AGE OF AROUSAL
Linda Griffiths’ new play is a witty, smart, challenging examination of feminism and its contradictions in London, 1885. If Tom Stoppard were a woman—and had a little more interest in the nitty gritty of sexuality—he might have written this play.
The age of arousal for Griffiths’ female characters takes many forms. Minds and consciousnesses are being aroused by the suffrage movement. Women’s ambitions are aroused by technological transformations in the workplace, marked overtly by the three typewriters that sit upstage and the projections of scene titles typed out on the upstage scrim. And with more confidence, more opportunity, and more independence, these late Victorian women find themselves more and more frequently answering to the sexual arousal within each of them. But what they feel and what they think doesn’t always jibe.
Mary Barfoot (Susan Hogan), a former militant suffragist, has opened a secretarial school for young women with her lover, Rhoda (Laara Sadiq). But with Rhoda preparing to leave her, Mary is in crisis. Their divergent paths are expressed in a series of duelling monologues—articulated subtexts— introducing us to the technique of overlapping speeches that will run throughout the play.
“Every happily unmarried woman is a silent reproach to the institution of marriage,” declares Mary. But subsequent events offer a variety of positions in regard to marriage and the sexuality it makes socially respectable.
Lovely Monica Madden (Jennifer Mawhinney) has no qualms about admitting to herself, “I need a man.” Her man of choice is Everard Barfoot (Martin Happer), who also happens to be her gynecologist, a rather conventional (if hunky) guy who is himself driven by barely repressed lust. Monica and her sisters, old-maidish Alice (Gwyneth Walsh) and alcoholic Virginia (Kerry Davidson), finding themselves economic victims of the Victorian patriarchy, end up as students in Mary’s school.
All the women struggle to reconcile their desires, none more so than Rhoda, whose principles and propriety are no match for her libido. Lusting after Everard, she cries out in an aside, “Love me, scratch me, dig your fingers into my pubis!” Typing becomes an outlet for sexual sublimation but it can’t contain even a modicum of the emotions and desires aroused. And it’s not just sex that they find they want. It’s also children. And—for some—marriage.
Not that there aren’t alternatives. Virginia goes off to Berlin and returns as a male transvestite, as happy as can be. All the women, intelligent and self-conscious (and very funny—especially Davidson’s Virginia), are continually commenting on their social situation, as in a terrific scene where they take turns fainting. The slightly over-long second act ends in a kind of stalemate.
I really liked this play and Katrina Dunn’s Arts Club/Touchstone co-production. Griffiths’ script is very intelligent and a lot of fun (though a couple of my feminist friends really disliked what they perceived to be its politics). The acting is uniformly excellent. Pam Johnson’s open set—a series of steps leading up to the typewriters—and Jennifer Darbellay’s period costumes offer nice visuals, although I would have liked to see the show in a more intimate venue. The upstage action seemed awfully far away at times.
I was aroused. I think most of you would be, too.