauffman transcribe a couple of their taped conversations to see if there was anything smart and salvageable buried in the back-and-forth. “She transcribed them,” says Washburn, “and brought them in and it was just so fabulous, because we’re both reasonably intelligent, and they had seemed like coherent conversations at the time, but we looked at them and we just seemed like complete idiots. We were really entranced by the subjectivity of our stuff, just, all this really bald and kind of hopeless groping for meaning, and also by the fun of the spoken idiom, which is so completely different from written English. And so we started sticking that in. At first we were saying, ‘We’ll just use this to get us through the first reading, ideally there’ll be none of this in it later on,’ but more and more it became clear that that was what the piece really was, that the most responsible way to talk about the women was through our imagining of them.”
Having realized that this meta-narrative was as important as the Ladies’ biographies themselves, Washburn and Kauffman extended their reading/talking practice to the six actresses they brought into the project. “We felt kind of feckless in trying to understand these women, the judgment we were placing on them, the near-total absence of historical perspective,” Washburn explains, “and in the process with the actors we wanted to create a mini-paradigm of our own ignorance.” In a variation on Caryl Churchill’s Joint Stock technique (a method of creating pseudo-documentary theater that begins with first-person interviews but allows the needs of the play to take precedence over authenticity), Washburn and Kauffman set up a series of workshops in which they, among other things, gave each actress different fragments of information about each Lady, then brought them together to create composite portraits of all four. Washburn recorded these sessions, too, and some of the (very funny) results will appear as expositional voiceover in the HERE production.
The result of this intricate process of research and rehashing is a history play that plays fast and loose with history. The actresses who play the four Ladies sometimes speak words historically attributed to their Ladies, sometimes speak words Washburn has imagined for them, and sometimes, as in the voiceover sequences, speak as themselves. By making voiceover and transcript central elements of The Ladies, Washburn upends the conventions of docudrama, marking the historical characters as obvious fictions and highlighting the “genuineness” of the contemporary women struggling to understand them. As such, The Ladies is indeed a play about four powerful women from history, but it is also a gorgeous, untamed meditation on female hunger for power in general, in all its dark and dreamy forms.
An early exchange between two first ladies, for example, hints at the violence and ambition that seethe beneath their wry formality, but doesn’t name—or even number—the ladies involved:
LADY: Here. We have these biscuits.
LADY: I like what you’ve done with your infrastructure.
LADY: Thank you. Would you like to try this lipstick? I think the shade would be more flattering on you than it is on me. If it looks better on you, you can keep it.
LADY: Thank you. I like these biscuits.
LADY: Thank you. They are made from the people. Did I say that correctly?
When Washburn’s Ladies speak explicitly about the power they wield, their veneer of politeness falls away. Here, in direct address to the audience, Eva Peron graphically imagines the effects of rising to power on the human body:
EVA: I have a terrifying affinity for suffering. Whenever I see suffering in one of my people, I feel it also in my own body. [...] When you have power you can choose not to suffer. Who would not choose not to suffer? Suffering is difficult. One by one by one I see it, I see men rise up to the great heights, the air is rare up there, it is like wine, they become dizzy but they feel wonderful. They are like the deep sea divers who go down to the depths and there something happens to their blood, they become intoxicated, they can’t think. They look at the weights on their feet and they think, “Why am I wearing weights on my feet?” “How silly is that?!” and they unbuckle themselves from the weights on their feet. And their bodies rush upwards through the water too fast, and their brains are crushed and when they arrive on the surface their bones are smashed and they float on the surface like a mangled limp thing. Like the vomit of whales which lies on top of the waves and is called ambergris and is an extremely expensive ingredient in the best perfume from Paris. That is what it is like at the heights—what is most rare, most costly and sought after is really just vomit. And they stand up there and they feel dizzy and they say what is this suffering which I am carrying around my neck. I feel so light and wonderful and this suffering, the suffering of other people, is weighing me down, it is too heavy and too hot and so they release it, and they don’t even watch it fall to the ground far beneath them to see if it lands on anyone and hurts them. And then they feel terrific, they feel released. They feel like finally, they are what they always knew they were, deep down in their hearts. Now they are a figure in a fairy story. But they are too light. And at the heights the wind is very strong. Not long after that they fall. And their bodies lie on the ground in a bloody pulp. That is their fairy story.
The play’s overall structure is a virtuosic collage of torch songs and snippets of revolutionary propaganda, girlish slumber-party banter, and incendiary monologue. But the biggest source of humor in the play is the transcribed exchanges between the characters of ‘Washburn’ and ‘Kauffman.’ These scenes retain the stuttering form of spoken conversation, and create a schlumpy counterpoint to the Ladies’ savagery and primness which we can’t help but relate to:
WASHBURN: Everyone says Jiang Qing was a great actress.
KAUFFMAN: Not everyone says that at all.
WASHBURN: Everyone they don’t say she was great but they say she was pretty damn good [...] She got cri—I mean she got good criticism—and, and that was like, that was like New York now like you couldn’t Shanghai then was like New York now like what the bitch goddess city or something
WASHBURN: Goddess city. Just like New York now let’s say. And you couldn’t
KAUFFMAN: Well, like New York maybe in the 70s.
WASHBURN: Yeah like New York in the 70s.
KAUFFMAN: Not now.
WASHBURN: Not now.
KAUFFMAN: Not with Mickey Mouse that scary [UNINTELLIGIBLE.]
WASHBURN: I mean [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] just thinking about it.
At some point towards the end of the play, the distinctions between the true and the fictional, the ordinary and the extraordinary, begin to collapse. The larger-than-life Ladies devolve into flippant, transcript-style gossip:
LADY 2: Oh, yeah, so my first flight is canceled and I’m so irritated, I’m so worked up, I’m in such a libidinal frenzy, I’m taking that little bus back from the airport and I go straight to the gym and I run seven miles and I’m just like: aaaagh! I can’t! stand! it!
LADY 1: Those cold showers just don’t do it for ladies.
LADY 2: Oh I don’t know I mean
LADY 4: No no I just [UNINTELLIGIBLE.]
LADY 2: I gotta I gotta burn this off
LADY 3: Yeah
Meanwhile, ‘Washburn’ and ‘Kauffman,’ the characters we have come to rely on as “real,” swerve into increasingly creepy territory, fantasizing about their ascent to artistic fame. The change is subtle at first, almost unnoticeable, but before long the ‘Kauffman’ character is picturing the trembling hands of the manicurist sent to prep her for a TV interview, the young student moved to tears by her magnetic presence. “I have so much love,” the ‘Kauffman’ character wistfully concludes. “That’s what it comes down to. I just I have so much love to give.”
The real power of The Ladies lives in this moment, when the craven yearnings of the “normal” girls and the banality of the tyrants are revealed simultaneously. If we take comfort in our own ordinariness, the play finally suggests, we all yearn to be extraordinary, to be sucked into the vortex of power and soar to its pinnacle. Jiang Qing, whose insistence that she is ordinary opens the play, perfectly embodies this contradiction. “Don’t try to be delectable in this world, like a morsel which is cuddled and nibbled upon,” she instructs her actress protégé, “try to be blinding. It is only when people fall back from you, stunned, that they understand who you really are.”
The Ladies: A Text about Girls and their Fierce Little Fantasies written by Anne Washburn, directed by Anne Kauffman at HERE Arts Center, 145 6th Avenue (between Spring and Broome).
January 17–19 and 24–26, 2003 at 7pm
Box office telephone: 212-647-0202
Apparition written by Anne Washburn, directed by Linsay Firman at SoHo Rep, 46 Walker Street (between Church and Broadway)
February 20 & 21, 2003
Box office telephone: 212-206-1515
IN DIALOGUE is a column written by playwrights about playwrights, with a focus on showcasing new texts. If you are a playwright, and would like to write a column, please contact Emily DeVoti at email@example.com.
MADELEINE GEORGE is the 10th of the 13 playwrights who make up 13P (Thirteen Playwrights, Inc.).