Empress of the Moon: the Lives of Aphra Behn

Posted: June 16, 2010 in Braak, theater
Tags: , , ,

(cross-posted at the Iron Age Theater SOE division workblog)

So.  My new play, The Empress of the Moon, is done-ish.  First draft done, anyway.  We start rehearsals for it today, and we can spend a week or so doing some major re-writes to it, because I have to start choreographing the MILLION swordfights that it requires.  Right now, I want to take a minute though, and talk about why, even if this play doesn’t turn out to be really great, I think it’s important that it got written.

There are a lot of women that work in the theater.

I mean, a lot.  And I don’t just mean there’s more actresses than there are actors (though there are; anecdotal evidence suggests actresses in Philadelphia outnumber actors about two to one); Philadelphia’s got some ridiculous number of theater companies per capita, and of those theater companies many are run by women:  1812, Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, The Wilma, The Philadelphia Theater Company, Amaryllis, Tri-Pac, BCKSEET, New City Stage, Quince Productions all have artistic directors or presidents who are women.  Even the many other companies that don’t specifically have female artistic directors have women on their boards or high up in their staff.

And not only is all this true, but the majority of theater goers are women (certainly on Broadway; I’m assuming that probably holds true, or roughly true, everywhere).  Now, there could be any number of reasons for this; I’m of the personal opinion that it’s because of a cultural dichotomy between arts and sports — i.e., that years of television have taught us that liking football and baseball are “guy” things, and liking opera or dance or theater or art is a “chick” thing.  Whatever the case, though, women are still 62% of Broadway audiences.

So, if women are running or working on all these theater companies, if women comprise the majority of my talent pool, and if women represent the bulk of my audience, then why is it that everyone I talk to about this play acts like I’m doing women a favor by writing something whose cast is composed of six women?  This has happened almost every time I’ve brought up the nature of Empress of the Moon — how it’s got a cast of six women that play all the male and female parts — and sometimes from people that actually have their own companies.

“Good for you for doing a play with six women,” they say to me.  Well, I like to think of myself as socially conscious, but even if I were purely self-interested, Empress of the Moon is kind of a no-brainer.

They will NOT be fighting topless

It’s not just self-interest, though; when you work in the theater, perforce you run into a lot of actresses, and it breaks my heart every time to hear them talk about how much they want to do swordfights onstage,but when do they ever get the opportunity?  Two of the actresses who are in Empress have extensive backgrounds in stage combat; when I talked to them about doing this show, all they needed to know is:  “Will we get to fight?”

I think we also tend to think of plays as being male-centric, even when they’re clearly meant for women; there are exceptions, of course, the occasional all-women cast, but mostly we think of a play as having “a strong role” for a woman in it.  As though the fact that it will have strong roles for men is implicit, but a play is unusual because it also makes room for the demographic that is most of everything in the business.  This is a serious question:  when was the last time, when people were talking about a play (whether to do it, whether they wanted to be in it), you heard someone say, “Oh, that play has some really good roles for men in it”?

If you’ll take a moment to pardon my language:  that’s some bullshit.

Check out these articles on Aphra's play by Robin Bates

So, naturally, after I read about Aphra Behn (notable British playwright and spy, and the first woman tomake her living as a writer) and decided I was going to write a play about her (also a no-brainer:  she was a playwright and a spy), the next quite natural conclusion is that this play had to be a vehicle for the profusion of talent that the women in the Philadelphia area bring to the table.  Also:  it needed to have swordfights.

I’m not kidding about that last part; in I Hate Hamlet, John Barrymore’s ghost has this speech in which he talks about how fighting the duels is the best part of being onstage, and the soliloquies can and should be left to stunt doubles.  Whatever the merits of that particular piece, the lines really spoke to me.  The theater should be a place where we get to do the things that we don’t often get to do, and swords are awesome.

Now, I’ve said before that I don’t really think it’s a big deal for a play to have an element like “witches” for a reason like “King James likes witches;” there are probably dumb or mundane reasons for a lot of things in the theater, and the fact that I wrote a play that is designed for six women on purpose doesn’t implicitly undermine its artistic validity, any more than it’s a “realer” piece of art because everything is the product of divine inspiration.

But it is important for the play to transcend its mundane origins; it’s not enough that the play is a vehicle for women and swordfights — it’s absolutely essential that those choices be meaningful.  This isn’t a play that could just as easily be done with men and women playing all the roles; it’s a play that, by its nature, MUST be performed by women in the male and female roles.  In this case (pursuant to a theory I’m working on about trans/cis-realism), the goal is to exploit the tension between the fact that the women are still identifiably women, despite the fact that they’re playing men.

That particular aspect of the show is meant to, firstly, overthrow our tendency to think of “male” as a default from which “female” deviates, and secondly to suggest that gender identity is not just performed but specifically constructed and worn.  “Maleness” isn’t an essential quality, it’s a superficial quality that we are given to inhabit.  Moreover, as this play is, in some respects, a memory piece, it is as much about how we understand character individually as what those characters really are.

Aphra is never really able to get inside the mind of her lover; her understanding of the character is limited to a surface familiarity (a mask) into which she posits a hypothetical character.  Identity — true identity — is both mysterious and mutable, and the abiding message of this play is (or, at least, I hope it is) that we are who we construct ourselves to be.  I’ve always been of the opinion that the point of feminism is not that all women should want the same thing — it’s that women should be able to want what they want, not what they think they should want.  The nature of mask and identity is here about a personal liberation from the demands of socially constructed personae.

For those of you following this from my first piece of the subject:  I’m still fascinated by burlesque, but the idea of burlesque doesn’t really make it into this play.  I did some interviews with burlesque artists, and I have some ideas that are informed by those interviews — in particular, I’m coming to the conclusion that there’s an important difference between “sexual liberation” and “personal liberation”, and that the former is only anything other than ancillary if it can lead directly to the latter — but there aren’t really any burlesque dances in the play, or anything.

So.  However this pans out, whether the play is any good or not, I hope that I can be at the vanguard of a whole slew of plays that are meant to purposefully give opportunity to the women that represent most of the people in, around, or at the theater.

  1. Moff says:

    The cool thing here is that besides raising so many worthwhile philosophical issues, a play like this presents some serious practical challenges, as well, such as what are you gonna do when the whole cast gets their period at the same time?

    HEY-YO! Watch out for those sword fights! Am I right? Am I right?

  2. Moff says:

    @Moff: There’s no easy joke you’ll pass up, is there? You sad, sad man.

  3. braak says:

    @Moff: Listen: you are a terrible person.

  4. Dmart says:

    Am I a terrible person for thinking it’s okay to be a terrible person if it’s funny?

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