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Carolyn Gage’s work as a playwright is unique in its exploration of history, biography, and lesbian reinterpretation. In all her work, protagonists challenge ways in which both ordinary and more famous women have been colonized by male sexual violence, whether physically or mentally; and in negotiating that maze for an often startled audience, Gage’s scripts then return physical, intellectual or artistic agency to the female voice onstage—not always with a pat “happy ending,” either: this is a fencing match with patriarchy. Gage is also adamant in showing ways that women co-opt other women, either through racism or by denying the devastating effects of gender oppression. Nine Short Plays brings together some of Gage’s radical one-act scripts, many of which, such as Louisa May Incest, have been staged at national theater festivals and U.S. colleges.
As Gage’s own publicity notes, she specializes in creating “…non-traditional roles for women, especially those reclaiming famous lesbians whose stories have been distorted or erased from history.” Women who grew up adoring the “manly” character Jo in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women often wondered why Alcott had Jo marry a much older man, a moralizing professor who denounces Jo’s for-profit stories and enlists her in running his own school for boys (in an era when women and girls were routinely denied higher education.) Gage offers a chilling glimpse into Louisa May Alcott’s own family dynamic by having the character of Jo appear to, and then interrogate, her creator.
The nine plays in this collection are well-balanced, alternating those incorporating recognizable historic figures with one-acts where dynamics transpire between purely fictive individuals. Gage’s Bite My Thumb examines gender role sexism in Shakespeare’s plays through the lens of historical context, but also from the viewpoint of butch and trans-identified actors today; what’s the connection between role-playing—being cast in a familiar play—and role playing, as in today’s identity-politics gender wars? And what if not only the body is conquered—as in the one-act Entr’acte, or The Night Eva Le Gallienne Was Raped—but one’s country and culture are also colonized (The Pele Chant)? Most topical, for Americans overfamiliar with news of school shootings and homophobic playground bullying, is Gage’s The Rules of the Playground, which presupposes women’s colonized mindset. Rules sets up a mock peacekeepers’ experiment where mothers of middle school-aged children are trained to understand, even ignore boys’ playground violence as “the bitter harvest” of didactic feminism. Here, the lack of individual accountability (or consequences) allowed in male warfare is explained by women cleverly named Indira, Margaret, and Goldie—ironic symbols of global female leaders whose politics embraced or excused male militarism and the arms race.
Nine Short Plays is a body of work intended to make the reader question women’s power status and options for resistance. As Carolyn Gage is one of the best lesbian playwrights in America, the book is an intellectual banquet, offering a provocative meal for any guerrilla historian. And the politically naïve reader will get the education of a lifetime.
Nine Short Plays
Outskirts Press / $15.95
Paperback, 360 pp.