Friday, October 03, 2003

Yesterday, I characterized Fanny Howe’s booklength verse drama Tis of Thee as a “completely narrative work” that “focuses on parallel stories of interracial love, a birth, and a male child given up to others, once in the 1890s, once in the 1950s.” This is accurate enough so far as it goes, but it hardly goes far enough. Narrative in the hands of Fanny Howe, who has written more than a few works of fiction since publishing her first collection of short stories, Forty Whacks, in 1969, is no more “ordinary” in her hands than in those of, say, Kathy Acker.


Tis of Thee entails three voices, one of a white woman, two those of black men, describing, in Sherwood Anderson-like soliloquies, twin tales of emotional devastation that result from racist reactions to the question of “mixing.” Most if not all of the philosophical, historical & social consequences of crossing this barrier that exists, not biologically, but politically, between races are examined in a way that is, on the one hand, quite methodical, & on the other driven first of all by & through emotion. There are subplots as well, not simply giving away the child & the inner death that must entail for the “abandoning” parent, but a second one involving the female figure & the most important unvoiced persona in the drama, that of her father. (At some point, a serious critic is going to examine that “substitute the father” syndrome Howe suggests might drive one to first transcend whatever social taboos one might internalize. It’s a powerful force & one that is not resolved in this text.)


If the voices represent historic figures, they don’t quite exist as personas, as each must inhabit two roles – that of the 19th century tale, the second occurring in the middle of the 20th century.* Indeed, they have no names & are merely identified as X, Y & Z. If, on the CD, for example, it’s never necessarily clear which woman Stephanie French is giving voice to in a particular stanza, it’s precisely because Howe isn’t after that. What matters here is not how the voices are individuated, so much as how they are not. For it precisely the trap of social category, gender as well as race, that is being etched verbally:


Across one century, and into the next, I became the mother of his child—

Twice at least—but let each child be taken away from me.

Naturally I grew nauseous from loneliness.

By night-fits and shadow-language of the trees I tossed

my knees this way and that—my bed a raft on a sea ill-lighted and deep.

My cries were dry.

The leaves rattled the glass.

Outside sirens would invent the whole city’s anthem,

a tune of anonymous personal pain,

and trash cans smashed against teenage hands. Now I would see

reflections like stains in a clear swamp . . . . White lilies cupped by greens.

Trees twinned and echoes on a grassy pond.

It was really a mirror for me. My birthright with its clear glass tables

in livingrooms—except where the cocktail left a circle—or the peanut a shower

of salt—was never to be mine again.

I had stepped outside a magic circle.

And I couldn’t take care of myself

even though I could talk eloquently about many liberating subjects in 1890.

And yet again in the middle of the 20th century.


It’s worth noting, in the section above, which sentences are given their own lines for emphasis & which are embedded into larger structures.


This passage, I think, makes clear many of the strengths of the work, but also some of its limitations. The writing itself is terrific, but the dramatic monolog as a form confines the text, especially here when in fact it is more than one woman speaking in a single voice. As the CD makes all too evident, this is especially a problem for the two male roles in this play. Because their multiplicity renders it impossible to individuate them linguistically (one speaking more “correctly,” say, the other using slang), it becomes almost impossible – and more than “almost” if one doesn’t have the text in front on one when listening to the recording. After hearing the CD five times over three days, I still cannot tell the two male voices apart at all. Only part of the problem lies with the actors or the director – the real issue is textual: “transpersonal” voices don’t so much articulate positionality (which is what I think Howe is after) as they do dissolve “personality.” Yet there is an opacity in the latter that is utterly essential for the question of positions.


But the category, not the person, is the problem & the problem should not be underestimated. When I was working in the prison movement in California in the 1970s, one of the things we had to confront was that the best predictor of prison time for a crime for a white woman was not the offense itself, unless it was homicide, but whether or not her crime partner had been a black male. One of the reasons I & so many others in that decade worked to end the indeterminate sentence in that state was that, when individuals are given discretionary power over other human beings, that’s the kind of result one invariably gets.


But for all of its power & sadness, Tis of Thee only partly confronts the depths of this problem. That it event attempts it is a testament of its power & of Howe’s fearlessness as an author. Yet rather than articulating the three positions—male, female & offspring—that Howe has written, what I hear instead is a different triad: black male, white female, absent (but controlling) father.


Miles Anderson’s score, which ranges from Henry Cary’s 1740 Thesarus Musicus (from which both “America” & “God Save the Queen” are derived) & something I could only characterize as Phil Glass lite, is unobtrusive when it needs to be & in some places quite lovely.








* The text implies, although it never really addresses, the question of how might these dynamics all play out today, as far removed from that second tale as it is historically from the first. Do younger people have more freedom in this respect? I certainly hope so, although one sees the same dynamics worldwide cast in a thousand different forms, Serb & Croat, Hindu & Muslim, Arab & Jew.