A Feminist Approach to Drama for Children and Young Adults: Female Protagonists in Plays by Suzan Zeder
- Author: Woo Miseong
- Publish: Feminist Studies in English Literature Volume 21, Issue3, p139~176, Dec 2013
Since the second wave of the feminist movement in the United States, feminist theories and criticism have attempted to renegotiate the status quo and modify gender relations and representations in all social, political, economic, and cultural arenas. Children’s drama has been one of the fields that that has been slow in terms of embracing the modified and advanced gender consciousness. Mainstream theater productions for children and young adults still are not only lacking in number of productions but also in need of more creative new materials to meet the changes in the psychological development of children and young adults today. Any kind of cultural impact for children at an early age can be powerful and long lasting, since they internalize gender concepts as early as they are able to recognize differences in people.
This article examines representation of female protagonists in children’s drama from a feminist perspective. Historically, children’s literature has been regarded as marginal and peripheral, just as women’s literature has been devalued in the history of literature. Although there has been a growing body of scholarship on feminist theory and criticism in children’s literature since the 1990s, mainstream children’s theater has been frequently presented with adaptations of fairy tales and Disney movies and adventure stories that are still limited in their scope, topicality, and characterization. Particularly lacking in current children’s theater and drama are strong well-developed young female protagonists whom any audience of children and young adults, regardless of age and gender, can easily identify with.
Suzan Zeder’s plays for a young audience cover a wide range of topics and familiar theatrical devices borrowed from traditional fairy tales and children’s literature, blending fantasy and realism. More than anything else, her female protagonists go through internal change and depart from the traditional female protagonists, whose femininity is frequently associated with passivity and docileness. Both Ellie in
Step on a Crack(1974) and Girl in Mother Hicks(1990) are the best examples of an androgynous young female protagonist who struggles to adjust to a major change in life. Theater practitioners must seek mature themes and use a wide range of theatrical devices that are socially and psychologically relevant to the needs of contemporary young audiences.
feminism , children’s drama , female protagonist , Suzan Zeder , Step on a Crack , Mother Hicks
Perry Nodelman and many of the authors in a special section of
Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, “Feminist Criticism and the Study of Children’s Literature,” suggest that children’s literature is actually a kind of women’s writing, not only because the majority of writers of children’s literature are women, but also because the dominant aesthetics and literary strategies and subjects have been regarded as inferior, just as women’s writings had been marginalized until about the late 1980s, before the emergence of feminist literary criticism. Lissa Paul writes in her article “Enigma Variations: What Feminist Theory Knows about Children’s Literature,” “both women’s literature and children’s literature are devalued and regarded as marginal or peripheral by the literary and educational communities” (149). Stories about women or child protagonists have been looked at as small-scale stories, which often are simply regarded as insignificant and minor, in the face of the epic, grand-scale writings of stories that engage the full sweep of the human endeavor such as war, politics, science, and philosophy, areas in which women and children were traditionally given less opportunity to involve themselves in the process of making decisions. The forms of physical, economic, and linguistic restrictions that feminist literary critics have revealed in women’s literature in the past can also be applied to the criticism of children’s literature, including drama for children and young adults.
The history of theater gives evidence of the similar social and cultural positions between women and children. Since women and children shared a similar social position of being patronized by others making decisions for them and women were not allowed to perform on stage until the 1660s, women were represented by young boys on stage in the history of Western theater. Until the seventeenth-century European theater, “boys, by virtue of their age, were cast in a social role similar to that of women – dependent on and inferior to the adult male” (Case 21). In analyzing 100 years of production history of J. M. Barrie’s
Peter Pan, Marjorie Garber poignantly writes, “Why is Peter Pan played by a woman? Because a woman will never grow up to be a man” (168). Children, like women, frequently have been regarded as dependent beings who need to be kept away from the scene of the action. More than anything else, in the theater, it is adults who write, produce, and direct, whereas children are simply passive spectators in the audience. The cultural convention of theater itself has been developed only for the adult audiences who are supposed to respect the invisible fourth wall of the proscenium arch theater, sit quietly in the darkness, and try not to break the illusion. Sue-Ellen Case writes in her ground-breaking book Feminism and Theatre, which offers a revisionist feminist approach to theater history, that children’s theater is a “domestic, social-service project” that may further “reproduce a ghetto for women’s talent” unless feminist critics provide alternative interpretations (55).
Mainstream children’s theater has been frequently presented with adaptations of fairy tales and adventure stories filled with gender-role stereotyping in their characterizations and typically predictable plots in which good always wins over evil. According to Roger L. Bedard, the top-ten most frequently produced stories for children’s theater during the first half of the twentieth century were
Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Princess, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Hansel and Gretel, The Wizard of Oz, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Sleeping Beauty, Jack and the Beanstalk,and Rumpelstiltskin.3 These stories are still popular reading books for children in the 21st century. The majority of the popular children’s fairy tales originated from European fables and folktales of the 17th century, whereas the variations of the Cinderella story seem to exist in many different cultures. One of the earliest versions of the Cinderella story can be found in a Chinese book written between about 850 AD and 860 AD. Although fairy tales can be useful material for anthropological studies and folklore or narrative studies, those tales are the products of the traditional patriarchy and European feudal system in which representation of gender, race, and class are highly problematic from today’s perspective. To children and young adults living in the twenty-first century, life itself is stripping the protective insulation ruthlessly away, and more and more children and young adults are helplessly exposed to complicated issues and problems in their families, relationships, schools, health, media, and societies.
There has been a growing body of scholarship in feminist theory and children’s literature since the 1990s, although its scope has been limited. In a 1999 article, “Additional ‘Variations’: Further Development in Feminist Theory and Children’s Literature,” in the journal
Children’s Literature, Anne K. Phillips suggests that in North America, much contemporary attention to children’s literature is directed at certain popular fiction for girl readers, such as L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Rilla of Ingleside, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and the Nancy Drew series. These children’s books show relatively realistic problems and settings, and most of all, more realistic characters. Although there is no fantasy or supernatural enchantment, the protagonists reach a point of triumph at the end. Whether success is due to the efforts of the protagonist, or to the intervention of an outside force, virtually all protagonists receive some positive reward. They eventually restore family or love relationships or fortunes. Kent points out that “finding loving and active female-female scenarios is much more difficult” (38), suggesting that in mainstream girls’ literature, women are often in conflict with other women.
Also a basic scheme in many fairy tales are battles between women, particularly, beautiful virtuous young heroines and wicked jealous stepmothers or sisters. The adult women invariably appear to embody the major obstacles against the heroine’s passage to womanhood. As Karen Rowe points out, “Not simply dramatic and moral antagonists to the youthful heroine, they can be regarded as personifying predatory female sexuality and even the heroine’s negative feelings toward her mother” (240). In terms of beauty standard, these fairy tales also perpetuate negative views about aging. In the traditional fairy tales, the young girls’ maturation seems to signal the aging stepmother’s own waning sexual attractiveness and loss of control over her body and mind. In retaliation and jealousy, the “old” women torment the more beautiful young women who capture the fathers’ or princes’ attention and affection, threatening the declining old women’s sexuality. Remanded to the hearth in
Hansel and Gretel, cursed with one-hundred years of sleep in Sleeping Beauty, or cast into a death-like trance by a poisoned apple in Snow White, the young female protagonists suffer due to the old women’s destructive stratagems. In the happy ending, though, the young women triumphantly acquire inescapable womanhood, whereas the aged women are punished by death or oblivion. Ironically, women characters who have manipulative power and autonomy are represented as vain, villainous stepmothers or bad fairies. As Rowe writes, “By punishing exhibitions of feminine force, tales admonish, moreover, that any disruptive non-conformist will result in annihilation or social ostracism” (247). Some people might argue that children today are clever enough to understand the simplicity of the moral values that the traditional fairy tales convey to the audience. However, as Rowe continues to point out, child audiences may dissociate from these portraitures of feminine power because they may readily identify with the pretty passive heroine whose “submission to commendable roles insures her triumphant happiness” (248).
Jed H. Davis points out that most young people after the age of 12 enter a period of important discoveries about life and reject most material that is intended to keep them interested in the theater. Davis writes:
In Korea and probably most of the other countries as well, this age group of young adult audience does not have any theatrical material or cultural contents that they can enjoy. Rather, they are exposed to mainstream media contents, such as television drama, soap operas, and various forms of story-telling on the Internet that are mostly inadequate for their age and problematic in terms of gender representation.
It is noticeable that all the problematic characteristics of female protagonists in drama for children match the ways in which adult women were represented in the mainstream theater in the first half of the twentieth century. Judith Louise Stephens identifies four major characteristics of female protagonists in Pulitzer Prize winning plays in the first half of the twentieth century. Female protagonists are predominantly concerned with love. They are portrayed “as being slaves to their emotional natures,” in other word, they have been exclusively tied to irrationality and emotionality. Female characters are also generally characterized as being one of two extremes: either extremely selfish or unbelievably selfless. They are commonly presented in the form of “being” rather than “doing,” thus lacking in terms of initiative and action, and responding emotionally to circumstances. These types of sentimental and stereotypical representation of women characters are pervasive in mainstream popular culture. More and more, unfortunately, children and young adult audiences are enjoying those popular mainstream contents that are targeted for adult viewers.
As the readers of this article may have noticed, the dominant feminist approach to children’s literature and traditional children’s drama has been critique of patriarchal values and gender-role stereotyping, which has been a major agenda and strategy among liberal feminists. This type of liberal feminists’ approach can be still effective, and it should always be a part of critical discourses for children’s literature and theater. However, the scope and topicality and aesthetic standards for children’s theater should also be updated to provide the young audiences with other familial and social issues. The visibility of women itself is no longer the core of the representational problems in children’s theater. Young audiences need to see new models of men and women and new and diverse images of femininity and masculinity. Not just the power of image, but the importance of other issues, such as language, identity, history, and social issues, should also be recognized and implemented in the narrative.
2Zeder is also a Fulbright scholar who has served as the head of the playwriting program at the University of Texas at Austin in the Department of Theatre and Dance, a position from which she retired in January 2013. She is a four-time winner of the Distinguished Play Award by the American Alliance of Theatre and Education. 3See the introduction of Bedard’s book, Dramatic Literature for Children: A Century in Review. These stories are mentioned as the most frequently produced plays for children from 1900 to 1970.
Traditionally, the basic assumption behind children’s literature is that it consciously addresses itself to the immature. Those who address children and write children’s plays have in mind all the limitations of a child’s ability. Similarly, there has been a popular misconception about the quality of children’s theater and drama as ‘art.’ As Alan England points out, purveyors of children’s theater are “often tempted to make assumptions about the developmental needs and capabilities of the recipients” (4). Overall, “the repertoire is narrow in focus and limited in subject matter, to the extent that many theater professionals hardly consider the field worthy of notice” (Bedard 5). The majority of children’s theater practitioners have thought that children in the audience should identify with the protagonist in a play, that a play should have a clearly defined protagonist for young audiences’ identification, and that identification can therefore be more easily accomplished if the protagonist is a child. Children’s theater practitioners see the value of identification primarily in terms of psychological implications.
Historically, however, the purpose for clarity of characterization narrowed the scope of characterization in children’s drama and children’s theater. As a result, extremely simplistic, broad, and obvious types who can be easily understood by even the youngest children – about 4-5-year-old kindergarteners – in the audience were pervasive among protagonists in children’s drama. Moses Goldberg writes, “There is a feeling among many children’s theatre practitioners that the hero of a children’s play should be young (slightly older than the children who see the play), virtuous (although not perfect), and male (because girls can theoretically identify with boys easier than ‘vice-versa’)” (124). Yet if we consider popular children’s books, heroines and even heroes are not exactly children; rather, they suddenly change from children to junior adults, seemingly skipping the teenage years altogether, or some of the popular characters are adults, which indicates that the children’s theater practitioners have limited notion of identification, mainly focusing on age, without considering emotional and psychological implications.
Although the term
identificationhas been used as a traditional and rather outdated topic in dramatic aesthetics, it is still a critical element in children’s theater because children in the audience tend to identify more strongly with protagonists in drama. Jed Davis and Mary Watkins point out that the central character “is especially important, since it is through identification with this character that the child responds to the story” (58). Zeder writes, “Identification refers to a process in which a person, either consciously or unconsciously, patterns his/her thoughts, feelings, or actions after another person who serves as a model” (54). Both children’s theater sources and related studies in psychology indicate that the identification and modeling processes are viable and powerful forces. As a central or focal character in a play, the protagonist is particularly significant for child audiences. Sam Smiley writes in his book on playwriting, “The protagonist’s problem, more than that of any other character, is centripetal to the play’s entire organic structure” (95–6).
A protagonist is vital in a play for children because the protagonist is to serve as the strongest role model in terms of value and action for children in the audience. Zeder suggests that the majority of contemporary writers and critics of children’s theater advocate a broader approach to characterization (207). A broader approach to characterization or a more in-depth character development indicates adding the degree to which a character is developed in terms of thoughts, feelings, and actions. She goes on to point out, “Playwrights are encouraged to craft their protagonists more realistically and to imbue these characters with a balance of positive and negative traits, even for audiences of younger children” (214). Children may tend to identify with characters whom they perceive as having attitudes and attributes similar to their own. Characters with a wide range of dispositional traits may be more accessible for identification than characters with relatively few dispositional traits. The key to well-balanced characterization of protagonists in children’s drama is character change and development. According to Sam Smiley:
Smiley suggests that internal change affects the character far more deeply than external change, for the character’s personality and perspective on the world are in some way altered.
Protagonists in fairy tales and traditional children’s stories go through predicaments and symbolic adventures, thus all the stories still provide child readers and audiences with significant dramatic experience and meaningful lessons. The most problematic weakness in these stories, however, is that external powers, rather than internal self-initiative, solve the conflicts and problems. The basic scheme in many traditional children’s dramas is a battle between women, especially virtuous, beautiful young protagonists and wicked jealous old women. Although many young girls in the audience may be smart and realistic enough to discount obvious fantasy elements on stage or on television, they may still fall prey to patriarchal paradigms by internalizing passivity and dependency, yet inborn nobility and beauty, as female virtue, through continuous exposure to stereotypical gender relations.
The female protagonists’ physical entrapment is another dominant pattern in these fairy tales and traditional children’s stories. Their freedom is severely restricted at the time of a critical point in life such as junior adults turning into adults, and only magical powers and princes can save them from confinement or a death-like trance. These fairy tales and traditional children’s stories can be equally problematic for boy readers and audiences. As Alleen Pace Nilsen points out, “While girls could be happy to see ‘male heroes’ in adventure stories, no self-respecting boy will like fairy tales.” Nilsen’s assumption seems to be flawed with generalization about the value of traditional fairy tales and readership of the boys who love fairy tales. However, she suggests that, psychologically, boys tend to resist the romantic kind of fairy tales and other romantic stories because “the male characters in them are so false and so romanticized that no boy wants to picture himself playing that role” (253).
Since the 1990s, some independent or community theaters began to stage new materials for children, but mainstream theater is still producing titles that are well-known to children for special holiday programs to draw audiences. Musicals adapted from wellknown stories and fairy tales, such as
Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, and Disney animation, such as The Lion King, Newsies, and other traditionally popular family entertainment, such as Peter Pan, The Nutcracker, Annie, Matilda, Wicked, Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark, and the film-based British musical Billy Eliot, have been the top-ranking repertoire for children in mainstream theater during the year 2013.
Suzan Zeder, who retired from her position as a professor of the University of Texas at Austin in February 2013, offers a different sort of children’s drama. Zeder is the most prominent playwright in the field of drama for young audiences. Her plays cover a wide range of topics and theatrical devices. Realism and fantasy are blended to describe the inner conflict of child protagonists. Her thematic focus helps her characterization to depart from the traditional fairy tale concept, and she undertakes removing some of the insulation with which traditional children’s plays have tried to protect children. As Sara Spencer, editor and publisher of the
Children’s Theatre Press, writes, “Life itself is stripping the insulation ruthlessly away – and surely the best way to protect our children is to prepare them for it” (no pag.). The genres of Zeder’s plays run the gamut from comedy to serious drama, from fantasy to realism, and from ancient to modern historical periods. Her main characters range from a 10-year-old girl to a 72-year-old man, from an orphan in the period of American Depression to a disabled man in a medieval village. Step on a Crack(1974) was Zeder’s first published play, and its protagonist is probably the best known of her young female characters. Ellie Murphy is a 10-year-old, middle-class, funny, and messy girl, who likes playing baseball and going bowling and enjoys pop songs and movies on TV. She has been living with her father, Max, ever since she lost her mother when she was four. Before the opening of the play, Max met Lucille, who teaches music, while Ellie had gone to camp. Ellie takes Lucille’s presence as intrusion into her life with her father, and she even feels abandoned. Although the basic plot structure revolves around the familiar theme of stepmother, Zeder’s focal point of the play is not a predictable conflict and jealousy between a young girl and her stepmother. It is more about a child’s coping with unexpected, new change in her life. Zeder’s characterization of Ellie departs from the traditional female protagonists, whose femininity is frequently associated with passivity and docileness. Ellie is a confused androgynous young girl who struggles to adjust to a major change in her life. Zeder writes in a playwright’s note for the play: “A funny, crazy, wildly imaginative child who arms herself with a full-blown fantasy life to fight her way through real life problems” (133). Since no obvious sign of feminine disposition is assigned to the characterization of Ellie, her emotional discomfort is more about the unfamiliar presence of another adult in the house, who is trying to make a new order and changes at home and about possibly losing her father’s full attention and affection toward her. The emotional discomfort is not coming from jealousy or from missing her biological mother, because she does not seem to have any memory of her deceased mother. Ellie is confused at now having a “real” mother figure who asks her to clean her messy room and cooks and keeps the house neat, and even sews buttons on all Ellie’s clothing, whereas her father used to let her watch TV as much as she wanted, and he would give her junk to play with, like a grease gun from his junkyard.
Fantasy is a significant element in Zeder’s plays for children, although it is not supernatural magical powers or enchantment like that found in the traditional fairy tales. It is mostly a character’s play with imaginary friends. Ellie spends much of her time in her room playing with her imaginary friends, Lana and Frizbee, who enter her room through a toy box. Lana plays Ellie’s Fairy Godmother, since Ellie fantasizes about herself as a helpless orphan girl. Ellie has been able to create and enact fantasies of being rich, famous, and beautiful, so she feels that a “real” mother figure is not necessary in her life. In a way, Ellie does not know how to interact with real people. Ellie indulges in fantasy more often, once Lucille is married to Max and starts living with Ellie and her father. Ellie’s problem is now real and personal. The intrusion of a new stepmother into Ellie’s relationship with her father brings out all of Ellie’s insecurities, frustration, and fear of change.
The Voice, Ellie’s alter-ego, who lives in the mirror in Ellie’s room, starts all the other fantasies by reminding her that she is not as pretty, talented, or smart as Lucille. The Voice, as the mirror, reflects the distorted image of Ellie’s anxiety. Casting a mirror as the young female protagonist’s alter-ego is an interesting twist from the familiar dramatic device in
Snow White and Seven Dwarfs, and in her fantasy play, Ellie sentimentalizes herself as the abused “Cinderelli.” Zeder thereby intentionally reminds the audience of Cinderellaand Snow White. Pearson-Davis writes, “Ellie’s difficulty adjusting to her new stepmother is as classic as Cinderella and as timely as tomorrow” (133). As Bruno Bettelheim argues, romantic fairy tales often recreate Freudian tensions, when a mother’s early death is followed by the father’s rapid remarriage to a cruel stepmother. A Fairy Godmother promises magical transformations to make external circumstances responsive to the young heroine’s inner virtue of innocence. In Zeder’s play, the antagonist is invisible anger, frustration, and fear of abandonment inside of the child protagonist herself, whereas, in the traditional fairy tales, the stepmother is the evil enemy who should be defeated.
Very often, the problem lies in misunderstandings and lack of communication in Zeder’s plays. Max has his own insecurities that cause him to be of little comfort to both Ellie and Lucille. One evening, Max shows a surprising gift for Lucille, which is their honeymoon trip ticket to Hawaii for three weeks. Max promises to tell Ellie about the trip but he constantly avoids bringing up the issue until the three of them go bowling. When Lucille points out his fault, which is never telling about the problems that have happened between Ellie and them, Max furiously says to Ellie that he and Lucille are going to Hawaii. Ellie is shocked because she takes the father’s abrupt announcement as a threat of abandonment. She decides to separate herself from Lucille and her father by running away from the house. Although she is used to having a fantasy of being a poor homeless little orphan girl, she genuinely feels lonely on the street and misses home. The breakdown of communication or lack of understanding causes the child protagonist’s doubts and loneliness.
That night, when Max and Lucille get back home after looking for Ellie all around town, they find Ellie sleeping in her room. Lucille says to Max that everything is all her fault and that maybe she should just leave for a while to let Max and Ellie work things out, which Ellie overhears because she has awakened and is listening. Ellie again plays with Lana and Frizbee, at first about her own funeral, where everybody feels sorry for all the mean things they ever did to her. But as Ellie realizes that the Voice does not always tell her the truth, her imaginary funeral becomes a symbolic burial of the Voice. She also orders Lana and Frizbee to go back to the toy box. It is Ellie herself who finds solutions on her own. Lucille later goes into Ellie’s bedroom to wish her goodnight while Max stands by the door, and as Lucille is about to leave the room, Ellie stops her:
Ellie’s running away to the street, although it was brief, symbolizes her real separation from home. She has been romanticizing her situation as a motherless young girl in her fantasy; however, she realizes that being an orphan and not having any parents at all is far from being romantic or sentimental. She realizes for the first time that she may not be able to survive without home. Fear of losing home and family becomes real, and she cannot help but confront the reality that she is only a child who needs parents. Ellie accepts the fact that she needs a mother, and Lucille may be a necessary part in her life with her father.
It is not just a child protagonist who has limitation in her or his understanding and goes through identity development. Adult characters in Zeder’s plays also go through a learning process. Lucille seems to be a perfect stepmother in the beginning of her relationship with Ellie; however, Ellie does not happily accept her as a new part of the family, and Lucille’s presence seems to be a threat to Ellie. Throughout the course of the play, Lucille learns how to become an appropriate mother figure to Ellie. In other words, Lucille realizes what kind of mother figure is needed by Ellie, and she tries to see the circumstances from Ellie’s point of view. In the last scene of the play, Lucille seems to try to be not just a good mother, but Ellie’s mom.
Max also has to confront the bitter realization that he is not capable of handling the problems in his family; he has been constantly avoiding his responsibility as Ellie’s single parent and now as a remarried biological father. Everyone in the family has an equal share of responsibility to confront their own problems and limitations. In the last scene, both Lucille and Ellie are trying to respect each one’s space and privacy. Max might not be able to change his old habit of avoiding conflict by not telling or delaying confrontation, but having Lucille as his new partner, Ellie would not be neglected any more.
Roberta Seelinger Trites argues in her book
Waking Sleeping Beauty: Feminist Voices in Children’s Novels, that “the greatest distinguishing mark of the feminist children’s novel is that the character who uses introspection to overcome her oppression almost always overcomes at least part of what is oppressing her. Feminist children’s novels, on the whole then, constitute a triumphal literature” (3). In Zeder’s plays, however, the young female protagonist confronts her own limitations and weaknesses, which brings bitter, painful realization to the character. In the last scene of her play, the young protagonist is beginning to find a way to understand her identity, but the ending is far from triumphant closure. Zeder’s plays are mostly open-ended, which provides the audience with the sense of continuation: the character’s life goes on, and the audience just had a glimpse of it. There is no dramatic closure, although the protagonist is portrayed as just overcoming one stage of a predicament in life. The audiences can leave the theater not enchanted by the magical power of fairies but with a strong belief in our resilience and inner strength.
Zeder seems to draw inspiration from traditional fairy tales, although her plays are not fairy tale retellings. She uses some of the familiar dramatic devices from the most well-known fairy tale about stepmother-daughter relationship,
Snow White, in the case of Step on a Crack. In the fairy tale, the beautiful but haughty proud queen looks in the mirror to ask who is the fairest in the land. The mirror is one of the oldest literary symbols for self-reflection. In Snow White, the mirror seems to have a magic power to tell the truth to the queen. The mirror’s telling, however, is nothing but the queen’s alter-ego that is tainted with anxiety and insecurity. Zeder adapts the mirror device to present Ellie’s alter-ego. As all of her toys have names chosen for them, Ellie’s mirror is called “Voice,” and this personified mirror tells all of Ellie’s fear, worries, and distorted images of her own self. Any young audience who watches or reads Snow Whiteafter Zeder’s Step on a Crackwould recognize that the mirror is the device to show the character’s inner thoughts and feelings.
4All quotations of the plays are from Susan Pearson-Davis, ed., Wish in One Hand, Spit in the Other: A Collection of Plays by Suzan Zeder (New Orleans, LA:Anchorage, 1990), which includes Step on a Crack (131-97) and Mother Hicks (353-425).
Some of the major protagonists in Zeder’s plays are not children. Zeder’s young protagonists often go through loss of parents or separation from their family members and struggle to grow out of sad and unbearable circumstances. There is always one or more adult women with whom the young protagonists end up bonding.
Mother Hicks(1990) is set in a small town in Southern Illinois during the Great Depression. Girl is a 13-year-old foundling who has been passed from family to family in the town, all her life. She has lived alienated from people in town and has developed headstrong willfulness and a tendency not to follow rules. In the beginning of the play, Girl has just been left behind by yet another foster father, and she is now forced to move in with the town mortician, Hosiah and his wife, Alma, whom she does not like. Mother Hicks is a mysterious woman in her forties who lives alone outside this small town. She had been a midwife in the town until a time 10 years earlier when the townspeople, in fear and ignorance, blamed her for the death several babies and ostracized her as an accused witch. The people in town, including Girl, look on her with dread. Mother Hicks and Girl are, however, destined to meet, when Girl is severely injured and brought by Tuc, a deaf man, to be nursed back to health by Mother Hicks. Mother Hicks’ own infant daughter died in the same epidemic that killed the babies she is accused of having bewitched. Her mysterious midnight visits to the graveyard every week, which have been used by the people in town as evidence that she is a witch, are eventually revealed to be visits to the unmarked grave of her dead child.
When Girl sees Mother Hicks for the first time in the graveyard, she romanticizes her own identity as the dead baby girl of Mother Hicks. Girl thinks the “H” in the “I. S. H.” embroidered on a quilt piece that she has kept since she was born stands for “Hicks.” It turns out that I. S. H. stands for Illinois State Home. Meanwhile, people in town have been worried about Girl, believing that Girl might be kidnapped by Mother Hicks. Especially because Alma really wants Girl to come back, Hosiah, Alma’s husband, and other townspeople decide to go up the hill with guns to see Mother Hicks. Mother Hicks and people confront each other for the first time, and Mother Hicks realizes that Alma really cares about Girl. When Mother Hicks tells Girl to leave and go to live with Alma and Hosiah, Girl asks if she can have the name of Mother Hick’s dead child. Mother Hicks says, “That’s her name, it ain’t yours” (425). However, Girl does not give up and asks to help her find her own name while she stays with Mother Hicks just for a while, and Mother Hicks agrees.
The Play Called Noah’s Flood, which is about women in a medieval pageant, Mother Hicksis another example of Zeder’s revisionist attempt to tell stories about women in history. In the atmosphere of fear and loss brought by the Depression, tales of witchcraft spread. Zeder writes in her note for the play, “I was struck by the number of witch tales which provided supernatural explanations for natural disasters and by the need of communities to create witches as scapegoats in troubled times and landscapes” (355). Stories of witch trials might be one of the historical incidents that display patriarchal power schemes against marginalized women in the society. Women who had extraordinary talents and nonconformist lifestyles were punished or ostracized by the community from the mid-fifteenth to the eighteenth century. Zeder sets the play in the early part of the twentieth century in the USA to make it clear that, historically, witch hunts took place against a rapid social transformation or economic depression and that it could happen in any historical period. Mother Hicks is archetypal in stature, but also vulnerable and human in a unique, individual way. The mystery about her past creates ambiguity about her identity, and this becomes an effective dramatic device to maintain suspense for the potential audience.
Girl, as a young protagonist, is more fully drawn than Mother Hicks. There have been many orphan girls in famous novels for children and young adults, and they are generally portrayed as poor and pitiable, but good-natured and strong young girls, such as Sara Crewe in
The Little Princess(1903), Anne of Green Gables(1908), Pollyanna in Pollyanna(1913), and Sally in The Ghost of Mr. Penny(1939). Evoking sympathy through overtly sentimentalized representations of the orphan girls’ dealing with predicaments, their virtuous natures are eventually rewarded by returned fortune or parents or loved ones; they are thus no longer poor, lonely orphans in the end. Despite the absence of supernatural trappings beyond a series of marvelous coincidences, those orphan girls’ stories are in effect fairy tales. Examinations of the traditional fairy tales’ many variants reveal that the female protagonist is not only worthy to be a princess but is also a princess by nature. Sara Crewe, in The Little Princess, is not only portrayed as a virtuous girl; she also undergoes a pattern of enchantment and disenchantment that parallels fairy tales. In the novel, Francis H. Burnett describes how Sara Crewe, once rich, now poor, the drudge of cruel Miss Minchin’s school, cold, hungry, forlorn – though still able to quell her persecutors by her dignity and courage – awakes in her cheerless garret to find it transformed into a place of warmth and light, full of color and comfort. When she is a scullery-maid, she is enchanted, under a spell; at the end of the story, she simply returns to her natural, disenchanted state as a princess. Sara is not only an orphan translated from rags to riches, she has the additional attraction of being morally superior to the adults around her. As with the Cinderella tale, The Little Princessand The Ghost of Mr. Pennydo not emphasize a change within the main characters but rather the recognition of that character’s true nature. They are “princesses” even when the world does not recognize them as such. The change comes within others, those who are influenced by the child’s true nature. In their portrayal of the female protagonists, these novelists reveal the true nature of their characters in a manner peculiarly similar to fairy tales, by presenting the protagonists with a series of tests. These tests are designed to demonstrate whether the young female protagonists are inwardly noble and virtuous, as their outward appearance would suggest.
By contrast, Girl in
Mother Hicksis rather naughty, daring, and self-centered; she is as active and bold as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Oliver Twist. She jumps out of a tree, catches frogs, and sometimes even chews tobacco. Nobody tries to stop her, because there is no one there to tell her to be careful. She is aggressive enough to look for her place to stay all by herself. When Jake’s family decides to move out of the town and tells her to live with Hosiah and Alma, Girl refuses saying, “I ain’t going to live with grave digger” (365). Her dispositional traits may be the realistic portrayal of a child rather than the cherubic goodness and endless patience of the orphan girls from the famous children’s literature. More than anything else, Girl’s struggle is not for a nice and safe home but for her own identity, which is symbolized by the name that Girl does not have. Like many of Zeder’s other young protagonists, Girl struggles to overcome a sense of incompleteness. She seeks to complete herself and affirm her identity by herself, which may be the most important message to child audiences. From a realistic point of view, Zeder’s representation of Girl seems a bit too dark to present to young audiences. She is lacking not only all material comfort but also the very basic ground of her existence and identity, which is symbolized by her name. Girl, who had begun to hope that Mother Hicks was really her long-lost mother, asks Tuc about Mother Hicks’ identity, which Tuc explains as “earth, air, fire, water, blood, tears, everything” (408):
Step on a Crackwas a variation of Snow White, Mother Hicksis Cinderella, in the way that Mother Hicks plays the role of Fairy Godmother to Girl. Instead of providing the young girl with material support for a transformation in her appearance, Mother Hicks gives honest advice and emotional support, enabling Girl to search for her own identity. Instead of providing escapist fantasy to the suffering young protagonist, adult characters in Zeder’s plays are not trying to romanticize reality by telling sugar-coated lies. The young protagonist herself has to find a way out from the feeling of loss and abandonment:
Any feminist reader can easily notice that Zeder depicts the character Mother Hicks from the socially outcast women in Western society; for example, the victims of the witch trials in early modern Europe, the seventeenth-century witch hunt in Salem, Massachusetts, and some of gypsy women in contemporary Europe. Both Mother Hicks and Girl lost their family, and Girl wants Mother Hicks to be her substitute mother figure. Mother Hicks suggests to Girl that no one can substitute for anyone’s position, and Girl has to find a cure for her own emotional scars. Mother Hicks’s blunt honesty seems to be a signature character trait of most women in Zeder’s plays. The women in Zeder’s plays, such as Lucille and Mother Hicks, seem to have a strong belief in the resiliency of the young children’s spirit and a trust in the children’s ability to accept and understand problems. In fact, after much struggle and temporary departure from the adults, the young protagonists can draw their own conclusion in order to bring order in their lives. The adult characters never give immediate answer to the children’s dilemma, and they patiently wait and guide the children’s search for their own identity. Mother Hicks, as a healer and a mentor, allows Girl emotional space so that the young character can find her own way of healing herself and search for her identity.
Zeder also uses the nonrealistic theatrical device of having a chorus on stage as the narrator and commentator for the audience, which is an attempt to break the pattern of American realism. In
Mother Hicks, there are certain elements of mystery and thrill that the audiences can enjoy, because of the unexplained occurrences and identities regarding the dead child of Mother Hicks and the young Girl. In terms of young audiences’ reception of the play, some critics pointed out that the play Mother Hicksseems way too complicated for young audience. Zeder says:
The aim of assessing Zeder’s plays from a feminist perspective is neither to claim her gender representation is flawless nor to predict certain audience responses. The young audiences’ reception can be multiple, and some of them might still prefer traditional fairy tales to unfamiliar and realistic representation in contemporary children’s drama, including Zeder’s plays. For children and young adult audiences, however, writers and practitioners should employ multiple images, voices, and discourses representing a diverse spectrum of gender relations and characterization so that the young audiences come to understand gender as a variable, and identity as fluid, not fixed or innate. In an interview, Zeder says, “The challenge to all of us concerned with making and talking about theatre is to keep the theory grounded in the practical world of the sensory experience of theatre. Without some way of taking into account the kinesthetic, emotional, sensory experience of the living theatre, we are dealing with the shadow rather than the substance of the play”(137). Zeder’s comment on the relationship between theory and practice has resonance for feminist scholars who need to think about how feminist theories can make differences as the genuine, effective substance of our daily existence. Theater practitioners must seek mature themes and use a wide range of the theatrical devices that are socially and psychologically relevant to the needs of contemporary young audiences, whose burdens in life seem to be getting heavier than ever before.